At a loss on what to review this week for the neo-noir retrospective, I solicited suggestions from Pajiba readers via my Facebook page. My colleague, Brian Prisco, suggested writer-director James Kerwin’s Yesterday Was a Lie (2008). At the time, having not read his post on Netflix Watch Instantly until after finishing the film, I took the recommendation seriously. I looked up the film, saw it was classified as a hybrid of neo-noir and sci-fi with some positive reviews, and started getting my hopes up. You see, a decade ago, an indie neo-noir entitled Memento (2000) forced me on a path towards filmmaking and criticism, so I have a bit of a weak spot for them. Hoping that lightning would strike twice, I roped in a noir-loving friend (and fellow colleague in the Cinema and Media Studies Ph.D. program) to watch the film with me. After about twenty minutes, my potentially former friend turned to me and asked, “Are you sure Prisco wasn’t messing with you?” Now, having read the Netflix story, all I can say is “Bravo Prisco!” If you look up the definition of “gullible” in Merriam-Webster, you’ll find a picture of yours truly contained in the entry.
The film begins with Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown), an investigator seeking psychiatric help following the trauma of being wounded in the midst of a pursuit gone awry. She’s searching for the cagy genius Dudas (John Newton) who may or may not have the key to unlocking the space/time continuum. Dudas is being pursued by another party trying to get their hands on the knowledge, specifically a lanky assassin (Peter “Chewbacca” Mayhew). Along for the ride are a cocktail lounge siren (Chase Masterson) and Hoyle’s fedora and trench coat-wearing partner (Mik Scriba) who attempt to lend their assistance as she begins to breakdown mentally, perhaps serving as a case study of many of the characters’ discussions regarding alternative realities.
As you may have noted by my description, the plot of Yesterday Was a Lie is thinner than Nicole Richie. Essentially, Kerwin throws a bunch of ideas and concepts ranging from psychoanalysis to physics at us through suicide-inducing monologues (a good filmmaker shows, he or she doesn’t tell) that are often laced with more allusions than an episode of “Family Guy.” While the allusions may be high brow in this case, T.S. Eliot rather than Gary Coleman, they do not suffice as a means of providing characterization. Now, I admire when a filmmaker attempts to reach beyond simplistic escapism by threading ideas, philosophies, and devices into a film (see Primer as, well, a prime example). However, when the film exists simply for those reasons and makes no attempt relay them to us using the mechanisms of the form (such as narrative, direction of the mise-en-scène, or character motivation), it becomes meandering lecture. Dialogue, specifically that of the snappy variety, may be very much a part of the noir tradition but snappy dialogue proposing half-baked philosophical treatises makes for both bad noir and bad filmmaking in general.
Moreover, the ideas that Kerwin presents are not exactly presented subtly, a self-destructive quality to have in a mystery. We, as viewers, are continually assaulted with clues that Hoyle’s “reality” should be questioned. Not only is the noir world filled with anachronisms (fedoras, lounge singers, and old Yellow Cabs along side iMacs and digital answering machines) but we’re presented with scenes of Hoyle seeing a psychiatrist, reading Jung, and going to see Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.” Essentially, the key (get it, another device of psychoanalysis!) to the puzzle is presented in such a shrill fashion that only the especially dense would find the film mysterious. Finally, it does not help Kerwin when the key (yes, I meant the repetition there, it’s for the sake of inspiring déjà vu!) has been presented and beautifully handled by other, superior film noirs. Specifically, the film’s failed attempts at drawing upon psychoanalysis immediately made me long for David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Moreover, the blend of noir and sci-fi and the film’s discussions of predetermination had me reaching for my Blu-Rays of the Director’s Cuts to Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998) and, the film that inspired Proyas, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It is both a blessing and a curse for a filmmaker to draw from the same generic/thematic well that has inspired three of the great films of our contemporary period. The success of those films can inspire confidence in the venture but a filmmaker better have the chops to rise to the challenge; Kerwin, sadly, does not.
That does not say the same for the film’s entire crew. While the plot, dialogue, and performances, particularly that of Brown, ultimately sink the ambitiously guided but poorly constructed raft of Yesterday Was a Lie, the film does have two saving graces: its production design and cinematography. The anachronisms of the settings aside, Jill Kerwin really stretched the $200,000 budget of the film and the resulting settings are impressive. Similarly, cinematographer Jason Cochard’s work with HD is stunning, if not occasionally distracting due to feeling overly composed (not a bad quality to have in a bad film). In the end, Yesterday Was a Lie makes for both a hell of a technical demo reel for the personnel involved and for a lesson in how not to write or direct a film.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.