The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Pool

Maybe because two of Chris Smith’s earlier films have had the word “American” in their titles – American Job (1996) and American Movie (1999) – there seems to be something incongruous about the fact that his latest film, The Pool (2007), is an American independent film that takes place in Goa, India. If regionalism has been one of the many characteristics of indie cinema throughout its modern history, Chris Smith has expanded its scope to be more global – his film is in Hindi with English subtitles.

The genesis for the The Pool was a seven-page short story by Randy Russell originally set in Iowa. Smith distilled the central idea – one person’s obsession with another’s swimming pool – and transposed it to India. The Milwaukee-based filmmaker led a small crew to the ex-Portuguese capital city of Panaji, or Panjim as it’s translated in the film. Over the course of five months and 65 shooting days, he shot The Pool, which won a Special Jury Prize for “the most singular vision” at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and then promptly drifted into distribution limbo – the fate of most great indie films these days. It opened belatedly at Film Forum in New York City this past September. The Pool currently is playing in other major cities around the country, and it’s scheduled to screen locally at the Sundance Cinemas Madison starting February 20.

Although most manual writers and screenwriting instructors haven’t taken much notice, many of the best independent filmmakers these days have moved away from relying on a conventional screenplay. All films, out of necessity, need to involve some sort of pre-planning – The Pool did have some form of a script – but the process of making the film was decidedly more open and flexible. Smith, like David Lynch with Inland Empire, began filming before actually having a final screenplay. While many scenes were scripted later, they evolved and changed during the process of making the film. Once the actors were cast – Jhangir Badshah was recruited as one of the two leads while working at a restaurant the crew frequented – Smith  incorporated the actors’ own life experiences as part of their characterizations. Smith would shoot a scene and editor Barry Poltermann would assemble a rough cut on the fly. They would view it and then proceed from there. In some ways, it could be described as a more documentary approach applied to narrative filmmaking, and the resulting film represents an amazing accomplishment.

The Pool tells the story of Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), an eighteen-year-old hotel worker, who becomes obsessed with the swimming pool of a wealthy Mumbai businessman, Nana (Nana Patekar), who vacations with his disaffected teenage daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), in Panjim. The film begins with Venkatesh returning from a visit home. We see him riding the crowded bus, and arriving back to the hotel where, while hanging laundry, he kids a hefty co-worker named Malcolm (Malcolm Faria) about being unable to find him a wife because of his weight. But Venkatesh’s real friend turns out to be a pint-sized, eleven-year-old restaurant worker named Jhangir, who’s also his partner in hawking plastic bags around town – a small business venture that comes to an abrupt halt later in the film when plastic becomes banned.

Most films employ scenes that loudly announce their significance, but Smith’s film is so understated and subtle that most viewers might not notice. In a scene where Jhangir cleans the fish tank in the apartment of a wealthy boxer, Venkatesh reflects on their need to go to school. Venkatesh asks Jhangir what he’d study. He responds, “I’d be an engineer. I’d make big bridges and buildings.” When Venkatesh asks off-handedly whether he would build him a house, the young boy answers, “Yeah man, I’ll make one for you.” It’s a throwaway line. Shortly afterwards, Venkatesh becomes obsessed with the fluorescent blue swimming pool, even though Jhangir remains a skeptical critic. He thinks Venkatesh should sneak into the pool for a cool swim, but Venkatesh schemes to ingratiate himself with the owner instead. Even though he’s illiterate, Venkatesh buys a book about gardening, convinces Malcolm to read it to him, and positions himself to offer assistance when Nana visits a local nursery to buy plants.

Venkatesh’s initial relationship with Nana is one of master and servant. Nana is cold and aloof, and dismisses Venkatesh’s questions and personal revelations with few words. But he gradually warms to his new hired helper – whom he’s aware has been spying on him from a mango tree overlooking his property – and even encourages him to attend school once he discovers he possesses good math skills. Venkatesh also tries to get to know Ayesha, but – with her designer jeans, shoulder tattoo, obsession with reading, and airs of class privilege – she’s as sullen with him as she is with her father. When Jhangir wants to know whether she’s “hot,” Venkatesh arranges for him to judge for himself. The two approach her as she reads a book in the park, but she ignores their attempts to befriend her. As they buy Ayesha some chai and a fried samosa from an outdoor vendor, Jhangir asks, “What’s her problem?” He thinks she seems pretty weird – maybe even a bit crazy.

Through Venkatesh’s sheer persistence, the three of them begin to hang out together. Venkatesh and Ayesha view each other across a chasm of class differences. Whereas Venkatesh and Jhangir love the taste of fried food, Ayesha prefers fruit. When she asks Venkatesh whether he has a girlfriend, he tells her that he already has an arranged marriage – to someone who turns out to be only ten. Ayesha reacts with disbelief. She asks him, “What if you don’t like her when she grows up?” Venkatesh and Jhangir also invent things about themselves as a way of embellishing their routine lives. Jhanghir claims to want to go to America because he knows an American girl, while Venkatesh tells Ayesha he has a friend with a boat and proceeds to offer her a ride.

Venkatesh also spins yarns as he works for Nana. He talks about killing and eating rabbits while hunting in his village. He also tells Nana about drinking blood and being possessed by a female ghost for six months, which caused him to eat huge amounts of food before the fat spirit inside him finally was able to be exorcized. He also tells Nana about a fight, which sent him to jail for three days. His tales, whether true or invented, serve to show that he and his wealthy boss and daughter, for all practical purposes, live in alternate universes. When Venkatesh comments to Jhangir that he thinks Ayesha is sexy, Janghir sees the absurdity of his older friend’s desire. He responds, “Yeah . . . sexy. You two are meant for each other. You’re black and she’s white.” Jhangir adds, “I don’t like the way she wears those low-cut tops. She shouldn’t wear such skimpy tops.”

Yet, as Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha spend more time together, we even think a romance might be starting to blossom as she becomes more responsive. They visit an ancient fort and venture out into the harbor in a rented row boat. In the meantime, Nana offers to take Venkatesh to Mumbai where he can continue to work for him and attend school. On a bus trip to visit a forest that Venkatesh claims is inhabited by deadly monkey men, Ayesha brings up the plan to move to Mumbai, which comes as a complete surprise to Jhangir. She tells Venkatesh, “My dad’s an asshole. I don’t know how long it will take you to figure that out.” As they start to head into the forest, Janghir suddenly becomes scared and refuses to go further. When the two start to leave without him, he suddenly explodes in a jealous rage. Jhangir denounces Venkatesh to Ayesha as a stalker and opportunist, and the two friends end up in a fistfight, while Ayesha dismisses them as immature children. On the return journey, they all ride in separate seats on the bus.

