A slovenly man with obviously fake teeth, dressed like a vagrant, wanders around a bus station. He then looks directly into the camera and begins ranting about how they can see him. The film then cuts to two men watching him on a computer screen, arguing as to what to do about him. He doesn’t match any profile in their files, identified on screen as a wall of computerized faces without hair or teeth. “Clean him, tag him, start a file,” one absent-mindedly says to the other.
So begins SPLIT, one of the most criminally underseen films of 1989. The sole film to date of mathematician Chris Shaw, SPLIT is a low-fi sci-fi film of the most ambitious variety, a bizarre ride of dystopian paranoia, religious allegory, and tongue-in-cheek humor that basically defies description from the computer-generated opening credits (from Shaw’s brother Robert) to the inconclusive ending.
The slovenly man, later named as Starker, wanders into a diner and begins causing a scene by playing with the condiments, snorting Sweet and Low and speaking in various accents, a technique that perplexes the computer keeping tabs on him. After leaving, he’s knocked out by a woman who plants a tracking device on him, but he keeps his pursuers at bay by changing clothes, taking on a professorial disguise complete with fake beard.
Starker makes his way to an art opening, where his attempts to wow some of the patrons with his findings are met with responses like “What you say may be incomprehensible and boring, but that doesn’t make it true.” He does, however, find a kindred spirit of sorts in a pompadoured artist that resembles a young Buster Poindexter, and the pair wander back to the artist’s place after a storyboard on the wall enrages him because it depicts exactly the scene they’re in.
That’s when things get weird.
Starker, you see, has a package in his holdings that looks suspiciously like a urinal cake, and this package, he claims, represents the distilled essence of life. His goal is to get this into the water supply, to wake the world up from their slumber of conformity.
This doesn’t sit well with his trackers, who want to do anything to distract humanity from their meaningless existence, be it “communism, aerobics, religion or pantyhose.” We start to see more of those watching Starker, and the two at the computer are just pawns of a master figure known as The Director (Shaw himself), who is slowly attempting to move his consciousness into another being.
Starker ends up rooming with a talkative waitress and is stalled from his project, occasionally retreating into a psychological hole. He goes out for groceries dressed in drag. People have conversations about the “oscillation and the evolution of consciousness.” A cult is formed. A Pop Tart burns in an oven.
SPLIT has enough ideas to fill a dozen films, and Shaw does a remarkable job for a first-time director of reining them all into one film, even if it sometimes becomes incoherent. The tone is satirical without delving into obvious jokes and ranks alongside films like BORN IN FLAMES, BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET and LIQUID SKY in terms of ambitious science fiction on a minimal budget. Shaw shows a great eye for framing as well, with eye-catching shots throughout the film.
Now, I can’t begin to tell you what it all means, but SPLIT is never less than fascinating, even in moments when the sound quality makes it difficult to understand the dialogue. It would all feel impenetrable if it weren’t for the sly sense of humor Shaw gives the film, with diner customers complaining about their dirty table offhandedly with “we came here for breakfast, not for AIDS,” or the waitress responding to Starker’s paranoia with “Honey, you want persecutions, this world is your oyster!”
SPLIT is such an oddity that you wonder how the hell it got picked up for distribution by AIP Home Video – if ALIEN SPACE AVENGER was a bit in the far suburbs of the normal action films they usually put out, SPLIT is on another planet. It’s probably because of AIP’s less-than-reputable history with films not directed by David Prior that it failed to find any audience on video. My own VHS copy, procured from a long-gone chain store in Milwaukee, has “THIS FILM IS GAY” scrawled across the tape from an irate viewer.
The whole thing feels like an Alex Jones fever dream written by a particularly bitchy Gregg Araki at his best and directed by a young David Cronenberg, and that’s about as close to a description as I can muster. It’s a film that demands multiple viewings to even absorb, much less decode, and I’d love to see some enterprising smaller DVD outfit give SPLIT a good remastering with a release on a newer medium, one that could bring such a fascinating little piece of work to a larger audience. You hear me, Synapse? Vinegar Syndrome? Severin? Shout Factory? Massacre? Anyone?
“We are definitely going to hear again from these people and others involved in this singularly venturesome film,” Los Angeles Times reviewer Kevin Thomas wrote in 1991, when SPLIT made a brief theatrical run after its 1990 VHS release. Sadly, those words were proven wrong, as Shaw has never made another feature, his current website instead promoting his other artistic outlets. He may be retired at this point (according to this write-up on the film, he was 41 at the time of the release), but I’d love to hear Shaw’s input as to the film, its origins and its tragically negligible reception.
Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:
Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at horror hostess MIDNIGHT
Shannon Tweed plays the Most Dangerous Game in LETHAL WOMAN
A lady cop takes her revenge in David DeCoteau’s AMERICAN RAMPAGE