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Hipster Holy Grail: Split (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Split is a well-directed experimental film with a lot of flair and some engaging effects.  Its plot is dense and, at times, impenetrable.  I guess you could call it 1984 by way of Gilliam and Jeunet.  The main problem is that I'm not really sure what I think about it, so I don't actually have a rating for you.

My Rating: ? / 5

The Bit Where I Complain About Not Having Much Time

Hey, Internet, how's it going?  Good?  You feeling pretty relaxed?

Okay, so... sorry to disappoint you, but this week I'm phoning it in again.  I know, I know, I've been slacking off lately.  First Allotment Wives, now this.  I promise that I'll be back to a more regular pattern of writing halfway-decent reviews of actually good movies next week.*

This time around, I'm looking at Split, another one of the lesser movies that I probably shouldn't be writing a review about because I don't actually have a lot to say and I don't actually recommend it all that much.  But since I didn't watch any other movies for the Grail lately, we're all stuck with it.  On with the plot summary!

* Not a guarantee

The Bit Where I Describe the Plot

I got no clue.

This is kind of a tease, isn't it?  "Ooh, look at me, Internet, I'm giving you a weekly dose of cult film and literary analysis!  Please pay attention to me!  This week: I'm telling you nothing whatsoever!"

Sigh.  Let me try this again, guys.  Bear with me.

Split is a pre-Matrix mind-fuck movie about paranoia, art, and the nature of reality.  Its plot generally concerns the misadventures of Starker (Timothy Dwight), a guy on the run from Big Brother types who monitor his every move.

As to who exactly the Big Brother types are, why they're after Starker, and what his motives are, I really can't say.  I hate to admit it, but I really didn't get this movie.  It went as far over my head as any movie ever has before.  Whether that's due to the director's inability to craft a story or my inability to understand a story, I leave up to your determination.

Let me try this a different approach.  I don't know what the movie's about, but maybe I can at least tell you some of the things that happened.

The Bit Where I Describe Things That Happened

Starker wanders around a city while dressed like a bum and wearing false teeth.  He acts all crazy-pops and bugs out into a hidden camera on the side of a bus.  Shady Government Dudes spot him and say, "That's weird.  You think we oughta follow this guy?" They think on it and then decide, "Nah, no reason to follow him. Yet."  Then they decide to follow him.

The SGDs use some primitive form of codified electrical programming that vaguely resembles "computer software" to try to discover Starker's identity.  They do this by running his picture against a database of literally tens of other faces.  Mysteriously, they don't get a positive result.  They designate Starker a mystery and decide they need to probe further in their investigation.

Starker goes to a diner and wigs out while ripping open sugar packets and dumping them all over his table.  He briefly affects a vaguely European accent and mutters nonsense, which hidden microphones pick up on and feed back to the SGDs.  They again use their crazy non-technology to analyze the sound waves of Starker's ramblings, and once again determine that his identity is a mystery.

Some of the other patrons are getting afraid of Starker, so a Beefy Bystander (a beefstander?) shoves him out into the street.  Starker accidentally leaves behind a Not At All Suspicious Parcel.  He wanders off into an alley and then gets knocked out by a Mystery Woman(?), who inserts a tracking device into his jacket.

When Starker regains consciousness, he realizes he dropped his NAAS Parcel and goes back to the diner to grab it.  He digs through some trash and freaks out a worker, finds his stuff, and runs away.

Starker goes to a dumpster in a different alley and pulls out a bag that he had previously hidden, which contains a change of clothes.  He goes through a quick costume change and emerges in disguise as a Pretentious Art Critic, then ditches his bum costume in the dumpster.  A different bum comes by and picks up his old jacket, thus carrying the tracking device unintentionally and completely deflating any tension that could possibly have arisen from Starker being on the SGDs' radar.

Next stop: a swinging Art Party.  Starker goes to a new art installation where a loudmouthed dude, The Artist, is raving about "breaking out of the system."  Starker seems to be here to steal all the free food that is out for the guests, but somehow gets trapped in a conversation with The Artist (John Flynn).  And this is where the movie really starts to get weird.

