Feature Narrative Reviews

Emily or Oscar? (2021) – 2.5 stars

Director: Christopher M. Allport

Writer: Christopher M. Allport

Cast: Casara Clark, Christopher M. Allport, Ismael Lotz

Running time: 1hr 59mins

On occasion, after a particularly Machiavellian power struggle in any workplace, participants and observers may be heard to remark: we should make a movie about this. The problem here is that the interests and procedures of an enclosed world are not generally of much interest to those looking in from the outside.

Emily or Oscar? is proof that workplace movies are, in fact, a deceptively hard trick to pull off.

We should make a movie about this…or maybe not.

Writer-director Christopher Allport has chosen to make what is essentially a workplace movie, but with the added twist that the work in question is that of making films – the depiction of imaginary worlds and other realities. The piece takes its cue from the somewhat laboured reference to television and cinema awards in the title and focuses on a particular aspect of filmmaking – film production in southern California –that hoary synecdoche – Hollywood.

Reading from the production notes one learns that Allport has spent their entire working life in the Los Angeles film industrial complex. In order to engage an audience, Allport pictures their working world through the medium of a romantic comedy interwoven with an homage to early cinema. Emily or Oscar? is very much Allport’s personal vehicle – writer, director, lead actor on screen for the majority of the film, plus they sing on many of the songs featured on the movie’s soundtrack. If Allport is not your cup of tea – you will have a problem with Emily or Oscar?

Allport plays the part of Sam – a jobbing screenplay writer at an LA studio. We see Sam at work – to evoke a retro feeling, Allport somewhat affectedly has Sam hammering away at scripts on a typewriter as though they were a latter day F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sam meets Emily (Casara Clark) at a comic book signing event, who, as this is Hollywood, is auditioning for a movie part. Sam and Emily are attracted to each other and Sam takes Emily to an evening show of classic silent movies.

The Boy meets Girl scene, and the sketch of the silent movie show, are well paced and capture the viewer’s attention. There happens to be a live band at the show – Emily takes the stage and Clark, whose acting is excellent throughout, turns out to be a rather good singer and puts in a barnstorming performance. The scene is about thirty minutes into the movie and is so powerful that it felt to me like a climactic moment – an endgame.

The director then introduces a worm to gnaw away at the rose of romance – it turns out that Emily happens to be a writer too, working on a first novel. The remaining ninety or so minutes of the film are devoted to the twists and turns involved in answering the question as to whether two creative types can get along in a relationship.

This plot is hampered somewhat by the uneven quality of Allport’s screenplay. It seems to be reasonably competently written for Emily and the other characters, but most of the script for Sam, delivered by Allport, appears to be written in purple font. One example is a sequence late on, as things are not going well between Boy and Girl, featuring an interior monologue by Sam where the writing is frankly risible. As the director appears to be a fan of twentieth century writing technology, they might take on board the poet Seamus Heaney’s advice to aspiring writers – don’t have the veins bulging in your biro.

Some better writing – helped by more enjoyable delivery – adds another layer to the Romcom narrative, as Allport introduces random characters who accost Emily or Sam as they go about their everyday lives, making various gnomic statements. One of the intruders into the couple’s reality is a demonic film director (played with gusto by Ismael Lotz) who is apparently making a meta movie. Lotz does an outstanding job as an actor. Their cameo as the Mephistopheles director was a memorable performance, and I was saddened to hear of Lotz’s death post-production. I am sure they will be missed in the world of indy cinema.

But I did have an issue with this device too; the intrusions irritated and came across as – for want of a better word – corny. A scene near the end of the film, trying to tie the threads together, sees Allport reveal that the director character is the Spirit of Douglas Fairbanks, a big player in silent movies who has shapeshifted into a reimagined Mephistopheles – one who is, for no rationally discernible reason, offering Sam (note: not Emily) a Faustian bargain. The deal is career success or romantic success, whatever those two concepts might mean. We also learn that the character who has been pursuing Emily (this is very traditional gendered movie) is the Spirit of Mary Pickford (a silent movie actor, footage of whom appeared earlier in the film). We learn that the remaining characters are The Spirit of Charlie Chaplin and, the Klan’s favourite ghost director, The Spirit of DW Griffith.

I would suggest Allport got the sequencing wrong here – it would have made sense in terms of narrative to have had the confidence to lay out the Faustian bargain and the revelation of who the characters represented near the start of the movie rather than a late-stage reveal. An early exposition would have helped the audience engage with the device rather than experience it as a distraction – given that many viewers will not have the same abiding interest in early cinema history as the director evidently has.  

I felt that after its strong opening Emily or Oscar? drifted. It looks stunning, and the cinematography from Robert MacColl is first class all the way. Meawhile the editing team of MacColl and Allport does solid work to create a cohesive whole out of what could have been disparate threads. But it is still unbalanced as an overall story. This may well be to do with Allport’s decision to cast themselves as co-lead. While Clark puts in a revelation of a performance with great depth and range as Emily, they have very little to spark off – and the scenes with Allport fail to ignite. Allport’s acting in contrast to such a performance comes across as one-dimensional – a bland portrait of a thoughtful benign character, without edge or humour. I got the impression that Allport might be OK in a minor character role, but carrying the weight of the lead in a feature length film is too big a stretch for them currently.

In many ways, putting together Emily or Oscar? represents a terrific achievement by Allport – the movie has the texture and feel of a big budget film. Allport managed to assemble a strong cast and, as director, conjured creditable performances from all the actors. The director should be applauded for taking a risk with the Spirit characters – even though for your reviewer the experiment did not hit the mark. In future, the skills the director has showcased might be better used on the production side of making movies. But – a categorical admonition aimed both at them, and many other independent filmmakers covered on Indy Film Library – please stop casting yourself as the lead in future projects.

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