Reviews Short Narrative

Flying Screwdrivers (2018) – 3 stars

Running time:  10mins

This short narrative left me a bit baffled. There is a contradiction at the heart of the film – it impressively demonstrates the ability to use editing technology to make a state of the art, so to speak, final product but the look and feel of the film is one of amateur dramatics at their worst. My puzzlement is still unresolved – I cannot decide whether the film’s intentions are to satirise the pretensions of contemporary theatre or whether Flying Screwdrivers is simply a case of a young filmmaker essaying a brave attempt at a movie and just not getting it right.

The technology in question is clone editing. It employs one actor, the generally impressive, Marissa Rowell who appears on screen throughout the film in triplicate versions of themself. The three clones do not actually interact with each other – they do not have conversations – they declaim to each other and to the audience. All this is extremely well worked by the editor, Cressida Williams – so well that, for a while, your reviewer thought they were watching three actors who spookily resembled one another.

The sets all have an arthouse white painted brick backdrop. The opening and final scenes have a kind of Supper at Emmaus meal laid out on a black tablecloth with three chairs for the three Rowells. I enjoyed the way the camera came in close up to get the texture of the food on the table in the opening scene – visceral and granular – a nice touch. The cinematography by Ben Davies is subtle and accomplished throughout. In between the meal tableaux, the director gives us a series of scenes where every cliched theatrical prop imaginable makes an appearance – kitchen scene (washing machine), beach scene (striped windbreak with sand coloured blanket spread out) plus indeterminate scenes which feature – yes – a dolls’ house and a pommel horse.

Rowells 1,2, and 3 are kitted out in bizarre costumes. 1 and 2 wear evening dresses but with jeans below and in 1’s case the viewer catches sight of a pair of Nike trainers peeking out – they are in that rather fetching shade of burgundy that Nike do. Rowell 3 is made up with a ludicrous handlebar moustache, wears a trilby and raincoat – presumably in a nod to gender inclusivity. The conceit of the screenplay is that each of the characters make statements as in some Socratic dialogue on whether they want to be remembered and, if so, what for. The style is very much absurdist and one of the Rowells suggests that they would want to be remembered as the inventor of the suitably fabulous flying screwdriver of the title.

What made the dialogue hard for me to engage in was that the director has Rowell render each of the characters’ lines in the same style – edge of catastrophe melodramatic. There is absolutely no nuance – I felt as though I was being repeatedly bludgeoned about the head for the ten minutes of the film. Rowell appears to be a resourceful and capable actor, so I assume the problem was with the directions. I was surprised at the director’s approach as it would surely have been interesting and fun to have each of the Rowells’ presentation of self as markedly different. Surely that is one of the big opportunities that clone editing offers.

A further problem as to viewer engagement is that the sheer damned staginess of the production. The characters are forever moving around – jumping on a pommel horse or, for some inexplicable reason tearing up pieces of paper at the dinner table placing them in a metal bin and setting fire to them. The constant movement soon became wearisome. My inner critical voice kept shouting – please – just sit down and tell us your story.

With that being said, while I might have taken issue with the delivery, I found a lot to enjoy in the screenplay itself. There is a fine speech as to historical truth using the example of the dating of the Baptism of Poland and whether it occurred in 966 CE or 965 CE and, if the date were found to be uncertain, could it be proved to have happened. Dodgy ground as to historical method, but it fitted into the absurdist approach nicely.

Another moment of deep poignancy was found in, what I took to be a satirical take, one of the character’s escapist fantasies. In it, they deliver a speech about moving to Ecuador, marrying an ‘uneducated man’ and farming alpacas. The speech ends with them saying we will paint the ugliest of portraits of our alpacas, that no one will want to buy. The unutterable sadness, that the merit of a piece of art is found in its fungibility as a commodity, was well caught.

The utmost highlight for me came when – I think it was Rowell 2 – our lead spoke about fear with an itemised list of terrors, including I am scared of all the things I could be, but I am not. It is during this speech that Rowell’s one-size-fits-all delivery really comes into its own, giving the speech resonance as terror does indeed call for a sense of imminent cataclysm. The sense of fear is enhanced by some doom-laden swelling harmonium chords. The electronic music soundtrack by Rory Joseph is excellent throughout and the director uses it well – at other points in the movie Joseph gives us up tempo keyboard work which fits well with the frenetic theatricality of the piece.     

So, there are some good things in Flying Screwdrivers, but they do not entirely resolve my earlier conundrum as to whether the movie is an attempted satire on a narcissistic, solipsistic theatre culture or a misguided attempt to blend theatre and cinema. If the director’s intention was to go down the satirical track, it would have made sense to have signposted it better. In essence, the dialogue between the Rowells is about fame and artistic achievement so it seemed somewhat of a cop out to come up with the fabulous invention motif rather than tackle the matter head on. It would have been far more interesting to look specifically at why actors and filmmakers create art – as to whether it is one or a combination of – the road to riches, or merely keeping the wolf from the door, or making the world a better place, or the need to be remembered.

Surely all of us involved in artistic endeavour, including your reviewer writing this piece, desire to be remembered in some way before their souls are hurled into the great void. If, however, the director was, in fact, aiming for a fusion of film and theatre my advice would be to take a hard look at what works in theatre and what works on film. The two media simply aren’t the same. All of us have sat through wooden film renditions of acclaimed theatrical productions, and painfully realised this difference. Yet in many ways, being baffled by a film is a positive indication. Art provokes; and Flying Screwdrivers certainly managed to do that. In the terms of the movie’s central theme, it is memorable in itself. For better or worse, it will be remembered by those confused individuals who have seen it, for a long time to come.

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