Sometimes a film charges out of the gate, knocks you on your ass and says, “Get up. Let’s ride”. When you encounter such a film, the critical part of your brain cedes control to the reptilian. Suddenly questions such as “Did the writing really work there?” or “Hmm, that VFX composite is a little shaky” not only fail to seem important, they don’t even occur to you—it’s love at first sight.
This preface is a way of saying that The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger is not a perfect film, but gleefully acknowledging that it is a supremely enjoyable trip. An NYU undergrad film from Michael Lukk Litwak, its immaturity and spotty levels of polish are a more than welcome trade-off for the brio and verve in which the young filmmaker brings to his fantastical subject.
A heroic love story set in a world of laser-wielding T-Rexes and ornery Megalodons, The Life and Death…, is a film that is in love with the adventures of our youth: comic book heroes and mythical warriors, insurmountable enemies and epic loves that resound through the ages. It is harkens back to a simpler time of our lives when, through our own innocence, loves and lives contained the potential for being larger than life.
And yet that innocence is filtered, this is not a un-self-aware work. It mines youth, its tropes and its urgency, yet in this meta-aware age it is impossible to truly create a work that takes human meteorites tunneling to the center of the Earth in full seriousness. This is a playful and funny film, but it is wrapped around a contemporary core, a decidedly “adult” story of the aftermath of happily-ever-after, and how epic romances inevitably give way to the mundanity of routine. This plot-line is not particularly nuanced, but one cannot expect that from a 9 minute short that covers the amount of ground that this one does. That said, the introduction of this melancholy turn is a particularly fine balancing element to the story, the sharp dose of marital difficulty grounds the fantasy and intensifies the emotions, allowing the gleeful moments to soar.
From the first watch of The Life and Death… the film reminded me of another very particular filmmaker whom I love. Though very different in aesthetics, the spirit of films are the same: their speed, their narrative ambition, their un-self conscious celebrations of heroes and human potentiality. I was reminded of the shorts of Ray Tintori, and thus it was a surprise then to see a common collaborator between those projects in the person of Dan Romer. Romer is the composer of this and Tintori’s film Death to the Tinman as well as probably more notably Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here he provides no ordinary score— a rousing, triumphalist epic, punctuated communal claps, blasting horns and swelling builds. It is a tricky thing that Litwak does to suspend an audience’s disbelief with such an absurd plot, and Romer’s score is a major contributor to selling it.
The short had a fine fest run (I awarded it best narrative at the recent Bushwick Film Festival where I served as a juror), but it was through old-school Hollywood networking that Litwak is getting his break. The film got passed around a couple months ago behind the scenes, inspiring heated competition for representation. Eventually signing at CAA and accepting management through the relatively new Grandview Management, Litwak is currently in the process of expanding the film’s world as a feature. While the short was made on the traditional shoestring, it’s been a big challenge to adapt the world via a script that isn’t too expensive for a first feature. We wish Litwak luck. You can follow his ongoing process through his mailing list at his website, and signing up will also unlock a BTS featurette on the making of the film!