The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger

In thinking about a topic for “The Ambitious Failure Blog-a-thon” on William Speruzzi’s [This Savage Art], I felt somewhat at a loss because I prefer to write about films I really like rather than films that I consider aesthetic failures. As a result, I’ve decided to interpret “ambitious failure” to include a really terrific film that has gone unrecognized for whatever reason. Charles Burnett is an example of a truly major American indie filmmaker, who has never had the career he deserved. His first feature, Killer of Sheep, was restored and re-released recently by Milestone Films – thirty years after it was made. Prior to the theatrical re-release, the film was only available in poor-quality 16mm prints, in which much of the dialogue was extremely challenging to decipher. I saw Burnett’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding, at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago when it was first released, but I’ve never had an opportunity to view it again because the film had no real distribution.

With To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover, Charles Burnett was finally able to make a feature on a much larger budget, but the film failed at the box office, which I think was largely responsible for derailing Burnett’s career. The film came out on VHS, but it subsequently never made it to DVD in the U.S. The result is that Burnett’s first three feature films are not currently available on DVD in this country. Killer of Sheep obviously will be released on DVD later this year, but what about To Sleep With Anger? The fact that Burnett’s most commercial film has never even been available on DVD means that most people haven’t been able to see it. It is only in a commercial sense that I consider Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger to be an “ambitious failure.” Here is my blog about the film:

Spike Lee’s unexpected commercial triumph with She’s Gotta Have It (1986) helped pave the way for subsequent African-American filmmakers, such as Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Julie Dash, and Darnell Martin. Spike Lee’s militancy had an important political impact, even as he soon left low-budget independent film for the privileges of larger studio productions. The success of She’s Gotta Have It showed that audiences were hungry for representations of African Americans other than Hollywood’s recycled racial stereotypes. Yet it was actually the overlooked work of Charles Burnett that anticipated the interest by future American independent writers and directors in exploring more racially and ethnically diverse subject matter.

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), an elliptical portrait of a struggling slaughterhouse worker and his family in the South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles, represented a remarkable debut feature when it was released. Subsequently designated by the National Film Registry and given the equivalent of landmark status, Killer of Sheep proved to be very much ahead of its time. It belongs to that period before independent films managed to break into the mainstream. Burnett explains: “It was the 70s and it stayed in the can a very long time. There wasn’t any Sundance, no place to show a film and walk away with a three-picture deal.” In Killer of Sheep, Burnett creates a kind of poetic realism through an episodic series of vignettes about a slaughterhouse worker named Stan, whose job causes him to suffer from both insomnia and a growing sense of frustration with his dead-end life.

Killer of Sheep begins with a flashback from Stan’s childhood, then shifts to kids engaged in a spirited rock fight, which causes injury to one of the combatants. An analogy is made throughout Killer of Sheep between the harsh reality of children at play – as they leap from the top of buildings or deliberately throw dirt on freshly laundered clothes – and the sheep being slaughtered at the factory where Stan works. As Stan struggles against the travails of his day-to-day existence, various threats manifest themselves. The unattractive white female owner of the liquor store tries to proposition Stan by offering him a job, but Stan worries about the potential danger of getting shot in a hold-up. Two guys in leather jackets, Scooter and Smoke, attempt to get him to accompany them in some type of criminal activity involving a gun. When Stan’s wife overhears them, however, she confronts the two men by asking, “Why you always want to hurt somebody? Scooter replies: “That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.” Scooter’s equation of manhood with crime takes on bitterly ironic overtones because Stan’s job and personal troubles cause him to become alienated sexually from his wife. Stan never does go with Smoke and Scooter, but the scene underscores the constant temptations for someone like Stan, who, as Smoke points out, “don’t even have a decent pair of pants.”

Burnett made another feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983) – financed by European TV – before he received the opportunity to work with a larger budget. To Sleep With Anger (1990), a family drama also set in South Central, wound up winning one of the three featured prizes at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a sweep for African-American films that year. In many ways, To Sleep With Anger represented Burnett’s first real chance to break into the mainstream. After two low budget features, this film had a sizable budget of over $1 million and the box-office appeal of Danny Glover, whose attachment to the project was the element that made financing even possible. The success of winning a prize at Sundance should have given the film additional momentum. Burnett, however, felt compromised by the fact that the film’s distributor demanded additional cuts. To Sleep With Anger’s distribution campaign also proved highly controversial when Samuel Goldwyn decided to market it as an art film rather than as a film that had significant appeal to black audiences. Despite generally positive reviews, the film’s failure at the box office turned out to have a negative impact on Burnett’s subsequent career. Although To Sleep With Anger was released on VHS, the film has never even been available on DVD in the U.S. All of this is rather unfortunate because To Sleep With Anger remains one of the most complex cinematic representations of middle-class African Americans ever produced within this country.

Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger explores the fragile nature of the African-American family, but it does so within an even wider historical and cultural context. The film begins with a wonderfully evocative dream-image of an older man, Gideon, dressed in his finest formal attire, sitting beside a table that contains a bowl of fruit. The camera pans to a portrait of a well-dressed woman, tilts down to the bowl of fruit, and then pans back to Gideon. Flames flare up in various places of this composition, conjuring up metaphorical notions of hell and the devil. The basic story of To Sleep With Anger concerns Harry, an old friend from back home, who turns up after thirty years and exacerbates the volatile, beneath-the-surface tensions that exist between and among various family members – Gideon and his wife Suzie, and their two grown children, Junior and Babe Brother – especially once Gideon becomes sick about forty minutes into the film. The film explores the effect of the past on migrating black families, especially those who move from rural, agrarian backgrounds, such as the American South, to more urban settings. To Sleep With Anger shows how folkloric myth and superstition continue to operate in the lives of African Americans despite changes in locale and social class. It underscores the extremely tenuous nature of the family unit, even one that has been able to rise to lower middle class status. Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting originally passed on the project primarily because of what Burnett termed “Its Blackness”– the folkloric elements he had incorporated into the script.

