Altitude Falling

Waterbearer Films,

Paul Bright

William Diamond,
Paul Bright,
Cynthia Schiebel,
Brenda Kuciemba
David Laduca,
Jack the Garden Cat

Unrated, 93 minutes

by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2010

Altitude Falling (2010), the newest film from writer/director Paul Bright, boasts an intriguing premise. The year is 2029 and the setting is Chama, a rural New Mexico town. Privacy is a thing of the past because the nation's citizens have been implanted with identification chips. Though originally intended for medical emergencies, these chips became the means to track everyone's purchases, politics and whereabouts after the government stepped in. So much for freedom. Greg Forrester (Bright) is one of the scientists behind this abused tech miracle and he's moved away to a small town to distance himself from the monster he created. There's no escaping the scanners in every building that read people's chips as they walk by, but the rural surroundings offer some respite. The only other alternative is going completely off-grid by cutting out your chip and becoming a "Nopaper." (The government views such individuals as dangerous and thinks there is a militant group of them living in the hills outside of Chama.)

The middle-aged Greg keeps mostly to himself until he meets and falls in love with Danny (William Diamond), a young man barely in his twenties. Danny and his mother have just moved to town to stay with her mother until they can find work. It turns out that Greg and the two women have a shared past. Mother (Brenda Kuciemba) was once married to Greg's lab partner, and she is furious with both men for selling out humanity with their invasive invention. Her mother, Isadora (Cynthia Schiebel), is a retired actress whose career was over after Greg recorded her speech for the software and she became the voice for every scanner on the planet. Greg is still in touch with Danny's estranged father and he uses his prior connections to help get the lad a job with a Peace Corps-style organization. Before Danny learns about his new friend's background, he and Greg become spring/autumn lovers, something we rarely see in male queer cinema.

Third act drama explodes when the four leads meet for dinner. But that's nothing compared to the news that Danny and his fellow workers are going to be conscripted into a covert army maneuver, under the pretense of disaster relief efforts, and dropped into a war zone. Can Greg rescue him somehow before it's too late?

The mission statement on the homepage for Paul Bright's Silly Bunny Pictures announces that they specialize in stories about gay men living in the heartland and that they "make movies for fun." This is a good thing. Hollywood studios, on the other hand, are mostly interested in making obscene amounts of money. Independent filmmakers like Bright are crafting personal movies as an alternative to the soul-less blockbuster and I respect them for that. His earlier films, Theft and Aaron...Albeit A Sex Hero were so infectiously goofy that you overlooked how low budget they were.

But Bright has set the bar a little higher for himself on Altitude Falling and the results are mixed. I'm not saying that the film's science fiction concept requires a mega-budget - the lack of CGI and flashy high-tech props actually works in the movie's favor. But because this film is more ambitious and serious than its predecessors, its flaws are magnified. The script could have used some polishing. Some of the dialogue is clunky, making the acting a bit stiff and forced. Sometimes more than a bit. As a director, Bright excels at making movies out of what are obviously very limited resources but he might be wearing too many hats on this one. According to the "making of" doc, the film's shoot was only eight days; it might have been a good idea to stay behind the camera and direct another actor in the lead role. The ending is dramatic but needed to be more visceral. The romance is sweet but never catches fire.

However, what it lacks in studio gloss and polish, it gains in ideas. Not to mention honesty. Flaws aside, the lack of pretension in Bright's films has always been refreshing and this one is no different. It grows on you as the story develops. Some of the best moments come when just the images do the talking. The close-ups of hands when Greg and Danny make bread together recalls the clay-throwing-as-foreplay scene in Ghost. A swimming hole scene, while not quite a painting by Thomas Eakins, is nevertheless suitably playful and idyllic. Photography of country scenery is utilized without overkill. Minimalist piano by classical composer Erie Satie mixes with the quiet sounds of nature.

Gay science fiction films are a rarity. The same can be said for sci-fi films that aren't driven by pure spectacle. Over the years, Hollywood has never learned that speculative fiction is really about ideas and not just ray guns in space. The concept of implanted scanners and government surveillance isn't a new one. The ins and outs of this future society could have been fleshed out more but we know enough to get by. What is here, despite the sci-fi trappings, are two ordinary gay men who live in the heartland - fulfilling the filmmakers' mission statement. Gay rights no longer seems to be an issue, but our lovers are still fighting the good fight when they rebel against an unjust government.

I like that the gay aspect to their relationship seems incidental to the main plot. Danny's mother isn't the least concerned that her son is seeing a man (let alone an older man), she's just angry because he's seeing Greg! Danny's father asks jokingly, while speaking over a video computer link-up, if Greg is asking for permission to date his son. There is also an early scene in which a muscular young drifter turns out to be a "nopapers" and he thinks nothing of offering sexual favors to Greg in exchange for his help.

Okay, the film isn't going to win any awards at Cannes, but it will better engage your mind than some big budget, over-hyped tripe like Independence Day or 2012 where everything blew up real good. I'll take an indie director's personal vision any day over a film made by commitee and focus groups. With an ending decided by teenaged preview audiences. This one certainly thinks outside the box.


More On Paul Bright:
Aaron...Albeit A Sex Hero

Abrupt Decision
Goliad Uprising

Cynthia Schiebel also appears in:
Aaron...Albeit A Sex Hero

Abrupt Decision
Goliad Uprising

David Laduca also appears in:

Abrupt Decision