The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) actually causes us to rethink the beginning of the modern independent film movement. The Exiles has been compared by critics to John Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows (1957-59), but it seems even more related to Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959), especially in terms of its style and content. Thanks to sponsorship by Charles Burnett and Native-American writer Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals), the superb restoration of the film by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and its recent re-release by the good folks at Milestone Films, this landmark independent film is finally gaining the serious attention it deserves.

The film’s focus on automobiles, bars, gas stations, juke boxes, neon lights, and advertising recalls Robert Frank’s photographic essay, The Americans, first published in 1959. It doesn’t share the same “snapshot aesthetic” of Frank, but rather incongruously harkens back to the pictorialism of Walker Evans, giving it the photographic texture of an even earlier time period. Yet it presents a similar view of alienation and anomie as that of Robert Frank – a shared outsider perspective – by concentrating on a group of American Indians adrift in the urban landscape of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles during the Eisenhower Era. Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction of The Americans that Robert Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” The same could be said for Kent Mackenzie, but the difference is that The Exiles has languished in obscurity for nearly fifty years.

Mackenzie, who went to film school at USC, made the film over a three-year period. Despite being screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, The Exiles was unable to gain theatrical release. This should come as no surprise given the fact that Hollywood was a closed system, which made it virtually impossible for independents to get their work shown in commercial theaters that had union projectionists. MacKenzie made only two features in a brief career before passing away in 1980 at the age of fifty. His other film, Saturday Morning (1970), a cinéma vérité documentary about a teenage encounter group – a film I actually saw at the time – also had difficulty being released, but it eventually did receive very limited theatrical exhibition. Although Mackenzie thought of The Exiles as a “restaged” documentary in the poetic tradition of Robert Flaherty, it really seems more like a “plotless” narrative rooted in realism. In many ways, it’s exactly the type of cinema Jonas Mekas was actively promoting during this period through his lavish praise of the first version of Shadows, Pull My Daisy, and Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960).

There’s an ethnographic quality to The Exiles. Mackenzie, an outsider to the Native-American subculture he obsessively was documenting, reportedly hung out with the film’s main participants over this extended period of time. He involved them creatively in the project, followed them around and recorded their behavior and conversations. Much of the dialogue in The Exiles was not recorded synch sound, but later dubbed in post-production. It also includes voiceover narration and a prologue containing historical photographs of American Indians by Edward Curtis, who attempted to document their traditional life style before it disappeared, providing a context for the displacement we see in the film, which was partially the result of a voluntary government plan, The Urban Indian Relocation Program, that paid Native Americans to relocate to large cities.

The dubbed dialogue, voiceover narration, and deliberate restaging of events for the camera could be criticized as heavy-handed techniques that detract from the authenticity of The Exiles. There are several scenes – the card game, for instance – where the camera seems to be on the wrong person in order to disguise the lack of synchronous dialogue, but these potential flaws are minor when compared to Mackenzie’s otherwise brilliant reliance on pure visual storytelling. Although the credits on the film indicate that it was “written, produced, and directed by Mackenzie,” at least according to John Morrill, one of the film’s three cinematographers: “There was never any script.” The resulting film is a visually stunning “twelve-hour” portrait of down-and-out American Indians, who seem not so different from the beat characters who populate Pull My Daisy.

The beats celebrated the social outcasts or underdogs of society, and no one could be more marginal than the likes of Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds – the three principal characters Mackenzie chooses to follow in The Exiles. Ironically, the men seem to share the same sexist values as their fellow white hipsters, especially in their concern with being free from responsibility and predilection for male camaraderie. The women – much like Milo’s wife in Pull My Daisy – are merely there to administer to the needs of their husbands and children, to suffer physical abuse or dole out cash, while the guys get to carouse with friends and engage in all-night drinking binges. Despite the fact that this sobering portrait is based on a painful stereotype involving alcoholism, Mackenzie’s empathy for his characters manages to trump political correctness in this instance. Sherman Alexie has defended the film as an important document of a neglected aspect of Native-American urban culture. He told Dennis Lim: “It’s a little problematic in that it’s a white guy’s movie about us. But in learning how the film was made, I think people will discover it was truly collaborative. The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.”

The film opens with a sustained drum beat over Edward Curtis photographs. The narrator solemnly intones: “Once the American Indian lived in the ordered freedom of his own culture. Then in the nineteenth century, the white man confined him within the boundaries of the tribal reservation. The old people remembered the past. They witnessed great changes. Many of their children stayed on the reservation. But others of a new generation wandered into the cities.” The initial narration concludes that the film “reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but typical of many.” As much a city portrait of downtown Los Angeles as one of an American Indian subculture trying to survive within it, we first meet the pensive and pregnant Yvonne as she shops at a public market. Yvonne is happy that she’ll at least get to have a child she wants even if the rest of her life, especially her marriage to Homer, is already imbued with a sense of resignation and disappointment.

Yvonne’s arrival home with the groceries is met with utter silence by Homer and his friend, who sit reading comic books and listening to rock music, while another guy sleeps on the bed. As she makes dinner for the men, Yvonne conjectures: “If I hadn’t met him, I probably would have been all right maybe at what I wanted. I’ve tried to be a good wife. I did everything that I thought it would satisfy him like cooking for him when he comes home and ironing his clothes. I always have his clothes ready for him in case he wants to go somewhere.” Also a political commentary on the situation of women in general in the 1950s, The Exiles is extremely sympathetic to their plight. Homer drops Yvonne off at the movies, but, as she complains and we later observe for ourselves, he often neglects to pick her up.

