The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Harmony and Me

It’s sometimes hard to understand why some mediocre films get all the buzz, and some great ones don’t. For the life of me, I can’t explain why Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me (2009) received its theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art rather than a commercial theater, and to my knowledge, still hasn’t as yet found a distributor. Yeah, life ain’t fair – of course, I know that. Yet if I were to pick one indie film of the past year that I would jump at the chance to see over and over again, it would be Harmony and Me, a film in which every single scene manages to work, while being woven into an intricate medley of idiosyncratic humor. And I say this as someone who generally shuns comedies for the simple reason that most of them aren’t very funny.

Variety, in a favorable review, called it “a mumblecore film without the mumble.” That sounds a bit like calling something a chocolate bar without chocolate or a milk shake without milk, so I’m not exactly sure what it means. In any case, like the Variety reviewer, other people might also assume this film to be another example of mumblecore. After all, Harmony and Me features Justin Rice, the talented front man of the Brooklyn band Bishop Allen, who was the lead actor in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, (and who, like Benjamin Button, seems to grow younger and younger with each passing year). The film is also set in Austin, Texas, edited by Frank Ross, and is even about relationships involving twentysomethings.

Byington, however, has tried to distance himself from mumblecore. When asked how he felt about the association, Byington told Karina Longworth in New York Magazine, “I like the humor in Broadcast News more than, say . . . I don’t know how to say more without seeming like I’m being dismissive of other movies. I’m very interested in watching how some of the mumblecore directors continue. I certainly don’t consider myself one of them. I understand the connection, but the movie and I are interested in other things.” In other words, Byington is politely suggesting that his real interests lie in comedy.

What distinguishes Harmony and Me is Byington’s absolute command of comic timing, which I suspect is also the result of careful scripting. One of my favorite scenes in Mutual Appreciation is the one where a drunken Alan (played by Rice) stumbles into party and the three women in wigs convince him to dress in drag. Rice’s comic timing stands out in that particular scene, but then again he’s playing a rock-musician character who at least bears some resemblance to himself. Yet I didn’t find this quality at all evident in Jonathan Blitstein’s Let Them Chirp Awhile, in which Rice was cast as a Woody Allen wannabe.

After seeing Harmony and Me, I’m convinced that Byington deserves much of the credit for Rice’s outstanding performance here, in which his deadpan delivery and reactions are totally spot on. He’s not playing himself, but a hapless loser with a broken heart, who can’t seem to get past it. As Byington puts it in the same interview, “In Harmony, it’s like Justin’s walking around with a broken record, asking people to listen to it. ‘Please listen to my broken record.’ Our worst nightmare is having to listen to our friends tell us about their stupid breakup. There is a way to make that situation funny.”

Harmony and Me begins with a voiceover quote from the lyrics of a Madonna song. Harmony says, “Something in your eyes is making such a fool of me.” It takes all of eight shots to move from the romantic bliss of Harmony and his girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker, the film’s producer) to Harmony lying on a couch. We assume he’s in a therapy session. Harmony says, “I can’t seem to . . . I walk around with this idea that I want and can’t be happy without some version of, I don’t know, possessing her? Of having her love me in a way she’s not even wired for, not even set up to do.”

As the camera holds on Harmony muttering to himself, a voice asks, “Can I help you?” Byington cuts to a wide shot and the back of a proprietor and what appears to be an empty furniture store. The film cuts to black. Justin sits talking on a cell phone to one of Jessica’s friends, who claims that Jessica describes him as a loser. The revelation is painful. We learn in the next scene – once again involving a cell phone conversation with the same person – that Jessica had already started grieving over the loss while still in the relationship, which has given her a big head start over poor Harmony.

As a form of therapy, Harmony begins taking piano lessons. In voiceover, he suggests, “Lately, the way I shake people’s hands feels spasmodic . . . like I have a hand buzzer. I can’t find any rhythm.” What follows is a series of episodic skits. We see him at work, with his mother (Margie Beegle) and his impish younger brother, Wes (Bishop Allen bassist, Keith Poulson). Brad (Don Herminghaus), his boss at the tech company where he works, has only a day to live and his mother turns out to have lung cancer, but Harmony is too fixated on his own broken heart for these things to register.

Harmony’s tries to get sympathy from his family, but his mother suggests that next time he should “find one that can move her arms and legs,” and Wes can only muster snide remarks. After a family tennis match, Harmony concludes, “I’m pretty sure I grew up with limited access to mental health. My older brother, who was supposed to be a mentor in lieu of our deceased father was deficient. Suffice it to say that he didn’t pick up the slack.” His older brother Jim (Bob Byington) is the type who insists that Harmony remove his shoes before entering his house. He’s about to get married, and, at least according to Harmony, has just bought the wrong-colored tan suit.

Harmony’s friends are no more sympathetic or understanding than his family. Carlos (Kevin Corrigan) calls Jessica “dull” and won’t admit she’s pretty. Another, Prince Valiant (Nick Holden), puts his arm around Harmony and suggests that his uptight response is homophobic. Harmony insists that it’s a personal-space issue, while his friend claims it’s cultural. To be more cruel, the friend rates Jessica only an 8 on a 10-scale. Still another one, Mean Man Mike (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky) who’s unhappily married to a woman named Milius (Baseera Khan), takes Harmony to a Chinese acupuncturist. After the friend uses a “stagnant pond” metaphor to describe his problem, Harmony explains to the acupuncturist, “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.”

