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Midwest Murder Ballad
John Commorato Jr’s film Valentine explores love gone bad
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
“I wonder about these smart kids growing up in the middle of nowhere, reading on their own, no one to talk ideas with,” says John Commorato Jr, trying to explain the confused “average guy” narrator of his new film Valentine, an hour long film which opens at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art on Saturday, September 16. “I’ve never been scared by the Jasons (of the Friday the 13th franchise) of the world and those things. To me, that’s not really that scary, but the guy sitting next to you… It’s always ‘Mr X came in with a machine gun after 30 years. I had lunch with him yesterday.’ Those interviews with the neighbors: ‘He seemed like such a nice guy…’ That’s scary.”
In Valentine, the “nice guy” the neighbors will be talking about is Jerry Stiffarm, a late twentysomething/early thirtysomething college-educated, middle class white male with a 9 – 5 job at a bank who is, for the most part, as average as they come. He’s a big reader and a bit of a closet intellectual, but he is about as pretentious as macaroni and cheese. If he’s not particularly ambitious, he’s not a complete slacker either. He’s a genuinely nice guy who likes his friends and enjoys his life…
And as Valentine opens, Jerry is talking to a detective in an interrogation room at the local police station, trying to explain why he just killed his ex-girlfriend.
“It’s a straight-up narrative, straight-up fiction,” Commorato says. “I don’t think there’s anything really new about the story, I just hope it’s told in a way that’s different.”
Indeed, though most stories involving murder are hardly considered family fare, the basic elements of Valentine may sound a little conventional coming from Commorato. A spoken word and multimedia artist who often works under the moniker Art Attack, Commorato and his collaborators favor work that’s experimental, edgy, and sometimes confrontational. Last year, Commorato and cinematographer John Hartman premiered a short film called _ _ _ _ _ _: Prelude to a Bad Tattoo at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (it’s part of the FWMA’s permanent collection). Prelude was a bizarre and disturbing story within a story that touched on issues of class, drug and alcohol abuse, and racial violence. It was about an ex-con who pays someone to beat him up as a sort of atonement for his own brutal behavior in prison. Visually, it used a rapid-fire sequence of stills to create a stuttering effect, like an old flipbook, that made the story feel like half-recalled nightmare or a bad drinking binge.
By contrast, the basic description of Valentine has all the elements of the kind of thriller you might see on late night cable — boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses mind. But it’s in how the story is told that Commorato and his collaborators have tapped into something much more subtle than a run-of-the-mill thriller. Part character study, part reflection on the bonds of intimacy, Valentine resembles the cinematic equivalent of a Nick Cave-style murder ballad. It’s a moody, gothic tale of romance gone bad and obsession slipping into madness, set in a Midwest that will seem very familiar to any resident of the region.
“It’s a dark tale, and it’s dark because of what it says about human nature,” Commorato says. “I don’t want people to come to this because they think it’s some gore-fest, or some violent, psycho-sexual extravaganza. There’s brief nudity, there’s some violence, but there’s literally no blood. There really isn’t. It’s more psychological rather than visceral.”
That wasn’t always the case. In the original treatment, there was a little more violence, but at some point very early in the process of putting the story together, Commorato realized that element wasn’t necessary to convey the horror of what Jerry does. “The psychology of this personality (the narrator, Jerry Stiffarm) is what interested me,” he says. “This is a guy who by his own admission had a perfectly normal childhood. The world is his oyster. The idea of a guy who has all this stuff going for him, who can still be pushed so quickly and irretrievably into violence… that’s where I think we’re on to something a little bit different.”
Jack Cantey, who plays Jerry, says that if Valentine had been a straight thriller, he would have been “bored from page one.” What hooked him about the character was that he knew Jerry, or at least guys like him. “(Jerry) is not a foaming-at-the-mouth psychopath,” Cantey explains. “He has the logic to explain how and why these things have happened. It just happens that the logic itself is so messed up. But there’s definitely structure, logic, to why he did this, why things went bad. It’s not a caricature. It’s a human being really trying to put together a chain of events.”
