30 Beats is a serious-minded modern sex drama whose strong desire to be hip and relevant is coupled with an even stronger one to appear artistic (“tastefully tawdry” might be the most accurate phrase). Writer and director Alexis Lloyd, in an online conversation after the film screened, told me that she intended 30 Beats to be “about individuals being led out of their routine and comfort zone.” The movie does feature individuals — this might be a better way to describe them than ‘characters’ — but it is far more concerned with having them spout delicately-phrased sexual complaints while cloaked in moody lighting than with illustrating what routines or comfort zones they might have some need to be led out of.
This is to say that the characters take a back seat to the cleverness of the structure, which is about as up-front as it could be. 30 Beats insists on moving in an elaborate, belabored circle (à la its inspiration, Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Reigen, popularly known as La Ronde): we are introduced to some individual or another, a more or less well-off New Yorker; we enjoy their company for a scene or two as we listen to them explain their sexual hang-ups to a second New Yorker, one they invariably want to fuck; then we watch them fade back into the city, leaving their partner to take over as main character; this person moves on to complain to a third person, and so on. The circular structure can’t avoid mimicking Schnitzler’s novel’s most famous film adaptation, which was directed by the magnificent Max Ophuls. But there is no Ophuls magic to 30 Beats: instead of a regal, compassionate Anton Walbrook, it offers a perplexed, smirking Lee Pace; instead of a time jump moving with the seasons, from black leaves to white snow, we get innumerable slow fades on lithe New Yorkers dry-humping; instead of exquisite attention to the detail of the mise-en-scene we get cluttered apartments and city sidewalks.
The hard thing to swallow is that all of this amateur artistry is intended to elevate the cooked-up structure. The most memorable thing isn’t the dialogue we’re supposed to latch on to, but rather the the visuals that distract us. The film is shot with a kind of moody, florid hyper-reality — something like a Janet Jackson music video from the 80s or a sex scene from a Tony Scott film (Top Gun and True Romance come to mind). 30 Beats has a particular look, and it isn’t a bland one; it’s just hard to say exactly why it looks the way it looks, besides some general desire to create mood, to play with lighting, or because of some notion that a dark color scheme will trigger an emotional response more effectively than probing conversation will.
With this movie, Alexis Lloyd has made the jump to features from short films. In a sense she’s done it seamlessly, as if she never stopped trying to make shorts: the most obvious thing about 30 Beats is its structure, which, like the novel it’s based on (or like Richard Linklater’s Slacker) never stays with a character for more than two scenes. This is the perfect paradigm for a maker of short films who is unsure how to hold a feature together: by imitating Schnitzler, Lloyd has covered up her need to see everything in discrete packets rather than as a big picture. Of course, the ronde structure in and of itself doesn’t portend a bad movie; the lack of insight into the characters does.