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Sunyatta McDermott, Rilke Griffin and Marla Griffin in "A Variety of Mysteries"
In the Philosophy of Literature lectures later distilled into Reading Rilke, William H. Gass burned into my brain the concept of a “Journal of My Other Self.” That was the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s working title for his novel The Journals of Malte Laurids Brigge, but Gass left me deeply imbued with the possibility for anyone’s fictions to animate an alternate persona.
To Devin Devon’s credit, he has made a movie that made me think about this concept harder than I have since I watched Bill Gass strut around a Washington University lecture hall. Devon’s debut feature movie A Variety of Mysteries, which premieres 9:30 p.m. July 9 at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the 2012 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, is a tour de force in imagined fictive self as wish fulfillment.
Devon casts himself in a small role, but his self-positioning helps to signal the kind of movie he has made. His character is a hipster boutique store owner who drinks constantly on the job, which is not say he ever does anything in the shop that resembles work, and it’s redundant to say a character in this movie drinks constantly, because they all do (except the kid, and she has offers). Devon’s character’s sole occupation is to nurse a Guinness and watch under a beret, a boyish mop of frizzy hair, and lizardly eyelids as Sunyatta McDermott’s character plays dress up in cute costumes, drinks, twirls around, drinks, and confides in him.
Sunyatta plays Violet, the only real character in the movie (other than the City of St. Louis), though other local actors—Marla Hare Griffin, Marla’s daughter Rilke Griffin—get a fair amount of screen time and do well. The reality of the other characters is simply blotted out by the overwhelming atmosphere of wish fulfillment. A Variety of Mysteries is the journal of Devon’s other self, where he nurses a daytime buzz as the boss in a beret while dressing up Sunyatta and watching her dance, drink, dream, drink, play clavichord, drink, screen obscure silent movies with flowers in her hair, drink, and hug herself to sleep. A tipsy self-hug is all the further the carnal wish fulfillment action goes in this journal of another self, which is high-minded, chaste and respectful towards its star.
But Devon goes all the way in his love for St. Louis in all its bare beauty. His camera loves our city wildly, with abandon, without restraint or regret. As the annual filmmakers showcase has made evident, St. Louis is crawling with movie units and there are dozens of able directors and cinematographers each with their own mental lists of St. Louis locations tucked away, waiting for the right scene. No matter how much you think you know and love St. Louis, Devon has beat you to a gorgeous location or cityscape and he has taken the time to shoot a scene there at just the right time of day. A Variety of Mysteries is notable first for its Sunyatta fetishism, but it also should be remembered as local cinema’s first master statement of what Michael R. Allen and Claire Nowak-Boyd dubbed our native “Ecology of Absence.”
Most viewers will probably wish the filmmaker had gone in for a little less Ecology of Absence and Sunyatta fetishism, because the movie is too long at two hours and 25 minutes. There is something of a plot and the title tells us there are mysteries, though I personally never cared what happened next to these characters or had any sense of mystery. Yet the movie is always interesting to look at if you appreciate edgy female beauty or the aching landscape of an emptied city. I encourage people in our overlapping arts and urban preservation communities to go watch this movie at the Tivoli on July 9, but if it starts to drag on while you are bound to a theater seat, don’t hesitate to try it again in a different setting. I think A Variety of Mysteries can find a niche as something to play at parties and public events, where Devon’s fictive other self, his vivid dream of Sunyatta and our city, is one fascinating guest among many, to be visited and absorbed in fragments throughout a night of constant drinking.
The St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase opens July 8 and runs through July 12; tickets are $12 general admission and $10 for students with valid IDs. for more information, visit http://cinemastlouis.org/st-louis-filmmakers-showcase.