Why I Love this Film
by BARBARA ST. CLAIR
Art in the City, Produced and directed by Cranston Cumberbatch and Jabaar Edmonds, Showing at Studio@620 on Tuesday, June 26
So, let me clear the air first. The production values of this film – at least the last time I saw it – are problematic. The camera work is rough, and the lighting unreliable. The sound track is challenging to listen to, as full as it is with car noise, street sounds, inconsistent sound levels, abrupt changes in ambiance. Everything an experienced (or well-funded) production team would manage for and avoid.
For a lesser film and a lesser story, these technical problems would be enough to drive even sympathetic audiences away, or perhaps prevent them from walking in the door, but that would be a mistake. The beauty of this jagged, scrappy film shines through its production issues. And, in some unlikely and unexpected way, its very roughness functions in service of the story it works so hard to tell.
The film, written and directed by Cranston Cumberbatch and Jabaar Edmonds, stars Cumberbatch as Danny, an emotionally troubled, homeless veteran. The filmmakers quickly establish his loneliness, his pain and his hunger, and over time also establish the depth of the trauma that is consuming him, without being heavy-handed in back-story or explanation.
The filmmakers also give Danny hope: first in the person of Sandy, a street-smart veteran of homeless survival played by Stephanie Joy Porto; second in his discovery of his budding skill as an artist; third in the landscape of murals throughout downtown St. Petersburg that Danny seems to use as touchstones as he struggles to overcome the pain that defines him; and finally, in the sympathetic and soulfulness of Cumberbatch’s acting and connection with his character.
In talking with Cumberbatch, (whose nonprofit Community Development and Training Center is a participant in the Creative Pinellas Arts Business Incubator) it becomes clear that he himself was transformed by playing his role.
“We had to get out there to the park before sunrise in the morning, so we could film the scenes where Danny wakes up and has to get out before the police come and roust him and the other homeless,” Cumberbatch says. “And so, I am lying there, and I am feeling afraid. Afraid of everything, even though I am there voluntarily. What if the police don’t know I’m an actor and they arrest me? What if someone hurts me or tries to steal our equipment? What if I don’t do the take right and we have to come back again and do it over?” Being a film shoot, of course they did.
“I spent months without getting a haircut,” he adds, “wearing the same clothes and not washing them, because they can’t be clean in one scene and dirty in another. When I pulled the food out of the garbage can–even knowing that it was clean, that we put it there ourselves–there was still that experience of reaching into the can and pulling out food that had been thrown away, and how it felt to understand that was what I had to eat. And that’s with knowing that I had hot food waiting for me at the end of the day, that once I got home I could take a shower and sleep in my own comfortable bed with my own sheets and covers, that no matter how afraid or distraught I might feel out on the street while we were filming, I actually was safe. And so it was like living in this halfway space, where I made the connection and understood, but I didn’t have to feel all of the pain. Just some of it.”
Cranston’s heart and connection with his character show up with tender power in his acting and in his aura on screen, as does that of his co-star Stephanie Joy Porto. However, she may have had the harder role because while Danny’s homelessness is clearly explained, a cause and effect of his particular history, Porto’s character Sandy’s presence is less certain. We know little of anything of her back-story or what is driving her character through most of the movie, which perhaps makes her performance all the more interesting. She likes Danny and we like her (she is one of those actors that the camera adores) but we don’t know why. That mystery and the warmth between her Sandy and Cranston’s Danny adds a touch of melancholy and hope to the story.
The other love interest in Art in the City is the mural art that is featured throughout. Many of the most emotional moments in the film are shot as tableaus isolating Danny, framed by a backdrop of a well-chosen mural by a St. Petersburg artist, as he struggles and eventually comes to terms with his internal demons. A story of redemption, the film makes the case for the healing power of art, and Cumberbatch and Edmonds do some very powerful work around this, well telling the parallel stories of Danny’s journey to health in a landscape full of art, and his internal journey to become an artist himself.
Like its protagonist, Art in the City is an imperfect creation. And like its hero, it is worth paying attention to.