Homer provides his own narration by explaining that bars provide excitement and an opportunity to “get in a fight or something.” He discusses being a high school dropout, coinciding with his starting to drink, which accelerates after he gets discharged from the military. As Homer reads a letter from home, there’s a dissolve from a snapshot of his folks to his actual family in Arizona, providing a striking contrast to his current life in Los Angeles as he waits in front of a liquor store for his friend to buy more booze. Homer later claims, “Truthfully, man, I think . . . white people got more troubles than the Indians do, you know. They usually have . . . something on their mind all the time. My people mostly roamed all over the place two, three hundred years ago, before the white man came in. I’d rather be in that time than I would, you know, in this time now.”

Homer and his buddies still roam like their ancestors, but it’s to each other houses to get cash from their wives, gamble at cards, pick up women in bars, and go for joy rides in their cars. In an extended scene at a gas station, Tommy puts down straight life. He says: “I figure a person who lives a regular life lives in a worse world than I do because they want to live the way I do, but they just can’t do it.” Tommy later says, “When I’m in jail, I don’t worry about it because I can do time. I mean, time is just time to me. If I’m doing it outside, so I can do it inside.” When a woman named Mary takes too long in the bathroom, Tommy takes off without her. It says everything about his character. There’s a great scene at the Columbine Bar that epitomizes Homer. As music blares from the juke box, sloshed drunks with craggy faces sit around in stingy brims, and a gay white guy takes to the dance floor, there’s an underlying subtext of violence that finally explodes when Homer inevitably provokes a fistfight. This scene cuts to images of Yvonne looking in store windows as she’s forced to walk home alone from the movies and we hear her discuss her broken dreams: “I used to pray every night before I went to bed and ask for something that I wanted, and I never got it, or it seems like my prayers were never answered. So I just gave up.”

Although Yvonne remains on the straight path, her disillusionment makes her at least vulnerable, even as she reaffirms her resolve not to become like the others. She confesses, “Well, I stopped going to church and all that already, but I haven’t started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet. No, that will never come for me.” Yvonne hopes that Homer will change once she has the baby, but we sense that she knows in her heart this is unlikely. Instead of going home, Yvonne visits her friend Marilyn and sleeps over there to forget her loneliness. After the bars close, Homer heads up to Hill X, a haunt where American Indians go to drum, to sing traditional songs, and drink. Homer reflects on the tribal medicine man who used to chant all night when someone on the reservation got sick. Although some people dismiss the healing power of this as “fake,” Homer insists he’s seen it work. A huge fight breaks out among the men over a woman, who eventually pulls a shawl over her head and watches the night lights of the city from inside a convertible. The night landscape of downtown Los Angeles dissolves into morning, as church bells ring. Cable cars ascend and descend on “Angel’s Flight” next to the tunnel, while Yvonne and her friend are fast asleep. Homer and the other drunken revelers return. Yvonne wakes up and watches the three men and two women out the window as they stumble along and finally disappear down the street on the way to her house.

With the passing of time, Mackenzie’s The Exiles has become a memory piece – an ode to a place that no longer exists. There’s an irony in the fact that the government first encouraged the Native Americans to relocate from reservations to poor urban neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill only to bulldoze them soon afterwards under the guise of urban renewal, adding another layer of exile to those already exiled in their own country. Shot on 35mm, running a mere 72 minutes and completed the same year as the infamous First Statement of the New American Cinema Group in New York, The Exiles now takes its place among the seminal films of the independent film movement, alongside works by Morris Engel, John Cassavetes, Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Ron Rice, Lionel Rogosin, and Jonas Mekas. Except for a handful of scholars and cinephiles, who knew until now that one of the most important beat films featured American Indians in Los Angeles?

Seeing The Exiles makes us view other indie films, such as Charles Burnett’s recently restored masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977) – a work that also documents a minority neighborhood in Los Angeles by utilizing poetic realism, non-professional actors, and visual storytelling – in an entirely new light. The unfortunate neglect of Mackenzie’s The Exiles had consequences. As Burnett explains in an interview in indieWIRE: He [Mackenzie] was ten years ahead of me. I started in the late sixties and he started in the late fifties. He had already worked out his aesthetics, but I have only heard about him recently. It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting.”

Special note to local readers of this blog: Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles will screen on Saturday, September 20 at 7:30 PM at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Mark your calendars!

Posted 26 August, 2008

I, a Man

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

Andy Warhol’s first deliberate effort to make a commercial sexploitation film was I, a Man (1967–68 ), which was supposed to feature both Nico and Jim Morrison, but Morrison backed out at the last minute – possibly because Warhol wanted him to have sexual intercourse on-screen – and he was replaced by an actor friend of Morrison’s named Tom Baker. In I, a Man, Baker attempts to have sex with eight different women: Cynthia May, Stephanie Graves, Ingrid Superstar, Nico, Ultra Violet, Ivy Nicholson, Valerie Solanas, and Bettina Coffin. The scenes are separated by shots of Baker reflectively smoking a cigarette. It’s a very simple premise – one that certainly fits the notion of a sexploitation film by presenting an opportunity to display a number of different female bodies, while also being a test of Baker’s seductive power. In terms of the casting, I, a Man featured Warhol superstars: Nico, Ingrid Superstar, and Ultra Violet. In addition, Valerie Solanas, the lesbian author of the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) and Ivy Nicholson would add unpredictable elements to the film.

Who knew at the time that the inclusion of Valerie Solanas would guarantee that I, a Man would become an important historical document whatever anyone thought about the artistic merits of the film. Yet, as strange as it might seem within the context of a sexploitation film, the scene with Valerie, in many ways, epitomizes the real power and energy of Warhol’s cinema. Valerie’s hatred of men stemmed from her own personal history. She reportedly was sexually abused by her father as a child and resorted to prostitution as an economic means of survival. In the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie writes with a venomous rage, mixed with trenchant humor, about the inherent inferiority of the male species: “Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” She talks about females “who’d sink a shiv into a man’s chest or ram an ice pick up his asshole as soon as look at him.”

