Vacation! Summertime in America, in CinemaScope!

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(Vacation! debuted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It is twenty-something producer/writer/director/editor Zach Clark’s third feature film, hot on the heels of 2009’s Modern Love is Automatic, which also premiered internationally at Edinburgh. There, I met with Clark and two of his lead actresses, Lydia Hyslop and Maggie Ross. Press here for its EIFF page and trailer.)

Lydia Hyslop reclines, posing as Manet’s “Olympia,” with Trieste Kelly Dunn in the background.

The drab monochrome which opens Vacation! is short-lived, lasting only as long as the four girlfriends are isolated by split-screen as they telephone to rendezvous for a spontaneous week-long holiday at the sea. As soon as they meet, the palette brims with perfectly garish neons.

No matter the flippant, large black-on-white titling, which straight-off foreshadows one central character’s impending death; everything about Zach Clark’s third film is as spontaneous as the girls’ reunion. It was shot quickly in late summer, 2009, on location at Clark’s father’s freshly painted pink beach house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. The narrative not only introduces multiple twists in plot, but twists in genre – from buddy movie to sleazy holiday horror to music video to experimentation in acid-induced, surrealistic psychedelia and more.

Clark says a central interest was to make Vacation! more dynamic and less cinematographically controlled than his previous film, Modern Love is Automatic (2009). The collage of digital images, assembled by Clark on Final Cut Pro, combines footage from the primary RED ONE camera (photographed by co-producer Daryl Pittman) and that taken by actress Maggie (Sugar) Ross’s domestic camcorder, operated by the characters themselves as they sassily drive down from Virginia, visit a Finnish artist’s representation of a flying saucer, and make amateur porn videos to ease their loneliness. (There may be some iPhone-captured images in the mix, too.) These, together with the quirky, 1930s-style transitions (clockwise spins and side-swipes, now staples of iMovie editing) give the film a home-movie aesthetic, like the slide show that opens John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970); the up-close and dramatic camerawork, sometimes handheld, also has a distinctly Cassavetes feel.

But Clark was not much interested in discussing influences, although he did make mention of 1980s auteur pornographer Stephen Sayadian, aka “Rinse Dream” (press here for a link to the trailer of his Dr. Caligari). The title song to Vacation! is “Feeling Without Touching” by Glass Candy, a song about the voyeuristic gaze of peep-show and music video. Together with Lydia Hyslop (Lorelei) and Maggie Ross, Clark bemoaned the present state of pornography and the fluorescent lighting it conjures.

There are certain similarities to Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, Death Proof (2007). Both are in the manner of works outside the classic canon (Tarantino’s, the scratchy, sordid exploitation flicks of the 1960s and 70s; Clark’s, the genres mentioned above, plus obscure pornography and the “lurid oversized VHS box covers for Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red” by Jesus Franco). And both, through brilliantly naturalistic dialogue and outstanding casts (Hyslop, Ross, Trieste Kelly Dunn and Melodie Sisk are all terrific) make captivating and sympathetic their nauseatingly shallow characters. This is in addition to the more superficial similarities of plot: four girls away from home find themselves in a horrific situation… But when I mentioned that I thought Vacation! a better double-bill companion for Death Proof than its intended, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Clark detested the comparison. Perhaps his disinterest in talking influences and comparisons stems from the film’s deceptively introspective nature. He writes: “Awake late at night, watching an awful infomercial. Walking out onto the top floor balcony, looking down into the pool to see a drowned frog. Jalapeño potato chips. Trips to the seafood store. A spaceship on the side of the road… These things all happened to me.”

Refreshingly, in spite of what is an otherwise characteristically postmodern work, Vacation! is more interested in dramatizing personal experience than in the perfection of craft and allusion; in a word, quite the opposite of Death Proof (though, as it turns out, Maggie Ross and I share a liking for both films). No doubt it was this quirky, potent originality that made a typically dour and silent, early-morning audience of ladies and gentlemen of the press laugh aloud and even intimate something like an appreciative clap at the end.

Co-producer and actress Melodie Sisk (Dee-dee) and Maggie Ross (Sug-sug) in a surreal acid trip, a cinematic cross between the “Ballet of the Red Shoes” and Stephen Sayadian’s “Dr. Caligari”

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