05 September 2009

The Decade List: Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)

Wild Tigers I Have Known - dir. Cam Archer

In thinking back on my Film 1 class, I seem to recall the way in which my professor defined cinema. All of the students were asked to present the ideas for their final projects in front of the class and place them into one of three categories: narrative, experimental or "experimental narrative." It was the first time I'd ever had to apply those specific labels to my idea of film, and for the most part, it was the last… at least until I saw Cam Archer's Wild Tigers I Have Known. The film perfectly represented that fleeting image I had of such a silly distinction and managed to suppress the negative connotations I associated with placing something in such strange parameters.

Borrowing heavily, but not irritatingly, from Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (which becomes explicit when the school principal introduces the "Tolerance Statue," which bares a strong resemblance to the Christmas tree in Fireworks), Wild Tigers I Have Known visualizes the soaring imagination of thirteen-year-old Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) through vibrant color schemes, kinetic editing, unsynchronized dialogue and gorgeous photography. Something of a visual contradiction, Logan's waïfish androgyny never quite aligns with his deep, masculine voice and rare lack of self-consciousness. That contrariety is, thankfully, not representative of the whole of Wild Tigers I Have Known in terms of perspective. Archer strives, with mostly success, for matching the dreaminess of youth with the film itself, keeping the old hat of nostalgia out of the equation.

While many of the more "vanguard" sequences are astounding (especially the ones where Logan disguises himself as a girl in order to coax his crush Rodeo into having phone sex), some of the finer moments of Wild Tigers I Have Known occur in its static "reality," the places where Logan is forced to step out of his own mind. Fairuza Balk, who appears to have barely aged since playing her own variations of teenage outcasts in the 1990s, provides a genuine tenderness as Logan's mother. In one scene, she endearingly cleans Logan's make-up off his face, sympathetically recalling her own struggles as a teenager. Balk, who is never given a name during the film, might as well be playing the grown-up version of her character from Allison Anders' Gas, Food Lodging, a teenager with similar confusion and restlessness (even one who, like Logan, dons a blonde wig to unsuccessfully woo the boy of her dreams). This association, whether intended by Archer or not, makes her relationship with her son all the more intimate.

Though he may be guilty of a certain fetishization of youth, which is most evident in the way he dresses his characters, Archer shouldn't be accused of exploiting his influences. With a bit of Derek Jarman and Gus Van Sant, who executive produced the film, tossed alongside Anger, Wild Tigers I Have Known mixes those elements into Archer's own distinguishing spectacle. Unlike, say, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, it functions and prevails on a small scale, but despite that, the film marks one of the finer directorial debuts in American independent cinema over the past ten years.

With: Malcolm Stumpf, Patrick White, Fairuza Balk, Max Paradise, Kim Dickens, Tom Gilroy
Screenplay: Cam Archer
Cinematography: Aaron Platt
Music: Nate Archer
Country of Origin: USA
US Distributor: IFC Films

Premiere: January 2006 (Sundance Film Festival)

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