The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Beautiful Darling

Photo by Anton Perich

Candy Darling (1944-1974) was a later Warhol superstar from the period after the Pop artist was shot by Valerie Solanas and became the producer of Paul Morrissey’s films. Born James L. Slattery, Candy appeared in Flesh (1968-69) and starred in Women in Revolt (1971), Morrissey’s satire of the women’s liberation movement – a film that parodied Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto in every way imaginable. James Rasin’s poignant documentary about the tragic life of Candy Darling, Beautiful Darling, opened in Manhattan last week. It joins the growing list of documentaries about Warhol performers and associates, such as Nico Icon, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, and A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. For true Warhol fans, Beautiful Darling, is not to be missed.

In Women in Revolt, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis decide that they need to enlist real beauty to their feminist cause. They manage to rope Candy Darling into the PIG (Politically Involved Girls) movement. After she decides to become a movie star, Candy gets taken advantage of by an agent (Michael Sklar). By the end of the film, she has managed to sleep her way to the top, only to be exposed by a tabloid reporter, who brings up the dirt about her – the suicide of her parents, her incestuous relationship with her brother, and her sleeping with various directors to get parts in foreign films where she does very little. Alluding to the title of her new film, the columnist concludes, “I don’t think you’re a Blonde on a Bum Trip; I think you’re a Bum on a Blonde Trip.”

The former might better describe Candy’s actual life story. Beautiful Darling begins with Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s former roommate and the default executor of her estate, as he forges a certificate from the Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. After we watch her gravestone being transported, Candy appears in old footage and announces buoyantly: “Hi, I’m Candy Darling. I’m an actress here in New York. I’ve been in eight pictures – small parts in big pictures, and big parts in small pictures.” In the company of Jane Fonda, who hoped to land a part in a Warhol film, Candy, looking like some sort of fashion-crazed pirate, announces, “I call myself Candy Warhol now,” as everyone laughs uproariously.

The actress Helen Hanft describes how Candy managed to “fool” her father and uncle, who acted “very courtly” when they met her. We hear Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which she was immortalized, along with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, and Joe Campbell, aka the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” who appeared in My Hustler (1965). Candy shared Warhol’s love of movie stars. She sent a fan letter to Kim Novak, and was smitten by the missive she received back from the Hollywood actress. Fran Lebowitz views Candy as obsessed and living in the past, but Paul Morrissey claims that she was essentially a humorist, who was merely poking fun at stars.

Bob Colacello points to the paradox of Candy within Warhol’s more avant-garde circle, namely that she was a throwback to another era when the movie studios still existed. Gerard Malanga, however, claims that Candy was “very avant-garde in terms of who she was and how she invented herself.” Despite the juxtaposition of the two contrasting views, in a sense, Colacello and Malanga are talking about two different things. Colacello is discussing Candy as a performer, whereas Malanga is referring to Candy’s choice of sexual identity. To Glenn O’Brien, Candy, like Warhol, was her own artwork. The film cuts to footage of Candy at Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney in 1971, where they both have great fun by putting on the press – a Warhol trademark.

Cloë Sevigny’s readings from Candy’s diaries represent some of the most compelling material in Beautiful Darling. The sense of gender difference that Candy felt early on led her to turn to the fantasy world of movies – James Slattery aspired to become a female movie star. Whereas Malanga indicates that “there was nothing fragile about Candy,” underground film star Taylor Mead describes Candy as “too gentle . . . too gentle for the bullies.” Newton met Candy when he was only 15-year-old. A devoted fan, he began his own audio diary after Candy’s death. Newton interviews a bigoted childhood friend. Once the person discovered Jimmy Slattery in drag on the Long Island train, she refused to have anything to do with him again and thought “he should be put away.” It’s a response indicative of the times.

