The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Starlet

Starlet, Sean Baker’s fourth feature, is his most successful to date. Baker’s last two films, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), took an ethnographic approach toward their subjects. Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) delves into the world of Asian illegal immigrants by focusing on a home delivery person indebted to loan sharks, while Prince of Broadway is a portrait of a West African street peddler who sells knock-off merchandise and gets a baby dumped on him unexpectedly. Starlet again deals with characters living on the margins. The film tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a young woman in her early twenties and a gruff woman in her mid-eighties, following the purchase of an item at a yard sale. Baker’s new film also contains an ethnographic element, but that is not readily apparent at first.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) lives with two roommates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) in the San Fernando Valley, along with her male Chihuahua incongruously named Starlet. Melissa is an airhead and basket case who likes to get high all the time. Mikey apparently deals drugs, but also has other sidelines. Neither of them is terribly likeable. It is especially hard to care much for Melissa after she tries to get Starlet high by blowing smoke in the poor dog’s face. If we take a liking to Jane, much of it has to do with her genuine affection for her small companion.

The plot initially centers on a thermos that Jane buys from an elderly woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson). After initially mistaking it for an urn and deciding it would make a great flower vase, Jane discovers that it contains rolls of cash that amount to roughly $10,000. This causes a personal dilemma, along with myriad questions: Should Jane return the loot to the old lady? Where did Sadie get the money? How did it get in the thermos? The discovery creates an alluring mystery, but, as Starlet slowly unfolds, more mysteries abound.

Jane tries to solve the initial one by getting to know Sadie, who rebuffs her awkward attempts at friendship. The fiercely independent old lady is suspicious of Jane, and only wants to be left alone. In her obsession to find answers, Jane begins to stalk Sadie. She disperses Sadie’s cab outside the grocery store, so that she can give her a lift home. Once inside her house, Jane tries to strike up a conversation by asking the perplexed woman what she does for fun. When Sadie indicates that she likes to play bingo at a local church, Jane turns up there as well. After Sadie’s cab disappears once again, Jane gives her another ride home, but this time the elderly woman retaliates.

The rift between them is short-lived when Sadie calls Jane and apologizes. As the two resume their tentative relationship, Sadie gradually reveals aspects of her life to the inquisitive young woman, including details about her deceased husband, who was a gambler, and her love of Paris. It’s more than the mystery of the money, however, that Jane seeks. She seems to be a lost soul, who has little else going for her. One afternoon, while they are together, Jane gets a phone call from Melissa, who is experiencing a meltdown, which brings the two plotlines together.

Not only is Melissa in the porn film business, but it turns out that Jane is new to the trade as well. This explains the shot of Jane getting a blood test in the doctor’s office earlier and the slight sway in her thin hips when she walks, as well as a couple of other well-placed clues. Shortly after the incident with Melisssa, we watch a porn shoot involving hard-core sex between Jane and a male performer, which Baker shoots in a documentary-like style.

There is a later scene at an adult entertainment expo, where Jane appears with a stack of her sex videos and has pictures taken with fans. Her boss, Arash (Karren Karagulian), talks about breast implants being the next step for her, but Melissa (who’s been “frozen” for a month for bad behavior) and Mikey crash the event, causing a major ruckus. After banishing them, Arash tells Jane, “That girl is bad news. I don’t want to see you with her.” Jane responds quizzically, “I live with her.” Arash snaps, “So don’t live with her anymore.”

Given the impersonal world that Jane inhabits, it’s no wonder that Sadie seems a welcome respite, even if Sadie can be remote and easily irritated. Baker manages to get arresting performances from the entire cast, but especially from the chemistry between Dree Hemingway and first-time performer, Besedka Johnson. Hemingway, with her lanky frame, seems to regress in the old lady’s presence, so that she appears to revert to a confused teen rather than young adult, while fissures appear in Sadie’s armor, before the mystery behind her character eventually is revealed.

Baker shot Starlet in actual locations connected to the adult film industry. The setting, however, provides more than just an intriguing backdrop to the story. It actually provides a crucial context for establishing the relationships between Jane, Melissa, Mikey, and Arash,as well as the motivation behind why Jane might be drawn to someone like Sadie. The film is, at heart, a fascinating character study, even if the screenplay (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch) contains more plot than is usually found in a Sean Baker film.

