| project: Shifter
77mins 2000, 73mins 2006.

Watch it here

Shifter's life is a mess. His flatmates play "horrible un-music" and drink all the milk. He can't talk to his ex without arguing. He can't get his answerphone messages. His new flat is a tip, and he's having nightmares about killer rabbits, but it gets worse... The second digital feature from the Wellington, New Zealand based Gordon Productions collective, Shifter is a paranoid black comedy about how the world is really out to get you...

Television art show Backchat called this film egrecious, it really offended the show's producer Gorden Harcourt's cultural sensibilities.

In response The Listener, New Zealand's semi-critical magazine got behind Shifter, and the slanging match between the two cultural powers got the film weeks of publicity.

Producer and DOP Campbell Walker said this about Shifter:
Shifter was a strange film to make. It was really cheap and weirdly ad hoc, and it's one of my favourites of the Aro Valley films. I shot it, except for the scenes I'm in, and Diane recorded the sound, except for the scenes she's in. She's in a lot of scenes - Whitey, the character she plays was supposed to be played by Richard Whyte, who couldn't make it - so for those scenes I was walking around the house holding the camera in one hand and the boom in the other. After his disturbingly convincing turns at emotional evasion in this and Uncomfortable Comfortable before (Dir Campbell Walker, 1999) Colin was starting to get people not really wanting to talk to him so much any more. We got this a lot with these films - some of these performances were sufficiently good that people didn't really want to believe that a bunch of unauthorised filmmakers with no money could have achieved them, so they tended to assume the actors were just playing themselves.

- Scenes from the Aro Valley Programe notes, Paramount Cinema, April, 2006.

Vancouver International Film Festival
Programme 2000

During the first ten minutes of Shifter, which has a man moving apartments due to awkward roommate relations, the casual viewer is bound to ask: Who left his home video camera running, and why am I sitting in a movie theatre watching the live feed? But as the events accrue, and our eponymous, engaging and elusive lead lives several days in his ordinary/extraordinary life, one's initial listlessness gives way to perverse fascination, as the slightest event, be it an odd dream or the spilling of a cup of coffee, takes on epic proportions. What emerges is an endless loop of unlocatable anxiety, as Shifter's interactions with his ex-girlfriend,neighbour and a girl he tries to pick up in a bar, all fail to explain his ontological discomfort; his quest, in this way,becomes universal.
A self-contained slice of in medias res existence, Shifter captures the spaces in between with unpolished exactitude.A minimalist aesthetic made disjointed by a probing hand-held video camera and harsh jump cuts, the film is both a conceptual innovation and an open narrative. To quote his character, director Colin Hodson just tells us how it happens: Shifter feels like a recorded version of a normal life that could be fictionalised into a 'real' feature film. He gives us no background information and lets us discover meaning as it arises. Questions are raised, and left hanging - the result is an interpretive mine field. Wholly improvised over several days and produced for a grand total of $110.00, Shifter is the closest that film gets to real life, and shows that the alienated cinema of the Pacific rim stretches as far south as New Zealand. Walking a very narrow tightrope between dreadful and brilliant, Hodson and his crew never fall off.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2000

Shifter (New Zealand)
Directed & Starring Colin Hodson 

When this video-verite plays the Blinding Light (BLT) on next Thursday, people will be excused if they confuse the evening with BLT's own BYO8 night, where locals bring in their own home movies, super8 monster movies and film school wank. Shifter is a slice of slacker life that makes the Blair Witch thingy feel like Waterworld. Improvised and shot over the course of a week, Shifter cost a stupefying $110.00. You get far more than your money's worth, or their money's worth I guess. The story is of Shifter (played by director Colin Hodson) as he moves out of one flat, and away from 2 of those roommeates who drink all your milk, put your cd's on the floor, turn on horrible un-music and then leave the room, and into a friend's sister's dump of an apartment.

There's all the standard slacker elements: the lesbian friend who is contantly explaining that she just wants to be friends, the ex-girlfriend who he has a real repartee with but also has that need to fuck that up. What makes Shifter eminently watchable though is the verite performance of Director Hodson as Shifter. Sure he's a layabout and a bit of a case but he's very likeable. You want him to do well.

After one day of the festival this is the find of the fest for me. I only went çause I happened to be be close by and there was no line-up. This is a good way to go I think...

- The Almost Daily Report from the 19th Annual Vancouver Film Festival www.terminalcity.com

The Stranger
by Federico Monsalve

Sit down and out it in neutral. Cross your arms and don't touch the brake. Just let it roll down the Wellington hills; slowly flow pass the faces you've come to expect; crash into the pubs you frequent, and be ready to be enveloped in that tense and uncomfortable lethargy of being aimless, ordinary and unemployed.

