The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s first feature River of Grass (1994), a regionally inflected, feminist riff on genre set in the area between Miami and the Everglades, drew critical attention within independent film circles, but received only limited theatrical distribution. It would be over ten years before Reichardt’s collaboration with writer Jon Raymond provided the unexpected spark that reignited her career. Made on a micro-budget of $30,000 and adapted from Raymond’s short story (itself the result of a collaboration with photographer Justine Kurland), Old Joy (2006) managed to become a major critical hit and to gross ten times its production costs. Reichardt and Raymond’s latest effort, Wendy and Lucy (2008), produced for a mere $300,000, not only fulfills the promise of Kelly Reichardt’s earlier work, but catapults her squarely into the forefront of major independent directors.

Both of the Jon Raymond short stories on which Reichardt’s last two films are based have just been published in a collection entitled Livability (Bloomsbury, 2009), allowing viewers an opportunity to understand the nexus between word and image in Reichardt’s work. The story of a camping trip between two old friends whose lives have taken different trajectories, Old Joy deals with the impermanence of relationships in a culture of accelerated technological change. Raymond’s “Old Joy” turns out to be even more understated than the film, which includes an important added element, namely, that Mark (Daniel London) is married and soon to become a father. After Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark get lost while searching for a remote hot spring, the pair end up camping overnight in a garbage-strewn area in the forest. As the two shoot empty tin cans with a BB gun in front of a golden bonfire, Kurt, stoned and drunk, discusses his theory of a falling tear-shaped universe. Afterwards, Kurt has a sudden emotional outburst. He cries that he misses Mark, and insists that something has come between them. Mark impassively denies this, but, of course, it’s something he can’t admit to himself.

Old Joy is completely understated – it relies almost wholly on subtext for its narrative tension. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. We get mobile shots of Portland to the sound of Air America on the radio, purely cinematic sequences of the majestic countryside accompanied by music, and extended treks through the dense woods with Mark’s playful dog. Reichardt’s long takes include everything that would be cut out of most other films in the service of succinct storytelling. When Mark drives to Kurt’s house, for instance, we watch him park, get out of his car, and walk all the way to Kurt’s front door. In one memorable scene, the camera frames Kurt smoking a joint inside the car, as we view Mark studying a map through the windshield. Mark heads away from the car down the road. His cell phone rings. We watch him jog back to retrieve it, and then amble back away from the car. We can’t hear Mark’s conversation with his wife as he paces, but we can sense her irritation, as can Kurt, no matter how dulled his senses have become.

In Old Joy, Lucy (the director’s dog) inserts herself into the film, enough to become a character by often seeming to favor Kurt over Mark. In Reichardt’s latest effort, Lucy has finagled her way into a title role. Reichardt indicated in the recent issue of Film Comment that what she most admires about Raymond’s stories is that “he writes these really interior kinds of characters, and then the challenge for me is just figuring out how to physicalize that in turning things over into a script.” Ironically, “Train Choir,” the source for Wendy and Lucy, provides more motivation for the protagonist Wendy (Michelle Williams) than the film, even though Raymond’s writing style is rather spare. Ray Carver used to talk about life in terms of people having either good luck or bad luck, and his characters were left to grapple with whatever life dealt them. Wendy is down on her luck. While it’s not made explicit in the film what has left her in such a dire predicament – she elicits no sympathy when she phones her sister – Wendy’s hell-bent on making it to Alaska, where she believes she’ll be able to earn enough money to start her life over.

En route from Indiana to Alaska, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small town in Oregon. With a tight budget and food running out for her pooch, Wendy attempts to pilfer a couple of cans of Iams from a nearby grocery store. On her way out the door, she gets stopped by a young worker named Andy (played by John Robinson, the protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, no less). With a silver cross around his neck, he’s strictly Old Testament, insisting on retribution for her petty crime. After vacillating, the spineless boss lets Andy call the cops, and Wendy is hauled away, fingerprinted and booked by an inept officer, before she’s forced to pay a fine she can’t afford. By the time Wendy returns to the grocery hours later, her beloved Lucy has disappeared from the parking lot where she was left tied up outside the store. Wendy’s search for her missing dog, which takes up most of the film, might be exasperating if Reichardt weren’t such a masterful visual stylist and storyteller. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Wendy visits the local pound. Reichardt’s camera tracks past the various cages of dogs, suggesting the inside of a prison.

The film involves a series of episodic incidents, mostly with the people Wendy happens upon in the vicinity where her car has stalled. In Wendy’s initial jaunt into the woods, Lucy leads her to a group of young street people, one of whom pets the dog, while another, appropriately named Icky (Will Oldham), spins a rambling tale about driving an expensive bulldozer off a cliff in Alaska. There’s the security guard (Walter Dalton), who tries to befriend Wendy by allowing her to use his cell phone. As becomes painfully clear as Wendy tries to navigate her desperate situation, you can’t really exist in this society without an address or digital means of communication. In one of the film’s only redemptive gestures, the kindly guard later tries to help Wendy by stuffing crumpled bills into her hand – it turns out to be six dollars.

