The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Catechism Cataclysm

Todd Rohal’s richly inventive debut feature The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) was overlooked by the Sundance Film Festival at the time. In retrospect, this seems like an inexcusable oversight. Lacking a distribution deal after playing at Slamdance, Rohal took a single 35mm print on the road for two years. At the end of the journey, according to IndieWIRE, he reportedly buried the copy in the desert and burned the film’s promotional materials as a form of catharsis. Rohal’s new film The Catechism Cataclysm (2011) played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but, unfortunately, that’s no longer an assurance of a lucrative distribution deal. Yet The Catechism Cataclysm, which had a very brief theatrical run at the IFC Center in New York City, deserves a better fate. The film has also played VOD and will be released on DVD next month.

The Catechism Cataclysm reiterates Rohal’s gonzo approach to narrative. The new film very much takes aim at notions of storytelling. Father Billy (Steve Little) begins the film by telling a story to a Bible Study group about an elderly woman who mistakenly thinks her car is being stolen and pulls out a pistol, only to discover that she’s having a senior moment. Several of his parishioners are puzzled: What is the moral of the story? Father Billy claims such questions ruin it. When confronted by his superiors about his failure to make his sermons more pertinent to his congregation, he’s given a sabbatical to find himself. In response, Father Billy concocts a plan to renew his faith by embarking on a canoe trip with his old idol, Robbie (Robert Longstreet), whom he has badgered with endless emails after locating him on the Internet.

The Catechism Cataclysm tells the story of two contrasting characters: Father Billy, an immature and unhappy young priest, and his sister’s old boyfriend, Robbie Shoemaker. In high school, Robbie was a writer and death metal musician, whom the younger Billy worshiped, but his sister’s boyfriend, it turns out, doesn’t remember him. Father Billy mistakenly believes that Robbie is a musician in a major band, when, in fact, he’s merely a spotlight operator. That seems not to matter to Father Billy, who persists in his fantasies about Robbie’s super cool lifestyle. When he pesters Robbie for stories about his escapades, the roadie tells him about a couple of relationships that seem anything but romantic.

The Catechism Cataclysm takes the buddy film to its outer limits. It plays up the homoerotic nature of the genre by immediately having the two characters sit in adjoining bathroom stalls after eating greasy food at the diner where they initially meet. Father Billy, for instance, tests Robbie’s ability to detect the difference between simulated and real passing of gas. Father Billy’s bible, which he has been using as an autograph book, falls into the toilet after he takes a dump. The film’s obsession with bodily functions exploits a kind of juvenile male humor that seems perfectly appropriate to the buddy genre and male bonding.

When the two men rent canoes, they meet two female Japanese tourists, who are enacting their own fantasy of being Tom Sawyer (Koko Lanham) and Huck Finn (Miki Ann Maddox), along with their guide, a black man, of course, named Jim (Rico A. Comic). Leslie Fielder’s famous essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” originally published in the Partisan Review, forever changed everyone’s perceptions of American literature by emphasizing the homoerotic strain in Twain’s classic novel, as well as establishing it as a major literary theme. Rohal also manages to insert references to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, connecting the controversies of that novella to his use of similar material in the film.

Stories within stories abound in The Catechism Cataclysm. When Father Billy insists that Robbie tell him another tale, he recites one about a Mexican worker named Miguel who gets trapped inside a concrete pillar support underneath a highway while pouring concrete. A Latina woman, Maria, finds him and they fall in love, even though they can communicate only through a very tiny air hole. Father Billy wants to know, “And then what?” When that’s all there is, he criticizes Robbie’s fable for not having an ending, and offers his own version, which includes Miguel getting such a huge erection that it smashes through the cement. “It’s not an amazing boner story,” Robbie chides the priest, who seems obsessed with penises and inadvertently makes eyes at Robbie. “Don’t wiggle your eyebrows like that,” the roadie tells Father Billy, “It’s a come on. Do you want to come on to me?”

As the canoe trip continues, more stories get told. Once Father Billy and Robbie get lost and then stuck on shore, they meet up again with the Japanese women and Jim, at which point The Catechism Cataclysm veers off in even stranger and unexpected directions. In a mind-bending twist, the film suddenly switches genres, with references to David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). There were a number of weird indie movies released this past year, including Michael Tully’s Septien and Calvin Reeder’s Lynchian-inspired The Oregonian. Ironically, both feature the actor Robert Longstreet, who had a breakthrough year as an actor by also appearing in Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter. Longstreet’s inspired performance as Robbie, an aging hipster with unfulfilled dreams, is a big part of the charm of The Catechism Cataclysm, while Steve Little somehow manages to portray a case of stunted development and regression with uninhibited, almost giddy comic intensity.