Brad seems to recuperate miraculously. He ridicules the heart-shaped locket containing Jessica’s picture that Harmony wears around his neck, and also suggest to a female employee that he’s only interested in underage women. When Harmony tells Mean Man Mike that his boss implied that his chain and locket  made him look gay, the friend concurs that you only see such jewelry on either black people or gay people. When Harmony runs into Jessica on an elevator, she comments on the fact that his shirt and sweater and shoes match, and then laughs and remarks, “It’s cute.” Harmony demands his sweatshirt back, while she reminds him he still has her yoga mat. He also runs into a neighbor, Natasha (Allison Latta), who’s obsessed with her boobs and seems to have a crush on him.

Music becomes a means for Harmony to work out his emotional turmoil and also communicate with his friends, including Mean Man Mike and Carlos. The piano teacher (Jerm Pollet) claims, “No one wins in love.” He realizes his wife is no longer interested in him, but a lawyer who happens to make a lot more money. To him, it’s not personal, but attributable to a change in taste – like preferring crème brûlée to crab cakes.

One of the funniest and most uplifting scenes occurs at Jim’s wedding, where Harmony is brought up by the band to sing, while the Wedding Singer (Austin musician Bob Schneider) checks out the bride, who’s six-months pregnant, and Wes munches on cake. Harmony wanders down to where the Wedding Singer is practicing a song on the piano and gets tutored in how to play it. This is intercut with the Wedding Singer who leads the bride onto the dance floor and sings an exuberant rendition of “Changing Your Mind” to her on bended knee, with his head pressed against her extended belly. Embarrassed, she looks over, and the ensuing camera movement over to Jim and family at the table is as hilarious as you might expect.

As the movie progresses, Jessica takes up with the boss’s son Matt (Pat Healy), whom Harmony regards as “pretty clearly an imbecile.” Harmony goes bowling on his birthday with Matt and Brad, which ends disastrously. Harmony attends Brad’s funeral, where he delivers a eulogy that gets him fired, and has an affair with Natasha that turns out badly, and references There’s Something About Mary (a film I could never watch twice). After she complains that the sex was bad while standing on the balcony in her undies, Harmony responds from the parking lot, “Are you sure you shouldn’t just be thankful that I don’t murder you?” As he walks away, he tries to turn his words into lyrics for a song.

When Harmony’s forced to borrow money from Jim, his brother suggests he values his tabby cat far more than him. Harmony later returns home to find Jessica who’s returning his sweatshirt and wants her yoga mat. When Harmony asks her inside, she suggests that he’s like a character in a movie that you don’t care about, and, after a deep breath, tells him, “I just know that I’m not interested in you.”

Harmony burns Jessica’s pink yoga mat. In a self-destructive gesture – the idea stems from an incident involving Natasha and her dog – Harmony ends up in the hospital, where he spends a week in a coma. It’s here that Byington’s mosaic-like structure becomes fully evident. Most directors would try to pare down the number of characters, especially in such a sequence, but Byington creates a series of short jokes involving Harmony’s mother and Wes, and various friends who turn up to visit Harmony there.

Once Harmony wakes up from his coma and Jessica finally shows up, everyone clears out of the room. After she leaves, everyone returns to his bedside and Harmony, a white bandage still wrapped around his head, ends up playing the song he’s been working on for the entire film, called “The Finishing Touches.” Aren’t broken hearts the staple of most pop songs? Byington’s brilliance is the clever way he works music seamlessly into the film, transforming Harmony’s broken record into a brand new song.

Harmony and Me will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival (April 15-18) this spring. You can also check out the film’s Web site for other screenings. Like most comedies, it’s much funnier to see it with an audience.

Posted 7 January, 2010

Munyurangabo

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We tend to associate one strand of American independent cinema with regionalism. Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, and Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy serve as some recent examples. But a new trend rooted in globalism seems to be developing. Chris Smith made The Pool in India, So Yong Kim set Treeless Mountain in Korea, and Lee Isaac Chung shot Munyurangabo (2009) in, of all places, Rwanda. That Kim would locate her semi-autobiographical Treeless Mountain in Korea, where she grew up as a child, makes sense, while Chris Smith’s choice to transpose his story from Iowa to Goa, India is surprising, but the story is somewhat universal in scope. Yet the decision of Brooklyn-based filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung to make Munyurangabo in Rwanda, on the other hand, seems to take it to another level. Munyurangabo doesn’t sound like it could possibly be an American indie film, yet it most certainly is one.

Chung, who is Korean-American, grew up in rural Arkansas, attended Yale and later film school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He went to Rwanda where his wife worked as a volunteer at a Christian mission. Chung originally intended to teach a filmmaking workshop for kids there, but he subsequently decided the it would be more ambitious and educational to use the class to make a feature. He and his friend Samuel Anderson co-wrote a ten-page outline, and much of the film, especially the dialogue, wound up being improvised on location. The film was shot in a mere eleven days. The result is Munyurangabo, which premiered in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2007, as well as other major international film festivals around the world. Its rights were acquired by the subscription-based distributor Film Movement and it had a brief theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives only last May. It is now available on both VOD and DVD.

Munyurangabo tells the story of two young friends, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye). The story begins on a foreboding note. While everyone is distracted by a fight involving two men, Ngabo (as Munyurangabo is nicknamed) steals a machete on the streets of the capital city of Kigali. He later envisions it covered with blood, which is rendered in a single uninterrupted camera movement from the bloodied machete to his face and back again. After the title credits, Chung shows Ngabo, dressed in black with red sneakers, in a frontal wide shot as he pensively stares at the machete. Sangwa enters the frame from screen left and leans against the wall. He asks Ngabo, “Did you finish packing?” Ngabo stares at him and nods. The screen cuts to black. With spare economy – the stealing of the machete is conveyed in a ten brief shots – Chung manages to set up the story.