Holly Woodlawn explains the dangers that cross dressers experienced in the 1960s before Stonewall, where men could be arrested for wearing woman’s clothes in public. Through Jackie Curtis, Candy, who went by the name “Hope” at the time, became involved in theater, which is where Warhol first saw her in Glamour, Glory and Gold. Holly describes Candy as attracting a coterie of groupies. She includes Newton among them, whereas Sam Green, who curated Warhol’s infamous early show at the ICA in Philadelphia, describes him as kind of her “younger brother” – someone who was merely star struck by her incredible beauty. Newton doesn’t deny that hanging around with Candy brought him acceptance with the hipsters at the Factory and eventually at Max’s Kansas City, where Candy, Jackie, and Holly held court in the back room.

Colacello discusses the early 1970s as a period when “a surge of Hollywood nostalgia came in.” He adds, “And Candy was right in there, somewhere between the past and the future.” John Waters comments, “She was like a real movie star from MGM . . . only in a world that was filled with LSD, and speed really.” Warhol mentions that Candy and the others weren’t really drag queens because they actually believed they were women. Jayne County insists on the fact that Candy was a transgender person. Friends seem unclear about her actual romantic relationships. Melba LaRose, Jr. mentions that Candy was in love with Gerard Malanga, who responds with surprise: “I’m flattered. I didn’t know that.”

Candy claims that she never had to pay for anything, but the truth is that Candy lived hand-to-mouth, as her diaries clearly indicate. When it’s suggested that she had to do certain things to get money, Jeremiah becomes indignant, even if his own interviews provide contrary evidence. We see rehearsal footage for Women in Revolt (so much for Morrissey’s claims about improvisation), along with the trailer, with praise of her highly theatrical performance from both John Waters and Paul Morrissey. Candy eventually appeared as Violet in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings at the time when the playwright’s own career was in free fall.

Along with starring in Women in Revolt, this marked a highpoint in Candy’s career. Her success proved short lived. Penny Arcade explains, “And then all of a sudden, it turned out to be this ephemeral thing, and the carnival had moved on.” Shortly after this, while staying at the Diplomat Hotel, in June 1973, Candy felt abandoned and alone. She writes: “All I know is: I love, and I am not loved. I do not know happiness. I know despair, loneliness, and longing. My biggest problem is I have no man to love me. So nothing else matters or makes much of a difference.”

More and more, Candy’s gender issues made her feel as if she were “living in a veritable prison.” There’s no question that Candy Darling was gorgeous, but beauty didn’t translate into love (especially for a transgender individual), just as her limited fame as performer didn’t translate into enough money to eat properly or pay the rent. Rasin’s documentary makes the most of its archival material, even if, structurally, Newton’s burial of Candy’s ashes in Cherry Valley, New York seems a contrivance for the sake of the film.

After Candy discovered she had a cancerous tumor, most people felt she accepted her fate as a final role to play. Lebowitz discusses Peter Hujar’s famous picture of Candy on her death bed. Candy staged the way she wanted to appear in the photo – a beautiful actress dying in her prime. Over the final photographs of Jimmy Slattery as a young boy, including a very sweet one of him wearing a woman’s wig, which reminded me of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), Sevigny reads from Candy’s diary: “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

Posted 1 May, 2011

Prince of Broadway

Sean Baker has to be one of the most underrated young American indie filmmakers working today. After Four Letter Words (2000), he reinvented himself with two stellar features, namely Take Out (2004), which took years to screen theatrically, and Prince of Broadway (2010), which actually came out a couple of years ago. It played at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival, but only had its theatrical opening last September. Both Take Out and Prince of Broadway vied for the 2009 John Cassavetes Award (films made under $500,000). The double nomination probably hurt Baker’s chances of winning by splitting the votes he received.

A documentary-like look at an illegal immigrant Chinese delivery person in New York City, Take Out was shot in an actual Upper West Side restaurant during business hours, featured lots of b-roll shots, and interspersed actual orders with Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s fictional story. An added bonus was the candid responses of the various customers (solicited via Craigslist) to the home delivery person, Ming Ding (Charles Jang). Despite his desperate need to pay off pressing debts to loan sharks, Ming is much too shy and proud to play up to the customers in order to get bigger tips.

