Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hey Kids! Let's Put on a Show!

There's something endearingly amateurish (and more than a bit inspiring) about The Smiling Man, an indie short now available on DVD and starring nobody you ever heard of.

This moody little bit of cinema -- all 45 minutes of it -- is brought to you by B.J. West and the Bay Area Writer's Group. Last year saw the release of their first anthology, Fog City Nocturne, a collection of short stories all featuring post-WWII San Francisco gumshoe Nick Chambers. It boasted the sub-title: "One Detective -- Six Authors."

Nick was created, appropriately enough, "over cocktails" (possibly several) as a writing exercise in which they could all take part. They came up with a "noir-style anti-hero, with a decidedly post-modern nihilistic outlook that borders on misanthropic."


They figured out his backstory, agreed on what makes him tick and defined his current situation, and then established two unbreakable rules that all the writers would have to follow.

1: Thou shalt not kill Nick. But you can beat him to within an inch of death.

2: No "Big Wins." When the story is done, Nick's situation shouldn't be markedly improved in any permanent way.

The stories intentionally stuck pretty close to the formula, for the most part; Nick's appropriately hard-boiled and appropriately down on his luck, struggling to eke out a living on the "cold, dark, fog shrouded streets" of post-WWII (and appropriately corrupt) San Francisco. Need I mention the fedora and trenchcoat?

But it was a nicely packaged little book, and a pretty solid collection; certainly one of the better self-published efforts I've seen. It was very interesting to me on several levels -- as P.I. fiction, as PR and, of course, as a writing exercise. The stories were, to say the least, all over the place in terms of tone and perspective, and shone a light on how non-fans view the genre.

And now, continuing the DYI ethos of the book, we have The Smiling Man, a short indie film based on one of the stronger -- if quirkier -- stories (by Keoni Chavez). The film follows Nick through the oddly empty (and very, very clean) streets of San Francisco in search of a man only identified by a photograph, on behalf of a smug, enigmatic client, Derek Halycon, who knows more than he's letting on.

The film was directed by West, the book's mastermind, and it stars most of its writers, including Chavez, who plays the mysterious client. As expected, then, the acting varies from okay to great (the bartender's a natural) and the direction is very much fly-on-the-wall and non-obtrusive.

But somehow, it works. Short on thrills, but long on mood, it's an engaging little headscratcher. It wouldn't have been out of place on an old episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe Alfred Hitchcock.

No, it's not going to bump The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown off any P.I. fan's top ten list, but this is a fine little tribute to -- and addition to the genre.

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