A 1984 Period Piece in Present Day: Review. By John Battiston.
Before watching Sean Glass’s latest short film, A 1984 Period Piece in Present Day, I had never thought it possible to judge a film by, of all things, its title card — or, in this case, cards. But it’s difficult to read the text that opens this 18-minute short and not accurately predict the film’s disaffecting sense of grandiosity.
Scribbled on translucent paper in what Glass, judging by his social media photos, has fashioned as a sort of trademark scrawl, the first bit of text essentially communicates the filmmaker’s conviction that titles themselves are redundant and ought to be done away with, before reluctantly cutting to the title itself (which notes this film comprises merely a first act). The discerning, open-minded viewer will do their best to suppress the urge to immediately dismiss Glass as the irritating sort of self-proclaimed “artist” you’d find aimlessly lounging around a campus radio station, who thinks subversion for subversion’s sake is meritorious regardless of purpose or effect.
Those who manage to press past this distasteful introduction are thankfully rewarded for doing so, at least from a cinematic standpoint. A black screen punctuated with an unseen character’s coughs gives way to a darkened, middle-American landscape in which an eerie roadside motel glows fluorescently, a single car rumbling to a stop in front as late-night travelers buzz past in the background. This shot alone, which runs for a solid minute or so, is a testament to Glass’s behind-the-camera abilities despite an ostensibly constrained budget. He, cinematographer James Siewert, and especially sound designers Jon Eckhaus and Allistair Johnson establish a dynamic setting with subtle, painterly touches that deserve to be experienced with a high-quality screen and set of speakers.
But after the painfully plodding introduction of the two unnamed guests (played by Glass and Isabel Sandoval) and creepy motel clerk (Carlos Dengler), one can’t help but feel Glass is leaning on his craftsmanship to distract from his film’s lack of substance. His and Sandoval’s characters take up a decent chunk of screen time simply walking to their room — which, sure, allows for a neat tracking shot through the low-light exterior haze, but is horribly plodding all the same.
From there, we watch restlessly as the characters glacially explore their new hotel room, receive a non sequitur-laced visit from the clerk, and eventually switch on the television to a showing of Creepshow 2. (Is that 1987 movie’s placement in a 1984-set story a simple oversight? Or, as the title suggests, is time in this world nebulous and simply not worth our meditation? By this point, few will care enough to ponder further.)
Glass’s character, dressed in an oversized Beastie Boys tee, pontificates about his childhood obsession with a particular segment of Creepshow 2 and how it resulted in a lasting sexual fantasy, though as he and Sandoval watch the movie, it’s revealed that the source of his romantic ideations is more problematic than he remembered.
Still, as Glass seems to be telling us during the final few minutes before an abrupt cut-to-black, adult conscience has little power over the inexpungible desires of youth, no matter how long they might have had to deteriorate. It’s an idea worthy of interrogation, to be sure, and perhaps a second act of A 1984 Period Piece in Present Day intends to explore it further.
Still, this short, as it currently stands, doesn’t do nearly enough with its limited runtime to either substantially flesh out its themes or engage viewers enough to bring them back for a follow-up, if or when it arrives. For a filmmaker with such a brief resume, Glass has an impressive grasp of mise en scène and a distinct auteurial voice, but will only achieve substantial impact as a storyteller if he can mesh his aesthetic talents with a compelling narrative and leave his narcissistic pretense at the door.
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