Prince of Broadway shares the same gritty realism as the previous film in telling the story of immigrants who sell counterfeit goods on the streets of New York City. One is a fast-talking West African hustler named Lucky (Prince Adu). The other is his boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), a middle-aged Armenian from Lebanon, whose bare clothing store serves as a front for a secret back room full of luxury-brand knockoffs – from Gucci to Vuitton. Levon has married an attractive young woman in order to get a green card. Although he yearns for the relationship to be much more, it’s already on the skids.

The film’s catalyst occurs roughly twelve minutes into the film, when Lucky’s Latina ex-girlfriend, Linda (Kat Sanchez), dumps off a baby (Aiden Noesi), claiming that he’s the father. She tells him: “Be a man for once.” Linda indicates that it will only be temporary, but it soon becomes clear that the baby is interfering with a relationship she’s developed with a new boyfriend – a muscle-bound, jealous thug, who beats up Lucky when he chases after Linda. “I have no papers,” Lucky later pleads to her mother, “what can I do with this baby, please?”

Even though he’s an adult, Lucky is emotionally a child. When he gets the baby home, he lays down the law, telling him not to mess with his porno collection or his weed before breaking into tears. The eighteen-month-old baby, whom he eventually names Prince, is adorable, but Lucky only sees him as a burden. He complains constantly about his plight, not only to the uncomprehending toddler, but to anyone else who will listen. Most of his friends feel he’s being duped – the baby looks too light-skinned to be his kid. Prince also throws a wrench into Lucky’s relationship with his current girlfriend, Karina (Keyali Mayaga), who wants him to get an education. Like Take Out, Prince of Broadway has a ticking clock, in this case a DNA test to prove paternity, but Baker is careful not to use it in a heavy-handed way.

Not only does the film focus on the bond that slowly develops between Lucky and Prince, but it also centers on Lucky’s relationship with Levon, who serves as a father figure, even though he’s hardly the ideal role model. Levon asks him, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” He gives Lucky money and instructions on how to hold the baby properly. He puts the baby’s hat on and tells Lucky, “Hold the kid, man. You’re going to drop the kid!” When Lucky doesn’t listen, he shouts, “Are you fucking kidding me? Hold the kid!” There have been a number of recent films that deal with the issue of fatherhood: Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Life During Wartime. Prince of Broadway also has echoes of Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, which also explored the experience of new immigrants in this country.

Baker likes to confuse and blend documentary and fiction. His films have a raw power that’s makes it seem as if he’s stuck his camera into real-life situations. The script is credited to Baker and his producer Darren Dean, but, as a final credit indicates, “the characters’ dialogue was realized through improvisation and a collaborative process with all actors.” As I keep writing about, many indie filmmakers have forsaken the well-written script in favor of structured improvisation. Baker, however, points out that there is often a stigma attached to working this way. He told an interviewer: “But [with Prince of Broadway] the improvised is simply the dialogue. Every scene had a beginning middle and end. It was just the dialogue. Some people think you are not doing your work if you don’t have the full fleshed out script.”

If the use of improvisation is becoming common in micro-budget indie films lately, the cutting in Baker’s films is quite unusual. In his excellent book The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell explores the concept of “intensified continuity” in depth and why the cutting of Hollywood films keeps getting faster. Indie films, especially naturalistic ones, have generally shared with art cinema a contrarian impulse – the story often unfolds in long, leisurely takes. Yet Baker fractures the space and time of his film through the use of manic cutting. An editor by profession, Baker’s impulse is to cut continually, which gives his film an exciting kinetic energy.

As a result, Prince of Broadway never feels boring. In exploring the subculture of those engaged in the underground economy, Baker provides an exciting glimpse into the lives of largely invisible characters who live on the margins.

Posted 18 February, 2011

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia). Photograph by W.A.W. Parker.

Damien Chazelle’s impressive debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench represents an amalgam between the realist aesthetics of the New American Cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s and the free-form casualness of the French New Wave. It pays homage to American musicals and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) through its opening iris shot of an umbrella and montage sequence of Guy (Jason Palmer), an African-American trumpeter, and Madeline (Desiree Garcia), an aimless graduate student, who appear to break up on a park bench.

Following their breakup, Guy takes down and hides a photo of the two of them in his apartment. The story flashes back to one week earlier, where we see Guy giving Madeline lessons on how to play the trumpet. After she blows a horrible note, she comments, “It sounds like someone’s dying.” To Guy, whose entire life is expressed through music, that might matter more than we realize. From a jam session, where Madeline observes Guy play, the film shifts to another young woman Elena (Sandha Khin), who watches a street juggler perform and then gives him a buck and her phone number. Nothing comes of this, but it establishes her character, especially once she gives him two names – her real name and fictional one.

Elena later succeeds in picking up Guy on a crowded subway. The scene is conveyed through a remarkable series of wordless shots – their feet and hands brush ever so lightly against each other; oblique glances turn into knowing eye contact, before she boldly slips her two fingers into his pants pocket. As Madeline studies alone, the film circles back on itself as we glimpse Elena in Guy’s apartment, where Guy again stashes the photo of him and Madeline.

Guy attends a party that turns into a musical as the camera pans back and forth between energetic singing and tap-dancing in one room and Guy playing trumpet in another. The exuberance of the scene provides a telling contrast to the staid grad student gathering that Madeline splits out of boredom. After documentary shots of her walking through Boston, the camera frames Madeline, who breaks into a song about her relationship with Guy as she strolls through the park: “It happened at dawn; it happened in this park . . .” The scene ends as she sits down on a fountain, so that half of her is covered by a sheet of falling water.

The film uses a parallel structure to follow the lives of the three characters in what becomes a romantic triangle. Madeline hooks up with another guy, who insists on waiting for her while she gets her hair cut at a beauty shop, but she abruptly ditches him afterward. Meanwhile, as Guy and Elena shower together, she asks him about his plans for the day. Guy tells her that his family is visiting, but doesn’t attempt to include her. Her hurt reaction registers clearly in a profile shot of her face, as she splashes water on it.

The family’s visit exemplifies the film’s elliptical style. In a wide shot, four family members carry their luggage down the street and into Guy’s apartment. We expect to be introduced to them, but Chazelle resorts to synecdoche instead. As Guy teaches his mother how to play the piano, the camera ends up focusing on their fingers hitting keys. The film then cuts to Elena lying pensively in bed. Guy plays the trumpet loudly the next morning. When she complains, he claims that he’s working on a piece for her. As she stews in the bedroom, Guy comes in and blows his trumpet again, indicating the growing tension between them.

Madeline departs to New York City, where she meets an older guy (played by the filmmaker’s father, Bernard Chazelle) in the park. He sings in French while cooking for her in his apartment. After trying on a hat at an outdoor stand, Elena also ends up going home with a middle-aged stranger, Frank (Frank Garvin), but his twelve-year-old daughter (Alma Prelec) is unexpectedly there, and the three of them awkwardly play a game of “twenty questions.”

When Guy plays a tape of the earlier jam session, it causes a flashback to the actual event. The film cuts from Guy’s expression to his pounding on the door of Madeline’s apartment, but her landlords indicate that she’s in New York. Madeline returns to her job at the Summer Shack, where she learns about Guy. As she cleans the nearly deserted restaurant, she sings and dances an elaborate musical number about “kissing the boy in the park,” which ends with her sitting on the park bench before the two ex-lovers finally meet up once again

Some reviewers have struggled with the legibility of the film. Chazelle employs an episodic and elliptical style of filmmaking that’s less concerned with narrative coherence and dramatic arcs. Even after two viewings, I’m not sure I completely grasp the circularity of its structure or the time frame of Guy’s relationships with either woman. Yet the film’s concern for spontaneous and impressionistic 16mm black-and-white camerawork, musical interludes and choreographed dance numbers more than compensate for the film choosing to ignore certain rules of classical narration.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is much more of a mood piece. Chazelle is able to get wonderfully naturalistic performances from his nonprofessional cast. Sandha Khin’s outgoing manner provides a striking contrast to Desiree Garcia, whose introverted character, other than when she sings and dances, is conveyed mainly through her silence and piercingly sad eyes.

Jason Palmer doesn’t play a jazz musician – he is one. His body language and musical talent convey his character better than any dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. That was a deliberate strategy on the part of the director and the film’s gifted music composer, Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle explains in Interview: “I think we both really wanted the music to be a character in its own right, and the key storytelling device in the movie – the thing that was really going to tie it together, convey emotion, and say what the characters couldn’t say. The movie is really about shy, inarticulate people.”

Madeline on a Park Bench might be about a generation of shy, inarticulate young people, but the film has such an invigorating style that Chazelle’s tale of broken Beantown hearts feels strangely uplifting.

Posted 7 February, 2011

Trash Humpers

To many critics, Harmony Korine’s last feature Mister Lonely served notice that he had finally mellowed. News that he had gotten married, had a baby, and moved back to his hometown of Nashville was supposed to be the confirmation of this. Mister Lonely, his story about a Michael Jackson impersonator, was completely wacko, but it contained much more plot than usual, had big-name actors, and a much larger budget. In retrospect, Korine now expresses impatience about dealing with the logistics of such productions. His latest film returns to a DIY aesthetic with a vengeance. Shot on VHS, Trash Humpers revels in poor quality images that occasionally breakup, roll and drop out, while depicting a kind of unabashed freak show.

J. Hoberman calls Trash Humpers “a gloriously desultory slap in the face of public taste,” which seems a fair description. The film has the sensibility of a nightmarish carnival. Wearing geriatric masks, three characters – Korine calls them elderly “peeping Toms” – wander through a poor neighborhood of Nashville on crutches and in a wheelchair. They hump trash cans and trees, defecate, masturbate, light firecrackers, and generally wreck havoc by smashing everything in sight, especially old television sets. After destroying a television set and boom box, they tap dance gleefully in a parking lot at night, as a stream of cars pass by.

A young kid in a suit misses every attempt at getting a basketball through the hoop, as the old folks cackle at each failure. After they sing a song about a “Single Girl,” the kid takes a doll, shakes it vigorously and laughs maniacally. He says, “This is how you should do it.” The kid then shouts, “I told you I’d kill it, as he beats a doll with a hammer with such delight and enthusiasm that most viewers might be tempted to call Social Services. Equally disturbing is the scene where the elderly woman, “Momma” (Korine’s wife, Rachel), sits in a wheelchair and instructs the kid on how to put a razor blade in an apple – every parent’s Halloween nightmare.

The Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, make pancakes, as the others chant, “Make it, make it, don’t fake it.” When the twins serve them, Momma claims the food is poison. The old folks then force the twins to eat the pancakes doused in dish soap rather than maple syrup. Eng gives a speech about how nice it would be to live without a head: “Think how much money you would save on shampoos and hats.” He concludes: “And best of all, no one would get dizzy again.” Chang and Eng then tell a brief story about their lives, including Eng’s refusal to be separated by a doctor after Chang died. After Eng expires – his death is conveyed via a sock puppet – Momma yells, “I said make us laugh, motherfucker! That shit was depressing!”

Three women in skimpy underwear bend over on beds with their rear ends raised high in the air, while the old folks slap and feel their asses, all the time grunting and squealing with delight. The women then massage two of the old guy’s crotches while singing “Silent Night.” Someone sings a song about three little devils (“Three little devils jumped over the wall, chopped off their heads, and murdered them all”), as we see a naked and headless corpse in a field. A guy with white hair and a beard, dressed in a cocktail waitress outfit, delivers a poem while the old folks set off fire works. In the next scene, he lies in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. Like the doll earlier, he appears to have been bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Korine has always been interested in scenes rather than entire films. There’s the remarkable one of the young foul-mouthed cowboys robbing, molesting, and gay-baiting the androgynous skateboard hero, Bunny Boy, in Gummo. And when the blue-robed nun falls out of an airplane and flies through the air in Mister Lonely and we hear the incredible whooshing sound of the wind, it offers a visceral jolt that’s not easily forgotten. The episodic Trash Humpers, however, tries hard not to offer much in the way of conventional narrative pleasure, even in individual scenes.

Korine likes to be deliberately offensive. For instance, he includes a bad stand-up comic, who wears a neck brace and has his arm in a sling. He excels at telling very unfunny anti-gay jokes. Korine gives the guy enough rope to hang himself several times over. To mistake either the deranged kid in the suit, lessons on how to slip razor blades into apples, or the bad stand-up comic as speaking for Korine is to miss the point of his provocation. Korine is merely serving up the kind of fantasies that viewers might have of poor Tennessee neighborhoods.

Any interview with Korine, such as the one in Filmmaker with Scott Macaulay, who served as a producer on Gummo, is so tongue-in-cheek that even Korine had to laugh several times. I love it when he describes working together with his nearly blind editor in their underwear because of the intense heat. Korine continues: “He’s 75 percent blind, and we would just take apart the machines and I would always catch him sticking pencils in the VCR to give the footage these glitches.” That’s indicative of Korine’s special brand of vaudeville humor.

Trash Humpers abounds with references to other films and the art world. Besides many of the ones that Macaulay astutely mentions, Trash Humpers will remind viewers of the photographs of Diane Arbus, but even more of those of someone like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician living in Lexington, Kentucky, who made creepy images of kids in masks in abandoned buildings and suburban backyards. Korine comes out of skateboard culture, and his work has been part of a Modern Gothic sensibility that has been in vogue in the art world since 9/11. He shares an obsession with death and the grotesque that we find in works by Banks Violette, Matt Greene, Sue de Beer, Olaf Breuning, and the sculptor David Altmejd.

Korine and Rita Ackermann currently have a collaborative exhibition based on Trash Humpers, entitled “Shadow Fux,” at the Swiss Institute in New York City. In an interview about the show, Korine and Ackermann attempt to invert the normal and the abnormal. Korine, for instance, responds: “Yeah, I mean, I married a woman who can swallow fifteen live goldfish in a single gulp. It doesn’t feel like that’s anything strange to me, it feels like there is a poetry to it. All that my neighbour does is steal yard furniture, he just goes around stealing it. He’s a very old man and that’s his hobby.”

As Jerry Saltz explains: “Indeed, almost all art that could be called Gothic has an ironic edge: It’s aware of its position, even the absurdity of its position, yet it persists with sincere tongue in ironical cheek.” Yet despite the film’s ironic stance, moments of genuine feeling manage to surface in Trash Humpers. In one of the later scenes, one of the elderly guys (played by the filmmaker) drives through the neighborhood and comments: “But sometimes when I drive through these streets at night, I could smell the pain of all these people living in here. I could smell how all theses people are just trapped in their lives, their day-to-day lives. They don’t see much.”

In Trash Humpers, the world may be represented as a weird, violent and crazy place, but it’s instructive to note that Korine’s film ends with a tender lullaby.

Postscript:

Last week, Jim Emerson over at “Scanners” had a post on Trash Humpers. Neither Jim nor his dog apparently cared for the film very much. But I was surprised that he thought that the controversy surrounding Netflix’s initial refusal to carry the film might have been a publicity stunt concocted by its distributor, Drag City. Jim writes: “So, maybe there was a bureaucratic snafu. Maybe Drag City made the whole thing up. I don’t know. But unless anyone has any proof (like a verified letter from Netflix outlining reasons for rejection, followed by another letter of acceptance), I guess I will have to remain skeptical.”

Well, I can’t provide legal documentation that would convince him, but I do have a former student, Mitch Bandur, who works at Drag City, and, based on an email I received from him some weeks ago about the incident, I do believe Drag City’s version of events – it wasn’t a publicity stunt at all. The larger issue has to do with the power and control that the bigger companies like Netflix and Amazon are gaining over distribution, especially over tiny distributors. In terms of Netflix, lately I’ve noticed that my “saved” queue (availability “unknown”) is getting to be larger than my regular queue. To me, that points to the simple fact that it’s getting harder and harder to view the indie films I really want to see.

Posted 16 January, 2011

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) established his career as one of the best young independent American directors. Quiet City abandoned a written screenplay in favor of structured improvisation, allowing his actors – Cris Lankenau and Jamie Fisher – to improvise their scenes to the point where they shared screenwriting credit with the director. What serves to distinguish Katz’s films from those of his peers who employ similar strategies are strong formal concerns – his films are visually striking in ways that the work of certain other filmmakers simply aren’t. Memphis-based filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who made Team Picture (2007) and Open Five (2010), for instance, recently told an interviewer: “I try to be visually tame . . .  But I’m basically of the opinion that style is the easy part, and I always resist doing the easy thing.” Yet Katz’s films benefit precisely from the tension that arises between a casual approach to structure and working with actors and a more rigorous visual style. This holds true for his absorbing new film Cold Weather, a mystery set in his home town of Portland, Oregon.

Expectations ran high when, working on a larger budget (reportedly low six figures) after micro-budgets, Katz turned his attention to genre. We all remember what happened when David Gordon Green, who, like Katz, also graduated from the film program at North Carolina School of the Arts, tried to be more commercial by making Undertow (2004). After the brilliance of the character-based George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), the genre elements in Undertow wound up seeming fairly contrived. Katz’s Cold Weather, on the other hand, manages to have fun with genre without getting too wrapped up in audience expectations of what needs to happen. Rather than an Agatha Christie-type mystery, Cold Weather might better be described as a slacker mystery, as epitomized by a stakeout scene in which the film’s protagonist, Doug, his co-worker, and then his sister sit in a car and eat “Swedish Fish” for several minutes. Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope talks about the film having “a crackling plot,” but, for me, Cold Weather uses plot merely as an opportunity to delve deeper into his characters.

Cold Weather begins with a shot of a rain splattered windowpane with the background out of focus, followed by a buoyant original score by Keegan DeWitt. The focus changes to reveal the courtyard of an apartment building, as a light rain falls. Doug (Cris Lankenau) enters carrying a large package. The shot cuts to Doug, a forensic science dropout, and his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), preparing a meal. There appears to be an awkward tension during dinner with their parents. Lankenau, looking scruffy and in need of a shave, proves that his endearing performance in Quiet City wasn’t a fluke. His self-deprecating demeanor once again gives him a certain charm. Lankenau has a way of breaking up his thoughts into discrete units, as if they comprise pieces of a puzzle. In response to his stepfather’s question how long he worked at an internship at a restaurant, he responds: “Two months. Like twenty hours a week . . . I mean I could have kept going, but I kind of quit . . . because . . . I didn’t get paid. And I started getting bored.” Doug discusses buying a coffee table – the large package we initially see him carrying. He tells his parents: “I’m assembling it. It’s coming right along . . . and by coming right along, I mean, not at all.”

The dialogue in Cold Weather involves excess verbiage; assertions end in negations. In the next scene, the camera focuses on a door that changes from yellow to cream color as Gail turns off the light and addresses Doug, who’s reading a book.

GAIL: All right. I’m going to go to bed now.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG (sing song): Good night.
GAIL: You gonna go to bed soon?
DOUG: I don’t know. I’m not really tired.
GAIL: It weird you’re never tired.
DOUG: I’m tired in the morning.
GAIL: Yeah . . . me too. (After a very long pause) All right, I’m going to bed.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG: Good night.

Screenwriting professors no doubt would flag the above dialogue as “chitchat,” but, as the scene indicates, we’re in the realm of naturalism. Between Gail’s first line and Doug’s last, the redundancy of their sentences merely attempts to fill up empty space between them, in a similar manner to Katz’s pans back and forth between the two characters. Gail’s pregnant pause indicates her concern for Doug, who is crashing with her. The next day he persuades her to skip out of work to go “whale watching” with him. The trip up the coast serves no narrative function other than to provide a sense of the Oregon landscape.

Doug’s takes a job at the ice factory, which provides Katz and his talented cinematographer Andrew Reed (using a RED camera) with an opportunity to explore an assembly line where bags of ice are produced. Doug meets a DJ co-worker, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), with whom he becomes fast friends, and at roughly fifteen minutes, he meets his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), at a coffee shop after she turns up unexpectedly from Chicago. She asks, “How’s living with your sister?” Rachel presses, “You like it more than living with me?” Surprisingly, he equivocates: “I don’t know, maybe not.”

