San Francisco isn't that big a town, and you'd think a local filmmaker with four feature films to his credit would, at the very least, be recognized in his preferred Lower Nob Hill café. Maybe it's asking too much, given the intense, talky nature of JP Allen's work, for his name to be familiar to the general public, but his barista-slash-bartender should be wise to the man's oeuvre. Perhaps five will be Allen's lucky number, and Centaur will raise the curtain once and for all on his emotionally raw yet refreshingly thoughtful movies.
The choice of a theater metaphor is not accidental, for Allen comes from a stage background and continues to teach acting along with filmmaking. His films -- Coffee and Language, Gambling, Belief and Sex and Imagining -- were made for a pittance and typically rely on a few unusually brave actors to put over psychologically astute relationship dramas distinguished by crisp, pithy dialogue. Centaur is even more stripped-down and direct, but paradoxically it's also his most open cinematically.
The main character, a man with no name played by the writer-director, addresses the camera, and the audience, at the outset. "I'm planning to kill someone, but I'm just like you and I want you to understand me," he announces. "Maybe you'll agree with me and maybe you won't, but come along with me." Thirty-three days later, the man's plan will turn into action, and another man's life will hang in the balance. Centaur takes the form of a video journal leading up to and beyond the fateful (fatal? don't expect a spoiler here) day.
"I've always loved the idea of a diary format," Allen relates over a caffeine drink at Cup-a-Joe on Sutter. "I basically came down and wrote Centaur a day at a time for 33 days. I don't know that you would call that a [writing] exercise; I just thought it was the most honest way to go about it. The whole idea behind it, for me, is that he's trying to communicate with somebody as he makes the piece. So the action of the film is constantly breaking the fourth wall."
For moviegoers used to passively slouching in their seat and watching a movie unspool, Centaur is alternately seductive, voyeuristic, discomfiting, meditative and darkly hilarious.
"The key action of the piece is the character's relationship with the audience," Allen maintains. "For me as a filmmaker, that's maybe the most interesting part because the audience is put in a position of interaction as opposed to sitting back and looking through the frame. The character is constantly going into the audience and trying to affect them, so that becomes perhaps the main action."
Allen's character is a regular-looking individual but he's unusually literate, even by the standards of San Francisco coffeehouses. I wonder if the filmmaker reined in his character's intellectualism, to make him more accessible to viewers.
"No, I never pulled back, I just did what I thought made sense for the character," Allen replies. "You're trying to take the audience into consideration, but you have an ideal audience -- a secret friend -- who you're writing for, and you imagine this person would understand you for who you are. You wouldn't have to alter who you are, or change anything, you just express it how you would express it and you hope they would understand you. Maybe that's a question in my writing," he says, laughing. "I don't think about, 'No one will have read this Jack Kerouac piece.' I just go ahead and assume that the 'secret friend' would have or might have, and go from there."
Allen uses the phrase "indie noir" to describe the setting and the tone, not because the plot unfolds in shadowy bars or deserted parking lots but because his character is not entirely reliable as a narrator. Sure, he has blind spots about himself, like all of us, but he's also a little reluctant to completely trust the one person -- "the secret friend" -- the detective or stranger, that is, who he presumes will find the video journal in the aftermath of his revenge killing.
"It's going to be unpredictable how the audience takes it," Allen muses. "A lot of people react strongly to some of the scenes where he addresses them very intimately. There's a scene where he says, 'Who are you? I'd like to reach through the lens and find out who you are.' Some audience members find that interesting, and others find it off-putting because he's kind of a questionable character."
Allen was aided and abetted at key points by actors Chris Pflueger (as the designated victim) and Amy Mordecai (as the main character's taken-too-soon lover), and he makes splendid use of the music of former college pal and Austin fave Michael Slattery's well-crafted, Steppenwolf-influenced rock and roll. But by and large he made the film by himself. He shot the crucial opening monologue in three or four different locations, racking up nearly a hundred takes before he was satisfied.
"The character is a little bit ill," Allen concedes. "There's some real sickness going on, in a way, and loneliness. It was actually quite lonely to film. I began to realize this is the way he would have done it, so loneliness would have pervaded the film [journal]. I was always trying to make sure he was pushing out, to this secret friend. That is one direction I [as the actor] did take from myself [as the director], that he was constantly, strongly and aggressively trying to affect the audience. And if a take wasn't going in that direction, I knew it wasn't going the right way."
As a loner's journey, Centaur is quintessentially a San Francisco movie. It also qualifies on the basis of being a film of words, ideas and evocative memories. I don't recall any café scenes or references, but there is a funny and poignant passage that makes splendid use of Irish whiskey -- in Jack Kerouac Alley. That ought to be good enough for Allen's barkeep, and other discerning moviegoers.
Centaur opens Friday, March 23, 2012 at the Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St. in San Francisco. For more information, visit landmarkfilms.com. JP Allen and co-actors Amy Mordecai and Chris Pflueger will be on hand opening night. Saturday night, Mar. 24, features a double bill with Allen's earlier film, Sex and Imagining.