Kensho at the Bedfellow, the feature debut film, starring, and written and directed by, Brad Raider, opens with a bang. A literal bang. And a cat. A towering, talking puppet cat, who, when the man we will come to know as our main character, Dan (Raider), staggering, asks, “Is this a dream?”, answers, “It’s an opportunity – to know thyself.” It seems preposterous, of course: what can an over-sized puppet with whiskers have to say about the ontological questions of the self? And on another, more meta, level, a cinema-goer, in the age of slickly immersive computer graphics and special effects, might ask, why am I sitting here looking at a stuffed animal, creakily moving its pretend mouth? Something like Falkor, the Luckdragon, from The Neverending Story, certainly has its place in a children’s movie, in fondly nostalgic memory, or in the evolution of visual effects, but now? This kind of thing in 2016 in a film for adults?
The very audaciousness and seeming ridiculousness of such an opening prepares us for the journey and tone of the film, winding as it does down unexpected paths and embracing both playfulness and seriousness. Even further, the opening gets at the heart the film’s central questions: who am I and why am I here, and how can art – which might not look like life but like only a crude, perhaps silly, representation of life – have anything to say to those fundamental questions of self?
The film explores these questions as it follows a few days in the New York City life of Dan, a one-hit wonder playwright turned Bedfellow hotel doorman, an appropriate career for a man who cannot decide where he belongs and who does not really have a home but co-opts the bed and apartment of a long-suffering friend who gets only promises, not rent-money. Dan’s habit of taking freely from his friends extends into other parts of his life as well: borrowing from his own body’s health, he consumes diet pills and gorges on desserts; carelessly using the women around him – a woman staying at the Bedfellow, a troubled ex-girlfriend – he takes sex and the women’s emotional investment as his right, leaving them behind when convenient.
Dan is, in essence, a devourer of things and other people, clutching at something to fill the void at the center of his being. For he is also a man still struggling with the death of a beloved sister, April (Michelle Cameron), and estranged from his father (Granger Hines), whom he blames for the death. His grief, guilt, and anger translate into his reckless consumption as well as into fear, a fear that cripples his creative life and prevents him from further creative writing. Imagined conversations with his sister about a play he’s not writing betray his desire to create, but he can speak about this writing only with the dead, not with the living beings who surround him. Such engagement, connecting his art and deepest self to living friends and family, is a position of vulnerability he clearly feels he cannot afford.
The problem of how one meaningfully engages with the world, an inevitably painful world, and then faces the risks of such engagement is also explored through the character of Kate (Kaley Ronayne), a childhood friend of Dan and his sister, whose life re-intersects with Dan’s when they attend the same theatrical production. Avoiding play-writing and yet unable to stay away from theater altogether, Dan finds, in that very space of the theater, a person who brings his past into the present and who, unlike Dan, seeks to throw herself and her vulnerabilities into the world headfirst, specifically, into the humanitarian efforts of the IRC, the International Rescue Committee, an organization devoted to the current refugee crisis.
With the introduction of the IRC into the story, we become aware that the film, as a piece of art, has an unusual relationship to our world, a world often more distinct from the fiction on a cinema screen. Many films, were they to include some humanitarian organization in the story, would invent a vague, generalized version of such a group. Here, we realize, the world of the film contains pockets of the specifically real, thus challenging our notion of where life begins and the film ends, where life and art intersect.
There is, perhaps, a peril in making or using such specific real life references; we might raise questions of inclusion or exclusion – should this organization been chosen over that one? – or questions of artistic effort – can a film or any piece of art be true to an artistic vision if it is also committed to a very specific, real world philanthropic one? Might not the art be compromised if it sacrifices story or character to a charitable cause? Or might the humanitarian effort itself be compromised if the portrayal in the film does not live up to certain expectations?
The film challenges, however, the assumption that such endeavors can and should remain separate; it challenges the assumption that art, whether cinematic or theatrical, can and should be solely confined to the space of the screen or stage, rendered inactive once the immediately interactive audience leaves. When Dan tries to excise the pain of his personal history from himself, by gorging himself on everything he can in order to smother his pain and by refusing himself his art in order to avoid more pain, he begins to fall apart. A high-pitched whining buzz begins in his ears; he cannot think; he cannot act. It is as if his mind and soul are in rebellion. They cannot bear the enforced fracturing of the self. Health demands wholeness, it seems, even when that wholeness involves pain.
The implications of the film are that as much as mind, soul, and body, present and past, will always be contained in one person and cannot be separated from one another without a loss of self, life and art also have an intimately reciprocal relationship that feed and nurture one another.
