Film reviews

Ivans xtc (2000) – Blu-ray Review

I didn’t enjoy Ivans xtc when I scanned it the first time in my teens. I had little knowledge of Danny Huston’s lineage. My opinions on movies outside set parameters were as wispy as vapour. I was still quite young. Almost out of my teens, if not already in my twenties. An age where many still hold the belief of immortality.

I was a fan of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992). A fan of Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse (1988). Upon my first watch of Ivans xtc, I was deeply unsure of a Hollywood drama based on an 1886 Leo Tolstoy novella. Of course, as we grow older, we grow wiser.

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Ivans xtc peers around the curtain into the life of Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), by starting with his death. Beckman was a popular Hollywood talent agent, albeit one who had more than his share of detractors. When news of his death ripples through his office, the other agents take a moment of silence before they almost immediately get back to their morning meeting.

Before the news was confirmed, members of the office were already dismissive of what may have happened to Ivan. A womaniser and recreational drug taker, even at the man’s funeral, before we have even met Ivan, there is an altercation between obnoxious movie star Don West (Peter Weller) and director Danny McTeague (James Merendino).

We are whisked back to the last days of Ivan’s life in which we see him interact with the people who inhabit his life. With his Cheshire cat grin, we watch Ivan’s chicanery as he brokers a deal with Danny which brings Don into his orbit. He operates with kindness but also with a silent ruthlessness. Listen to what everyone says about Weeds, the film that Ivan is shopping for McTeague. This is how you realise how good Ivan is at his job.

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Ivan is informed about his diagnosis, yet like the moment of silence held for him early in the film, he swiftly continues with his “work”. The schmoozing. The binging. The bickering with his girlfriend Charlotte White (Lisa Enos). All the while never informing anyone of the situation.

If it feels like I have given away too much, do not worry. Ivans xtc, like jazz, is more about lies within the notes than the notes themselves. Like Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Ivans xtc is more about how the weight of mortality suddenly presses on a person when they must stare graveness head-on. In Cleo our protagonist, despite her arrogance, finds herself submerged in art. through music, sculpture, cinema even street performance. In Ivans xtc, we see a man who produces movies submerge himself within the vapid and crude nature of the world he helps propagate.

Ivans xtc was the first collaboration between director Bernard Rose and producer Lisa Enos. Enos, a filmmaker in her own right, had reportedly at first refused to work with Rose, whom she had started dating, before a trip to try out Digital HD cameras had Enos reconsider Rose’s idea to produce a novella. The ease and relative cheapness of digital cameras allowed the filmmakers a sense of cinematic freedom that is now looked at as quaint in a world full of powerful phone cameras.

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However, at the turn of the millennium, it is easy to see that Ivans xtc is an experiment fueled by Rose’s wish to challenge Hollywood’s status quo. The digital “Dogme 95” look may be a distraction at first, but the camera placement is never arbitrary and the documentary look and feel of the piece only adds to its tone. It is difficult to imagine such an indictment of the corporate Hollywood system, shot in a typical, romanticised Hollywood form. Rose utilises the form in a similar way to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2001); a film that combined consumer-grade HD cameras for its story scenes and 16mm film for the show sequences. Both films use digital video to ground and illustrate the “realness” of what is occurring. The look is not just used for efficiency.

For a film shot on digital video, with the director and producer wrangling their Hollywood friends and colleagues together to star in it, the performances hit home. Danny Huston, a man with great Hollywood lineage, takes his first lead role by the scruff of its neck and runs with it. Roger Ebert states that Huston “plays Ivan Beckman as the sort of man who believes he cannot be touched.” I strongly concur.

Ivan plays with his life as if he is playing chess with death and he’s just taken the queen. Peter Weller is an absolute force of nature in the film, nailing an audience’s suspicions of what Hollywood actors are really like. Frighteningly in an age of social media, in which actors can find themselves in front of an audience without their PR for damage control, Weller’s repellent character traits, now 20 years older, simply feel more confirmed.

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Praise should also go to Lisa Enos, whose portrait of Charlotte gleefully betrays the typical, condescending performances a female actress can often get shoved into in a film like this. Enos plays Charlotte as a woman whose heart is coated by a thin layer of ice. Refusing to divulge any deeper feeling for Ivan because not only does she know what he is like, but because she is just as ruthless.

It is the blending of the digital video and the blunt force of the performances which makes Ivans xtc work. Infiltrating the cinematic landscape after Dogme 95, but before mumblecore, the film finds itself as an experimental text which uses the tech of the millennium to make a scathing denouncement of morality within the industrial entertainment complex.

The original Tartan distributed Region 2 disc of Ivan xtc was light on extras. This revamped Arrow Blu-ray is solid for the enthusiast. There are three different cuts of the film: two versions of the theatrical cut in frame rates of 60i and 24fps along with an extended producer’s cut. Producer Lisa Enos prefers the 60i version; however, one will not be surprised if viewers sway towards the 24fps version to regain a touch of the filmic in the viewing.

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As a co-writer of the film, Enos’ DNA is deeply embedded in it. The bonus features pull focus on the role that she played in the film’s creation. While the film is said to be cribbed off the life and early death of hotshot agent Jay Moloney, Enos details in the bonus material the part her mother’s untimely passing had to play in the film’s narrative. Establishing the cold, just-business nature of the Hollywood system while people’s personal lives fray and loosen at the edges. Two archival interviews from 2001 talk in-depth about where both Rose and Enos were coming from in the creation of the film.

The main highlight is Charlotte’s story, an extra made during the 2020 lockdown. Originally intended to be a full-on making-of documentary, while cut short due to the pandemic, the short focuses on Enos reminiscing her time in producing and interacting with her children. The short holds a certain amount of poignancy. There’s a feeling that Enos escaped the craziness of Hollywood, although the passion of making films has never fully left her. Audio commentary with Enos and a rather unremarkable Q&A round up the extras.

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As the film loops within itself, we find Ivan trying to seek solace in painful places, and see how cold the world he inhabits is. Films about Tinseltown, even when they are jabbing at it, often have people on board. Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) is a great example of this. Reviews claimed it as pleasurable and a return to form. Adaptation (2002) got merrily nominated for Oscars. Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a stone-cold classic perhaps because of its dry humour and spiky barbs.

Ivans xtc is light on forgiveness, and challenging from so many points. From the way, it is filmed to encouraging the viewer to gaze upon the self-destruction of a Hollywood agent of all people. But there is a small moment where Ivan is given a congratulatory hug. His face falls. His eyes shut tight. It is a moment I missed in my original viewing all those years ago. A moment of realisation. Whoever we may be, we may all need that moment of solace one day.

Ivans xtc is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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