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Chaotic society is masked by chaotic special effects ub Split

Tearsheets: Coolidge Corner

Suggested headline:


Written, produced,

and edited by Chris Shaw.

Starring Timothy Dwight,

Joan Bechtel, and Chris Shaw.

Computer effects by Robert Shaw.

US Premiere today at the Coolidge Corner.


WHEN A FILMMAKER SAYS HE'S made a film "dealing with ideas" and focusing on "the interplay between chaos and order," expectations inevitably rise, since films with real ideas, much less ones that tackle such a rich theme, are virtually absent from theaters these days. But it is a sad reality that filmmaker Chris Shaw went astray somewhere during the four years he worked on his debut film, Split. The film exhibits every sign that Shaw succumbed to the seductive power of glitzy editing and razzle-dazzle special-effects; as might be expected, his original ideas, fascinating as they are, simply get lost in the kinetic audiovisual assault.

The film's central characters, Starker (Timothy Dwight) and The Director (Chris Shaw), epitomize the forces of chaos and order. Starker claims to have captured the essence of independence and freedom and formulated it into a powder, but he tends to be paranoic and more than a little unstable. That's understandable, because a sinister organization, headed by The Director, maintains omniscient surveillance over the entire city to maintain order.

Naturally, The Director doesn't like the idea of Starker throwing a monkey wrench into his iron grip, so he sends his robot-like underlings after Starker. While running from these goons, Starker manages to fool around with a cafe waitress, snort some Sweet and Low, give a wacko artist (John Flynn) a whiff of what his freedom powder can do, and sleep with a woman (Joan Bechtel) whom he apparently used to know. By this time, The Director's minions have tracked down Starker. Starker keeps running until he finally has to engage his mortal enemy, which makes up the climax and ends the film.

During all of this, the film features some bizarre set designs and a lot of terribly fancy special effects, many of them based on computerized representations of the branch of physics known as chaos theory (including Lorentz transformations, chaos transformations, and the like). The editing is hyperkinetic, images are reversed, multiplied, superimposed, or otherwise manipulated, and the soundtrack consists of appropriately synthesized sound effects and music on top of the often incoherent dialogue. This keeps up for the bulk of the film's 85-minute running time, and indeed seems to be the film's biggest selling point.

There's no doubt that the combination of all these elements is always dazzling, since it constantly spits out something new for the viewer to digest. However, the audiovisual barrage that causes the film to work on a "wow, isn't that neat" level is precisely what crowds out the central conflict and prevents the film from working on deeper levels.

For example, Starker retreats two or three times into what appears to be a painted mouth of a fearsome monster, complete with large white teeth. He seems thoroughly depressed and discouraged in these scenes, and at one point tears roll down his cheek. The most that can be readily gleaned from these short scenes is a vague sense that Starker has retreated into a psychological hole of some sort. After the screening, Shaw explained that the painted mouth is indeed Starker's psychological retreat, where he questions whether all that's happening is real or not. He's crying because he can't reconcile the similarities between reality and delusion. Put this way, the scene begins to make some sense. But the film does not convey this impression on its own; without Shaw's elucidation, it seems impenetrably obscure.

The last time Starker is shown in this state, a female goon from The Director shows up. Starker jumps into action, and after a moment or two of blurred and confusing images, he is suddenly shown running down an alley, with virtually no indication of how he managed to evade the goon.

Fortunately, Shaw happened to be present after the screening, and he explained that the painted mouth is indeed Starker's psychological retreat, where he questions whether all that's happening is real or not. He's crying because he can't reconcile the similarities between reality and delusion, and the arrival of the female goon is what settles the question for him and triggers him into action. Put this way, the scene begins to make some sense. But the film does not convey this impression on its own; without Shaw's elucidation, it seems impenetrably obscure.

It's a shame that much of the film is similarly vague, because in three face-to-face meetings Shaw demonstrated that he could indeed express his ideas on chaos and order articulately and intelligently. At 41 years of age, he seems to have built on his memories of the 1960s by embracing the best elements of that decade's anti-authoritarian attitudes while eschewing the self-destructive excesses of the time. During the 1970s, he wrote some highly regarded mathematical textbooks, dabbled in painting, and ended up traveling through India for a while. So it's hardly surprising that he describes the motivating idea behind Split as pushing "the value of allowing a chaotic element in your life ... [which is] anything that breaks your standard pattern."

That is, of course, exactly the healthy attitude that has opened doors for many a creative filmmaker trying to revolutionize his art. But in this film, the attitude is turned on its head -- and the primary culprit is the film's flashy, hyperkinetic editing.

Rapid editing is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, Vladimir Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov pioneered theories of rapid montage way back in the 1920s, and sophisticated kinetic editing continues to exist today in avant-garde films by (among others) Stan Brakhage, Warren Sonbert, and Robert Fulton as well as in feature films like Pink Floyd The Wall and A Clockwork Orange.

In all of these films, the editing is a central component that is conceived and executed throughout the filmmaking process. In the case of Split, however, the editing's conception is good -- to introduce a "chaotic element" -- but the execution is faulty.

At one point, for example, Starker gets frustrated trying to turn off a blaring smoke alarm. The camera first shows him from behind, in a medium shot. Just as Starker begins to smash the alarm, the film alternates very rapidly between this medium shot and a closeup of his hand striking the alarm.

Because this montage lasts less than a second, the sudden cuts are indeed jolting. But rather than contributing to the film's central conflict between order and chaos, the montage seems gratuitously thrown in to insure that audiences don't get bored during a relatively calm moment. At its worst, flashy editing can degenerate into mindless images strung together MTV-style. This film never actually falls into this trap, but it comes dangerously close on a number of occasions. Had the film offered a better balance of sophisticated kinetic editing and striking imagery -- as epitomized by Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange -- Shaw's editing would no longer remain the weak link that it currently is.

Another element of concern arises just after the wacko artist takes a whiff of Starker's freedom powder. As the wacko artist suddenly finds himself on a sandy beach, Shaw includes footage of a fully-nude woman arching her body into strange and wonderful shapes. Again, it is precisely because the sequence has no readily discernable relation to the film's central theme that one is hard put to describe any reason for the woman's presence. Shaw himself said in one conversation that he doesn't like science fiction since "women are bimbosIs it bimbos or bimboes?" in most stories that he's read. So one can only wonder why Shaw decided to show full-frontal nudity of a woman who does nothing more than drop a smooth, rounded rock into the hands of the wacko artist. Shaw should have made the sequence more clear, given the nude woman more of a role, or, at the very least, included seemingly sexist footage of nude men as well.

Split has been compared to Alex Cox's Repo Man, but in reality only the first 15 minutes or so of Split bears any resemblance. The bulk of the film has a style of its own and should be judged on its own merits.

Doing just that, one finds that Split has some fascinating ideas at its core, as well as a whole new category of special effects (designed by Robert Shaw, Chris' brother). Although the film is crippled by some serious flaws, this introduction to Chris Shaw puts him on the map and shows promise for his future efforts. He mentioned in one interview that his next film will not feature fancy special effects and that it will be more like the type of films he eventually wants to make. (Asked why he then chose to employ these special effects to tell his story in Split, Shaw replied that it "would have been stupid not to take advantage of" his brother's expertise and other resources that were readily available to him.) If Shaw can give creative expression to his ideas and let more of his genuinely appealing persona shine through, he will be well on his way to delivering on the promise apparent in his debut film.