Set on a stairwell, rather than an apartment, which suggests a potential site of sexual molestation, Tom Baker’s attempt to coerce Valerie to let him into her apartment bristles with subtext. Even if you didn’t know anything about Valerie, there’s a creepy quality to the scene, but, Warhol, of course, is interested in creating a situation that has built-in dramatic conflict. The two characters have opposite goals. Baker wants to get inside her apartment, whereas Valerie wants to prevent this at all cost. Given her personal background and his ostensible desire to screw, it has the potential to develop into a combustible situation. That’s why its recreation in Mary Harron’s film can never measure up to what Warhol managed to stage in I, a Man.

The scene begins with a pulsating stairwell that been lit to look like a German Expressionist set, with the verticals suggesting prison bars. Valerie comes up the stairs followed by Tom Baker. When they arrive at the door to her apartment, he asks, “You got the key?” Valerie searches her pockets, has second thoughts, and suddenly asks, “Hey, what am I doing up here with a finko like you?” A strobe cut restages it on the landing just below, but we hear Valerie repeat the last part of her dialogue. She then says, “I can’t figure it out – you’re a fink.” This makes even Baker laugh. He responds, “You don’t even know me.” They talk about the business of his squishy ass. He wants to go inside, but Valerie indicates that her roommate is there, and adds that she’s squishier than him. Valerie asks him, “But what else have you got?” He says, “I don’t talk about those things, baby.” Baker suggests that they can explore each others bodies, but Valerie quite rightly insists, “Look, I’ve got the upper hand. We must not forget that.”

Valerie squeezes Baker’s ass once more in an attempt to get rid of him, but he trails after her. At the landing, Tom says, “Listen, Valerie, just stop here for a second. I just want to see something.” They disappear into the shadows, but he has his hands on her. Valerie, says, “Hey, come on, man. I mean, like this is rape. I don’t dig that shit.” Baker takes off his shirt, while Valerie struggles, “Hey, come on, man! Goddamn it. Hey, come on! What’s this shit, man?” She protests, “My roommate’s very jealous. She’s possessive. She’s very possessive.” After strobe cuts, the two smoke cigarettes in a different location on the stairs. Valerie claims not to like his “tits” and they argue about them. Baker finally says, “What is it in your head that you don’t dig about men?”

In the strobe cuts that follow, Valerie waves off the camera and then later smiles for a very brief visible moment – a decidedly mixed message that matches the bizarre dynamics of the situation. Alluding to the SCUM Manifesto, Baker asks her, “What is it some philosophy you have in life that you don’t . . . ?” Valerie, however, turns the tables on him by inquiring whether Baker likes men. He indicates that he hasn’t “balled” men since he was young. He argues that, in pursuing women, he’s following his “instincts.” Valerie responds that she’s also following hers, and asks pointedly, “Why should my standards be lower than yours?”

Since they both share the same instincts, Baker suggests a possible threesome with her roommate, but Valerie indicates that her roommate wouldn’t like him. After strobe cuts, the camera moves closer to Valerie, as her face, especially her eyes, moves in and out of the light. Baker tries to block her way, but Valerie claims not to live there and, in a stunning gender reversal, says, “I want to go home. I want to beat my meat.” She pushes past him, and, in another shot, Valerie asks the crew whether she should go all the way down the stairs, as she heads out and the scene ends.

Baker claims that he never felt that Valerie posed a personal threat. Instead, he says, “I found her intelligent, funny, almost charming, and very, very frightened.” Baker never explains why Valerie seemed frightened, but it’s clear that he has been given enough information about Valerie to push the scene to the limits – the hint of possible rape, the allusions to the SCUM Manifesto and the biological basis for her sexual politics – in order to make Valerie feel threatened and uncomfortable. Warhol listed Valerie in the published credits under a silly pseudonym “Valeria Solanis.” Although Valerie reportedly was humiliated when she saw the actual film, she nevertheless wrote Warhol a postcard dated August 25, 1967: “Dear Andy, I’ve been noticing gross misspellings of my name in articles & reviews connected with ‘I, A Man.’ Please note correct spelling.” In the true Warholian fashion, even Valerie appreciated the value of publicity.

Note: For a detailed analysis of I, a Man and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 6 August, 2008

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Todd Solondz, a NYU film school grad like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, signed a three-picture deal with Fox and an additional three-picture deal with Columbia following his highly successful thesis short, Schatt’s Last Shot (1985). A few years later, he made his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), an ill-conceived comedy in which Solondz plays a young Woody Allen-like misfit, on a budget of a million dollars. The film was a flop and the experience so traumatic and unsatisfying that it caused Solondz to drop out of filmmaking for several years. The script for his second directorial effort, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), was written initially in 1989, but only shot years later as an independent production after a friend helped raise the financing. A suburban drama that captures the humiliation and abuse endemic to early adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. The film grossed $5 million domestically when it was released commercially by Sony Pictures Classics, turning Solondz into one of the hottest young American independent directors.

Welcome to the Dollhouse tells the story of twelve-year-old Dawn Wiener, aka “Wienerdog,” (Heather Matarazzo) the most hated girl in middle school. At school she’s tormented by the other students, while her home life as the middle child is not much better. Her older brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), is the consummate high-school computer nerd, obsessed with padding his college resume and having a successful music band. Dawn’s eight-year-old younger sister, Missy, a prancing ballerina in a pink leotard and tutu, has already pirouetted her way to being her parents’ doted-upon favorite. Dawn falls in love with Steve Rodgers, the handsome heart-throb who briefly becomes the lead singer in her brother’s garage band. But Dawn’s plans to seduce him fall hopelessly short, and also complicate her relationship with Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton), a trouble-making classmate with violent rape fantasies. In the midst of Dawn’s awkward attempts to experience sex, Missy gets kidnapped by a neighbor, who turns out to be a pedophile. The family barely notices when Dawn runs away to New York City, especially once Missy is returned, unharmed. As lead Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote at the time of the film’s release, Welcome to the Dollhouse is “the funniest, bleakest view of suburban adolescence ever produced in this country.”

