He may look young for the part of “seasoned filmmaker,” but Chicago’s Frank Ross most definitely has the resume to prove it. Since releasing his first film in 2003, Ross has amassed a prolific filmography that includes six features over the last ten years. His latest, Tiger Tail in Blue screened on Sunday night at UW’s Cinematheque in front of a sellout crowd.
In Tiger Tail, named in part after the twisted glaze donut, Ross plays Christopher, a witty, struggling novelist whose crummy night shifts never afford him any time with his wife, Melody (Rebecca Spence). As a strung out teacher, Melody spends her days teaching inattentive high school students the values of English lit while Christopher plugs away on a manuscript he’s still too afraid to show anyone. As their time apart increases and their financial woes worsen, Christopher finds the attention he needs in a chummy co-worker (Spence, Megan Mercier).
What Tiger Tail lacks in plot, it makes up for in its form. Described as a “mumblecore breakthrough” by Peter Sobczynski, Ross’s film also frees itself from the subgenre’s stereotypical elements with its dozy storytelling. Ross uses an elliptical style that often places the viewer in the midst of intimate conversations. Christopher’s overflowing narration overlaps on itself and snapshots of dialogue and memories make for a sleepy narrative, where the young couple’s days and nights overlap and blend together. The unease is fitting then, for Rebecca Spence doubles in (most) scenes as Christopher’s tempting co-worker as well. Spence shows a frailty behind Melody’s marital frustrations but she’s also distinct enough as Christopher’s alluring co-worker to make us do a double take. It’s an inspired directorial choice on the part of Ross, one that speaks to the audience rather than down at them
As his own lead actor, Ross is very funny, but he often feels out of place. His screenplay is eager to inject strong laughs, but he can come off as an aspiring stand up comedian and not the frustrated young man Tiger Tail needs him to be. The script’s dialogue bristles and pops, but it begins with a hefty 50 minutes of what Ross referred to in a post-screening Q&A as the story’s Prologue. The problem is that Tiger Tail in Blue runs in at a brief 76 minutes. Ross felt that the Prologue’s back story was necessary context for those remaining 26, and while his clarification was certainly insightful, it also highlighted the film’s scripting issues. Its depth and storytelling shorthand are undeniable strengths, but the prospect of Ross teaming with a co-writer is worth future consideration.
Nevertheless, Ross, who also edited the film and produced it for a mere $5,000, remains a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Hailed as one of IndieWire’s Top 10 undistributed films of 2012, Tiger Tail in Blue, while underdeveloped, is a dreamy glimpse of temptation and emotional hardship, packaged inside a directorial style that calls to mind the debut of another indie director, Shane Carruth in Primer. Ross ended Sunday’s Q&A by announcing that he’d be working with fellow mumblecore director Joe Swanberg on a new project, having already partnered with him on the Young American Bodies web series. If Swanberg’s own career trajectory is any indication, Frank Ross is another one to keep an eye on.