Cantey calls Valentine a language-driven piece — his character’s confession forms the narrative — and says that anyone familiar with Commorato’s spoken word work will recognize something in the language and the delivery.
Two hotly tipped indie bands — Okkervil River and Band of Horses — appear on the soundtrack; it’s the former band’s ballad “Westfall” that opens the film and sets the mood of the piece. Commorato got licensing for the songs through old fashioned, D.I.Y. networking. Someone knew someone who knew someone, who (in the case of Band of Horses) was able to set up an informal meeting/drinking session after a gig in Bloomington.
Visually, Commorato says that he and cinematographer John Hartman wanted to keep the stuttering, slideshow techniques that worked so well in Prelude. But Valentine is a far more ambitious project. Where Hartman estimates Prelude had maybe a thousand images at most, Valentine has 8300, plus several hours worth of video to edit down into an hour-long story. The stills and video were all shot 16 x 9 (letterbox format) to give Valentine a widescreen, cinematic look.
“Technically, it’s been rough, because no one is using 8300 stills in a half hour, and then we combined it with seven or eight hours worth of video on top of that,” says Hartman, who wrote and directed the sci-fi short D.R.O.N.E.S. and worked as an assistant on In the Company of Men. “You’re trying to keep the creative juices going, but also trying to be the computer geek you have to be.”
Hartman and Commorato were meticulous in pre-production, planning everything during a series of Sunday night meetings that went on for months. By the time shooting started, they knew exactly what things were going to look like. Still, despite the numerous technical challenges in Valentine, Hartman says that probably the most difficult part of the movie for him was the story itself. “I read it and thought, ‘great story, so well-written, but I don’t know how I feel about getting this out,’” he recalls. “You start to hear this character, hear his issues and see the story of his life, and you start to have a little more sympathy for this character — and you shouldn’t.”
This ambivalence towards the film’s protagonist is a recurring theme in my conversations with everyone involved in Valentine. No matter what aspect of the production I ask about, the conversation eventually comes back to the love/hate — or maybe it’s fear/pity — they seem to have for Jerry Stiffarm. As the narrator, Jerry’s voice, thoughts, and point of view are inescapable. The object of his obsession, ex-girlfriend Monica Moss (played by Michelle Orchard) doesn’t really get to tell her side of the story. “You don’t really know much about her,” Orchard says. “Everything you know is through Jerry.” The audience has to piece together a picture of Monica from the visual details in the stills, and bringing an entire personality to life in a series of quick images was a little more difficult than might be imagined. “She brought a lot to the table,” says Jack Cantey of Orchard’s portrayal of Monica. “She had all the traits a good actor should have; professional, adventurous, creative.”
Commorato is anxious to see if the audience will have the same feelings of repulsion and sympathy for Jerry and his confession. “I’m interested in seeing if people hate him, or if they can empathize,” he says. “I don’t know how I feel about him. I like some of him. Some of him is me, some of him is you. He’s not trying to absolve himself, but he’s trying to make a few points: ‘if you say this, then don’t be surprised when I do this.’”
“Initially, I had thought it was a story without a strong moral center,” he continues. “But the morality of it is… in a weird kind of way, it’s very pro relationship as long as you take the vows of the relationship seriously. It’s pro honesty, and that’s become much more apparent in the assembly of the film.”
After its premier, Valentine might do a little time on the independent film festival circuit (it has been accepted into the “Slum Dance” festival in Indianapolis). In the meantime, Commorato is interested to see what a Fort Wayne audience thinks of the film. And if the genre conventions Valentine uses as its framework help bring in a slightly different audience… well, that wasn’t the point, but that’s fine, too. “I honestly believe that there are people who don’t necessarily live at Henry’s and who don’t visit the Brass Rail, but who are interested in something that might be a little different but is done with quality and integrity,” he says. “Things you might like don’t have to be made in Hollywood or wherever.”
Art Attack Projects presents VALENTINE (2006)
Premiers SATURDAY September 16, 7 pm
Fort Wayne Museum of Art (www.fwmoa.org)
311 East Main Street
Live music follows screenings featuring ALL NITE SKATE and MISSING MURDERERS!!!
Movie & Music: $7; Music only: $2