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Sally's Hounds

The Moviegoer

By Peter Jaszi

In his first full-length motion picture, Yale film kingpin Robert Edlestein takes firm hold on a familiar visual metaphor, and by applying a vigorous half-twist makes it fresh, contemporary, and personal. The paired figures of the Fair Maiden and the Dark Lady, representing the constructive and destructive principles of sexuality, are as old as American storytelling. In Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler has traced them through historical American fiction, but to a movie audience they are especially familiar as the conventional alternatives offered to the male protagonists of countless Hollywood features. In Sally's Hounds, Edlestein conducts a running personal argument with a number of cinematic conventions, ranging from accepted cutting technique to standards of careful plotting, and he does not exempt these feminine types from scrutiny. The first important triumph of the film is the skill with which he preserves and uses these stereotypes, revivifying them by reversing their conventional values: the unattainable blonde dream-girl, Sally, becomes the corrupter and destroyer, while the mundane, available brunette, Kate, is the builder and comforter.

Sally's Hounds is the story of a confused, moody young man named John, of his placidly domestic love relation with Kate, its progressive decay under the influence of his growing fascination with the mysterious Sally, and, finally, of his own violent destruction. It is a strong, simple story, and Edlestein has had the good judgment and integrity to treat it absolutely seriously. His film seldom veers toward the melodramatic and never toward easy undercutting of his characters and their hang-ups. He has set himself a hard task, balancing his story on the fine line between the maudlin and the ridiculous. But his equilibrium is good, his eye is true, and Sally's Hounds succeeds as a domestic tragedy of late-adolescent emotional life and sexuality.

Loosely plotted and indifferently acted, Sally's Hounds succeeds because of Edlestein's skills at shooting and cutting film with evocative force. Concerned with evoking ideas as well as moods, Edelstein pictures complete characters rather than functional ciphers, and uses rather than imitates screen conventions. The movie offers a succession of extremely beautiful shots, but that beauty is focused into specific and meaningful chains of related imagery. He manages not only to realize his major characters and make their destructive interrelations both plausible and touching, but also to expose through visual analysis a contemporary emotional tendency as real as it is dangerous: Sally is a destroyer not because she is evil, but because she is inert, drawn constantly toward blank-faced sleep and nameless dreams. She is an ambulatory case of emotional paralysis, and throughout Sally's Hounds, she infects everyone she touches with that disease.

The extent to which characterization and thematic development in Sally's Hounds must be carried by visual technique is startling. The film lacks for conventional dramatic structure: the narrative is essentially linear, but scenes tend to be of near equal length, regardless of their functional importance; the absence of any special optical cuts (fades, dissolves) tends to give all transitions the same weight.

The spoken narration, though necessary in part for sense, is more of a low-level irritant than a dramatic advantage, and the occasional snippets of music seem too often either obvious or inappropriate. The actor's chief virtues are as objects rather than performers: Robin Woodard as Sally has an appropriately blank countenance, and a fascinating profile, which Edlestein uses repeatedly, often backlit, to suggest her mysterious vacuity; Hope Wilson as Kate is blessed with straightforward beauty and a rare up-from-under smile; Eric Sherman as John has a face which suggests a different value from every angle, by turns smug or harassed, depressed, or elated, dull or clever. Edlestein himself, playing Kate's friend Paul, provides the only really acted characterization in the film.

Edlestein's directional gifts, however, are not limited to creating characterizations without actors. He has, in fact, an effective and highly developed personal style. Values are evoked early in the film in association with types of images and varieties of camera movement. Water (in pools, cascades, rivers, oceans) is continually associated with mystery and emotional confusion. It is a barrier, literally separating the characters, or figuratively suggesting their failures of insight. Wire fences, slats, and latticework also recur as a motif of division and isolation. Concrete architectural elements abound in certain sequences, carrying with them an implication of desolation and sterility. Repeated images of speeding trains come to be emblems of the growing disorder of the characters' emotional lives. Similarly, in a film which is built around static compositions and slow, graceful movements, all rapid pans and tracks come to carry a suggestion of disruption.

Perhaps the most personal element of Edlestein's shooting style is his use of light to convey subtle moods. Especially impressive are the exterior sequences involving Sally and John, typically shot on the edge of overexposure, with a harsh, grainy film texture; the domestic interiors featuring John and Kate are richly and softly shadowed, a heavy dependence placed on natural light sources.

Edlestein has also developed a highly original cutting style: in most of the important sequences, he tends to cut between shots which are related in sense and overall composition, but which do not develop directly out of each other with conventional, fluid continuity. He will frequently interrupt a functional cut with a brief emblematic or detail (memorable among such cuts is a phone conversation in which images of the two speakers are interspersed with rapid pans along fence-like telephone wires) and this liberated cutting style allows him to use disparate materials--still photographs, newspaper headlines, etc.--with ease and effectiveness.

Measured by its originality, seriousness, consistency of characterization and imagery, or emotional force, Sally's Hounds would be an auspicious debut. Measured by all these taken together, it is something more, a first film of first quality.

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