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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Director Report Card: Trent Harris (2014)

5. Luna Mesa

Trent Harris is probably the most obscure director I’ve ever discussed. Harris is a Utah-based filmmaker who has never had a commercial hit, whose films are not widely available on home video, but whose visions, ideas, and humor are whacked-out enough that a tiny cult following has formed around him anyway. Despite the lack of exposure, Harris has still managed to release one of his bizarre flicks every few years. His latest, “Luna Mesa,” screened at a few small festivals before Harris made it available through his website a few months back. The director has primarily worked in comedy before. “Luna Mesa” shows Harris moving in a more serious, dramatic, but still experimental direction.

While traveling Cambodia, a young girl named Luna meets an older man, a filmmaker played by Harris himself. The two have a brief affair. After a few months, he is mysteriously shot dead in their hotel room, possibly from a suicide. Luna picks up his notebooks, full of strange poems and pointing arrows, and follows in his footsteps, heading to other countries and meeting new people. Luna’s physical journey soon becomes a spiritual one, as she attempts to move past her grief and fill a hole in her heart.

Many years ago, my enthusiasm for Harris was so great that he was one of the first directors I ever covered for this blog. Looking back on those old reviews, I gave every one of his previous movies an “A” rating. “Luna Mesa” has the director moving in a different direction. It’s funny but in a different way then the buddy comedy yucks of “Rubin & Ed,” the sci-fi goofery of “Plan 10 from Outer Space,” the documentary cringe humor of “The Beaver Trilogy,” and the meta-fictional absurdity of “Delightful Water Universe.” Like that last film, “Luna Mesa” was made for very little money, shot with non-professional actors in exotic, but not flashy, locations all over the world. The movie is no less experimental then his last, including a similar score, opening credits sequence, and do-it-yourself special effects. However, the intent of Harris’ images are different. “Luna Mesa” is more ponderous and existential.

It is also something of a travelogue. The film begins in Cambodia. Before the story is over, Luna travels to Thailand, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mexico, and Sierra Leon. She mingles with the local people and cultures. She takes photographs of tourist destinations, sitting among castles and pyramids. In Mexico, she gets caught up in a Day of the Dead celebration. There are elephants to meet and busy marketplaces to explore. The destinations are interesting and the film takes its time to show them off. If you’re looking for person-on-the-ground perspectives of some far-off locations, “Luna Mesa” certainly provides that. However, too often, the film simply allows itself to wander these places, without much plot or story to keep the audience’s interest.

“Luna Mesa” is light on plot. In her lover’s notebooks, Luna discovers a series of vague notes and arrows pointing in different directions. She follows the directions all over the world, the journey across the globe standing in for the journey in her heart for meaning. This is heavy stuff. While Harris’ previous films have dealt with seemingly light-weight topics like dead cats or Bigfoot, there’s always been an undercurrent of meloncholey and despair to his work. “Luna Mesa” embraces this fully, following a lead character in the grips of an existential crisis. Unfortunately, the movie explores this concept in an unusually vague manner. Harris’ narrates large portions of the run time, his oblique poetry playing over scenes of Luna walking places or the natives doing things. It quickly escalates from interesting to ponderous.

Luna is played by Liberty Valentine, a dancer who has done little acting before this movie. Valentine is attractive in a normal person way. Throughout the film, she wears a few different hair colors. As an actress, she is somewhat vacant. Frequently, she stares around at her surroundings, trying to gleam some deeper meaning from what’s happening to her. The movie doesn’t feature a lot of dialogue but its few conversations are somewhat stilted. However, Valentine occasionally shows a deeper ability as an actress. In her ordinary face, and wide eyes, there’s a sense of wonder and a willingness to discover something new. Befitting a dancer, Valentine also shows a certain physicality that makes her an attractive screen presence. It’s unlikely she’ll pursue a future as an actress but with a few more acting classes, she could develop into a viable talent.

Along the way, Luna meets some interesting people. When a director cast himself as the lover of an attractive woman much younger then him, it brings up certain… Questions. However, Harris’ involvement with the movie is mostly off-screen. He’s got a good radio voice so his voice-over is appreciated. Megan Zimmerman plays Luna’s sister, who calls her on the phone a few times, in a subplot that doesn’t go much of anywhere. Richard Dutcher, a fellow Utah filmmaker, puts in a memorable supporting part as a foul-mouthed expatriate Luna seeks out. Also memorable is Emily Pearson as an important character. To reveal her full role would be a spoiler but Pearson’s world-weary delivery is well utilized in the part.

Nestled in the middle of “Luna Mesa” is a moment that completely derails the entire movie. Luna cracks her lover’s notes and finds his laptop. Inside the computer is a short video. It’s an interview by Harris of the survivor of the Sierra Leon Civil War. We see people being executed by soldiers, shot in the streets, and the charred, burnt, stripped remains of the victims’ bodies. It is real, shocking and disgusting. I’m getting a little queasy just thinking about it. Why Harris inserted this footage into the movie is not too hard to decipher. On her quest for peace, Luna has to see the worst of what humanity can do, in order to forgive herself and everyone else. In practice, the movie in no way justifies inserting real life footage of war atrocities into the middle of its brief, hour-long run time. It’s a short moment, lasting about a minute, but it was enough to sour the whole movie for me.

In its final third, “Luna Mesa” finally collects itself into some sort of stable whole. In the desert of Arizona, Luna comes to peace with her lover’s death. The film enters a different, surreal state of mind. Infographics about the Tachyon Converter and the nature of matter appear on-screen. Luna, wearing a bright orange wig, thigh high boots, and a leather skirt, dances in slow motion through the desert. Letters and symbols dance in the sky. It’s strange, unexpected, and captivating, exactly the type of out-there imagery that Harris is best at. It’s the closest the movie comes to the existential heights it reaches for.

Interestingly, “Luna Mesa” doesn’t end there either. The film makes the interesting choice to keep going for an extended amount of time after the story’s logical end point. Luna wanders onto a goat farm and meets its eccentric owner, played by Harris regular Alex Caldiero. The man and the strange things he says and does is closer to the funny absurdity Harris delivered in his previous films. It adds a lot of humor to the final minutes of the film. Caldiero delivers increasingly odd monologues while Valentine considers their meanings. Among the caves and canals of the desert, she finally finds peace, ending “Luna Mesa” in a thoughtful, satisfyingly emotional place.

Trent Harris wanted to try something different. He wanted to explore the deeper ideas that frequently float under the surface of his films in a more straight-forward manner. You can’t hold that against the guy. However, “Luna Mesa” wanders and wanders, only finding any lyrical or emotional sense of meaning at the very end. To read that the film’s story was cobbled together from ideas, fragments, and non-narrative footage is not exactly surprising. [Grade: C]

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