From the beginning Shifter manages to capture, slowly and with a marked simplicity, the existential nuisances of a 20 something who is, to say the least, not at ease with his surroundings.

The movie follows Shifter (Colin Hodson who also directed the movie) through an array of mundane and seemingly unimportant events. He drives his girlfriend (Samara McDowell) around town, flirts with the charming Misty, pulls some pretty moody stunts with former flatmates and friends, and just flutters around without a place to go or any desire for permanence.

Shifter is a character full of strangeness, and kind of disconcerting says Colin. And that he is. The movie accomplishes to reflect and instigate those strange tensions through a series of failed relationships, uncomfortable silences where even a fly bumping against a window takes more attention than Shifter himself, and photographic improvisations that are reminiscent of the Dogma group.

Shifter is a daring film of well-crafted tensions, unassuming dialogue and a plot that is, for the most part, so commonplace that it is easy to relate to.

In the high art, hard cash dominated repertoire of the Wellington Film Festival, movies that pride themselves on spontaniety rather than perfection, and resourcefullness rather than big bucks are very welcome exceptions. And even though Gordon Productions has not yet mastered the oh-so-difficult technique of blurring concept and practice into a true new realist art form... the prospect is quite promising.

City Voice, July 20th 2000

One from cult classic pictures, another from gordon productions: shifter and the shirt 
by Lawrence McDonald

One cannot help noticing that something is happening in the cinema at the moment. Our sensibilities have been in danger of getting blunted by those everyday films which, year in year out, show their tired and conventional faces to the world. -Alexandre Astruc (1948)

In the fifteen month period since the premiere screening of Uncomfortable Comfortable at the New Zealand Film Festival, the low budget feature film shot and finished on video has been gaining ground steadily as an increasingly viable option for young (and not so young) New Zealand film makers. At the time Uncomfortable Comfortable recieved post-production funding from Creative New Zealand's Screen Innovation Production Fund, it was the only feature-on-video application. In the three rounds since then, the number of feature applications has been increasing markedly - two in July the 1999, four in the February 2000 round, eight in the July 2000. Finally, out of the eight feature submissions in the July 2000 round, three recieved funding, making them the first features to be funded as full productions by Creative New Zealand. Although neither of them asked for nor recieved any more money than is normally allocated to individual short films, their makers all declared their intentions of making them on, essentially short film budgets. The video feature wave is gathering momentum and there are some who will ride it even in the absence of any funding whatsoever. Even as I write there are several of these features in the process of being made. It could well be that we have reached the point where Alexandre Astruc's dream of La Camera-Stylo is beginning finally to become something of a local reality. Not simply because the cheapness and accessibility of (digital) video technology is enabling aspirant feature film makers to dispense with the road map offered by the local film industry. But also because these film makers are using their opportunities to explore different territories and subject matters, thereby expanding the range and scope of local film possibilities.

Two films which are, in their differring ways, part of this trend are The Shirt, and Shifter. They are both recognisably Wellington films, both recieved premiere screenings to enthusiastic Wellington audiences, and both were made on extremely low-budgets. Shifter is Gordon Productions' follow up to Uncomfortable Comfortable, and was directed by the co-star of that film, Colin Hodson, for the princely sum of $2610 (shot for $110, post-produced for $2500). Cult Classic Pictures' The Shirt, scripted and produced by Ross Bevan for $10,000 according to one source, $30,000 according to another, is unusual for this kind of film in being directed by John Laing, a veteran of the mainstream New Zealand film industry. What follows is a set of obeservations about the various strenghts and shortcomings of these two films.

My first encounter with the fictional world of The Shirt came in the form of a short film of the same name first screened at the 1999 Wellington Film Festival. Mildly appalling and irritating in its casual callousness,The (short) Shirt had the misfortune to be placed in front of I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous, Gaspar Noe, France, 1998), for me the standout film of the festival. By the time the credits of this extraordinary , brutalist neo-Godardian assault on the senses had faded I was left, in the words of a blurb on the case of the recent video release, "gasping for breath". An elephant had just rolled over me so I'd quite forgotten about the mouse that had tried to roar before it. Centred on an incident in which the protagonist Marty (Graham Steele) batters a smack dealer (Brian Serjent) to death with his own iron after he takes offence at the dealer accidentally burning a mark onto his shirt, the short film suffered badly from the lack of a context for this action. It is the missing context which the feature lenght film provides and which makes it vastly superior to the short.

