By Ezra Stead
Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements, USA, 2008
Written and Directed by Daniel Schneidkraut
“This is not a film,” proclaims the opening title card of Daniel Schneidkraut’s Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements. “It is a video ritual. Watch and receive.” This unsettling (some would say pretentious) announcement is followed by an opening credits sequence that seems directly inspired by the diabolical French provocateur Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone, Irreversible, Enter the Void). Another apparent influence is the German filmmaker Michael Haneke (The Seventh Continent, Funny Games, The White Ribbon) – in fact, I would say this is second in line, after my beloved Dogtooth, for the title of Best Michael Haneke Film Michael Haneke Never Made – so clearly, this is a dark and twisted creation that could generously be described as “not for everyone.” That said, for fans of transgressive and artistic cinema, this is undoubtedly the Minneapolis-based independent feature I would recommend above all others, despite my more direct involvement in a few others (full disclosure: I am thanked in the credits for this one, though I had no idea of this fact until I finally saw the finished product and was never on set).
Seeking Wellness is, as suggested by its subtitle, a sort of anthology film divided into four distinct but interconnected vignettes. The first, “Cup of Friendship, Shrine of Scars,” could easily be a video installation played on a loop in an art gallery, provided said gallery had a strong taste for the sick and disturbing variety of art. Throughout its 17 minutes, the vignette plays out as a silent view of a hospital’s continually cycling security cameras; every few seconds, the view changes to another area of the hospital. Even with the segments narrative content, in which a gang of masked criminals forcibly enter and murder everyone in the ward for the ostensible purpose of robbing the hospital of its prescription drug supply, on paper this sounds like it would be boring. As it plays out, however, it is almost unbearably tense: just as the viewer peeks through his or her fingers to see what is going to happen to the heavily bandaged patient lying in a bed in one room, the camera’s view switches to another place, where we see only a stockpile of pill containers, for example. Then, just as we relax again for a moment, we are thrust right back into the mayhem as one of the masked men cuts the throat of a helpless patient, spraying blood across the adjacent wall. It is amazing the level of intensity and emotional involvement Schneidekraut creates within this milieu, using no music, dialogue, or even sound of any kind save the droning, compassion-less hum of room tone.
The transition into the second segment, “Daddy’s Time,” is seamless, effortlessly switching from the cycling security camera view to that of an equally transient still photo projector as Daddy (Charles Hubbell) relates increasingly disturbing family memories to his son and daughter (real-life siblings Aidan and Piper Sigel-Bruse, respectively) on Christmas morning before their mother (Tina Sigel) comes to pick them up. Daddy is clearly unstable, and the silence and apparent fear the children display is palpable. Hubbell’s performance is stellar, finding both the tragedy and the dark comedy of his character and relaying it to the audience fearlessly and with total credibility. The only stronger performance in the film is that of Brian Hesser as Patient 12 in the film’s third and best part, “Malignant Love,” a faux-documentary that chronicles a very unusual way of coping with the loss of a loved one. To reveal more about this extraordinary stand-alone short would be a crime; even if the rest of Seeking Wellness might prove a little too much for some audiences, this part is strongly recommended to anyone.
However, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, as the third part is actually bookended by the fourth, “Final Project,” in which a student played by Kamela Koehler expounds upon the emotional effect created by images. It is a rather obvious meta-commentary on what has come before, as well as what is to follow, an idea that is summed up in the film’s title and which would provide a convenient catch phrase for lazy detractors (“Suffering through four movements, indeed!”), and this part is undoubtedly the weakest of the film, though still intriguing. A second student presenter (Bethany Ford) is then introduced by the professor (Raymond P. Whalen), and it is she who shows “Malignant Love” to the class and, therefore, we the audience, as a document of the initial stages of her “final project.” After this film-within-a-film, we are returned to the classroom for a grotesque finale that shows another clear influence: Canadian body-horror master David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers). Again, it is better not to reveal too much here, but this final sequence displays very impressive makeup effects work by Crist Ballas, who has also worked on major Hollywood films such as End of Days (1999) and Star Trek (2009), as well as providing the culmination of the sick humor that has permeated the entire production.
Schneidkraut is a force to be reckoned with in the world of underground film, and Seeking Wellness is an inspired and uncompromising exploration of the depths of depravity and suffering. The film (sorry, video ritual) never shies away from utter darkness, but within these depths it finds surprising humor. In the interest of good conscience, I should reiterate that it’s not for everyone, but fellow sickos who enjoy the work of filmmakers like Noe, Haneke and Cronenberg should find it well worth their while. For more information, or to purchase a DVD and see this striking and consummately entertaining work of art for yourself, be sure to visit the extremely well-designed web site: http://seeking-wellness.com/
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.