Under the Skin
Psychological thriller Felt slices into rape culture
All films are personal, some just more than others. In the case of Felt, the new drama based on the creations and experiences of artist Amy Everson, it's not just personal, but profoundly intimate. Yet such films often catch a moment or a period in someone's life. In the nine months since Felt debuted at Fantastic Fest, Everson has found some distance between herself and her onscreen incarnation. While the narrative centers on her darkest times, she is happier and healthier now. She recalled talking to her partner about the change. "I was telling him, 'Doesn't this seem like this is a scene in a movie right before one of us dies? The montage of all the happy moments right before the tragedy?'"
In the improvised semiautobiographical drama, Everson plays the character of Amy, a lightly fictionalized version of herself. Both Amys are artists, working in the gray area between textiles, conceptual pieces, and guerrilla performance. Both are dealing with a deep and abiding personal trauma, using their art to explore and confront the ever-present specter of misogyny. But onscreen Amy is set on an accelerating path of self-destruction – one that real-world Amy has now avoided. She said, "The Amy in the film is very much me, and that's been the space I've inhabited for most of my life. When I see myself on the screen, that seems more like me than where I am now, which is in a very healthy relationship and a happier place, which feels more foreign to me. I can't distance myself from my past or the character, because they are parts of me, and they have informed who I am now."
Director Jason Banker understands the weird longevity of cinema: Just the other day, his 2012 debut feature Toad Road made a new list of the best drug horror movies of all time. He said, "The one cool thing about filmmaking is that you make this thing that has this incredibly long life span." That makes the release of Felt just another phase in its existence, which actually started when he met Everson while making Toad Road. He was shooting another project in San Francisco, and hanging out with a friend at underground club Popscene, when he fell into her orbit. "I have a tendency of just randomly kidnapping people from clubs," Everson explained. "A friend of mine and me, we would just pick up strangers and then terrorize them, and Banker just happened to be one of those people."
When he heard about her art and her costumes, and saw the bedroom that became a key location in the film, he knew he had to work with her – "with" being the significant word. Both describe Felt as a collaborative experience, heavily workshopped and evolving over years. A distinctive component is that Amy's trauma is never spelled out explicitly. Everson said, "I did think, well, if you want to know how fucked-up my life is, we can shoot all that, because it's really terrible. Instead, it was 'No, let's capture how it's affected you, and explore how hard it is to navigate in a world that re-enforces the messages of your abusers.'"
With the film's release, that abuse is something Everson contends with again, on a larger, more public scale. Banker said, "I know this part of the journey will be a little bit tougher for her, because she did put herself on the line, and she is the centerpiece of this film, and it is things that she cares about. This is a real person here."
The release means Everson will be even more exposed to what she calls "abusive monsters ... people who haven't even seen the film that are outraged that a film like this exists. The trailer has been down-voted disproportionately because it's been circulated on different hate sites. It's a backlash that's expected, but also very odd to inhabit." Yet, in a way, those dismissive critics prove her point, and that of the film. She said, "You are the people who this movie is based off of. People who turn the situation into something very toxic. The thing about these kinds of abuses is that the nature of sexual abuse is to silence and undermine voices and survivors. It's a manifestation of that in a very public arena, and it's very toxic, but it re-enforces that it's an important thing to talk about." Yet, for all the brutality, at the same time she called much of the reception "therapeutic. In general I see the people who do receive it sensitively, and do understand it on a level of it being a reflection of reality."
One part of the reception has been the perception of Felt as a subversive superhero origin story. Many writers and critics have painted Amy's costumes as a strange kin to Iron Man's armor or Superman's cape, the garb she must wear to push back against her oppressors. Banker admits that he pushed for that subtext more than Everson did. He said, "People understand the superheroes thing, and I thought that her wearing the suit had that fundamentally built into it, whether she realized it or not."
This is one of those moments when it's vital to distinguish between Amy the person and Amy the character. Onscreen Amy sees her costumes as a vigilante's cowl. However, Everson said, "My framing was like Batman Begins. He is clearly a very delusional person acting out from revenge based in deep trauma." For Everson, when Amy responds to violence with violence, she moves closer to the evolution of a supervillain. She said, "I don't think she's heroic. I think the hero is something who transcends the villain, who becomes better. But Amy embodies the villain. She becomes the monster that she is fighting, and in that sense the film becomes a tragedy."
While new audiences discover and interpret the film, the star and the director are moving on creatively. Banker is "working on something bigger with a script and professional actors for a change." He admits he was under some pressure to make the leap to mainstream filmmaking after the success of Toad Road. "It's tricky, because I've held it off, but I am eager to try my hand at something that has a much bigger budget, just to see what I can do." However, that doesn't mean he's abandoning his experimental indie roots now, as he's currently workshopping "what could be a feature" with Felt co-star Roxanne Knouse. He said, "I will always make the small, slow-developed projects like Toad Road and Felt. ... In my very being, I'm a DIY filmmaker. I can take two years and not be under any specific crunch."
Felt has undoubtedly raised Everson's profile as an artist: Since its debut, indie band Modest Mouse brought her unique visual style to two of their music videos, "The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box" and "Lampshades on Fire." Yet the most meaningful impact may not be on her career. She said, "I think I've grown and evolved a lot since the making of the film," cutting out what she describes as toxic relationships, and setting healthier personal boundaries. She even credits the film, and living through both its making and release, for separating onscreen Amy from real-life Amy. "The film has actually illuminated some of these patterns of how I was very aggressive in my language and my behavior, and how in subtle ways I was embodying the language of my aggressors and their behaviors, and how ultimately I need to do things that take care of myself, and create art that is meaningful."
Felt opens July 17 at the Alamo South Lamar. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.