“I’ve always been a daydreamer,” declares out-and-proud filmmaker Michael J. Saul at the beginning of his new compilation of shorts, The Daydreamer’s Notebook. “I was always off in my own little world. It was always — and it still is — a way for me to escape and create. It’s a happy place to create!”
This collection of Saul’s short films, recently released onto DVD and V.O.D. from MJS Films, offers a chance to see an established director’s earlier work.
Saul is best known for his full-length undertakings, The Surface, Crush and Adults Only. For more than three decades, he has worked primarily within the LGBT genre, and his achievements as an independent filmmaker have included writing, directing and producing award-winning short and feature film projects that have screened in festivals around the world.
“Some of these pieces were scripted, planned, and structured in a traditional way,” he says. “Others are quite random thoughts, and still others are totally ephemeral – concocted from other works or random pieces of film. They each hold a special moment in time for me, but I hope they also spark memories for the audience that will be special to the individual viewer, too.”
Although this film is admittedly not for all tastes, there’s much to like in it for students of cinema technique or anyone who appreciates film work that encompasses more intangible, experimental, and often visually striking scenes. As one critic has said: “The Daydreamer’s Notebook offers a unique movie-viewing experience if you’re willing to sit back and sink into its dreamy wavelength.”
Spotlighting seven stand-alone shorts and prefaced by Saul himself, this anthology commences with “Nightcrawler,” a brief piece from 2011 that describes an anxiety-filled childhood memory of preparing for a fishing trip.
“As a child, my father insisted I learn to fish” begins the narration, as the audience sees the unpleasant chore of digging for and collecting the large earthworms commonly used as bait. They’re called nightcrawlers because they surface after dark.
“Crawling into bed those nights, the feeling of nightcrawlers slithering over my body would give me nightmares,” the voiceover continues amid close-ups of the slimy, squirming worms. “They crawled until I was consumed,” we’re told, before the screen fades to black.
“All memories have some sensual cues attached to them,” explains Saul, regarding the disquietingly moody atmosphere of this piece. “Some are atmospheric, and yes, others might be sinister or dark memories that are difficult to revisit. Some might be downright frightening. That’s the enjoyable part about making a ‘horror’ film like this: the basic fears we all share.”
Then it’s on to “Euphoria,” shot in black and white and released in 2014. A music video collaboration with composer Frederick Bayani Mabalot, this is a bolder and loftier exercise, exploring abstractions such as love, lust, desire and deception. In this pan-sexual rumination on budding love and physical yearning, the director offers us a sublime celebration of sensuousness.
Focusing on a trio of attractive teens – two guys and a girl, played by Rob Westin, Vince Perez and Lindsay Marquino – who sojourn into the wilderness, each frame is overflowing with visually enticing, even homoerotic tableaus, all set to the sultry strains of Mabalot’s composition for a string quartet. Better yet is how this flight of fancy keeps the viewer guessing as to whether the guys are competing for the young lady’s attention or for each other’s. Elements of dance and movement, each seething with unspoken longing, fluidly combine until those who are involved literally float.
“Cons,” from 2006, is a much more vibrant work, punctuated with vivid colors as it illustrates how sometimes the most compelling memories we have can suddenly re-emerge into our consciousness during the most mundane moments. This is shown by a young man engaging in the simple act of shaving, as his thoughts unexpectedly hearken back to an adolescent hike he once took into the forest (a frequent setting and motif in this compilation).
“Idol,” completed in 2006, is the next film. One gets the distinct impression that the basic footage was shot much earlier. This, too, scrutinizes a juvenile memory.
“Though initially, they were never meant to be together in the same collection, I think all these films complement each other,” Saul says upon observing any similarities or corresponding elements in his inclusions here. “And that’s interesting to me, because it indicates a consistent theme to my work, which I actually find kind of cool.”
“Idol” introduces us to David Allan Payne, who is also one of the leads in “The Cipher and the Boar,” another selection in this compilation. Indeed, one could even get the impression that this may have originated as a camera test involving the actor before embarking on that larger piece. Payne appears as a boyish blond bloke who playfully sits holding a mirror reflecting the cameraman filming him. An intriguing enterprise shot on basic 16mm film, even the scratches and perceived “defects” in the now-grainy footage takes on a fascinating sort of aestheticism when seen through the additional lens of time.
Up next is another endeavor from 2006 named “Boat 14,” which opens as two lads languidly relax in a small rowboat adrift on a large pond. They go in the water for a quick swim, then trek back through the woods, racing against an encroaching gloom and through a rambling, isolated creek. This piece serves as a reminder that it’s not always what’s been laid down on film, but rather the visually arresting ways that it’s captured that can make for a haunting viewing experience.
Then we’re treated to “Subterranea,”a 2017 release that’s arguably the most developed of the offerings here. It is Saul’s memorial video to his friend and associate Steven M. Miller, whose 30-year collaboration with Saul was cut short in 2014 by Miller’s untimely death. “Subterranea” uses diverse, sophisticated camera effects. A musical musing on the passing of an old friend, it incorporates loads of symbolism such as celestial crowns and heavenly orbs that hover between shots of opulent landscapes that are serene and sorrowful.
Also included here is the first public release of Saul’s 1981 gothic noir-drama called “The Cipher and the Boar,” updated from its original 16mm format to digital HD. Saul is a native of Columbus, Ohio, where the picture years ago had its formal premiere.
Help in restoring the film came from an entirely unanticipated place, he said. “Thanks to one of the actors who kept a random VHS copy of the film, we were also able to recreate the original soundtrack. This process was great fun and allowed us to share the film again in a much better, more accessible way.”
Centering on two orphaned brothers (portrayed by Payne and Gabriel Paal) this intense and foreboding thriller follows the hapless pair as they stumble upon the secluded abode of a malevolent taxidermist. Saul demonstrates an innovative use and contrast of black and white vs. color imagery, enthralling and horrifying his audience.
“Both color and black and white have a strong place in my palette,” he says. “I prefer black and white for its ability to control mood and tone, but in a film like this, it was a conscious decision to use both black and white and color to help sell the idea that the story took place in the mind as well as in reality. When I do use color in film, I typically tone it down and mute the colors, as has been done here.”
“The Cipher and the Boar” could be described as a more contemporary take on the old Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, with a nod or two to Goldilocks as well.
The program concludes with a behind-the-scenes interview with Saul about making “The Cipher and the Boar,” the little shocker that he fondly considers to be something of a personal milestone.
Although these pieces are brief, it would be a grievous mistake to assume that they are in any way unsubstantial or lacking in impact. Wise viewers will see this visual compendium as a chance to go through a sketchpad of ideas and random thoughts in film. Nothing in it rises above a PG-13 rating, but each piece manages to keep viewers tuned in and wondering what will come next.
“This collection is admittedly steeped in nostalgia,” Saul says. “Most of us (especially of the older generation) find comfort in nostalgia. I think we all have very strong memories of coming out, first crushes, hiding our sexuality, struggles with our schoolmates, teachers, parents, etc. Coming to terms with those in later years helps us gain a perspective on our journey – both individually and collectively. My hope is for people to see these short films and (hopefully) be amused or inspired by them. I’d love for someone to see them and suddenly decide to take up poetry writing, or photography, or whatever will allow them to discover a new way of looking at their own past and discover a new passion.”
The Daydreamer’s Notebook is now available on DVD and V.O.D. across all major digital platforms, including Amazon Instant, Amazon Prime, TLAVideo.com and Dekkoo. Check out http://daydreamersnotebook.weebly.com or “like” them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/The-Daydreamers-Notebook-1888495638033612.