Paint the Eyes First is a student film about a young man trying to escape the past and come to terms with himself. It also looks at the emotional hurdles of young love as teenagers’ transition into young twenty-somethings. Understated, with flashes of great emotion and style, it is a film showing great promise.
Michael Kristy wrote, directed, produced, and edited Paint the Eyes First. He even stars in the film as James, the opioid addict looking for absolution both from without and within. Directing and starring in a feature is a Sisyphean task, much less for a first feature. Though I’m reminded of the late bastard producer Harry Cohen lamenting how he hated hiring directors who were also the lead because he couldn’t fire anybody. So, perhaps it is a skill that Kristy should build.
As it is Paint the Eyes First, feels like an artist fighting against his instincts. This is not to say it is a bad film, quite the contrary. But there are times where the film comes alive in a way that is dreamlike, probing the psyche of its characters, before shortly being dragged back into the film’s overall minimalist reality.
James is an addict struggling for sobriety. I liked how Kristy starts the film, not in the middle of the action per se, but towards the start of James’ attempt to get straight. We don’t see the moment he makes the decision, nor do we fully understand what is going on until a few minutes into the film.
Kristy, to his credit, doesn’t hold our hands as the film unfolds. He has faith in us, the audience, and expects us to figure out what little questions we have for ourselves. For a good portion of the film, I had assumed that Noah (Michael Sadowsky) was either a figment of James’ imagination of Kristy’s attempt to visualize the self-hatred and loathing he had for himself. As it turns out, as is often the case, Noah was merely just Noah, James’ brother.
I am not entirely sure if that isn’t by design—Kristy merely having fun playing with the audience or attempting to test us in our trust of the character. A way of showing us for the judgmental fools we are, doubting James merely because he is an addict.
During a cold wintery New Hampshire night James, who is homeless, tries to break into a music conservatory. He tries the door repeatedly. The first few times it is locked, but his constant fumbling with the door gets the attention of the newly hired night janitor, Alex (Brendan Geiger). James rushes past him and hides inside a closet leaving Alex bewildered as he calls the cops.
Paint the Eyes First isn’t just about James. As it unfolds, we meet newlyweds Alex and Sam (Aileen Archambault). Alex is an art historian and Sam is an artist. They have hatched a plan to use the conservatory as a temporary home so they can save up money to move to New York City. The director of the Conservatory, Jim (Matthew Levesque), the very embodiment of officious, questions why Alex didn’t bring a notepad to his interview while also saying what he does and doesn’t need to write down.
Kristy’s dialogue is at times so very real and subtle in the way it captures how people actually talk. His characters rarely have pithy answers or searing probing questions. They stammer at times, while having a halting rhythm at others as they try and figure out the proper words they want to use. For the most part, this works, with a few rare exceptions where it doesn’t.
Moments like a scene early on between Alex and Sam where the two flirt and Sam tries to cajole Alex into a quickie before work. The scene itself is fine, and Geiger and Archambault do a good job of overcoming the forced dialogue, but the words that are spoken feel off. As if Kristy was trying to emulate what a newly married couple would talk like.
I suppose it could also be seen as another example of verité. After all, I would imagine many couples have awkward attempts at flirting and seduction, especially early in the morning. In a way, the scene even makes Alex and Sam more grounded.
Essentially, Paint the Eyes First is about how Alex, Sam, and James all secretly live in the conservatory for a few weeks while they try to get their act together. Alex and Sam try to save money while the two slowly begin to get to know James and discover his addiction. Slowly Alex and Sam try to help James go cold turkey. Well, more Sam than Alex.
Kristy smartly sidesteps a love triangle and has the bond between Sam and James to be platonic but deeply compassionate. We get the sense that Sam has known an addict in the past whereas Alex seems less understanding.
To him, James is an obstacle. He is unreliable, clumsy, and in need of near-constant watching over. As of right now Alex and Sam are only technically homeless but if James gets them fired, they will be homeless for real.
So much of Paint the Eyes First takes place in the quiet spaces between words. Kristy, who also edits the film, along with his cinematographer Dominick Torres, keeps the film in static shots. Rarely do characters share the same frame together, with the exception of Sam and Alex who, unless the two are apart, are almost always sharing a frame. This is done largely to show how alone James feels and how to cut off everyone else feels from each other.
