I suspect that most up and coming American filmmakers would love to make a road movie. While it isn't an exclusively American genre (see Wim Wenders, et. al.) the road movie's natural breeding ground is the system of sprawling highways and byways that connect America's distant coasts. The road movie also isn't weighed down by as much generic formula. Goals usually prove fleeting and illusory, and the journey (always more important than the destination) can be as circuitous as the nation's state routes and back roads allow.
This is fertile ground for filmmakers who are skeptical of or uncomfortable with rigidly structured, obstacle-based narratives. Find your rudderless character a good car (or even a bad one) and point him or her west or east (better than north/south for mythic reasons) and see where they wind up.
Protagonists in road movies are either escaping from something or searching for something. Linas (writer/director/star Linas Phillips) is doing both. Inertia has overwhelmed Linas' life in Seattle. Sleeping on his friend's couch (until he gets kicked out) and trying to maintain a relationship with a "girlfriend" (co-writer Davie-Blue) who lives with her real boyfriend, Linas can only think of one option: Go East. He has no real reason to do so but "east" equals "not here" which means it offers some indeterminate hope, the potential of the unknown versus the crushing tedium of the known. So he sets out looking for… whatever.
Driving a chopped down 1976 VW van so lacking in oomph that its motor probably can't even be measured in horsepower, the dispirited Linas limps out of town on a journey that consists largely of a series of non-descript motel rooms and gas station pit stops. Desperate to assuage his loneliness, Linas strikes up conversations with women in bars, but doesn't find a true companion until an enigmatic stranger named Jim (co-writer Jim Fletcher) plants himself in the passenger seat one day, and kicks the film into an unorthodox riff on the buddy movie.
Travel to multiple locations usually means bloated budgets, but the proliferation of cheap digital filmmaking has made the road movie a viable option even for virtual no-budget filmmakers. "Ass Backwards" was a two-person production for much of the shoot: just Phillips and cinematographer Sean Porter. Some scenes were fully scripted, but most were improvised, and Phillips asked people at each new location to act in his movie. Porter's handheld camera (flowing, but not too jerky) sometimes gives the impression of a documentary recording of Linas' trip, but there's never a doubt that this is a fiction feature.
To my sensibility, the film is at its most successful when Linas is alone on the road, chewing up miles and watching the roadside scenery roll by. Driving is such a naturally cinematic endeavor (watching a moving landscape through the frame of your window or windshield) that it makes for great viewing all by its lonesome. Linas doesn't seem particularly interested in stopping to see the country's more visually arresting sights, and the film doesn't use enough long takes to convey the full majesty of a cross-country drive (though it does capture the slow-grind of it) but there are still some beautiful stretches for the viewer to soak in.
Any rough patches in the film are covered up by the extraordinary original score by Lori Goldston and Tara Jane O'Neil. The moody, repetitive, high-reverb guitar track is highly reminiscent of Neil Young's masterful "Dead Man" score. You might even call it derivative, but if you're going to be inspired, you might as well be inspired by the best. The rich, pulsating score fills the film's empty spaces with an energy that sometimes eclipses the visuals, and makes "Bass Ackwards" worth watching all by itself.
I was somewhat less compelled by the sequences with Jim. Fletcher is a fine actor (he comes out of the experimental theater scene, as does Phillips) but this eccentric subplot borders on indie preciousness at times, and their friendship feels forced for the sake of convenience rather than an organic development.
Nonetheless, "Bass Ackwards" is a sincere take on the contemporary road movie that balances humor and melancholia while tracing its moody, sensitive trip. And it's a trip worth taking.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image resolution is fairly strong though the transfer looks slightly underlit in several scenes: shadows lack sharpness. Overall, it's a solid effort.
The DVD is presented with both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound tracks. The 5.1 mix doesn't add much to the experience and I'd recommend the 2.0. The dialogue is clearly mixed, and the score is full and resonant. No subtitles are offered which is a problem when you're listening to the commentary.
The film is accompanied with a commentary track by Phillips, Porter, Davie-Blue and critic Michael Tully.
The disc also includes a "Making of" Featurette (16 min.) and 21 minutes of Deleted Scenes plus a Trailer.
I'm a sucker for a good road movie, and writer/director/star Linas Phillips' "Bass Ackwards" fits the bill. The wonderful score by Lori Goldston and Tara Jane O'Neil is also one of the more pleasant surprises I've experienced from a DVD release in quite some time.
"Bass Ackwards" was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was made available immediately by VOD and DVD-on-Demand in late January 2010. This full-retail DVD release (Street Date 6/29/10) presents the film with a commentary track and a few extras.