They have a long and intricate conversation about the meaning of art and society and, like, life, man.  The Artist walks through a bunch of exhibits - possibly his, possibly somebody else's - and keeps throwing out convoluted ramblings.  Then he points to a huge storyboard on the wall that actually is storyboarding the movie itself, which naturally means the camera focuses in on a card showing The Artist pointing at the storyboard.  He complains about the plot for a bit, and then he and Starker decide to leave the party to go somewhere else.

Okay, now this is where the movie lost me.  They end up going to The Artist's place, a spacious loft inside of which The Artist has set up a camping tent.  After discussing art a bit more, Starker pulls out his NAAS Parcel and reveals a floppy, fleshy, circular glob thing (let's just call it a "device") and tells The Artist that it will change the way people look at the world.

Meanwhile, the SGDs go to their boss, the Agency Director (Chris Shaw, also the director), a bio-mechanical man who hangs upside-down from a sprawling contraption made up of metal tubes and ductwork.  They basically discuss that Starker has the device and that he should not, under any circumstances, use it.

Then Starker uses the device (I think?).  The screen distorts, we hear some crazy sound effects, and The Artist is suddenly on a beach watching a naked woman flex and stretch.  He passes out, then wakes up back in his tent/loft.  Starker is gone.

Now Starker is in a new disguise - I think as Aladdin, maybe?  He wanders through a street festival, gets chased by an SGD, and then a bum yells at an old couple. An SGD abducts the bum and we smash-cut to black.

Fade-in on Susan (Joan Bechtel), a random woman who works at a diner.  She finds an undisguised Starker laying in an alley, apparently beaten, and then they get into a long argument about something that apparently happened off-camera.

Okay, so this is really where the movie gets confusing.  Starker crashes at Susan's place for awhile and they keep having fights as if they walked in from another movie.  The bio-mechanical man and the SGDs keep getting angry and looking for him.  Then Starker dresses up in drag and goes to hunt down the bio-mechanical man's lair.  He finds it seemingly without any problem and bangs on the door to be let in.  The SGDs grab him and strap him into a device.  An Arbitrary Scientist explains that the device will transfer the Agency Director's consciousness into Starker's body. Instead, the machine just transforms him into a douchebag in blackface.  The Agency Director gets pissy about it and screams.  Blackface Starker wigs out again, then leaves.  Fade to black.

Alright, now here's the part where the movie gets weird.  We fade-in on a gun that one of the SGDs finds in the street.  They run a fingerprint scan and find out that it belonged to Starker.  The Director gets angry and commands the SGDs to find Starker.  Cut to Starker disguised as a punk.  The SGDs track him down and chase him.  He goes through a couple more costume changes while being chased.  Then he runs into an alley where the camera spins out of control as if gravity has just been screwed up, and Starker is tossed all over the place like he's in a washing machine.  Cut back to the Agency Director, whose skin is falling off to reveal a powdery, grey humanoid thing underneath.  Starker runs out into an open field while the Director pokes at a bunch of machinery and starts writhing on the floor.

Eventually Starker finds a puddle in the field.  He looks at his reflection.  Cut back to the Director, who is bent over the floor.  The Director punches into the floor.  Cut back to Starker.  The Director's arm comes out of the water and strangles him.


The Bit Where I Struggle at the Movie's Meaning

I really don't know what this is about.

It must have something to do with the nature of creating art, but I don't know exactly what.  Up to a certain point, I would guess that Starker's mystery device is basically just the literal analogue of the meaning of art, and the Director is literally a film director trying to figure out what his movie is supposed to mean.  Which gives my failure to grasp the movie a not-insignificant amount of irony.

The movie's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  The film has some incredible shots and some amazing effects (considering the budget).  The set design is fantastic.  As a whole, the movie looks really, really good - so good that I don't understand why Mr. Shaw didn't direct another movie after this.  But all of this pizzazz seems to have shoved aside the parts of the movie that set up a narrative.

The Bit Where I Mention Again That I'm an Idiot

I hate admitting that I don't understand movies.  Not only do I feel like an idiot, I also feel like a failure.  It's my duty as a writer and critic to be fully in command of my subject matter before I blather to the Internet, but I've got a deadline to meet.

So, I apologize for the low effort involved in this review - if you can really call it that instead of just a plot summary.  But if you'd like to watch Split and see for yourself if you have a good interpretation, feel free: it's available in full on Youtube.