I received it second hand. It came in a box with a rock, cushioned by some shredded funny papers: The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I was going through this student film phase, set off by Night of the Living Lush, a 17 minute short about one zombie's quest for gin. What I'm saying is this: Delicate Art came along just at the right time for me.

The thing about films like 1995's Delicate Art is you have to kind of feel like a badass when watching 'em. This was someone's life for a year or so and, when that year was over, it went on a couple of high quality dubs to be pawed at by professors or maybe even studio heads a couple of times and, at some point, fell into my hands. So not only do I have a well-written and fascinatingly directed piece of film in my hands, it's also something not so many other people have seen. Undiscovered territory as it were.

Hunter-collector instincts aside, The Delicate Art of the Rifle is an impressive film not only thanks to its well crafted camera work, but also because of its highly solid and daring script. Jay, played by David Grant, is a neurotic, hooded and bespectacled young college student who works "in a dark and hot place," backstage at his school's massive theatre. The first twenty five minutes of the film focuses solely on Jay leaving the theatre during a sorority fashion show with a Hamlet theme. During his descent from what he calls an upside-down iceberg, a place where there is so much going on that the audience never sees or really thinks about, we learn about Jay's dreams of angels (triggered by the perfume that rises from girls in the audience) and about Cluster Invective, the virtual reality robot fighting game that Jay and all his friends play. On the way outside, he also runs into Samantha, or Sam, the only girl on the theatre crew, who also is one of the many crushes Jay quietly keeps: almost all of his conversation with her (conducted on a ladder hanging from the catwalk) is covered by a voice over of Jay's neurotic thoughts, as is most of Jay's conversation with girls throughout the movie. Sam tells Jay about her roommate, Rachel, who wears a bullfighting outfit and has been awake for 157 hours in a self-imposed sleep deprivation experiment. Jay and Sam part ways, but not before Sam gives Jay a warning: she's had a creepy premonition, a feeling that something will go wrong. In the student center lounge, just outside the theatre, Jay meets his manic systems thinking professor, Max Boaz. Dr. Boaz buys Jay's coke (which he believes is the reason Americans are so healthy) with a handful of JFK head fifty cent pieces, reveals to Jay that he not only programmed Cluster Invective, but he's working on the highly anticipated sequel, Cluster Invective 2 (with "a gem of a random violence generator"), and together they walk to the tower -- Foucalt Tower.

Foucalt Tower is the centerpiece of the film, really. Boaz (who prefers to be called Max, "he's one of those professors") tells us about its construction, twenty-eight stories, each manufactured elsewhere and brought out to the university by a fleet of Chinooks, assembled in the span of a week, "like God's own lego blocks!"... which are Boaz's dying words as he gets shot through Jay's unopened coke bottle. From the roof of the tower, the shooter also takes out a rollerblader and other random passerby, but leaves Jay unharmed. After Jay crouches for a while, he hears a voice: his roommate, Walt, is calling him from the roof, telling him to come up. Jay figures that Walt, an eagle scout and the coolest person he knows, is probably trying to help people out up there and needs some backup, so he begins his ascent of Foucalt Tower.

In the entryway, Jay stops to talk with Sally Richardson, a cute girl in his systems thinking class. They chat for a while and then Jay, with the ever smooth line, "I'd love to take cover with you, but I have to go help my roommate on the roof," runs to the elevators. While waiting, he hears a banging on the stairwell door, which is sealed with hardened construction foam. He abandons the person at the door when his elevator arrives, and instead has to deal with a nearly comatose Rachel, who is having trouble lighting her cigarette and whom Jay fantasizes is in a Russian movie. The elevator has the number "19" written all over the inside. Jay pulls the emergency stop and, with the help of "David from econ," drags her into her room and then continues his ascent. As the elevator passes the nineteenth floor, Jay tells us about the myth: the floor was sealed off so the NSA could move in and catalogue students. It's the big school joke: the nineteenth floor of Foucalt Tower is and always has been off-limits.

