The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Passenger Side

Matthew Bissonnette’s Passenger Side, a Canadian indie feature that played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last week, is a road movie that stays within very narrow parameters by mapping a specific place – the city of Los Angeles and vicinity – during the span of a single day.

The title of Passenger Side derives from a song by the band Wilco. The lyrics talk about not liking to sit on the passenger side while having to depend on someone to get around because of an impending court date. In Bissonnette’s film, Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) imposes on his older brother Michael (Adam Scott) to drive him around Los Angeles for reasons that are unclear initially. The two brothers, Canadian expatriates, present a study in contrasts. Michael is a novelist, while Tobey is an ex-junkie. Michael acts put upon and seems to resent Tobey for a host of reasons, including the fact that he’s forgotten that it’s his thirty-seventh birthday.

The film begins with the sound of a phone ringing for a long time. Michael, wearing black shorts and a tee shirt, finally answers by saying “Fuck you.” After arguing briefly with Tobey, he hangs up and proceeds to leave the phone off the hook as if he’s just encountered some aggressive telemarketer rather than his brother. He only agrees to chauffeur Tobey around after their mother intervenes.

Michael acts superior to Tobey, who is equally critical of Michael. As the film progresses, Tobey takes issue with the fact that Michael is sloppy, doesn’t show a lot of sympathy for other people, and hasn’t bothered to learn Spanish even though he’s been living in LA for years. Michael is also something of a Luddite, preferring a 1975 BMW, audio cassettes, a black and white TV set, print newspapers, pay phones, and listening to hockey games on the radio. In short, he seems to be someone who is desperately trying to hold onto the past.

The two brothers have a strained relationship and apparently haven’t seen each other in awhile. Much to Michael’s surprise, Tobey has read his brother’s novel recently, but doesn’t find the portrayal of either him or their mother very flattering. Michael insists the book is fiction and that the characterizations are exaggerated out of necessity. He claims to be writing a new novel, but it seems to be based on the events that are unfolding. Their interactions during the day consist of witty and acerbic banter, which, along with Tobey’s quest, provides the film’s forward momentum.

Michael becomes convinced that Tobey is seeking drugs, but that turns out to be a red herring. Passenger Side is highly episodic. As the brothers drive around, they encounter a series of characters, including a transsexual prostitute friend of Tobey’s, a desert psychic who insists that Michael harbors secrets, a Mexican immigrant who has chopped off some fingers and has to be taken to the hospital, a production assistant on a porno shoot, a hostile gas station attendant, and a drunken woman with bad politics.

One of the film’s funnier scenes occurs when Tobey lets the drunken woman into their car against Michael’s protests. At one point she discusses the fact that she loves George Bush, who wasn’t a fag about doing what he had to do. Michael responds, “Are you talking about the war where we killed hundreds of thousands of people for no reason? Totally. You’re right. I’m sure glad he wasn’t a fag about that. It’s awesome.” Michael sarcastically suggests that she’s wasting her time in Los Angeles and that she should go back to Washington and start a political blog. The two brothers engage in a heated argument when Michael wants to ditch her at a coffee shop.

As the film progresses our perception of the two characters changes, as does their relationship to each other. Although Passenger Side relies on a very dialogue-driven screenplay, Bissonnette intersperses purely visual passages. He also integrates a fine music score put together by Mac McCaughan of the indie rock band Superchunk. Right after the Canadian-hating gas station attendant flips them the finger, for instance, there’s a moving shot from the car. We see an oil rig in the dark blue ocean, which serves as a focal point, while a sandy beach passes by in the foreground and we hear the song “Suzanne” by Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Passenger Side is very much a well-acted character study and genre piece, but it succeeds largely due to a smart script that includes a number of unexpected twists and an ending that comes as a surprise (even if the clues have been there right along). Bissonnette sees his film as a throwback to1980s American indie cinema – to films by Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and Alex Cox – and indeed Passenger Side has a certain retro quality. He told an interviewer: “I enjoy these films as works of art, but I also have this idea that they stand as a sort of last gasp of romance and mystery in popular North American cinema, and I strongly believe that art, romance and mystery have a place in that arena, even in light of all evidence to the contrary.”

Posted 24 April, 2010

Greenberg

It was inevitable that if the young filmmakers associated with mumblecore couldn’t capitalize on the phenomenon at the box office someone else would. Films like The Puffy Chair (2006), Baghead (2008), and Humpday (2009) were all expected to become commercial successes, but all of them fizzled badly. Noah Baumbach, who somewhat surprisingly produced Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), shot his latest film Greenberg (2010) with mumblecore mainstays Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.

