“I just stare at blank canvas and watch it speak to me”
Branching out from rock band documentaries under the Heavyrock Films umbrella, director Greg Kaplan and company’s first feature length fiction endeavor is making the rounds on the festival circuit. I’m Not Here (and she’s not there) made its way to the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival with its tale of a drug-addled, yet genius surrealist painter and his psychological spiral downward into his inner self, away from all the periphery players that have begun to crowd his existence. Known to his family, friends, and dealers, (both artistically and narcotically), as a heavy user who is generally inebriated at all times, it comes as a shock to all when Daniel Bloom admits to having quit. His work would come to him in flashes, showing what he should paint, but recently only blank canvases have been staring back. Feeling undeserving of his own talents, the decision to go clean is a last ditch effort to be inspired—unknown to him is that the clarity of thought might in fact mess with his head even more. Paranoia and withdrawal set in as a shadowy female figure is manifested across the street in a foreboding city building’s window. Daniel begins to focus all his energy on her, pushing everything else away.
Both Craig, (Alex Bone), and Victoria, (Whitney Parshall), are desperately trying to get in touch with Daniel and retrieve his newest work for a show. He has been ducking their calls, or more appropriately staring into the distance while the phone continues to ring, disappointed in the output he is currently sitting on, wanting more time and more inspiration. I really like the sort of Francis Bacon meets Pink Floyd’s The Wall diptych hanging on his wall, but it appears those were the last of his old self to make it out. Craig even says later on that the new stuff, while not bad, isn’t anything like his previous oeuvre; the mystery woman appearing to him in the darkness taking complete control of his creativity, now the sole focal point of his life. Even when his girlfriend Claire, (Leah Cary), comes over for companionship or to get him out of his apartment, Daniel isn’t completely in the room, constantly looking out the window for his new muse, refusing the hash pipe and sticking with his line of “I’m okay” whenever asked what’s wrong. Everyone can see that something is the matter, but being such an oddity of a human being and most times on some alternate plane of reality, no one delves any deeper than that common surface question, usually followed by “can I get the pot in your drawer?”
The fact that Daniel is weird becomes a crucial realization to continue existing in this world. I can handle the tai chi moves on the water, I enjoyed the fourth wall breaking vignettes of his head shrouded in darkness telling the audience pithy thoughts of his being, and the monotone, robotic way he interacts with those around him is understandable. However, Phlip Wilson’s performance in the role often ventures very close to the point of no return, appearing amateurish over quirky—his eyes opening wide being funny instead of instilling a feeling of shock at what he sees. Until Craig vocalizes his disbelief that a guy so strange as Daniel can have gorgeous women fawning over him, I was seriously writing off the role. Once other characters in the film acknowledge the behavior, though, I was able to accept it as a purposeful representation of his life’s drug-induced lobotomy. He is sleepwalking through life; a broken man looking for meaning and finding nothing except this woman, a wispy shadow he isn’t even sure exists, one that disappears completely once the toxins in his body have finally emptied out.
Sobriety isn’t something Daniel can deal with as the one thing that has kept him going no longer visits. Through the first half of the movie, Kaplan switches between color when dealing with Daniel’s viewpoint and black and white when concerning the others in his life. He is the solitary creature of merit, the one thing with clarity and vibrancy in comparison to the leeches sucking his lifeblood away, more concerned with themselves then his wellbeing, most not only skeptical of his quitting drugs, but actually doing them in front of him anyway. Once the vision ceases and sleep fails to take hold of him, the colors begin to change more rapidly and seemingly at random. Daniel no longer can discern what is real and what isn’t, discovering that until he drinks a glass of water laced with LSD, he won’t have any reason left to live. Whether the beautiful woman he sees is real or not, life without her is too painful to continue. The only caveat to a rekindling of hallucinatory states—as if they ever really left—is that the girl begins to take shape as the beautiful Tara Stiles. First the shadow becomes a ghostlike figure and then her opacity fills out to form a physical woman able to cross the street into his room, getting to the point where the film is in color only when she is present, officially becoming his entire world.
I’m Not Here (and she’s not there) is definitely a low budget independent feature, wearing those traits on its sleeve with some of the performances and some lulls in pacing as the mystery of the woman becomes a bit repetitious during the second third. But you can’t allow those disadvantages to play too much in your experience of it as a film. For that it is a pretty ambitious undertaking of tonal mood, utilizing many transitions from the color to the fades to dreamstate becoming more real than reality. There is some great architectural framing and attractive time-lapse cityscape shots—including a great one of dark clouds moving behind the flatiron building—to temper the very Daniel-centric visuals, showing the motion of inanimate objects while he is shutdown in comparison. Much of the artwork is quite stunning as well, putting the audience into this world, believing that Daniel is worth the trouble needed to rein him in if this work is the result. As far as art is concerned, I also must give mention to Victoria’s apartment walls, covered in posters of Radiohead, Mars Volta, and, if I’m not mistaken, an image of Michael J. Anderson’s Man from Another Place—classic. Kaplan and company have created their own work of art with the film, really coming into its own towards the end when dream and reality merge together as Stiles’ character forms out of thin air. Her evolution plays out so organically and sensually, enhanced by the bluish-tints and effective score, that I can forgive the quasi-uplifting ending to such a dark film overall.
I’m Not Here (and she’s not there) 6/10 | ★ ★ ½