Welcome to the Dollhouse is, first of all, a very short film, even for a comedy. The published script contains a mere 83 pages. Dawn, who desperately wants to be popular, is the film’s clear protagonist. The first turning point (26 minutes) occurs when she decides she wants to have sex with Steve. Like her brother’s calculated efforts to have Steve front his band, Dawn believes that sex with the horny Steve will increase her popularity, a plan she develops while talking about him with Mark. After Steve tells Dawn that her club is for retards, this basically puts an end to Dawn’s fantasy.

Dawn’s decision not to give Missy her mother’s message, which leads to Missy being kidnapped by Mr. Kasdan, serves as the second turning point. This happens at 66 minutes. In between, Dawn smashes the videotape of the anniversary party, which includes humiliating footage of Missy knocking Dawn into the kiddie pool, and the police remove Brandon from school. The final act largely concerns Dawn’s attempt to run off to New York and her desperate bid to become loved by her parents and everyone else. It culminates in her “thank you” speech to the school assembly, where Dawn manages to get through it, despite being heckled by the other students. Her consolation is the advice Mark gives her about junior high school: “All of junior high school sucks. High school’s better; it’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.” If this act segmentation is accurate, this breaks the 84 minute film into a first act of 26 minutes, a second act of 40 minutes, and a short third act of 18 minutes.

What is unusual about Welcome to the Dollhouse is not its structure but its unusually dark tone. Like suburbia itself, the film’s conventional structure masks a more subversive element, which involves its depiction of very taboo subject matter. That Welcome to the Dollhouse’s most tender moment should be initiated by Brandon’s rape attempt at knife point serves as one of the film’s major ironies. Welcome to the Dollhouse presents the same skewed view of youth and their dysfunctional world as River’s Edge (1987), only the setting has switched to middle school and the New Jersey suburbs. Despite a strong comedic element, Welcome to the Dollhouse is also disturbing, even though it contains no graphic sex, violence, or nudity. At the heart of the film is twelve-year-old Dawn’s obsessive desire to have sex with the handsome, sexually-experienced lead singer of her brother’s band — an idea that gets reinforced by pedophilic content of the songs Steve sings. The very first time Dawn hears Steve practice with Mark’s garage band, he sings “Sweet Candy,” with the lyrics: “I’m taking candy from my baby/ Sweet candy from my baby/ I know you’re daddy’s girl but it don’t worry me/ Won’t you give me some sweet candy.” The title of the film comes from another song Mark’s band plays, which has similar overtones. 

Solondz presents pedophilia as the suburban norm. It is certainly an element in Mr. and Mrs. Wiener’s doting fixation on their dancing ballerina youngest daughter, Missy, as well as shared by their married neighbor, Mr. Kasdan, who dances happily with Missy on his shoulders at the anniversary party, only to kidnap her later and hold her in an underground room. Mary Ellen Moriarty, a fifteen-year-old student, gives a testimonial to the school assembly about how her life was ruined by innocently talking to a handsome older stranger. And Ginger Friedman, Dawn’s precocious classmate, who’s already been sexually involved with Steve, now makes out with twenty-year-old biker types on parked cars. Even Mark composes songs about incest and pedophilia for his band.

In the absence of any sort of sane parental guidance, Welcome to the Dollhouse shows that kids manage to create their own world. They invent a whole language based on crude insults, as well as mores based on power and their own confused and distorted sense of sexuality. Even Dawn, the consummate outcast, dishes out her own share of abuse whenever she can. Like the abused Troy in one of the early scenes in the film, Dawn spews the same name-calling insults to those who are weaker, especially her sister, Missy, and her only real friend, Ralphy, for whom she seems to reserve the greatest contempt. The film shows the intimate workings of this early adolescent world where brief moments of tenderness or compassion are merely setups for even greater cruelty.

Dawn Wiener’s fate is largely determined by her phallic last name. No matter what she does, she will never be able to live it down. As long as she’s an adolescent, she will be plagued by this penile association. As the middle child in the Wiener family, birth order and genetics have also largely determined her fate. She is not smart like her older brother, Mark, nor does she share the good looks that will save Missy. Dawn spends the entire film trying to understand the secret behind “popular.” But no matter what she does, acceptance and popularity somehow manage to elude her.

Dawn literally doesn’t have a clue as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. This is perfectly understandable given the conflicted messages she receives not only from peers, but from her parents and teachers as well. When Dawn sticks up for the downtrodden Troy, he immediately turns on her in order to avoid further stigma. When Dawn complains about Brandon copying her test, Mrs. Grissom arbitrarily punishes both of them. The teacher also berates Dawn for being an undignified “grade grubber.” The situation at home is not much better. Dawn calls Missy a “lesbo” for bothering her during dinner, which results in Dawn being punished for not apologizing and telling her sister that she loves her. Dawn also gets punished later for refusing to tear down her Special People’s Clubhouse. Her parents withhold her dessert as punishment, which takes on a sadistic quality when they allow Mark and Missy to split Dawn’s piece of chocolate cake and eat it right in front of her.

Dawn’s reaction is to mimic the behavior she sees and hears around her. She calls Missy a “lesbo” because that is what Brandon has called her. She calls Ralphy a “faggot” when she’s angry because that’s what she heard Brandon call him. But she blurts out other inappropriate remarks as well. For instance, in one of the rape scenes with Brandon, he asks her whether she wants to smoke. She answers, “No. I just don’t feel like it. But I think marijuana should be legalized.” The fact that Dawn expresses an opinion about the legalization of marijuana in this context is, of course, ludicrous. Perhaps she blurts it out due to fear and nervousness, but whatever the case, her inappropriate remark provokes Brandon to call her a “cunt.” Dawn’s reply – “I don’t mean to be a cunt” – is both funny as well as painfully sad in its naiveté.

