Sunday, September 1, 2019

Dave Made a Maze (2017).

Meet Dave (Nick Thune).  How does one describe someone like Dave?  There's no real outstanding feature about him.  He's just a regular guy living in an apartment complex with his live-in girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).  The worst part is Dave is not some isolated loner.  He's got an active social life with plenty of friends.  In fact, one of Dave and Annie's closest acquaintances is Harry ( James Urbaniak), a documentary filmmaker.

With all this neat stuff happening all around him, Dave must have a lot of things worth doing, right?  At least that's probably how a normal person would handle it.  Don't misunderstand, Dave's very normal.  He so ordinary he qualifies as wall-paper.  That's sort of the problem.  In a world full of stuff happening, Dave somehow never manages to find out what to do with himself in all of it (his to-do-list includes: "Finish Concept Album.  Make Ultimate Sabbath Mix", and "Fix Front Door").  He's never made a real contribution anywhere, and he can't figure out where to begin.  To say Dave sort of has an inferiority complex about his troubles is a bit like saying Niagara Falls runs downhill.  The thing is Dave would like to be able to say there is at least something out there, in the world, that he can say he has achieved or accomplished with any kind of professional pride.  It's just that he can't figure out what that is.

One day, out of the blue, Dave had an idea.  He would try and build the world's greatest maze.  Right here, in the middle of his apartment.  He would just start from somewhere at random, and build on from there.  It sort of helps that Annie was away for the week, otherwise none of what happened next would be possible.  Dave built his maze alright.  He finally did something.  There is one minor setback, however.  You see once Dave got started, he didn't much of any ground-plan, or layout in mind.  He really just seems to have gone wherever his thoughts took him from one moment to the next.  He must have had some idea for an exit.  Though maybe he can't quite remember where it is, what happened to it, or if it even existed in the first place.  Dave made a maze right in the middle of his own living room, and now he's stuck there with no clear idea of how to get out.  The worst part is that somewhere along the way Dave made an unsettling realization.  He's not alone inside the maze.  And whatever it is that's stalking him, it's hungry.

It grows on you.

Perhaps it's a mistake to call this film an original concept.  There are a lot of moments where I can watch a scene and think, "Oh this bit is a lot like that painting by Dali, or this one is straight out of Jim Henson".  It does seem like the spirit of the late, great Muppet master hangs over the film's runtime like a guiding thread.  In it's approach to it's own narrative, visuals, and effects, none of the elements of director Bill Watterson's creation would be out of place on the Muppet Show stage.  The good news is that Watterson isn't willing to phone things in.  Instead, he is able to use his inspiration as legitimate jumping off points as a means to finding his own voice.

The basic setup is roughly something out of a fairy-tale.  A Daedalus style figure constructs an edifice which is equal parts prison, death-trap, and work of art.  The twist Watterson adds is to ask  what would happen if Daedalus inadvertently locked himself up in his own deadly artwork while in the throws of creation.  How would he get out?  The premise itself is simple, and a riff on old motifs and tropes.  Therefore the real question is how successful is the storyteller at filling in these ancient formulas?

Let's start with Daedalus himself.  Dave, as he is known in this iteration, is, like everything else, a riff on an old artistic concept.  Watterson's creative choice was see what would happen if a creative genius of ancient myth was refitted as a contemporary loser.  There's a slacker charm to Dave's character that is always hiding a surprising, and perhaps dangerous amount of ambition.  "Do you know how long it took me to make this?", he complains at one point, "You can't just make me tear it down because it works".  Earlier on, he opines, "I built something because I wanted to build something.  And I know that if I could finish it, it would just be great."  Dave sounds like he's telling a half-truth in these moments.  He wanted to build something, that's honest so far as it goes.  His issue is he wanted a place where he could hide away from the world in such a way that any problems that came his way would be dispatched without his having to do anything about it. That's a real callous way to face one's problems.  As even Dave admits, "I might be responsible for the people that died...And if I am...Then I'm sorry."

The curious part is how he seems to mean it.  Usually in this type of story what would happen is that Dave's character would be portrayed as this callous emotionally frozen man, and the film would be his slow spiral into madness as the maze becomes the only real thing for him.  That's not how this version goes.  Instead, Watterson is willing to treat his Daedalus figure in more likable, human terms.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that despite creating a monstrosity, Dave is no real Frankenstein at heart.  I suppose the best way to describe the character of Dave is that he's like blank slate wanting to be filled in.  This creative choice does not hurt the movie, as it is Dave's personal development that drives the film's narrative. 

