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Distinct Smell of Red

A review of the feature film, Distinct Smell of Red

Independent Done Right: The Distinct Smell of Red

by Victor Shaw, as published in the March 2001 edition of The Hit and Miss List


Lately, the independent films I've reviewed have fallen far short of expectations. What was once a category of fringe films that took chances and broke Hollywood stereotypes, has turned into a genre full of clich?s and cheap theatrics where style reigns supreme over substance. So-called independent films are becoming more and more predictable, with an avalanche of Pulp Fiction wannabes, Clerks imitations, and Blair Witch rip-offs. Thankfully, The Distinct Smell of Red doesn't rely on any of those formulas.

Just as you might expect, The Distinct Smell of Red, is a small, low-budget affair, with few characters and even fewer locations. But unlike a lot of other independent films, it's a smart, sly film that never pretends to be something it's not. Written, produced, and directed by Houston filmmakers Jason Kittelberger and Donna Strader, The Distinct Smell of Red may be difficult to watch for audiences weaned on Star Wars, Rocky, and Top Gun, but it's a film whose subtle nuances and ambiguities demand repeated viewings.

The film centers on the relationship of two characters; Katherine (Robin Christian-McNair), an unmarried, middle-aged woman who owns a small flower shop, and Vernon (Guilford Adams), her only employee, who manages to stay busy without actually working. Inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and frustrated with Katherine's indifference, Vernon sets his sights on finding his one true love. But in reality, Vernon's half-hearted attempts at finding love are really nothing more than a thinly veiled ruse to make Katherine jealous. Knowing Vernon's propensity for tall tales and outright lies, Katherine doesn't bite, at least until Vernon manages to get a pretty female cab driver (Edi Patterson) to show up at the flower shop. However, Vernon doesn't get the response he expects when Katherine's indifference turns to hostility.

The remainder of the film deals with the resolution of Vernon's frustration as a result of Katherine's new found hostility. Just don't expect a fancy plot twist or a sappy love story or else you'll end up disappointed. Quite simply, The Distinct Smell of Red isn't flashy. It doesn't have a killer hook, and it certainly can't be summed up in two words. It's a simple film capturing the complexity of people dealing with each other and their loneliness.

The interplay between Katherine and Vernon is what makes the story really shine, and the relationship between the two is one of the truest I've seen on film in a long time. It subtly captures two people in an emotional game of words, taking turns punching and counterpunching, in an effort to provoke someone to reveal their true feelings. With each sentence the stakes are raised, and the game becomes a desperate attempt to conceal any hint of loneliness.
It's fascinating to watch how each character deals with being alone. Vernon begs for attention with lies and childish antics, while Katherine hides her solitude behind sarcasm and careful indifference. Even Juliet is fascinating with her subdued personality, as she only seems able to express her thoughts and feelings by writing in a notebook. All three characters are grounded in reality, and at least for me, shed light on some of the actions of people I have encountered in real life. But not all of the character's actions make sense, and sometimes you're left questioning their motivation. But doesn't that mirror real life? Do we really understand the impulses and actions of everyone we meet?

Surprisingly, not all of the characters are entirely likeable either, especially Vernon, who may tend to annoy some viewers. This may make the film difficult to watch for some, but you have to commend the filmmakers for taking a chance and demanding more of their audience. After all, if Vernon is likeable, does it really make sense that he would also be so alone?

Indeed, The Distinct Smell of Red leaves you with more questions than answers, as it is full of ambiguities and loose ends. Some things are not made clear and some information is deliberately withheld, but the film leaves you with the sense that more answers are available with repeated viewings. I hesitate to give my interpretation of the events, as each viewer may well walk away from the film with an entirely unique interpretation, and I feel it would be unfair to taint anyone's perception.

However, the film is not without some minor faults. For starters, many of the scenes take place in the flower shop, which lends a claustrophobic feeling to the proceedings. And Adams' performance as Vernon, while intriguing, does tend to be a bit stiff at times. I also have a small quibble with the film's score. While generally effective overall, it does feel somewhat overbearing in several instances.

Taken as a whole however, The Distinct Smell of Red is certainly a film worth watching. The performances for the most part are solid, as is the production value, especially for a film produced on such a low budget. Be forewarned that viewers expecting quick pacing, flashy camera work, and witty pop-culture references may have a difficult time. But for audiences wanting to think for themselves, this film shouldn't be missed. So if you want an enlightening look at complex characters without any easy answers, then I highly recommend taking a look at The Distinct Smell of Red. You won't be disappointed.

©2007 Guilford Adams. All rights reserved.