I Razor is the first feature-length film produced by Circus Devils.  Some readers may be familiar with Circus Devils as the psychedelic rock band of which Robert Pollard (lead singer of Guided By Voices) is a well-known member.  Pollard formed the band with musicians Todd and Tim Tobias in 2001.  The band has released nine critically-favored albums since then.  However, in recent years, the Tobiases have reinvented Circus Devils as a hybrid vehicle for filmmaking projects that are largely free from Pollard’s influence.  This transition from sound into sight has been guided by collaborator Steve Five (lead singer of The Library Is On Fire).  Five has previously worked with Circus Devils to produce the band’s music videos.

It is not completely possible, nor is it expected, for the viewer to separate Circus Devils’ music from its filmmaking.  The title of the film, I Razor, is derived from the song I Razors on Circus Devils’ 2008 album Ataxia.  There are many other subtle references to Circus Devils’ music for the initiated fans.  Circus Devils’ music also serves as the score to the film.

That said, an appreciation of Circus Devils’ music is not necessary as an entry point into I Razor.  The film will appeal to anyone with a taste for independently produced, avant-garde cinema—and potentially to a larger audience, since the film has a sense of humor the genre often lacks.   I Razor challenges common assumptions about society, morality, and reality itself in a way reminiscent of surrealist literature such as Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye or the Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror—although not to the darker extremes of either of those works.

The action in the film primarily occurs in an unnamed Midwestern American city, with some scenes taking place in rural France.  The world presented by the film is similar to our own, except for its population of “Freaks”.  Freaks are humans who have ingested a drug called I Razor.  The drug is said to produce a euphoric feeling in the user that is far stronger than heroin.  Yet the drug also has dramatic side effects.  Those who use it undergo a mutation in which either their heads take an animal form, such as a gorilla or seal, or their faces become caricatures of human faces.  They gain the ability to communicate telepathically, but lose their ability to speak.  On a psychological level, the drug divides the user’s self into seven distinct personalities for an indefinite period of time.

Freaks appear and behave like the most destitute of humanity.  They sleep on sidewalks and in the woods, eat from the trash, purchase booze from strangers off of the street, and have sex with prostitutes.  However, they have high levels of intelligence and are very sensitive to nature.  Most ordinary people are friendly to them, but others are hostile.  Among the Freaks are The Sergeant (Cory Race) and The Professor (Steve Five).  The Sergeant is a reincarnation of Dr. Gregory Fleer, the scientist who invented I Razor and the first human to ever consume the drug; The Professor is The Sergeant’s friend.

The narrative follows The Sergeant and The Professor through a series of their visions and encounters.  The Sergeant is an optimist—he believes there is a cure to the freakish effects caused by I Razor, and that it lies in the hands of a person named Jerome Usher, head of the American Ministry of Medical Science.  The Professor, on the other hand, is pragmatic and a pessimist.  He is indifferent to finding the cure, because he doesn’t believe it would restore him to a better life.  He is more prone to committing acts of violence than The Professor—although what that violence consists of is ambiguous.

For example, in one scene, The Sergeant and The Professor come across a human who is beating a Freak to near death.  The Sergeant warns The Professor not to react.  The Professor disregards The Sergeant and shoots a red beam at the human, instantly disabling him and causing him to grip his chest in pain.  When The Sergeant asks The Professor, “What did you do to him?” The Professor responds: “I gave him a good heart.”

The progression of the scenes in the film must be experienced; a chronological recounting of them would fail to explain their logic.  Together, they explore aspects of the human psyche in ways that transgress conventional social and moral order.  Transgression is a given from the very premise of the film (i.e., drug use), but is most pervasive in the film’s representation of sexuality.  The male Freaks wear outlandish clothes that expose their midriffs or entire chest, and often reveal a plumber’s crack.  Furthermore, their sense of fashion challenges established gender roles (e.g., at times The Sergeant, a male, wears a pink baby-doll t-shirt that reads “Pop Princess”).

The apparent antagonist of the film is Mother Skinny (also played by Cory Race), a female Freak who rides in a wheelchair in a skirt with her legs spread open.  She has eyes, a nose, and a mouth in her crotch area.  In one scene, she summons a hulking minion (the Homunculus, played by Brad Visker) from the earth by placing live human eyes and two orbs that represent testicles onto a heap of dirt shaped like a human figure, and having one of her assistants urinate upon it.  Water sports recur in the film when The Professor is captured, locked in a cage, and Mother Skinny urinates upon him.  There is also an explicit sex scene between The Professor and a prostitute.

Another point of transgression is the film’s contrast of established religion with “true” religion.  In an inspired scene, The Sergeant is teleported to a ruins in the Pyrenees where he is informed that he is one of the only surviving members of the Family of Jesus Christ.  He is told that members of organized Christian churches, who have distorted Christ’s teachings for millennia, will attempt to kill him.  When The Sergeant asks what he should do, the voice—which emanates from a mask of a red devil—tells him to lay no brick to protect his religious beliefs, for any structure built for that purpose will be inhabited by Satan.  The message ends with the teaching, “Hell is no place but the world you create,” and The Sergeant finds himself where he was before the teleportation—6 years and 11 months later.  In their daily lives, The Sergeant and The Professor regularly practice a form of meditation similar to Yoga.

The film presents many other profound contrasts and conflicts—between nature and civilization, sobriety and intoxication, and more.  Hopefully the details revealed above have shown that despite the depth and darkness of the issues broached by I Razor, an absurd sense of humor ripples across them.  That sense of humor is enhanced by the aesthetics of the film.  Cheap special effects, such as the ones you might find on a beginner-level digital camera or video editing program, are blatantly used throughout the film: starbursts radiate from the Freaks bodies when they play musical instruments, and pastoral scenes are sometimes presented in inverted color.  The color palette of the film is unusually bright and sharp, considering the subject matter.

It has been said, in a completely different context (management coaching), that leaders take us to places we wouldn’t go to on our own.  Let Circus Devils and the visual poetry of I Razor take you across boundaries you may have only imagined to exist.

Reviewed by John Koch

 

I Razor
Directed, written, filmed, and edited by Todd Tobias.
Produced by Steve Five
Music by Circus Devils, with vocals by Robert Pollard.

I Razor will debut at Anthology Film Archives in New York, New York on June 5, 2013.  The I Razor DVD and CD/MP3 soundtrack are available now at tobias-music.com

 

SYNOPSIS

Dr. Gregory Fleer, a once brilliant scientist, has created a drug called I Razor – a drug that splits minds into 7 distinct personalities. But when a portion of the male population takes too much, they become subsuperhuman freaks. Follow Sgt. Disco (Steve Five) and Professor Salmon (Cory Race) on a dark journey as phantasm Mother Skinny (Cory Race), the face of pure evil, along with her right hand subhuman The Villain (introducing Brad Visker) and her band of demons seeks to destroy them.

Director’s Statement:

I RAZOR is a film told largely in pictures and music – an immersion into a world experienced by a man whose brain has been permanently altered by an experimental drug known as I Razor. The film was made on a micro-budget using digital SLR cameras, super-8 film, and edited on Final Cut. The presentation is impressionistic and hallucinatory, but the aesthetics of experimentation alone did not guide the vision of the film. Instead, the film is focused squarely on its characters.

I Razor is my film directing debut. Steve Five (the principal actor and Producer) and I began making music videos in 2007. I Razor was filmed in much the same way that we approached the music videos. Trips to thrift shops and costume shops preceded stops at filming locations, often chosen at the spur of the moment. Guerrilla-style filmmaking in public areas was the approach used in shaping many scenes. A homemade green screen was also used in many sequences.
The main protagonist of I Razor is a former scientist turned wandering, telepathic man-child known as “The Sergeant” on account of the mask he wears. The mask is a reminder to The Sergeant that he in fact possesses a single identity in spite of the psychic fragmentation that plagues him.

There are no back story elements to prepare the viewer and offer a narrative foothold into the circumstances leading to the Sergeant’s psychic and spiritual torment. Instead, the film is an immediate immersion into the Sergeant’s bewildering world. Our aim was to create a sympathetic character who serves as the emotional center of gravity in a world that has become hopelessly twisted by his altered perceptions. Although the film will prove to be a challenge for many viewers, we hope that you will join the Sergeant on his strange journey.

-Todd Tobias, director, I RAZOR (July, 2012)

 

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