As we hear a song about people’s love for their country of Rwanda and the calamities that have befallen it – there is also written text that includes a biblical quote from Isaiah 51 – the two boys set out on a journey. On the way, they stop to visit Sangwa’s family, whom Sangwa hasn’t seen in three years. His mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) is ecstatic that her runaway son has returned, but his father (Jean-Marie Nkurykiyinka) is not very forgiving. He chastises his son for shirking his responsibilities to his family and flat out tells him, “You should have been aborted.” The camera holds on Sangwa’s pained reaction. At twenty-two minutes, we learn that Ngabo plans to avenge the killing of his family in the genocide.

Sangwa’s parents take a disliking to Ngabo. He overhears Sangwa’s father tell his son, “That boy you are with, don’t you know he’s a Tutsi? Don’t you know Tutsis are nasty? They have put our people in submission now. Now I’m suffering because of them. They tried to put me in prison even though I’m old. And yet you walk with them?” At one point, when Ngabo spies the father nearby, he instinctively reaches for his machete. After Gwiza (Jean-Pierre Harerimana Mulomda), Sangwa’s childhood friend, mysteriously becomes ill, Ngabo asks if he can visit Gwiza, with whom he has become friends, mostly as a result of the boy’s ability to make Ngabo laugh by inventing funny stories about fictitious animals. Sangwa’s father, however, blames Ngabo for everything that has gone wrong lately, and his son for bringing Ngabo into their house.

After a festival of dancing, Ngabo tells Sangwa that he’s deeply offended by what the father said about him. Sangwa, who has finally reconciled with his father as a result of repairing a mud wall, informs Ngabo that he has decided to stay with his family. Ngabo tells Sangwa, whom he calls his only friend, “You have a family, a mother, and a father. You know why my life is like this? Why my life is hard? It’s because of your relatives. Because Hutus killed my family. My life would have been better without them.” Ngabo suddenly points his finger at Sangwa and says something we’ve suspected, which leads Sangwa to break off their friendship.

Ngabo retaliates by squealing on Sangwa, causing Sangwa’s father to turn on his son again. In terms of characterization, we are often only able to understand the motivation of characters through inference. Why did Sangwa run away from his family? We learn from Gwiza that Sangwa’s father is no longer drinking. Later, Ngabo has a conversation with Sangwa in which he wonders, if Sangwa’s father is “bad,” why he’s working so hard to try and please him. Why would Sangwa’s father beat Sangwa and expel him away solely on the basis of what Ngabo tells them (even if he might be drunk)? After he gets banished by his family, Sangwa tries to make up with Ngabo, but, once crossed, Ngabo no longer wants to have anything to do with him either, causing the friends to part ways.

Although the title of the film is Munyurangabo and we fully expect it to be his story, after the opening scenes, the film focuses more on Sangwa, while Ngabo recedes into the background. Once Ngabo ditches Sangwa at roughly 70 minutes, the narrative switches back to his now solitary journey, in which, in voiceover, he goes deep into his memory and recalls details of the genocide, while we see subjective shots of the landscape as he treks back home. In my book on screenwriting, I have a chapter about shifting protagonists (Fargo does this, as does Psycho, the film the Coen brothers reference), so such a strategy is by no means unprecedented. Chung has discussed the fact that he deliberately employed a split narrative, but it’s not clear why. One possible explanation is that the structure allows him to present both sides of the story or two different perspectives on what’s taking place.

The film takes another unexpected detour in the third act when Ngabo stops to eat at a café. Another patron (Edouard B. Uwayo) sees his machete. The guy comes over, announces he’s a poet and indicates that he will be reciting his poem the next day to commemorate National Liberation Day. The poet then recites his poem while looking directly into the camera. Entitled “Liberation is a Journey,” the poem is simply astonishing. Even as a pure sound poem (spoken in the Kinyarwandan language), it has the most unbelievable cadence I’ve ever heard. The poet proceeds to tell the story of what happened in Rwanda, addresses injustice, and what needs to change in the country. We originally think his poem will be brief, but it goes on for over six minutes – so long that it begins to feel surreal.

One might assume that such an epic poem would have an immediate impact on Ngabo, but right after this strange interlude he stands with his machete in a wide shot and then moves move forward toward his family’s dwelling. From behind, we watch as he slowly approaches the building and hear the sounds of cows and chickens in the background. He goes around the building, enters cautiously, and makes a discovery. After his father appears to him in a vision and he dreams of Sangwa, Ngabo’s journey of revenge leads to a final image of hope and redemption. The shot happens so quickly and it is so subtle and unexpected, you might miss it.

Munyurangabo represents an amazing accomplishment on Lee Isaac Chung’s part. Working from only a brief outline with an inexperienced and indigenous crew, he was forced to improvise while on location and had to communicate with his nonprofessional actors through translators. Chung chose to shoot his elliptical narrative on 16mm film rather than digital video for both aesthetic and practical purposes. He uses long takes, relies on natural light, and stages most of his scenes outdoors. Chung doesn’t try to hide his stylistic influences, which range from Ozu to the Dardenne brothers and Terrence Malick. He embeds his characters within the landscape through his inspired framing of shots and camera movement – it’s simply impossible to look at the terrain of Rwanda without being reminded about what happened there.

Although Munyurangabo ostensibly focuses on the lives and relationship of its teenage characters, Ngabo and Sangwa, as we discover, the film is really a parable about an impoverished land that is still very much haunted by ghosts.

