Maybe this really isn’t the place to lament the steamrolling of digital video over film as the medium of choice for filmmakers, but it’s hard not to wonder how different Calvin Lee Reeder’s new film, The Rambler, would have been if it was shot on film rather than razor-sharp high-definition digital video. Reeder’s debut feature, The Oregonian, was shot on Super 16 and maintained the characteristic look of his short films, such as the original incarnation of “The Rambler.” The Oregonian followed an unnamed female character (played by Lindsay Pulsipher) on a bizarre, surreal walk through an occasionally terrifying redneck nightmare world. The Rambler mimics that film’s structure fairly closely, but swaps out the female lead for Dermot Mulroney and Super 16 for digital video. The results are decidedly mixed.
After a brief introduction sequence leading up to his release from prison, The Rambler is picked up by his girl Cheryl (Natasha Lyonne). Cheryl informs The Rambler that he can have his old job back at the local pawn shop, but a letter from his brother sets The Rambler off on a hitchhiking trip across the country to live with his brother and family on their farm. At this point, the film drops any pretense of coherent plot and follows The Rambler as he gets into one bizarre, awful situation after another, while running into a few recurring characters including a girl (Pulsipher) who appears in several towns but who seems to be a different person each time. The closest thing The Rambler gets to a traveling partner is The Scientist (James Cady), a man who claims to have created a machine that will transfer dreams to VHS tape, but which apparently requires some fine-tuning that he has not quite mastered.
The pleasure of this type of film lies mostly in the surprises of where the character’s journey takes them and the people they meet, and in that respect The Rambler certainly delivers. However, it’s also nearly a remake of The Oregonian, closely following the beats of that film’s loose storyline and sharing its obsession with characters vomiting up weird-colored stuff all over themselves and each other. At 80 minutes, it felt like Reeder was running out of ideas near the end of The Oregonian; at 97 minutes, The Rambler feels considerably less inspired and even more tiresome. The parade of low-lifes spouting surreal, absurd dialogue starts to become a chore to sit through after a while, and unfortunately due to the film’s slick digital video, the low-fi charms of The Oregonian and Reeder’s shorts are completely absent.
While it’s a common complaint that many independent films look cheap, there’s something to be said for the sort of rough-hewn look of a movie shot on real film. Reeder’s previous works are a perfect example of film that uses that low-tech approach to its advantage. “Improving” on the look of his work with digital video has robbed it of part of what made his work unique. Digital video is too clean to properly document the kind of creepy, dirty places that Reeder wants to take the audience. The professional look makes The Rambler feel more like a movie and less like a weird dream. Maybe this change will make more sense as we become more accustomed to it, the way that color came to represent “reality” in cinema after decades of black & white. For now, however, The Rambler is a film that wants to drag you through some unpleasant places, but makes sure they’re nicely lit and clearly visible at all times, an approach that robs them of most of their character and creepiness.
Anchor Bay released The Rambler on DVD and Blu-ray 25 June 2013.