Mark, on the other hand, believes he has everything all figured it out. Being a nerd at least allows him to cope, which is more than it is possible to say about Dawn. Mark’s rigidity has allowed him to reduce the complexity of the world to a simple formula. He’s become adept at computers and maintains the single focus of trying to get into the best college. Mark sees things only in terms of his college resume. The truth of the matter is that he’s actually not much more socially adept than Dawn — at least based on his interactions with Steve and his girlfriend, Naomi. When Dawn asks him if he ever thinks about girls, he has a pat answer: “What, are you kidding? I want to get into a good school. My future’s, like, important. And besides, none of the girls at school are that pretty anyway.” 

The other interesting character in Welcome to the Dollhouse is Brandon McCarthy. When we first encounter Brandon, he and his friends force Troy into admitting he’s a faggot. Brandon has become the class bully because he’s been left back in school, which is why he tries to copy Dawn’s test answers, even though she’s not a very good student either. Brandon and his friends also pick on Dawn and Ralphy at the convenience store, but Dawn has her own list of insults to return, including calling Brandon a “retard.” This label causes Brandon to threaten to rape Dawn after school. In the rape scene, Brandon actually reveals to Dawn that his brother has a disabilty:

BRANDON: You know I’ve got a brother?
DAWN: No. I never knew that. What grade’s he in?
BRANDON: He’s not in any grade. He’s retarded.
Dawn rises, starts walking over toward Brandon.
DAWN: I’m sorry.
BRANDON: There’s nothing to be sorry about. He’s a tough kid. He could beat you up if he wanted.
DAWN: I’m sorry – I mean . . . yeah.

The word “retard” has a special meaning for Brandon because his personal experience with mental retardation has altered his understanding of this word as an insult. Brandon is also sensitive to being labeled a retard since he’s been left back in school. Brandon freely uses other insulting words, such as “faggot” and “lesbo,” but not “retard.” When Dawn later visits Brandon’s house, she actually meets his brother, Tommy, who offers her a doughnut before being whisked away by Mr. McCarthy. The experience now personalizes the word for her as well.

Brandon’s brother and his impoverished background (which we only glimpse toward the end of the film) allow us to see Brandon’s more sympathetic side. Dawn also sees this aspect of him when she overhears Brandon ask the popular Cookie why he wasn’t invited to her swim party. Cookie’s reasoning is as arbitrary as Mrs. Grissom’s. She tells Brandon that there are an even number of boys and girls, and that this symmetry would be violated if he came. His response is to try to bribe her by giving her his cookie from lunch. But Cookie dismisses his offering: “But Brandon . . . this didn’t even cost anything,” which points to the fact that Brandon’s class background makes him just as much of a social outcast as Dawn.

Solondz’s reliance on black comedy in Welcome to the Dollhouse allows him to create vivid character portraits in a short amount of time. Like the best satiric sketches on Saturday Night Live, Solondz works with certain easily recognizable types, which he pushes to extremes for comedic effect. His characters are highly stylized rather than realistically rendered, recalling the exaggerated quirkiness of Lane and Feck from River’s Edge. But Solondz’s ironic characterizations are much funnier, which provides the cover for him to flip-flop continually between serious emotional drama and total farce.

Solondz’s own strengths as a filmmaker have to do largely with his substantial talents as a screenwriter, especially his knack for being able to create memorable original characters such as Dawn Wienerdog. Solondz’s films privilege script and performance over style, which is hardly surprising for someone who works mainly in comedy. His mischievous sense of deadpan humor restored a strong element of entertainment to an independent tradition that downplayed such narrative pleasure largely because of its tainted associations with commercialism and Hollywood. That a major studio would refuse to distribute his next film, Happiness (1998), only goes to prove that Solondz’s vision still remains, on some very fundamental level, far too troubling to be considered mainstream.

Posted 30 June, 2008

Mister Lonely

It’s a sad comment on the state of indie film distribution and exhibition that most viewers have had to wait an entire year before seeing some of the films that played at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, in particular, Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007). Korine’s first feature in eight years opened theatrically yesterday through IFC First Take and is currently available on cable through VOD.

When asked about the commercial prospects for Mister Lonely, Korine gave his usual tongue-in-cheek response: “I remember thinking Gummo would be embraced by the public in much the same way as Bambi was when it first came out. I am always wrong about such things.” Korine has actually received more positive press than ever before – generally favorable reviews in the New York Times and Village Voice. His picture also graces the cover of the latest issue of Filmmaker, which features an informative interview with Korine by Michael Tully. In the intervening years, Gummo (1997) has been grudgingly acknowledged for the brilliant piece of filmmaking it is – as if anyone has forgotten the venomous attacks the film engendered upon release. The inclusion of Gummo in my book on independent screenwriting was in some ways a critical provocation – an effort to describe the associational, non-causal structure of the film – in the face of such hostility.

Much has been made of Korine’s substance-abuse problems and long road to recovery, suggesting that Mister Lonely presents a poignant, more mature side of the once bad-boy filmmaker. Korine’s personal breakdown, stint in rehabilitation, and subsequent comeback have been mentioned in virtually every article that appeared prior to the film’s release. And indeed it does seem relevant to Korine’s twin story of unrequited love between two celebrity impersonators and the faith of a group of nuns in their ability to fly. Sadly, both love and faith fail to save these characters from “a world that’s patiently waiting to take us away.”