Throughout the film, Venkatesh has become increasingly unhappy with his situation at the hotel. To Malcolm’s consternation, Venkatesh keeps showing up late for work. After Malcolm criticizes his singing, Venkatesh suggests turning on the TV, but Malcolm indicates it’s not permitted by the management. Venkatesh responds angrily, “Are you a human being or an egg?” Venkatesh later accidentally breaks a guest’s Walkman. He gives it to Jhangir to fix, but Malcolm ends up getting fired by the boss for stealing. Despite the fact it’s really Venkatesh’s fault that Malcolm gets blamed unjustly – Jhangir wonders why he doesn’t feel guilty – Venkatesh acts relieved that his critic is no longer there to bug him.

Nevertheless, Venkatesh agonizes over the decision of whether to go to Mumbai. He once again returns home where we see his impoverished rural roots in Karnataka (where the orphaned Jhangir is also from) and meet his mother and two sisters, one of whom is about to get married. His mother would like Venkatesh to move back. In most dramatic films, reconciliation between Venkatesh and Jhangir would be a difficult and extended process, but all it takes to reestablish their bond is another jar of chutney from Venkatesh’s mom. Ayesha is a different case altogether. Upon his return, Venkatesh attempts to give her a scrawny orange kitten as a gift. “I can’t keep it,” she tells him bluntly. To her bemusement, he abruptly abandons it in the park – it’s the same street cat we’ve glimpsed earlier – and he admits to her that it’s a stray he found. As they eat cake, she makes a personal revelation, but the scene ends in awkward silence.

Chris Smith, who also did his own superb 35mm cinematography, constructs The Pool as a series of vivid snapshots of these characters and the place they inhabit. Some scenes are short vignettes, with only several lines of dialogue. Smith is as much concerned with visual details – the rhythms of Venkatesh’s daily life – as with character. Or maybe it’s that the endless repetition of daily chores defines his existence. We see Venkatesh making up beds in the hotel, buying bread at the bakery, washing dishes in the kitchen, scrubbing the marbled floors and toilets, dealing with the laundry, opening and closing the heavy metal gate of the hotel each day.

One of major strengths of The Pool has to do with its complex characterizations. Of the two, Venkatesh is the dreamer, while Jhangir is much more of a pragmatist. It’s almost as if their relationship is based on a role reversal. In many ways, Jhangir really functions as the older brother – not the other way around. Venkatesh naively sees the pool as the solution to all of his life’s problems, but Nana and Ayesha both know better. It’s the reason why Ayesha is so sour and why her father, as Venkatesh describes him to Jhangir, often stares vacantly into space.

Nana Patekar is a famous Bollywood actor, but Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah give outstanding performances for being non-professional actors. Both play their parts with a combination of concentration mixed with distraction, which adds to the naturalism. It is their bodily gestures that convey their characters as much as the words they say. When Nana brings up the proposal of going to Mumbai, Chavan taps his knee with his finger as a kind of nervous tic. Chavan’s not acting – he’s just being himself.

And there is something about Jhangir Badshah’s upright gait and the energetic way he swings his arms as he walks next to Venkatesh that suggests his fierce determination and survivor instincts. He also has a great laugh, most evident in the scene where Venkatesh tells him about some guy on the bus who couldn’t hold it and ends up defecating in his pants. There’s also a funny scene where Jhangir gets something in his eye as the two boys sip sodas on some steps. Venkatesh offers to take a look, then suddenly blows hard into Jhangir’s eye. The little kid responds, “Hey man! What the . . .?” The incident says everything there is to know about their relationship. In the scene where they say goodbye, Jhangir’s eyes flit momentarily up the street before shifting back to Venkatesh and his own inner feelings of sadness. It’s moments like this that suggest an authenticity that non-professionals often can bring to the screen.

The dialogue has the indirection of everyday conversation. In one scene, where Jhangir and Venkatesh discuss the pool, Jhangir asks Venkatesh whether he’s going to pick at his food or eat it. When they discuss Ayesha being sexy, Jhangir’s criticism of her “skimpy tops” seems like a non sequitur, especially when he follows it by suggesting, “She’s solid and cute. I’m starting to warm up to her.” Ayesha has some of the best lines in the film. After telling Nana to “fuck off,” he asks her where she’s going. She answers, “To kill someone.” It’s not just what the characters say, however, but the cadence of their responses. When Jhangir talks about wanting to be an engineer and to build big bridges and buildings, what comes out of his mouth sounds more like a Lettrist sound poem – as if we’ve suddenly become transported into Isou’s Venom and Eternity.

Barry Poltermann’s editing of The Pool is nothing short of remarkable, and this final cut, which differs from the one originally shown at the Sundance Film Festival, is the best I’ve seen. The post-production sound work by Didier Leplae and Joe Wong has impeccable nuance: the wind rustling through the vegetation when Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha visit the fort; the clown horns of street traffic which mark the passage of days; or the whir of a small bird as it darts through the frame that makes the last cut of the film even possible.

It wasn’t so long ago that the British film journal Sight & Sound did a cover story lamenting the sorry state of American indie cinema after a less than stellar Sundance Film Festival (as if that is the sole barometer of anything). Despite the current crisis in distribution – the fact that so many smaller companies have gone under – the independent films this year have been terrific. And Chris Smith’s The Pool certainly stands as one of the highlights.

Posted 11 January, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s first feature River of Grass (1994), a regionally inflected, feminist riff on genre set in the area between Miami and the Everglades, drew critical attention within independent film circles, but received only limited theatrical distribution. It would be over ten years before Reichardt’s collaboration with writer Jon Raymond provided the unexpected spark that reignited her career. Made on a micro-budget of $30,000 and adapted from Raymond’s short story (itself the result of a collaboration with photographer Justine Kurland), Old Joy (2006) managed to become a major critical hit and to gross ten times its production costs. Reichardt and Raymond’s latest effort, Wendy and Lucy (2008), produced for a mere $300,000, not only fulfills the promise of Kelly Reichardt’s earlier work, but catapults her squarely into the forefront of major independent directors.

Both of the Jon Raymond short stories on which Reichardt’s last two films are based have just been published in a collection entitled Livability (Bloomsbury, 2009), allowing viewers an opportunity to understand the nexus between word and image in Reichardt’s work. The story of a camping trip between two old friends whose lives have taken different trajectories, Old Joy deals with the impermanence of relationships in a culture of accelerated technological change. Raymond’s “Old Joy” turns out to be even more understated than the film, which includes an important added element, namely, that Mark (Daniel London) is married and soon to become a father. After Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark get lost while searching for a remote hot spring, the pair end up camping overnight in a garbage-strewn area in the forest. As the two shoot empty tin cans with a BB gun in front of a golden bonfire, Kurt, stoned and drunk, discusses his theory of a falling tear-shaped universe. Afterwards, Kurt has a sudden emotional outburst. He cries that he misses Mark, and insists that something has come between them. Mark impassively denies this, but, of course, it’s something he can’t admit to himself.