Posted 3 January, 2010

Medicine for Melancholy

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A couple of weeks ago Lynn Hirschberg had an article on mumblecore in the style magazine of the Sunday New York Times. It featured a lead photograph of so-called mumblecore personalities, only it didn’t feature Andrew Bujalski, Greta Gerwig, or Joe Swanberg, but several other folks, who, with the exception of Jay Duplass (director of The Puffy Chair and co-director of Baghead), didn’t quite seem to belong there, including Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Gerwig and Bujalski apparently declined to participate in the photo op – which featured everyone decked out in designer clothes and eating a gourmet lunch with a caption that read “not-so starving artists” – while Swanberg apparently nixed being photographed with the more “commercial” Humpday crowd. Jenkins, whose film played at the SXSW Film Festival, has suggested a connection to mumblecore in interviews, but I don’t really think his extremely impressive first feature fits the label.

Medicine for Melancholy tells the story of the aftermath of a one-night stand, in which the two African-American characters spend the next twenty-four hours together. Independent films such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Aaron Katz’s Quiet City have dealt with two strangers spending the equivalent of a day together. But those films were really all about flirtation and the anticipation of romance – two people falling in love – whereas in Jenkins’s film, the two characters are attempting to get to know one another after sexual intimacy has already occurred. Anyone who has ever found herself or himself in such a predicament might be able to relate to the anti-romantic difficulties of struggling to discover some semblance of mutual compatibility. Medicine for Melancholy does convey the awkwardness of communication and personal relationships found in mumblecore films, but the issues here are compounded by race and class, which add another layer of complexity and substance to Jenkins’s film.

What’s interesting about Medicine for Melancholy is how rarely – other than in the films of Spike Lee or Charles Burnett – we have been able to see a film about the lives of ordinary African Americans represented on the screen. The film begins with Micah (Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), both in their late twenties, leaving a previous night’s party early the next morning. Rather than being the overly talkative characters who populate mumblecore films, Micah and Jo, for the most part, keep their emotions buried under a cool (if somewhat sullen) veneer. In the film’s first scene, in which they each brush their teeth with their fingers in the bathroom, they don’t say anything to each other. The breakfast at a nearby café contains an undercurrent of tension, especially when Micah confesses, “This is a little embarrassing, but . . . I kind of forgot your name.” Jo looks away and responds, “I don’t know if we really got there.” She promptly lies and tells him her name is “Angela.” The two share a cab ride, but Jo splits once they get near her place. When she inadvertently leaves her wallet on the floor of the taxi, Micah discovers Jo’s real name and, after some effort, manages to track her down.

It turns out that Jo lives with a wealthy art curator, who’s currently in London. Micah asks, “Is he white?” She answers, “Does it matter?” Micah responds, “Yes and no.” The boyfriend does turn out to be white. Now irritated, Jo asks Micah to leave, but he sweet-talks her into allowing him to accompany her on an errand. Afterwards, Jo suggests going to the art museum, but Micah refuses.

JO: What’s wrong with MoMA?
MICAH: No comment.
JO: Okay, black man, so what do two black folks do on a Sunday afternoon?
MICAH: Go to church, eat fried chicken. What do two black folks not do on a Sunday afternoon?
JO: What?
MICAH: Go to a museum.
JO: That is not funny.
MICAH: It is funny.
JO: It’s not funny.
MICAH: It’s funny because it’s not funny.

Micah’s remark not only reveals the class differences that divide them, but also that their world views are completely different (which extends to issues of personal hygiene). They end up at MoAD (Museum of African Diaspora) rather than MoMA. Micah announces, “MoAD, mamma, not MoMA!”

Michah later drunkenly complains, “Think about it. Everything about being indie is all tied to not being black.” For Micah, the fact that they are two young black people in a white urban area suggests they share a special bond. But, to Jo, that’s patently ridiculous – she refuses to let herself be categorized by a single word. Micah insists, “Me? I’m a black man. That’s how I see the world. That’s how the world sees me. But if I have to choose one, I’m black before I’m a man. So, therefore, I am black.” In other words, he contends that race is a central part of his identity, whereas for Jo, it’s not – she believes people should be judged for themselves rather than by the color of their skin. In the age of Obama, the question Jenkins raises – whether race still matters – is certainly a timely one.

Despite a certain physical attraction, the more these two people get to know each other, the wider the chasm between them seems to grow, even though, as Micah points out, they are part of a very small minority of African Americans living in San Francisco – a number that’s declining as a result of inflated real-estate prices. In point of fact, we never really get to meet any other characters in the film as Micah and Jo move through San Francisco before they eventually go dancing at a white club. By limiting his story to only two central characters, Jenkins cleverly shows their isolation from the city as well those who reside within it. At one point, they stumble upon a community housing meeting about the perils of gentrification, which underscores Micah’s strong political sense and provides a striking contrast to Jo’s apolitical side.

Micah’s apartment in the Tenderloin district is cramped in comparison to the one in which Jo lives with her boyfriend. Both Micah and Jo use the opportunity to snoop around while the other person is taking a shower. Jo opens Micah’s laptop and learns from his Facebook page that he has just had his heart broken in a previous relationship. In an ironic twist, the picture indicates it was by a white woman, which suddenly gives a different spin to his character. When Micah returns, she finally asks him what he does for a living – he installs aquariums. Jo makes tee shirts of women film directors. This explains why the one she’s wearing says “Loden” – an obscure reference to Barbara Loden, the writer and director of Wanda (1970). Micah asks, “You make money off that?” Jo answers, “It isn’t about that.” When Micah offers Jo some red wine, she’s shocked that he keeps it in the refrigerator. Her reaction says it all.