Just as John Schlesinger turned themes that Andy Warhol was exploring in My Hustler into the Academy-Award winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) with Jon Voight playing a male prostitute, so too has Focus Features’ Greenberg mined territory similar to mumblecore, while far exceeding the success of probably all of those films combined. Greenberg, in a limited theatrical release, has already grossed $3 million domestically. Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative in my analogy. Noah Baumbach is hardly John Schlesinger, and none of the mumblecore directors are in the same league as Andy Warhol. But the surprise here is less that Baumbach’s Greenberg is a modest commercial and critical hit than the fact that he has managed to turn Greta Gerwig into an overnight star.

A. O. Scott’s glowing article on Gerwig in the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago might have seemed over the top to many people. He writes: “Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. She seems to be embarked on a project, however piecemeal and modestly scaled, of redefining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.” Because acting is the one aspect of a film about which people most disagree, I’m pretty sure that The New York Times received a great deal of flack over this claim about Greta Gerwig.

There are several different types of film acting. “Star” acting aside, Hollywood acting, as embodied by someone like Meryl Streep, is the kind in which the artifice is completely evident in her performance. Every emotion is being telegraphed to us as viewers. In other words, when watching such performances, I’m always aware of exactly what the performer is doing – there’s never really a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the performance in question is judged precisely on recognizing the divide between actor and role. Did you really believe for a second that Jon Voight was a male hustler? Probably not, but mainstream viewers appreciated his characterization rather than its sense of realism.

Think of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in the scene where the Fowlers rip each other to shreds in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. That’s Hollywood acting, as we watch how the two veteran actors build their performances step by step. I’m not saying that what they are doing isn’t powerful or emotionally affecting – with artifice it is always a question of degree. In Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, there’s the scene where Mike (River Phoenix) tells Scott (Keanu Reeves) that he loves him as they sit by a campfire. The scene is painful and embarrassing to watch as a result of Mike’s vulnerability. River Phoenix doesn’t look at Reeves, wraps his arms around himself, assumes a fetal position, and rocks back and forth as he exposes his true feelings toward his friend. What I’ve just described is the artifice that Phoenix adds to a performance that is otherwise more naturalistic and more believable than that of Spacek and Wilkinson.

The last type of acting (of course I could break it down into any number of finer gradations) is naturalism. Non-professional performers, such as Cris Lankenau and Erin Fisher in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City would be examples. Warhol’s whole notion of the “superstar” was someone who plays herself or himself, which in some way represents the ideal of naturalism. It is interesting that A. O. Scott mentions two performances that I have raved about previously: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl. Those are professional actors who bring tremendous skill to their naturalistic roles in these films. Scott distinguishes the untrained performance of Gerwig by noting: “Part of her accomplishment is that most of the time she doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The transparency of her performances has less to do with exquisitely refined technique than with the apparent absence of any method.”

In assessing the earlier performances of Gerwig – and I’ve seen the films he references – in light of Greenberg, Scott later suggests that “you begin to intuit a degree of calculation and craft beneath the spontaneity and sincerity.” In other words, he acknowledges that Gerwig is “acting.” By the same token, it would be naïve to think that a Warhol superstar such as Edie Sedgwick isn’t acting or playing to the camera in such films as Kitchen, Poor Little Rich, Beauty # 2 Restaurant, Afternoon, Space, or Outer and Inner Space. Edie is very different in each, and in audio recordings Edie’s personality diverges even more from anything I’ve seen of her on screen. As Erving Goffman and others have made clear, all of us are engaged in a series of roles in negotiating and performing our lives.

Much of this is related to the issue of improvisation or structured improvisation, which has some bearing on naturalistic performances like those of Lankenau and Fisher in Quiet City or Gerwig’s previous work with Joe Swanberg in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends. Swanberg’s films don’t have actual scripts. When asked in an interview how Greenberg differs from her previous work, Gerwig mentions that the new film represents a change in scale. She adds: “And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it. But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.”

To her credit, Gerwig manages to hit every note in Baumbach’s Greenberg, a romantic comedy which features Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old misfit named Roger Greenberg who returns to Los Angeles to house sit for his rich brother, Phillip (Chris Messina). Phillip has just taken the family to Vietnam, leaving behind the family dog, Mahler, and their personal assistant, twenty-five-year-old Florence Marr (Gerwig). Florence explains to one of the kids that she and Mahler aren’t going on the trip because they’re “not family.” Although Florence runs the household, she’s not very assertive in asking to be paid promptly. She meets Roger when she stops by the house to pick up her pay check. In the meantime, Florence impulsively sleeps with a guy she’s met at some art event. She tells him, “I just got out of a long relationship.” He responds, “This isn’t a relationship.”

