Well, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a film quite like Hogtown. I don’t know if I’d ever want to see another one, either. It’s not that Hogtown is bad, uninteresting, or unenjoyable. It’s simply difficult to watch, keep everything clear in your head, and I guess just follow. It’s tiring. You have to work hard to engage with this film and to connect some of the dots. It also involves a lot of reading, because “show, don’t tell” doesn’t exist if you’re making an arthouse film — if you don’t want it to, that is.
Ostensibly, the film is about the search for a man, Ambrose Greenaway (Jay Disney), who disappears. He recently sold his chain of theaters for $1 million, which is a lot of money given that Hogtown takes place in 1919. The “lead,” if you can call him that, is a black detective (Herman Wilkins). I mention he’s black because, well, I’m sure you know all about 1919 in America. Let’s just say that racial tensions were pretty high at the time, so a black man in that sort of position isn’t exactly a common thing.
There are a ton of characters in Hogtown. The film’s website boats over 70, and I believe that. Some of them are based on real people — Ambrose Geenaway is based on Ambrose Small, for example — while some of them are fictional versions of real people, like Ernest Hemingway (Alexander Sharon) or Sherwood Anderson (Marco Garcia). It’s a lot to keep track of, as I said earlier, and some of them dart in and out of the film like … like they’re playing darts, okay? I’m tired. This film took a lot out of me. Never you mind how long after watching it I’m writing this review.
There are lots of characters and more than a couple of narrative paths, and it’s all done in an artistic style that gives its director, Daniel Nearing, a lot of freedom, but can often leave the audience in the dark — sometimes literally, since 99% of Hogtown is filmed in black and white. The film plays with editing, with cinematography, with breaking the fourth wall, with a mix of still photos and live-action, with superimposition, and with about as many film techniques as exist. You can’t blame the filmmakers for being lazy.
There’s also a lot of text on-screen. The film does have subtitled scenes — there are entire segments dominated by languages other than English — but that’s not what I’m talking about. Often times character motivations, back stories, and superfluous information is relayed to us through text. Characters don’t show us this; we find out because the film flat-out states “THIS IS INFORMATION FOR YOU TO READ.”
The film contains a full orchestral score, which is fantastic on its own and helps make some of the images more powerful — especially when it is conspicuously missing, which makes you pay even more attention. It’s like when someone on the radio takes a long, dramatic pause. You start wondering if the radio shut off or broke, and you tune in very intently to whatever is said next, instead of just following along with the background noise.
Hogtown is also quite beautifully filmed, even if it contains so much editing that you often don’t get to see all of the shots for a long enough time to truly appreciate them. I wonder how many individual shots there were in this film. It runs for almost two hours, and probably has double the number of shots when compared with the average film. Maybe more. Or maybe it just felt like that was the case, even if it isn’t. There’s so much going on that this is the mode your brain enters. In fact, the film could probably consist primarily of long takes and I’d still feel this way.
Containing more characters, plots, and film editing techniques than three other films combined, Hogtown is certainly a different type of film. It’s been shot primarily in black and white, it looks and acts unlike almost any other film you can see, and it’s a difficult film to watch, simply because you have to focus so hard and pay so much attention to what’s going on. It exists for very few people. But for those who have exhausted themselves on detective movies, this is one that does something fresh with the genre.