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Family Portraits: A Trilogy Of America (2003)
Movie Review by The Drug Stuffed Corpse

Family Portraits: A Trilogy Of America (2003) Directed by Douglas Buck

In nostalgic reverie I look back upon the first time I watched Faces Of Death; my dub was (at least) a 5th generation VHS copy. That alone confirmed my belief that the deaths on that quasi-odious cassette depicted between its rolling, horizontal lines were authentic; the grainy images and static-riddled audio created a menacing pastiche of danger and mystery; of something subversive and illegal. The marriage of poor quality and immature need for it to be real assuaged any notion of the film's questionable veracity. Sadly Faces Of Death, Death Scenes, and the plethora of 60's-to-the-present mondo movies from the pseudo-documentaries of Jacopetti (the brilliant historical recreationist whose film Mondo Cane proved the axiom that you cannot believe everything you see) to Brain Damage's Traces Of Death and Facez Of Death can be rented in pristine digital format at your local video store. That type of feeling, of innocent expectancy and feverish elation cannot be artificially duplicated. And it was with that precise anticipation welling in me once more that I began watching Family Portraits. With great trepidation I embarked upon a morose journey led by an enigmatic director named Douglas Buck. His three tales of suburban disease and rural sorrow burrow under the skin to lay eggs of discontent within you. His magnum opus of the three shorts presented is the 22-minute nihilist masterpiece Cutting Moments. The zeitgeist of middle-class America is explored and the upheaval of the nuclear family uncovered. A young boy is being molested by his father; erstwhile his mother is consciously aware of her husband's clandestine trips to their son's room, but made a decision long ago to ignore rather than confront his pederasty. After failing to entice her husband away from the television the wife performs a gratuitous act of self-mutilation, directing punishment upon her mouth: with a scouring pad she scrubs her lips raw before removing them entirely with a pair of scissors. "And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee... blah blah blah" (The spoken word of The Drug Stuffed Corpse 18:9). She greets her silence with crestfallen aplomb and tranquilizes her feelings of guilt towards herself (and possibly pity for her child) by 'plucking out' the offending object - her mouth, thus taking a metaphor to a revolting literal apex. She has the power to end what is happening, but fails to do so by keeping silent. But is it guilt? Is she selfless or selfish? She has obviously chosen silence. But why? It appears that her own personal satisfaction supersedes the welfare of her child. She is allowing her son to be raped if only to keep her family together. She sees the problem as something internal and any outside interference will have detrimental consequences for her and as importantly: her family. Her once promising life has become a pedestrian nightmare of apathy and negligence leading up to a bloody act that could be either contrition or catharsis.

Is aberrant behaviour innate or is it learned? Gary is a classic Type-A personality who sovereignly rules his home. He wants to a be a 'man's man' just like his father, but is unsure if he has the constitutional foundation to dam-up his own frustrations and emotions. Home, while still an uncomfortable watch, lacks the emotion of Cutting Moments. However, as Buck states in the commentary (I'm paraphrasing here): 'Cutting Moments was taken from the woman's perspective, while Home is from the man's.' Most men act emotionally sterile while a vast majority of women can't seem to stop crying; thus the contradiction in mood is elucidated. The plot weaves between his traumatic childhood and tyrannical adult life and the internal struggles therein. The conclusion cinches the notion of the stoic yet emotional tempest that is man as Gary feels one way, but reacts another. Home delves into obsession and the control that it demands. It is not as visual as Cutting Moments, but the visceral off-screen aftermath is potent, as is the preceding personal breakdown. When Gary sees his patriarchal hold starting to slip he lashes out at his wife and daughter. The haunting image of a blood spattered home and Gary's inability to get-the-fuck-over-his-feelings-of-inadequacy are equally marvellous.

The conclusion to this stark trilogy is prologue, a film that garners it's strength in it's prosaic subtlety. A girl is retuning home one year after being found at the side of a road; a violent rapist sexually assaulted her, chopped her hands off, and broke her back before leaving her in a crumpled heap amongst the garbage. She arrives from her convalescence in a wheelchair, with hooks in place of her hands, a severely scarred psyche, and no memory of who did this to her. The man guilty of the crime lives in the same small town as she. Prologue shows the ripple effect a tragedy has first upon the individual (be they victim or perpetrator), then their family and friends and eventually an entire town. As with his two previous shorts Buck relies on facial expressions, gestures and idiosyncrasies to tell the story moreso than by phonetic narrative. Prologue is an absolutely bleak look at denial, obsession and their deep rooted affectations.

You can glean much from the fact that Buck is a resident of New York; hints of the city's early transgressive film epoch - specifically the iconoclastic works of Scott and Beth B, whose films such as Black Box (which was/is an obvious precursor to Toe Tag Pictures' August Underground) presented events that were/are visually explicit, but left up to the viewer to ponder it's implications and significance, not unlike Family Portraits. While Bucks directorial acumen creates a more clinical, crafted film, with an emphasis place upon a visual narrative, it's symbiosis to the B's remains in the underlying theme of power structures and their intrinsically adverse effects. Family Portraits is infotainment: it is three stories that alone are compelling in their complexity, but ultimately unearth a message without appearing preachy or pretentious. The trilogy is such a success because it caters to a wide spectrum of filmgoers: the 'give me the splatter a plot doesn't matter' gornographers (like me) and the pompous, pseudo-intellectual film-snobs (like me) will enjoy his sombre work. His trilogy is a trenchant critique of suburban and rural America and the false notions of a non-existent tranquility. The nuclear family is merely a facade and the people that think they know us best are really perfect strangers...

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