The Film: The Telephone Game (2011) Purchase it here.
The Principles: Jason P. Schumacher (director), Wes Tank (lead, playwright), Haley Chamberlain, Alex Barbatsis, Alisa Mattson, Jesse Franklin, Andrea White
The Premise: A playwright / director casts himself in his lead role and a newcomer with whom he’s attracted to his romantic counterpart. The production soon unravels under the scrutiny of a weary theatre owner and supporting cast attempting to cannibalize the leads (metaphorically).
Is it Good? A difficult question to answer, as I don’t believe Schumacher set out to make a good film in the conventional sense. As entertainment, The Telephone Game is piss poor – narrative structure and shoddy acting hamper it out of the gate. As an experiment, a rather bold one at that, there’s insight to be mined from the film.
The above premise hides a rather glaring omission: the actors of The Telephone Game were tasked with improvising their dialogue, all centered around the production of a play that was in-real-life developed by Wisconsin artist Wes Tank (Marco, lead in the film). So the film’s structure isn’t laid out so much as allowed to build, with Schumacher’s guidance and inspired cinematography throughout. It ends up being an exercise in creativity and the pratfalls inherent. You’re never allowed to invest much in the overall experience because it’s too conflicted to ever hold on to, at least narratively.
The apt comparison is of course director Christopher Guest, who’s built a cottage industry around improvisational mockumentary. Guest has much more talented performers to mine comedy from (Game is a blend of genres), and it’s not fair to judge a cast of amateurish players tasked with building the foundation of an entire film. The actors in The Telephone Game often appear lost, stumbling over themselves to come up with things to say. Of the cast, KariAnn Craig and Jesse Frankson both come off as professionals and display genuine talent in extreme conditions – suggesting merit in the film’s ability to pick apart performers and reveal naked talent.
But there’s also some real struggling captured on screen, to the point where I wonder if Wes Tank was purposefully tasked with torpedoing his scenes. We expect a lead to drive plot forward or least garner emotion but Tank’s work does the opposite, serving to confuse and confound in unforeseen ways. It’s sort of fascinating in approach, because no one appears to know how to work with or around Tank, making Game a perversely watchable effort. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing in and of itself, but Tank’s Marco makes for an intriguing character if only because Marco’s so unlikable and difficult to understand.
Is it worth a look? There’s surely an audience for this, as The Telephone Game wears its indie cred on its sleeve. The entire film is an exercise in throwing wrenches and letting the damage play itself out. It’s almost impossible to follow and purposefully inaccessible. Even the play it’s structured around, a story about monkeys and diamonds in a far-off future, is unintelligible messiness.
Schumacher shot in black and white and, far as I can tell, HD digital. Kudos for knowing where to put a camera, even if what he’s filming isn’t always engaging. I appreciate the effort and I’m anxious to give Game time to digest in my mind. It’s not a film I’m keen to revisit, but it provided a viewing experience I’ll never forget.
Arthouse aficiandos will no doubt find the material worthy of discourse, though its successes do little to dissuade its shortcomings, mainly the limited talent and range of many of the actors – commonality in indie efforts such as this. The Telephone Game raises some engaging questions regarding the creative process of an artist even as the answers aren’t easily attainable.
If the premise and craft interest you, you owe it to yourself to check out the film.
Random anecdotes: The film’s been making the rounds in my Twin Cities backyard for a while now as Schumacher’s a local talent. Here’s a trailer that pushes the amateursh feel, though it also showcases the promising eye of a burgeoning filmmaker:
Cinematic Soulmates: Clerks, Gerry, Waiting for Guffman