Old Joy is completely understated – it relies almost wholly on subtext for its narrative tension. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. We get mobile shots of Portland to the sound of Air America on the radio, purely cinematic sequences of the majestic countryside accompanied by music, and extended treks through the dense woods with Mark’s playful dog. Reichardt’s long takes include everything that would be cut out of most other films in the service of succinct storytelling. When Mark drives to Kurt’s house, for instance, we watch him park, get out of his car, and walk all the way to Kurt’s front door. In one memorable scene, the camera frames Kurt smoking a joint inside the car, as we view Mark studying a map through the windshield. Mark heads away from the car down the road. His cell phone rings. We watch him jog back to retrieve it, and then amble back away from the car. We can’t hear Mark’s conversation with his wife as he paces, but we can sense her irritation, as can Kurt, no matter how dulled his senses have become.

In Old Joy, Lucy (the director’s dog) inserts herself into the film, enough to become a character by often seeming to favor Kurt over Mark. In Reichardt’s latest effort, Lucy has finagled her way into a title role. Reichardt indicated in the recent issue of Film Comment that what she most admires about Raymond’s stories is that “he writes these really interior kinds of characters, and then the challenge for me is just figuring out how to physicalize that in turning things over into a script.” Ironically, “Train Choir,” the source for Wendy and Lucy, provides more motivation for the protagonist Wendy (Michelle Williams) than the film, even though Raymond’s writing style is rather spare. Ray Carver used to talk about life in terms of people having either good luck or bad luck, and his characters were left to grapple with whatever life dealt them. Wendy is down on her luck. While it’s not made explicit in the film what has left her in such a dire predicament – she elicits no sympathy when she phones her sister – Wendy’s hell-bent on making it to Alaska, where she believes she’ll be able to earn enough money to start her life over.

En route from Indiana to Alaska, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small town in Oregon. With a tight budget and food running out for her pooch, Wendy attempts to pilfer a couple of cans of Iams from a nearby grocery store. On her way out the door, she gets stopped by a young worker named Andy (played by John Robinson, the protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, no less). With a silver cross around his neck, he’s strictly Old Testament, insisting on retribution for her petty crime. After vacillating, the spineless boss lets Andy call the cops, and Wendy is hauled away, fingerprinted and booked by an inept officer, before she’s forced to pay a fine she can’t afford. By the time Wendy returns to the grocery hours later, her beloved Lucy has disappeared from the parking lot where she was left tied up outside the store. Wendy’s search for her missing dog, which takes up most of the film, might be exasperating if Reichardt weren’t such a masterful visual stylist and storyteller. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Wendy visits the local pound. Reichardt’s camera tracks past the various cages of dogs, suggesting the inside of a prison.

The film involves a series of episodic incidents, mostly with the people Wendy happens upon in the vicinity where her car has stalled. In Wendy’s initial jaunt into the woods, Lucy leads her to a group of young street people, one of whom pets the dog, while another, appropriately named Icky (Will Oldham), spins a rambling tale about driving an expensive bulldozer off a cliff in Alaska. There’s the security guard (Walter Dalton), who tries to befriend Wendy by allowing her to use his cell phone. As becomes painfully clear as Wendy tries to navigate her desperate situation, you can’t really exist in this society without an address or digital means of communication. In one of the film’s only redemptive gestures, the kindly guard later tries to help Wendy by stuffing crumpled bills into her hand – it turns out to be six dollars.

There are also those only too willing to take advantage of people less fortunate or down on their luck, such as the indifferent cops or the auto mechanic (Will Patton), who cons Wendy into junking her car for the reduced towing charge. And when Wendy’s forced to spend the night in the park, she has the misfortune of running into a scary derelict (Larry Fessenden), who rifles through her stuff while Reichardt’s camera focuses mostly on her face. Wendy breaks down afterward in the bathroom of the gas station. By the end, she’s so beaten down by events that she can no longer even think straight. The film seems to suggest that it’s bad luck that leads to reckless decisions – not the other way around.

It’s impossible to talk about Wendy and Lucy without mentioning Michelle Williams, who has short-cropped dark hair and wears the same plaid shirt, pedal pushers, blue hoodie, and distressed sneakers during the entire film. Williams’s understated performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Critics often talk about acting as if it were somehow unrelated to the script. If Wendy’s motivations are not always delineated, this gives a truly gifted performer such as Williams even more creative room to maneuver. In her interactions with others, she has a tendency to turn completely away from them (and the camera) as an innately defensive response. It’s only with Lucy that Wendy is able to exude any warmth or emotional spark.

Reichardt has always gravitated to those vulnerable characters who seem to exist on society’s margins. Wendy and Lucy, in fact, begins and ends in a train yard, as if deliberately conjuring up the past – the mythic figure of the hobo – in order to suggest that the Great Depression of the 1930s is back again. As such, the film can be read as a searing indictment of the Bush economic legacy. Reichardt creates rectangles within rectangles, evoking all the ways Wendy manages to get herself boxed in. There’s one shot in particular, where the camera follows Wendy as she walks in front of a brown wall. She turns the corner, but the camera stops abruptly, dividing the space of the frame in half. Reichardt relies on a symphony of train sounds and Wendy’s humming rather than music to create emotional resonance. With its muted colors, rusted metal, and grey skies, Wendy and Lucy manages to create an overall sense of melancholy that seems to reflect the protagonist’s psyche.

Posted 28 December, 2008

Afterschool

 

In attempting to explain why a group of high school teenagers in California covered up the murder of a classmate, screenwriter Neal Jimenez and director Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1987) blames the impact of media for the inability of the teens to feel any sort of emotion. Clarissa tells the protagonist Matt (Keanu Reeves) that she cried watching Brian’s Song, the TV movie about the football player who died prematurely of cancer, but she’s unable to mourn for Jamie, her deceased friend. At the end of the film, all the kids file past Jamie’s casket, still unable to shed a tear, presenting us with a bleak view of teenagers who seem incapable of differentiating between mediated experiences and those occurring in their own lives. Afterschool (2008), Antonio Campos’s disturbing debut feature, mines similar territory to River’s Edge, but, in this case, it’s about young teens whose lives have been impacted by new technologies, such as YouTube videos and the Internet.

Afterschool played in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and was screened at the prestigious New York Film Festival this fall. Made by an incredibly talented twenty-five-year-old filmmaker, who studied film at NYU, Afterschool tells the story of Robert (Ezra Miller), an alienated and depressed high school sophomore at Brighton, an elite boarding school. The film opens with Robert watching the type of material easily accessible on the Internet, including silly home videos, the lynching of Saddam Hussein, brutal war footage, and violent pornography that turns him on.

