October 2nd, 2016
Review by Mark Schwab
Douglas Reese has always been an intensely personal filmmaker. His narrative features and short films always carry that personal edge from his superb PAZUZU to his recent feature WARWICK. You can feel the authenticity sweating up there on screen where his stories and characters (and yes, even his performances as an actor) come from a place deep inside his soul. It's brave filmmaking to interpret your demons as a storyteller in such a way that the audience can't help but understand that this time it's personal. They may not always traditionally "work" as movies but they are always worthy of watching and impossible to just dismiss.
Well now Reese is really working without a net with his new documentary THE TRASH. This film isn't just personal...it's his actual past. And it isn't just an interpretation...it's his personally recorded video evidence of a severely dysfunctional family where booze, drugs, guns and poverty all contribute to a fever swamp of childhood trauma. Imagine Harmony Korine's GUMMO played out for real.
We are cautiously introduced to Reese's story via grainy VHS home movie tapes. It begins somewhat reasonably as he is raised by his caring grandparents when his mother runs off with her addict boyfriend (and Reese's father) at age 17. However, when Reese is 8 years old his grandparents divorce and his mother takes back custody. From there Reese is subjected to a violent stepfather his mother clings to despite how dangerous he is to her and her children. Any sense of stability is shattered as they move from trailer park to trailer park, county to county, state to state...often under the threat of arrest or imminent violence.
Somehow Reese is able to hide in his room and find an escape in watching movies over and over again. It isn't long before he gets ahold of a video camera and starts recording as much of his environment (and the monsters who inhabit it) as possible. It's here that I was reminded of the amazing Terry Zwigoff documentary CRUMB where Robert Crumb used his cartooning skills to claw his way out of insanity while the rest of his family succumbed to mental disorders. In THE TRASH, you can see that Reese channels all the hurt and fear through his camcorder lens allowing himself to "see" this awful situation from a different perspective. It might not be much but it got him through the day - just enough to keep him going. I also think it was an ingenious way to protect himself - it is visibly noticeable at times when one of the violent boyfriends calms down just a bit when he knows there is a camera trained on him.
Eventually, though, Reese becomes homeless and alone before he's even 18 years old. This section culminates in an incredibly painful sequence where, totally alone and hopeless, he desperately tries to make a documentary of a state fair in a small Ohio town. At the end of the day's filming, he turns the camera on himself and totally bares his soul. It's devastating and a very rare visual record of someone emotionally hitting rock bottom.
I don't think it gives too much away to say that Douglas Reese really did escape that hellhole and seems to be doing very well today. In fact, that is my one quibble with THE TRASH in that he kinda quickly glosses over the details of how he actually pulled himself up from the abyss. I'm sure there is more to that story. Maybe it doesn't matter too much but there is one thing for sure - most of us probably wouldn't have survived Douglas Reese's childhood intact. And he's got the tapes to prove it.