Celebrity status came early to Korine. The self-taught filmmaker wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids while a nineteen-year-old skateboarder. He made Gummo at twenty-three, an amazing accomplishment that was recognized by notable filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog, Gus Van Sant, and Bernardo Bertolucci, but not by most critics and moviegoers. Korine’s smart-aleck put-ons in interviews turned much of the media establishment against him. His appearances on David Letterman, while now staples on YouTube, were a form of exploitation, taking advantage of a young artist who made the fatal mistake of letting all the attention go to his head. Speaking about this, he told Dennis Lim, “It’s one thing to understand it intellectually, but another to live through it.”

Korine hasn’t lost his ability to embellish personal events in his life. In an interview with Lim in last Sunday’s New York Times, he talks about a fisherman’s wife walking an “invisible” dog and comments, “I mounted this leash on the wall and I heard it bark. I swear to you.” You have to admit it’s pretty comical when street magician David Blaine ends up being cast in the role of the straight man. In an interview with indieWIRE, Eric Kohn asks Korine whether he fabricated the story about “traveling with an Amazonian tribe called the Malingerers and searching for a mythological fish.” Korine answers, “Of course, this is the truth. In fact, I’m planning another trip back there soon. One of the members just gave birth to a twelve-pound baby with a fully grown tooth, and I am the godfather. Apparently, the child has been given my name.” Not since Andy Warhol, has anyone used the celebrity interview for such subversive ends.

Reportedly made for $9 million, and partially financed by French fashion designer Agnès b, Mister Lonely sounds even crazier than it actually is. A lonely Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) runs into a Marilyn Monroe wannabe (Samantha Morton) in a Paris café. She impulsively invites him to a Scotland commune of other impersonators – “a place where everyone is famous” – where she lives with her husband Charlie Chaplin and daughter, Shirley Temple. Other impersonators residing there include: Madonna, Sammy Davis Junior, Abe Lincoln, Buckwheat, James Dean, the Three Stooges. the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, and one storybook character, Little Red Riding Hood. Set up as a utopian refuge, problems soon arise. The sheep wind up getting a livestock disease and have to be slaughtered. Chaplin becomes jealous over Marilyn’s obvious affections for Michael – she hugs him in the swimming hole – and becomes extremely abusive toward her. Marilyn tells him, “You know Charlie, sometimes when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplin.” The impersonators decide to put on a talent show, which flops, leaving them all distraught. The situation with Marilyn ends in tragedy, causing Michael to return to Paris, where he abandons his life as an impersonator.

Korine creates another parallel story line involving a priest named Father Umbrillo (played by Werner Herzog), and a group of blue-robed nuns in Panama. Umbrillo is as much a dictator as Chaplin. In an early improvised scene, he scolds a poor man who turns up at the airport each day with flowers for his wife, who has left him. Umbrillo insists that the man admit his sins and repent, reducing him to tears. While airlifting food to a village, a nun suddenly falls out of the small plane – a truly dazzling sequence that by itself would make the film worth seeing. The subsequent shots of the nun falling through the air, coupled with the eerie sound of the wind, makes it seem as if we’ve suddenly entered a dream. The sound cuts out at one point; the nun prays, and a miracle occurs, as she eventually lands safely. Even her stagger upon trying to walk conveys the intensity of the experience, which far exceeds its seeming reference to popular culture. The plot thread involving flying nuns mirrors and reinforces the main plot with the impersonators.

Like many young independent filmmakers, Korine has an ambivalent relationship toward the script (which he co-wrote with his brother Avi). He told Tully: “I guess I have the script as just an outline, but the script is just words on paper – it’s just a start, a jumping-off point, at least for me. Everything is about the feel and about creating an environment. What I try to do, and what I’ve always tried to do, is, in some ways, mimic [the characters’] story [in the filmmaking]. Create a kind of universe. These characters are like chemicals, and you want to take those chemicals, put them in a bottle, shake them up, and then document the explosion.” Later in the same interview, Korine reiterates his lack of interest in straight narrative: “I’m starting to realize that when you play with narrative, or conventions of storytelling, it upsets a certain kind of person. Which I understand, you know, because you become interested in watching things with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things that don’t necessarily shift in tone. But I don’t really make those types of movies.”

The types of characters and situations toward which Korine gravitates involve incongruities. You don’t have to look beyond Gummo’s Bunny Boy – a skinny, androgynous skateboarder with large pink rabbit ears – to find a more striking example. Mister Lonely begins and ends with a shot of the Michael Jackson impersonator. He wears a surgical mask and rides a clown bike in slow motion with a stuffed monkey with wings attached to the vehicle. This scene becomes emblematic of the film, but there are many other examples. For instance, Jackson performs to rap music in an old-age home, exhorting the elderly, “Don’t die. Live forever.” At the commune, James Dean hangs out with Little Red Riding Hood. As he rides a pony, Buckwheat, who sports a gigantic Afro, expresses his love of chicken breasts – “naked women” and “naked chicken.” The Pope proposes getting drunk for the sake of the soon-to-be-slaughtered sheep. He and the Queen later share a bed. The foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln blames the Three Stooges for the problems they’re having in setting up the talent show. He later can’t understand why the Stooges should go on stage before Madonna. A group of them decide that the Pope stinks, leaving Buckwheat to wash his back in an outdoor bathtub. When the Queen appears to speak following their performance, Korine makes her look more like the Infant of Prague, which is exactly the kind of silly joke that’s at the heart of Korine’s sense of humor.

Just as Korine employs Ron Orbison’s “Crying” to express the sadness of the dead cat Foot Foot in Gummo, he uses Bobby Vinton’s “Mister Lonely” as another pop song to convey the tragic feelings of estrangement felt by both the Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, which they’re unable to bridge. That Korine would use Michael Jackson as a lead character is risky in and of itself these days. But it shows that Korine genuinely identifies with Jackson’s desire to stay a child forever and never grow up. When Michael Jackson tells his agent of his desire to quit being an impersonator, he counters, “Why do you want to be like everyone else. They’re all miserable.”