Starlet has a somewhat languorous pace compared to his previous films, but Baker has an innate feel for when to cut scenes. The cinematography by Radium Cheung captures the muted tones of the Valley, so that the colors, like the characters, appear to be washed out by the perpetual sun. In exposing the less glamorous underside of this social milieu, Baker shows how it affects young women, who get trapped emotionally in what he describes as a kind of dependent “pre-adolescent environment.” We come to see that, like her dog, Starlet, Sadie represents a kind of desperate lifeline for Jane.

Posted 11 February, 2013

Pavilion

Tim Sutton’s debut feature Pavilion (2012) begins like a conventional narrative, but then confounds viewer expectations. Those waiting for a story to coalesce will no doubt be puzzled when the film veers off in surprising directions. The focus on characters, for example, shifts abruptly after twelve minutes. Pavilion, it turns out, is far less interested in plot or even character development than in combining images, sounds, and music into a more purely cinematic experience that explores the insular world of teenagers. Sutton has said in interviews that he was interested in capturing the mystery of adolescence. Part of that mystery, however, is its opacity – its refusal to disclose fully. Yet the strength of Pavilion resides in how the film manages to render the lives of teenagers so vividly.

Pavilion begins with a group of teens shooting off fireworks. We watch them play with Nerf guns, ride their bikes through the neighborhood, get high, skateboard around fountains, and drive home at night. The film, which has the equivalent of a prologue and coda, actually has a sliver of a plot that holds it together. It centers on a fifteen-year-old named Max (Max Schaffner), who lives with his mom and hangs out with friends in upstate New York over the summer. He climbs trees, hikes in the forest with a female friend named Addie (Addie Bartlett), and the two take a dip in the lake. Through a phone conversation, we learn that Max is going to live with his dad in Arizona. Pavilion is less about causal connections between scenes than it is about striking visual images and strong contrasts once the film shifts locations.

Max’s more idyllic life with his mother in rural New York contrasts starkly with the arid landscape of Arizona, where Max suddenly finds himself stranded in a motel room with his unemployed dad. Lush nature gives way to barren, flat stretches of desert and cement; stability gives way to transience; the freedom of the outdoors transforms into claustrophobia, an expansive lake shrinks to a small swimming pool, and a carefree mood turns more melancholy. After observing the local kids riding bikes below his motel window, Max eventually hangs out with them. He strikes up a friendship with a kid named Cody (Cody Hamric), who, along with his pals, has a penchant for performing mountain bike stunts. While the film focuses mainly on Max, he eventually recedes into the background, to be replaced by Cody.

The teenagers in Pavilion inhabit a world which, for the most part, remains inaccessible to most adults. Early on, a kid’s mother, who calls her son “dude,” tries to get a kiss from him as he heads out the door, but he ignores her request. She laments, “I gotta try!” Max’s mother laughs giddily as Max and Addie dive into the lake for a swim. She later offers a positive assessment of Addie, but barely receives a response from her son. Conversations between teens and parents or between the kids themselves consist of words that don’t so much communicate as fill up awkward pauses. As a result, there’s very little “dialogue” in the film, and what’s said is not terribly significant.

The kids are largely unable to articulate their feelings. Max’s conversations with his father, for instance, are short and perfunctory. When Max and Addie trek in the forest, they obliquely discuss the fact that he’ll be moving to Arizona, but this appears to have little emotional impact. It is almost as if the events controlling the kids’ lives are occurring in an alternate universe. Will Max and Addie miss each other? We haven’t a clue. Do they have real affection for each other? It’s not clear. At one point, as they get far into the woods, the two of them stop. We might expect them to kiss, but Addie merely takes Max’s hat off his head and puts it on her own.

Pavilion is very much a product of the process by which it was made. Like many of today’s filmmakers, Sutton didn’t rely on a traditional script to make the film. He’s working in the tradition of a visual stylist like Wong Kar-wai, who has explained the limitations of that approach: “You can’t write all your images on paper, and there are so many things – the sound, the music, the ambience, and also the actors – when you’re writing all these details in the script, the script has no tempo, it’s not readable. It’s very boring. So I just thought, it’s not a good idea (to write out a complete script beforehand) and I just wrote down the scenes, some essential details, and the dialogue.”

