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Overall Rating
3.55

Awesome: 27.27%
Worth A Look: 9.09%
Average54.55%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 5 user ratings


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Decay of Fiction, The
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by Brian McKay

"Neither fact nor fiction, but some strange realm between"
3 stars

A work like THE DECAY OF FICTION is hard to judge in conventional terms, because it is not a story or character-driven feature film, nor a documentary. The closest thing this avant-garde piece of cinema can be compared to is a living painting that uses the abandoned Ambassador Hotel as its canvas.

Prior to the screening, filmmaker Pat O'Neill was bestowed with the “Persistence of Vision” award for lifetime achievement in experimental filmmaking. A soft-spoken bearded man who attended film school at Berkeley in the 1960’s, he told the audience, “It’s always fun trying to explain what I do to a neighbor or relative. When I tell them I make films, and they ask ‘what have you done that I might have seen?’ I’m forced to reply with ‘well . . . probably nothing.’” Indeed, O’Neill’s work is not the kind of thing you’re likely to find on the shelf at Hollywood video, and resides purely in the obscure domain of museum and film festival screenings, or perhaps Public television.

The focus of his latest work is the now-defunct Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. For several decades after it opened in the 1920’s, the Ambassador was the playground of the Hollywood elite, and the home of the famous nightclub Cocoanut Grove. But aside from the glitz and glamour, the Ambassador had a few dark chapters in its history as well, most notably the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. So began its decline through the 70’s and 80’s until it closed its doors to guests in 1989. Since then, it has been the subject of legal disputes, has been used as a shooting location for over a thousand film projects – and of course, as with most old and famous buildings, it is reputed to be haunted.

Using the hotel’s empty and crumbling rooms and corridors as a backdrop, O’Neill brings the ghosts of the hotel to life, using actors in period costume of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s who were shot in black and white on a soundstage and then superimposed over footage from the Ambassador with a ghostly transparence. It’s a pretty cool visual effect, and evokes a reminiscence of Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel from The Shining that has been overrun with spectral Hollywood types. The imagery of the various “ghosts” is mesmerizing at first, especially during scenes like the one in the empty, tiered dining room of the Cocoanut Grove. As the camera slowly pans around the vast, dark space, the tiers are slowly filled in with tables and ghostly diners, while a torch singer takes the stage. Although there is no central plot, we get several vague plot threads as we overhear the conversations of the phantom movie stars, honeymooning couples, gangsters, cops, and hotel staff. Layered on top of it all is a near-constant cacophony of voices, mostly dialogue from old black and white movies. Often these voices are unintelligible, apparently by design, and time-lapse photography is one of O’Neill’s main tools as the hotel’s phantoms go about their business heedless of their crumbling surroundings or the rapid passage of time outside.

O’Neill also segues into a series of bizarre imagery every fifteen minutes or so, a collage of unsettling, even disturbing sights and sounds that are reminiscent of something out of a video from the band Tool. We’re talking flabby naked men with oversized paper-machiet heads and women in white who flutter about violently like a specter from Jacob’s Ladder. While it’s unclear how these images tie into the film’s main Motif’, their chaotic nature is oddly hypnotic.

Of course, the inhabitants of the Ambassador are not ghosts in the traditional sense, but rather the ghosts of a bygone era, of a Hollywood that, like the hotel, has fallen into decay and subsequently had its past romanticized. O’Neill uses plenty of fantastic visuals and eerie, layered sounds, but the main problem with The Decay of Fiction is that it just goes on for too damn long. The premise is a fascinating one for the first twenty minutes or so, but by the time you hit the sixty minute mark the average filmgoer will be checking their watch compulsively, and assuming they haven’t walked out by the time it wraps up at 75 minutes, they will be hard-pressed not to squirm, slump, or sigh. The Decay of Fiction intrigued me enough to hang around and see what O’Neill would throw at us next, but I would be lying if I said that the glow of the EXIT sign wasn’t appealing.

The Decay of Fiction is a marvelous premise – perhaps for a short film in the twenty minute range. But after a nearly feature-length exhibit of overlay and time-lapse techniques, punctuated by constant and looping dialogue, it all begins to feel like a grueling exercise in art-fuckism. Of course, that’s sort of the point of avant-garde, so again, it’s the kind of thing that’s hard to judge fairly. If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll probably love this film. As for me – well, I love creepy old buildings with a borderline obsessive passion, and am also fond of Hollywood “golden age” romanticism – but neither of these elements were enough to keep me thoroughly engaged.

In summation, while THE DECAY OF FICTION is a visually intriguing piece, it also ends up being highly repetitious and overlong. And let me add one more caveat – you don’t have to be high to make it through this film, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7561&reviewer=258
originally posted: 04/23/03 04:03:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2003 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/21/05 Michael Gorton are 2 comments by same person allowed? 2 stars
7/12/04 Kim Cavendish it's a legitimate art piece, not a movie in the traditional sense 5 stars
3/15/04 Archibald Yorkester Mastery of the film medium, tangibly and intangibly. 4 stars
12/04/03 Pelle Lind a realy fascinating peace of art. 5 stars
5/07/03 kim cavendish A real art film - this can't be viewed as narrative filmmaking 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  15-Apr-2003 (NR)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Pat O'Neill

Written by
  Pat O'Neill

Cast
  Wendi Winburn
  Lisa Moncure
  Lauren Maher
  Kane Crawford



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