The two guys and two women get together to play cards, which is followed by a montage that includes a spectacular shot: the camera slowly zooms in on Doug and Rachel as they stand on a bridge that overlooks a breathtaking waterfall. Carlos and Rachel attend a Star Trek convention together. Soon afterward, Carlos shows up at Doug’s apartment, informing him that Rachel never turned up at a club where she was supposed to meet him and is now missing. Carlos implores Doug to accompany him in investigating because he knows about “mysteries.” That may be true, but it’s Carlos who functions as the catalyst, while the more apathetic Doug gets dragged into getting involved.

I’ve gone into the film’s setup at some length, but I’ll not divulge the details of the mystery even though, on some level, the intricacies involving Rachel’s disappearance serve other purposes. As Doug attempts to solve the mystery, he and Gail grow closer together. Katz doesn’t poke fun at genre conventions; he takes them seriously despite having another agenda. There’s a hilarious cameo by Brendan McFadden (one of Katz’s collaborators) as Gail’s date, Swen. Katz’s other major collaborator, Ben Stambler, plays the hotel clerk, who gives knowing glances when Doug and Carlos rent a room together at Rachel’s motel. Another humorous exchange occurs later when Doug helps Gail navigate a porn site. She remarks, “You seem pretty familiar with how this kind of site works.” Doug’s response is a cold stare.

A Sherlock Holmes fan, Doug buys a cheap pipe to help him “think,” but we suspect the prop allows him to play the role better – even though he’s more like Frank or Joe Hardy than Holmes. The camera tracks through aisles of a grocery store and then the stacks of books in a library, creating a playful connection. Baseball figures prominently in the mystery, even though Doug obviously can’t hit a ball when he visits a batting cage, and Gail butchers the pronunciation of the name of ex-Yankee Clete Boyer. Late in the film, Doug follows a suspect into a building, where Reed’s slow zoom down a corridor is reminiscent of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity. Earlier, the exterior of the motel has a lime-colored cast, while one of the occupied rooms is lit with a yellow filter. There’s also a memorable shot of Doug climbing stairs of a train overpass as the sun flares directly into the lens, illuminating both Doug and the structure with an intense reddish orange glow. One of the major strengths of Cold Weather is its extraordinary attention to visual details (which, I’d argue, is hardly the “easy part” of making a film).

As Katz points out, there are other films about brother and sister relationships, namely You Can Count on Me (2000) and The Savages (2007), but the relationships in those films are far more contentious. Cold Weather on the other hand, explores the subtle yet powerful impact that siblings, such as Gail and Doug, can have one another. Katz told Nayman: “I’m interested in the idea of siblinghood as a kind of co-dependency, at once very intimate and oddly removed – like when she tells him she had a boyfriend for six months and he has no idea.” Katz is exploring that odd sense of comfort that siblings often share from having grown up together, even though he adeptly buries the motivation of his characters. We never learn anything about Doug’s past relationship with Rachel or why they broke up. Doug seems unfazed by Rachel’s return, yet his dropping out of school and lack of direction might stem from the end of their relationship. Doug and Gail appear at ease with each other, but that’s not necessarily true of their own love relationships, which they each have greater difficulty navigating.

With Cold Weather, Aaron Katz has managed to achieve something very difficult, namely he’s made three terrific low-budget films in the past four years. Some months ago, I wrote a blog about the overemphasis on social networking as marketing tools for indie films. Katz weighed in on this subject in an interview in Filmmaker. He told Scott Macaulay: “The best thing, I think, is to make a film you feel proud of and then find an audience. But I’m for anything that can get people to see a movie. It’s when [these tools] become the dominant things, it sometimes feels they are not in service of the movies.” In this sense, Katz has his priorities straight.

Cold Weather is being distributed by IFC. The film premiered at South by Southwest and has been playing the festival circuit, but I’ve been waiting for it to surface theatrically. Cold Weather is now expected to open in February.

Posted 12 December, 2010

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