Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Heart of the Beholder (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The author of this review has few subjects as dear to his heart as the freedom of expression. This is one of the most important achievements of the modern civilisation – without which these lines would never be written. It is also one of the least appreciated achievements of modern civilisation. I tend to believe that I’m more aware of its worth because I vividly remember the times when this freedom didn’t exist in my country. I also remember the times when this freedom was introduced only to be gradually suppressed together with other freedoms.

A good illustration for this is the strange fate of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST in my home town. The film was shown in theatres during the last days of Communism. A year or two later it appeared in one of the local video stores, being prominently displayed in catalogue. Some time later I went to rent it only to find baffled clerk who claimed not only that such film couldn’t be rented, but that it “never been in the video store” despite the catalogue pointing otherwise. It became quite clear that the disappearance of the film had little to do with property rights or economics – its content was unacceptable for new rulers just like the films questioning Communist dogmas had been unacceptable for apparatchiks of the past. But its “mysterious” disappearance was followed by some other disappearances in the town – this time families began to disappear from their homes overnight. It was just another reminder of the Albert Einstein’s words about burning of books ultimately leading to burning of people.

Because of that I was pleasantly surprised to find the film dealing not only with the subject, but also with the events that have certain macabre similarity with the events I had witnessed. That film is HEART OF THE BEHOLDER, 2005 drama written and directed by Ken Tipton and based on Tipton’s own experiences in 1980s St. Louis.

The plot of the film begins in 1980 when Mike Howard (played by Matt Letscher) leaves his job of computer technician and invests all of his family’s savings into the very first video store in St. Louis. After a slow start, the business is booming and Howard begins to live American Dream. Unfortunately, some of the titles available in store bring attention of Citizens For Decency, fundamentalist Christian group led by Reverend Brewer (played by John Prosky). The group begins to put pressure on Mike, especially when his store becomes the only place in St. Louis where people can rent THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. The store is subjected by endless picketing, and the campaign escalates into threats and acts of vandalism. Howard doesn’t want to yield to the pressure so Brewer and his group blackmail City Attorney Erik Manion (played by John Dye) into prosecuting Howard on obscenity charges. Howard wins in court, but the legal fees and pressure lead to his business going bankrupt and Howard loses family in the process. When Howard learns the truth about the way he was ruined, he is determined to have revenge.

Based on true events and originally envisioned as TV movie, HEART OF THE BEHOLDER is a very personal film. Ken Tipton, who, apart from appearing in various small roles had very little experience behind the camera, invested a lot of passion in this project and it could be felt on the screen. Great deal of effort is made in order for film to look authentic despite its low budget – there are many interesting period references and some entertaining anecdotes give a lot of charm to the film. The acting is also good, with some notable names like Michael Dorn and Tony Tood making cameo appearances (the latter being almost unrecognisable in the role of Chuck Berry). The most pleasant surprise is Arden Myrin who steals the show in the role of Howard’s store clerk.

However, the very issue which film is all about – freedom of speech and its frailty in even such traditionally democratic countries like USA – is at odds with the light-hearted tone of the film. There is nothing wrong in presenting the important messages through comic ways, but it requires right balance and talents which Ken Tipton apparently didn’t have. The villains in the film look like buffoons and are played over the top. This occasionally turns HEART OF THE BEHOLDER in unintentional parody of itself. The most problematic is the attempt to provide neat Hollywood ending, which ultimately shatters film’s credibility.

However, despite all those problems, HEART OF THE BEHOLDER succeeds in telling a compelling story in an entertaining and interesting way that won’t prevent some of the audience to think about certain important issues.

RATING: 5/10 (++)


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