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The Clay Girl (2004)
Writer and director: Marjorie Boyle Crooks

review by Paul Higson

There are problems galore in Marjorie Boyle Crooks' The Clay Girl and viewing the film a second time round improves it not one jot. Now that we are in the digital age there is no excuse for not learning your craft on the cheap but one has to resist the temptation of overstepping oneself. In The Clay Girl lies evidence of how potentially damaging impatience can be. Running before you can walk. Simply because it is inexpensive to shoot on digital one shouldn't assume that it is easy to make a film on video. Anybody can swing a digital camera around and everybody does. Venturing into feature-length film production is a sure way of separating oneself from the homemade movies shot every second residential house number along now. But it should still be seen as a level several stages up in the learning process.

Make short films first. Film technique is such that there are innumerable separate elements to master and focusing on those elements in alternative short film projects is the way to make your mistakes and overcome them. No reason at all why one can't put their initial effort into a feature-length project, but if one is going to engage a feature-length subject it one bound for disheartenment, the degree of effort and time put into the making only to look back and be so toweringly disappointed in the completed film.

Then there are the others, in the industry and the public, who might see the film and assume that this is the work of someone who has gone through the short film experimentations and schooling and learned little or not enough. The safest assumption I can make is that The Clay Girl is the first effort of a filmmaker who has foregone the learning process that might have been otherwise engendered through short film experimentation. Others would conclude on the film with far less consideration.

The first thing that Marjorie Boyle Crooks should do is to remake The Clay Girl and correct everything that is significantly wrong with the first attempt. Digital provides the temptation to go back and cheaply jig anew the footage. But the material is not there to correct the problem. It is difficult knowing which of my complaints with the movie to begin with. The film opens with shots that do nothing to establish character or situation. The beach, the packing of the suitcase and a conversation that open go nowhere. Without leaving these scenes the music is interfering and consuming, while the camera is unstable, blurry and shuddery. These are troubles that are to recur in the film, stabilising but never completely overcome. Then there is a heavy fade to black for no reason. It is to ill effect, the music not timed to fade for its correspondent removal, continuing to blare as the image dims. The film does not open to grab, a rudimentary failure.

The only aspects the viewer can take obvious note of are the glaring failings from the sound effects popping to the seemingly pointless scenes. This is a terrible start. Do we ever get to know these characters? No. The limited information present is withheld until very late. That the secondary couple are hospital staff, for example, goes without clue until too late to care. The late introduction of facts appears to be an attempt to reproduce the storytelling magic of some of the cleverest scriptwriting of recent times, movies in which interest and mysteries are gradually fed in until a late episode links everything pleasingly together, as in Lone Scherfig's Italian For Beginners. It is important to keep audience interest long before the end though.

'Establishment' should be this director's keyword from now on. Not just establishment of the environment but of character, if not characters and story, or at least some of the story. Something is required upfront. I did not know who any of the characters were, I was uncertain of the location, and though I had read a prior synopsis, the story in that synopsis was in retreat. To that end in this review I am deliberately withholding the plot until a stage that is parallel with the apparent level of importance deemed by the maker that it be found by the viewer. To the filmmaker when using acquaintances, Jennifer McGregor (as the Model) and Liv Spencer (as the Nurse) are two individuals, not even necessarily blatant look-alikes but the audience needs time to recognise them. Few have photographic memory and in a line-up no two will look alike and the culprit may be there but if he has changed his clothes there is only the face and the clothes to go by. The nudity of one and the clothing of the other was not enough. How should I tell that one predominantly naked was not the other clothed? I had only long dark hair to go by.
the sculpture in The Clay Girl
Wise casting focuses on easy differentiation. The maker should employ tools to clearly demark his characters as different from one another. They might keep a character in the same clothes or wearing the same hat or badge or accessory, a quirky standout name, or a distinct character trait to assist the audience recognise them. Bad filmmakers fail to account for this. A bad filmmaker will not cover himself for having his characters in the same uniform or due to a fetish for busty blondes will fill his cast with them. I don't know anyone, accidental tuners or ardent fans of the dreadful Hollyoaks who can tell any of the blonde starlets apart. Romper Stomper had a skinhead cast but overcame it. Many war films take the viewer the entire running time to figure out who is who with half the characters dead by that point. Even Saving Private Ryan was difficult to follow and identify players, hard to believe in subsequent viewings with so many of the young stars (Diesel, Pepper, Ribisi) better known and so distinctly different in physiognomy from one another. (As a reassuring additional note to all filmmakers, Spielberg also reanimated one of them in the extreme long shots in fields, recycling a shot intended for earlier in the film. The big fellows can blunder too).

In Walter Hill's Southern Comfort, the characters all wore the same uniform but the casting was well poured over and there was no mistaking who was who, their colour, attitude, face shape, facial hair, age, distinct surnames and nicknames (the names failed to grab and hold in The Clay Girl, other than Joe Joe), factional grouping and props all acting as co-signals towards the clear identification of each character. It shouldn't take much for a filmmaker to properly introduce the characters properly. Bringing in the camera closer to magnify the characters isn't going to work. You don't identify people by their pores. Just as interacting DNA patterns conversing on the screen wouldn't work either.

The Turkish baths were a great location, the colour terrific but it was a badly shot sequence. The camerawork is frequently clumsy. The crew is reflecting in a car window at one point. When the art teacher, a truly dreadful non-actress (Jennifer Jackson), is followed through the students' easels she remarks flatly of one, "Not bad! Not bad! You're improving!" But the canvas in question is blank, as are all but the one belonging to the lead. How could the filmmaker not perceive that this would be picked up on even a mini-television or mobile phone screen! These are obvious errors that would be welcomed in a 1950s' turkey but I doubt the director would wish to be recognised in that vein, as that is not what she was aiming for. Indigestible and unimaginative punk and bland rock join the soundtrack. Scenes are prolonged going nowhere. Faltering focus, unconvincing behaviour and awkward plot devices all add to the bad broth.

I have deliberately withheld plot details because, although the story was of great importance to Boyle Crooks, I felt it more appropriate to convey back to the director the level of interest the story holds in the resultantly badly managed film. It is a simple story lost in the clumsy excesses of the making. A classic tale in which a sculptor's (played by Douglas McLeod) desire for a model (McGregor) moulds a magical potency into the finished sculpture, so impassioned was its making. Like a voodoo poppet the model's life is thereupon affected by the journey of the sculpture. The Clay Girl is clearly not foremost designed to be a genre film. It has fantasy themes but is not an outright fantasy adventure, endeavoured more on a personal, experimental level.

The Clay Girl is a brave effort. It was ambitious. Boyle Crooks went out to make a feature and did it and that is an achievement but she needs to learn a lot from it and I am certain that she will. Some of the above would not have needed telling, Boyle Crooks will have made an earnest self-evaluation of this first feature, but hopefully amongst my comments there is something yet to occur that she will view it in the given manner of positive criticism. The opening and closing music is liltingly lovely. The underwater photography is good, though that may irk, aware that this may have been the key production cost, perhaps a skilled underwater photographer brought in to safely capture those shots. The sculpture prop is of intriguing construction, a piece that could genuinely garner the interest of several characters. Perhaps the same should have been carried over to the characters. I don't want to dissuade Miss Boyle Crooks. I want her to build upon and learn from the experience. I expect a vast improvement in her second feature film. Perhaps she might engage in a few short films before then finessing her craft.
The Clay Girl poster

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