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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Rhenals

Blog Post #184: Gabriel Rhenals on 'Death Cleaning'!

After several local, public screenings, my 3rd feature film Death Cleaning has made its streaming debut! You can find my 2023 film on YouTube here and on additional platforms in the coming months. Death Cleaning introduces a far-off future where a fleet of sentient robots, interested in preserving human history, have discovered a data card containing a video record of a cantankerous young woman's stay at a drug rehab clinic.


The following is an explanation of the film's most distinctive features and I advise viewers to read this essay only after viewing the film (because it'll make a lot more sense)!




Following introduction to the Post-Human Custodial Authority's description of a particular data card recovered as part of their archeological mission, we're dramatically informed that the data card's "ORIGINAL FILE ORDER HAS BEEN LOST!" The following body of the film then presents 180 video files in a non-chronological order.


A beginning, then a middle and then an end. Such is the structure of virtually all narratives designed from the immemorial to the present. Maybe we start from the middle or the end on some occasions. Maybe we go backward sometimes. But whether chronology is obeyed or not, some coherent sense of causality between the scenes, sequences or acts is a fundamental tenet of narrative design in any medium. And for as long as I've been writing scripts for the moving pictures, I've honored this basic assumption.


Well, after some time, my legs started feeling stiff from assuming the same position for over two decades. So, I decided to flip - or scramble, more precisely - the script. The decision to arrange the 180 scenes of the script with a complete disregard for chronological linearity took a page (no pun intended) from my memoir-ish 1st book 20 Years a Filmmaker in which its 125 chapters are ordered by theme, not timeline. This complete and quite gleeful abandonment of logical order among all of the scenes allowed many of the film's thematic and metaphoric ideas to be more strikingly juxtaposed and presented.


I've grown accustomed to comparing the film to a sausage. In a sausage, there is an equal distribution of every edible part of the respective animal (read: beginning, middle and end) throughout. As a result, structuring the film in this way brought an irresistible tautness to its design from end to end. You're in the middle of it from the get-go!


While a reliance on the cascading variety and near-complete dispensing of the expectation of narrative direction may risk confounding the viewer, I believe it introduces a new way of experiencing a fictional drama. The sheer zest this choice brought to the writing, production and editing of the film cannot be overstated. And despite being the filmmaker responsible, I actually don't have the overwhelming majority of the scene order committed to memory. As a result, every viewing is a new experience!


Limited Perspective


We are informed that the video files on the data card being recovered consist of "videographic therapy footage recorded by [an] unidentified patient." This establishes the perspective or point-of-view by which we experience the events of the film.


Omniscient or God's-eye perspective is a primal instinct of any artist or storyteller. Without the slightest hesitation, children automatically assume this particular creative vantage point in their drawings or stories. For the artist and storyteller, young or old, the ability to assume any angle on any event and enter into the mind of any imagined character can go unchallenged for decades. Operating in this mode, nothing is off-limits. The world, fictional or otherwise, is bound only by the limits of one's imagination.


But most of the time, I feel omniscient perspective is irresponsibly applied, particularly in film, among both amateurs and professionals. If you assume God-like observational powers, a filmmaker of any stripe must be ready to wield their camera with preternatural precision and intention. A high standard has been set by many of the medium's forebearers but it is often not met out of costly expense, lack of talent, laziness or any number of other reasons. But there is an alternative to omniscient perspective in film, though far less popular - it's called subjectivity.


For as long as I've been writing and producing feature films, I've felt stifled by the ubiquity of the omniscient posture in our saturated mediascape. Subjective perspective has, in turn, allowed me to craft films that have freed up my creativity by accommodating my relatively limited resources, particularly when it comes to the in-universe source of the video (e.g., webcam records in 2022's State v. Unknown and microscopic drone recordings in 2019's For My Sister). Defining a more finite perspective for a film's narrative has also carried the added benefit of casting me as a figure in the narrative of the film not unlike how I involve the acting talent I work with. In the case of Death Cleaning, I assume the role of a (mostly) silent videographic therapy patient armed with a simple camcorder whose videos reveal the events of the film. In so many ways, these sorts of deliberate constraints paradoxically free me up rather than tie me down.


Recording Implements


Following from my choice to pare down the perspective of the narrative was my decision to record the 180 scenes of the film with a $55 HD camcorder. Yes, you read that correctly. I paid Amazon $55 for an off-brand HD video recording device.


Both professionals in the film industry and independent filmmakers, with rare exceptions, place a tall emphasis on pictorial definition and beauty when it comes to the motion picture image. Death Cleaning, for better or worse, bucks this sacrosanct predilection. Throughout the film, the quality of the video we're watching can appear quite grainy and lacking in sharpness. The nature of the camera operation is clearly hand-held and the shakiness, particularly on zoomed-in shots, is regularly apparent. And because the audio quality of the camcorder was utterly deplorable, all of the dialogue and sound effects heard in the film were recorded with my Android phone.


Why did I choose to upset the natural order of things with this utter disregard for image and audio fidelity? The simple answer is that the low-fi video and audio is justified by the film's established limited vantage point (described above). Moreover, I take a bit of inspiration from Nintendo. Yes, the video game company. I'm obsessed with their ethos which prioritizes the mechanics of gameplay over high-rated resolution and technical specs. It's the innovation and intelligence behind their products that matters more than their superficial sheen. Although I gave up console gaming years ago, I highly respect the legendary Japanese gamemaker's often wildly successful model of operation. You learn from the best!


Framing Device


The film features a green-tinted framing device which, at its bookends, provide some context for the body of the film (i.e., description of the activities of the so-called Post-Human Custodial Authority). There are also two related interludes placed at approximately the first and second third of the film. These interludes are akin to public service announcements produced by the robotic custodians which shed light on their view of the fallen human species.


The use of a futuristic framing device is also a characteristic of my previous two feature films as well (i.e., police webcam access in State v. Unknown and the time-traveling nanodrones in For My Sister). In these previous films and in Death Cleaning, the framing device serves to quickly orient us toward the nature of the body of the film we're about to experience. Because omniscient perspective, described earlier in this essay, is a basic assumption of most narrative media, most content does not require a framing device. But if the tables were turned and omniscience was regarded as unusual, viewers would need some sort of courteous guidance from the media's creators.


Unremarkable Protagonist


The focal point of the 180 video files we're presented with in the film is Nev Templeton, the daughter of an esteemed senator. She was court-ordered to the drug rehab facility for a period of 90 days after being found by police under the influence of a "hyperopiate" called "happyfunjoy." She is not happy with the arrangement, to say the least.


But why grant so much attention to such a flawed, passive and unexceptional character as Nev Templeton? Principally, compassion. But a more artistic reason involves my choice to flip the mostly aloft, driven and distinguished character of Cal Modesto in my previous film State v. Unknown. Contrast and inversion often motivate many of my creative choices. I also loved the idea of hinging an elaborate film production, involving considerable commitment, organization, planning, leadership and cooperation, on a fairly unremarkable character who exhibits virtually none of those qualities and is in essence quite heretical toward them.


To conclude this essay, an important consideration in staying motivated over the course of a career making films or any form of art is the sustainment of freshness in the work and zeal in the attitude. This means seeking out exciting, original and often untried ways of dealing with structure, perspective, technology, narrative, etc. In an environment of so much corporate-driven production - particularly in film - independently operating artists and creatives should always try to keep the soil as freshly tilled as possible by experimenting and taking bold risks. If we don't, who will?

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1 comentário

Elizabeth Figarella
Elizabeth Figarella
21 de jun.

Loved the movie! The blog is a great companion to it. Bravo!

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