Film Torments: Shark Exorcist (2015)

KICKING off the year at Film Torments, Dan looks at – what else? – a film.

Before Shark Exorcist even has time to begin, it poses a riddle. “Is the shark the exorcist, or is the shark being exorcised?” The title’s ambiguity and its fruitful double meaning finds a forebear in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; a towering font of Babel-babble, Joyce’s illegible masterpiece must have planted a seed of its genius into 30-year veteran auteur Donald Farmer, who has made a film beyond the understanding of contemporary human thought. Where Joyce melded over 40 international languages together to form a neologistic maelstrom over 629 pages, Farmer mangles 67 minutes of film footage together in a way that entices us to decipher the sense behind it all.

But perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be another of Joyce’s opuses: Ulysses, the behemoth of 20th Century modernism. Championing the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to narrative conveyance, Ulysses followed a nondescript day in the life of Leopold Bloom and his tiny triumphs; his tiny failures; his interactions with a literal city in which his innermost thoughts are revealed in painstaking, heart-breaking detail to the reader, and how it relates to the universality of human existence in the minutiae of everyday life.

Shark Exorcist takes the opposite tack. Though it borrows the stream of consciousness technique, the film runs in the opposite direction, saying lots of words in various combinations and sequences without lending any insight into the characters that speak them. Words are regularly spoken without the characters’ mouths moving, but it is unclear whether the monologue is internal or diegetic, hinting toward the breaking down of the walls between our inner thoughts and external speech. The poorly-placed microphones, rendering already-mumbled dialogue inaudible, blend into an aural deluge that gradually rises to cacophonous levels. All of this proves that, despite Joyce’s best efforts, communicating the human condition is an ultimately fruitless endeavour. Words are merely words, and they’re all, tragically, meaningless.

Also it cost $300,000.

So we must move beyond literature’s failures and compare Shark Exorcist to something within its own field. Farmer’s decision to set his ecclesiastical sea-shark film in Tennessee, a landlocked state, is a moment of absurd surrealism worthy of the Dadaists and the eyeball-slicing strangeness of Un chien andalou. Elsewhere, the use of awkward self-consciousness by the amateur performers, as well as the cropped and choppily-edited framing, eclipses the somnambulist hackery of L’Année dernière à Marienbad, showing Alain Resnais and his nouvelle vague just where to stick it, firmly establishing Shark Exorcist as the waking nightmare de rigeur for caviar-quaffing Vogue-lites everywhere.

And while the rapid cuts, sudden fades and lopsided cameras suggest a film buoyed on amateurish dilettantism capitalising on an Asylum-sponsored fad spawned by Sharknado and its sequels, it’s not. These elements represent a visionary at his craft, his tools finely honed over 30 years of work within the industry, utilising his talents to their maximum potential. This visual symphony would have made Gordon Willis weep. Manhattan? More like Sham-hattan. The flat lighting and grounded earth tones enable the audience to come down to that very earth and revel in the overcast Tennessean sun, reminding them of the fleeting effervescence of life before the Satanic shark cruelly snatches it away before our very eyes.

Not since the Basilosaurus itself has a maritime creature seemed so menacing or so clunkily lifelike. Through its four frames of CGI animation, mouth wide open, layered teeth glistening in the sea (or the sky, depending where the hellgate opens), it leaps right out of the screen and into our nightmares. The endless repetition of these four chilling frames only enhances the horror of its visage, etching it into our eyeballs. Like the paintings on the walls of Chauvet, the sight will become an indelible part of our very culture and history as a species.

Admittedly, the film is not without flaws. The scant, barely passing an hour runtime is one particular sore point, but one I’m willing to contend. Sherlock, Jr. took 45 minutes to present the greatest cinematic comedy of all time; on the other hand, Blade Runner took 120 minutes to tell the greatest sci-fi story ever committed to film. Shark Exorcist represents a perfect marriage of the two, blending the breakneck economy of Buster Keaton with the mournful, existential introspection of Deckard to create the greatest arthouse paranormal romance thriller to ever grace the local Poundland. That the final 11 of those minutes are spent with a hitherto unseen character individually examining shark toys in a restaurant before vomiting into the camera is irrelevant; what matters is the fact that it happened at all.

I could go on. For instance, the hilarious “Ghost Whacker” segments, pastiching the craven efforts of ghost-hunter has-beens, features Nancy Chase (Roni Jonah) talking into the camera while her camera-man (Bubba Bradley) is onscreen filming her. This act of sheer cinematic rebellion re-contextualises the entire film, perhaps even suggesting a Tommy Westphall excursion of congruous, inter-texual reality. It radically alters at least one otherwise pointless and offensive scene – where, unbeknownst to her, a voyeur takes pictures of a muscular woman sunbathing (on a cloudy day) and scrolls through every single photo – and transforms it into a scathing critique of voyeurism in America.

In any case, Shark Exorcist is the best of us. It will become the yardstick by which we measure the amount of times its captive audience screams “WHAT” and “WHY” and “WHO THE FUCK IS THAT” and “HOW IS IT STILL GOING” and “WHO IS THE NUN” and “LOOK AT THE CGI”. More importantly, it will show us the way to treat each other in life and, indeed, in love and sharks. We will stumble – we will fall – but, one day, we will join Shark Exorcist in the sun.

 

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