To Sleep With Anger is a family drama. Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night, Burnett’s script creates conflicts between and among each of the family members, who, when they speak and act, do so within the context of an entire history of perceived slights and injustices. Even Suzie, who is the film’s most sympathetic character, manages to have real depth and complexity. While Gideon shows a clear preference for his older Son, Junior, Suzie defends her troubled younger son to Gideon, and tries hard to treat both of her children equally. Her tolerance also extends to Harry, far beyond the point where he deserves such consideration. It is actually Suzie who accedes to Harry’s desire to have the old-fashioned fish fry, an event which brings elements of their rural past back into their present lives with nearly disastrous consequences. Yet when Harry refuses to give a clear signal that he’s a good person as well as a friend, Suzie does not hesitate in asking him to leave her house. Nor does Suzie hide her irritation at Okra’s marriage proposal to her once Gideon becomes ill. Her response is to get up and leave, remarking that she has to feed her dog. It’s a devastating, indirect putdown. Nevertheless, Suzie is extremely polite to Linda when she shows up empty-handed at the party, even though her daughter-in-law’s self-centered careerism is a source of irritation. Linda, on the other hand, barely acknowledges Suzie.

Linda’s complaints about Babe Brother’s family have a definite class bias. This is especially apparent in the scene where Babe Brother tries to coax her to come inside rather than wait in the car. Both Babe Brother and Linda suffer from their professional ambition. He works as a loan officer and she as a real estate agent, which is why Sunny’s child-care has become a major source of irritation to Gideon and the other family members. Babe Brother and Linda’s desire for upward mobility comes with a price, which is that Sunny winds up spending too much time at his grandparents. Linda is the thoroughly modern black urban professional woman. When Harry asks her whether she had her baby at home, Linda tells him proudly that Sunny was born in a private hospital. She also takes a sideswipe at Pat and Junior, whose baby was delivered by a midwife. Linda comments, “Junior’s wife, she kept her afterbirth in the refrigerator. That’s why I don’t eat over there now.” Linda instinctively knows the right buttons to push in her husband during an argument. When she becomes miffed at Babe Brother for giving Sunny a sip of his coffee, she tells him, “Just because you were spoiled, don’t try to spoil Sunny.” This elicits a torrent of pent-up rage from Babe Brother.

Despite his professional ambitions and his marriage to the upwardly mobile Linda, Babe Brother nevertheless has been stigmatized as the bad son by his father and the lazy younger brother by Junior. Babe Brother resents always being compared unfavorably to Junior. He feels cheated out of his father’s love and respect and, as a consequence, his behavior becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Babe Brother precipitates the knife fight by refusing to help move his father’s bed from under the leaky roof. He tells Junior, “You always got the best of it around here and whenever Dad talks about ‘my son,’ it’s always you, so you fix the roof.” He also bristles over being called “boy” and being referred to continually as “Babe Brother” rather than by his real name, Samuel. Junior, on the other hand, labors under the burden of being the responsible older brother. Babe Brother also thinks his father picks on him. At the party, the two of them get into a heated argument. When Linda explains to Babe Brother that Gideon’s criticisms stem from love and concern, Babe Brother snaps back: “I don’t need that kind of love. And I don’t need to be reminded all the time that Big Mama was born in slavery. If you really care about me, just show me how to make money.”

There are many direct allusions to slavery in the film, including Harry’s reference to the Natchez Trace, a major slave route. While Babe Brother resents being reminded that Big Mamma was born in slavery, Gideon accuses Babe Brother of treating them like slaves by leaving Sunny with them for long periods of time. He raises the economic aspect of slavery by admonishing Babe Brother, “Don’t think you can get ahead by riding our backs.” When Junior confronts Babe Brother about his failure to help Suzie move Gideon’s bed, he alludes to Harry as being Babe Brother’s “master.” He tells him, “I betcha if your master told you to fix the hole in the roof, you would have rebuilt the whole damn house.” At the big party, Marsh, who has arrived with Hattie, confronts Harry about the deaths of several young men back home. Hocker’s death, it turns out, was made to look like a lynching by white folks. Marsh also describes another racial incident involving someone named Chick who, in fact, was tortured and killed by a white mob. Marsh describes the ensuing violence to Harry in graphic detail: “He killed a white man that owed him some money, and when they caught him, they tied him behind a car and they dragged him out of the hills back to town.”

There are also a number of references to Southern gentility, the flip side of Southern racism. Suzie describes Harry as having “good manners,” which remind her of her Southern roots. Harry remarks, “Well, you had to know how to act right where we come from. Now you had to know how to say ‘yes sir’ – ‘no sir.’ You had to know your place.” There can be no missing the irony in their nostalgia for the values of the Old South, where white gentility provided a mask for the evils of slavery and racism. As Nathan Grant comments, “What is portentously evil in this exchange is the idea that ‘knowing one’s place’ certainly carries with it racism’s demand that black folk observe proper behavior. This is an evil in itself that should of course make Harry and his manners suspect.” Harry’s own affability indeed often hides his true evil intentions. Hattie, in fact, comments about this aspect of Harry as she makes the case for Suzie to get rid of him. Harry explains his own behavior in terms of the effects of racism on the psyches of African-American males, just prior to Suzie asking him to leave her house. After Harry suggests that he fully expects to spend eternity in hell, he tells her, “If you were made to feel half a man, what do you think the other half is?” Such pointed references to slavery and racism in the film combine to emphasize how the break-up of the family unit as a result of slavery has impacted on the lives of African Americans to this very day.

