The Secret Life of Janitors

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (Tribeca)

The feature debut of award winning short film director David Russo begins as a journey through the strange life of late-night janitors and ends up a very different kind of odyssey. Marshall Allman is the cubicle monkey Dory, a “Data Meister” who flips out at work and ends up with a janitorial service that cleans up after a market research firm working on an experimental (and, it turns out, highly-addictive) “self-heating cookie.” Given that the cleaners like to sample the goodies left out in the offices, they make perfect test subjects: oblivious, unwitting and unlikely to sue.

Janitors unite (sort of) in Little Dizzle

The side-effects of these chemical-laced snacks are unusual to say the least, at least for the men: cramps, cravings, hallucination and finally giving birth to a living creature. Really: they poop out a little blue fish-like creature. It sounds funny and much of the time it is—Russo has a grand time with this misfit community of night-workers and much of the humor of their work and their social fun and games is drawn from his own years as an after-hours janitor. Plus it delivers one of the great lines of the year, spoken as a couple of janitors peer over what they assume is a weird blue poop left in a toilet: “You guys name your dumps?” “The great ones name themselves.” But when those men face the life that came out of their body, flipping and squirming and gasping for life before expiring, the primal force of those unformed, confused emotions—helplessness, loss, the primitive biological imperative to protect this thing, as alien as it is, that came from their body—is terribly touching.

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David Russo, Little Dizzle and Independent Vision

“Film has always been a personal medium for me. Some people write with journals. I have always made little films that shoot right out of my soul. And I’m making them with my hands.

I profile Seattle-based film director David Russo and his feature film The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (which plays at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend) for the Seattle Weekly.

Morning sickness in the morning shower
Morning shower, morning sickness

For more than 15 years, David Russo has been making films, short films, funded out-of-pocket or by arts grants, rarely seen by a general audience. Until recently, they have been the creation of a solitary artist carving personal visions out of the world around him. His animated shorts typically combine painting, sculpture, photography, music, poetry, and soundscapes on unique moving canvases. In Pan With Us (2003), he takes the cel off the studio animation stand and makes it a canvas floating freely through space. As his paintings are photographed frame by frame on 35mm film, then transformed into a flowing, flying image, the surrounding throngs of people become pixilated, jittery, impermanent things.

I Am (Not) Van Gogh (2005) uses the same stop-motion and animation techniques to produce a visual stream of consciousness, set to a soundtrack of Russo explaining his idea for a project that an arts organization doesn’t understand. To date, his short films have been entirely non-narrative, works of wonder and grace, chaotic and visionary, unlike those of any other artist in Seattle.

Which is why you’ve probably never heard of him. Until now.

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle represents a major leap for Russo: his first feature, his first narrative, and in many ways his first collaborative endeavor. Certainly it’s his first picture with actors (including troubled former starlet Natasha Lyonne), a substantial budget, and the pressures and compromises that inevitably come with indie filmmaking. “It is extremely distracting at first,” says Russo of his 19-day Seattle shoot last year, “especially being the kind of filmmaker I was—that always worked by myself. It was a nightmare.”

Read the complete feature here.

Update 5/21: More from my David Russo interview at the Seattle Weekly here.

The Seattle/Sundance Connection

Three Seattle films will debut at Sundance this year. Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is in the prestigious Dramatic Competition (the most competitive and sought-after section) and David Russo’s feature debut The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle in the Spectrum Competition. The third is a quasi-Seattle production: Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad was shot in Seattle with a mix of local and out-of-town crew, and debuts out of competition.

I haven’t seen the films (did I mention they make their respective world premieres at Sundance?) and I won’t be at the festival, but I’ll do my best to follow their progress both here and at Parallax View, where I will run interviews with both Shelton and Russo.

Meanwhile, I profile the films and Seattle’s independent film scene in general in a feature for the Seattle P-I this week:

This isn’t Seattle’s first invitation to the Sundance, which runs this year through Jan. 25. In 2005, “Police Beat,” inspired by Charles Mudede’s column in The Stranger and directed by Robinson Devor, premiered in the Dramatic Competition, and “Iraq in Fragments” won three awards in the 2006 Documentary Competition before it was nominated for an Oscar.

But this year Seattle comes to Park City in force, and this arrival brings a message along with it: The local filmmaking community is both growing artistically and developing a base of resources, from technicians to post-production facilities. At least for this very specific kind of filmmaking model.

Officially, “Humpday,” which makes its premiere Friday, was made for “under $1 million.” Unofficially, it is surely the lowest-budget production in the Dramatic Competition and one of the very few without the draw of Hollywood actors. Mark Duplass (of “The Puffy Chair” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the blockbuster “The Blair Witch Project”) have some indie cachet, to be sure, but are hardly name draws in an industry that banks on star power and prestige for selling films. Apart from Duplass and Leonard, the cast and crew are drawn from Seattle.

Read the complete feature here.