Yet, there are moments when Kristy goes inside James’ head and Paint the Eyes First feels alive, immediate, and as if Kristy is working without a net. The scenes are dark, moody, and fantastical. These moments have an elegiac cinematic quality to them.
Still, Kristy clearly knows how to work with actors. The performances are small yet emotive. Granted, they are a little stilted, but it adds to the sort of controlled ambiance Kristy seems to be going for.
Archambault makes everything she does seem so natural it’s hard to catch her acting except when the dialogue occasionally fumbles. Her Sam is the type of character we wish had her own movie. She is clearly confident in her talent but less so in her choices of day to day life. In a movie full of solid performances, hers stands out if only because you hardly catch her acting.
Kristy as an actor conveys deep loneliness and unmoored sadness. He has a way of distancing himself from other characters while standing right next to them. James is a confused and pitiful character and Kristy wisely never asks us for any kind of sympathy.
Geiger’s Alex has the toughest role. Of all the roles, next to the director of the Conservatory, he is the coldest and most off-putting. This feels by design, as he and James could easily switch places had fate played each a different hand. Alex plays at being mature but at times we see how scared and just a kid, he still is.
About midway through the movie, Sam asks James how long he has been clean and he responds with “When you don’t do it for a while it feels like you’re in the water and you’re sinking deeper and deeper, and then when you really need to take a breath, you just keep sinking.” The aforementioned scenes include James drowning in the inky black depths of the ocean.
From time to time Kristy returns to that scene, James alone, sinking to through the seemingly bottomless depths of the ocean. Then we learn that James’ father, a salvage diver, used to tell him stories about deep-sea monsters. The scenes slowly begin to feature tentacles, foreboding Lovecraftian beasts watching the sinking James.
The two tones are jarring and undercut each other in a way that doesn’t quite gel. If only because at no other time does Paint the Eyes First trouble itself with the inner workings of James’ or any other character’s psyche quite as intimately as it does with these scenes.
Tonally Kirsty keeps everything muted and stoic. Both Torres’ camera and the actors are subdued. This belies a tension that Kristy and Torres are never fully able to realize. Though towards the end, when the storyline involving Noah and James collides with the main storyline, the film once again seems to screech into operatic splendor.
Noah owes James two hundred dollars. Kristy punctuates every scene with Alex and Sam with a scene with James and Noah. Eventually, Noah follows James to the conservatory and tricks James into letting him inside. Sam calls the cops, knowing something is up. James arrives late only to see Noah. Then, in a pique of Hitchcockian filmmaking, Kristy ratchets up the score by SiHyun Uhm and Kristy himself. Cutting between the past and present, he plunges us breathlessly into a fraught dramatic tension-filled scene that feels unmoored from the rest of the movie.
Disconnected as the scene is from the rest of the movie, I loved every bit of it. The cut to Sam peering around the corner reminded me of a cut from North by Northwest involving a woman at a desk seeing Cary Grant holding a blood-stained knife. Either way, it was perfect, tonally, technically, and emotionally, brilliant.
It just feels untethered, much like the scenes of James sinking, from the rest of the movie. The other parts of Paint the Eyes First aren’t bad, far from it. Simply put Kristy has moments of bold brush strokes inserted into a movie largely muted and specifically coordinated to be as minimalist as possible. The contrast begins to work against itself though because Kristy’s script dances around the addiction as opposed to tackling it.
Even though a solid part of the second act has Alex and Sam watching over James as he detoxes, it’s hard to determine when James is clean and when he is not. The difference between the two states is not inherently noticeable. So, when Alex and Sam decide to help James go straight after he has told Sam what it’s like to be off the drugs, thus putting the previous poetic imagery into context, I found myself confused. I thought he was already off the drugs.
The surrealist and darkly fantastical interludes along with the great melodramatic climax seem to speak to a tendency toward fantasy rather than humdrum reality. These moments felt like filmmaking without a net. They exude a sort of heedless cry of joyous twisted cinematic expression.
Paint the Eyes First is a shaky film at times while being breathtaking and bold at others. It shows promise while also showcasing a raw talent of visual expressionism. The stuff that doesn’t work tells us as much about the artist as the stuff that does, and if we go by that then Kristy has a boundless empathy and compassion for characters in search of some kind of solace and absolution. Kristy has a clear talent and skill that speaks of a promising future.
Image courtesy of Michael Kristy