Witty, nimble and consistently inventive, The Sticky Fingers of Time is a happy reminder of the fact that not all the creativity has drained from independent filmmaking since the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax turned it into a farm team for the Hollywood big-time. The only problem is, once you've got a movie like this made, you've got to get it before the public. And in a market so overstuffed with "product," that's no easy task for a film that has no stars, no special effects and no conventional subject matter.
Sticky Fingers was shot in 1997 and eventually made its appearance along the gay and lesbian film-festival circuit, an appropriate launching pad for a tale revolving around a '50s-era Sapphic pulp-fiction scribe, evocatively named Tucker Harding (Terumi Matthews), and her girlfriend, Ofelia (Belinda Becker). First-time writer/director Hilary Brougher has something on her mind that goes far beyond lesbian-chic posturing, however. For Tucker discovers that she has somehow acquired the ability to travel through time, and Brougher is out to show that the past and present aren't as separate and distinct as we'd like to believe, particularly when it comes to lives led well off the beaten path.
No elaborate sets or special effects are involved in Tucker's travels. She's simply, suddenly, there -- jumping forward in time to wander the streets of 90s-era Manhattan, a few sticky, gel-like "tears" around the corners of her eyes the only trace of anything unusual. Soon she's crossing paths with a like-minded modern Ms. named Drew (Nicole Zaray) and running into a mystery man called Isaac (James Urbaniak), who apparently knows more about time-tripping than he's ever quite willing to tell. The curious near-friendship that develops between Tucker and Drew and the sudden, phantomlike appearances of the mysterious Isaac show that Brougher is more than slightly familiar with Jacques Rivette's off-center epic Celine and Julie Go Boating. But she's also aware of his lesser known Duelle, which is particularly evident in the way Sticky Fingers evokes a secret society of otherworldly beings living amid the everyday. In fact, Brougher goes all the way back to Rivette's sources, Val Lewton's Cat People and The Seventh Victim -- urban thrillers that seem more like art films than the B-programmers they actually were. Like Lewton, Brougher finds a mother lode of atmosphere in the most seemingly ordinary settings: empty streets, half-furnished rooms, tiny cafés.
Part of the fun of Sticky Fingers is the way it profits from the seeming disadvantage of its low budget. In one scene, for example, Ofelia suddenly reveals that she has a prehensile tail. Why? How? Don't ask. Just enjoy the sight of the close-up of a tail suddenly wrapping itself suggestively around a woman's leg. Brougher then cuts to a two-shot of the women entwined, staring at each other. But she never shows a full top-to-toe shot of Ofelia with her tail. She clearly couldn't afford to build such a costume. But it's not needed when the shots already evoke it so insidiously.
In fact, evocation is Brougher's primary goal in a story that continually makes reference things as diverse as atomic-bomb mutation (Tucker's powers may derive from her having witnessed the first test blasts) and shifts in sexual identity (with Drew drifting from a heterosexual affair to a casual romance with Tucker). What makes it all work is Brougher's resistance to the sort of easy solutions that straightforward plotting and simple declarative sentences allow. Her characters are traveling through time, slipping along the surfaces of things, and so are we. Rarely do films convey the very process of moviegoing so dexterously. And it's not necessary to have an interest in same-sex affairs to appreciate this dexterity.
Plays at 7 p.m. Jan. 7-9 at Webster University.