J.P. Allen and Janis DeLucia Allen trumpeted their love of words and ideas when they named their indie-film company Coffee and Language Productions nearly a decade ago. Five features later, their respect for the text hasn’t wavered, even as they’ve expanded their repertoire of cinematic techniques. Blending 16mm and digital video, color and black-and-white, the duo probes the volatile landscape of personal relationships. Their latest, Sex and Imagining, is a two-character piece thick with dialogue and psychological undercurrents, shot in a handful of locations. In a jump-cut, switch-the-channel world, this material might seem best suited for the stage, but J.P. Allen demurs. "I would never compare my work to Ingmar Bergman’s," he says with a hearty chuckle, "but look at the text of his screenplays. They’re incredibly dense."
Written and directed (like most of Coffee and Language’s films) by J.P. and executive produced by Janis, Sex and Imagining depicts a night of boundary-pushing games set in motion when a woman (Sally Clawson) stops to pick up a man (Chris Pflueger) stranded on a mountain road. The characters have a stash of secrets and twists in store for each other, while the cinematography by K.C. Smith and Miles Montalbano enhances the sense that anything can happen at any time.
"With Coffee and Language (2001), we deliberately had static cameras," Allen says. "By contrast, with Sex and Imagining and [its companion piece] Belief (2007), the cameras are extremely alive and on edge, which reflects the state of mind of the characters and the on-the-edge theme. Both pieces are about characters in confrontations that are very intimate, and have sudden and aggressive consequences. A lot of surprises; a lot of reversals. You feel that in the camera, I hope."
Allen wrote Belief and Sex and Imagining for whatever form—theater or film—he decided on, and in fact the latter script was initially produced on stage. He adapted the material to the screen fully intending to employ aggressively cinematic techniques.
"One of the reasons we shot Sex and Imagining and Belief on digital video was we were shooting very rapidly in long takes," he notes. "We were using two cameras, sometimes three simultaneously. We created situations where the cameras were following the actors. It was very Cassavetes-like. I think it was difficult on the camera operators, however it lent an urgency which was appropriate."
Digital video has proved a boon for low-budget films in general, but especially for projects that are performance-driven. But Allen, who teaches film directing at Cal State Monterey part-time, doesn’t generalize. He determines his approach on the basis of what suits the material best.
"[DV] is easier in some ways because you can shoot a larger number of takes." he notes. "But when you’re shooting on film, because you can’t shoot as many takes, the mental and production focus is such that you may get a better performance. It really depends on the actors and the situation as to what works best. Some actors are great on the first couple of takes, and those are probably the ones you want to shoot on film"—Allen laughs—"and then there are others who don’t get there until the sixth or seventh take."
Depending who you ask, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) is either the apex of dialogue-driven cinema or an anti-movie deserving every insult and parody. Allen recognizes that his work is at odds with the pacing and sensibility of most contemporary films, though it doesn’t cost him much sleep.
"Narrative film is sort of the uneasy child of theater and photography," Allen muses. "There’s always been a discomfort between the two forms. In the early days, films had a stage-like quality. Later, film took on more of a photographic quality—an emphasis on telling the story without words. I would almost say there’s a prejudice toward that particular style. But it doesn’t matter if you emphasize the filmic language, photographic language or verbal language if the story is told well."
He pauses for a moment. "I think the real question is can the script be enlarged and told with power through the medium of film? If it can’t, then it shouldn’t be a film."
Allen has submitted Sex and Imagining to several fall festivals, and is waiting to hear. "We’re just trying to tell honest stories that explore the limits of our own understanding about life,"Allen says. "Whether we succeed or not, I don’t know. You be the judge."
Check out the trailer for Sex and Imagining at www.coffeeandlanguage.com.
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