According to an interview on Twitch, Rohal originally planned to shoot from an outline, but the actors wanted a full script, which he then wrote quickly. But, as usually happens these days, the script transformed in the process of shooting. Rohal explains: “Steve and Rob met the day before we started shooting. Steve’s been a member of the Groundlings for years and thinks incredibly quickly on his feet. I could simply give him a seedling of an idea and he’d run with it to some far-out places. And Rob is just totally natural in front of a camera. He’s the easiest man in the world to talk to, an actor who doesn’t stop thinking or creating for his character. He would riff on the script over the phone to me, I’d write down those ideas and integrate them into the next draft.”

Todd Rohal’s sheer fascination with the wonders of storytelling, disregard for conventions, irreverent sense of humor, and idiosyncratic penchant for the absurd shines through once again in The Catechism Cataclysm. The incongruous mix of religion and death metal makes for an intriguing character study, but it’s Rohal’s willingness to take narrative risks that ultimately makes the film such a pleasure to watch.

 

Posted 22 January, 2012

Terri

In Azazel Jacobs’s Momma’s Man, there’s a scene toward the end where the mother of the protagonist, Mikey, gets him to sit on her lap and he looks like an overgrown baby, dwarfing her in size. The image serves as an apt metaphor. He’s not a momma’s boy, but a grown man – stuck in a state of arrested development. Jacobs’s latest film, Terri, which played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, features another social misfit, only this time, he’s not a young adult regressing back to high school, but an actual overgrown teenager named Terri (Jacob Wysocki), who wears pajamas to school. Unlike Mikey in Momma’s Man, Terri hasn’t been smothered to death by a doting mother. In fact, he doesn’t have parents – he claims not to know where they are – but lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who suffers from early Alzheimer’s disease. Although the arc of Jacobs’s career appears to be heading toward becoming more commercial, beneath the surface of this coming-of-age story, from a script by Patrick deWitt, lies something far more bizarre than first appears.

The film begins with a close-up shot of Terri slumped against bathroom tiles. There’s a knock on the door. His head moves, as we hear Uncle James badgering him about cleaning the “tub ring.” After the opening title credit, we see the overweight Terri – a huge mound of flabby flesh – soaking in the bathtub. He responds, “I can’t clean it because I’m still in here, okay?” Terri’s resigned and curt responses show a frustration with having to deal with an uncle who has trouble keeping the basics straight. For this teenager, roles are reversed – he’s forced to be the caretaker when he’s clearly struggling himself. At school, he’s perpetually late and the other kids harass him by discussing sexual acts with girls, much to his annoyance. Terri tries to remain invisible, but his inappropriate attire brings him to the attention of the assistant school principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who delights in keeping track of the weirdos at his school.

Mr. Fitzgerald tells Terri he basically divides the kids into two groups – the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted ones. When Terri asks which category he falls in, Fitzgerald suggests that he belongs in the good-hearted group, but then makes Terri come to see him every Monday morning. Mr. Fitzgerald is something else – an adult misfit in a position of authority. The most whacked-out student, Chad Markson (Bridger Zadina) – a pint-sized kid with the habit of pulling out his hair – is highly critical of Mr. Fitzgerald: “Half the time I think he wants to hit me; the other half, I’m scared he’s gonna kiss me or something.” When Chad goes into greater detail, Terri freaks out and abruptly kicks him out of his house.

Terri winds up befriending a female classmate, Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia), after she gets fingered by Dirty Zach in home economics class. When Mr. Fitzgerald is about to have her transferred to another school, Terri intervenes and the two teens strike up a friendship. When the ostracized Heather comes over to Terri’s house, Chad, uninvited, reenters the picture. This leads to an extended scene where the three of them get high off whiskey and pills. The loosening of inhibitions leads to painful and humiliating revelations that suddenly push the film beyond genre into what feels like uncharted territory. “It was not storyboarded,” Jacobs says of the scene in a Time Out Chicago interview. “I was able to get the kids to move around and start working together. I was on uncomfortable ground.… There was only one right thing to do—to [create] an atmosphere that showed realistically what these kids were willing to do.” The scene is riveting precisely because we’re never sure what might happen next, which is what makes adolescence such a fascinating phase in the process of growing up.

