When I was in middle school in the early 90s, I remember longing to see a movie that accurately mirrored the strange fix I suddenly found myself in, as a sexually-aware but nowhere near sexually-active pre-teen. It seemed like there was no cultural bridge between something like Home Alone (in which the protagonist was plucky, but pre-sexual), and something like Dazed and Confused, where, with the exception of the character played by actual-teenager Wiley Wiggins, the high-schoolers on screen seemed to handle their sexuality with a kind of confidence that would be foreign to most adults. I remember being thirteen years-old, having the body of a child and Mae West's libido, and having no idea how to reconcile the two. I dreamed that someday, someone would make a film that answered my cry for help.
With Wild Tigers I Have Known, 25-year-old director Cam Archer has answered that cry for help -- if not for me, then at least, for some suburban male pre-teen grappling with his new-found homosexual tendencies. The film appeared at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival but has been re-cut (by some reports drastically) in the past year. I didn't see the Wild Tigers in its festival incarnation, but it appears that while narrative structure was never at the top of Archer's 'to do' list, the cut that IFC is releasing today as part of its First Take initiative seems to be somewhat tighter than the version previously reviewed by critics. It's still a puzzle, but Archer and cinematographer Aaron Platt's undeniable feel for stunning imagery helps to smooth some of the more jagged edges.
In the of vaguest terms, Wild Tigers follows the dream-like adventures of Logan (Malcolm Stumpf), a suburban eighth-grader with a problem. While Logan's "best friend" is watching space documentaries and contemplating the path to coolness via "online relationships," Logan is nursing an obsessive crush on a slightly older, local rebel hunk named Rodeo (pronounced like the street in Beverly Hills, not the equally resplendent celebration of steer ropers). Rodeo (played by Patrick White) smokes cigarettes and wears motorcycle boots; he's about twice the height of frail, feminine Logan, and looks like he could crush him without breaking a sweat.
Rodeo nonetheless strikes up a tentative friendship with Logan, against warnings that the younger boy "wants to blow" him, and the two spend a few idyllic afternoons together, exploring woods and caves notorious in the community for housing mountain lions (the "wild tigers" of the title possibly refers to the middle school's mascot; the phrase also pops up in the film's theme song, sung by Cat Power-soundalike Emily Jane White.) Unable to confess his true feelings to Rodeo (even though the older boy undoubtedly has an inkling), Logan smears lipstick on his face and takes on a female alter ego named Leah. Leah propositions Rodeo over the phone, Rodeo dares her to make good on her offer, and Logan has to face the gulf between real life and the fantasy world sprung from his desire.
The version I saw at a press screening last week opens with a amber-infused psychedelic masturbation fantasy sequence, a trope which is recycled throughout. Archer makes it deliberately difficult for the viewer to determine which psychedelic masturbation sequences and hallucinatory phone sex sessions are to be taken at face value, and which are happening in solely in Logan's brain. Unable to locate the film's zero point of "real", the viewer's left to take its imagery at more-or-less face value. What's on screen is often lurid to a fault, and on that score, it's hard to tell where Archer's trying to land on the irony scale. Are we supposed to be laughing at Logan's exploits (real and/or imagined), or swooning along with him?
The movie wears its ancestors on its sleeve -- Tarnation and My Own Private Idaho, sure, but also Kenneth Anger, Warhol, Harmony Korine -- and like all of the above, it comes alive when it abandons traditional storytelling techniques in favor of tableau. Stumpf is asked to stare dead-eyed into the camera with his mouth slightly open so often that, at times, Wild Tigers seems like a film conceived to showcase the young actor's snaggletooth. One bird's-eye-view-shot of Logan -- sprawled out on the couch in his dreary living room, so deep in swoon that he can barely move an arm to pick up a ringing phone -- says more about what's transpiring in the boy's heart and head than the whole of the film's ill-conceived interior monologue narration. More moments like that would have made Wild Tigers I Have Known a knockout.