Without its weirdo visual flourishes, The Guitar would be completely reprehensible. Painstakingly directed by actress Amy Redford and risibly written by pioneering punk filmmaker and Lower East Side scenester Amos Poe, the film is an urban parable about a woman’s complacency and self-worth and how her outlook is tweaked by tragedy. Told by Dr. Janeane Garofalo that she only has months to live, Melody Wilder (Saffron Burrows) decides to live her final days high off the hog, moving into a loft on the west side of New York City and maxing out her credit cards on a Vera Wang mattress, Bed Bath & Beyond linens and the Golden Beef Happy Family dinner special. Not a dubious way to go out, until a wrench is lobbed at the well-oiled gears of Melody’s death march and a sour message rises to the film’s surface.
Redford’s off-kilter aesthetic touches enforce the notion of Melody being rejected by her environment, as in creepy shots of the woman swimming against a disturbing tide of pedestrians on a busy city street, but too often the style of the film is only loosely rhymed—if at all—to the woman’s wants and haunts, as in the flashbacks to a young Melody lusting over a red electric guitar. These scenes, which suggest something out of a giallo (or Alice, Sweet Alice), are meant to convey this idea that Melody isn’t living a life that she really wants for herself, but these visions seem to happen more to us than they do to Melody, who buys a guitar in order to fulfill what feels like a narrative quota rather than an actual dream.
Burrows, a talented beauty, sticks to playing Melody in a disconnected mode, which adds to the overall dissonant tone of the film, but while Redford’s detached style matches that of her actress, there are insidious implications to Melody’s journey, which begins on the day she learns she has an inoperable tumor, which is also the day she loses her job and her boyfriend. When it rains it pours for this one, and the world responds by bludgeoning her eardrums with its most annoying sounds, and to the filmmakers, the noise of a skateboard sliding across concrete is apparently in the same key as two women chatterboxing in an unidentifiable Asian language.
Things become more offensive when Melody moves into her new pad, where she proceeds to throw garbage out her window, fuck the African who delivers her fancy furniture, then the woman who brings her pizza, and finally both of them at the same time. The true story behind the film apparently involved a scrawny dude in the movie business who moved to Canada in an effort to trick a life-threatening tumor into thinking it was festering inside the wrong body, mostly by depriving himself of the things—food, friends and entertainment—that were familiar to him, but on film the character has not only been rewritten as an unassertive vixen who indulges in racist and libertine pleasures but one who lives out her final days without survival in mind.
A more interesting film would have stuck closer to the original story, depicting Melody as an architect of her own fate, but apparently a character resigned to death and rewarded with life was preferable to one who fights against it and similarly wins out. Good fortune happens to Melody only by chance, which is to say screenwriting contrivance, and she moves through the film as if she were on a conveyor belt. It’s tempting to read The Guitar as advocating a life of luxe as a type of psychological colonic, but deprivation could just as easily have set Melody on the right path as indulgence. That Redford and Poe opt for the latter route ultimately reveals nothing about Melody, an almost passive player in her life, than it does about their own fantasies.