In Terri, all the characters manage to expose unflattering aspects of themselves. For all his goodness, Terri reveals a dark side when he becomes overzealous at catching mice in traps, causing Uncle James to tell him, “I didn’t even know you were capable of doing something so ugly.” When Terri tells Mr. Fitzgerald about the incident, he responds, “It’s blood lust, dude. It’s a hard habit to stop once you get started in on it.” Terri, however, later becomes angry when he realizes that he’s been lumped in with the other “monsters” at school, which causes Fitzgerald to tell him a personal story about growing up, which merely proves to be a part of his motivational shtick.

Mr. Fitzgerald may, in fact, be the most confused person in the entire film. He is shown to be a liar, a guy who pretends to chew kids out for the benefit of his elderly, dying secretary. Fitzgerald is someone with his own marital problems. His interactions, fraternization, and unprofessional comments about the personal lives of his students and staff would most likely get him fired (if anyone happened to be paying attention). It’s no surprise when graffiti appears on the side of the school building, announcing “Fitzgerald is a Zombie.” At one point during a session with Terri, Fitzgerald puts his head in his hands on the desk and despairingly tells him: “You know sometimes I just think I should leave you kids on your own. The way these other kids treat you, maybe that’s preparation for the real world.”

Mr. Fitzgerald later confesses to Terri, “Life’s a mess, dude. But we’re all doing the best we can . . .  So if I hurt you or if I lie to you, all I can tell you is ‘I’m sorry.’ And I will try to do better. Maybe I will do better, or maybe I’ll do even worse. I don’t know. I screw up all the time. Because that’s what people do.” Jacobs’s tale of adolescence seems to suggest that, despite everything that happens, Terri does find some consolation. Mr. Fitzgerald may be a terrible role model on many levels, but Terri manages to learn from him, along with the other cast of misfits, including poor Chad.

Terri is not a tale of adolescent redemption. It resembles more honest films on the subject like Neal Jimenez and Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge or Antonio Campos’s Afterschool. Jacobs admits that he was more of a hardcore punk rocker in high school, which meant being “cowardly mean.” He told an interviewer at SXSW: “So, I don’t know, I’m not trying to make amends but it’s something that you think about as you get older . . . how you could have been nicer person.”

 

Posted 17 January, 2012

Bellflower

In Bob Byington’s comedy Harmony and Me (2010), Harmony (Justin Rice) complains to an acupuncturist about his ex-girlfriend, “She broke my heart, but she’s still at it. She hasn’t finished the job. She’s breaking my heart.” He continues, “My heart is a snack. She’s like a bear with a fish in its paw.” Evan Glodell’s wildly kinetic and completely engaging Bellflower (2011) deals with the same subject matter, the absolute pain and misery of a broken heart, but his version is inspired by the Mad Max movies that the film’s protagonist, Woodrow (played by Glodell himself), and his adoring Jughead-like best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), saw on TV and then on VHS as kids in Wisconsin.

Bellflower begins with what at first seems like a prolepsis and may, in fact, be a flashback: shots of a crying couple, various key scenes from the film playing in reverse, and finally a head-on shot of the film’s dazed protagonist before it cuts to black. There’s a quote that references The Road Warrior, “Lord Humungous cannot be defied.” In voiceover, we listen as Aiden lays out their fantasy for the end of the world. The two friends will turn up in a bad-ass, flamethrowing muscle car, “and one of us gets out with a hundred pounds of brass and steel strapped to our back, and just starts torching everything.”

Glodell’s apocalyptic Bellflower is a complex play on the thriller and buddy genres, with the dialogue between the two male characters loaded with sexual innuendo that they seem unaware of, but will cause most viewers to chuckle. Aiden compares Woodrow to Lord Humungus and tells him: “Okay, listen. We’re going out tonight. If I even catch you looking at someone – I don’t care if it’s a fucking guy. You are going to hit on them. You are going to pick them up. You are going to take them home. And I’m going to be right by your side the whole time.” For these dudes, true male camaraderie knows no bounds.

The story is told in chapters. In the first, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” after the two friends nearly finish assembling their flamethrower, they wind up in a bar where Woodrow gets into a cricket-eating contest with an attractive blonde named Milly (Jessie Wiseman). She trounces him at downing live insects, but he ends up asking her out on a date. The next evening, he politely shows up at her house with a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers. Because it’s their first date, Woodrow wants to take her to someplace nice, but she prefers that he take her to the “cheapest, nastiest, scariest place” he knows. “Oh, my God,” Woodrow responds disbelievingly, but Milly’s request sends them on a journey from Los Angeles to Texas. As they lie together in the back seat of a car and he giggles with delight at their blossoming romance, Millie warns Woodrow that she’ll hurt him. A true tough guy, he doesn’t believe it.