There are also those only too willing to take advantage of people less fortunate or down on their luck, such as the indifferent cops or the auto mechanic (Will Patton), who cons Wendy into junking her car for the reduced towing charge. And when Wendy’s forced to spend the night in the park, she has the misfortune of running into a scary derelict (Larry Fessenden), who rifles through her stuff while Reichardt’s camera focuses mostly on her face. Wendy breaks down afterward in the bathroom of the gas station. By the end, she’s so beaten down by events that she can no longer even think straight. The film seems to suggest that it’s bad luck that leads to reckless decisions – not the other way around.

It’s impossible to talk about Wendy and Lucy without mentioning Michelle Williams, who has short-cropped dark hair and wears the same plaid shirt, pedal pushers, blue hoodie, and distressed sneakers during the entire film. Williams’s understated performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Critics often talk about acting as if it were somehow unrelated to the script. If Wendy’s motivations are not always delineated, this gives a truly gifted performer such as Williams even more creative room to maneuver. In her interactions with others, she has a tendency to turn completely away from them (and the camera) as an innately defensive response. It’s only with Lucy that Wendy is able to exude any warmth or emotional spark.

Reichardt has always gravitated to those vulnerable characters who seem to exist on society’s margins. Wendy and Lucy, in fact, begins and ends in a train yard, as if deliberately conjuring up the past – the mythic figure of the hobo – in order to suggest that the Great Depression of the 1930s is back again. As such, the film can be read as a searing indictment of the Bush economic legacy. Reichardt creates rectangles within rectangles, evoking all the ways Wendy manages to get herself boxed in. There’s one shot in particular, where the camera follows Wendy as she walks in front of a brown wall. She turns the corner, but the camera stops abruptly, dividing the space of the frame in half. Reichardt relies on a symphony of train sounds and Wendy’s humming rather than music to create emotional resonance. With its muted colors, rusted metal, and grey skies, Wendy and Lucy manages to create an overall sense of melancholy that seems to reflect the protagonist’s psyche.

Posted 28 December, 2008

Afterschool

 

In attempting to explain why a group of high school teenagers in California covered up the murder of a classmate, screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1987) blames the impact of media for the inability of the teens to feel any sort of emotion. Clarissa tells the protagonist Matt (Keanu Reeves) that she cried watching Brian’s Song, the TV movie about the football player who died prematurely of cancer, but she’s unable to mourn for Jamie, her deceased friend. At the end of the film, all the kids file past Jamie’s casket, still unable to shed a tear, presenting us with a bleak view of teenagers who seem incapable of differentiating between mediated experiences and those occurring in their own lives. Afterschool (2008), Antonio Campos’s disturbing debut feature, mines similar territory to River’s Edge, but, in this case, it’s about young teens whose lives have been impacted by new technologies, such as YouTube videos and the Internet.

Afterschool played in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and was screened at the prestigious New York Film Festival this fall. Made by an incredibly talented twenty-five-year-old filmmaker, who studied film at NYU, Afterschool tells the story of Robert (Ezra Miller), an alienated and depressed high school sophomore at Brighton, an elite boarding school. The film opens with Robert watching the type of material easily accessible on the Internet, including silly home videos, the lynching of Saddam Hussein, brutal war footage, and violent pornography that turns him on.

Whereas Gus Van Sant’s Elephant charted the architecture of the prison-like school building as contributing to the social dislocation and regimentation of suburban high school kids as they shuffle between classes and respond to class-period bells, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography does a great job of creating the sterility of life at a privileged boarding school, where the interior white walls at times suggest the inside of a psychiatric ward. Both Campos and co-producer Josh Mond attended the same prep school, so it’s not surprising that Afterschool provides trenchant commentary on that experience. Campos highlights the inane bromides of the headmaster, Mr. Burke (Michael Stuhlbarg), at morning assembly, as well as the disingenuous manipulations of the guidance counselor, Mr. Virgil (Gary Wilmes), who builds up trust with students only to betray them to an administration, whose only goal is keeping the families of their wealthy clientele happy.

In English class, Robert fixates more on the female teacher’s anatomy – her crotch, ass, and breasts – than on Hamlet, the thematically relevant Shakespeare play they’re studying. When the teacher quizzes Robert about Hecuba’s soliloquy, he tells her, “Hamlet’s going to have the actors re-enact the murder in front of the stepfather . . . uncle.” The teacher adds, “He’s going to play out the play, and have his own stepfather play out the crime. And hopefully his guilt will drive a confession out of him.” As the title indicates, however, Campos is more interested in depicting what the kids do in their spare time within the trapped confines of boarding school, where conversations in the cafeteria sound remarkably similar to banter from the porn videos the kids voraciously consume on their computers.

As is required if you’re not into sports, Robert joins an extracurricular activity – in this case, the a/v club. A first-year classmate named Amy (Addison Timlin), who appears to have a crush on him, blurts out that Robert really wants to make porn. Amy quizzes Rob about his previous sexual activity, indicating that Dave (Jeremy White), his more sophisticated roommate, has downplayed Robert’s experience. “Dave’s an asshole,” he tells her. After she probes into his sex life further, Rob places his hand on her throat, mimicking the rough sex in the porn video we saw him watch earlier. Amy finally asks, “You trying to strangle me to death?”

The two eventually do have sex in the woods – an intensely awkward scene in which Robert still wears his blazer. “Did I hurt you,” he asks afterwards. “Yeah, a little,” Amy answers. He removes his jacket and shirt and gives her his T-shirt, which she presses against her crotch. The scene of their loss of virginity feels like it lasts for an eternity. In the cafeteria, Robert whispers about his “score” to Dave, who immediately offers to give Amy a ride home to Manhattan on the weekend.  

Robert unwittingly films the overdose of the popular twin sisters, Anne and Mary Talbert – a scandal that naturally wreaks havoc at the school – with his video camera. The film-within-a-film aspect of Afterschool might seem like a trite plot device, but Campos cleverly complicates it. Due to his interest in video, Robert is asked by Mr. Virgil to shoot an homage to commemorate the two victims. Robert goes around interviewing students and even the parents of the twins when they visit campus, but when Mr. Burke sees the results of Robert’s work, he’s completely outraged and disappointed. He tells Robert: “I’m no editor, but I can safely say that was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen. You didn’t even have music!” As Robert indicated to Mr. Virgil earlier, he’s attracted to short video clips on the Internet that seem “real.” As might be expected then, his own video project deliberately leaves in all the material that normally would be excised in editing. One of the pleasures of Afterschool involves seeing the comparison between Robert’s raw depiction of the events and the sanitized version the school eventually produces as a memorial tribute.

Not so ironically, Afterschool eschews any type of music as well. Campos tries to create an almost clinical emotional detachment from the material he presents, as befits his subject matter. Campos shows a propensity for languid pacing, long takes, wide shots with an anamorphic lens, and odd compositions. He’ll often place two figures at the very edge of the frame, or he even partially chops off parts of his subjects – the way Vincent Gallo sometimes framed his characters in Buffalo ’66. In the scene where Robert tells his mother on the phone that he’s not fitting in, at one point he disappears from the frame entirely. Campos sometimes shows us the back of Robert’s head rather than his face in a manner Gus Van Sant often portrayed his youthful characters in Elephant.

The acting of the teenagers in Afterschool is pretty much deadpan. Ezra Miller plays Robert with about as little affect as someone on lithium – the disembodied words seem to stumble from his mouth as if they’re secretly being delivered by a ventriloquist just offscreen. After the tragedy, Mr. Virgil attempts to puncture the armor of Robert’s lack of response by asking, “What do you think of your mom? Do you know she has crabs so big I ride them to work?” Rob stares at him blankly and finally blurts out, “What?” It’s the guidance counselor’s creepy way of trying to relate to teens.

Like Alex, the troubled and guilt-ridden skateboarder from Van Sant’s Paranoid Park – a film that Afterschool in many ways resembles – Robert does, in fact, harbor very dark secrets (as does every character). And if Afterschool conjures up associations to several recent films, it’s ultimately Michael Haneke, who seems to be a direct influence on this extraordinary first feature. Whatever the case, you have to admire the uncompromising formal rigor of Afterschool, which insists on being taken on its own terms. It’s one of the best American independent films I’ve seen this year.

Afterschool was selected for the “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” series – a small group of the most notable indie films unable to find distribution – at MoMA last month. When truly outstanding films such as Afterschool and Lance Hammer’s self-distributed Ballast are struggling to find their way into theaters, it’s a sad commentary on a distribution model that everyone agrees is broken. Campos himself seems to have a much more balanced perspective on the problem than Mark Gill’s much ballyhooed remarks “Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling” this past summer. In recent comments in Filmmaker, Campos suggests that independent cinema might have to return to its “pre-gentrification” roots. He talks about the need for budgets to get smaller, and suggests that limitations often inspire creativity – something Maya Deren stressed many years ago – as well as the importance of making the films you want. Campos writes: “As I continue to make films, I hope my audience grows and whether they see them in the last few theaters left in their town or on their TV or on their computer, I can’t predict. As long as they’re not watching them on their cell phones, I’m happy.”

Posted 19 December, 2008