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You know that game when someone tweaks you by saying, “Oops, a spot of something,” points down below your chin, you look down, and they tap your nose, saying, “Ha! Made you look!” That’s kind of the way I feel having seen a first-time film called Coat of Snow from a Colorado filmmaker.

But I was surprised at what I found when I did look.

Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain

Film is as much a subject of Coat of Snow as is the women's relationships
Film is as much a subject of Coat of Snow as is the women’s relationships

At first I wondered what the heck I was watching. I remembered “Colorado filmmaker” and a couple of notes about screenings and prizes at recent film festivals. Its title had evoked in my mind a sober emotional drama, but what I saw was a handheld video of a bunch of young women who are either acting badly or not acting at all, gathered to celebrate and document one woman’s last night of bachelorettedom.

Some people will shut off Coat of Snow long before a woman under the influence leans over a semi-destroyed cake, saying dreamily, “It looks like a cake!” and her friend behind the camera giggles, “A cake attacked by a pothead!”

Still more people will shut it off as the women careen from one location to another in search of a party for their friend that never quite gets going.

The Man Behind the Curtain

I knew that Coat of Snow’s director and writer (Gordy Hoffman) was definitely not the person behind the camera, so it was clearly not just a home movie or a reality-show sort of setup. It just looked like one of those things. I found myself intrigued by what a person could possibly be trying to do with this mess of footage, how exactly this was directed. Soon, under the dual pressures of the impending wedding and being filmed, people started behaving badly and I gathered a few more clues. Most of the suspense for me in watching the group’s antics came from wishing I could ask the director on the spot whether any of the film was scripted or whether the actresses were just gathered and given the scenario and told to run with it.

The film’s actresses are, for better or for worse, both one of the film’s main subjects and its weakest links. The sniping among the bachelorette party participants feels like the direct product of years of TV reality-show viewings and may lose this film more viewers still. I wouldn’t blame them, given the director’s apparent disregard of any need for credibility in the form of what looks like either a bad or no script (are these even people? in a group of six or seven women, no one calls for help when their friend is said to be drunk and in the water “over there”), the handheld camerawork and the running commentary by the person behind the camera, and the lack of a proper storyline.

Disgusted viewers might even be forgiven for thinking they’ve been a victim of an amateurish hoax or promotional stunt on the part of some college senior who made a Truly Awful Movie, more fodder for the many years of cocktail party chatter to come. Those would all be unsurprising conclusions to draw from watching a little of this decidedly lowbrow film, with all the women’s coarse language and subject matter, and alcohol and drug use. Saying something surprising isn’t the same as creating drama or suspense; I found it frustrating when after an hour I still could not muster any compassion for the characters.

Is That Thing On?

As one snafu or disaster after another befell these women, however, I started noticing how often the women commented on what the camerawoman was filming. Film can be opaque and transparent; a director can choose to magnify or obscure. Here, the director showed how film kept arising as an awkward barrier between the women taking part in a ritual; yet the film itself is what allowed this event to be transparent to us.

By the end of the film, film is as much a subject of Coat of Snow as is the women’s relationships. Because the bride-to-be has expressly asked that her bachelorette party be filmed,she and her friends share an unspoken but clear expectation that the camera operator will stop the camera when stuff gets dicey. But noooooo. She does not. Even when Shauna says she is stopping the camera, she usually lets it roll (a cameraperson’s typical trick).

There are plenty of hints that the director is fully aware of these issues. The camera operator declares at one point that she does not want to be in front of the camera; yet later she can’t seem to leave herself out of the center of the action. When they have a car accident, the women talk the guy whose car they hit into filming their acceptance of responsibility for the accident instead of calling the police in to investigate; he agrees but then his concern about his appearance on their film takes over to a comical degree (this film is set in Los Angeles, where everyone’s an actor).

It’s the Medium, Not the Message

It was fascinating to watch this unspool, coming as quite a contrast to my recent dose of Hal Hartley’s highly scripted dramas (Henry Fool and the new feature following up on the same story, Fay Grim, as well as one from twenty years ago that looked just like these). In Hartley’s films, everything is in his control. But this is a different kind of direction, not exaggerating the contribution of each of the components of a movie the way Hartley does but instead appearing to disregard parts wholesale (acting, sound quality, storytelling) entirely and focusing on the medium itself.

Coat of Snow, with its passel of beautiful young women acting bad (lots of profanity, alcohol, and drug use) and badly, and questioning the camerawoman’s motives in keeping the camera running at all times, offers some human theater, in which relationships expand and contract under various stresses over the course of one night. That the film itself is part of the pressure exerted on the group makes for a fascinating exploration of film’s effects on people.

At the film’s end I still wondered whether any of the film was scripted, and I’ve made my own guess (some, but not much). For a while, I found this thought experiment to be more suspenseful than what I suspect was a similar indie film experiment with a slightly higher profile, The Anniversary Party, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cummings’ directorial debut. In that 2001 film, a group of friends bare their souls at a party on one rollercoaster of an evening in L.A., and it has a few startling and worthwhile moments. But in both films you’re not left with much to savor.

The Rough Guide to Bachelorette Parties

Coat of Snow is an ambitious bit of commentary in perhaps too-cunning a cinema verite disguise. As interesting as this very intellectual experiment is, with its built-in commentary on film and filmmaking, it lacks the reward of entertainment value in the form of the things that some people call “polish”: professional camera work, convincing acting, a sense that a story is unfolding and going somewhere on purpose. Instead, the drunk and stoned characters lurch from one jolt to another: a car accident, a meltdown, a revelation (“He murdered a little girl!”), with the occasional funny exchange or interesting speech, including the one that is the source of the title. In true Real World style, whether intentionally or not, these women are simply too annoyingly whiny with each other in the face of their series of disasters to relish watching for much time.

Coat of Snow is Gordy Hoffman’s directorial debut and second feature screenplay (Love Liza, in 2001, was his first and starred his younger brother, Philip Seymour Hoffman). Even though I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of watching the film, Gordy Hoffman made me think, and for that I commend him. He made me look, and he made me think.