While Woodrow and Millie are away, Aiden hooks up with Milly’s best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). At her birthday party, when Aiden drunkenly insults a woman and a huge thug accosts him, Woodrow rushes to the aid of his friend and smashes a beer bottle over the guy’s head, forcing them to split. Woodrow and Milly make love later on, but when Woodrow tells her he’s leaving for a day, their blissful courtship comes to an abrupt and bitter end. This leads to intrigue and betrayals of all sorts, involving the four main characters in the film.

It’s not the plot of Bellflower that keeps us riveted, so much as the film’s visual pizzazz, its golden and fiery orange color palette, rhythmic pacing, comic antics, and the intricate way the love story is interwoven with Woodrow and Aiden’s adolescent quest to build a flamethrower and Medusa car in anticipation of the world’s imminent demise. Woodrow’s broken heart leads to a terrible car accident that leaves him temporarily incapacitated and then to a fury that turns Woodrow into a vengeful monster, who unleashes an inferno that’s been foreshadowed by Aiden’s initial voiceover.

Reportedly made on a shoestring budget, Bellflower was a surprise hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is an obvious labor of love by a collective group of friends (Coatwolf Productions), who dedicated themselves to making this incredibly ambitious project over an extended period of time – without the financial means and against impossible odds. Bellflower definitely calls to mind a number of filmic references, including Harmony Korine’s deliberate degradation of the image in Trash Humpers (2010). And listening to the film’s awkward naturalistic dialogue, it’s hard not to think of numerous mumblecore films:

MILLY: So, who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
WOODROW: Ah, wow! Okay . . . I live around here, but I’m from Wisconsin originally. And I spend . . .
She looks down at his shoes.
MILLY: Oh, my God!
WOODROW: What?
MILLY: Sorry. Your shoes.
Cut to a shot of his tattered sneakers.
WOODROW: Oh, yeah! I need to get new ones. They’re pretty bad . . .
MILLY: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What do you do?
WOODROW: I’m building a flamethrower.
MILLY: You’re building a flamethrower?
WOODROW: Yes.
MILLY: Fuck you.
WOODROW: No, I really am, and I’m really excited about it.
MILLY: That is probably the weirdest thing I ever heard. I like you.
WOODROW: I like you too.

If the acting style is rooted in naturalism, the performances by Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman, and Rebekah Brandes transcend the style. Dawson, as Glodell’s impish sidekick, causes every scene he’s in to sparkle with his nutty brand of humor, while Wiseman and Brandes are perfect in their roles and would seem to have promising careers ahead of them. It’s hard to imagine how a low-budget DIY film like this could get better acting from a cast of unknown performers.

Not only did the filmmaker and his crew build an actual flamethrower, from parts culled from a hardware store, that shoots a burst of flame 72 feet, but they also spent a great deal of the budget on their flame-spewing Medusa car, which left P. Diddy so impressed he forked over a “grand” toward their project. And they adapted a digital camera with lenses that had dirt smeared on them, which gives Bellflower the antique quality it strives for.

Some people might try to dismiss Bellflower as merely a juvenile male fantasy, but the film deals with a substantive issue – the transformational power of love, and when it goes sour, its attendant dark side. I’m convinced the film provides its own self-critique. The bravado and macho fantasies of Woodrow and Aiden are a way of their overcompensating for their inadequacies. Early on in the bar, Milly insists that Aidan is “a little bit of a bastard,” but Woodrow, of course, defends him. He responds, “Aiden? No, he’s just crazy. Once you get to know him, he’s like the sweetest dude you’ll ever know.” “Sweet” is a word these dudes throw around with abandon, but they seem acutely aware that their fantasies are completely gendered.

As a narrative, Bellflower is far more complicated than it first appears. Two viewings have yet to answer all my questions, which involve its temporal shifts and multiple endings. It’s like Glodell is so in love with his film that he can’t seem to let it conclude. Even after the end of the world, Bellflower somehow manages to play on.

Posted 10 January, 2012

Northeast

Gregory Kohn’s debut feature Northeast (2011) explores Brooklyn as a hub for immigration by young people who drift there from other parts of the country. There is a sense that most relationships are transitory. Because most young folks are recent transplants, everyday social interactions have an inherent awkwardness about them that stems from people not really knowing each other very well. “I’m sorry, I totally forgot your name,” Will tells a guy named Mark early on, but it turns out Mark can’t remember his name either. Parties, such as the one we view, are a mob of strangers rather than a communal gathering. The attendees might as well be at a local night club. Given the current state of the economy, career dreams have faded for this age group, resulting in anomie and alienation. In this regard, Northeast manages to capture the texture of life for this millennial generation in a profound way.