Roger has come back to LA from New York with a lot of heavy baggage involving his brother, former band members, Ivan (Rhys Ifans)and Eric Beller (Mark Duplass), and an old flame named Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares story credit with Baumbach), who now has a couple of kids. Just out of a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, Roger, a carpenter by trade, is preoccupied with writing letters to various companies about a litany of petty complaints. When Roger first meets his tall British friend, Ivan, he reads him one of his letters rather than engaging with him on a personal level. When they attend Eric Beller’s party, Greenberg literally sweats the whole time.

Roger and Florence become involved with each other almost immediately, even though Florence tries to slow things down after the fact. In the middle of it, she asks him, “Do you hear a train?” Florence, for all her competence, is full of self-doubts. She apologizes for her ugly bra and tells him, “I get kind of nerdy.” And, as if speaking for her generation, she also confesses, “I don’t read enough.” Roger, for his part, is pretty much impossible. He’s extremely neurotic, but in a mean-spirited (though funny) way. He goes down on Florence in a matter of seconds, but when he suspects she might have a cold sore on her lip, he runs off to the bathroom to investigate and decides to make a quick exit. When she gives him a flier announcing that she’s singing at a small club, he announces, “We probably shouldn’t do this again.”

After Mahler becomes ill with an autoimmune disease, Roger and Florence reconnect – Roger no longer drives – and he does show up to watch her sing. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Florence’s friend Gina (Merritt Wever) says knowingly, but Roger refuses her invitation to join Florence’s friends. When he gets together with Eric Beller, there’s still residual anger on Beller’s part over the fact that Roger torpedoed their band’s record contract years ago. As a result, Ivan developed a substance-abuse problem and now fixes computers, and poor Beller has been reduced to directing television. The friends are full of regrets involving the past. Ivan tells Roger at one point, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Roger answers, “I’d go further. Life is wasted on people.”

Roger spends much of the film venting about his life. At his birthday celebration at the restaurant, the waiters arrive with cake and candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” Roger startles everyone by shouting, “Sit on my dick, asshole.” The more reprehensible Greenberg behaves, the more Florence becomes enamored. She tells Roger she’s impressed by him, especially because he doesn’t seem pressured to be successful. She even says, “You can stay over. Wink. Wink.”  But when Florence tells him a silly story about her and a friend impersonating sluts with frat boys who videotaped them, Roger explodes and yells, “That’s the stupidest story I ever heard!” As he bolts out the door, he adds angrily, “What’s the point of that story?”

Roger, however, is still hung upon his old girlfriend Beth. He even calls her from his birthday celebration after inviting Florence to join him and Ivan. Roger tells her, “My dog is sick.” She responds, “My mom is sick.” But it’s a stalemate – he can’t imagine what that might actually mean for her. Roger manages to remember all sorts of small details about their earlier relationship, while it turns out that Beth has forgotten virtually everything. Their relationship obviously meant more to him than her – he’s been stewing over it all these years and wants to rekindle it. When Roger suggests that they should make a dinner date, Beth wisely refuses.

As Roger and Florence keep seeing each other, she comments on the fact that he likes old things. She then asks, “Do you think you could love me?” It is said in such a touching and heartfelt way that most men would melt on the spot, but Roger’s response is to ask her to stop calling him and to express a preference for someone older “who has low expectations about life.” He also psychoanalyzes her, managing to connect her behavior to being sexually molested. Florence at one point tells him, “You like me much more than you think you do.” Of course Roger does, but Greenberg is very much about a clash of generations. At a party later on, while Florence is temporarily out of the picture, Roger gets high and engages the college kids regarding their supposed differences. Roger calls them insensitive, and insists, “I’m freaked out by you kids.”

Baumbach’s risk in Greenberg is that not everyone will be amused by someone so angry. Coming to terms with adulthood and a life you never planned might not be easy, but everyone else his age but Roger has made the transition. On the other hand, Florence remains remarkably cheerful and upbeat despite her low-status job, a singing career that’s nowhere, her crush on a lunatic, and experiencing a traumatic event that she endures without complaint. Baumbach’s spin in Greenberg is putting these two different generational world views in conflict, which is also reflected in the acting styles. Ben Stiller is doing traditional comedy, while Gerwig excels at humorous naturalism. My guess is that most audience members will side with Florence, who’s quite likeable, rather than a self-absorbed character with an early mid-life crisis.

