The Pink Hotel
by Jason Coffman
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The feature debuts of many filmmakers often bear the stamp of their primary influences, from both their personal lives and their favorite filmmakers. The former is most obvious when the filmmaker takes the old advice to “write (or, perhaps, direct) what you know,” leading many first-time writer/directors to tackle a story based on their own experiences— a look at the programming of Sundance festivals past bears this out. These low-key indie relationship dramas have done much to define the mainstream’s concept of “independent” film for ages now. The relatively low entry point into super low-budget filmmaking today theoretically should lead to an explosion of shot-on-DV films of this type. While we brace for this coming tidal wave, it’s refreshing to find an independent filmmaker whose feature debut completely eschews the relative ease of digital video shooting and personal anecdotes adapted into a screenplay and reaches for something a bit more ambitious.
Chris Hefner’s debut feature, The Pink Hotel, is exactly this sort of debut. Shot entirely on black & white Super 8mm film, The Pink Hotel is a strange puzzle box. Hefner’s primary influences (at least for this film) appear to be Guy Maddin’s obsession with primitive film technology and absurdist humor and the thick atmosphere of nightmarish dread that largely defined David Lynch’s early works. In The Pink Hotel, Hefner seamlessly integrates these influences into a very unique film.
The film opens with an animated sequence (by illustrator and animator Lilli Carré) explaining the bizarre manner in which the Ortolan bird, a French delicacy, is prepared and eaten. These strange, cruel rituals lead up to the eating of the tiny bird in one bite, feathers, bones and all. The diner must also drape a linen over their head before eating the Ortolan, supposedly to capture the aromas of the cooked bird but also, it is suspected, to hide the glutton’s identity from the eyes of angry gods. If the viewer is uncertain as to whether or not this elaborate preparation is true or not, the fact that it seems just inside the realm of possibility helps establish the film’s tone of faded decadence.
Following this opening, title cards explain that the story is taking place on New Year’s Eve, “During the war.” The film then introduces its odd cast of characters: the harried Concierge (Dan Sutherland) takes phone calls and receives constant abuse from a stream of guests and potential guests at the hotel’s front desk. These include some very unpleasant people from Hollywood, whose profanity and rudeness send the Concierge off on a mission to end the decline of formerly glorious hotel by destroying it. In one of the rooms of the hotel, a Movie Star (Stephanie Wyatt) constantly chats on the phone while her daughter, the Young Lady (Elita Ernsteen) peels the wallpaper away from a grate where she hears strange noises. In another room, a Man (Peter Hoffman) finds strange things falling out of his grate that may be sent to him from The Lady of the Hotel (Lynnette Kucharski). Meanwhile, a Zeppelin of uncertain origin ominously makes its way toward the city.
As you may have guessed, a plot synopsis of The Pink Hotel is not particularly helpful in explaining anything about the film. The way in which the different characters and stories overlap and run parallel to each other is the film’s appeal, and much of this is not immediately apparent on a first viewing. The grainy black and white of the film and the careful sound design lend the film’s darkest moments a deep sense of unease, and Hefner’s knack for unexpected imagery keeps the viewer from becoming too comfortable in their knowledge of just what is going on. The Pink Hotel is an ambitious debut feature, one that defies immediate accessibility and demands multiple viewings.
The Pink Hotel is available on DVD from Tonic Brand Movies. As of this writing, it is also available in the following local Chicago businesses: Quimby’s, Saki Store, Reckless Records (on Milwaukee) and The Museum of Contemporary Art. Visit the film’s official Facebook page for more information on the film, including upcoming festival screenings.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org.
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