The only thing better than a story told in good ol’ gorgeous black and white film is five stories told that way. Such is the treasure of Unbecoming, the newest feature by local award-winning indie filmmaker Chris White, which makes its world premiere this month at the Tryon Theatre.
Director/writer White is fond of titles that have more than one meaning. So what does “unbecoming” mean? Are these stories about people who are not attractive, not sweet “bless-your-heart” belles or dapper gentlemen who tip their hats? Or are they literally un-becoming, molting as it were, turning into someone new? “Ah,” says White. “The audience will have to answer those questions for themselves.”
He calls his stories Southern Gothic. They’re about characters who are damaged, and sometimes even delusional, like those that appear in the stories of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. These tales are slightly weird, unpredictable, possibly uncomfortable.
Last year, White set himself a goal for the summer of 2015. He wanted to make a film every three weeks. Pre-production (writing, casting, location hunting) in the first week. Production (rehearsing and shooting) in the second. The final week for Post-production (editing, adding effects, and music.) He repeated this break-neck schedule five times. Yes, he’s a little “touched in the head.”
But unlike other “crazy” filmmakers, White has a rock-solid creative partner to help him achieve his dreams — his wife, filmmaker Emily Reach White (writer, costumer, stylist, caterer, and everything else that needs to be done.) Wisely, the couple decided that all the film locations would be within a reasonable 50-mile radius of their home in Greenville, SC. White chose to shoot in black and white, which has less post-production demands than color, and used only one lens in all the stories, a 40mm, to simplify shooting decisions.
“Writing teachers always say, ‘Write what you know,’” remarks White. “But I say “’Write who you know.’” Thus he created his characters for people he already knew. “But I’d never worked with them,” he clarifies, “so it was all new.”
Though each of the films share some similarities — all involve a relationship between a man and a woman, for example, and each dramatizes a conversation that happens at a crucial time in the couples’ lives — they aren’t connected. The advantage of so many stories in one anthology film, White says, is “if you don’t like one story, you know that another one is coming along in a few minutes. And the whole film is only 41 minutes long — easy viewing.”
Based on the working titles of each film, here’s a viewer-friendly outline.
The opening film is Sub rosa, a term that refers to things that are hiding under the rose, i.e., a secret. An odd recluse, the “Senator” (Michael Forest) lives alone, in a home dedicated to photos of himself with famous politicians. The “Goat Lady” (played by Tryon’s biggest celebrity, actor Patti D’Arbanville) comes to his door seeking her lost goat. As she listens to the man ramble, she wonders if she’s carrying on a conversation with Forrest Gump or a player in the darkest conspiracy of American history.
Confidant stars White’s good friend Aaron Belz, poet laureate of Hillsborough, NC, which has been called “the best literary small town in America.” White, who used to be a teacher himself, remembers how often the job could be really lonely. In his tale, a teacher monitoring a student’s suspension time in the school gym reveals his inner secrets. In real life the student is Natalie, Belz’ daughter.
Lost takes place in a diner with burlap-covered tables. An elderly man (Jack Peyrouse), who may or may not be a widower, sits across a table from a snippy, badly mannered young woman (Teri Parker Lewis). He tries to make a connection with her, but instead, he’s so nervous he says gauche, regrettable things, and she reacts in kind.
Gaffe showcases a husband (Bill Mazzella) on a long highway trip with his wife and daughter. A large peach-shaped water tower revives lustful memories of his former girlfriend (Lilly Nelson). His jabbering daughter in the back seat blurts out a thigh-slapping question: “What’s that big peach? It looks like a butt!”
Ephemera, the last film, encapsulates the power of things that originally were unimportant, but, as time has passed, have become significant. A sister (Phyllis Jackson) and her brother (Shua Jackson, her husband in real life), find themselves listening to a music tape that belonged to their late father. Moved by the song “Great Atomic Power,” sung by the country-gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, and despite the elegant Episcopalian church setting, the siblings break into dance and celebrate their father’s life instead of his death. It’s a lovely film that will leave you breathless.
The film people in Tryon not only love making movies, they also love to celebrate them, especially with red-carpet galas. The fancy pre-screening party for Unbecoming starts at 5:30 pm at Huckleberry’s restaurant (62 N. Trade Street). “Wear your tiara,” Emily White advises.
A short walk down the street, Unbecoming screens at 7pm at the Tryon Theatre (45 S. Trade St.). It will be followed by a Q&A discussion with the filmmakers, actors Michael Forest and Patti D’Arbanville, and others.
Quick Take: Indie anthology film with five stories.
Special Appeal: For lovers of Southern Gothic tales.
Director/writer: Chris White (Cinema Purgatorio, 2014; Get Better, 2012)
41 minutes. B&W. For adults.
When: Sunday, April 3 in downtown Tryon: 5:30pm VIP red-carpet reception at Huckleberry’s. $30 ticket includes reception and film. 7pm movie premiere and Q/A discussion at Tryon Theatre: $10
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.