Harry’s unexpected visit causes various tensions within the family to become inflamed. Harry has been described as being based on the trickster figure from African folklore. Burnett comments on this aspect of Harry’s character: “So I wanted to do a character who was based on a folkloric character – the trickster – who embodied this type of person who is seen as evil, but isn’t evil. The trickster figure always has so many dimensions, and is viewed in so many different ways. So I wanted the character of Harry to have that kind of ambiguity.”Although there is a certain degree of ambiguity in Harry’s character, it seems pretty clear that, at least allegorically, he represents the devil. Harry deliberately gets up too late to go to church and then proceeds to plays cards with Babe Brother instead. He ridicules Junior and Pat’s altruism and volunteer work as well as Hattie’s religious transformation. He even makes Gideon the soup that seems to worsen his condition. Although it is left ambiguous within the actual text – Harry seems to be looking to add something to the soup before giving it to Gideon – there is at least the possibility that Harry has poisoned Gideon. Harry’s total ascension to being a surrogate father figure within the family coincides with Gideon’s illness – a point that Hattie underscores to Suzie in making the case for getting rid of him – and it is only after Harry dies that Gideon’s health returns. Burnett comments in an interview, “You never really see Harry do anything, it’s all just rumor.” Although there is some truth to this assertion, Harry does make a deliberate attempt to break up Babe Brother’s family, and he also gives him the knife which will be play a part in the fight with Junior, and in causing Suzie’s subsequent injury. Afterwards, Babe Brother describes the experience as the equivalent of being in hell, and Suzie even cuts Gideon’s story short by commenting that she doesn’t want to hear any stories about “colored people being in hell” and raises her injured hand as proof.

The women in the film all develop a strong aversion to Harry eventually, because Harry represents a threat to the stability of their families. When Babe Brother vacillates about returning back home, Harry’s sexism rises to the surface: “I know your mind is on your wife, but you should never treat a woman as an equal. You want to get your wife back, get another woman.”  Earlier, when he is confronted by Suzie who demands to know the kind of person he is and whether he’s a friend, Harry avoids giving her a direct answer. Instead, he resorts to metaphor: “Like that boy next door playing his horn. If he was a friend, he would stop irritating people, but if he stops practicing, he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does someday.” Harry doesn’t deny he’s evil. In fact, he merely suggests that he’s trying to become more perfect at it. But moments later, we see his better side. Harry remarks, “Suzie, I’m not a bad fellow; I just like to have a good time.” He also gives her a picture of his son, and adds, “I’ll say my so-longs to Gideon before I leave. Suzie, I truly wish that he will get well.”

Harry also clashes with Hattie, the former sinner who is now saved. When they first meet, there is an initial awkward silence between them, but Harry quickly takes the offensive by alluding to the fact that Hattie used to work in her mother’s house of prostitution. Harry initially acts like a polite gentleman at the start of the scene by pulling out the chair and seating Hattie, but Harry’s subsequent actions have a lascivious element as he comes behind Hattie and leans in closer to her, even placing his hands on her suggestively, while she remains embarrassed and unresponsive to his advances. Harry’s disparaging remarks about her deceased mother clearly wound Hattie. It causes her to fight back verbally against Harry, leading to an escalating exchange of insults. Hattie finally responds, “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise. You tappy head, you ain’t worth the salt you put in greens.” Harry likewise has nothing but scorn for Hattie. To him, she is still a prostitute, but in different clothes. Despite her having found religion, Hattie is not beyond suggesting later to Suzie that poisoning Harry would be a good means of disposing of him. Some of the ambiguity in Harry’s character which appears in the original published script in Scenario has been cut out of the final film version, as has other exposition relating to the wider community of people portrayed in the film. Burnett claims these cuts were determined by commercial considerations having to do with the film’s distribution, but he also comments about the differences between the written script and the actual film: “I mean, a script requires a lot of exposition to make it work; a film doesn’t. A lot of that ends up getting in the way of the rhythm of the film that somehow establishes itself after you put it all together in the editing room.” Yet, even with these cuts, To Sleep with Anger still unfolds at a fairly slow pace by commercial standards, as evidenced by its long first act and the early climax, involving Harry’s accidental death, in the final act. The resolution lasts for eleven minutes. The tone of the film also shifts as Gideon recovers from his illness and the family reestablishes its sense of equilibrium while waiting for the county to cart Harry’s body away.

Roger Ebert, one of the most sympathetic critics of non-mainstream films, complains about the pacing and the lack of dramatic climax of To Sleep With Anger. He writes: What should be a coiled film, exploding at the end, is one where the final act releases our impatience rather than our tension. There are good things in this movie, but too much time in between them.” Harry’s death might normally be considered a kind of deus ex machina – an artificial means of resolving the story – but Burnett has made both luck and superstition so much a part of the narrative that this does not seem a contrivance. Harry could have just as easily left with his pals to go back home, and that would have been that, because he’s already become an ostracized figure within the family by the time he slips on Sunny’s marbles and dies. His death, in fact, has been prefigured by Sunny touching Harry’s shoes with a broom – a sign of bad luck – when Harry first arrives.

