February 4th, 2014 10:24 EST
Douglas Reese: 'Cleaners' Manages to Turn Boring Action into Mesmerizing Ritual
By Michael Haberfelner
The first time director Douglas Reese made himself known to a larger audience was with the film Cleaners, a feature film about a young and drug-abusing couple obsessed with cleaning a big house " that just never gets clean. But as monotonous as this may sound in writing, the film is quite fascinating to watch " Cleaners manages to turn the most boring of all actions (cleaning) into a mesmerizing ritual and make everyday surfaces seem like other-worldly land- and mindscapes. Basically, the film manages to create an atmosphere-rich world all of its own out of " nothing special, actually.
So why hasn`t Cleaners gotten much more recognition than it did then?
Basically because it essentially is an amateur film, with all the good and bad that comes with it " the good being the filmmaker`s absolute freedom from both genre limitations and commercial pressure, the bad being the lack of proper equipment to shoot the film, so the picture doesn`t always look quite as brilliant as it`s supposed to be, the whole thing could have been lit better, and the sound could have been improved. Also, the soundtrack is full of copyrighted music that kept the film from playing festivals and getting a commercial release (though there was a time prestige-label Criterion showed interest).
Amateurish as the film was on some levels, Cleaners showed an auteur filmmaker of amazing talent " and hindsight. The thoughts behind Cleaners in Reese`s own words: After experimenting for the past two years doing short films and other feature projects without real aspirations in mind, I had learned many of the flaws in being a no-budget filmmaker with a MiniDV camcorder and a lack of solid professional audio equipment. So, therefore, when it came to Cleaners specifically " I wanted to use those limitations I had and create a piece in which the atmosphere boiling from the distorted audio and the grimy imagery would create an effect similar to the character`s mindsets. Their brains are on drugs and are foggy - dirty. It`s all distorted and unclear, but there are those bits and pieces of light that cryptically shine through occasionally. "
Douglas Reese`s beginnings as a filmmaker can actually be traced back to the most mundane of all genres " home movies. Only while for most home movie filmmakers it starts and ends there, Reese soon started to re-arrange these little films into documentaries about his family and the like " which probably makes the Reese-family one of the better documented in the world. Later, as mentioned, he expanded into experimental movies, honing his skills but even more so his insight into filmmaking as a process as well as an art form.
Reese`s first feature that had a sort-of wider release (via YouTube mind you), The Vaughn Sister, made in 2010 when he was merely 19 years of age (his IMDb-page makes him a whole lot older by the way), already shows a very skilled director who can approach a rather dramatic premise " two brothers get to know the sister they never knew they had but who forces herself into their lives, bringing colour to the monotony they live in " by way of subtlety. Nothing much happens in The Vaughn Sister, and even much of the dialogue borders the insignificant, but at the same time, Reese manages to avoid all the clichés a story of its ilk would almost suggest, and just like in the best films of French nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer, this approach works here.
Again of course the film is flawed due to lack of funds, less than perfect equipment, the fact that Reese never had any high aspirations for the movie and so on and so forth " but for a home-made amateur movie, this one`s pretty remarkable.
Reese followed up Cleaners with his first venture into the horror-genre, Snake " which is of course nothing like a horror film you`d expect a 20 year old to direct: It`s about a young man trying to help his mother to come to terms with the death of his father " but it`s actually the young man who needs help while the mother remains out of the picture for the entire movie. In fact, some sequences suggest there isn`t even a mother.
For Snake, Douglas Reese remained true to his do-it-yourself amateur roots: the whole film was shot on webcam since there was no camcorder available, in 4:3 format that was rapidly going out of style in 2011 (when the movie was shot), and it was a film that definitely presented Douglas Reese as a one-man-band filmmaker. True, he never had a large crew (or even small crew) at his disposal, but in this one, he`s also the only actor in front of the camera " and it works, too, as despite its technical and practical limitations (no cameraman equals lack of camera movement and the like), Reese creates an utterly creepy atmosphere via eccentric camerawork, carefully chosen locations and a beautifully haunting musical score by Katherine Priddy. The film is much more experimental than either The Vaughn Sister or Cleaners since it more or less totally abandons linear storytelling and leaves room for multiple interpretations of the story it kind of tells.
Douglas Reese`s last movie, the short Knock, revisits the horror genre, and might be the most easily accessible of his films: Basically, it`s an exercise in suspense and shows how a man is driven to despair by random knocking on his door but nobody outside. Until the final scene, Reese refuses to make it clear whether the threat is real or only in the protagonist`s head, which of course only heightens the tension.
Just like Snake, Knock was made by Reese as a one-man band, as director, cameraman, star and whatnot, and again he uses what little he has to his full advantage " and he also has the perfect excuse to leave his story as skeletal and suspense-driven as can be.
With his oeuvre so far, Douglas Reese has proven everything he can prove in the amateur sector, including that an auteur filmmaker doesn`t need professional equipment to make a movie of significance " but still, for a talent like his it`s time to move on to bigger things. Will a production on a larger scale mar his very own style?
One can`t exclude that of course, but for a director of his vision and hindsight it`s a good bet that he will prevail.
Further reading on Douglas Reese: