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Bad Blood: Anthony (Mailon Rivera, left) turns on his pal Michael (Steve White) in 'Skin Deep.'

Wife in The Water

Locally made drama 'Skin Deep' charts a course of murder along the racial divide

By Richard von Busack

A LITTLE GAME of sex and violence plays out around a Northern California hot tub. But in actuality, the locally made and produced film Skin Deep takes place on the road to Polanskiville. Mailon Rivera plays Anthony, a buppie who has done well for himself in the Silicon Valley and is enjoying the liberty of the weekend.

First comes a quick tryst with Alex (the intense Debra Wilson of Mad TV), the heavily tattooed lady down the road. After a short Harley ride, Anthony returns to his troubled wife, Victoria (Kristen Shaw), who repels his attempts to climb aboard her. Just when they're about to try again, Anthony and Victoria's friends arrive: the abrasive Michael (Steve White), Anthony's pal from the old neighborhood, and his wife, Sarah (AJ Johnson). Sarah is the kind of heedlessly promiscuous woman who is usually denounced with the ugly word "freak," though the world would certainly be a less interesting place without them, wouldn't it? After too much wine and two (apparently) rebuffed passes at the host and the hostess, Sarah is discovered floating face down in the hot tub.

The problem with this suspicious death is magnified since Anthony is a successful black man married to a white woman. Moreover, the cops had already visited Anthony's house earlier on a noise complaint. When they did, Michael, always pugnacious, got into a little squabble with Jon Read's "Sgt. Weiss" (nudge, nudge). The three survivors turn on each other, and word of Anthony's cheating gets out. Finally, the angry Alex turns up, too, pissed off that Anthony's not dropping his wife for her.

Skin Deep is the first feature by Sacha Parisot, co-written and executive-produced by the former host of the Camera Cinema Club Ken Karn. As a mystery--well, at least the butler didn't do it. The film is most compelling as a study of racial rivalries.

Parisot (the "t" is silent) says Skin Deep was originally a simple mystery of a wife who turned up dead after her husband had been joshing about killing her for the insurance money. "This was kind of a weak idea," Parisot admits, so he and Karn decided to emphasize the mixed marriage in the script. Hitchcock's famous comment that "no one calls the police, because that would be boring" can't fix everything. So the filmmakers decided to expand an already-existing racial angle in their script to explain why no one calls the cops after a routine hot-tub drowning.

Michael the hothead is "based on a few people I know," Parisot explains, "who seem to see the world in black and white." Karn and Parisot's experience with the film on the festival circuit is that audiences respond the same way.

"It's almost got to the point where I don't want to show Skin Deep to a white audience," Karn says. Some predominantly white audiences worry over the way a black female villain reflects on black females without--as Parisot complains--having ever fretted over the way Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction reflected on all white women.

Black audiences easily pick up on the crabs-in-a-barrel tensions between Anthony and his touchy old-neighborhood buddy. Steve White--a comedian who's acted in five of Spike Lee's movies--won the Best Actor award at the 2003 American Black Film Festival for this performance. He's quite good as a man whose sensitivity--or oversensitivity--to racism worsens matters fast.

Still, Rivera's more subtly clever performance got robbed of the attention it deserves. Rivera's amoral yet sympathetic Anthony is the key to the plot, and he has a pair of very intense scenes: first, almost killing a man he loves; later, almost being killed by a woman who loves him.

Parisot, born in Haiti, was a technical writer for 17 years. He made short films on the side with Karn, ever since an 8 mm class at De Anza. At the Cupertino college, the two also met the Basque cinematographer Aitor Mantxola. Mantxola linked the filmmakers to associate producers in Madrid, where the editing and scoring on the film was finished. Parisot shot the film in three weeks at the house of his friend Steve Perez in Prunedale, even borrowing Perez's Harley for the shoot.

Skin Deep is an example of a movie that changed in the telling. Karn and Parisot were working on an entertainment with "a dark comedic tone," according to Parisot. "I always think it's funny and chilling when people dig their own graves."

Parisot adds, "I didn't set out to make the greatest American movie ever made. I just wanted to make a good, interesting movie that would make some money. I haven't made the money yet." However, both have hopes, and after the local theatrical run comes a June DVD release with commentary by White and Rivera.

Skin Deep (R; 89 min.), directed by Sacha Parisot, written by Parisot and Ken Karn, photographed by Aitor Mantxola and starring Mailon Rivera, Steve White and Kristen Shaw, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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