American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The opening shot of “Permanent Record” is ominous and disturbing, and we don’t know why. In an unbroken movement, the camera tracks past a group of teenagers who have parked their cars on a bluff overlooking the sea, and are hanging out casually, their friendship too evident to need explaining. There seems to be no “acting” in this shot, and yet it is superbly acted because it feels so natural that we accept at once the idea that these kids have been close friends for a long time. Their afternoon on the bluff seems superficially happy, and yet there is a brooding quality to the shot, perhaps inspired by the lighting, or by the way the camera circles vertiginously above the sea below.
The following scenes unfold, it seems, almost without plan. We meet a couple of kids who play in a rock band together, and try to sneak into a recording studio, and are thrown out, and arrive at school late. We meet the high school principal, a man who is enormously intriguing because he reveals so little, and yet still succeeds in revealing goodness. We meet the crowd that these two kids hang out with, and we attend some auditions for a school production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” We are impressed by the fact that these teenagers are intelligent, thoughtful and articulate; they come from a different planet than most movie teenagers.
To describe the opening scenes makes them seem routine, and yet they captured my attention with an intensity that I still do not understand. The underlying mystery of many good movies is the way they absorb us in apparently unremarkable details, while bad movies can lose us even with car crashes and explosions. Marisa Silver, who directed this film, and Frederick Elmes, who photographed it, have done something very subtle and strong here. They have seen these students and their school in a way that inescapably prepares us for something, without revealing what it is.
The kids all hang out together, but one begins to attract our attention more than the others. He is David (Alan Boyce), an intense, dark-eyed musician whom everyone knows is gifted. He leads the rock band, gives lessons to his fellow musicians and is arranging the music for the production of “Pirates.” In a scene of inexplicable tension, he is told by the principal (Richard Bradford) that he has won a scholarship to a great music school. He tries to seem pleased, but complains that he is so busy - too busy. Bradford quietly reminds him the scholarship isn’t until next year.