Besides its leisurely pace and flattening of the dramatic arc in the final act, To Sleep With Anger maintains the overall feel and texture of an independent film in other ways, especially by creating a densely layered narrative that exists on several different levels. Burnett explains: “One of the things that got me into this business was trying to make realistic movies but going beyond and behind. What appears isn’t what’s there in a certain sense. Trying to reach beyond and behind, that’s where you go off-center somehow.” Burnett’s dialogue in To Sleep With Anger represents one example of Burnett going “beyond and behind” realism. Steeped as the characters are in past resentments, the conversations are embedded with subtext. Nothing any character says can be taken at face value. Harry, in particular, speaks largely in riddles. Every response becomes an opportunity for him to play “devil’s advocate” by attempting to turn good deeds, religious transformation, or someone’s deep-seated anger – as in the case of Babe Brother – to his own debased ends. Burnett’s dialogue is deeply resonant and highly indirect; it is full of aphorisms, quotations, metaphors, and allusions to African-American culture and history. Conversations between characters, such as those between Harry and Hattie, often take the form of a verbal sparring match. All of Burnett’s characters, including even Suzie, prove to be masters of the putdown.

Like Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger employs a kind of symbolism and ambiguity more generally associated with art cinema. Burnett also infuses his domestic drama with a visually poetic quality usually not found in this genre. The powerful opening image of Gideon’s heaven-and-hell dream sets the tone for what follows and serves a striking example of Burnett’s visual sense. Burnett also provides poetic, slice-of-life transitions between scenes, such as shots of the neighbor boy’s pigeons flying through the neighborhood and the off-key sounds of the young trumpet-player. The fact that other small details were excised from the script, either during filming or in the editing room is not a novel development. For a fundamental tension between independent artistic visions and the perceived norms of the commercial marketplace has existed from the very beginning of the American independent feature film movement – all the way back to John Cassavetes’ Shadows. It is that same demand, as Burnett puts it, “to get it tight, streamlined: establish that rhythm that would keep the audience interested: you know, suck ’em in and spit ’em out at the end.” To its credit, To Sleep with Anger ultimately resists that tendency, which is probably one reason why, as critic Armond White points out, Charles Burnett still remains “the least well-known great American filmmaker.”

Posted 23 June, 2007

Todd Rohal: The Guatemalan Handshake

In one of their podcasts for Four Eyed Monsters, entitled “Losers,” Susan Buice and Arin Crumley list the many reasons they consider themselves to be losers. One is that their film didn’t get into Sundance, but rather Slamdance, thus making them losers because they were unable to come away with a distribution deal. The result has been a non-stop, grass-roots campaign to get their film shown theatrically, to sell DVDs, and finally to have it seen by over 500,000 viewers on YouTube this past week as a special promotion with Spout.com.

 

Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) apparently just barely missed getting into Sundance and also had to settle for the consolation prize of Slamdance, even though his film won a Special Jury Prize. Rohal discussed the ramifications in a recent Filmmaker interview with Nick Dawson: “I knew that the film would be a tough sell for anyone to see. There was never a thought that it would be distributed and put out in a million theaters, but it needed that legitimacy of Sundance taking it, saying, “This is a different kind of movie, and we’re going to show it.’” Rohal later comments: “After the Sundance thing didn’t come through, I said, ‘This is going to be a long journey . . .’ It’s definitely been a struggle.”

 

In the latest issue of Cineaste, there’s an article by Rebecca M. Alvin on microcinemas that discusses the changes that have been affecting art houses around the country, most notably, the sheer expense involved in showing smaller films and the competition from home-entertainment systems that are taking away public audiences. She writes: “But it is the third factor – the intertwining of mainstream and art-house audiences – that is most troubling in hastening the disintegration of art-house subculture.” The article talks about the effects of all of this, including the subsequent rise of microcinemas in out-of-the-way places as well as their attraction for people who still seek a community experience. Of special relevance here is the fact that Alvin’s article provides an interesting perspective on the difficulties that indie films face in being screened at theatrical showcases these days. It explains why, for instance, a pseudo-indie like Little Miss Sunshine might play at an art-house multiplex, but not anything more risky or challenging like Mutual Appreciation, Four Eyed Monsters, or The Guatemalan Handshake.

 

The Guatemalan Handshake, which just finished up a limited-engagement, one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is definitely not a mainstream movie. It’s been associated with the mumblecore movement for reasons that elude me, except for the fact that Rohal has acted in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the film seems to be influenced by the work of David Gordon Green. Otherwise, it deals with entirely different subject matter than other mumblecore films. It doesn’t focus strictly on the relationships of twentysomethings, and stylistically it bears little similarity to films by Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, or Swanberg. Shot in 35mm by the talented cinematographer Richie Sherman, The Guatemalan Handshake is an ensemble film, much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). It involves multiple characters and multiple plotlines that revolve around three main events: the mysterious disappearance of a man named Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham), a power outage that develops at nearby Three Mile Island, and a demolition derby race.

 

The film is narrated by a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Hayward), who considers Donald to be her best friend. Nasia mythicizes George in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000); Turkeylegs does the same with Donald. Like Nasia, Turkeylegs isn’t a terribly reliable narrator, mainly because she’s only a child and her view of the situation is incomplete. Turkeylegs hangs on to a vision of Donald no one else shares. Little does she know that Donald’s not necessarily deserving of her admiration. Many of the characters have names that sound like they’re right out of a children’s book: Turnupseed, Turkeylegs, Ethel Firecracker, Lunchmeat, and Neckface. Another is scatological (Stool), or in the case of Sadie’s heavy-set, African-American half-sister, Dalabia, laden with sexual overtones.