Critics have been proclaiming the death of mumblecore almost from the moment the term was coined by Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, in 2005. A. O Scott writes: “It will be interesting to see how far Ms. Gerwig can go and also whether the aesthetic she represents will continue to blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema.” He sees Baumbach’s Greenberg as suggesting “an intriguing transgenerational entente.” A more cynical view might call this a form of cooptation.

Postcript:

Since posting the above entry on Greenberg, I re-watched Hannah Takes the Stairs in order to take another look at Greta Gerwig’s performance. Joe Swanberg’s film is about a young woman, Hannah (Gerwig), who gets involved in multiple relationships over the course of a summer in Chicago. Why? We aren’t sure, nor is Hannah, other than the fact that she’s young and confused – a bit like Florence. Hannah dumps her current boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass), who has quit his job, when she’s realizes she’s unhappy in the relationship. The reasons given are that she resents the fact that Mike is funnier than her and that he doesn’t even know the names of her sisters. Hannah drifts into another fling with her office mate Paul (Andrew Bujalski). He’s supposed to be a hot new writer, but, as in his own Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski plays a nerdy intellectual. Hannah soon tires of Paul as well, presumably because he’s not really there for her.

Hannah finally winds up with another co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne). When he confesses to her that he’s on anti-depressants, Hannah has a meltdown. Although much of the film feels as scattered as the characters, this scene with Hannah is the one where her acting talent is most obvious. Hannah tells Matt, “I tend to leave destruction in my wake.” When Matt asks her how things are going with Paul, she stares out the window rather than at him and suddenly begins to cry. The camera stays very close to her. Hannah talks about using him. Matt tells her he doesn’t even know what she’s sad about. Hannah responds, “I don’t know. I just feel like I’m seeking too many people out.” She talks about the manic nature of having crushes on people and her regrets after acting on those impulses. Four and a half minutes later, Matt unlaces her black sneakers and the two begin kissing. Hannah realizes that she’s using her looks and sexiness to cause other people pain, but she nevertheless feels helpless to do anything about it.

I went back to Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film in The New York Times from August 22, 2007. In the context of the mumblecore/ DIY film festival at the IFC Center at the time, he writes:

“For devotees of recent D.I.Y. moviemaking, “Hannah” will evoke melancholy feelings, and not just because the heroine finds (probably temporary) bliss without seriously examining her preconceptions. Mr. Bujalski is writing a movie for Paramount; Mr. Duplass and his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass, are writing and directing features for Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television series to NBC; Mr. Swanberg and Ms. Gerwig are already finishing a new movie, and are so talented that they may not have to scrounge for financing for the next one. In light of all this, “Hannah” plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things. Mr. Swanberg’s third movie is a graduation photo in motion: D.I.Y., class of ’07.”

For the record, Swanberg and Gerwig’s Nights and Weekends (2008) – the film to which Seitz is alluding – grossed a total of $5,000 at the box office worldwide (Hannah Takes the Stairs did $25,000). Andrew Bujalski subsequently made Beeswax (2009), a film which I consider one of the best indie films of last year. Despite generally favorable reviews, it made considerably less money than either of his previous two self-released films.

Mark and Jay Duplass’s Baghead, which was distributed by Sony Classics, grossed $140,000, but Mark Duplass also appeared as the lead actor in Lynn Shelton’s more commercially successful Humpday ($428,000) and now, of course, he has a smaller role in Greenberg. But the Duplass brothers’ latest film Cyrus (2010), which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features name actors and is backed by the marketing muscle of Fox Searchlight. It appears to be their real bid to break into the mainstream. I’m basing this on watching the trailer and the Variety review. We’ll know for sure when Cyrus opens theatrically this July.

Posted 10 April, 2010

Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold’s disturbing second feature, Fish Tank (2009), tells the story of a disaffected fifteen-year-old girl named Mia, who’s stuck in a dead-end life. She lives with her single mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who constantly parties and drinks too much, and her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), in a housing project in Britain. Brilliantly played by eighteen-year-old non-professional actress, Katie Jarvis, Mia is full of pent-up adolescent anger. Mia and her mother are in a state of open warfare with each other. Their hostile relationship consists not only of physical abuse, but they continually trade expletive-laced insults and engage in a series of shouting matches. Joanne screams at Mia, “What’s wrong with you?” Mia snaps back, “You’re what’s wrong with me!” Even the potty-mouthed Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) has nothing nice to say, completing this portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Mia’s sole claim to an identity is that she listens to black rap music and fancies herself a break dancer. Early on, when Mia sees a group of neighborhood girls dancing in formation, she ends up viciously head-butting one of them as they argue. She also tries to unchain an old white pony from a fenced-in area of tattered mobile homes underneath the highway. Because the horse must seem to her like a metaphor for her own fate, Mia doesn’t give up easily in her desire to free the animal. After she returns with a hammer, Mia gets roughed up by some  guys. Even though she fights back with all her might, they cop free feels as she struggles. Mia eventually strikes up a relationship with a grease-monkey named Billy (Harry Treadaway), whom she helps steal a car-part from a junkyard.

