Feature Narrative Reviews

WithOutWithin (2021) – 0.5 stars

Director: Scott Hellon

Writer: Scott Hellon

Running time: 1hr 30mins

The tribulations of reviewing films for IFL. WithOutWithin, a film by Scott Hellon, was somewhat optimistically submitted to our ‘feature narrative’ category. In actuality, it is an extended music video coming in at a few seconds over an hour and thirty minutes though – and believe me, by the end, I had counted every second.

The piece is atrociously filmed, abysmally edited, and has as its soundtrack a combination of the most puerile music I have heard in an age. It left me with the feeling that I had been stuck in a lift, while being forced to listen to the personal playlist of an American Man Child.

WithOutWithin was just so irredeemably bad that I became intrigued as to who was responsible for it. The movie’s credits were no help – they appear to be deliberately obscurantist – simply giving three apparently random names. So, I looked up the name of the director – Scott Hellon. A photo of Hellon revealed that they are the person who the film is centred upon, and the biographical details informed me that he was the director of four other films, before he passed away in July 2022, following a long illness. As WithOutWithin was first sent to us 12 months before, my assumption is that this movie is Hellon’s take on the experience of illness.

The information helped explain some of the imagery used in the film and why a great deal of the footage featured a middle-aged man in apparent great distress. I felt a certain sadness at hearing of the director’s death in the kind of every sparrow falling way one has when learning of the death of someone one has never met. I also felt that I had been inveigled into intruding into the pain of another human being through watching the movie – and pointlessly so. After learning that the movie had been shot through the lens of illness and trauma – going back in my mind as to what I might take from it – the only message I got was the banal and decidedly non-revelatory one, that life-threatening illness is scary and disorientating. I still felt trapped in the lift, but now realised I had been forced to listen to the playlist of a dying American Man Child.

WithOutWithin opens with a montage of images spliced together at extremely high speed accompanied by bright flashing lighting. I have done my time on the psychedelic nightshift, and subsequently have a reasonably robust visual digestion apparatus, but at times during this sequence even I felt a tad nauseous. I would think that for anyone with a susceptibility to flashing imagery this part of the movie might be a danger to them, and would hope in the wildly unlikely event of the film being given a wider release it would be prefaced by a trigger warning.

The opening images resolve themselves into an image of the movie’s protagonist, Hellon, a middle aged, bearded man. We follow the protagonist through what appears to be a hotel and then a residential property. We are given interminable shots of somewhere I assume is urban California – nature shots of cloud formations, sunsets, night skies, palm trees, close ups of foliage, flowers, birds, and insects contrasted against electricity poles and parking lots. At times, we return to the progress of the protagonist who appears to become ever more distraught – for some inexplicable reason the camera spends an inordinate amount of time filming up through the man’s beard – unleashing on an unsuspecting world the genre of up nostril shot.

The footage is, presumably, deliberately shaky; and I would guess filmed on a mobile phone for a gritty ersatz feel. The filmmaker uses almost every arthouse movie cliché to discombobulate their audience – odd angles, upside down, scenes where we only see feet or bottoms of doors, the world seen through meshes, fences or screens, lingering shots on air-conditioning and ventilation systems. The technique is employed throughout the entire movie and thus fails to disturb – the effect is simply wearisome.

And that brings me back to the music.

The opening sequence features a palaeolithic cultural artefact – the 70s beat group, The Police, with their singer – the artist known as Sting – performing Message in a Bottle. No, it does not get any better the millionth time you hear it. One consolation of being forced to listen to the song in its entirety was being able to appreciate how stilted and constipated Mr Sumner’s singing style sounds to the contemporary ear. Bizarrely, and to my utter dismay, we are then given another Police song – Walking on the Moon – so alienation is very much on the menu today.

Hellon then supplies twenty – I numbered them – songs which you might generously describe as indie rock. Most of the pieces are thrashing power chords, going nowhere, but a portion are whining ballads of love lost, usually punctuated with staccato synthesiser.

A couple of the songs make pro forma declarations against capitalism, and have drug taking references to impart a little bit of edge and enhance the movie’s indie credentials. But to that end, I had no idea as to who the musicians are, given the film’s lack of helpful credits, and if someone did want to hear more of these independent artists, they would be unable to follow up on it. Fortunately it has been pointed out the band is the well known Placebo (the three names in the credits are in fact the band members), so that isn’t such an issue. Unfortunately they are songs of such stunning mediocrity that they bring nothing of note to the table.

When yet another guitar riff announced the opening of yet another hymn to solipsism, I think it was around song number ten, I started a mental competition to log the most asinine of the featured lyrics. There were so many gems, but my personal favourite was:

Baby, life’s what you make it

You can’t escape it

Celebrate it.

Is this film, which seems to be trying to impart the distress and suffering of a very ill man upon its audience, a celebration of life?

This thematic contradiction brings me to the editing – which is extraordinary. Just not in a way anybody would want.

The songs and whatever meaning they had to Hellon are the driving force of the movie, but the editing misses this entirely. The themes that the editor goes with on occasion run on for two songs, or come in half way through a song – thus destroying any continuity.

Towards the end of the movie, there are also strange periods where we have simply a blank screen. At the time, I felt that maybe the filmmakers had just given up, although the interludes were, for me, a welcome rest from being bombarded by clichéd images. In retrospect, I wondered whether Hellon wanted to convey the darkness of illness. Whatever, their use only emphasises the incompetence and incoherence of the moviemaking.

The editor also had access to some ink-blot double imaging editing programme, and they use it unsparingly in the latter part of the movie – an example of vapid  technological determinism at its worst. For no discernible reason, we have palm trees and table lamps splitting in two and then coming back together again. But why? Just because they could? Or was there some greater purpose that has been utterly undermined by everything else?

The editors reach their peak in an excruciating sequence that accompanies one of the doleful torch ballads toward the movie’s end. They pump into the piece an example of every cliché type from the preceding footage – including the bifurcated and coalesced palm tree. In another context and with more adept filmmakers, the section might have been a delicious piece of ironic self-parody, but I am afraid I get the feeling it was designed to showcase Hellon and their team’s technical abilities as innovative indie movie makers. Like the rest of the piece, the results are disastrous.

I can only dimly imagine what Hellon must have been going through in his illness, and my condolences go out to his friends and family. I can understand the director’s wish to leave behind something tangible. All of us to some extent would go along with the hope that non omnis moriar, not all of me will die. But with so little to say, and so much to be desired in terms of its creativity and technical proficiency, WithOutWithin is not a movie to be remembered for.

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