The incident which takes all 12 minutes of the short film has been cut back considereably in the feature and involves only Marty (now played by Sarjent) and the dealer (Marty's girlfriend appeared in the earlier of the scene). It works now as an integrated part of the central character's story rather than as a kind of drawn-out, over-extended bad joke. The short film version of the scene was directed by Danny Mulheron, a director who specialises in crude humour and facile PC-baiting. The feature benefits from the presence of John Laing who directs the scene in a much more concise, straightforward and functional manner as part of a larger story.

The Shirt divides conveniently but uneasily into two parts, the sum of which hopes to be a "junky thriller". The first and clearly superior part concentrates on the junky half of the would-be hybrid. Set entirely within the confines of a characterless Roseneath apartment - the 'action' only occassionally punctuated by the ongoing detective work of two policemen (Jeffrey Thomas and Marshall Napier) - this part unflatteringly puts the behaviour of four characters under the microscope: Marty, his girlfriend Gina (Kirsty King-Turner), his mother (Irene Wood), and his mate Nick (Jeffrey Szusterman). The world of Marty, Gina, and Nick revolves around one thing and one thing only - heroin and how to get it. Serjent especially, in a very funny performance which captures every tic and nuance of his habit's constant craving, lays bare the looped nature of a one-dimensional lifestyle grounded in monomania. Other films have started out wanting to expose the shortcomings of the junky life but have ended up recycling versions of its decadent charms. Not so The Shirt, a genuine study of the crushing banality of the needle. The whining, numbing exchanges which take place between these characters inside a limited number of claustrophobic rooms leave the viewer in no doubt that junkies must be strong contenders for the title of most boring people on the planet. Between them Bevan, Serjent, and Laing have (re)constructed an unvarnished and unlovely portrait of a typical junky's world and to have done this alone is a considerable achievement.

If only it had ended there or found a different way to occupy and justify its feature length. But no, Marty's murder of the dealer with his own iron triggers a series of events which constitute the 'thriller' element of the film. Thriller, however, is something of a misnomer here. Part two dies not so much resemble a Hitchcockian or any other kind of thriller but rather a routine police teledrama. As two anonymous hitmen set about their grim business of rubbing out our three helpless and hapless junkies - a rather redundant exercise as they're all effectivley dead anyway - the film suddenly changes into from a smacked up version of The Royle Familyi  into a cut price version of  Get Carter. All that remains at the end is for (the excellent) Jeffrey Thomas and Marshall Napier to conduct the usual police post-mortem.
So, because the The Shirt succumbs to formula in its second part it fails as a "junky thriller". But, as I've argued, it has already achieved enough in its first part for this not to matter too much. This is because for a very small amount of money it had given a few Wellington professionals (the actors Brian Serjent and Jeffrey Thomas; the director John Laing) more meaningful work on screen than they've had for some time; and furthermore it has provided a proper and more fitting introduction to the local film scene for Ross Bevan who has announced his intention of writing and producing more screenplays.

The end credits of Shifter state that it "was filmed entirely on location in an urban environment, somewher". But like the first (Roseneath) part of The Shirt, what little action there is in Shifter mostly happens inside flats in Wellington's Aro Valley. Shifter is immediately recognisable as the work of the same production team that gave us Uncomfortable Comfortable, at last year's Film Festival. Again, an improvisational base, long takes, minimal plot and maximal character interaction predominate. Except that the basically two-handed interactions of Uncomfortable are here replaced by a single protagonist interacting with a series of more or less (mostly less) significant others.
Colin Hodson (Shifter) once again takes a lead role in addition to directing and editing the film. It is interesting to compare Hodson's performance in Shifter with Brian Serjent's in The Shirt because the differences between them tell us much about wider differences between the two films as wholes. Serjent plays Marty in such a way as to suggest that the man has almost no interior life. He is nothing more than the sum of his appetites, repetitively articulated in a limited set of urgent mantras. Hodson's Shifter, by contrast, is enigmatic. Whatever urges drive him are not diplayed on his sleeve, but we are left in no doubt that they are there, ticking away under his carefully contained exterior. Hodson is a subtle actor who deserves to be more widely know. I first saw him on screen in a meritricious style exercise in monochrome called Orignial Skini  in which he was the only component of this short film to stand out and establish a presence (coincidentally, he played a junky artist). While his performance in Uncomfortable Comfortable was tinged with shades of offbeat humour and goofy charm.