Dave claims he started from the center and works his way out from there.  As plans go, this one just begs the question of where the builder thought he was going.  The answer is obvious when you realize Dave doesn't really have anywhere to go.  As his friend Gordon (Adam Busch) explains: "You know, he gets all fired up about stuff, but he never finishes anything.  At least he followed through this time".  Put that all together and you have this picture of an early 21th century slacker who still has a lot to learn about responsibility for himself as well as others.

Part of what helps Dave out here is Annie.  As portrayed by Kumbhani, Annie comes off as the most grounded member of the cast.  She is almost the first person the film introduces us to and we follow her first through a momentary bewilderment giving way to an all too familiar form of annoyance with her partner.  When she begins to discover that  the usual responses won't do, and that she may be dealing something otherworldly, she still remains the most grounded and is the consummate realist always trying to keep her head, even when she finds herself somehow turned into a puppet, with no clue if that's how she'll have to spend the rest of her life ("We're not even human anymore!").  Despite this, and perhaps against her better judgment, Annie is just there for the poor helpless sap.

One of the other nice touches of the film is Urbaniak's documentarian, Harry.  Technically, he's a minor role, and he doesn't do much, yet he's one of the those side characters who are always a constant delight to watch if done right.  Even when being chased by what may be a Minotaur, all he can think about is whether he's a getting a good shot and enough footage to go along with it.  He even makes use of the maze's geography at one point to help capture a conversation between Dave and Annie, and at another insists on trying to make sure Annie's appearance on-screen doesn't reduce her to a stereotype.  

The outer shell of the labyrinth itself is interesting.  A first inspection displays a larger than life version of one of those elementary school projects that were always slapped together with cardboard and paste.  This somewhat enchanting facade takes on a sinister note when a closer understanding reveals it's shape to be that of an industrial Dickensian sweatshop.  Is it just possible that this outer design is a reflection of how Dave sees life and the world at large, as one giant factory ready to swallow the individual whole?  It's a subtle element in a much larger canvas, yet is one of those minor touches that often wind up helping the tone of the film more than anything else.

Another thing that makes the film work here is there's also half a sitcom element going on.  The interactions of the characters resemble a very surreal episode of Friends as the characters try and sort out their personal relationships.  There is a scene in particular between the two main leads near the end that takes place at the heart of the labyrinth.  It is at this moment that Watterson allows his film to go into it's most surreal and abstract mode of narrating.  It is true that the whole film qualifies as a surrealist project.  However Watterson seems to have an instinctive grasp of what his audience can tolerate without mentally checking out of the proceedings and going for their iphones.  Up till then, every moment in the film has followed a traditional beat as the story progresses, with chase sequences, sight gags, and the like.  The pivotal scene, on the other hand, is where Watterson decides to let a series of abstract, yet graspable images become the narrative.  Deciding whether or not this choice works will depend on how the mileage varies for each viewer.  They worked for me because I understood that Watterson was trying to make a point about the way in which human beings let the drudgery of daily life sabotage their own ability to live with any meaning.  It's this element of comedy that Watterson uses to help keep things grounded as the fantasy element and it's stakes continue to grow around the cast.  If there is a spell or element of enchantment to the movie, then it's a plot device that Watterson never bothers to explain.  This can be a creative risk if the storyteller has no real clear vision of his narrative or where it's going. Luckily, Watterson is much more capable than that.

In this regard, Watterson can be accused of trying to channel Beckett at second hand.  The trouble is I came away nodding from it all because the symbolism was clear enough to understand.  Therefore I'm okay with giving his choice for a narrative denouement a pass.  As I said before, the script may not be original.  The difference is I'm not so sure it has to be in order to accomplish what it set out to do.  It's a film about growing up and accepting responsibilities in the outside world, while at the same time learning to tell the difference between real life and the rat race

All this leads to the question of just what kind if film is Watterson showing to the viewers?  In an interview, the director is quoted as saying: "I wanted to explore the mad fantasy worlds and heightened realities of a Labyrinth or a Legend, but to see that journey taken by foul-mouthed adults rather than a band of plucky tweens (web)".  I suppose that's as good a description of the film's m.o. as we're likely to get.  It does seem like it hits the truth of the matter, anyway.

The type of films Watterson refers to are unique in that they each share a common origin point.  There is an aspect to a lot of 80s fantasy films that owes its entire look and feel to experimentation of the 1960s.  The idea that the past is something to learn from seems to be an unpopular idea at the moment.  So it's not surprising to realize that a lot of millennial have no clue that the 60s were something like a second artistic Renaissance in both America, the UK, and Europe.  A lot the traditional molds and forms were not so much broken as transmuted, fashioned, and recast into new directions and avenues.

