Okay, confession time: I was going to rip on Mortal Kombat for tonight’s post, but I found this short film again and it was like discovering an old buddy. I watched it, got excited and switched around my line-up. We’ll shelve the craptacular film for next week; I went on a bit of a horror bender this weekend.
|Open wide, kids.
The short film On Edge came up recently in conversation with a friend who had yet to see it. I first saw Frazer Lee’s On Edge 15 years ago on the SciFi Channel. To this day, it remains my favorite short film. Summary in ten words or less: entitled prick visits the dentist and bad things happen. It’s beautifully made. Anyone that tells me they like watching movies is immediately informed that they need to see this. It’s entirely too good to keep to myself; this, my friends, is a public service. You need to see this if you haven’t already. If you hate dentists, you might want to sit this one out. Still with me? Click the link below. Really, I’ll wait.
HOW FUCKING COOL WAS THAT?!
Inside of the film’s under-15-minute duration, we get a hell of a lot of theme, particularly entitlement. There’s a lot packed in there, but I never once felt like I was being beaten over the head with obvious symbolism or explanation. Points to Lee for making a film that didn’t make me feel like an idiot that required constant explanation; too often, we get films that whack us over the head with what the director wants us to think or feel, which (at least to me) isn’t the point. Lee just starts with a good story, uses a good script and good actors, and lets it unfold. It’s snappy and cuts right to the chase: Thurlow feels entitled to be seen immediately because he’s a private patient, and the receptionist isn’t having it (score one for the little guy). In a world where the term “affluenza” keeps cropping up, it’s nice to see someone get told that he needs to get back in line (or, as I’m fond of saying, “You’re a special little snowflake, just like the rest of us.”). When Thurlow does manage to find a loophole that gets him closer to what he wants, it goes horrifically wrong. As an audience, there’s a sick satisfaction in this, because we don’t know Thurlow outside of seeing that he behaves like a fucking prick to get whatever he’s whining about. We know that something bad is going to happen; we just don’t know what.
Once we get into the secluded room, the direction takes a turn for the creative to get us nice and uncomfortable. At first, we’re in the corner of the chair, crouched down and gazing up at our main pair as they converse. There’s small talk involving professions, particularly a comparison of dentistry to car salesmanship, with an emphasis on what one can do with technology to perform both form and function. Lee uses this to foreshadow Thurlow’s ultimate outcome through flashes of the television screen. The unease starts here, though we’re not entirely sure why. As Dr. Matthews gets to work, we’re placed into the highly vulnerable (and thus uncomfortable) first-person perspective of Thurlow to experience everything he does. In an excellent twist, Thurlow requests, “Please, no gory details,” and true to the patient’s request, Lee doesn’t show us every aspect of the procedures. Lesser directors would have shown every last bit – I’m hesitant to use the phrase “torture porn” because I have problems with the history of the phrase and its connotations (more on that another day). Instead, Lee utilized camera angles and sound to make the audience completely uncomfortable. We’re placed in the perspective of the patient and hear the sounds of the tools. The camera shakes with the tools at times so that we get immersed in Thurlow’s experience; we get nice and uneasy because this isn’t some random asshole anymore – this is us. This perspective changes again once Thurlow is knocked out: we get to watch Dr. Matthews work, but again, in compliance with the patient’s wishes, we don’t get the gory details. We do, however, get a change in lighting: Dr. Matthews’s face grows darker with shadows cast from the window shades, echoing the growing realization that something is horribly wrong. We’re further subjected to the sounds of Matthews’s instruments, and we’re left to imagine just what the hell is going on. If you’re anything like me, in that moment, what your mind is filling in is far worse than anything Lee could have shown you.
In addition to our brains playing fill-in-the-blanks, we’re also treated to the soft soliloquy of Dr. Matthews, both before and after Thurlow is given an extra shot of Valium. He’s cheerful enough at first when he needs Thurlow’s trust, but grows frustrated and dark as soon as his patient has lost consciousness. We get a bit of truthfulness in this presentation, proving that the real Dr. Matthews isn’t in the pleasantries required of social and medical intercourse: it’s buried and has to be extracted, much like a rotten tooth. He switches back to the charming dentist once Thurlow comes to again, but it doesn’t last long: once he’s gotten what he wants, the façade lifts and we’re left with the bitter, angry tones of Matthews’s explanation. Once he no longer requires that trust, he’s free to be as ugly as he pleases. This drives home another theme via this delivery method: why are we so trusting of complete strangers? Matthews explicitly states, “You must admit, I do look the part: white coat, smart tie, good speaking voice. And when was the last time you asked to see a dentist’s credentials? You don’t give a shit as long as you get to be seen first. Am I right, or am I right?” Lee first gave us Thurlow’s elitist nature at the beginning of the film as a form of social commentary, then uses the scenario to bluntly ask us why we trust people. Lee’s question is difficult, as it forces us to examine our perceptions and assumptions. The realization is uncomfortable because oftentimes, if someone looks the part, we’re willing to play along. How many times has this happened at a hospital, or some other healthcare setting? When was the last time you asked the person giving you drugs if he or she was really a nurse? You don’t because you assume, and more frequently than not, you’re in pain and want it to stop. If you’re like Thurlow, you demand to be treated quickly because that’s what you’re paying for, dammit. This film becomes scary as all hell because it forces us to examine those assumptions to ensure our safety. Lee uses these characters to prove that you can be anything so long as you play dress-up accordingly, and if you’re desperate enough or feel entitled to a resolution, you’ll assume that someone is qualified based upon appearances. This mistake renders Thurlow mutilated. We don’t want to be Thurlow, and so we come away from this experience far more distrusting of those around us. We don’t take them at face value anymore. The film ends where it began: Matthews is still out there, scouting, looking for inspiration in a club. We’re left feeling cautious and concerned because the bad guy has not been caught; presumably, this can happen again. More specifically, the fear with which we leave is that it can happen to us.
It’s far too easy to say that this film scars you from looking at the dentist the same way (though I will admit that it has made me rather squeamish when booking those checkups). This short film calls into question our assumptions, our trust and our perception of an experience and its participants. It provided us with both the ability to observe as well as the ability to become the participant – this is an exercise in the anthropological concept of participant observation. All in a film that clocks in at under 15 minutes. The qualities Lee imbued the film with – the performances, the camera angles, the use of perspective and sound – rendered an effective mood and execution. The result is a haunting film that stays with you. Despite that I first saw this film 15 years ago, it still holds up.
If you liked this one, check out Red Lines as well. My only wish is that we had more of Lee’s work on film. After wading through a river of shitty cinema (and I watched some really, really bad stuff this weekend), this is one of the keepers. In the meantime, there’s his novels to keep us company, and The Stay, which just came out. Well played, Mr. Lee. You gave us something that scared the crap out of me and has stayed with me for some time. Well played indeed.