Whereas Gus Van Sant’s Elephant charted the architecture of the prison-like school building as contributing to the social dislocation and regimentation of suburban high school kids as they shuffle between classes and respond to class-period bells, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography does a great job of creating the sterility of life at a privileged boarding school, where the interior white walls at times suggest the inside of a psychiatric ward. Both Campos and co-producer Josh Mond attended the same prep school, so it’s not surprising that Afterschool provides trenchant commentary on that experience. Campos highlights the inane bromides of the headmaster, Mr. Burke (Michael Stuhlbarg), at morning assembly, as well as the disingenuous manipulations of the guidance counselor, Mr. Virgil (Gary Wilmes), who builds up trust with students only to betray them to an administration, whose only goal is keeping the families of their wealthy clientele happy.

In English class, Robert fixates more on the female teacher’s anatomy – her crotch, ass, and breasts – than on Hamlet, the thematically relevant Shakespeare play they’re studying. When the teacher quizzes Robert about Hecuba’s soliloquy, he tells her, “Hamlet’s going to have the actors re-enact the murder in front of the stepfather . . . uncle.” The teacher adds, “He’s going to play out the play, and have his own stepfather play out the crime. And hopefully his guilt will drive a confession out of him.” As the title indicates, however, Campos is more interested in depicting what the kids do in their spare time within the trapped confines of boarding school, where conversations in the cafeteria sound remarkably similar to banter from the porn videos the kids voraciously consume on their computers.

As is required if you’re not into sports, Robert joins an extracurricular activity – in this case, the a/v club. A first-year classmate named Amy (Addison Timlin), who appears to have a crush on him, blurts out that Robert really wants to make porn. Amy quizzes Rob about his previous sexual activity, indicating that Dave (Jeremy White), his more sophisticated roommate, has downplayed Robert’s experience. “Dave’s an asshole,” he tells her. After she probes into his sex life further, Rob places his hand on her throat, mimicking the rough sex in the porn video we saw him watch earlier. Amy finally asks, “You trying to strangle me to death?”

The two eventually do have sex in the woods – an intensely awkward scene in which Robert still wears his blazer. “Did I hurt you,” he asks afterwards. “Yeah, a little,” Amy answers. He removes his jacket and shirt and gives her his T-shirt, which she presses against her crotch. The scene of their loss of virginity feels like it lasts for an eternity. In the cafeteria, Robert whispers about his “score” to Dave, who immediately offers to give Amy a ride home to Manhattan on the weekend.  

Robert unwittingly films the overdose of the popular twin sisters, Anne and Mary Talbert – a scandal that naturally wreaks havoc at the school – with his video camera. The film-within-a-film aspect of Afterschool might seem like a trite plot device, but Campos cleverly complicates it. Due to his interest in video, Robert is asked by Mr. Virgil to shoot an homage to commemorate the two victims. Robert goes around interviewing students and even the parents of the twins when they visit campus, but when Mr. Burke sees the results of Robert’s work, he’s completely outraged and disappointed. He tells Robert: “I’m no editor, but I can safely say that was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen. You didn’t even have music!” As Robert indicated to Mr. Virgil earlier, he’s attracted to short video clips on the Internet that seem “real.” As might be expected then, his own video project deliberately leaves in all the material that normally would be excised in editing. One of the pleasures of Afterschool involves seeing the comparison between Robert’s raw depiction of the events and the sanitized version the school eventually produces as a memorial tribute.

Not so ironically, Afterschool eschews any type of music as well. Campos tries to create an almost clinical emotional detachment from the material he presents, as befits his subject matter. Campos shows a propensity for languid pacing, long takes, wide shots with an anamorphic lens, and odd compositions. He’ll often place two figures at the very edge of the frame, or he even partially chops off parts of his subjects – the way Vincent Gallo sometimes framed his characters in Buffalo ’66. In the scene where Robert tells his mother on the phone that he’s not fitting in, at one point he disappears from the frame entirely. Campos sometimes shows us the back of Robert’s head rather than his face in a manner Gus Van Sant often portrayed his youthful characters in Elephant.

The acting of the teenagers in Afterschool is pretty much deadpan. Ezra Miller plays Robert with about as little affect as someone on lithium – the disembodied words seem to stumble from his mouth as if they’re secretly being delivered by a ventriloquist just offscreen. After the tragedy, Mr. Virgil attempts to puncture the armor of Robert’s lack of response by asking, “What do you think of your mom? Do you know she has crabs so big I ride them to work?” Rob stares at him blankly and finally blurts out, “What?” It’s the guidance counselor’s creepy way of trying to relate to teens.

Like Alex, the troubled and guilt-ridden skateboarder from Van Sant’s Paranoid Park – a film that Afterschool in many ways resembles – Robert does, in fact, harbor very dark secrets (as does every character). And if Afterschool conjures up associations to several recent films, it’s ultimately Michael Haneke, who seems to be a direct influence on this extraordinary first feature. Whatever the case, you have to admire the uncompromising formal rigor of Afterschool, which insists on being taken on its own terms. It’s one of the best American independent films I’ve seen this year.

Afterschool was selected for the “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” series – a small group of the most notable indie films unable to find distribution – at MoMA last month. When truly outstanding films such as Afterschool and Lance Hammer’s self-distributed Ballast are struggling to find their way into theaters, it’s a sad commentary on a distribution model that everyone agrees is broken. Campos himself seems to have a much more balanced perspective on the problem than Mark Gill’s much ballyhooed remarks “Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling” this past summer. In recent comments in Filmmaker, Campos suggests that independent cinema might have to return to its “pre-gentrification” roots. He talks about the need for budgets to get smaller, and suggests that limitations often inspire creativity – something Maya Deren stressed many years ago – as well as the importance of making the films you want. Campos writes: “As I continue to make films, I hope my audience grows and whether they see them in the last few theaters left in their town or on their TV or on their computer, I can’t predict. As long as they’re not watching them on their cell phones, I’m happy.”

Posted 19 December, 2008

A Walk into the Sea

In 1966, Danny Williams, one of Andy Warhol’s former lovers and a significant force behind the psychedelic light shows of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, disappeared while visiting his family in New England. Following his early success as an editor for the Maysles brothers, Williams, a Harvard graduate, gravitated to the Factory in hopes of jump-starting his film career. Esther B. Robinson’s poignant exploration into the short life of her deceased uncle, A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), now available on DVD, explores the mystery of what happened by utilizing 20 rolls of 16 mm footage shot by Williams and uncovered by Warhol film curator and archivist, Callie Angell, and by interspersing filmed interviews with various family members and Factory regulars.