Wong is not the only established filmmaker to dispense with a traditional script. Gus Van Sant has made a number of films using only outlines. Jim Jarmusch improvised in shooting The Limits of Control (2009), and Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs didn’t rely on a full-blown script in making Haywire (2012). Soderbergh, who announced his retirement from cinema, has expressed reservations about conventional narrative. He told an interviewer: “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

For Pavilion, Sutton chose a number of teenagers and two major locations: an area in upstate New York, where he grew up, and Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. Sutton wrote a short story instead of a script, but he did so mostly to communicate with his cinematographer. He then created an outline of scenes that would change and develop in the course of shooting them, so that the film grew organically out of the process of making it. As a result, Pavilion is composed of stunning imagery, physical actions, bodily and facial gestures, snippets of conversation, intricate sound design, and a haunting musical score by Sam Prekop.

Beautifully shot by Chris Dapkins and seamlessly edited by Seth Bomse, Pavilion has even less narrative than most other indie films it resembles – from films by Gus Van Sant to Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010) and Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss (2011). Pavilion played at SXSW and BAMcinemaFest. It was picked up for distribution last summer by Factory 25, which has been busily scooping up some of the most challenging recent indie films.

Pavilion is scheduled to open at the IFC Center in NYC on March 1.

Posted 31 January, 2013

Tiger Tail in Blue

Although hardly unknown within indie film circles, the films of Frank V. Ross remain under the radar for more mainstream audiences. His new film, Tiger Tail in Blue (2012), represents his seventh feature since 2000, yet Ross, whose films have been associated with those of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, has had trouble getting his films distributed more widely, despite playing at SXSW and other notable venues. Hopefully this is about to change. Tiger Tail in Blue was nominated for the “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” Award at the recent Gotham Independent Film Awards, and rated number five on the “Best Undistributed Films of 2012” list on Indiewire.

While showing similarities to films associated with mumblecore, Ross’s work mines somewhat different territory. In contrast to fellow Chicagoan Joe Swanberg, for example, Ross carefully scripts his films, even though they might easily be mistaken for being improvised. If early mumblecore films dealt with the confusion of twentysomethings jumpstarting their adult lives, Ross’s characters seem to be a very different breed. They are less urban hipsters in a transitional stage of life than young, working-class suburbanites, who find themselves already trapped in humdrum lives and less than satisfying routines. They accept their fates with a certain resignation, yet feel stymied and unfulfilled as they struggle to make ends meet in a world of diminished prospects.

In Hohokam (2007), which is set in sweltering Phoenix, Anson (Anthony J. Baker) is an ex-marine working as a laborer, while his girlfriend Lori (Allison Latta) is stuck in a cramped office cubicle where she haggles on the phone with customers about their late medical payments. Anson has aspirations to start a restaurant or a car wash, but it’s not clear that he has the necessary drive, skills or luck to make that happen. To make matters worse, even Lori has her doubts. In Audrey the Trainwreck (2010), Ron Hogan (Baker), works as a purchaser for an ATM parts company, while the new girlfriend he meets on an Internet dating site, Stacy (Alexi Wasser), delivers parcels. It turns out that Ron hates his job, but can’t admit it to himself. In fact, he’s already secretly counting the days to early retirement (the working class dream), even though he’s only been employed there for three years.

If dead-end jobs largely define the worlds of Ross’s characters, they also consume so much of their lives that they don’t have much time for leisure. But the characters also appear to live in a cultural and artistic vacuum. In Hohokam, Anson and Lori decide to go out on the town and do something, but they are somewhat at a loss to figure out what that might be. For lack of anything better to do, they end up visiting the local zoo. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron spends time in coffee shops and dark bars. Beyond that, he plays volleyball with co-workers, while Stacy attends a bridal shower. The main characters in Tiger Tail in Blue go sledding down a not-very-steep hill.