It might seem puzzling, at first, to find in the film two endeavors that seem to have very little in common with one another – the work of the artist and the work of the humanitarian. On the face of it, we might even ask, when a gift might be made to a humanitarian cause, what possible justification is there for supporting the arts? Is not the former always the more worthy work? Through the character of Dan, however, the film explores the idea that art is so embedded into the fabric of life that we cannot do without it nor can we charge the artist with neglect of the more obviously important things, starving children or desperate refugees. Art, in fact, is intrinsic to those very things.
In one moment in the film, Kate, at an IRC rally, enraged at the indifference of passers-by, asks one of the refugees she’s been helping, Mosi (Sahr Ngaujah), why he isn’t angry, too. He doesn’t answer but looks at her, a kind of pity on his face, and turns away, engaging, instead with the singing and drums. There is, it seems, no answer for her but in the music, something which expresses what cannot be expressed otherwise.
And in the climax of the film, Dan, similarly, finds answers when he turns to art, specifically, to the craft he has longed for but has so far refused. All of the details of the extraordinary sequence should be enjoyed in the moment of the film, but we can note they do involve the gigantic puppet cat and a theater stage, two elements that lead Dan into an experience of Kensho, a Zen or Buddhist term Raider invokes in the film to refer to the moment of the enlightenment of the soul, of awakening, of perception.
Raider’s creativity and passion for ideas reach a riveting climax in Dan’s Kensho encounter; it’s a deeply cinematic, visual odyssey, one that evokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Jupiter journey or the beginning of life sequence of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but also offers something new, beautiful images in a stunning variety of artistic genres and tactile little model-figures that remind us again of the theater, its costumed actors and props. In the scene, the parts of Dan’s self, previously at war within, begin to reconcile: his past is in his present, as the odyssey reaches back to his earliest moments. and his awakening happens not apart from art but within it. For him, the enlightenment must involve the empty stage and the cat puppet, a piece of theatrical stagecraft and artifice that, on the surface seems to have nothing to do with the real world and real people, but, ultimately, leads him to the very thing he needs, that re-connection with the life he’s been trying to avoid.
For us, as cinema-goers, the film offers challenges, the questions of how we ourselves engage with life and with the dark fragments of self we’d rather avoid, the questions about what we do with art generally, how we perceive its value and purpose – and finally, what we do with Raider’s film itself, as a piece of art, once we’ve experienced it. Once we experience something, the film implies, it’s been experienced: it’s inextricably a part of the self. And if all art, whatever its artifices or stagecraft, is in some sense intimately connected to life, then art connects the self to life, in old ways and new.
The film, ultimately, is a creative work that is conscious of its effort as a piece of art, and we are asked, implicitly, to engage at that meta-level. The film is a piece of theater; it shows us itself as theater. Indeed, within the film’s story, there is an audience who watches a play; the play’s action is suddenly interrupted by the playwright, who comes on stage and speaks directly to the audience from the stage. But this playwright, it is soon realized, is not the playwright; he is an actor playing the playwright, a revelation that occurs only when the real playwright speaks up, seated from the audience, again interrupting the action – or, rather, continuing to drive it forward on a new but parallel path. And what is real and what is fiction merges. Like the film’s play, the film indicates all art is, in some sense, fractal in nature. The line between actor and director, director and audience, audience and stage, is delightfully permeable, and it is in the embrace of that complex web of intimate connections that Kensho at the Bedfellow exists.
- For a first film, densely packed with ideas and so assured in its filmmaking and in experimentation with genre and style, Kensho is all the more extraordinary in that Raider made it on a micro-budget of $200,000.
- Mirroring the thematically fractal-like content of the film, it is apt that Raider is the film’s writer, director, and central performer, his roles shifting and overlapping in neat complexity. His performance is a compelling one, too, rising to the challenges of the shifting tones of the film – both comic and dramatic – and meeting the demands of the character’s journey. An extraordinarily strong supporting cast surrounds his performance, as well, creating a nice depth in the world of the film.
- Kensho had its premiere in New York in 2015 and has played at festivals and selected screenings around the country, including a screening on September 1, 2016, at the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham, WA, with Brad Raider in attendance.
- The next public screening will be at the Rubin Museum in New York City on January 6, 2017, a space that features as one location in the film and a space where the film’s questions about art will surely be all the more fascinatingly meta-textual. A wider release on online platforms is scheduled for December of 2016.
UPDATE: 2/10/17: Kensho is currently available for pre-sale on iTunes and will be available for streaming on March 8, 2017.