As might be expected given the circumstances, A Walk into the Sea ends up providing an unflattering glimpse into life at the notorious silver-colored Factory – an artistic scene where internecine struggles and heavy drug use left many victims. Paul Morrissey blames Williams’s death on the Zeitgeist by viewing him as “a casualty of the era.” Danny’s mother, Nadia Williams, insists, “He didn’t OD. He went for a pleasant swim.” The most intriguing answer to the riddle Robinson poses in her Rashomon-like investigation, however, turns out to be provided by the famed Velvet Underground musician John Cale who suggests: “When you’re asking people to come up with a story on why this happened, you’re asking them to come up with a version of how they would like to do it themselves. So as long as you know when you’re asking one question, you’re asking five or six other ones. Then that gives you a ‘clear’ on how to read the answer.”

One of the issues the film inadvertently raises has to do with authorship – what creative role Danny Williams actually played in Warhol’s films. Morrissey and Billy Name (another Warhol boyfriend who doesn’t hide his jealousy towards Danny) both downplay the contribution of Williams. Other observers, such as photographer Nat Finkelstein and Ronald Nemeth (whose film Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable is part of the ambitious exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms,” currently at the Wexner Center in Columbus) provide counter perspectives. Chuck Wein, who introduced Williams to Warhol, strongly identifies with Danny’s subsequent erasure, while Callie Angell provides the most sober perspective, mainly because she has no vested interest at stake other than her own sense of film scholarship.

Even at the recent symposium on Warhol’s work at the Wexner Center, the issue of authorship caused lively debate. Richard Meyer, professor of art history at USC, questioned why Thomas Crow and art historians still find it necessary to attribute authorship solely to Warhol given the inherently collaborative nature of his artistic practice. The answer is bound up with the whole notion of “branding.” In his recent book on the economics of the art world, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson discusses how branding works within the art world by citing the careers of artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Warhol.

Damien Hirst’s art works, including his spot paintings, for instance, are all done by assistants. As Thompson explains, someone named Rachel does the best job of painting the spots. In fact, Hirst insists that if you’re a collector you really want to own one of the paintings executed by her because she’s so much better at painting spots than everyone else, including him. Does that make Rachel the true author of Hirst’s spot paintings? Not really. Hirst comments, “I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas.” Warhol wasn’t so fussy. He took ideas wherever he could get them, including those that came from other people. Yet, as one of the panelists at the Wexner symposium pointed out, Warhol nevertheless controlled which ideas he ultimately chose to brand as his own.

There are differences between the timeworn tradition of artists having assistants and what went on at Warhol’s Factory. For one thing, art assistants are generally paid for their work, so it’s considered “work for hire.” Because Warhol wasn’t making any money from his films initially, no one was paid for their services, and roles were never clearly defined. Another important difference was that Warhol’s Factory was as much a social scene as a space where art was created, thus confusing the divide between the two. Nameth and Finkelstein make a strong case for the significance of Danny Williams in creating the light shows for the expanded cinema phase of Warhol’s filmmaking. Nadia Williams suggests that Danny was starting to get credit for his work on the light shows in reviews, causing resentment on Warhol’s part. In response, Paul Morrissey glowers at the camera and snarls: “It’s not true.” Nadia Williams complains, “Why should he [Warhol] get mad that someone else in his crew got some credit. You never got any credit. All the credit went to one guy.”

Morrissey’s interviews in A Walk into the Sea minimize not only the contributions of Williams, but those of Warhol as well. In discussing the EPI, for instance, Morrissey claims: “There was no use for lights in the show. There were projectors showing movies. And you can’t have lights on top of movies, you wash the movies out.” When Robinson probes Danny’s use of colored lights, Morrissey responds, “There were no colored lights. There was a spotlight with gels. And you turned the gels, and you have a pink, a green, or a blue.” He dismisses Nameth as any sort of credible authority, while Nameth, in turn, marvels at the complexity of Williams’s diagrams. John Cale remembers a fistfight over cables between Danny Williams and Paul Morrissey in the balcony at a club called Poor Richard’s in Chicago. In terms of credit, Gerard Malanga indicates that Danny “basically fell through the woodwork here.” Morrissey once again finds it necessary to diminish Williams’s contribution. He replies: “I was telling Andy what to do for eight or nine years, and I’m barely in any book. They don’t want to know. They think Andy did this and Andy did that. And then Andy wanted to do this. . . and it’s all a myth, so you can’t expect anything else. I’m not sure whether [when] Danny was there, he had any actual influence on things that happened while he was there. Because, while he was there, it was from, you know, My Hustler until the Velvet Underground and all that stuff, I was running the whole thing.”

Like Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s well-known biography Edie, A Walk into the Sea manages to demonize Warhol as a calculating, Machiavellian figure, largely as a result of certain interviews included in the film. In his autobiography POPism, Warhol defends himself against such claims that he was “evil” by insisting that he was actually powerless when it came to making people do his bidding. He writes: “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.” Danny Williams’s acknowledged drug use serves as a case in point.

As a documentary portrait, A Walk into the Sea provides few concrete biographical details of Danny Williams. In his biography on Warhol, Victor Bockris describes the personal relationship between Williams and Warhol as extremely volatile. He recounts an incident in a restaurant on Christopher Street where Williams, in an angry outburst, ripped off Andy’s silver wig. Warhol eventually threw Williams out of his townhouse. Contrary to Billy Name’s wishes – the details of which are recounted in the film – Williams moved into the Factory. Bockris writes: “The handsome Harvard preppie turned into an addict, his hair matted and stringy, his skin coated with the silver dust that crumbled from the walls of the Factory, his glasses broken and taped together. When he fell into one of his funks, sometimes threatening suicide, Andy screamed at him to ‘shape up.’ Everyone joined in.” Bockris’s description of the news of Danny’s disappearance and Warhol’s refusal to speak with his mother gets brought up again in the film by Danny’s sister, Julia Robinson, who wonders, “What were they afraid of? Why weren’t they willing to talk?” Morrissey answers, “I’m sure, you know, he [Warhol] was saddened by it, but, at the same time, he didn’t let anything affect him.”

A lucky coincidence leads Esther Robinson to Callie Angell, who had been trying to locate the family of Danny Williams for seven years. As a result, Robinson is able to show us examples of Danny’s own films. His black and white films represent interesting experiments with high-contrast images, strobing, in-camera rhythmic editing, abstract passages involving light patterns, and a buoyant sense of filmic play, which Nameth wants to claim as proof of Williams’s influence on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Morrissey undercuts this by saying: “I never was told that Danny was a filmmaker. I thought he . . . had a camera and he was taking shots. But he had never put together a film and shown it to anyone. So I was the only one who had ever made films, who . . . arrived at the studio, if you want to call it that.” Strangely, neither Gerard Malanga nor Billy remember Danny Williams with a camera, despite appearing in footage that he shot. Callie Angell talks about Warhol empowering others artistically. She discusses the fact that he gave his 35 mm Pentax still camera to Billy and his 16 mm Bolex movie camera to Danny, which she interprets as confirmation of Warhol’s high regard for both Williams and his talent.