The elevator ride terminates at the overrun roof garden that the Botany Club hasn't touched since the Philosophy and Self Knowledge Club came to a realization one day, put down their books, and jumped one after the other off the building. From here, Jay crawls onto the roof where he is shot at by police snipers and saved by a bleached and mean looking young man: Jay's roommate Walt Whitman, played by writer Stephen Grant. It soon becomes evident that Walt isn't trapped on the roof by a sniper at all: Walt is the sniper, and is well camped out here, down to the coleman stove and tarp shelter. In breaks of conversation, Walt runs to the wall to take out a couple of targets and then marks them down on a map he carries of the plaza. Between salvos, Walt tells Jay about Sally, his old high school girlfriend who disappeared one day and left no trace: her family even denied knowing Walt. Jay is wounded by a police sniper and, while Walt bandages his wound, he also gives a family history lesson. Walt comes from a long line of riflemen, snipers who inspired adventure novellist James Fenimore Cooper, dropped union targets in the American Civil War from half-a-mile out, and cleared forty-seven confirmed kills in 'Nam. His father, hoping to make a pacifist out of the boy, named him "Walt Whitman." It was a path Walt was more than happy to take -- he was working on a book about his family entitled, The Delicate Art of the Rifle -- until his hopes were crushed by the last straw to Susan's disappearance: her student records list her as living on the nineteenth floor of Foucalt Tower. Since Walt cannot have his life of love, he only has one option left: the rifle.

Walt turns on the radio and catches the tail end of a flash flood warning, followed by a news report on the tower shootings. The report, which boasts that "the students are learning valuable lessons" from the shooting experience, only serves to anger Walt, who cannot believe the media has distilled this event to something that weak. At that moment, the S.W.A.T. team arrives and Walt takes down two of them from the roof. Jay, dizzy from loss of blood and the stress of the day, collapses in the lean-to as Walt hands him his second free coke of the day, all the while yelling about, "Armed response rule number one: When attempting stuff, turn off the goddamn sirens!" Jay slips into a dream: the silver spaceman walks across the roof while Walt is still shooting. The spacesuit holds Jay's face, and removes its helmet to reveal Sam, who gives Jay a bottle opener for his coke and BB sprinkles for his Hostess cupcake. Jay awakens from his dream and Walt gives him the same camera his dad's spotter used in 'Nam. The next few minutes are completely obscured by the sound of a helicopter arriving, along with the S.W.A.T., on the roof, who injure but fail to capture Walt as he escapes from the roof, but not after he scores a couple of vicious kills.

The film closes with a gorgeous 10 minute long steadicam shot of Jay re-entering the theatre, walking through bright and humming fluorescent hallways, striding with a familiar confidence across dark passages. He has lost all of his news clippings about the incident with Walt, who, like Susan, also seems to be disappearing. Jay is back in his own world behind the stage, full of despair and a resigned acceptance to his life.

It seems a little like this is Heart of Darkness with Gatsby instead of Kurtz at the end, but the beauty of the camera work (one of my favorite shots is of Jay walking down a hall in the student center while a worker behind him pushes a television broadcasting a very distraught weather report), the subtle wit and superb pacing of the script, and the immersive sound work make this film one of the more memorable independant films I've come across. For something shot in 14 days on borrowed equipment (the sound was edited on a copy of Pro Tools owned by a coke dealer the production staff had befriended. During the final mix, he kept threatening to kill the power, so Stephen Grant had to play hostage negotiator for about twelve hours), this is a tiny little masterpiece: save for Dr. Boaz's bouts of overacting, there is little wrong with the film. Even the soundtrack, a mixture of artificial fluorescent hums and natural sounds such as birds or rain, helps keep the tension thick without drawing attention to itself.

If you can find it, I recommend a full ninety minute dosage of The Delicate Art of the Rifle. The sly humor and tense edginess of this film rivals that of most independent features I've seen. Delicate Art is full of powerful imagery, covers a wide variety of subject matters (I count everything from homicidal obsession to consumerism to neurotic girl troubles to deep rooted surveillance conspiracies), and is never too clever to be watchable.


Directed by D.W. Harper
Produced by T. Todd Flinchum
Designed by Alicia Kratzer
Written by Stephen Grant
Director of Photography: Martin Brown

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