In a celebrity culture, ordinary folks are miserable because only fame really matters. Most people are rendered insignificant otherwise, and the culture makes us want to be other than ourselves, which is precisely what the Michael Jackson impersonator says in voiceover at the beginning of the film. Korine tackles issues of personal identity head on in Mister Lonely, which is best expressed in the lyrics of the title song: “I’ve been forgotten, yeah, forgotten, Oh how I wonder how is it I failed.” It’s hard not to read this and the entire film as a personal statement. Who could imagine Korine would make a film that is so naked and heartfelt that it has the raw emotional feel of a suicide note. And if you allow yourself to succumb to its considerable magic – thanks largely to the sensitive and spirited performances of both Luna and Morton – it might even leave you a bit teary-eyed.

Posted 3 May, 2008

In the City of Sylvia

I first stumbled upon the work of José Luis Guerín last summer at the Venice Biennale, where his installation Women We Don’t Know was shown in the Spanish pavilion. It happened to be one of the first things I saw in Venice, and I later regretted not being able to spend enough time with it. David Bordwell mentioned In the City of Sylvia (2007) on his blog when he saw Guerín’s feature at the Vancouver Film Festival and later wrote a brilliant and very detailed analysis involving the film’s use of point-of-view shots. As a result, I looked forward to catching the work when it played recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival. There were many extraordinary films at this year’s festival, including Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life and Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, but the most rigorously formal one turned out to be In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia).

In the City of Sylvia is a story about a young artist who comes to Strasbourg, checks into a hotel, scopes out the women at outdoor cafes and then proceeds to follow one of them through the streets of the city. The film is highly abstract and completely obsessive. It’s about observing women and scrutinizing human gestures, about images and sounds rather than plot and dialogue (of which there is very little). Guerín is interested in an observational cinema that blurs the lines between narrative, documentary, and avant-garde practice. There’s a structural aspect to the film, reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman (who was herself influenced by American structural film), in which repetition becomes an important element. Certain key locations reoccur several times. As the narrative progresses, peripheral characters or their “traces” also reappear – an African street peddler who wears an umbrella hat, a Pakistani flower vendor, a female street person who sprawls on the sidewalk, and a young woman who bums cigarettes. Drinks repeatedly are dropped or spilled in cafes. Images are reflected by mirrors and glass, which will be thematically reinforced later on by the lyrics of a Debbie Harry song. Like Ackerman or Warhol, Guerín includes what would be considered extraneous in most other narrative films.

Scenes in In the City of Sylvia represent chunks of time in which aspects other than the narrative are given equal weight. For instance, the opening scene in the hotel room cuts to someone running down a street where we see a sign for the Hotel Patricia. The young protagonist walks out of the hotel and starts down the narrow street. He stops and checks a map, then changes direction and comes toward us. The shot continues as a bicyclist does the same, and two children, who speak English, head in the opposite direction, followed by a flower peddler who hobbles down the street after them, while strollers and a bicyclist cross in a perpendicular direction at the base of the street. Guerín often holds the shot beyond its point of narrative interest. After the young artist decides to shadow a woman in a burgundy dress, we watch the waitress wipe the table and a trolley move through the background. Later, after the woman and protagonist pass a homeless woman, she tosses a bottle across the street. It rolls past the bottom of the frame, while the rattling sound continues after it disappears, emphasizing Guerín’s interest in the interplay between on- and off-screen space.

The film’s opening scene cues us to Guerín’s more formal concerns. A title indicates “first night.” The light changes during a course of the shot of a hotel room. We see a still life consisting of a map, hotel key, a pencil, and a coaster for “Les Aviateurs.” We hear the sound of cars. In another shot, the still life expands to include fruit, an alarm clock, and sketchpad. Leaves sway outside the window; church bells ring. A young man, who has long straggly hair and wears a vest (Xavier Lafitte), sits in bed. He seems lost in his thoughts or concentrating on something. Sounds of traffic and chirping birds can be heard from outside. The young man remains poised with his pencil, then begins to write feverishly in the notebook. He gets up and moves offscreen. A maid asks whether she can make up the room, causing the scene to cut abruptly. After leaving the hotel, the protagonist heads to an outdoor café. He tries to start a conversation with a woman who reads a book at a nearby table, but she refuses to acknowledge him. A waitress brings coffee, but he causes her to spill it, as the scene cuts to blackness.

After a title that indicates, “second night,” we see shadows cast on the walls of his hotel room as the young man lies in bed. The scene cuts to a crowded outdoor café outside the Conservatory for Dramatic Art on a sunny day. Only after awhile do we notice our protagonist sitting in the background. We observe small details, such as a blond woman playing with her hair. The artist draws and drinks a beer. He fixates on an attractive waitress, whom he also sketches, adding the written notation that this was done “in the city of Sylvia.” An African peddler tries to sell a wallet for five Euros. The waitress gets into an argument with customers over their order. She drops the coffee, which crashes to the ground, as the artist watches with great interest. He has a sad look of longing and desire. With his intense blue eyes and pasty face, one could easily imagine him as a mime. His attention shifts to a group of women. One of them is the same woman from the day before. They make eye contact. Musicians begin to play violins. A brooding man with glasses, whom we’ve observed earlier, suddenly exclaims to the woman next to him, “No.” She shifts her gaze and then looks back at him. He continues, “I don’t think so . . . but I’ll think it over.” This comes as something of a surprise because we didn’t realize they were together as a result of an earlier framing. The artist eventually notices the reflection of a woman in a burgundy dress (Pilar López de Ayala), who gets up to leave. After much deliberation, he knocks over his beer and chases after her.

