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Order Hysteria on DVD direct from Vertical Pool

dvd review:
Director: Antero Alli
Studio: Vertical Pool

reviewed by Jesse Walker

March 11 , 2004 | For over a decade, Antero Alli has been writing and directing deeply personal movies on a shoestring and screening them up and down the West Coast. He's usually unwilling to release his efforts on video or DVD, on the grounds that his art is best realized on a big screen and in a theater, among "a group of virtual strangers gathering in a dark and cavernous space to witness visions through a big window into another time, another place."

Hysteria is an exception. First publicly projected in 2002, the movie was released on DVD in February 2004. "It seems to work on the small screen," Alli explains, "maybe better than the large screen." Furthermore, "I'm acting on a moral impulse to get this vision out there now." Hold that thought.

Hysteria opens with an hallucinatory sequence in Croatia in 1991, then jumps to Oakland, California, ten years later. A boxer named Ikar (Jakob Bokulich, who wrote the film with Alli) is haunted by two apparent encounters with the Virgin Mary, once as a boy and once as a soldier in the Balkan wars. He moves next door to two Iranian-American sisters, Marion (Atosa Babaoff) and Peri (Anastasia Vega). Peri left New York shortly after September 11; she is self-absorbed, estranged from her parents, and attracted to her Croatian neighbor.

The ghost of 9/11 haunts the movie, though not in the way audiences might initially expect. One of the first things Peri says onscreen is that "the war makes me horny"; a few seconds later, she declares that the attacks turned New York into "the world's biggest fuckfest." It's an effective introduction to her hedonistic character and it helps establish when the story is taking place, but viewers might be forgiven for assuming that it's simply a background detail. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that terror has a more intimate foothold in these three people's lives. This terrorism is not Islamic and is not tied to an organized conspiracy; what it has in common with the September 11 attacks is its roots in fundamentalist certainty.

Alli has created a visually engaging movie, a work that treats digital video's distinctive look as a tool rather than a limitation. Ikar's encounters with the Virgin Mary have the spooky, charged quality of a Day of the Dead diorama or a mad roadside painter's apocalyptic visions. The sequences set in the more mundane world have the immediacy of a home movie. Chris Odell's editing adds a certain sense of isolation by putting small spaces between the lines each character speaks; it's as though we're watching one person assimilate (or not assimilate) what the other has said before enunciating a line of her own. The haunting score, some of it composed and most of it performed by the director's wife Sylvi Alli, feels ancient and modern at the same time.

Hysteria is by no means a perfect effort. There are small glitches here and there: a moment out of focus, a short lapse in the sound quality. More vexing is another aftereffect of 9/11: It's too polemical, too willing to preach to us directly when the climax comes rather than simply let its ideas emerge from the events. This is related, I suspect, to Alli's mission "to get this vision out there now."

Which is a shame, because it's a vision that's otherwise quite compelling. Ikar reenacts the myth of Icarus by flying, figuratively speaking, too close to the sun. But Hysteria does not resolve itself the same way as its classical predecessor, and it leaves us with the possibility of forgiveness and a distinctly heretical sort of salvation. The story is, at root, a meditation on two lines from the film, the first spoken by Ikar and the second by the equally well-named Marion: "Everyone wants to believe that they have some special purpose on earth" and "If you want anything resembling the truth, especially these days, you need about a half a dozen sources just to sort it out." The first thought proves more cynical, and the second more philosophical, than they initially sound.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).








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