 

One plotline involves an elderly woman named Ethel Firecracker who has lost her little white dog. Donald, who’s searching for the dog for his own selfish reasons, witnesses its electrocution as a result of a surge in the power lines early in the film, just prior to his disappearance. Ethel puts up posters, hallucinates seeing the dog while sitting in her car, runs across her own obituary in the newspaper, and then attends her own funeral wake. As she blows her nose, Rohal creates a sound bridge to a bunch of neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers, which continues as she drives off in a hearse. Mr. Turnupseed’s abandoned electric car, which Donald was last seen driving, is stolen by a couple of boy scouts, who sell it to Dalabia’s friend, Stool (Rich Schreiber), who in turn trades it to Ivan, the crazy and hyperactive father of Donald’s girlfriend, Sadie (Sheila Scullin), for his run-down school bus. Sadie moves in with Donald’s father after getting kicked out by Ivan, presumably for getting pregnant.

 

A derby race gradually develops in importance as one of the film’s storylines when Sadie, despite also having a broken arm, proceeds with plans to participate. Her major competition is her own father, who happens to be the reigning champion. The various plot strands at various times intersect, though it’s more often as the result of sheer coincidence rather than motivated by either character or plot. An example occurs when Mr. Turnupseed encounters Ethel Firecracker at the local café. In response to her lost dog, Mr. Turnupseed offers the somewhat Buddhist explanation that if you love something you have to be willing to “set it free,” which must be his own self-delusional rationale for seeming to be unconcerned about the fate of his own missing son. 

 

We get flashbacks in the film of past events involving Donald, such as his conversation with Sadie regarding his sick turtle in which she suddenly throws it into the creek because she really would rather have a dog. Sadie expresses her regret about the incident to Stool, who reveals that he was the person responsible for the mishap at Three Mile Island – something we’ve actually seen earlier. Afterwards, in a pixilated sequence, Mr. Turnupseed signs insurance papers related to Donald. All of the characters, including the insurance agent, head to the demolition derby. While Ivan provokes a fight at the derby, Mr. Turnupseed spies his electric car, and, adopting a Dick Vitale-like persona, drives off with it.

 

Meanwhile, even though Sadie’s about to start the race, Stool passes her a note proposing they go to the beach, but she turns him down. Now without a car, Ivan begs Sadie to let him in hers, suggesting that they could become a powerful duo like Laurel and Hardy. Sadie refuses, but Ivan chases after her and manages to jump in through the open back window. The demolition derby becomes the film’s climactic scene, as Rohal deftly crosscuts between the contest, chanting fans, Ethel seeing her dog at home, Mr. Turnupseed setting off fire works, the electric car rolling backwards, a turtle on the road, Mr. Turnupseed’s car being driven off by a stranger, and Turkeylegs at the nearby amusement park. Sadie wins the race, but, even in victory, she still refuses Stool’s overtures. Donald never reappears, but the film ends on Turkeylegs, who’s still perplexed about what could have possibly happened to him.

 

Rohal deliberately refuses to tie together the loose ends of his episodic narrative, to follow conventions or even alternative strategies of narration employed by other successful independent films. Rohal takes a great many narrative risks, the biggest one being that no one really seems to care about the central mystery involving Donald’s disappearance other than Turkeylegs. Sadie seems depressed and regretful, but she doesn’t try to locate him. In the new romantic plotline, the horny loser Stool attempts to replace Donald, but that proves to be a red herring because Sadie simply rejects him. The fact that Sadie wins the race also does not really matter in terms of the story, except to the locals in the small town.

 

I think most people agree that the first ten minutes of the film are a real tour de force, but the dramatic momentum of the overall narrative sputters at times from too many incongruities. Like Harmony Korine, Rohal is ultimately more interested in individual scenes, non sequiturs, and small details of characterization. Often a character, such as Stool, will simply give up or capitulate in a scene, thereby diffusing the dramatic tension and energy. It’s the imaginative visual style of the film, however, that represents Rohal’s real strength and achievement as a filmmaker. For every scene that misses, there’s another one that soars, especially the flashback to childhood involving Spank Williams or the adapted Moldy Peaches duet that Donald and Sadie sing together.

 

The Guatemalan Handshake is richly poetic as well as chock full of visual sketches and ideas. Rohal captures the texture of life in a small Pennsylvania town, especially one existing in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. In that sense it’s really a small-town portrait (Stool even tells an Amish joke) – a character study of some of its inhabitants. Rohal creates many scenes that are deeply heartfelt and affecting, but these often involve the two characters who desperately care: Ethel and Turkeylegs. The overall tone of The Guatemalan Handshake is elegiac. Ethel Firecracker’s love for her dog continues even beyond her own death. Rohal also does a superb job of capturing what it feels like to be a small child in a world that seems somehow confusing, mysterious, and full of intense melancholy.

Posted 18 June, 2007

Mumblecore and Four Eyed Monsters

In terms of Andrew Bujalski, the subject of my last post, one significant change that has occurred in the meantime has been the fact that his work has become associated with a number of other regionally-based young indie filmmakers, now generally referred to by the term “mumblecore.”

There’s a diagram that charts the various connections of this group on  Cinephiliac, and even David Gordon Green turns up as a cousin in the familiy tree. (I wonder whether that also makes Terrence Malick a cousin once-removed. I did notice that both settlers and naturals seem to mumble their dialogue in The New World, making it nearly impossible to decipher.) Other than the two films by Bujalski, Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair (2005), and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005), most mumbelecore films have not been available through the usual commercial channels. Instead they can be purchased directly through the filmmakers’ Web sites, or some of the smaller Web-based companies such as Austin’s B-Side Entertainment (bside.com), which distributes Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005).