Billy Name describes the Darwinian nature of life inside the Factory, where strong personalities were only too willing to push out those who were weaker. John Cale indicates: “It was based on insecurity. It was like everyone was like afraid of being left out, so they created a part for themselves.” Callie Angell suggests that Warhol tried to engage those around him in his projects, thereby creating a false sense that they were responsible for the ideas. Chuck Wein, for instance, insists that My Hustler (1965) was totally his movie: “I wrote it, directed it, the whole thing.” Ironically, his remark runs directly counter to Morrissey’s earlier claims of authorship regarding the same movie.

In terms of interpersonal dynamics, Nadia Williams believes that Warhol was playing favorites and that Danny had fallen out of favor. She claims, “He was being dominated. . . And who wants to be dominated? I think domination is evil.” Danny Fields suggests that everyone was in love with Andy. Even Brigid Berlin, Warhol’s close confidant for many years, provides a critical perspective on Andy’s perverted sense of intimacy. Nat Finkelstein adds, “There was a cultish kind of setup that was going on over there.” Danny’s mother critiques photos of her son, bristling at ones that makes him look “effeminate” or “too soft.” She doesn’t think he seemed despondent on the night he disappeared, and wonders, “Why would he throw it away? He had everything to live for.”

In answer to speculation that Danny committed suicide, Gerard Malanga claims he never knew for sure. He suggests that it’s a kind of “connect-the-dots” approach, “where you’ve got a car, it’s at the edge of a cliff, near the water.” Because there’s no real evidence, the various interviewees project their own psychic needs onto Danny, and indirectly onto Warhol. Danny’s sister questions whether his disappearance was an attempt to start his life afresh. She still wonders whether Danny might have had a rendezvous with someone that night, or possibly was murdered, noting, “But it is very strange that the body was never found.” Al Maysles conjectures that maybe Danny just walked out to sea, as was befitting his poetic sensibility.

A Walk into the Sea ends with the mystery of its subject still very much intact. Esther Robinson seems acutely aware of how the film operates. She told Ed Halter of the Village Voice: “In order to justify their roles, a lot of the Factory people have to remember themselves as central and everyone else as peripheral. So you get these very singular sensibilities, all of which contradict one another. I was more interested in what people say happened – the narratives people tell themselves so they can go on living after something traumatic. That’s true of my family, and I would say that’s true of people in Warhol’s circle.”

Posted 30 November, 2008

In the Company of Men

Neil LaBute’s disturbing black comedy, In the Company of Men (1997), was easily one of the most provocative and controversial films of the 1990s. A romantic office triangle involving two white collar workers and a deaf secretary, the film ended up winning the Filmmaker’s Trophy for Best Dramatic Feature at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, but nevertheless had trouble finding domestic distribution. Most distributors, including Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, worried that the film would offend audiences, especially women, before Sony Pictures Classics eventually decided to take the risk. According to LaBute, “One of the Sony guys said it made them sick when they first saw it, but then they realized that reaction was a business opportunity.”

Like To Sleep With Anger and Boys Don’t Cry, In the Company of Men uses a more conventional structure for its unusual subject matter. By pushing the limits of acceptable speech and behavior, In the Company of Men shares a number of qualities with edgier indie films such as Reservoir Dogs, Happiness, and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Although LaBute’s debut feature can be read, at least at first glance, as a backlash against the more progressive aspects of independent film and its bent toward political correctness, the film’s more provocative elements – its misogyny, racial insensitivity, and exploitation of the physically challenged – actually function as a deceptive masquerade to explore the darker recesses of the white male psyche. As a result, In the Company of Men offers one of the most devastating cinematic critiques of male power relations by dissecting the dog-eat-dog mentality that has come to epitomize what it takes to achieve success in the white male-dominated world of corporate business.

Prior to making his debut film, LaBute had a successful career as a playwright, having attended both the Graduate Dramatic Writing Program at NYU and the Sundance Institute’s Playwright’s Lab. Ted Hope of Good Machine was interested in producing In the Company of Men, but LaBute decided to go forward with the production on his own when a couple of friends invested an insurance windfall of $25,000 in the project. In the Company of Men was conceived as a classic low-budget film – a three-actor ensemble piece with a low shooting ratio and a minimum number of locations. Although the film was shot in LaBute’s own hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana over the course of eleven days, In the Company of Men, like Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989), lacks the strong regional flavor of many other independent films. The locations, in fact, are minimal and have a completely generic feel to them. Much of the film takes place in office cubicles, conference rooms, men’s rooms, hallways, restaurants, and airport waiting rooms. As LaBute comments, “I’m intrigued by minimalism and I wanted the look of the film to have an antiseptic and timeless feel. The business world has looked relatively the same since the fifties, turning it into a bit of a cliché, so I tried stylistically to be very timeless.” On a visual level, In the Company of Men emphasizes stylization rather than heightened realism, which is reinforced by the minimal post-production sound work.

The plot of In the Company of Men appears to be rather straightforward. The film tells the story of two young white collar workers – old college buddies – who get transferred to a regional office for six weeks and concoct a plan to victimize an unsuspecting female co-worker, who happens to have a disability. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is a handsome jock, while Howard (Matt Molloy) is something of a wimp. LaBute’s description of the two main characters provides an interesting contrast. He describes Chad as: “29 years old, dark, tallish. The mouth of Belmondo and the eyes of Caligula.” About Howard, he writes: “He is 28, more boyishly attractive than handsome, perhaps shorter than he might wish to be.” According to LaBute, “It’s a simple story: boys meets girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” But such a description hardly does justice to what actually happens during the course of the film, namely, that gender politics merely provide a subterfuge for office politics. As it turns out, Chad’s misogynistic game provides a deliberate smokescreen for his real ambition, which is to knock Howard out of his position as project boss and replace him. That is the film’s major twist, as well as its redeeming quality as an independent film, because this has the effect of shifting the subject of the film from being about sexist male behavior to a study of men’s relations with each other.

In the Company of Men involves a short setup followed by intertitles that indicate each of the six weeks, and an epilogue that occurs “weeks later.” In the published version of the script, LaBute describes In the Company of Men as having a five-act structure,” but he never delineates the actual breakdown. The film nevertheless conforms to the traditional three-act paradigm. The inciting incident occurs when Chad proposes the sadistic game to Howard and he drunkenly agrees to be part of it at 11 minutes. After Chad locates the perfect victim in Christine (Stacy Edwards), Howard’s date with her at roughly 24 minutes serves as the first turning point because it signals his actual complicity in the scheme. The entire middle act concerns Chad and Howard’s attempts to outmaneuver each other in the competition to win Christine’s affections. The second turning point occurs at 71 minutes when Howard retaliates against Christine for rebuffing him by informing her of Chad’s malicious game. The climax happens at the point of the major plot twist, namely, when Chad reveals his own secret to Howard. The structure of the film thus breaks down into a first act of 24 minutes, a middle act of 46 minutes, and a third act of 22 minutes.