Like Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd (2003), In the City of Sylvia becomes a game of pursuit. As the young man stalks the woman through the downtown streets, a tram comes between them, causing us to view her and then him through the passing windows. At one point, he calls out, “Sylvie?” In a frontal shot of the two of them walking, her eyes momentarily dart sideways, suggesting that she’s aware of his presence. The sound of their rhythmic walking recalls scenes from films by Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant. The woman, who talks briefly on a cell phone, eventually ditches the young man. In a square, the rings of a cell phone cause him to stare at an upstairs window where a dress on a hanger flaps in the breeze. The artist backs up into a fruit stand. The African peddler tries sell him various items and a young woman wearing a backpack tries to borrow a cigarette, but he’s too absorbed in watching a woman, in only her underwear, blow dry her hair in a window above. Behind him we see the woman whom he thinks is Sylvia leave a shop. 

As church bells sound, the woman heads for a trolley stop. The young man stands next to her on the platform where an attractive model puts her finger to her lips in an advertising display. Once inside the trolley, he finally speaks to the woman. Their conversation takes place on the tram with the city gliding behind them, while the sunlight shifts on their faces:

YOUNG MAN: Sylvie . . . Sylvie?
WOMAN: What is it?
YOUNG MAN: Don’t you remember?
WOMAN: We’ve met?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs,” six years ago.
WOMAN: What?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs.”
WOMAN: What’s that?
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar, behind the cathedral.
She takes off her sunglasses.
YOUNG MAN: I still have the map you drew on a napkin. You don’t remember? No?
WOMAN Yes, yes, yes.
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar.
WOMAN: Sounds familiar.
YOUNG MAN: You were with two friends from the Conservatory. The College of Dramatic Art. You don’t remember?
WOMAN: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
YOUNG MAN: You entered the Conservatory six years ago, right?
WOMAN: You’re mistaken. I’ve been here a year.
YOUNG MAN: But you are Sylvie, aren’t you?
YOUNG MAN: But you’re Sylvie, right?
She laughs and shakes her head.
WOMAN: No. . . No
YOUNG MAN: You aren’t Sylvie?
WOMAN: No, you’re mistaken.
She laughs.
WOMAN: Sylvie. You’re mistaken.
YOUNG MAN: What a disaster! . . . What a disaster! I made a mistake.

The young man seems completely devastated. Have they indeed met previously? Because it’s left ambiguous, the scene has strong echoes of Last Year at Marienbad. The tenor of the conversation switches, however, as she chastises him for following her. When the woman eventually gets off at her stop, he tries to prolong their conversation, but she puts her finger to her lips, mimicking the model in the advertising poster.

At Les Aviateurs, the young man tries to pick up a different woman at the bar, but she ends up dancing with a tall guy instead. After a title indicating “third night,” we view the artist in bed with a woman. He stares at her body while she sleeps. We see a shot of the street corner where the remnants – bottles and refuse – of the homeless woman remain. As a heavy-set woman waddles toward us, another with blond hair runs from the direction of the camera, kicking the same bottle we watched the homeless woman toss into the street. The flower vendor hobbles toward us. A car comes down the street with music blaring. Another man inadvertently kicks the bottle as he passes. We return to the shot of the street with the sign for the Hotel Patricia. A woman carrying a baguette walks down the center of the street, away from the camera. In another shot in front of large graffiti, we hear sounds of earlier violin music and the young woman again asking to borrow a cigarette. In another shot, the African peddler passes through the frame. The young man returns to the Conservatory café, flirts with the waitress, imagines he sees Sylvie again, and pursues the woman to the tram platform, suggesting that his romantic obsession is an endless cycle.

I apologize for providing such detailed description, but In the City of Sylvia is precisely about details – specificity rather than generality – which is why many of the reviews I’ve read have a tendency to talk around the film. While many critics point to Hitchcock, Bresson, and Murnau as some of the film’s obvious references, I would also cite Maya Deren, whose avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (which she made with Alexander Hammid) shows the power of the imagination to overpower reality, imbuing the everyday world with the magic of the dream. Titles divide the film into three distinct “nights,” even though much of the action takes place during the “day.” Guerín’s emphasis on night and shots of the young protagonist at the hotel provide some basis for the hallucinatory quality of much of what transpires. The film creates tension between the documentary-like recording of the streets and cafes of Strasbourg and the protagonist’s own heightened memories.

Looked at in narrative terms, one might ask a number of questions that have to do with character motivation and believability. If Sylvie represents such an obsession, why has the young artist waited six years to try to find her? Where has he been all this time? If Sylvie knows she’s being followed by a stranger, why doesn’t she seek help? Guerín seems completely uninterested in providing such answers. Like much of art cinema, the film relies on ambiguity to create the gaps in the viewer’s own imagination, which becomes a strategy for engaging the viewer. We observe the world of Strasbourg, gradually becoming obsessed with its inhabitants and the city’s rhythms in a similar manner to how Guerín’s voyeuristic protagonist apprehends it. He is attuned to every nuance of the females at whom he gazes. For him, their smallest gesture carries an erotic charge. The film employs the sexualized look of fashion and advertising, but Guerín undercuts this by including street peddlers and homeless people.

Guerín’s structural narrative is interesting for demonstrating how little it actually takes to create a story. The plot easily could be summarized in a sentence or two. Natural sounds and bits of overheard conversation position us as eavesdroppers. Character, as in the case of Sylvie, is extended to include nearly every woman we see, as well as a sense of place. The film’s sound design plays a crucial role. When the woman in the burgundy dress stops in a corner doorway and talks on her cell phone, voices of passersby fade in and out, while we only see the movement of the woman’s lips. In place of the dialogue-driven script, Guerín substitutes visual storytelling and formal concerns, so that, for the attentive viewer, the pleasure of watching In the City of Sylvia involves participating in an elaborate and complex perceptual game.

Posted 21 April, 2008

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