Achieving a slick, professional digital sheen and the genre accessibility to go with it is a common ambition for nascent filmmakers — but where’s the risk, the volatile chemical compounds, the ill-gotten brain stuck into the handstitched body, just to see what happens? This itch for evil-doing is happily scratched by the new ultra-indie Slow Machine, which is a rare thing these days: an unstable experiment, a pro-am comedy of menace and uncertainty that inhabits a world — a New York — two degrees off from any we’d recognize.
The film’s 16mm grain is virtually its main character, fusing with the faux-inept framing flubs and focus challenges to evoke the downtown indies of the late ’70s / early ’80s No Wave scene, when film was just one of many ways to fire a gob of low-rent spit into the Establishment’s eye. But are we in the present? (Name-checking the long-time Pope of downtown experimental theater, Richard Foreman, only narrows the timeline to the last half-century.)
We look for signs and anchors, but everything is inconclusive. The actual heroine is Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a struggling actress who appears to be Swedish (though her faint Euro-accent tilts soft Brit on occasion), and who attends NA meetings, confrontationally stumping for more judgment, not less, though we have no reason to think she was ever an addict. At times her accent goes all Texan — for a role she’s prepping for? — though only in the company of some people. Hayes’ placid Joni Mitchell-with-owl-eyes affect doesn’t provide us with many clues; she’s a quantum factor in a crude retro movie-space that doesn’t care if we watch or not.
Stephanie meets Gerard (Scott Shepard), a wily cadger in a suit who says he’s an NYPD counter-terrorism agent, but who may also be lying, and who may also be a predatory madman. Huge chunks of this palm-sized film coast on the untrustworthy banter between the two — at one point, the discussion ropes in a Lacanian Ph.D. dissertation on porn — and stories multiply, in various accents, at monologuing length, and in a persistent fog of fabrication. Hayes’ watchful nonchalance gear-locks beautifully with Shepard’s crafty speed-talking; none of what they talk about is “true” but we never want them to stop. Toxic masculinity, surveillance concerns, things unseen, all lurk beneath the characters’ masks. “Deep Brooklyn” is mentioned as though it were an uncharted wilderness. Often, Stephanie loiters upstate with a band who never actually records and performs, and hangs with her seasoned friend Chloë (Chloë Sevigny), who lengthily recounts a bizarre audition scenario out of Eyes Wide Shut that might, you think, be how the actress had been asked to audition for this movie.
Or so the filmmakers wink. It’s at about this point that you start thinking Jacques Rivette, and that directors Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo are exploring a retro yet neo-all-American Rivettian vibe. Famously the paranoid yarn-spinner of the French New Wave, Rivette made films that occupy a dream-time parallel reality, an inexplicit, vaporous republic chockablock with free-associative consciousnesses, unreadable connections, causes without effects, irrational but contagious suspicions, metaphoric ghosts, searches for unarticulated goals, social orchestrations centered on illusions, theatrical rehearsals that never coalesce, and anxieties about unseen phenomenon. Which is all to say, Rivette’s movies are movies at their moviest — but instead of knowing everything we need to know, like gods, in Rivette’s world we’re lost ones, repeating questions, wondering what’s underneath everything, waiting for rumored salvations. (The greatest film ever made about the joy of uncertainty, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating  is just out on a Criterion Blu-ray.)
An acquaintance with, and a lust for, Rivette’s peculiar program might be the gateway tab you’d need to fully grok Slow Machine (though at 70 minutes it’s virtually the length of a trailer for one of Rivette’s monster marathons). For a first film — Felten’s scant credits include the screenplay to James Franco’s never-seen Steve Erickson adaptation Zeroville, while DeNardo’s primary notch is an impressionistic featurette he shot in Bulgaria about folk music — it’s impressively confident in its defiant ambivalence. By the last act, “some years later,” everything has evolved in secretive ways, including Hayes’ depth and range as an actress, as if years, and experiences, actually did pass by. Of course, wonderfully, there’s no ending. Or so it would seem. ❖
Directed by Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo
Available on Projectr