SFIFF60: In “Discreet”, Travis Mathews Locates Artisanal Trauma in Austin, TX

Directed and Written by: Travis Mathews
Starring: Jonny Mars, Joy Cunningham, Bob Swaffar, Atsuko Okatsuka, Jordan Elsass, João Federici
Produced by: Don Swaynos, Jonny Mars, Chris Ohlson, João Federici, Travis Mathews
Executive Produced by: Fred Daniel, Sarah Rippy
Co-produced by: Jonathan Duffy, Thomas Fernandes, Kelly Williams
Music by: Mark De Gli Antoni
Cinematography by: Drew Xanthopoulos
Editing by: Travis Mathews, Don Swaynos
Official Selection of the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival

*****
“Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them, pearly white
Just a jack-knife has MacHeath dear
And he keeps it way out of sight.”

*****

It always irritates me to see a filmmaker referred to as “brave” or “fearless,” especially when the writer or director in question is trafficking in broad-strokes universalism or some quasi-empathic social issue story. That said, it is one of the great pleasures of this line of work to see something that is aesthetically defiant, warped by vision and seemingly unafraid to push anything but its own narrative methodologies forward. To live up to one’s personal standard is, to me, truly courageous and altogether incredibly rare.

Such is the case with Bay Area filmmaker Travis Mathews, whose new fiction feature, Discreet, is a handsome and tantalizingly incoherent (by design) drama having its North American Premiere on April 8 at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.

When I saw Mathews’s Interior. Leather Bar. at its World Premiere at Sundance in 2013, it kicked off a dialogue between the filmmaker and I – not that he nor his collaborator on that project, James Franco, were aware of that – about the atlas of queer imagery in American film. Where are the boundaries around cinema when it comes to the depiction of male sexuality, intimacy, and social relationships? Who drew them, are they elastic, and how can visual technique and form be used to stretch them into a more complex globe of images?

Interior. Leather Bar. was so didactic on this subject, and, yes, provocative in its fusion of nonfiction and fiction elements that, like Mathews’s In Their Room docudramas, it made my atlas seem as incomplete as the map that got Columbus to North America under false premises.

Thankfully, it also served as my guide, intellectually, into Discreet, but I should be clear: rather than be neighbors in theme and aesthetic, these projects stand across from one another on distant poles. For one thing, the new film is a true-blue narrative, focusing on a quietly aggressive drifter (the incredible character actor Jonny Mars, slam-dunking this opportunity as a leading man) who decides to visit his aging childhood abuser.

For another, the movie was shot in and around Austin, TX, where the rural American South and all of its contemporary political resonances play essential roles. No surprise that SFIFF is screening it this weekend with Jay Rosenblatt’s Scared Very Scared, a seven-minute short billed as a “meditation on Trump’s America.”

And finally, for me, Discreet comes with years of expectation and hype since several of its co-producers, including PJ Raval, Jonathan Duffy, and Kelly Williams, and producer Don Swaynos, have all been interviewed on this site.

Luckily, I can say that Mathews has outdone himself visually in this new environment. Director of Photography Drew Xanthopoulos, an Austin resident and filmmaker in his own right of the upcoming Tribeca doc The Sensitives, captures the discombobulation that comes with exiting the city’s web of freeways and entering the flat Hill Country. With a series of slightly elevated or lower-than-center long shots, Xanthopoulos easily suggests the main character’s aggravated mania, and the jagged perception of someone who feels on top of the world one minute, disillusioned and hostile the next.

Color, too, is an important and beautifully captured element in his work here. In between illicit hook-ups at roadside sex shops, Mars’s wounded character, Alex (or is he named Don?) obsesses over ASMR videos taught by Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka, mesmerizing). Xanthopoulos and art director Dustin Shroff put her against a bright yellow fabric, itself somehow antithetical – so dissimilar as to suggest cognitive dissonance – in shade and vibe to the rest of the film.

From the first moment we see Mandy’s videos, the film seems to be trafficking in these elaborate contrasts: between vividness and haziness, happiness and misery, stability and psychic collapse. Xanthopoulos’s stunning footage, much of which takes place in dark or dreary homes or hotel rooms, captures this in highly sensitive, moody ways.

Another essential contribution to Discreet is the casting, which populates Mathews’s dangerous world with an inherent sliminess. As the subject of Alex’s vicious obsession, Bob Swaffar makes for an utterly scary villain called “John,” a tall and bearded man who looks like a starving Santa Claus. Swaffar’s is an entirely physical performance, but his jittery presence suggests a past littered with the unconscionable evils perpetrated on innocent country boys. Additionally key contributions come from producer João Federici, as Alex’s unsuspecting fuck-buddy, and Jordan Elsass as “Zach,” a young, confused man who Alex brings to meet John.

What comes of that arrangement is not for me to say – Mathews’s script requires a certain surprise, though it’s not precisely a thriller. Like Interior. Leather Bar. before it, more traditional pacing is eschewed for a rhythmic and highly deliberate editing structure (Mathews and Swaynos co-edited) that, in effect, cuts through the inevitability of audience predictions and guesswork. It seems strange to say, but in avoiding the classic neo-noir mystery structure, the film keeps us in a state of fragile confusion that actually helps Mathews’s shock tactics feel genuinely disturbing when deployed.

My instinct tells me that this was an intention of the filmmaker’s, since buried in Discreet are antagonisms against “queer murderer” stories from years past. Here, Mathews refuses to put the mantle of psychopathology on any of his characters, no matter their obsessions.

Consider that Interior. Leather Bar. partly recreated a missing sequence from Friedkin’s Cruising, in which Al Pacino’s “Steve Burns” went undercover to investigate the murderous world of S&M-loving gay men. With Discreet, Mathews again raises the specters of cause and choice, nature vs. nurture: to what effects, psychosomatic or physical, did John’s abuse impact Alex and perhaps others? Does Alex, like the Val Lauren character in Interior., have a split psychology when it comes to his sexuality? If so or if not, can we consider Discreet a queer film with any real precedent in the thriller genre?

Attendees of the SFIFF screenings will certainly appreciate this complex film’s art-house charms and its quality as an independent production, not to mention the general sex-friendly openness it cultivates without much fanfare (appropriately, the movie’s world premiere was in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section, where it competed for the Teddy Award.)

But if all this seems vaguely academic to you – and with a Masters in Counseling Psychology, Mathews remains among the most cunning and educated mischief-makers in independent cinema – rest assured that the filmmakers refuse to settle for an exercise in technical polish and queer gazing. It is a wild, exciting, and above all, fearless movie.

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