Los Angeles... January 2011. I walked up the steps that came off the street into the classic old hotel. It was the kind of place you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for it, and just the kind of place I’d expect writer/director Vitaly Sumin to be conducting a private screening of his new film, Notes from the New World. As I reached the top of the stairs I found myself facing the lobby; I nodded to the pretty desk clerk and proceeded up the next flight of stairs, then down a hallway until I reached the room…
Vitaly came to the door. I hadn’t seen him in several years. As we waited for the other screening guest, casting director Rich Crater, Vitaly provided the usual caveats that it was only a rough cut, that the soundtrack consisted of temp tracks, and so forth—the obligatory directorial downplaying of expectations.
After a call about parking, Rich showed up, the lights were turned off, curtains drawn, and the show began.
After the striking VM Productions logo came the opening shot — a woman ascending a flight of stairs from the train with a view of the sky. Immediately you knew you were in for some sort of a ride, perhaps involving spiritual elements.
A woman’s face, a quick flashback, conveying a sense of subtext to be revealed. Then a young man appears with a wild and fake beard carrying a sign, a would-be Dostoevsky. There’s a shot of a good-looking older guy filming the whole thing from an overpass above and barking instructions. Then a sort of halo appears above the young man as seen through the eyes of the young woman and she begins to follow him. We’re off and running. We don’t know what’s going on but we know we’re watching a film that will deal with issues of freedom, art, reality, artifice, passion, and of course, Dostoevsky. Vitaly later explains that this has all been the opening credit sequence.
The film follows the young bearded radical (Steven), who in turn is followed by the beautiful woman we first saw (Sonia). She’s apparently a Latina, but as we discover later, all is not what it seems. Steve removes the beard to reveal a handsome and hungry face. We also discover in short order that his place is wired for sight and sound as he’s observed by the older director we saw previously.
The story unfolds into a love story, a murder mystery, and a tale of multiple mistaken identities. But it’s all so integrated that it’s hard to pin down. The narrative isn’t established until the film his well underway. In my comments to Vitaly, I suggested that maybe a little more clarity might be helpful, to focus the broader mystery. I thought it could be achieved through a brief voice over and use of certain motifs in the yet-to-be-created musical score. As an artist, Vitaly embraces mystery and paradox, but in my estimation his vision can only be enhanced by a figurative establishing shot in the narrative. At the end of the day, though, this is an American-European film, with shades of Godard, Fellini, Cassavetes, and Carol Reed.
What struck me early on was the use of space and color, the latter particularly because I’d seen Vitaly’s previous film, Shades of Day, which for the most part is in black and white with splashes of color used in places for effect. While shot on high-def video, this very much feels like a film. There’s a clear color motif evident in Notes from the New World, and also an expansion of space that follows the expansion of and revelation of the characters.
Without going into the details of the character and story, which would require a treatise and would be hard to recapitulate based on one viewing, this film is a clockworks mechanism and a cinematic Mobius strip, full of surprises and twists and turns involving the story and the characters. And yet, all of the complexity is in the service of a singular vision, so it feels surprisingly unified. There were places where it was unclear exactly why a character was responding in a given manner; in our discussions it appeared that Vitaly either assumed that the audience would pick up on some subtlety, or else it was a deliberate piece of directorial prestidigitation. But we were here to observe and comment on a rough cut, and Vitaly seemed open to some of the suggestions within the purview of his directorial prerogative.
Underpinning the story was a certain existential humor, captured in momentary bursts but always under the surface for those who were attentive. I suggested to Vitaly that this aspect of the film might need to be delineated through editing, sound design etc. In that regard, I referenced About Schmidt, the film starring Jack Nicholson from a few years back.
The acting in the film was first rate; clearly Vitaly and Rich Crater had taken great care with the casting process.
There were multiple character arcs, and some fascinating characters. Along with the aforementioned Sonia, Steven, and Bob, these include Irina, who Steven had chosen to be his leading lady, Michelle, Bob’s beleaguered lover and assistant, and Sonia’s Russian mafia cohorts. Once again, no one is exactly what you might think, much like in real life; as with his previous work, Vitaly shows himself to be a great progenitor of the idea of film itself as metaphor. Even with this not-so-rough rough cut, Rich Crater and I were quite astonished at the quality, sweep, and complexity of this film. It stayed with me as I descended the staircase and walked out into the sunny day.