Underground Film Review: 'Stag' (2012)

Danny, a young sailor, lands himself in the brig following an after-hours brawl.
Danny, a young sailor, lands himself in the brig following an after-hours brawl.
Danny receives a disturbing letter from home that his mom is dying and decides to go AWOL to visit her.  Will he make it in time?
Danny receives a disturbing letter from home that his mom is dying and decides to go AWOL to visit her. Will he make it in time?
Is the 'do-gooder' who appears offering to help the wayward sailor, really so 'good'?
Is the 'do-gooder' who appears offering to help the wayward sailor, really so 'good'?
What exactly will the naive Danny be asked to do by the seedy Brinks?
What exactly will the naive Danny be asked to do by the seedy Brinks?
It's art... not porn... think of it like that, kid.
It's art... not porn... think of it like that, kid.
Times are hard and when you are on the streets with no cash, Brinks teaches Danny that things can only get... harder.
Times are hard and when you are on the streets with no cash, Brinks teaches Danny that things can only get... harder.
The enigmatic director, Max Sylvester, giving apt direction to actor Basso, in his 2012 underground cult film 'Stag'.
The enigmatic director, Max Sylvester, giving apt direction to actor Basso, in his 2012 underground cult film 'Stag'.
STAG: a pain-stakingly intense, yet fully actualized, film making process.
STAG: a pain-stakingly intense, yet fully actualized, film making process.
Director of Photography Laura Valladao's stunning cinematography is, simply put, a gorgeous thing to watch unfold.
Director of Photography Laura Valladao's stunning cinematography is, simply put, a gorgeous thing to watch unfold.
Reid Martin Basso, as the nefarious 'Brinks', on-set filming 'Stag' by emerging writer/director Max Sylvester.
Reid Martin Basso, as the nefarious 'Brinks', on-set filming 'Stag' by emerging writer/director Max Sylvester.
The amazing Megan Trout as a working professional 1950's sexual provocateur.
The amazing Megan Trout as a working professional 1950's sexual provocateur.
Ian C. Hopps delivers a flawless acting performance as the wayward sailor Danny.
Ian C. Hopps delivers a flawless acting performance as the wayward sailor Danny.

Film: ‘Stag’ (2012)

Writer/Director: C. Maxwell Sylvester

In a film master’s class I recently took at Academy of Art San Francisco, my instructor assigned the task of analyzing a ten to twelve minute short film that ”works” for us, and then explain why. Okay, pretty standard college stuff as far as assignments are concerned.

My initial instinct was to default to some well-known contemporary Pixar short a la Mike’s New Car (2002), or possibly a classic short like, say, French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon from 1956, equally well-known.

Instead, I chose Stag (2012) by up-and-coming filmmaker Max Sylvester.

Shown here in its initial nine-minute edit, a longer ‘final’ version of the hit cult short -which included much of the hero’s back story and other compelling footage- was later rumored to be completed. However, tracking down a ‘full final’ version of the secretive director's retro mini-opus is a task unto itself. It exists... Somewhere.

In the meanwhile, piecing together the Stag puzzle seems to be as much a part of the film's pulse, as the elusive final 'full version' of the film itself. By hunting down 'pieces' of Stag, the film only then comes together as a theoretical collection of puzzle pieces.

To date, there appear to be three 'main' pieces of the film, each giving its own glimpse into Sylvester's anti-story of luck, sex, profit and values. By leaving the film as pieces to be tracked down, viewed, assembled, then collectively reflected upon individually to grasp 'the whole', possibly the 'dirtiness' that was 1950s stag-porn can be more closely experienced.

Back then, pieces of stag films were frequently spliced and passed about the underground. Today's "underground", per se, hides in plain sight and is called the world wide web. And, as such, the closest today we can come to approximating the feeling of watching something secretive and dark, in parts to get the full scope, in done by clicking links, rather than receiving a pass-off from a fellow underground porn provocateur.

In addition to the first of three clips, the nine-minute edit version (above), additional footage from Sylvester’s ‘complete’ vision of ‘Stag’ can be seen in this teaser trailer clip, shown here (thus the second glimpse into Sylvester's world).

Moreover, a Reid Martin Basso spoof mock-commercial, believed to be intended for insertion after the credits conclude, is available here and provides a third insight.

The mock commercial was a spontaneously improvised piece that was shot in just one take upon Sylvester announcing to thunderous applause: “That’s a wrap, folks!”

Stag is a retrospective look back at the era of Cold War living. Playing out against a nostalgic backdrop of 1959 Americana, Stag explores the roots of what ultimately grew into a nation’s seediest underground industry: the multibillion dollar shadow world of Pornography.

Stag weaves its own take on the timeless tale of good versus evil, while addressing convention.

What makes Stag ‘work’ for me is -mainly- the retro-theme that that Sylvester exploited so believably well. Watching this short concept film, it just ‘feels’ like 1959, the year in which the film is set, as opposed to a film just ‘about’ 1959.

Another overwhelming aspect is that this 'student film' was done on a shoe-string budget of promises, favors and cooperative –almost tribal- film making. It looks and feels like money when, in reality, little was available. Sylvester and his remarkable team created a true ‘feel’ and ‘experience’.

From a cinematic aspect , every minute detail was researched and honored… It was important for the actors to not just know the lines, but to “live” in character, a la an almost Sanford Meisner methodology, for cast as well as crew.

The vintage music and real celluloid film employed in making Stag reminded the team of the joys of short films, as well as their challenges.

The rigorous shooting schedule, the harsh elements, the very late nights all took a toll on the cast and crew. Still, those involved in the shoot at the time knew that ‘Stag’ was shaping up to be something more than a run of the mill ‘student’ film, or just another arbitrary art short… It was a underground legend in the making.

In some sequences, after-effects could easily have been employed but were expressly forbidden.

The snow falling at the sister’s window, for instance required countless takes of what Max demanded as “non-clumping evenly-distributed confetti.” The underwater sequences required divers out of frame tossing real kelp into frame in an Olympic sized-pool.

The scantily-clad shivering prostitute, or the soaking wet Danny, really were shivering in the 27-degree air temperature of Treasure Island one frigid San Francisco November evening.

These elements of realism all worked for me.

The pacing of production was edgy and provocative. All persons were immersed into a mindset of being actual pornographers in the 1950s when convention shunned such activities, rather than celebrated it as is standard today.

Acting isn’t just reciting lines, sometimes it’s about surrounding yourself with fellow artistes who share a collective vision. The execution of this basic idea of honoring a period piece in a fully-realized approach I found refreshing and engaging. The dialogue, music and imagery were all era-appropriate and didn’t just ‘present’ the period in question, but really transformed the viewer’s experience.

I will always regard Stag and a great period piece that -over all- just works. The fact that Stag is able to relay the experience, as well as the story… Well that works for me too.

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