Andrew Grant, the film critic who runs the popular film blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater and Aaron Hillis of Cinephiliac have also created a new DVD distribution company, Benten Films, whose first release (available shortly) will be Swanberg’s LOL (2006). Mumblecore is very much a Web and festival-circuit phenomenon, which has been able to gain surprising traction outside of regular commercial distribution channels. Several of the films have had limited theatrical runs.

In any event, there have been two recent articles on mumblecore that deserve mention here. There’s a rather lengthy one by Alicia Van Couvering entitled “What I Meant to Say” in the Spring 2007 issue of Filmmaker. And a second by Andrea Hubert recently has appeared in The Guardian, causing SXSW’s Matt Dentler, the biggest promoter of the movement, to write: “In the UK, The Guardian has decided to hop on the ‘mumblecore’ bandwagon, with a recent feature introducing the American indie film movement to the Brits. It’s really cool that they chose to do this article, especially considering that most of these films have never officially screened in the UK.”

Besides Bujalski’sFunny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), the only other films I’ve seen from this group are Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair, Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006), Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, and Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005). Alicia Van Couvering writes in her Filmmaker piece: “If we were going to generalize, we might say that generally these films are severely naturalistic portraits of the life and loves of artistic twentysomethings. The genre’s ultra-casual, low-fi style has been simmering for the last decade, made possible by the accessibility of DV and inspired as much by reality shows and YouTube confessionals as by earlier American independent cinema.”

Based on what I’ve seen, broad generalizations are indeed difficult to make about a number of these films, which are clearly as different from each other as they are similar. Rohal seems to be mining territory similar to David Gordon Green, while Swanberg seems more influenced by cinema vérité and reality TV. The Duplass brothers appear to be more interested in creating dramatic arcs than the others, while Crumley and Buice employ an art-school aesthetic and elements that derive from digital media. There are other differences as well. Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth includes lots of graphic sex, Four Eyed Monsters talks a lot about sex, but depicts it sparingly and poetically, while Bujalski’s two films are remarkably chaste by comparison.

Mumblecore films are a manifestation of the current twentysomething youth culture, much like the works that dealt with the beats (Ron Rice), or punks (Beth and Scott B), or slackers (Richard Linklater) previously. So there’s that. Even Aaron Hillis’s desire to chart the interconnections of these filmmakers on Cinephiliac comes from the impulse behind social networking on MySpace or Facebook or even on Amazon.com, where even putting books you have no intention of buying on a wish list becomes a form of identity and camaraderie for cyberspace friends. This is a clearly a generation obsessed with personal relationships, and how people connect to each other, which is reflected in these films.

Van Couvering quotes Swanberg as indicating that personal relationships are really the only subjects he feels qualified in addressing. He insists: “I don’t feel I have anything to say right now about the Iraq War.” Of course, an obvious question might be: Why not? His remark seems puzzling for someone who cites Dziga Vertov as one his major influences. On the other hand, Hubert quotes Mark Duplass as conceding, “Sometimes I see films like ours and I think ‘Fuck off, dude, there’s a war going on, who cares about your relationship?’”

Hubert’s article on mumblecore in The Guardian begins: “The ‘mumblecore’ movement has been credited with reviving the US indie film scene.” Frankly, I think that remains to be seen at this point. Hubert also concludes her piece by indicating that “Jay and Mark Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski now make money writing for big studios, which goes directly into financing their own projects.” She further quotes Bujalski as conceding that he might someday make a studio movie and remarking, “It would be good to turn naturalism into a crowd pleaser.” Despite this, Hubert still insists of mumblecore that “these guys are the real indie deal.”

There is no question that the studios always have their eye on the youth market, which is why they scout major film programs in search of young talent, much like the major art galleries in New York and Los Angeles have been raiding MFA programs. In the case of Bujalski and mumblecore, this has the potential threat of turning their alternative aspirations into mere industry calling cards, which is something we have witnessed before. I should mention that Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters can be viewed for free this week as part of a special promotion for Spout.com, an online film and video community. For every person who signs up for the Web site’s free service, Buice and Crumley will receive $1.00, up to a maximum of $100,000. Touting the free screening of Four Eyed Monsters as the first feature to be shown on YouTube, Spout claims the subsidy is for Buice and Crumley’s next film project, while the two filmmakers indicate it will be used to retire credit-card debt on the last one. Buice and Crumley have proven themselves to be extremely adept at exploiting the social-networking possibilities of the Web as a marketing and self-distribution tool for low-budget indie films.

I highly recommend Four Eyed Monsters, which is easily the most formally inventive of the mumblecore films I’ve seen. Four Eyed Monsters deftly mixes autobiography with fiction in telling the trials and tributions of a love affair spawned by Internet dating. Played by the two pasty-faced filmmakers, Buice and Crumley play two artists who decide to turn their budding relationship into a Fluxus-inspired performance piece – a potpourri of emails, hand-written notes, photographs, drawings, animation, and videos. Their lovemaking is depicted through a montage of shots: a flock of pigeons taking flights from a rooftop, black moving clouds, fragments of their naked bodies, shadows being cast on a building, and a shot of pigeons eventually landing.