What’s unique about Ross’s films is the way he deliberately eschews classical narrative. There’s no catalyst or inciting incident 10 or 15 minutes into the film to propel the story forward. In fact, there’s not much story per se. Viewers expecting a dramatic premise might question exactly what it is they’re watching. Yet Ross merely has a different agenda. He’s less interested in story conventions than in exploring the boundaries of narrative. At times, he even teases viewers by playing with their expectations. There is Anson’s gun, Lori’s flirtatious officemate, and another co-worker named The Jeffery (Joe Swanberg), who weasels a ride home from Lori early in Hohokam. Plotwise, these all turn out to be red herrings. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron’s roommate, Scott Kaniewski (Danny Rhodes) appears to have a crush on him, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, and is treated as a simple fact of life. If there’s a story there, Ross chooses not to tell it.

Ross seems to exult in chronicling the ordinary or the mundane. He gives equal weight to what would be excluded in most other films: bodily functions, pumping gas, office rumors, a phone call from a child that turns out to be a wrong number, breaking a favorite coffee mug, an older couple dancing in a restaurant, the surprise of getting a buffalo head nickel, the pleasure of a doughnut break or eating ice cream, the annoyance of cell phones, or a bad case of shingles. Ross’s characters talk very matter-of-factly, even provocatively, about sex, but the erotic pleasure appears to be more in talking about it – the possibility of sex – rather than actually engaging in the act. Any declaration about making love becomes an empty threat.

The sense that Ross’s characters feel trapped in their suburban lives and by jobs that “suck the life out of them” probably accounts for the fact that they get easily annoyed by little things. Ron gets upset about restaurants that claim to have the best hamburgers; the bride-to-be complains to Stacy about a parent interfering with her wedding plans. Chris in Tiger Tail in Blue gets irritated by older folks who call him “dude,” while Brandy’s roommate, Leonard (Baker), is convinced that reality television is making kids stupid. Scott launches into a long tirade, lasting several minutes, about security screenings of children at airports. He insists he’d rather be blown up than subjected to such “indignities.” “Just agree with me,” Scott heatedly vents to Ron, “that kids taking off their shoes at airports equals a shitty world.”

Ross’s characters also tend to have very short fuses. Lori and Anson get into an argument over an offhanded racist comment. Lori’s failure to approve of Anson’s choice of clothes leads to a blowup that causes her to storm out of the house. During a game of volleyball, Ron angrily throws the ball at his co-worker Jeremy (Swanberg) after he slips on water that Jeremy accidentally spills on the court. Ron argues with Scott, and also gets into an altercation at the local bar with a smug contractor named David (Nick Offerman), who belittles the significance of Ron’s line of work. It’s the kind of situation we fully expect will escalate into a fistfight, but, in this case, David’s wife wisely intervenes before the two come to blows.

Ross’s films present slices of life rather than conventional narratives. They are not easily summarized or explained. In some sense they are character studies of couples. Anson and Lori seem to be a mismatched pair. They don’t have very much in common, and she finds it weird that he walks around with a loaded gun. In fact, Lori seems to share greater camaraderie with her gay friend, Guy (Rhodes) than with Anson. Audrey the Trainwreck explores the life and frustrations of a single guy who’s starting to get up there in age, but is still on the prowl, painfully aware that the clock is ticking and his prospects are narrowing. Tiger Tail in Blue examines the pressures of everyday life on a young married couple in suburban Chicago.

Tiger Tail in Blue feels less angry than Ross’s previous films. If Audrey the Trainwreck accentuates warmer, yellow and orange hues, Mike Gibisser’s assured cinematography gives the new film a cooler, bluish look, as befits the melancholic mood suggested by the title, and which is reinforced by the jazz score by Mike Medeski and Chris Speed. Ross has always excelled at getting strong naturalistic performances from his actors, and Tiger Tail in Blue uses an ensemble cast – Ross himself and Rebecca Spence, along with Megan Mercier and Anthony Baker in a cameo – to great effect. Ross continues to be the master of throw-away lines. If the anger has dissipated somewhat, it nevertheless lurks just under the surface, so that Tiger Tail still retains its edge. Ross is keenly observant of human behavior. The simplicity of Tiger Tail turns out to be a deceptive mask.

