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Imaginative, funny, savage musical satire; Kudos for Bruce Arnston!
Read on, and consider the vehemence with which others have attacked EXISTO -- why, I wonder, are they so infuriated at this movie? They could have turned it off or walked out any time.
First off, for those nay-sayers already posting reviews here on IMDb, the initial concentration of Tennessee-based reviews isn't reflective of filmmakers stacking the deck -- this film has been without a distributor and has only been seen at film fests and regionally, like, in Tennessee. I've seen it thanks initially to a friend who was born down south and now lives up here in the Godless north, and since worked to book it at a local film festival here in VT back in the spring.
EXISTO exist-os in two versions: Coke Sams's original cut, which opens with Gailard Sartain's hilarious song "Do Me," and a later (2004?) film festival slight re-edit with a whole new beginning, which provides a succinct backstory for Existo as a character and political context for the film proper, stating it as a W. Bush-era satire, though the film itself (shot in '98) predates Bush's presidency. Thus, it's pretty clear Sams, Bruce Arnston (a musical genius and satirist extraordinaire) and crew could clearly see where this country was headed before the '90s were out, and EXISTO is as timely as ever -- hence, its production was prescient more than reactionary in terms of its dystopian theocracy setting. How times change: America has become Nashville.
The Nashville-based talent was indeed behind the entire ERNEST phenomenon, and in fact Existo (Arnston) was a fixture on the old Coke Sams/John Cherry produced/directed HEY VERN, IT'S ERNEST! TV series, in a less activist fetal form -- a maladroit stage illusionist, Existo the Magician (note Jackie Welch, terrific here as Maxine, was also a regular on the show, as were Sartain and others). Arnston also contributed clever musical spots to that program, as he did for at least one of the ERNEST films, and he and Welch worked again with Sams after EXISTO touring with a country-western musical comedy duo Bill & Coo, which hopefully will reach fruition in a form more folks can see.
The semi-claustrophobic nature of the film is due to its being set in the underground nightclub scene Existo and Maxine return to in the opening. It's essentially a theater film, and that primary-set aspect (which again seems to be fueling some reviewers here) is apropos; as in films as diverse as THE BLUE ANGEL, CABARET, CAFE FLESH and TOPSY-TURVY, the core set IS the stage Existo performs on. Thus, apart from some key set pieces (in the posh renovated restaurant supplanting a former underground performance space, the estate Existo and Penelope retreat to, and some exteriors), it all centers around the club, a conceit some obviously chafe at though it's not reflective of low-budget paucity of imagination, it's integral to the concept and characters itself. If that's a negative for you, too bad. Theater films are, by their nature, often prescribed in their settings; this is not per se indicative of cheapness.
Having spent time working theater in my college years, I can attest to the accuracy with which the film captures that insular universe, which is part of its appeal -- clearly, the filmmakers are also extrapolating from their own close-knit theatrical/video troupe. Again, despite the strong negative reviews here, there is a fine story at work -- the plot kicks in after the setup of the characters and world they live in. Every musical number (and this is a musical, as much as ROCKY HORROR, THE WICKER MAN, FORBIDDEN ZONE, etc.) is brilliantly executed, advancing characters and narrative with deft skill while being in and of themselves outstanding: brilliant, audacious, hilarious, akin to Trey Parker's abilities (though Arnston is, to my ear, by far the better musician and sharper talent; I've since snapped up the CD and love spinning it while working). To my mind, Arnston is an unsung musical genius, his entire body of work embracing (with seeming effortlessness) all idioms, genres and target audiences at one time or another, his wit quick and range astonishing. He's at the center of EXISTO, and it's his film.
Seen today, EXISTO is still a pointed, funny and pretty savage snapshot of the "Land of the Free" since the Reagan Administration, "Contract With (read:On) America" anti-NEA ReBiblican era of politics kicked into full swing. Though the film's antic flamboyance deliberately undercuts any sense of mortal danger, Existo and his band of guerrilla performance artists are fighting for their lives against crushing political repression, making the film a curious companion to V FOR VENDETTA; in fact, in some ways EXISTO is closer to aspects of the original Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel (created in the 1980s, reflecting Moore & Lloyd's anxiety over Thatcher's reign), retaining and expanding the music hall/cabaret element of the original V that the film adaptation ditched. Existo and his cronies, though, are less lethal compatriots, aiming to blow minds instead of Parliament.
The venom leveled against this film by some of the IMDb reviewers is indicative of the reactions EXISTO elicits: viewers either love it or hate it. I've seen this at every showing; like a Guy Maddin film or offbeat musical oddities like FORBIDDEN ZONE or CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL, EXISTO brooks no safe middle ground. Walkouts happen, but those who are caught in the film's glow find it intoxicating, and are cheering by the finale. Those of us who love it want to see EXISTO reach a much wider audience, and it hasn't lost its bite over the years. If anything, the teeth sink deeper, as the reality of US politics and society are closer to the fictional future EXISTO posited over seven years ago.
The impatience of some viewers to any non-traditional form of cinematic satire shouldn't keep those receptive to this gem away. Give it a shot -- it's a great film!
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