I mentioned that Medicine for Melancholy doesn’t really seem to be part of mumblecore. One reason is that the film seems carefully scripted rather than improvised. It’s also more stylized, and uses professional actors from Los Angeles rather than nonprofessional friends. Jenkins, who went to film school at Florida State, has a great visual sense. He and cinematographer James Laxton drain most of the color from the film, so that it appears to be black and white with occasional accents of muted color, such as the Micah and Jo’s red shirts in the first scene. The film contains many memorable shots such as the one near the film’s beginning where Micah and Jo walk up a hill and disappear down the other the side, so that when they desert the frame we’re left with a spectacular shot of the San Francisco skyline. There are many tracking shots of the city from the cab or as Micah and Jo ride their bikes. When Micah talks about his affection for San Francisco, the images of the city are suddenly rendered in vivid colors. And the film’s final shot, involving an exhilarating camera movement, is pure poetry.

Medicine for Melancholy is at heart a regional film. Jenkins’s portrayal of San Francisco, in many ways, helps to define the ambivalence and mood of these two characters, which Cenac and Heggins manage to capture so well through their understated performances. Although Jenkins employs naturalism, it’s the type that seems aesthetically closer to that of Kelly Reichardt, So Yong Kim, and Ramin Bahrani than to filmmakers associated with mumblecore. Jenkins’s film has done remarkably well for a low-budget indie film that was shot on digital video for less than $14,000. Not only did the film play on the festival circuit, including Toronto, but it was picked up for distribution by IFC. Somewhat surprisingly, it managed to gross over a $100,000 at the box office, and has already been released on DVD. In case you don’t know, for an independent film, that’s considered to be “success” these days. Even so, Medicine for Melancholy is still not on most viewers’ radar, which is a pity because it’s one of the standout indie films of the past year.

Posted 30 December, 2009

In Between Days

As the typewritten title scrolls across the lower right portion of the screen, we hear footsteps crunching snow, which continue over black. Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a Korean-American teenage girl in a fur-lined parka, trudges toward us in closeup, as we see a couple of high-rise buildings in the background. Over an image of this desolate urban landscape (Toronto), she writes to her absent father about going to school, “My friends are white, black, Chinese, and Japanese, too. Isn’t that amazing?” The film cuts to a closeup of Aimie’s face as she eats a sandwich by herself in the lunchroom. After school, she spends time with a male Asian friend named Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). Aimie asks Tran whether his breaking up with his girlfriend Janet is somehow connected to her, but he denies it. What she’s really asking is whether he likes her, but the subtlety of her indirect question is lost on him, a pattern that will continue throughout their courtship. In her debut feature, In Between Days (2006), So Yong Kim (who also directed the recent indie film Treeless Mountain) does a terrific job of capturing the mixed signals that often pass for communication amongst teenagers, especially when they are compounded by the pain of divorce and cultural displacement. In Between Days manages to convey the temporal aspect of adolescence – the sense of boredom of teenagers simply hanging out together for long stretches of dead time.

In Between Days deals with Aimie’s life as a new immigrant, but does so mostly by focusing on her relationship with her only friend Tran, a petty criminal and slacker, who wears a signature hand-woven wool ski cap for most of the film. When Aimie talks about “doing it” with him, we assume she’s talking about sex, but it turns out to involve her giving him a tattoo. But when he later asks her again while they’re watching television together, it is clearly sexual. This is never made explicit, but rather conveyed through subtle gestures and reaction shots. Like the characters themselves, the viewer tends to get lost in the labyrinth of their confused and conflicted personal feelings for each other. Aimie does not even possess the vocabulary to articulate what she’s experiencing, which is why adolescence represents such a traumatic period of transition for most of us. This might explain the film’s title, which also happens to reference a song by The Cure.

Aimie writes Tran’s name on the fogged window of the bus, indicating her romantic feelings for him. But when he suggests that they engage in sexual intercourse, Aimie indignantly refuses. Right afterwards, she quits her English class in order to buy him a very expensive bracelet. When she gives it to him, she says diffidently, “Hey, I saw this and got it. I thought it would look cool on you.” Kim’s camera focuses on the reaction on her face and then on his to capture the ambiguous resonances of this moment. At a party afterwards, Aimie becomes jealous when she sees Tran flirting with other girls, and retaliates by doing the same, causing Tran to insist that they leave. As the two wait at the bus shelter and then ride home, the tension between them is palpable. Concerned about his infected tattoo, Tran awakens her in the middle of the night, but when Aimie comes over, she shows little sympathy and calls him a sissy. Tran later feels up her breasts as she dozes off. She responds by calling him a pervert. He counters, “You got nothing to grab anyway.” A subsequent shot of Aimie looking at lingerie in a store window reveals her true feelings.

Tran turns up at her house and suggests that he was joking and thinks of her more like a “guy friend” – an attempt at an apology that completely backfires. To get back at him she tells him she kissed Steve at the party, which makes Tran noticeably jealous, indicating that they know exactly how to wound each other. When Tran asks whether Aimie really did kiss Steve, she denies it. Aimie, however, becomes even more sullen and withdrawn. Once they are together again, Tran asks her, “Are you on the rag?”Aimie laughs in disbelief at his crassness and calls him a jerk. After he flirts with another girl on the way back from the bathroom, Kim’s camera lingers on the two of them as they sit in a game room and don’t speak to each other, unable to break the stalemate.

Things don’t get any better between the two teens. Tran tries to get Aimie to go to a party, but she refuses for no apparent reason – she stays home and does laundry – other than the fact that she’s still angry with him. As the night wears on, she proceeds to call Tran and ends up alone in a karaoke place, where she sings an animated but sad pop song. Tran later shows up at her house after he’s been thrown out of his. Aimie makes Tran beg to be let in, then insists that he sleep in her closet, so as not to be detected by her mother. When she finds out that Tran is planning to move into a room at Michelle’s house, Aimie becomes upset once again. After she presses him, Tran insists, “For me . . .you’ve always been . . . from start to end . . . just a good friend.” The camera again focuses on their faces before Aimie simply walks away. We see her delayed emotional reaction as a tear streams down her face while riding a bus.

Like Jim Jarmusch, So Yong Kim (who co-wrote the screenplay with her filmmaker husband Bradley Rust Gray) builds the story from an accumulation of details, and from character rather than plot. She told director Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson and Sugar) in an interview in Bomb: “I usually develop my characters from little moments, and hopefully at the end of the writing process, I feel like I have a whole person. Everything – other supporting characters and the whole overall story – has to be based on my main character. I don’t really put that much importance on a big story or a theme.” Her main character is as ambivalent as Willy in Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Even after viewing the film twice, I still have a few questions about what’s going on between Aimie and Tran, but Kim suggests that adolescence is rooted in buried motivation. And, like Paul and Noel in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003), the story of Aimie and Tran is ultimately one of missed connections.

Aimie’s real love and feelings are channeled into the letters and images she sends to her deadbeat dad back in Korea. His absence only causes her love for him to grow larger in magnitude. Aimie’s anger over her parents’ divorce is reserved only for her mother (Bokya Kim), who works hard to support the two of them as a single mom in a new country. When her mother asks how she would feel about having a new father, Aimie answers that she already has one. The mom insists that her father abandoned them, but her daughter snaps, “Is that my fault?” When her mother gets ready to go out one night, the sulky teenager calls her “a cheap whore.” Yet Aimie hears her mother crying on the couch one night and calls out to her, as she watches sympathetically from the stairwell. It’s the only bit of warmth we see between them. Otherwise her father remains the specter behind what Aimie is trying to work out with Tran. It’s her father rather than Tran who represents the gaping hole in her heart – the source of her incredible loss and longing – that no doubt results in her moody and erratic behavior.

Kim uses wide shots and spoken voiceover for Aimie’s letters to her dad, which serve as transitions in the film. Otherwise, cinematographer Sarah Levy keeps extremely close to the characters by using a hand-held camera that gives a sense of intimacy to what transpires. Aimie and Tran often simply stare at each other as a substitute for talking. So Yong Kim trusts the camera to capture the emotions that are registered on their young faces, especially those of Jiseon Kim, who gives a truly extraordinary performance for a nonprofessional actress. What’s not said between Aimie and Tran is more important that what’s actually said, which suggests the unspoken undercurrent – the film’s subtext – that provides the real energy in the film.

There’s the scene in Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise after Eva leaves New York City, where Willie and Eddie sit and drink beers in awkward silence for what feels like an eternity. So Yong Kim keeps her scenes extremely short by conventional standards, but milks the dead time – the negative space of the film – in a similar assured way by relying on visual storytelling rather than dialogue to tell her story.

Posted 9 November, 2009

13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

It is tempting to see many if not most of Andy Warhol’s films as portraits, even when they are mixed with narrative elements, such as The Closet, My Hustler, The Chelsea Girls, or Bike Boy. In some ways, the 472 Screen Tests, in their deceptive simplicity, provide the most accessible window into Warhol’s brilliant cinematic achievement. Last year, I watched all of the Screen Tests that are currently available (including the two of Bob Dylan and the longer one of Salvador Dali), or roughly twenty hours of them. 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the DVD release from Plexifilm, presents a very small sampling to music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Purists might argue that the addition of music alters the visual integrity of the originally silent films, but it’s hard to fault this “re-contextualization” by Ben Harrison, associate curator of performance at the Andy Warhol Museum, when Warhol himself was intrigued by such experiments during his intermedia or expanded cinema phase during 1966–1967.

Not only did Warhol show films like Lupe, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and More Milk Yvette as double-screen works, but he also projected many of his single-screen works, including the Screen Tests, in other unorthodox ways – such as on the walls, ceilings, and bodies of performers – as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI). The EPI became a powerful and intense mixed-media event that consisted of the live music by the Velvet Underground, pop songs, multiple-screen projections of film, slide projectors, a stroboscopic light show, dancing (often Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov dressed in leather outfits and brandishing whips) and theater. The intent was to provide audiences with a more immersive experience that resulted from bombarding the senses by combining a variety of different art forms.

The Screen Tests were shot on 100-foot rolls of 16mm film at 24 fps, but projected at the slower speed of 16 fps. The thirteen included here aren’t necessarily the best screen tests, though they include some of my favorites, such as the one of Ann Buchanan, which I’ve written about previously. A number of people cry in the larger corpus of the Screen Tests, just as many of the subjects attempt to stare down the camera. People also smoke or eat or perform other activities, such as when Baby Jane Holzer brushes her teeth. Warhol understood the transformative power of the camera to affect and alter whatever occurs in front of it. Mary Woronov, who also appears in one the Screen Tests included here, acknowledges this when she writes in Eyewitness to Warhol: “Afterwards, like a new convert, I couldn’t stop talking about what a genius Andy Warhol was – the way people’s expressions changed in the Screen Tests, making it a psychological study as the images cracked and their real personalities crept naked out of their eyeballs; the idea of conferring immortality onto unknowns – everyone’s democratic little minute of fame – mixed with the deafening speechlessness of it all.”

The first screen test begins with a closeup shot of Ann Buchanan, framed from the neck up. As we view the image, the lighting is distinctly flat. Her left cheek is a bit hotter than the one on the right, which makes her left eye more prominent. We see two points of light reflected in her left eye, while a single point appears in her right one. Her hair is straggly; her facial expression is remarkably neutral. Buchanan stares directly at us, almost as if transfixed by the camera. Buchanan’s eyelids quiver ever so slightly at one point, but she doesn’t blink. Her throat and cheek also move imperceptibly, but Buchanan never loses her concentration. A pinpoint of light appears on the inside part of her right eye, which later flutters again. A minute-and-a-half into the film, what appears to be a tear forms at the bottom of Buchanan’s right eye. A half-minute afterwards, a tear falls from it, followed by another one ten seconds later. Her throat moves, and a third tear rolls down the right side of her cheek. Meanwhile Buchanan’s left eye fills with tears as well, as another from her right eye rolls down her face. Nearly three minutes into the film, a new tear drips from her chin, followed by a tear from her left eye, which continues for the rest of the film.

The fact that Ann Buchanan cries during her screen test is mind boggling. The shock of this is compounded by the utter discrepancy between her deadpan expression and the tears that emanate from her eyes. How in the world has she managed to cry? Do her tears stem from the tension of trying not to blink, from the lighting, or do they derive from her being able to employ the technique of emotional recall? Buchanan was not a Method actor, however, so her screen test confounds our expectations. Callie Angell in Andy Warhol Screen Tests indicates that this was Warhol’s favorite screen test, and it’s easy to see why. Buchanan’s rigid stare and wide eyes are very doll-like in appearance, so that her spontaneous gesture of crying while being filmed reminds us of one of those crying dolls, inanimate, yet capable of such an uncanny display of emotion. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’s synthesized score manages to level out the emotional peaks and valleys of Buchanan’s screen test.

Paul America, the subject of the next screen test, became the object of all the other characters’ desires in My Hustler, the only Warhol feature in which he appeared. Paul was also romantically involved with Edie Sedgwick, who refused to appear in the film, so that it more or less became an Edie film without Edie. One of the things that becomes obvious about the Screen Tests is how the basic elements of cinema – light and the passage of time – end up determining the portrait of the person. Paul America (whose real name was Paul Johnson) is lit by a key light from screen left without any fill light from the right, thus placing half of his face in dark shadow. Whereas Buchanan is intensely fixated, Paul America appears distracted. He stares at the camera, chews gum, smirks and smiles, moves his head and eyes in various directions – all in an effort to appear casually seductive. The music, with lyrics that talk about drugs and contain lines like “I could hypnotize a pancake, I could levitate the Pope” appears to comment on certain known aspects of Paul America’s life. There is a video portrait from 1965 that was shown as part of the Warhol show “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” curated by Eva Meyer-Hermann at the Wexner Center in Columbus. In it, Paul is apparently high on drugs and talks about them for much of the video while playing with a switchblade knife.

In Edie Sedgwick, the subject of the third screen test, there’s little question that Warhol found his greatest superstar. As a mute, last-minute addition to Vinyl (1965), Edie managed to become the film’s major focal point – her expressive reactions provide the moral conscience to the sadistic main action taking place – even though she’s relegated to sitting on a wooden trunk on the side of the frame for the entire film. In Kitchen (1965), Edie was able to create authentic moments within a deliberately over-the-top Ronald Tavel farce. Edie’s screen presence illuminates some of Warhol’s very best films during this period, such as Vinyl, Kitchen, Poor Little Rich Girl, Beauty # 2, Restaurant, and Outer and Inner Space.

Warhol was fascinated by Hollywood glamour, especially “stars” who had the ability to carry entire motion pictures just by their ineffable screen presence. The magic of cinema involves the transformation that occurs between a performer and her or his image. In POPism, Warhol writes: “The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.” Edie not only had intrinsic beauty, but, as Poor Little Rich Girl proves, she managed to be utterly fascinating even when out of focus for the first half of the film. Warhol did numerous screen tests of Edie, and, yes, I confess I could watch her forever. This particular screen test, which is not a terribly flattering one, reveals a certain “doe in the spotlight” vulnerability.

Billy Name (Linich), who starred in Haircut #1 (1963) comes across as the epitome of cool. His head angled slightly, he wears dark sunglasses throughout and barely moves during his screen test. Susan Bottomly (aka International Velvet) is lit by a key light on screen right. Her mop of thick black hair melds with the negative space that seems to envelop half of her moon-shaped face, as if she’s about to be completely swallowed up by darkness. Actor Dennis Hopper vacillates between Method Acting – he portrays a highly sensitive and somewhat distraught young man – and acknowledging his reliance on acting techniques, such as affective memory. Under the gaze of the sustained take, the artifice of his performance becomes manifest.

To lyrics of “I Found It Not So,” Mary Woronov, her face slightly overexposed, stares directly at us with menacing wolf-like eyes. Numerous times she appears as if she might grace a smile, but doesn’t – until the very end, and then ever so slightly. For those interested in understanding how Mary developed the armor of an alluring ice queen in many Warhol films, such as her portrayal of Hanoi Hannah in The Chelsea Girls or as a whip dancer in EPI, I suggest you read her extraordinary account of cavorting with the Warhol crowd, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory. I had the pleasure of meeting Mary at the Warhol symposium at the Wexner Center, where I spoke to her following her panel presentation. She seemed surprised that I knew her small gem of a book on the Screen Tests, but when I told her I thought she was incredible in Hedy, she admitted it was her favorite performance, and added, “I’m really nice in that film, aren’t I?” As the store detective who has to arrest the fourteen-year-old Hedy (played by Mario Montez) for shoplifting, Montez’s sheer vulnerability obviously resonated with her in a profound way that reads so clearly on the screen. Mary went on to act in other plays and films and to have a career as a writer. She’s apparently the subject of a new film that’s currently in production.

