Talking to Strangers

Rob Tregenza's excitingly new Baltimore-made independent feature, shot in wide-screen 35-millimeter and Dolby sound, consists of only nine shots, each a ten-minute take. Each shot features the same character (Ken Gruz), a young man whose identity appears to shift somewhat from one sequence to the next (in terms of his occupation and whether he is a local or a drifter); in the first and last shots he is alone, and in the seven intervening sequences—the order of which was determined at random—he encounters one or more strangers. The existential suspense underlying this remarkably open work is a function of many factors operating at once. The sequences range from dramatic (a female potter who has slept with the hero the previous night provokes his ire by admitting that she used to be stripper and, possibly, a prostitute) and action packed (a nihilistic, punkish gang takes over a bus and rapes a passenger) to enigmatic (the hero tries to engage in conversation with fellow passengers on a taxi boat) and minimalist (the hero walks for several city blocks, and almost boards three separate buses). Each sequence was shot only once, so the possibility of accident and error hovers over every moment suspensefully, as in a jazz improvisation. The virtuoso camera movements and stereo sound lead to gradual and unpredictable expositions of physical space; the variety of acting styles creates a feeling of perpetual uncertainty about the registers of reality underlying each sequence. And the philosophical content of certain scenes—e.g., in a soup kitchen and in a confessional—raises additional questions. Alternately comic, disturbing, challenging, and demanding, this is a galvanizing, high-level game for adventurous spectators, and a truly remarkable first feature.

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