Crumley’s monastic desire to avoid talking provides one major obstacle in the story, but the possibility that he’s contracted a sexually transmitted disease from Susan takes up pretty much the entire middle act, and includes a hilarious rotoscoped sequence involving Crumley’s experience with a doctor at a free clinic. The complication is drawn out by the fact that Buice has left New York City for an artist residency at Studio Vermont (a place that sounds as crazy as Wrenwood in Todd Haynes’s Safe), and the test results take a couple of weeks.

The two eventually get back together, but not without additional issues; the result turns out to be the film, the ending of which is deliberately left open for purposes of serialization. In terms of their more free-form style of visual storytelling, Buice and Crumley have a natural instinct for what’s important and when to cut, which turns out to be frequently – something that differentiates their work from the extended-take realism of other mumblecore films.

The film has already made $16,059 from its YouTube screening, and can be viewed directly on the Four Eyed Monsters Web site.

Postscript: The special promotion has been extended through August 15.

Posted 12 June, 2007

Mutual Appreciation + Old Joy

Last September, Scott Tobias on the A.V. Club Blog pleaded for audiences to support the theatrical runs of Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006). He wrote: “If you care at all about American independent films, you’re required to see these movies.” Tobias concluded his post: “So vote with your dollars, people: If you want to see more movies like Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy, you have to create a viable market for them. Otherwise you’ll be left to hold out for Little Miss Sunshine 2.”

Tobias’s impassioned call-to-arms was met with equally spirited resistance. One lengthy comment from a suburban exhibitor responded that Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation simply weren’t very good. He wrote: “On personal level, it depresses me how much critical attention these two films are receiving considering their level of mediocrity.” The Reeler chimed in on Old Joy: “In her readings of landscape and faces, Reichardt captures spatial and structural dynamics that her story just cannot support; even at 76 minutes, the film exhausts its premise and tension less than halfway through.” Despite such harsh criticism of Bujalski and Reichardt’s work, Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy wound up on many Top Ten film lists for 2006. In the indieWIRE national critics’ poll, Old Joy placed number 7, while Mutual Appreciation came in at number 20. Unfortunately, though, neither film did very well at the box office. According to boxofficemojo.com, Mutual Appreciation took in $103,509 domestically and $121,292 worldwide. Old Joy faired a bit better. It made $255,923 in its U.S. release, and a total of $301,047 worldwide.

One reason for being interested in Bujalski has to do with a resurgence of realism in recent American independent films. Realism often has been conceived of as an alternative to the staged contrivance of Hollywood film. One just has to go back to read Jonas Mekas’s early writings in Film Culture and the Village Voice to see that he championed the first version of Cassavetes’ Shadows, Frank and Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), and even the work of Andy Warhol precisely on these grounds. In my book, I cite numerous examples of the realist impulse providing an alternative strategy of narration in indie films, such as Jarmusch’s eschewal of plot, Haynes’s fractured dialogue in Safe mirroring real-life speech patterns, Van Sant’s use of real time and non-professional actors in Elephant, Slacker’s collapse of the relationship between performer and role, and Harmony Korine’s associational structure in Gummo. The rationale for realism always seems to be that it more closely mimics real life.

At the end of his Village Voice review of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, Hoberman writes: “Coming in the same year as Andrew Bujalski’s similarly understated and character-driven Mutual Appreciation, it attests to a new strain in Amerindie production – literate but not literary, crafted without ostentation, rooted in a specific place and devoted to small sensations.” Given Hoberman’s remarks, it might be interesting to compare Kelly Reichardt’s film about thirtysomethings with Mutual Appreciation, especially in terms of their use of realism. Like Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985), Old Joy is largely an accumulation of artfully composed visual images and sounds held together by a slight narrative. The film, for instance, begins with shots of nature. After the sounds of a meditation bell, a bird on a gutter flies off. We see Mark (Daniel London) meditating outside his house, followed by a shot of swarming ants.

The tranquility to which Mark aspires is punctured by the loud grinding of an electric blender and the sound of music indoors, as his pregnant wife, Tanya, makes some type of green smoothie. The phone rings. The film cuts to Mark still meditating with the sounds of neighborhood kids in the background. The answering machine plays a message from his old friend Kurt, who announces he’s in town. Tanya comes into the room and stares at the answering machine. A pan over telephone lines to a bird creates a transition to Mark’s conversation. As Mark talks with Kurt, Tanya paces back and forth in the background. When she sits down, there’s obvious tension between them. Tanya resents Mark seeking her permission to go camping with Kurt, and the two of them argue briefly, suggesting either they have marital problems, which have become exacerbated by their impending baby, or that it’s directly connected to the message from Kurt. In general, Old Joy is all subtext. Everything that occurs in the film happens underneath the surface, which provides the narrative tension.

Although Old Joy is imbued with subtext, it’s not a film that’s strictly about personal relationships in the same sense that Bujalski’s films are. As Mark drives to meet Kurt, we hear Air America on the radio, which situates what transpires within a political and cultural context. Old Joy provides us with a sense of nature and physical place, not only as indicated by the opening scene but through long tracking shots of neighborhood and later extended shots of the natural landscape that convey the texture of the Pacific Northwest. As Mark reads the newspaper on the porch, Kurt yells: “Hey, man!” We see a wide shot in which Kurt (Will Oldham) pulls a red wagon holding a TV, as he walks toward him. Old Joy is at heart a portrait of two former buddies who represent a striking contrast in character. Oldham communicates through the awkwardness of his herky-jerky bodily movements, whereas we register Mark’s feelings largely through the anguish on London’s expressive face – he’s virtually a walking reaction shot. There’s not very much plot in Old Joy. The two friends go camping, get lost, spend the night camping in a garbage-strewn site, and eventually wind up in the hot springs in the Cascade Mountains. While Mark lies blissfully in the hot spring, Kurt gently massages his shoulders, the meaning of which (sexual or fraternal) is left open to interpretation.

