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Microcosm of Society
Review By Eric Goldman


FILM: Protozoa (1993)

STARRING: Michael Bonitatis, Lucy Liu, Damon Whitaker

CREW: Darren Aronofsky (director), Eric Watson (producer), Mathew Libatique (cinematographer), Patrick Sherman (production designer), John Wolfenden (editor), Michael Pollack (score)


Aronofsky's American Film Institute short opens with angry slacker Dave (Michael Bonitatis) sitting in a dreary, empty junk yard. Dave stares into space, sips beer, and beats the hell out of a cracked guitar. We quickly realize the emptiness of the dump parallels the emptiness of Dave's life which consists of smoking weed, staring at television screens and watching mentally retarded school children. Dave's friend Pete (Damon Whitaker) is shortly introduced, along with their friend, Ari (Lucy Liu--yes THE Lucy Liu), who despite calling her pals losers, doesn't seem to accomplishing much herself. These three are going nowhere fast. They're the amoebas of life...protozoa.

Our three protagonists wander around town as they make a trip to Ari's grandmother's house (Ari convinces her comrades to tag along by declaring open season on her grandmother's refrigerator). We experience a hilarious scene consisting of the grandmother hypnotically gazing at the TV screen in a near-catatonic state. Ari, after asking her friends if they want to see something weird, changes the television to The Price is Right. The grandmother sits up and begins screaming at the television in Chinese, until the television station is changed. She then silently sinks back into the darkness of her couch.

As the characters travel through an empty LA, Pete acts as a catalyst, furthering the film by telling a story (through narration and flashbacks) of a teenager named Blue.

Blue is a TV junkie who had a girlfriend until she left him after catching him "jerking off to the Home-Shopping Network." Blues' father also happens to be a TV repairman and supplies Blue with a number of different televisions to watch simultaneously. After Blue watches a Biblical TV movie about Abraham, Blue mirrors the actions of Abraham by destroying his father's TVs (just as Abraham destroyed the work of his idle-maker father), and is visited by a talking burning television set (the burning bush) which seems reminiscent of Requiem's monster-like refigerator. The TV tells Blue he must search for the truth. In his search, Blue becomes a drugy and sex fiend before before sitting down and determining to reach it.

Pete explains to Dave and Ari that "it" can be reached by anyone, and is different for each individual. After Dave "watches the retards" through a chainlink fence, representing his trapped feelings, he realizes "it" for himself is doing the opposite of what has become his life: He needs to do something. Anything. He runs from his friends and boards the disabled childrens' school bus in what Pete calls "a road trip with a bus load of retards." He needs to go somewhere quick and it doesn't matter where. After yelling to Dave, Ari turns to Pete and asks him what he is going to do. "I think I'm gonna go watch some tube," he replies as he begins to walk away from the camera. "Yeah, what's on?" Ari asks as she follows him home, just as the film ends.

I've told the entire plot and ruined most key moments (which is fine with most of you, as you will probably never see the film, unless Darren and AFI make some sort of decision to release it). I am writing this review for a specific audience (Aronofsky fans), and will attempt to relate it to his other works...

Protozoa's Michael Bonitatis Mathew Libatique's photography from both Pi and especially from Requiem For A Dream are two of the major strengths of those films, so that was one of the aspects of Protozoa I was most excited about. Unfortunately, because the film was shot on video, Libatique's lighting and quality of film is certainly not as impressive as that of feature films like Requiem or Pi. For a video however, the lighting is excellent, and Libatique particularly shined (no pun intended) when lighting the story of Blue. He casts an interesting blue light around the character, and Libatique and Aronofsky even pull the old student film cliche of Hitchcock's Vertigo shot (pushing in while zooming out, or vise versa), when moving in on Blue's face. Overdone, but still always cool to look at.

The quick-cuts, extreme close-ups, and in-your-face frantic action, which have been labeled Aronofsky's style are only being experimented with in Protozoa. One scene, consists of different takes of an empty cereal bowl being filled with different kinds of cereal without the bowl moving, which reminds me of the scene in Requiem For A Dream when Ellen Burstyne's character eats the grape fruit and drinks her orange juice, with a jump cut, as opposed to actually seeing the action happening. Besides that, the movie tends to be made up of mostly medium and wide shots, lasting for a long time. One scene consists of Pete talking to Dave and Ari, while they are all walking. It just happens to be all one take and actually goes on for several minutes.

Many student films tend to be made up of poor actors, luckily Darren was able to stray away from that stereotype and attracted capable young actors to fill the parts.

The themes used in both Pi and Requiem For A Dream appear in Protozoa as well. One of the strengths in Pi was the use of provocative concepts like religion, used in a well-written non-pretentious way. Darren seems to be experimenting with this here, mainly during the portion about Blue. In Pi, Darren was fascinated with relating religion to real-life, which he attempts here in a less serious way. Drugs, sex, and television addiction also play a part in this film, once again in a less serious way than Aronofsky's more recent endeavors. Rather than showing the results of drug addiction through series of repetition (Pi and Requiem), drugs are only mentioned, except when Blue begins experimenting, where we see flashes of different hands holding different drugs, while Pete narrates. When Blue falls into a life of prostitution, we see nothing of the horrors that Marian (Jennifer Connelly) experienced in the end of Requiem For A Dream. Instead, we see comical flashes off different prostitutes as Pete narrates: "Male hookers, female hookers, 16 year old boy hookers," each time, the mentioned prostitute (all played by men) motions towards the camera with a sexual gesture.

Darren's recent films are heavy. This isn't. Protozoa deals with serious subjects in a light way. I've been lucky enough to see Aronofsky's humor, and will probably see very little of it again. As much as I would love to see provocative directors such as Darren take on a comedy every now and then, it rarely happens. Instead, comedies are usually directed by formulaic robots and Hollywood hacks.

I thoroughly enjoyed Protozoa and have viewed it several times. I've watched it with friends and the responses have been overwhelmingly good. Compared to Darren's feature films, it obviously cannot hold up, although comparing them is not really would be like looking at Einstein's theories next to his grade school math homework. Compared to student productions and short films (I've seen a ton of them) this surpasses most of what I've viewed. As I said, I liked Protozoa and while I anxiously await Darren's next feature, I would absolutely LOVE to see Darren's other student works.

NOTE: Protozoa is owned by Darren Aronofsky and AFI, and we cannot legally distribute it or sell it to site readers. Please don't ask.