Look, it’s been a rough year. A pandemic, the economic uncertainty and mortal fear that come with a pandemic, climate crises, a resurrection against the pillars of American democracy – nobody’s going to judge you for opting out of it all with a little restorative and selective news-blindness.

For some, that means being creative and industrious, while, for others, it means simply unplugging from the relentlessly bleak 24-hour news cycle and bingeing your streaming services dry. In a world constantly coming up with new, very real things to worry about, sometimes survival means turning it all off, even just for a little while. 

But what if you can’t? 

That’s the premise behind “Imbalance,” the latest short film-in-progress from Portland filmmaker Caulin Morrison. A sci-fi-infused character study of the week one person’s artificially implanted method of tuning out the unthinkable malfunctions, “Imbalance” draws power from Morrison’s own daily experience as a person who literally is not able to turn off the news. 

An award-winning editor for WGME (he received a 2021 New England Emmy for a story on the troubled veterans’ hotline), Morrison knows all too well the necessity of unplugging – when he can.

“My specific stance is that the news is absolutely awful, and, the first chance I get, I’m going to leave,” half-joked the 2019 Maine College of Art graduate, citing his time in the WGME editing bay as inspiration for his story of a guy inundated by daily awfulness. “Every day, I saw a little bit more. The virus, death, things that can’t be stopped, the insurrection by Trump supporters back in January.” Noting that his job involves wading through all that very stressful stuff, media professional Morrison confessed that it’s taken its toll. “People get to shut off the news – I don’t.”

Drawing on his experiences both with news-overload and with depression, Morrison says that “Imbalance” functions as a metaphor for those people whose mental health makes them uniquely susceptible to outside forces.

“It’s a focus on depression in a very depressing year,” said Morrison. “I’ve struggled with depression my entire life, and just started going into therapy, and have learned that depression involves a chemical imbalance in your brain. The brain doesn’t produce enough of a chemical, or doesn’t connect synapses because of a chemical imbalance, and that was sort of the driving force of this short.”

The protagonist of Morrison’s film has been implanted with a device that monitors his mental state and suggests ways for him to make everyday life a little easier. And then it breaks. Said Morrison of the conceit, “The imbalance is still there, but the device comes up with little tips and tricks to glide by. It’s not a full AI, but more like a reminder on your phone with access to your vitals. During the film, though, that constant, nagging voice starts to malfunction, and that makes things harder for him to avoid. He starts to deteriorate.” 

It’s a nifty metaphor for depression and anti-depressants (I shared with Morrison my own, ongoing history with both), and “Imbalance” is Morrison’s typically creative way of processing personal pain into art. His MECA thesis film, “No Laughing Matter,” winner of several awards at the prestigious Portland school, saw Morrison mining some then-current, unsettling news (those creepy clown sightings from a few years back) into an even more unsettling thriller that upends our base assumptions about when we’re safe – and when we are definitely not. 

“The best art comes from personal experience,” said Morrison. “With ‘Imbalance,’ I wanted to bring a light to what everyday people might go through if they can’t get away from the news cycle.” Rebuffing those who assume that their experience of riding out this horrible year is the only one, Morrison said, “It’s been a rough year, but it hasn’t been equally rough for everyone.” 

Throwing a darkly creative spin on his own experiences is a time-honored trick of the horror and sci-fi director, and while Morrison explains that he wasn’t trying to emulate British purveyor of technological terror “Black Mirror” with “Imbalance,” he’s not unfamiliar with the concept. “I grew up reading and watching horror,” said Morrison, “It’s comfortable to me to play with a lot of different themes and motifs in the genre that sometimes get lost in ‘real’ movies. Isolation, fear, paranoia, safety – there’s just so much to say in the horror genre.”

Morrison, who has worked on the crew of several short films in Maine’s own all-scary, all-shorts annual dark movie anthology series, Damnationland, says that he’s already planning further forays into evocative horror, even as he seeks to complete “Imbalance” by mid-October. Noting that his own, brain-scrambling time in the WGME editing room has meant boning up on his visual effects skills in order to (among other things) disguise the copyrighted clips that make up his protagonist’s daily grind, Morrison promises that his film career is just beginning. 

“I aimed to push myself on ‘Imbalance’ and take the emotions I’ve felt working in the news industry during one of the weirdest and most draining years we’ve all gone through,” said Morrison. As we chatted about our shared love of and admiration for horror-with-a-message, I found myself thinking back to George A. Romero’s much-copied zombie movies, where the old master’s theme was always that humanity, when faced with the unthinkable, has the all the tools to overcome its shared problem – but ultimately won’t get it together enough to overcome its own selfish ignorance. Wonder why that sticks in my head these days … 

To see more of Caulin Morrison’s short films, and to learn more about this emerging Maine filmmaker, check out his website, cmorrison.myportfolio.com. 


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