But it’s not her relationship with Billy that becomes the film’s focal point, but rather the one she develops with her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Almost from the moment Mia bumps into the handsome shirtless older man in her kitchen one morning, we sense something begin to percolate under her otherwise opaque surface. He comments, “You dance like a black. That’s a compliment.” Mia’s response is antagonism, but she nevertheless repositions herself to stare at his muscular back as he disappears up the stairs. Mia rifles through his wallet and steals some money afterward. Connor appears to be reasonably nice. He eventually comes to provide a welcome contrast to the strained non-relationship Mia has with her mom. Connor gradually takes an interest in Mia. He tries to build up her self-confidence, encourages her to enter an audition for dancers at a club, and even lends her his video camera to document her dance moves.

The boundary in their relationship becomes blurred almost from the beginning. When Mia steals a bottle of booze at one of her mother’s drunken parties and later passes out, Connor carries her up to bed, removes her clothes, and places a blanket over her. At a family outing to a lake, Connor manages to coax Mia, who can’t swim, into the water, where he catches a fish with his bare hands. After Mia injures her foot on a rock, Connor attends to her wound. He tells her to jump on his back as they head to the car. As Connor breathes heavily under her weight, Mia rests her face close to his. The two dance together in the parking lot afterward. The inevitable occurs when Connor brings her drunken mom home from the pub one night, and the he and Mia end up on the sofa together. From here, the plot takes a number of twists and turns and reversals, though I managed to predict most of what transpires. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter – the film will keep you riveted. But if I were to criticize Fish Tank (and I’m very reluctant to), it would be on the basis of its somewhat conventional plotting.

American manual writers have been spreading their screenwriting gospel across several continents now. Most affected are the national development boards that decide which films will receive government funding. Fish Tank received National Lottery Funds, so I can’t necessarily blame Arnold for the type of tight plotting she employs. It easily could be based on reader reports. For a discussion of this, I recommend that you read Kathryn Millard’s excellent article in the first Journal of Screenwriting. She writes, “Many development processes simply shape screenplays to pre-existing templates so that the distinctiveness of works can be gradually eroded, assessment by assessment, draft by draft.”

Everything else about Arnold’s Fish Tank is otherwise distinctive, especially her complex characterization. Roger Ebert writes, “Some reviews call Connor a pedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist.” The distinction amounts to splitting hairs. Does Connor take up with the mother to target Mia? No, I don’t believe so. But the film provides an almost textbook example of “grooming” – how an older man, such as Connor, sets up someone underage in order to exploit them. I find what he says to Mia in the heat of passion to be the most revealing aspect of his character, and Arnold subsequently exposes additional layers of deception. A poor neighborhood is a perfect playground for such a predatory character, who’s clearly slumming, even in striking up a relationship with Mia’s mother. Michael Fassbender does a masterful job of balancing the inherent contradictions of Connor’s character by creating just enough ambiguity to keep viewers off-balance.

It is Jarvis’s portrayal of Mia, however, that really stands out. Her feral intensity makes the screen crackle with raw energy – it’s no accident that she identifies with tigers – and serves to mask her vulnerability, confusion, and loneliness. Joanne is about to have Mia sent away, so the teenager has little to lose in running from the social worker. What she does with Connor amounts to a form of revenge, but, of course, it’s ultimately on herself. Arnold’s hand-held, highly mobile camera (the film’s cinematography is by Robbie Ryan) captures the kitchen-sink realism of the drab block buildings of the housing project and the desolate surrounding landscape. It’s no wonder that both the adults and kids drink anything that will numb the pain of their pathetic lives. Fish Tank is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. This extraordinary British independent film contains several scenes of such emotional power that days later I still can’t get them out of my mind.

Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank won a well-deserved Jury Award at Cannes last May. It is being distributed by IFC both on VOD and in theaters. It opens at Sundance Cinemas Madison this Friday, April 9.

Posted 7 April, 2010