Attack of Theory Zombies!

For the past few decades, an evil plague has spread through the halls of colleges across the land; we'll call its sufferers the Theory Zombies. Theory Zombies spend years of their lives analyzing the arts to the point of madness, often taking a few things that are fine in their own right—say, Marxism, feminism and mid-'60s sitcoms–and swirling them all together in a lumpy, unpalatable stew. Thus you get endless dissertations about sex as capital based on some 30-second scene in an ancient Gilligan's Island rerun. Theory Zombies are extremely dogmatic and witheringly unfun to be around, and if you've ever been trapped with one for 10 minutes–if you have ever in your life heard the phrases “postmodernism” or “the male gaze”–then reading this now is probably triggering some pretty traumatic flashbacks.

Theory Zombies are relatively harmless when they stick to their own kind and confine their babble to classrooms and academic conferences, so the rest of us can go about our business blissfully unmolested by their existence. But Theory Zombies have an unfortunate tendency to attempt original art themselves, and this accounts for much of the slop you'll find smeared across gallery walls or splashed across the big screen at college short-film festivals. For a Theory Zombie artist, original ideas are beside the point; what matters is taking in other people's ideas, breaking them down into fragments, and then spewing the whole poorly digested mess out again. If this description calls to mind the body's elimination process, I confess that this was hardly accidental.

Based on the evidence before us, I think it's safe to conclude that local filmmaker Jeff Napolitano is or was at one time infected with the Theory Zombie virus, but it has not completely eaten away his brains. The subject retains clear traces of talent and originality, even if it can be difficult to detect among all the artsy-fartsy-isms. His Real Death on the Screen is a sometimes fascinating, often infuriating and always puzzling experience, a picture that lurches into narrative for a while but then goes off into segments where the action runs backward and people holler and make funny faces for no good reason.

When the film does bother to have an actual story, it holds your interest: Johnny Ionnis, a disturbed aspiring director bent on creating the ultimate reality show, schemes to abduct a whiny actor and starve the poor schnook to death on camera. There's the potential here for a thrillingly wicked picture of the King of Comedy school. But every time you start getting interested, Real Death degenerates into incoherent silliness . . . and then, just when you're ready to give up hope, the film gets interesting again. Onscreen, the film's direction is credited to Ionnis; it's probably a Blair Witch-ian publicity gambit, although I fear that even that could be intended as a commentary on authorial anonymity or some damn thing.

Real Death functions as an introduction to a talent that's intriguing though still as raw as a newborn oyster. It's too soon to tell if this is as good as Napolitano will ever get or if he has some real stories to tell, but it'll be interesting to see which way he goes from here. If he stays well away from textbooks for a while, if he can back off from commentary about the nature of Story and get down in the murk to actually work out his story, he might just have an actual movie in him someday.


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