Northeast focuses on Will (David Call from Tiny Furniture), a character who has about as much affect as a serial killer. In fact, Catherine Goldschmidt’s camera frames him like a hustler through tight framing, as he hangs out on the streets of Brooklyn. He’s a guy who seems to be on the perpetual make, as he stands on corners or seems to be in a rush to go nowhere. Goldschmidt shoots a number of scenes in which Will is isolated in abstraction, such as against out-of-focus car lights, or when vehicles whiz by in from of him as blurs of color, as in my own Highway Landscape (1971-72). As he rides his bicycle through busy traffic in one stunning visual sequence, he continually shifts between figuration and abstraction. And the film’s final image, after Will leaves the frame, remains out of focus. In fact, one of the major strengths of Northeast is the inventive way it’s shot, including its grainy 16mm original format.

Not much happens in Northeast. We basically follow Will through a series of brief loveless affairs. His escapades do not seem so much like an obsession (as in the case of a sex addict), as a way for him to fill up the empty time in his life and avoid looking for a job. After sleeping with a woman named Leah (Megan Tusing), he stares at her in bed before his mind wanders away. He tells her he’ll call, but when she presumably calls him, he avoids answering his cellphone. At one point, Will buys a stolen bicycle for $60, even though it’s winter. This provides him with some distraction, as well as a means of transportation and seduction. He arrives unexpectedly at an old school chum’s door, and gets her to go bike riding with him. Despite the fact that he considers Lauren (Lauren Shannon) to be a bad housekeeper – she has roaches in her apartment and a filthy stove – he conveniently moves in with her when his roommate’s wife comes to town. The relationship, however, ends abruptly when she returns home from work. Why? The scene contains no dialogue and it’s never made clear, but perhaps she’s found out the real reason for his sudden attention to her.

Kohn buries the motivation of his characters. Will’s roommate Jason (Jason Selvig) is married, but what that’s about remains unclear. Will, in particular, is opaque and impenetrable and, hence, something of an enigma. We know virtually nothing about him. Although he’s constantly on the prowl, the intimacy of sex only seems to make him more restless. At one point, Will picks up an older woman named Caroline (Laura Ford) in a library. He cruises her in the book stacks with quick glances before approaching her by saying, “Excuse me, sorry, I don’t mean to be weird . . .” As she plays cards with Will and Jason afterwards, Jason asks her about her life. In college, Caroline studied art history and dreamed of running a gallery, but she’s now working in a “boring and useless job” in real estate because it pays the bills. Hanging out with two younger men, she’s made to feel self-conscious about her age, especially when Jason tactlessly asks her how many kids she has. After Caroline excuses herself, she explores her face in the bathroom mirror, and tries to smooth out the bags under her eyes. It’s a poignant moment in a film where emotions, for the most part, have become hardened. The next morning, Will watches from the window as she disappears down the street, never to be seen again.

Will earlier attempts to pick up a friend’s girlfriend named Molly (Eléonore Hendricks from Daddy Longlegs and Bad Fever). She turns him down for ignoring her earlier at the party, but he later borrows a car to visit her and her boyfriend, Patrick (Tate Ellington), in the country. As the three of them are outside exploring nature, at one point Will makes a calculated move toward Molly, but she quickly withdraws to the security of Patrick. Their relationship and retreat from the city provides a striking contrast to Will’s string of one-night stands in Brooklyn, so that the tree that’s tattooed on his arm suddenly takes on symbolic meaning. There’s something very pathetic, even scary about Will, whom the film views with icy detachment.

The formal qualities of Northeast are what allow the film to transcend its episodic naturalism. Many scenes climax abruptly, leaving gaps in the narrative. The vacuous dialogue, which struck me as a form of anti-dialogue, is deliberate on Kohn’s part. And the film’s utter lack of music to create emotional resonance for the characters seems a perfect aesthetic decision. Kohn told an interviewer: “There’s not a line of dialogue in the movie that means anything at all. I can’t stress that enough. . . I’d rather show that there is tension and conflict in the subtext. You have to search for it, and I didn’t want to provide music that would clue the audience into that; I want the audience to have to work.” That is certainly a noble ambition, which, in this case, provides rich rewards.

Kohn’s Northeast, which is being released by Tribeca Film, is currently playing on VOD.

Posted 2 January, 2012