There may be some who would try to pass off a lot of these innovations as due to a constant, rampant drug use in the era.  However that's more of an easy out for a kind of lazy thinking that refuses to consider the content that's right there in the historical records.  The truth is a lot of young people were coming of age, and many of these minds held a genuine and surprising amount of talent.  This was coupled with a generational shift that was ready for something beyond the conformity of the Pre-World War II generation.  It is just possible that a latent desire to avoid the mistake of the older generation is what drove a lot of the artistic talents to try and take their respective mediums and see how far they could go with them.  Besides which, the ironic fact is it's hard to make anything look so weird and yet professional at the same time while riding higher than a kite.

The result was the cornucopia of literature, TV, and cinema that defined the look and feel of that decade.  Whether it was Patrick McGoohan or the Smothers Brother breaking the rules of what you could do on television, or Roger Corman and Stanley Kubrick trying to the bring the sensibilities of the Counter-Culture to the silver screen, the artists of the 60s were ready to experiment with the art of story.  It is this same sensibility that I think Watterson is tapping into on a semi-conscious level.

A key to the director's method is that of basic Surrealism.  It was an artistic method that was ideal and congenial during the 60s because of it's open-minded approach toward storytelling.  In many ways I can't help regarding it as what happens when you take the older creative doctrines of the Romantic Movement and update them for modern times.  This updating could have been facilitated with advent of modern psychology.  The revelation that the human imagination can sometimes generate an entire world of make-believe in a dream state is an idea that holds a central place in this particular artistic setting.  In particular a heavy emphasis is placed on the use of the logic of dreams.

It is this style or narrative method that Watterson is willing to use in the service of his story.  It's also a trait his work shares with those same 80s fantasies the director claims as inspiration.  It's when it comes to this specific example of a cited influence that one has more than a little trouble finding the right words.  The fantasy films of the 1980s are almost a phenomenon unto themselves.  Their existence, in a manner of speaking, is a fact.  However their influence and impact are so widespread now that most of us don't even know where to start.  I think a lot of this is down to having a favorite among a rich crop, and then having that film be something like a constant background noise in your life.  It's very ubiquity is so much of a shaping influence that you sometimes forget that it's there.  When you do remember it, you realize how little thought has been given to something that has exerted that kind gravitational pull in your life.

When I think of those films, the first thing I'm brought back to is a time and place.  I'm always reminded of either my grandparents old barrio house, or else the way my own neighborhood looked back in the years before Bush the Elder assumed the throne.  That's the mental spell these films have cast on an entire generation of imaginations.  The trouble is it only scratches the surface.  Beyond the impact on our minds, there remain the films themselves, and what they are and mean, for good or ill, as works of art.

In terms of Watterson's film, I am willing argue that a lot of those old movies did have a kind of submerged, surrealistic strand to their storytelling.  A lot of them would have sequential leaps in logic that would carry the viewer from one narrative moment to the next, sometimes with little in the way of explanation.  The curious factor here is to consider what made these creative choices work when they did, and why others can come off as abysmal failures?  The trouble is we've entered a grey area where the individual viewer's mileage can vary from one film to the next.  Still, most would be willing to agree, when these surrealist artistic choices worked, they fit right in without missing a beat.

This is the logic that Watterson goes with in Dave Made a Maze.  The maze itself is less of an actual location that it is a reflection of the protagonist's inner turmoil, with the convoluted and shifting hallways symbolizing both his insecurity and lack of direction.  Under this narrative logic questions that would otherwise sound absurd, such as whether it's correct to say that the main character hasn't so much made a maze as somehow managed to enter his own head, become acceptable for a given amount surrealism.  This is the language of symbolism and not realism.  Indeed, Watterson's whole approached is marked out by a genuine anti-realist stance as far as narrative plausibility is concerned.  This approach can be either bold and creative or immature and short-sighted depending on the talent on display.  It is possible that there will be many viewers unable to follow Watterson's cast down the particular rabbit hole created by their maker.  However, those who keep an open and artistically curious frame of mind are in for pleasantly weird treat.


  1. This sounds really wild!

    Sorry for the lame comment, I usually don't comment on stuff I haven't seen/ read. But this was an intriguing write-up.

    1. It is definitely something I can recommend. You just have to have the proper mindset that doesn't mind going off on weird tangents in order to enjoy it.


  2. I'd never even heard of this movie, but it sounds interesting.

    1. Some may claim that it's tying to be art house. I think it's more best described as a slacker fantasy similar, almost, to Bill and Ted.