This week our intrepid Raider moves us into Noirvember and coins another term for calendar-based genre. Thi
s time we embrace true micro-budget filmmaking and the creative genius of necessity coming out of Eugene. Oregon’s cinematic history is long but its Eugene chapter is deep and varied – Five Easy Pieces, Animal House and, with the Kesey Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion happening not too far afield.
This time Raider/Contributor Phil Oppenheim takes us into the more opaque nooks and crannies with….
It’s dark outside. With the end of Daylight Saving Time and the coming of fall, Oregon’s nights are finally getting longer and colder; we’re turning up our collars and bracing ourselves against the wind, steeling ourselves against streets that seem to be getting darker, colder, and lonelier by the hour. It’s a perfect time to celebrate film noir, those films that turn towards the dark streets and darker motives of people flung against each other in cities and small towns. We’ll be celebrating Noirvember all month long here at Raiders of the Lost Archive; today we’re daring to peek into The Darkest Corner of Paradise, a microbudgeted neo-noir created by Eugene’s Henry Weintraub.
The outline of the plot of Darkest Corner is simple, though it allows for mystery and ambiguity. Peter (Patrick O’Driscoll), a stoop-shouldered, mild-mannered accountant, whose lonely life centers on frozen ravioli and Andy Griffith Show reruns, meanders around his newly adopted city to try to find a gig, finally finding a dumpy ice-skating rink that will deign to take him on (and underpay him for their trouble). Instead of settling into the milquetoast life his disposition and occupation would seem to suggest, his life is turned upside-down by an accidental late-night chance encounter with a mysterious, damaged woman – cherchez la femme! – who plunges him into a dark world of bar fights, seedy tattoo parlors, vengeance, murder, and madness.
Our bookkeeper ultimately goes full Bogart over the course of the film, becoming a two-fisted amateur gumshoe hunting for answers to the bloody, puzzling drama into which he’s been drawn, and while he finds a new passion and purpose thanks to his quest, he also learns a dark secret about himself. When a cop grills him about the growing web of intrigue about midway through the film, Peter offers a remembered observation he’s heard before: “We’re either spectators or participants in this world – and I’m tired of spectating.” Bruised and bloodied, down but not out, Peter moves from being a passive voyeur to a gun-toting actor by the film’s end – but with chilling implications.
Everything in Darkest Corner is shaped by its tiny budget ($1,000 according to the DVD’s commentary track, which I hope is a humble-bragged underestimate). Weintraub wisely turns his poverty into an asset, with his murky black-and-white cinematography matched by the film’s semi-improvisational mumblecore performances. Weintraub didn’t storyboard his film, for instance, because he had to respond ad hoc to whatever locations he was able to wrangle at the last minute; as a result, his scenes feel authentically off-kilter, reflecting the mental and emotional jangle of his protagonist’s journey. And Weintraub squeezes every penny of ominousness out of cheapo flickering flourescents and exploding incandescent light bulbs.
The resulting dark corner in which this small-cast story plays out its tragic mysteries may not look like anything you’d describe as a paradise; its gray, under-populated buildings and concrete landscape feeling threateningly uninviting. Weintraub removes most of the cozy livability and charm from his Portland and Eugene locations, creating a grimly mashed-up urban landscape of bus stations, offices, crummy apartments, empty bars, and menacing tattoo parlors – lots of tattoo parlors, often sitting at the intersection of featureless freeways. Paradise lies somewhere else, the film suggests, with the city offering little human contact besides occasional acts of brutal violence. Even Portlandia herself seems to be tuning into Weintraub’s frequency, appearing to scowl from atop the Portland Building instead of welcoming us to the city, as if warning us to get the hell out of the city – before it’s too late.
Part of the reason why Weintraub’s vision is able to stay so tightly focused is his reliance on a small team, a group of players and crew members who have worked with him on projects before and after Darkest Corner and have become part of his filmmaking family. In at least one case, the family analogy is literal: Sara Weintraub, the writer-director-producer’s wife, also co-produced the film, designed its make-up and bloody special effects, and plays its femme fatale (under the stage name Sara Larson). Patrick O’Driscoll, who plays our protagonist, also co-produced and co-casted the movie, and he performs its theme song, “The Darkest Corner of Paradise,” too. Weintraub houses his creativity under the umbrella of his own indie production company, 531 Productions, which has allowed him to create his own idiosyncratic dark corners of weirdness within the paradise of Oregon, making films like Melvin (2009), a pitch-black zombie comedy, and Killing Me (2012), a dark satire about a wanna-be serial killer (perhaps better-known as its 2013 video re-release title, 21st Century Serial Killer). Familiar faces from Darkest Corner pop up elsewhere throughout Weintraub’s body of work, so if you like the no-budget, grimly comic malevolence of this film you’ll probably want to seek out his others.
Watch: The Darkest Corner of Paradise on DVD as part of the film noir collection at Worldwide Multimedia. I rented my copy from the Oregon Filmmakers section of Movie Madness in Portland.
Visit: Eugene’s Lane Ice Center rink is really much nicer, cheerier, and better lit than it’s depicted as being in Darkest Corner. It’s now known as The Rink Exchange, the home rink of the Eugene Generals, and you can buy tickets to cheer the team on through the rest of the season here.
If you’re in the market for a tattoo or two, visit The Parlor Tattoo, the Eugene Tattoo Company, and/or Lifetime Tattoo the next time you’re in Eugene. In fact, why not get tatts in all of them – just tell ‘em you’re interested in getting something like the tattoo you saw on a weeping girl in a dark apartment hallway before you were cold-cocked and she mysterious disappeared …
- Written by Phil Oppenheim