Edie might have been Warhol’s greatest star, but Nico, who fronted as lead singer for the Velvets, was the most stunningly beautiful superstar. In Swimming Underground, Mary Woronov describes the intimidating aspect of Nico: “She was so beautiful she expected everyone to want to fuck her, even the furniture, which groaned out loud when she walked into the room. I had seen chairs creep across the carpet in the hopes that she might sit down on them.” The film that embodies this is The Closet (1966), which was originally shot as part of The Chelsea Girls (1966), but wasn’t incorporated into the longer film. It features Nico and Randy Bourscheidt, a shy and boyishly handsome young man, who seems nervous to find himself in a Warhol film, playing opposite the beautiful superstar. When Nico alludes to Bourscheidt now being an actor, he downplays the notion, indicating he’s much too uptight. He discusses being in a musical in high school, and his father telling him afterwards that he was very stiff. Nico indicates that it’s when you think about acting that you become self-conscious, and then it becomes “disastrous.” She continues, “You should ignore the fact that you’re acting at all.” This is exactly what Nico does in her screen test, which is the exact opposite of Dennis Hopper’s acting and much closer to Warhol’s notion of a superstar.

Freddy Herko, the Judson dancer, who performed in Haircut # 1, Warhol’s intricately choreographed striptease and peep show, creates one of the most fascinating screen tests as he smokes a cigarette, and several times gets up and  repositions his entire body within the frame. The lighting is dark and incredibly moody, as Herko moves in and out of shadows. At one point only a sliver of his face is all that remains visible on the right side of the frame. He then leans on his arm. It’s easy to view his screen test as a minimal dance piece confined to the cramped space of the camera frame. But besides its formal interest, there’s something very brooding about Herko’s screen test – the way he purses his lips, manipulates the cigarette as he smokes it, and seems to withdraw into himself like a doomed character in a film noir. Not long after this screen test, he would dance out the fifth floor window of a Village apartment to his death, making him one of the early casualties of the scene.

Richard Rheem was Warhol’s live-in lover for a time around 1966. He appears in Warhol’s outrageous fantasy portrait of his own mother as an aging homicidal movie star, Mrs Warhol (1966), in which Richard plays the latest of her many husbands. Rheem also had a small role in Since (1966), the Warhol film on the JFK assassination, in which Warhol became fascinated by television’s ability to reproduce or replay the same exact image over and over again. Warhol was enamored of technical mistakes in a mechanical medium such as film. Another of the truly fascinating screen tests, the one of Rheem exhibits a technical problem. The film had slipped in the gate of the Bolex during filming as a result of improper threading, blurring Rheem’s image, as Warhol zooms in and out and tilts up and down, altering the focus and composition. Rheem more or less sits there impassively, his prim and proper appearance creating a stark contrast to Warhol’s arbitrary camera movements. The slippage of Rheem’s image obviously mirrors what Warhol was doing in his silkscreens.

There is a famous photo of Andy Warhol, reproduced multiple times on the cover of The Andy Warhol Diaries (edited by Pat Hackett) of Andy either being thoughtful or slyly giving the middle finger (as in “fuck you”). Ingrid Superstar does a riff on this for her entire screen test. Ingrid was naive, sincere and funny, and her best role might have been in Bike Boy, where she appears in a cramped kitchen with Joe Spencer, a biker who sits unresponsively in the corner, as Ingrid ridicules his tattoos and self-absorption, and suggests that he must be gay. Ingrid then delivers a humorous monologue about eggs, while Joe leans against the wall, rolls his eyes in reaction to her, and stares directly at the camera. He never notices as Ingrid loosens her bra and eventually exposes her breasts while talking about vegetables and various cooking recipes.

Warhol made a series of screen tests of Lou Reed’s lips and eye, as well as what appear to be commercials for Hershey chocolate bars and Coca Cola (Nico also did similar screen tests with the same two products). In this screen test, Lou Reed drinks a Coke, though he doesn’t seem to finish it entirely. If this appears to be one of the least interesting of the screen tests included on the DVD, the soundtrack – a rendition of a previously unknown song by the Velvets entitled “Not a Young Man Anymore” – doesn’t do much either to enhance the image or penetrate the surface. The final screen test is of Baby Jane Holzer, who appeared in several Warhol films including, Kiss, Couch, and Soap Opera, as she vigorously brushes her teeth.

Film differs from photographic snapshots in somehow always conveying a sense of the present, even when these screen tests are now over forty-years-old. Despite the sense of presentness that moving images convey, it’s hard to watch 13 Most Beautiful without thinking of the lives of the various subjects, especially those lost to us in tragic ways, such as Edie, Nico, Paul America, Freddy Herko, and Ingrid Superstar, who mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late 1980s. So it’s nice that they and the others included here manage to live on in the Screen Tests, Warhol’s ambitious attempt to document and hang onto the images of the Factory people who surrounded him.

The DVD includes a booklet containing information about the genesis of the project, statements about the Screen Tests by Andy Warhol Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski and film and video curator Geralyn Huxley, biographical information for each screen test, and notes by Dean Wareham on scoring the Screen Tests. The DVD allows you to play the Screen Tests with or without the music tracks that were created for them. Warhol films have been hard to see other than at museums, so if you’ve never seen any of Warhol’s films, 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests provides a compelling introduction.

Posted 1 November, 2009

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