By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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At one point in Mantis, a video project by Houston Ballet Choreographic Associate Trey McIntyre that's receiving its official debut this week, a character named Titus stares intently at his pet, a praying mantis, as it stalks across its cage. It's not the only thing that Titus stares intently at -- he also gazes at the TV, and off into space while spinning a fantasy in his head -- but it's the thing that sticks with him. At work, he draws mantises obsessively; at one point, he draws a cheery, welcoming mantis and presents it proudly to his assembled peers in a conference room. The gesture does not go over well.
It's an odd scene in an odd film. Mantis is not your standard, cineplex-ready movie. Instead, it's an hourlong visual poem using surreal images -- and fabulous music including plaintive recordings of Kay Starr singing standards such as Wheel of Fortune -- rather than dialogue to move the narrative. Though there is a narrative of sorts -- Mantis is the story of a mid-relationship crisis between Titus and a woman named Valentine who have been living together long enough to be set in their separate ways -- what sticks in the memory are eerie, powerful moments that are, thankfully, balanced with wit. It's easy to see McIntyre's dance background here; dance is, after all, story and emotion told without words, as is Mantis. Mantis clearly draws from the broad and lurid images of ballet, and employs dance's vocabulary of pause and stillness. Still, Mantis isn't simply ballet on video. It's instead an engaging hybrid, a highly stylized experiment in arranging images for the movie screen.
It's also the first time that McIntyre, perhaps best known in these parts for his lively Company B, has worked in video. "I was just sort of blindly going, and, definitely, in post-production most of what came out of that was ignorance, just playing and not knowing what was possible and some really neat things happened," the 25-year-old first-time director says. Some of those "neat things" include whole scenes washed in weird colors, red or amber or the dead blues of cathode-ray tubes. It's artsy stuff, but the editing helps pull it off, editing that McIntyre credits in part to Greg Schulte, a 15-year-old special effects whiz and video editing prodigy from Access Houston, the public access station where McIntyre found some of his help. Aside from kids who hang around the public cable company, McIntyre drew on dancers from the Houston Ballet and old friends to get his video done.
"We shot it in six days," McIntyre says, "and if any single thing had gone wrong the whole thing would have fallen apart." But, this "Hey kids, let's put on a show" quality isn't the whole story. McIntyre came up with the discipline of dance, and that discipline is evident in Mantis. It's a genuinely erotic tale of a frustrated couple (the erotic elements of which were carefully kept away from the 15-year-old video editor) played by Richard Hubscher (Titus) from the Houston Ballet and local actress Cheryl Pierce (Valentine). Titus is wide awake, a buggy insomniac so consumed by his confusion and fantasies that he's reduced to the role of an observer. Valentine is both more withdrawn and more passionate than her boyfriend. In response to her despondency, she shuts down, emotionally, and throws herself into activities -- housecleaning, sex, and life outside their house and their relationship -- desperate for something to happen, for some event or episode to shake her awake. They both engage in a little phone sex with other people, and Valentine moves beyond the phone to a face-to-face encounter with a boorish lounge lizard who is nonetheless good in bed. (It's generous of McIntyre to suggest that women, like men, can have fulfilling and ultimately useful cheap flings with sexy but otherwise uninteresting people. This note of plain-facts realism in the plot is one of the things that keeps Mantis from being lost in its dreamy, unconventionally stylized imagery.)
And then there's the recurring image of the mantis itself. Why a mantis? In part, because McIntyre himself once had a pet mantis, and his notion for a video project grew out impressions gathered while he was staring into his mantis' cage. "What's so fascinating about praying mantises is that they are so meticulous in their movements," he says. "It's very deceiving; you would think they are sedentary creatures. They'll take a step and kind of rock back and forth and test things before taking another step, but if you were to put a cricket in front of them, then they'll rush from one side of the terrarium to the other before you can even blink and completely devour it, just rip the head off and throw its legs on the bottom of the cage ... this kept showing up in my head as an image."
Though McIntyre doesn't care to attach narrow, literal meanings to the images in his video, feeling more comfortable discussing his work as an example of stream of consciousness, he does admit that he thinks the title image shows up most in the main character, Titus, being devoured by his own mind. The woman is also, in her way, a mantis -- not because she eats her mate, but because she makes it her business to keep moving along, taking steps, and when opportunities present themselves, being on them like a flash.
For some, such as those committed to the traditions of contemporary cinema, Mantis may seem too extreme, too odd -- and those same extreme elements could end up seducing trendoids into loving the film in a cheap and shallow way. Ultimately though, Mantis is a refreshing and sprightly romp in mixing media styles.
Mantis will be screened Saturday, July 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515.
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