Shifter is different again. By casting himself in the lead role of his own project, Hodson has thereby charged himself with the major burden of carrying the film. All his principal foils are women: Blink (Johanna Sanders) begins the film as one of his flatmates; neighbour Whitey (Diane McAllen) comes on as a strange kind of surrogate 'landlady'; the ascerbic Hera (Samara McDowell) is his ex-girlfriend; Misty (Siobhan Garrett) participates with him in an abortive one-night stand. The only other male character is the virtually unreadable Slim (Campbell Walker) who ambiguously blocks Shifter's path when he moves out of their shared flat near the begining of the film. The characters' names have clearly been chosen to draw attention to certain qualities, whether physical or metaphysical, they might be supposed to possess: Blink is evasive and hard to decipher (why did she change the pin number on the flat's answerphone? Shifter tries but fails to find out); Misty is about as solid as her name would suggest and she melts away just as fast as she appears; Slim is very much that, as is his role which functions as a teasing question mark; why Whitey is called Whitey I have no idea but Hera sits well enough on the tall, elegant ex-girlfriend. Regardless of any of these speculations, however, the most significant choice of name is that of Shifter himself. The name works on a literal level, of course. It perfectly describes a man who moves from one form of temporary accomodation to another in a very short space of time. But it also could be said have a more subtle sense contained in the concept of a Verbal Shifter (Roman Jakobson), that is to say a linguitic term which has no intrinsic meaning but is purely positional, occupied temporarily in speech then abondoned or passed to and fro like a pronoun.

The structure of Shifter consists of a loose set of 13 episodes. The central character drifts through these episodes like a traveller moving down a sealed-off spiral. The narrative dispenses with the plotting of any large events and instead concentrates on the molecular level of small scale incident. To this end it offers a kind of micro-political analysis of simple, ordinary, everyday exchanges, in the process throwing out hints of possible agendas lurking beneath the ongoing flow of mundane reality.

If UncomfortableComfortanble was 'about'dissecting the intricacies of an unravelling relationship, then Shifter might be said to be about the difficulty of establishing or maintaining any kind of meaningful relationship at all. This makes the latter a darker, more 'pessimistic' film than the former which had a good many comic moments. At times, too, Shifter, is literally darker than the relatively bright tones of Uncomfortable Comfortable, especially when its reliance on available light renders its night time locations as black and grainy as the night scenes in Thomas Vinterburg's The Celebration. Overall the cinematography of Shifter is rougher and rawer than that of Uncomfortable Comfortable. Given that the latter was driven by one central relationship, most of its scenes could be handled by two-shot set ups. Whereas the former, with its emphasis on disconnectedness, and it's understandable avoidance of shot-reverse shot strategies, often resorts to back and forth swish pans when shooting dialogue scenes.

Shifter in contrast to The Shirt manages to maintain a consistancy of mood and tone and doesn't deviate from its focus on minimal situations, long takes and the plight of its protagonist. Everyone with whom Shifter comes into contact presents a friendly enough demeanour towards him but at the same time they might be complicit in some covert attempt to shaft him, or, conversely, this impression may be simply a reflection of his slightly paranoid perspective. The film tracks the elusive threads of everyday human contacts, the difficulties of pinning them down or placing any hope on their coming into focus. They just dissolve around Shifter, leaving him rudderless with "no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone".

1. Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of a New Avant-garde: La Camera Stylo", in Peter Graham (ed). , The New Wave, London: Secker & Warburg. 1968, p.17.
2. Interestingly and pertinently, a living room wall of Shifter's temporary solo flat bears posters of D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66.


At the movies
with Sam Edwards

The cast and crew of Gordon Productions, the company which made the eponymously-titled Shifter, see themselves as following in the traditions of entreprenurial New Zealand film-makers like Rudall Hayward, and making local films which are true to the New Zealand we live in.

To stick to their truth, they made these films- the other is Uncomfortable Comfortable - on the most limited of budgets, employing a variety of techniques which are neither common nor comfortable.

One consequence is that the usual criteria for critical review seem to be shifted sideways. A star rating, for example, is inappropriate, because the rating comparisons upon which it depends do not exist.

Another is that audiences conditioned to the slick codes of mainstream productions will find that the story of Shifter, a jobless male moving from one flat to another and engaging with a series of friends and acquantances on the way, is infuriatingly disconnecting, a story in which the ordinary is made even more ordinary, a story about which one might ask the same question as one of the characters - "Is there a point to all this?"

Well, yes, there is. Parts of Shifter are very entertaining. It reveals a slice of the loose twenty-something Kiwi urban community with which few people bother. It introduces a group of characters which, despite a self-focussing and nihilistic world view closer to Dada than middle-class New Zealand, grow on the viewer. And it shows that someone with modern recording technologies can tell stories which will have an audience.