Old Joy is ultimately about small moments. For Kurt and Mark, their camping trip represents a last-ditch attempt for these two old friends to try to reconnect before the trajectory of their lives sends them off in separate and irreconcilable directions. It’s about how people change (or don’t change) over time. Mark, for better or worse, has settled down into conventional responsibilities – job, marriage, and a family – whereas Kurt has chosen to remain a pot-smoking free spirit with no job or relationship or much in the way of a future. He represents stasis in a world that’s rapidly changing, as represented by the fact that Sid’s record store has closed and migrated to Ebay, countercultural values have been replaced by careerism, and even nature itself has become transformed into a cultural construct. Kurt is rapidly becoming an anachronism. Old Joy can be read as a look at this cultural transformation. It depicts a world view that’s being replaced by technological changes and by a new generation of young people, who are represented in Bujalski’s films.

Mutual Appreciation also has very little plot. Like the shared intimate moment between Mark and Kurt, Ellie (Rachel Clift), however, verbalizes her fantasy to kiss Alan (Justin Rice), the Beatle-haired, band-member protagonist of the film, despite the fact that she’s in a relationship with Lawrence (Bujalski), a nerdy graduate teaching assistant. The film begins with Alan lying on the bed with Ellie after arriving in town to make it in the music scene. Alan goes on a radio show with an Asian-American DJ named Sara to promote his music. Sara aggressively puts the moves on him afterwards, but he politely resists, especially when her brother becomes a possible drummer for his band. After his band plays at a local club, Alan lets Sara know that he’s not romantically interested in her during an awkward scene in the kitchen. It seems that he’s still hung up on a previous girlfriend. Very drunk, Alan later allows three women to dress him in drag. Otherwise Alan has conversations with his father about his need for money, while his father worries that Alan’s not trying hard enough to find some type of real job that will enable him to pay his credit-card bills.

Even though Alan is the film’s protagonist, it is actually Ellie who has the dramatic conflict. She flirts with Alan throughout, often playing the role of interrogator in their conversations, largely because Alan is often too busy flashing a huge grin to initiate very much conversation on his own. Together they discuss creating a cool people club, and Alan even asks Ellie to be his band manager at one point. Ellie also counsels Alan to be less of a rock star and to be straight with Sara about his lack of interest in her. Ellie later decides to stay at her own place rather than Lawrence’s one night under the guise that she has to get up early for work the next morning. After driving Alan home, Ellie maneuvers her way inside to get a CD of his music, and then, as they sit on his bed, tells him her fantasy about wanting to kiss other guys, including him.

Nothing happens, but Ellie deliberately skips attending the wedding of Lawrence’s old girlfriend. Alan shows up at her work place. As they drive together, she confides that she feels excluded from the special bond that exists between Alan and Lawrence. The two share some type of intimacy afterwards. Ellie tells Lawrence what happened when he returns. Lawrence wonders why Ellie couldn’t have left it as an unspoken fantasy rather than bringing it out into the open. It also disturbs Lawrence because he saw it coming, but he instantly forgives her. Lawrence later brings up the incident with Alan, who insists that nothing really happened between him and Ellie other than the fact that they experienced a shared moment together. The three of them eventually have a group hug and collapse on the bed before the film abruptly ends.

Whereas Old Joy’s realism is both visual and poetic and concerned with landscape and place, Mutual Appreciation focuses almost exclusively on verbal interactions of its young characters. Although he has an interesting and varied way of staging scenes, Bujalski is not a visual stylist like Reichardt. Despite Hoberman’s suggestion that both Old Joy and Mutual Appreciation are rooted in a specific place, I don’t find that to be true of Bujalski’s film. New York is talked about, but the film could have been shot anywhere. Most of it takes place indoors. There are very few exterior shots, and the ones we see don’t evoke New York in any specific way. Like Old Joy, Bujalski’s film also operates through subtext. It takes awhile to figure out that Ellie has an infatuation with Alan, even though the clues are there from the very opening scene, in which the two lie on the bed together before Lawrence arrives home and plops himself between them.

It takes more than ten minutes of viewing to grasp the subtleties of Bujalski’s work. Like Warhol’s films, duration is important somehow. Bujalski’s performers are extremely charming and engaging as characters. No matter how inarticulate they might be, they all have a unique and idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves, a way of syncing up with each other’s body language that communicates to the viewer. Bujalski’s work, like Reichardt’s, gets better upon multiple viewings. The nuances become more apparent. Scenes unfold at their own leisurely pace, but Bujalski has a DJ’s sense of abruptly terminating a scene, just at the point where it gets most interesting. Even though his work is scripted, Bujalski’s non-professional performers have an ability to seem unpredictable in how they will say something, of making it sound like their own thoughts and words. They also have great sense of timing in terms of line delivery and reactions.

Bujalski’s cinema is one that’s centered on performance, but he also has the ability to create complex characterizations. One is often unclear of the ultimate direction of various scenes, but that unpredictability is what keeps us watching. There’s not the calculated arc to his scenes, nor does Bujalski seem very interested in dramatic situations, but he’s the master of creating very awkward or embarrassing ones. Obviously, this type of cinema, like Reichardt’s, may not be for everyone, but Bujalski has made two impressive features to date, and that’s no minor achievement.

Posted 11 June, 2007