Angelo Thomas takes a surreal turn in ‘Three Quarters Dead’

The filmmaker explores the concept of purgatory in his new short, which screens today (Friday, April 28) at the Gateway Film Center as part of Cinema Columbus.
"Three Quarters Dead"
"Three Quarters Dead"Courtesy Angelo Thomas

Coming off of the 2021 documentary DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition, filmmaker Angelo Thomas had no idea what he wanted to do next.

He did know, however, that following two time-consuming feature-length films, he wanted to create something on a smaller scale. He also knew that he wanted to embrace a bit of the whimsy and surrealism that initially drew him to film as a child, and which he was unable to explore in more seriously minded projects such as DeRosa and The Incredible Jake Parker, from 2020, which centered on an eating disorder.

To capture this more magical feel, Thomas decided to set his new short in the very place where he first experienced a sense of cinematic wonder, filming new short Three Quarters Dead inside of a movie theater, his characters bathed in the warm glow of the projector. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by movie theaters and the way they work – the projector, the screen, everything,” said Thomas, whose new short will screen at the Gateway Film Center late this afternoon (Friday, April 28) as part of the local shorts series during the Cinema Columbus Film Festival.

Three Quarters Dead presents the theater as purgatory (think the waiting room in the 1988 film Beetlejuice) and finds one of the newly deceased meeting and conversing with a decaying guest who has long been anticipating their next destination. The short is surreal and mysterious, with the camera focused solely on the two characters, never showing what is projected onscreen or the god-like figure who exists somewhere up in the projection booth. At one point, the newly deceased man pulls a letter from his pocket, hinting at his death by suicide but never explicitly stating it, with Thomas preferring to leave the audience to fill in some of the blanks.

“The films that I made before this, and even back in film school, were very literal. And that’s kind of how my brain works as a writer and a storyteller, where what you see onscreen is exactly what it is, and there’s not a lot of mystery to it,” Thomas said. “And so, I thought it would be fun to challenge myself and try something different, where maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. But I’m comfortable with the fact that some people may watch it and not pick up precisely what’s going on."

Thomas said he’s been drawn to the idea of purgatory from childhood, when he was introduced to the concept while attending Catholic school. He described it being presented at the time as an almost taboo subject, with teachers and priests introducing it, but then pivoting away. “It was almost kind of skipped over when it came up,” he said. “It’s kind of a scary concept, and I think I’ve always been interested in things that maybe I wasn’t supposed to know about, or that might have been too mature for me.”

No matter the scale of the work – Three Quarters Dead was filmed in an eight-hour burst at the Gateway Film Center, while previous features unfolded over months – Thomas has a knack for embedding his movies with an innate sense of intimacy, often untangling knotty emotional issues with which he has also struggled.

Even DeRosa, which presents a vivid, intimate picture of the artist Felician DeRosa’s transition and growing self-acceptance, leans away from the political conversations that have driven the trans debate in more recent months, instead homing in on the loving, tender relationship shared between DeRosa and her partner, Gwen.

“I’m glad that I released it when I did (in December 2021) because trans issues have come more to the fore politically, and I’m not sure I’d want to be a part of that conversation,” Thomas said. “The entire time I was making the film, and I think Felicia shared this sentiment, I wanted to tell a story that was removed from politics. Felicia is very engaged in activism, and I’m very engaged politically in other ways, but I wanted that film to be a story about two people and their lives together. And then certainly the hope then is that anyone who watches it comes away with a greater sense of compassion and empathy.”

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