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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Talking to Strangers (1988)
4 Stars

Directed by Rob Tregenza
Cast: Ken Gruz, Dennis Jordan, Caron Tate, Marvin Hunter, Henry Strozier, Lois Evans, Sharrie Valero, Joanne Bauer, Linda Chambers, Richard Foster, Romey Curtis, Sarah Rush.
1988 – 93 minutes
Rated: [NR] (contains profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 2, 1998.

I was not prepared for the impact that the overlooked independent film, "Talking to Strangers," by director Rob Tregenza, would have. In fact, I had never heard of it until I picked it up at the video store and saw that a lot of critics had praised it. So I rented it.

"Talking to Strangers" is 90 minutes long, and consists of 9 separate sequences, and only 9 shots. It was filmed in Baltimore on an extremely low budget, and each scene only had one take, so the actors obviously had a lot of pressure on them to not make any mistakes. Through the nine scenes, we follow one person, Jesse (Ken Gruz), an artist who is alone in the first and last segment, and in the middle seven, a sort of story involving usually one other character, is set up that is seemingly completely obscure from the others. They sort of play like short films strung together in no particular order, involving the same actor. But as a whole, the film paints a powerful tapestry of conflicting stories that do, strangely enough, feel like they create a whole.

"Talking to Strangers," is one of the most audacious, startlingly original film debuts I have ever seen, and director Tregenza is a great talent. Each segment is totally fascinating, even those in which very little happen, such as the opening ten minutes, which starts off looking like an establishing shot of a city, but then follows the character of Jesse through the streets, down several blocks, as he almost gets on three different buses. And, similar to this, in the last scene, we simply watch him paint a room with a paint sprayer.

The middle sequences are all gorgeously shot and effective in their own way. The best story involves Jesse at a bank, as he tries to talk to an upset black secretary (Caron Tate), who keeps receiving disturbing, mysterious phone calls from her husband. Another thought-provoking segment starts off with Jesse talking to a kind middle-aged woman (Romey Curtis) on a bus whose car has broken down, only for the bus to be taken over by a group of punks, which leads to a brutal rape. All of the other scenes take place in varying settings, such as a ferry, a soup kitchen, a confessional in a church, and under a bridge.

What ultimately makes, "Talking to Strangers," such a brilliant motion picture is the unorthodox, strikingly unpredictable style that the film is made in, as well as the fact that it is always spellbinding to watch. There is never a dull moments, and all of the stories and individual characters are wholly memorable and often truly sympathetic and poignant. Thinking back on the film, the character of the secretary at the bank, played flawlessly and naturally by Caron Tate, is especially tragic and unforgettable, as is the enigmatic central character of Jesse.

The so-called "point" of the film is left wide open for the viewer to draw their own conclusions, and although I still am not sure exactly what it is all about, the overall boldness and power of the film cannot, in no way, be denied.

Director Rob Tregenza has a true gift as an intriguing filmmaker, and his debut film, "Talking to Strangers," is, in many ways, a masterpiece. It contains far more creativity, intelligence, extraordinary images, and provocative ideas than twenty big-budget Hollywood films put together, and it deserves to be seen.

© 1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman