The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Exploding Girl

Bradley Rust Gray pushes cinematic naturalism to the brink in his intriguing second feature The Exploding Girl, where very little happens and the real interest lies almost entirely beneath the surface. Gray is mining territory that has been explored previously by films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron’s Katz’s Quiet City (2007), but also So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (2006), a film that Gray co-wrote with his wife and creative partner, Kim, who also co-produced and co-edited The Exploding Girl.

Mumblecore films, to which Rust’s new film invites comparison, tend to be highly verbal films about relationships, whereas The Exploding Girl employs words sparingly. It uses temporality – the passage of time – rather than language to suggest the awkwardness of youthful interactions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Mumblecore films, for the most part, deal with characters who consider themselves hipsters. The Exploding Girl, on the other hand, focuses on a pair of nerdy college kids. Mumblecore films are populated by nonprofessional performers, mostly friends of the filmmaker, whereas Gray uses professional actors here.

Indeed, the performances of Zoe Kazan and Mark Rendall are key elements to the success of Gray’s film. Kazan, in particular, is as amazing in The Exploding Girl as Michelle Williams is in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, as she finds inventive ways to fill dead time. The writer Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay for Wendy and Lucy, talks about Michelle Williams being able to express the inexpressible. He told an interviewer: “To me, the incredible thing she accomplished, and which I can only imagine is like the black belt of acting, was somehow to express the idea that she was, in fact, withholding expression. Somehow, she managed to give the impression of blocked feelings, which to me seems almost impossible. How do you express that you are not expressing something? It seems really hard.” Zoe Kazan also earns a black belt in acting for her portrayal of a character with bottled-up feelings in The Exploding Girl. In fact, she won the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

The plot of The Exploding Girl is extremely slight. The story centers on a young student named Ivy (Kazan), who returns home to Brooklyn from college in upstate New York over break, along with an old school chum named Al (Rendall) who ends up staying at her house. In the car, Al, who attends a different college, asks Ivy whether her boyfriend Greg (Franklin Pipp) is planning to visit her. Greg isn’t, but Al’s reaction suggests that it’s actually a loaded question. It soon becomes obvious from Ivy and Greg’s cell phone conversations, that their relationship consists mostly of reporting what they’re doing at the moment, and, for Ivy at least, it seems to involve moping around and waiting for him to call her. So it comes as no surprise when Greg dumps Ivy as she stands on the street in the midst of heavy traffic.

Ivy has epilepsy, which partially accounts for her fragility. She has to be careful not to drink too much or get stoned or overly stressed, but she’s also so repressed and depressed that her passivity becomes pretty exasperating. Not that her handsome and overly polite pal Al, who’s into biology and has the face of a sad clown, is any better at expressing what he feels either. Under the guise of their close bond – they go back to eighth or ninth grade – he confides in her about his crushes, and asks her advice about wanting to kiss another woman. Yet it’s obvious in the hushed and sincere tone he uses when speaking to her that the two have feelings for each other beyond friendship, even though they might need a sinking ocean liner for it to register.

Ivy’s mother (Maryann Urbano) runs a dance studio. Other than when the three of them play a game of cards, she seems more preoccupied with her own life than with spending time with her daughter. Al’s parents aren’t much better. They’ve rented out his room (or at least that’s what he claims), and his parents never come up again. Gray uses the art-cinema technique of burying the motivation of his characters. Babies, real or imagined, surface several times in the film. Along with Ivy’s mom, Ivy and Al visit her cousin, who has a new baby, which Ivy holds, while Al stares with wonder and touches the baby’s tiny hand. Later, after a party where Al gets very stoned and the two share a milkshake, he asks Ivy whether she wants to have babies. She explains that, given her medical condition and need to take medication, it would be more complicated for her, which leads to this exchange:

IVY: Why? You want babies?
AL: Yeah.
IVY: You want my baby?
AL: Yes. (Ivy laughs) I didn’t mean it like that.

At the rooftop pigeon coop toward the film’s end, he shows her a couple of baby birds. Ivy gushes and wants to touch them. Is this an indirect way of trying to bring up sex?

In terms of the film’s use of buried motivation, there seems to be one skeleton in the closet that’s never brought up, namely: What happened to Ivy’s father? If The Exploding Girl is the b-side of In Between Days (both titles come from songs by The Cure), as Gray has indicated in several interviews, I would hazard a guess that this might be the key to unlocking Ivy’s character. In Kim’s film, In Between Days, the absence of Aimie’s father remains the main source of her pain and confusion. Why is Ivy so depressed? Why is she in a relationship with a guy like Greg, who is clearly cheating on her behind her back? The answer actually isn’t in the text, so to speak, but part of the pleasure of watching films like In Between Days, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and The Exploding Girl remains filling in the missing blanks.

The Exploding Girl is deliberately underwritten – the screenplay is a mere 60 pages for a film that’s 79 minutes long. Gray calls the process of making the film “exciting because we made it out of nothing, like making cookies with ingredients you find in your cupboard.” According to an interview with Ramin Bahrani in Filmmaker, Gray wrote the character of Ivy based on conversations with Zoe Kazan after she agreed to be in his film, while Al’s character derived from things Grey had learned about Rendall from an actress friend of his. Thus, there’s a close connection between actor and role in the film. As was already evident in In Between Days, Gray has mastered how young people communicate (or don’t) with each other, especially via cell phones. As Ivy walks down the street, Greg calls her:

IVY: Hello?
GREG: Hey . . .
IVY: Hi. Hey.
GREG: Hey.
IVY: Um, I called you last night.
GREG: Yeah, I was with my parents, and . . . we’re going to lunch now.
IVY: Oh . . . (her phone rings) Oh, hang on a second. Shit, I have another call. Um, can I, can I . . . can you hang on?
She gets another call, which turns out to be from Al.
GREG: Ah, yeah.
She talks briefly with Al, and then returns to Greg.
IVY: Hey . . . Greg?
GREG: Hey, yeah, sorry I can’t talk long now. I’m with my parents. I just . . .
IVY: Oh . . .
GREG: You know, wanted to check in.
IVY: Okay.
GREG: I miss you.
IVY: Yeah, me too.
GREG: Ah, okay, so I’ll call you later. Okay?
IVY: Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll have my phone on. (Pause) Okay, bye.
GREG: Bye.

In other words, the whole purpose of Greg’s phone call is to tell Ivy that he can’t talk to her.

Rust differs from mumblecore directors in being far less oriented toward dialogue and in relying instead on visual storytelling. Gray cites Hou Hsaio-hsien as a major influence on this piece. The Exploding Girl embodies a cinema of observed gestures, silence, and intricate sound design rather than plot and action. Gray uses a longer focal-length lens to compress his images spatially. It allows him to embed his characters within documentary-like shots taken on the street, which add to the film’s realism. Even though Gray includes a fair number of closeup shots, especially of Ivy, he and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, often place obstacles between the characters, such as framing Ivy behind the doctor’s shoulder during her checkup or filming her through passing traffic while she’s in the bookstore.

The most visually exhilarating scene occurs on a rooftop when Al takes Ivy to see his friend’s pigeon coop, where she finally breaks down, while pigeons swirl in formation overhead. The film is also book-ended by the trip from upstate to Brooklyn, where the moving landscape is reflected on Ivy’s sleeping face, and the return ride back, where Gray relies on the power of the camera to capture those subtle moments that are somehow beyond words.

The Exploding Girl, which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, will be shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 19 February, 2010

Best Independent Films of 2009

Most people do their “best films” lists at the end of December. That makes sense, but, in my case, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have too many other projects in the works, so that even maintaining the blog is a pretty challenging endeavor. But beyond that, because I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin rather than in either New York City or Los Angeles, it now takes considerable effort on my part to view the important independent feature films that surface within a given year.

Most of them aren’t playing at my local cinemas. They play at film festivals, or on VOD, or I have to wait to see them when they are finally released on DVD, or sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch them when I’m in NYC to visit museums and art galleries, where an alternate universe of film and video is also on display (such as Cyprien Gaillard’s mesmerizing Desniansky Raion, which I saw on separate occasions at the New Museum and White Columns this past year).

Three of the indie films on the list below – Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, and The New Year Parade – played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last spring. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me is scheduled to screen at this year’s upcoming festival in April. Only two of the films – Goodbye Solo and The Girlfriend Experience – had commercial runs locally. But that’s also true of many of the best international art films as well.

I’m certainly a huge fan of global cinema, and indeed found great pleasure in viewing such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, Three Monkeys, Hunger, The Headless WomanGomorrah, Tony Manero, Tokyo Sonata, Somers Town, and Police, Adjective, among others. And from the studios, I was impressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Yet, due to the main focus of this blog, my list remains confined to American indie films.

If there’s one trend among the best indie films of the year, it is once again naturalism and some flexibility toward the script. The second appears to be a move toward globalism and a renewed interest in regionalism. While So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo were shot in Korea and Rwanda respectively, the other films were set in Austin (two of them), Winston-Salem, Vermont, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida. That alone seems pretty remarkable, especially when Hollywood has tried to make it appear as if Los Angeles somehow reflects everyone’s reality.

This is a rough time to be an independent filmmaker. Three films on the list – Severed Ways: the Norse Discovery of America, Munyurangabo, and Loren Cass – took a couple of years after being finished to have a theatrical release. Now that digital technology has made it so much easier and cheaper to make feature films, the biggest challenge continues to be how to connect them with an audience. Most commentators lament the lack of commercial support. The fact that the studios and their subsidiaries virtually have abandoned indie cinema may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but only provided that some new and better digital exhibition and distribution model can emerge from the ashes.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2009:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
3. Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
4. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
5. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
6. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
7. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
8. The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
9. Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
10. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

If the new list seems more obscure than last year’s, I think this partially has to do with the fact that indie films are opening in more alternative venues such as Film Forum (Treeless Mountain and Beeswax), Anthology Film Archives (Munyurangabo,) or even The Museum of Modern Art (Harmony and Me). As a result, these films haven’t received nearly the level of publicity they deserve.

Posted 8 February, 2010

Beeswax

Andrew Bujalski’s much-anticipated third feature, Beeswax (2009), might appear to be about almost nothing at all, which is one of the risks of naturalism. I must confess that it took a second viewing for me to appreciate fully just how subtle and complex his new film really is. Beeswax explores the relationship between a pair of attractive twin sisters in Austin, Texas. Bujalski’s characters are older than in Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Mutual Appreciation (2006), and their problems are more substantive, but his focus still remains on the confounding mysteries of human communication.

Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) runs a hip vintage shop called Storyville, while her roommate sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is more of a free spirit, who perpetually seems to be searching for a job. As the film begins, Jeannie is embroiled in a conflict with her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), while Maggie breaks up with her boyfriend for no apparent reason. The sisters are distinctly different. Perhaps because Jeannie is in a wheelchair, she protects her independence. This quality, combined with other traits of her personality, makes her something of control freak. Having a partner – romantic or business – presents a challenge for her (and the other party), despite her seemingly casual demeanor. Lauren is the opposite. She parties all night and then still seems to be up for an early morning game of soccer. But Lauren has her own demons, which are merely harder to detect. She’s flaky to a fault – losing her phone, forgetting to relay important messages, and not really being there for her sister or anyone else.

Jeannie’s problems with Amanda cause her to reconnect with an old flame named Merrill (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, who’s really quite a good actor), but it largely has to do with the fact that he’s a law student, who is about to take his bar exam. Jeannie doesn’t mean to exploit Merrill. Like all people who use others, she just happens to get re-involved with him when she needs him the most, even though she refuses to acknowledge him as her boyfriend. Merrill is well-aware of Jeannie’s motives, but he accepts the dynamic of the relationship because it also suits his own needs. Jeannie’s legal problems at the boutique are a welcome distraction from his bar exam, and Merrill has a tendency to function better in “crisis mode.” Not much actually happens in the film, but Beeswax nevertheless has a deceptively intricate plot. Lauren applies for a job, but the interviewer turns out to be the brother of the guy she’s just dumped. Of course, she doesn’t get the position – at least not initially. But when someone else backs out of teaching in Nairobi, it gets offered to her. Whether or not she’ll go is another matter altogether.

At the center of the film is the dispute between Jeannie and Amanda over the business, along with the threat of a messy lawsuit. As the film opens, a new employee Corinne (Katy O’Connor) turns up at the store. She’s been hired by Amanda, who hasn’t bothered to tell Jeannie. That alone is revealing of the strained relationship between Jeannie and Amanda. Like Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe, Corinne has the annoying habit of turning every statement into a question. You can tell that she grates on Jeannie’s nerves, almost from the moment she first opens her mouth. At one point, she asks whether it’s okay to put up fliers in the store about a political demonstration. Jeannie is concerned that if something happens at the demonstration – and Corinne gets busted – she won’t be able to open the store the next morning. Corinne rightly suggests she also could get hit by a car, but their conversation reveals that the two of them, for all practical purposes, inhabit alternate universes. Corinne actually doesn’t get hit by a car or get busted at the political rally, but she does end up having an unexplained meltdown.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that Lauren chooses to withhold crucial financial information from Jeannie, namely, that her mother’s friend Sally (SXSW film festival producer Janet Pierson) really wants to help out. Maybe it has to do with the need of twins to keep secrets from each other just to maintain their own separate identities. It actually works both ways. Jeannie initially doesn’t want Lauren to know that Merrill has slept over. He gets caught and lies to Lauren that he was merely retrieving his cell phone, but Lauren makes it obvious that she doesn’t quite believe him. Lauren asks Merrill to go with her to play a game of soccer. He almost does, but then changes his mind at the last minute. In a sense, virtually every scene begins to feel like an open question.

We never know why Lauren won’t tell Jeannie about something so important, especially when they take a trip to talk to a potential investor, played by film director Bob Byington, whose disheveled appearance makes him look like he’s just crawled out from under a rock. His eyes keep darting between Merrill and Jeannie in the scene before he simply tells Jeannie once Merrill is dispatched to get beverages, “I’d like to be your guy, but I don’t know if I’m your guy.” Both Karpovsky and Byington appear in Byington’s Austin-based indie Harmony and Me. The two are actually much funnier in that film, which is a comedy that relies on very brief scenes, precise comic timing, and a wider range of emotional peaks and valleys.

Bujalski’s scenes in Beeswax, on the other hand, are much longer. They have a very methodical quality, as if guided by some inner metronome that controls the carefully-modulated pace and tempo that has become something of a stylistic trait of Bujalski’s work. As in the earlier Bujalski films, conversations don’t follow the usual structure and conventions of movie dialogue, but appear to meander in ways that often appear to confuse even the participants themselves. Bujalski has become the master of circumlocution and indirection. His characters get so lost in the labyrinths of their own words and language itself that they often say the opposite of what they mean or intend. Their unconscious slippages turn out to be funny as well as embarrassing. The actual behavior of Bujalski’s characters is equally unpredictable, suggesting that, deep-down, human beings are an utter maze of baffling contradictions.

Bujalski makes us acutely aware of the fact that attempts at humor often carry the greatest personal risks. A wonderful example of this occurs in a scene where Lauren strolls in and tells Jeannie and Merrill that, among other things, she’s just learned that a high-school boyfriend has died:

LAUREN: I’ve gotta pee and go to bed. I do have some stories to tell you, the saddest and quickest of which is that A.C. told me that Daniel had died. Some heart thing, I don’t know, some kind of unexpected heart failure, or maybe drug-related, maybe not.
JEANNIE (softly): Jesus . . .
LAUREN: So . . .  (To MERRILL) This is my first boyfriend from high school.
MERRILL: Oh, I’m sorry.
JEANNIE: I’ve never . . . I’ve never kissed a dead guy.
MERRILL: Maybe if you were a better girlfriend in high school, he’d still be alive today.
Jeannie, lying on the couch, winces, then laughs.
LAUREN: Maybe so.
MERRILL: That sounded horrible. That came out totally wrong. I’m sorry.
LAUREN: I don’t know . . .
MERRILL: Why would I say that? That’s terrible.
Lauren excuses herself.
LAUREN: I’m gonna head to bed.
MERRILL: Goodnight, Lauren . . .  (To JEANNIE) In my mind, it sounded so different than the way it came out. It sounded hilarious. It came out so not hilarious.
JEANNIE: Yeah, I guess not. No.
MERRILL: No, maybe not. That was terrible.
JEANNIE: You didn’t know Daniel.
MERRILL: I didn’t know Daniel. That’s really no excuse.

Lauren, however, does know Daniel, yet she appears to have no emotional response either, which says a lot about her character.

What distinguishes Bujalski from the cohort of filmmakers with whom he’s often associated is his strength as a screenwriter. In an  interview with Livia Bloom in cinema scope, Bujalski explains, “I did realize that I think I’m an auditory sort of writer. For me, writing starts from hearing voices in my head. My films are quite dialogue-heavy, and I think maybe that’s partially because I hear them first.” This is hardly surprising. Bujalski has always been considered a character-based director rather than a visual storyteller. Or as he later puts it, “I feel like I’m running toward the images, and the way I’m getting there is by listening to the words.”

Yet Beeswax does represent a significant advance in terms of visual style. The film opens with vintage dinner plates of numbers being removed from the frame, which is a clever way of suggesting the countdown leader on a film. The cluttered compositions of Storyville create a striking contrast to the more spare framings inside Jeannie and Lauren’s place. Jeannie uses her wheelchair to traverse the space of the vintage store, making the viewer self-consciously aware of the camera’s tracking shots to follow her, with wooden artist mannequins suggesting the human anatomy amidst the lime and peach color-scheme and golden light. But the tranquility of this image will soon be shattered by a loud knock at the door, which will introduce the ensuing turmoil.

In discussing the fact that his characters bring such radically different perspectives to events in Beeswax, Bujalski relates it to his own situation in making independent rather than mainstream films. He told the interviewer on the auteurs: “I think it’s probably deeply ingrained in all of the work I’ve done. Certainly the Jeannie and Amanda conflict in Beeswax is a question of two people who look at the world differently and get torn apart by that. They can’t figure out how the other one could possibly see the world. My career is about that. Why aren’t as many people going to see Beeswax as are going to see Avatar? Of course it doesn’t make sense to me: I don’t share the worldview that would produce that mass opinion. I’m up against that every day.”

Posted 5 February, 2010