There is a cassette tape with incriminating evidence in Richard Linklater’s Tape, but the title could just as easily refer to the medium as to the message.
Many “films” have lately been shot on digital video. Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, and even the forthcoming Star Wars Episode II originated on digital video, which is much cheaper to work with. The downside is that DV looks much worse than film. It has lower resolution, a smaller range of contrast, and far less subtlety than 35mm film, which is why, until recently, it has been shunned for most major releases.
R for language, drugs
Enter Richard Linklater, who broke new ground with Waking Life, an animated feature made with Macintosh computers and a small team of dedicated artists. When asked how much Waking Life cost, Linklater’s lead animator was quick to reply “as much as it cost to animate that little gingerbread man in Shrek.”
Linklater continues to prove the importance of substance over style with Tape, a cheap little movie, shot in a single location, with just three actors, on digital video. By all rights, Tape should be an easily-dismissed experiment in corner-cutting. Yet instead Linklater shows the world that good movies don’t have to cost as much as Shrek or make use of lavish sets, costumes, and special effects. Good movies can be made by a few dedicated filmmakers, as long as they’re working with strong talent and good material.
Jealousy or Rape
Vince (Ethan Hawke) is working out in a cheap motel room when his friend John (Robert Sean Leonard) shows up to take him to dinner. Both men are in town for a local film festival — John is showing a movie in the festival and Vince came to catch up with his old friend.
It turns out Vince has an ulterior motive. He wants to confront John about a girl that they both dated in high school. Vince never got to sleep with Amy, but he is certain she slept with John. Vince is incredibly jealous. He’s convinced that John must have raped (or maybe date-raped) Amy, and he won’t relent until he gets John to believe it too.
Tape is based on a stage play (by Stephen Belber), which is evident from the single setting and the heavy emphasis on dialogue. Their conversation wanders from drugs to sex to rape. From jealousy to love to ambition.
When the two main characters run out of things to say, Amy (Uma Thurman) shows up from out of the past to put a new spin on the events and discussions. Her presence is one of the necessary contrivances that lets this short play stretch into a feature length movie.
The Play’s the Thing
As in The Big Kahuna or Glengarry Glenn Ross, movies based on plays have their own unique rhythm; their own rules and conventions. They are very talky, have very few settings, and don’t have car chases. This approach works well for DV.. It de-emphasizes the importance of a big screen, and allows a filmmaker to practice his craft without involving Kodak or Fuji.
With nothing in the movie except for dialogue and character the acting is vital — much more so than in a film with special effects, establishing shots, or musical montages. Hawke and Leonard are very good actors in a situation that demands much. Both have good intensity and concentration. They trade barbs and jibes with an underlying loyalty that only old friends would share.
A few transitions in subject matter seem forced — a bit of unnatural dialogue contrives to keep the characters in the room; one topic leads to another a little too roughly. But as the movie is based on a play, these are minor complaints, easily overlooked.
Tape is a successful experiment. Linklater proves that DV is an acceptable medium for some movies. Film still looks much better, but DV will continue to gain ground with careful, focused, and sincere “film”-makers like Richard Linklater.