Cashback, an Oscar-nominated narrative short film written and directed by Sean Ellis and released in 2004, explores the concepts of time and beauty by focusing on the ennui of the night shift at a grocery store. Sound clever? Unfortunately, it is not. Ellis had the chance to make something witty and insightful, because everyone can relate to the idea of time passing ever so slowly. However, he decided to make a sexist exploitation film in the guise of art. The main character is Ben, an art student. His way of passing the time is to imagine the world frozen, on pause so to speak. During this intermission, he wanders amongst the preposterously gorgeous female customers, now naked for his viewing pleasure. He and Ellis pretend this is all in the name of art, since Ben loves sketching the female body. Instead, it comes off as invasive and perverted, nothing more than cheap pornography. While the film is aesthetically inventive and impressive, its message is utterly offensive. Cashback also reflects society’s obsession with youth and a distinct, unrealistic standard of beauty.
Despite its innumerable flaws, Cashback looks stunning. Ellis manages to capture the ennui of the setting through the hypnotically buzzing fluorescent lighting that eerily bathes the store. The viewer can practically see the lighting sucking the life out of these employees. Cashback begins with a remarkable tracking shot across the drab beige ceiling, punctuated by the loud, echoing beep of the register. Similar skill is exhibited in the expert Steadicam shot of Barry’s clueless face as he rides around the store on his scooter. Being an artist, Ben stares at a bag of spilled peas on the speckled cream linoleum. This is perhaps the film’s most beautiful shot, a mass of neon green specks that looks both haphazard and orderly. In fact, the shot recalls pointillism and a work like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The audience sees this mess through a painter’s eyes.
Suddenly, Ben emerges from the ethereal blue glow of his Swedish goddess. A red glow engulfs the screen, and the audience is transported back to the store, accompanied by solemn classical music. Evidently, that red glow was some sort of magic clothing removal device, because all of the women in the store are now completely naked. He creepily moves amongst the perfect mannequins, wondering in voiceover, “And would it be wrong? Would they hate me? For seeing them? I mean, really seeing them?” The notion that their naked bodies can define their worth and beauty as human beings is not only shallow, it is blatantly insulting. Naturally, as an artist, he intensely sketches them. Their immobility only enhances this disgusting objectification of women. Nothing could possibly be as invasive as this kid staring at women while they have no control over themselves. He is basically raping them with his eyes and his sketch pad. They are utterly powerless and defenseless, and they will undoubtedly emerge from this experience feeling dirty and wanting to take a long shower and not knowing why.
Unfortunately, Ellis squandered the film’s potential. It could have been playful and funny, because everyone can relate to the idea of time dragging. Ben, in his disaffected way, occasionally offers some astute observations: “When you fall asleep, you are unaware of sleeping until you awake.” Due to the exploitative nature of the film’s final minutes, it is difficult to determine the filmmaker’s intentions or to extricate any themes. One can reasonably guess that Ellis is commenting on the nature of time, both its transience and permanence, as well as reflecting on beauty and its necessity. But his idea of beauty is limited, at best, so that might be giving him too much credit. Every single naked woman is a size two or less and looks like a supermodel. Is this really the definitive standard of beauty? Beauty can be found in anything, like the peas spilled on the floor. As an artist, Ben should not be so narrow-minded in his assessment of beauty. He should go look at a sunset or maybe pick some flowers; after all, they are clichés for a reason. There is more to the world than young, nubile women.
All in all, Cashback is visually and technically remarkable, but it lacks depth and substance. Ironically, it is as one-dimensional and surface-oriented as those caricatures of women frozen in their resplendent nudity that it so wholeheartedly embraces. It looks good on the outside, just like the women, and the rest is shallow, superficial, and inconsequential. This film is as tasteless, degrading, and utterly misogynistic as anything out there. Pornography masquerading as art is still pornography. Ben is a pathetic, loathsome scourge on society who desperately needs to find a new hobby. He commands no sympathy or empathy whatsoever, so the film leaves the viewer completely empty and unfulfilled. In Cashback, Ben freezes time to make it pass more quickly. If only the audience possessed that same ability, because never has fifteen minutes felt so interminable. If the point of the film is to make the viewer feel like time has stopped, mission accomplished.