Given LaBute’s background in theater, the conventional structure of the film should hardly come as a surprise. LaBute’s description of his own writing process, however, suggests that he relies very heavily on intuition, and that he doesn’t believe that everything can be pre-plotted in advance. As he told Filmmaker, “I will often set out with an idea, a set of characters. I’m not a person to put the little yellow Post-its all across one wall of my bedroom and plot out a story. I like to see where the road will lead – [an approach] which can lead to a lot of backtracking, revisions. But I’m not afraid of that. I welcome it. My biggest maxim is probably, ‘Whatever works.’” LaBute emphasizes that excitement and surprise are two of the most critical elements in writing screenplays. This would seem to work against an overly formulaic and predetermined approach to the material, which is why he tries not to “storyboard it out.” As he explains: “I want to be as excited [when writing it] as someone seeing it for the first time. The great hook in writing is for an audience to say, ‘What happens next?’ To continually say that from beginning to end. And I want that to happen to me as well.” Such a position emphasizes an important fact about screenwriting, namely, that writing a screenplay is a creative process of discovery rather than a mere application of rules.

Even though In the Company of Men is predicated on an unexpected and surprising plot twist, LaBute’s film works more as a character study, as Chad and Howard become immersed in a game of cat and mouse with their chosen prey, Christine, as well as with each other. The men represent two sides of the same coin, which is actually how LaBute describes them: “the ego and id of one person.” Which of them is the protagonist? Or are they both? Of the two, Chad is clearly the more dominant character, the one who pushes the story forward and makes things happen. But it is hard to discuss his character in terms of goals because Chad has a secret hidden agenda, and because his motivations never really change. The real surprise involving his character is precisely that there are no surprises – he, in fact, turns out to be as just as cynical and opportunistic as he appears. For this reason, it would be hard for a viewer to identify with him as a protagonist. In fact, he displays exactly the kind of negative qualities we expect from an antagonist. Howard, on the other hand, essentially remains an extremely weak but vulnerable character throughout the course of the film. He is clearly no match for Chad, especially on the romantic front, in terms of the competition for Christine. Nevertheless, Howard’s character does undergo a major change once he falls for her, and, as the clear underdog, he does manage to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the viewer – at least initially. On some level, though, Howard also lacks enough redeeming qualities to serve as the lone protagonist.

If neither Chad nor Howard seem to function as the sole protagonist in the story, perhaps they might be considered what Kristin Thompson would call “dual protagonists,”or an example of a Plural-protagonist because they share similar goals. But once Christine becomes involved, the very nature of the love triangle forces the two men into a fierce competition. This changes the situation, pushing the men to have contrary goals, even though neither Howard nor the viewer grasps Chad’s real intentions fully until the very end. For this reason, I would argue, that it probably makes more sense to view Chad and Howard as forming what Robert McKee calls a “Multiprotagonist.” In some sense, each of them serves as the other’s antagonist, not only in relation to the romance character, but also in the hyper-competitive world of the workplace.

As a combined Multiprotagonist, neither Chad nor Howard are particularly likeable, which runs directly counter to the advice found in the manuals. Chad, whose character LaBute establishes in the very first scene, is an angry suit. At the airport, he is rude and hostile to women who pass by laughing. Chad complains about being mistreated by women, but he also rails against people in the workplace. He describes the bosses as “bastards” and the young guys as “vultures” waiting to displace him from his job. Chad clearly knows how to push Howard’s buttons, as he discusses the threat posed by the new person at the office. Chad refers to him as “big guy,” in contrast to Howard, who is rather short. Chad also mentions that he’s an ex-baseball player, “a hell of a shortstop,” which takes on particular meaning later on when Howard fibs to Christine that he was on a baseball scholarship when he blew his arm out during sophomore year in college.

Baseball actually figures prominently in the film. A co-worker (the one Howard sends off to Montana for the holiday weekend) complains to Chad, “If I could throw a curve ball, I mean, a really good one – just that, nothing else, no education, nothing – none of this would matter.” Sports represents the idealized career for these men. As the same person puts it, “Play in the big leagues for maybe ten years, retire to Oahu.” For these yuppie jocks, the business world represents nothing more than a consolation prize for those who cannot make it in the truly privileged world of professional athletic competition.

The irony, of course, is that these men are actually never seen working at any point in the film. They are usually too busy telling sexist jokes, practicing their golf putting, eating, smoking, standing on line at the copier, or loitering in the bathroom. They make personal phone calls and do other forms of personal business, even slipping out to have sex with the secretaries on company time. Chad chews out the African-American intern, Keith, for chasing other interns around the break room and hanging out with the shipping clerks, but there is no difference between what the interns are doing and the actions of Chad and Howard. On the other hand, the women, such as Christine, are seen typing, and the ones who seem to be keeping the office operational. In fact, women are virtually nonexistent in the film other than Christine. They often appear only as disembodied voices in this otherwise male-inscribed world.

Chad warns Howard numerous times to “watch his back,” but Howard is too distracted by his own personal problems to pay much attention to what Chad is telling him. Chad is upfront with Howard about his own cynical value system: “I do not give a shit. Not about anybody. A family member. The job. None of it. Couldn’t care less . . . .” He shares that revelation with Howard early on in the film, but Howard ignores the warning. Later, when Chad humiliates the black intern by making him display his testicles, he explains, “Listen, you got a pair, the kind men are carrying around, practically wear ’em on your sleeve! ’S what business is all about . . . what’s sporting the nastiest sac of venom. And who is willing to use it.” Chad proves that he is clearly up to the task.

When Chad finds out from his co-worker, John, that Christine is deaf, he makes fun of her in an incredibly cruel-hearted way. Chad’s ridicule of a physically-challenged secretary would be considered despicable anywhere outside the office. But Chad expresses the same contempt for his co-workers as he does toward Christine. As he sees it, everyone is a prick, a bastard, a cocksucker, or a cunt. He rails against everyone inside the company. Chad acts very friendly towards John, one of the few other employees we meet, but he has nothing but scorn for him once he’s in the men’s room with Howard. Chad comments, “’S John Merrick, that’s the only thing I can think of, the whole time . . . I am sitting across from the fucking Elephant Man.”

LaBute does not really attempt to provide any psychological explanation for Chad’s behavior other than his gender. Chad says to Howard: “Let’s hurt somebody,” a line that LaBute credits with providing the starting point for the script. When Howard begs to know why Chad completely screwed him over at the end of the film, Chad tells him very cooly, “Because I could.” Chad is governed by power rather than feelings – it is a case of Darwinism, plain and simple. But there is a pathological aspect to his cruelty. This becomes even more apparent when he admits that he used Howard’s hotel room when he had sex with Christine in the hopes that Howard would find her there. When Chad hurts Christine by acknowledging that he’s been playing games with her, he immediately wants to know what she feels. And when Chad humiliates the young African-American intern by making him pull down his pants so he can gauge the size of his testicles, he asks him afterwards, “Alright, great . . . (beat) You feel okay?” At the end of the film, when Howard shows up at Chad’s new townhouse and they discuss the fact that Howard has told Christine about the game, Chad quizzes him, “So, how’d it feel? Hmm?”After he devastates Howard by acknowledging to him into what has actually transpired, Chad asks him once again, “So, how’s it feel, Howie? How’s it feel to really hurt someone?” Because he seems to feel nothing himself, Chad constantly needs to seek confirmation from his victims. The importance of the question is highlighted by the fact that it is actually the very first line of dialogue in the script.

Howard, of course, is not all that much different from Chad. We first see him in the bathroom, nursing a wound he received for making an inappropriate pass at a woman at the airport. Because Chad does not attempt to hide the fact that he is a horrible person, the viewer tends to have greater identification with Howard, at least initially. But there’s actually very little difference between the behavior of the two men, except that Howard can at least feel pain – he seems terrified of rejection – whereas Chad views it as a loss of control, the worst mistake any male could possibly make. Chad announces this very early on, “Never lose control. ’S the key, Howard, that is the total key to the universe. Trust me . . .” It is obvious right from the start, that Howard will be no match for Chad, who promptly manipulates him into going along with his plan. Chad appeals to a juvenile sense of comradeship as the bait to get Howard to conspire with him. This will be something they’ll always be able to look back on. It will always represent their personal triumph, no matter what insult or injury happens to them later in life.

Howard’s difficulties with women go much deeper than making inappropriate passes at women in the airport. As he walks down the corridor with Chad, he reveals his own insecurities involving rejection in his previous relationship with a woman named Melanie. The first time we glimpse Howard in the new job, he rants at his mother on the phone about Melanie. Although Melanie has resorted to calling his mother, Howard still refuses to deal with her – at one point, he even refers to Melanie as a “bitch.” But it is not until later in the film, in the jewelry store, that we get the truly ugly picture of their breakup when Howard has the jeweler clean and repair the ring he has forcibly taken back from her. Rather than being a victim who deserves our sympathy, this monologue reveals the fact that Howard has a physically abusive side. He also tries to use force with Christine in the car. As LaBute describes the action in the script: “He [Howard] slams the lock down with a free hand and lands nearly on top of her, holding her down. He tries to kiss her as she screams at him. He fails.” Christine tries to get away from him, but Howard becomes even more violent: “Suddenly HOWARD grabs her jaw in his hand, holding her as she fights to pull away.”

Howard does other nasty things. He asks the wrong woman out and then leaves her dangling once he finds out the mistake. He also lies to Christine about why he’s late for their date at the zoo. He tries to impress her the first time they go out by fabricating a story about being on a baseball scholarship in college. When Christine tries to stop him from proposing and confesses her love for Chad, Howard does not try to spare her feelings, but instead retaliates by saying some of the most hurtful things imaginable. Howard tells Christine that Chad loathes her: “He detests you and your pathetic “retard” voice . . . ’s what he calls it.” Even after this, Howard still attempts to pass himself off as the good guy, but what is patently obvious is that Howard considers Christine to be his inferior, and he tells her as much in no uncertain terms.

In contrast to the brash and arrogant Chad, Howard seems to suffer from both a lack of self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. When he tells Chad about his problems with Melanie, Howard reveals a tendency to become obsessed with women and an inability to deal with any form of rejection. This allows Chad to concoct the scheme that will eventually place Howard in a no-win competition with him for the attention of Christine. Chad uses Howard’s distraction with Christine in order to sabotage him in the workplace by failing to fax key documents at crucial points in the project. Howard’s pathetic attempt to provide business leadership also borders on the comical. In the one meeting that we observe, Howard not only confuses Jonestown with Jamestown, but when he tries to divide the workers into two teams, Chad quickly interjects, “I thought you wanted to do the projection thing.” After he ends up getting demoted, Howard attempts to reassert himself by venting to a colleague. The co-worker, however, deflates his anger, by asking, “What’re you talking about?” In fact, Howard falls apart shortly afterwards.

Besides the strength of its characterization, In the Company of Men works largely as a result of its energetic dialogue. Labute’s dialogue has a concise, constructed quality, which is masked by elements of realism. LaBute, in fact, refers to it as “. . . a kind of hyperreality, this kind of language that I’ve admired in certain playwrights where it sounds exactly like people, yet nothing like [the way] people talk.” There are shades of Pinter as well as David Mamet.

LaBute’s dialogue is not only continually shocking, but enormously funny. Chad, in particular, loves to hear himself talk, and true to his last name – Piercewell (an obvious sexual pun) – he launches into long, venomous monologues in which words become his main weapon of hatred and deceit. Chad, for instance, pretends to offer helpful professional guidance to a minority intern, but he is really threatened by what he perceives to be Keith’s privileged status within the company. By subsequently chewing Keith out, correcting his pronunciation and demanding to see the size of his testicles, Chad’s words belie his true intention in this situation, which is to use his power to humiliate the black intern in a an utterly brutal and sadistic way. Chad also peppers his conversation with strangely constructed bromides, such as the remark he makes to Howard about their game with Christine: “’S a serpentine road, we travel, this life . . . see where it takes us.”

In the Company of Men seems most indebted to sex, lies, and videotape in being able to capitalize on an unorthodox script that requires only a minimum number of locations and a small ensemble cast. By shooting on a shoestring budget and employing minimal camera work – alternating between medium and wide shots, and sustained long takes – as well as a pared-down mise-en-scene, LaBute is able to focus most of his attention on simply telling what amounts to a compelling story with a whopper of a twist. Although his study of white-male venom and deceit proved shocking and controversial when it was commercially released, In the Company of Men nevertheless grossed a respectable $3 million at the box office. While Hollywood tends to avoid controversy in its attempt to appeal to the widest audience possible, independent films are generally not forced to operate under such constraints. Even though LaBute’s film had a tendency to polarize audiences, as Sony Pictures realized, that also turned out to its major selling point. The subsequent success of In the Company of Men simply proved that mature audiences in the late 1990s had a strong appetite for more provocative fare than what was being provided by the major studios.

Posted 26 October, 2008

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