TIFF 2014: ‘Tusk”s production more interesting than the final product

tusk2

Tusk

Written and directed by Kevin Smith

USA, 2014

Kevin Smith’s early work, guerilla-style films about disenfranchised geeks and losers, helped gain him a strong and dedicated audience. While many of his most dedicated fans seem to find the best in even his weakest films, Smith has never found the same success in critical circles. The negative critiques of his films has only been exasperated by Smith himself, who seems to struggle with dissenting takes on his work, leading him to withdraw into podcasting. Though this was not a strategic choice on Smith’s part, it seemed to pay off as his audience only grew and he is now among the most influential people in the ‘Twittersphere’. This allowed Smith to distribute his 2011 film Red State himself. He described the entire process as “Indie Film 2.0.”; it was no longer about just making the film yourself but distributing it as well.

Smith falls into that category of filmmakers who seem to be consistently threatening to retire, only to do “one more project”. Smith had found a very comfortable situation with his podcasts, which gave him ultimate creative freedom and a reprise from his critics. Smith withdrew from public criticism and focused on establishing a more intimate relationship with his fans through both podcasts and social media. These conditions created the perfect storm for Tusk. On episode 259 of the SModcast, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Smith and Scott Mosier discussed and brainstormed about a bizarre Craigslist ad about a man offering a room in exchange that the occupant dress as a walrus. The podcast discussion established the loose structure of what would become Tusk. Smith was clearly inspired by this absurd premise but similarly wary of its extremes, which inspired him to create the #yeswalrus hashtag to see if his legion of fans would be interested in a film version of a man being turned into a walrus. With just a single opposing vote, Tusk became a film made by a new kind of committee that did not necessarily have financial motives in mind. While previously films like Snakes on a Plane utilized public responses to shape the production and premise of a film (resulting in a film that was neither particularly good or successful), this film was literally greenlit by the public.

What this means for the future of filmmaking is ambiguous. It is a bizarre off-shoot of crowd-funding campaigns that fund small shorts to franchise entries (such as Veronica Mars). Many have suggested that Smith has run amok in a world of ‘yes men’ and fan reverence, and perhaps they’re right depending on which of films you feel fall to the bottom of his filmography. To fall too deeply into the hole of judging whether or not this kind of film should have ever been made is to lose yourself in the argument of ‘good taste’ and whether audiences too dumb to know what kind of culture is ‘best’ for them.

Tusk is certainly and perhaps, hopefully, the only film you will ever see about a man being transformed into a walrus. It is about the journey of a podcaster, not unlike Smith, who ventures from L.A. to Winnipeg in order to interview an Internet sensation. When that falls through, he scrambles for a new subject only to find himself in a grand old home two hours north of the windy Manitoba capital. Here he finds the eccentric Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an old wheelchair-bound man who has an unusual love for the walrus.

TUSK

In many ways, the premise of Tusk speaks for itself. If you are game to see Justin Long transformed into a walrus, there is really very little about this film that will disappoint you. To Smith’s credit, he does not just ride the coat-tails of the idea and attempts to craft a narrative that is structurally more complex than his previous efforts. Beyond the whole walrus thing, this is a film about stories and storytelling, and as a result utilizes a flashback structure and puts a focus on dialogue. This film is a love letter to podcasting itself, and why it has become such a vibrant medium.

At its best, Tusk is a vicious dark comedy. In the tradition of many other extreme horror films of recent years, such as Hostel and Saw, the film’s victim is not necessarily one worth too much sympathy. Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is an obnoxious cheater who does not spend much time thinking about the consequences of his actions. He uses other people to bolster his own success and to overcome a childhood of bullying. His crass insensitivity, however, does not make his eventual transformation into a walrus gratifying: it leaves the audience wishing for redemption instead of revenge.

The film utilizes a structure that emphasizes storytelling by utilizing both flashbacks and recreations. While this has certain charm in the early parts of the film, when a detective character is introduced mid-way Tusk loses its power. Guy Lapointe, the Quebecois detective on the search for the serial killer responsible for the abduction of Wallace, is the film’s fatal flaw. Not only is it one of the poorest representations of a Quebecois in the history of cinema (and makes Laurence Olivier’s broad parody of an accent in the 49th Parallel (1941) seem like a Meryl Streep-esque transformation), but his own recollections are dull and stagger the film’s momentum. Perhaps if he were introduced earlier — or better yet, never at all — the film would be nothing else but a tighter absurdity.

There is not much else to be said about Tusk, a film that ultimately is little more than a gimmick touched with Smith’s brand. The film’s production is often more interesting than the final product, though there is something to be said for the practical effects and Michael Parks’ insidious performance as Howard Howe. As a love story to Canada, the film will play more or less well at Canadian screenings, though I can’t imagine a Quebec audience gravitating towards the film as Tusk is not altogether flattering to la belle province. That being said, it will be interesting to chart the film’s success to see if it has any impact on our understanding of the relationship social media has with film production.




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