In Tiger Tail in Blue, Chis (Ross) is an aspiring writer, who also works nights as a waiter, while his wife, Melody (Rebecca Spence), is a high school teacher. As a result of their conflicting schedules, the two hardly see each other. Melody is already asleep by the time Chris gets home, which puts strain on their love life. Not only do their different work schedules create enormous tension between them, but Chris also flirts with a co-worker named Brandy, which causes him to linger at the restaurant even longer. Melody resents Chris’s aspirations to be a writer, especially because it affects them financially. To her, his pursuit of writing is a luxury they can’t afford. When Chris is late coming up with his share of expenses, it leads to a spat. They also get into an argument later when Chris needs Melody to give him a ride home after he has his eyes dilated. Melody’s resentment becomes evident when she refers to their health insurance as “my” insurance. She’s the one who has the job with benefits, even though she might not be able to keep it long-term.

Ross’s films have cryptic titles. They don’t actually describe the films they represent, but rather resonate in idiosyncratic ways. Hohokam suggests that Phoenix is less a mecca for young singles than a dying civilization. Audrey the Trainwreck refers to a drunken woman on the dance floor that Scott describes to Ron, while Tiger Tail in Blue alludes to the type of doughnuts that Chris and Melody eat on the street. For this couple, stopping for doughnuts represents one of the few pleasures in life that breaks the monotony of their daily grind. Ross’s films usually incorporate unexpected elements. In Tiger Tail in Blue, the film’s naturalism is confounded by the fact that Spence plays not only Chris’s wife, Melody, but also Brandy, the waitress with whom he works.

While this is initially confusing, a different actress (Megan Mercier) takes over the role at two crucial points in the film. The first occurs when Melody pays an unexpected visit to the restaurant; the second happens when Chris comes over to Brandy’s house to borrow a CD. Ross is not the only filmmaker to cast the same performer in different roles, but a viewer might question why he employs this unusual strategy here. Ross’s point seems to be that Chris’s feelings toward Melody and Brandy are tempered by the situation. Work allows Chris and Brandy the space to enjoy each other’s company, whereas the responsibilities of marriage conspire to snuff out the spark of romance between Chris and Melody.

Ross, in fact, states it bluntly in an interview with Hammer to Nail: “I mean, romance goes away at a certain point. You displace your feelings after a certain amount of time, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh wasn’t it fun when we did this?’ But it’s a new relationship now, and if you can’t enjoy it, you’re going to, you know, do what happens in the movie.” The film’s loopy song-and-dance number perfectly embodies Chris’s personal dilemma. A curious amalgam of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical and a John Wayne western, the scene is so playful and exhilarating that its tonal shift catches us completely by surprise.

Along with Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (which was just acquired by Factory 25) and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Tiger Tail in Blue strikes me as one of the best indie films to surface in the past year. The film will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago later this month and at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 18 January, 2013

The Unspeakable Act

In discussing his new film, Yellow (2012), Nick Cassavetes recently made headlines at the Toronto Film Festival after he told an interviewer: “Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? . . . If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.” The provocative title of Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act (2012), which deals with a similar subject matter, turns out to be something of a smokescreen. The topic might be loaded – as evidenced by the intense reaction that Cassavetes’s comments managed to elicit – but Sallitt’s Rohmer-inspired film is actually a very sober look at the issue of sexual desire between siblings.

The Unspeakable Act begins with seventeen-year-old Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel), riding her bicycle through the tree-lined streets of what looks like a suburban Midwestern neighborhood, but turns out to be the Midwood Park section of Brooklyn. We hear her voiceover narration: “In the spring of 2011, at the age of eighteen, my brother Matthew got his first real girlfriend. I had somehow thought that he and I had an unspoken agreement that we belonged to each other, which was really pretty stupid of me.” Family tension soon becomes evident when her mother (Aundrea Fares) and sister, Jeanne (Kati Schwartz), fail to greet her as they busily prepare dinner in the kitchen, and Jeanne then explodes over Jackie’s complaints about having to help.

Shortly after this, Matthew arrives with his new girlfriend, Yolanda (Caitlin Mehner). Jackie initially monopolizes Yolanda, leaving the others to stand in awkward silence. In the midst of superficial banter during dinner, Jackie excuses herself to vomit in the bathroom in a wide shot that frames her enclosed by vertical lines. As Jackie and Matthew later smoke cigarettes together, Jackie demands to know whether he really likes Yolanda better than her. Matthew answers that he hardly knows Yolanda, but he really wants to have normal sexual relationships. Jackie answers: “Yeah, I know. You want to grow up and have mature adult relationships, not immature stunted ones like ours.” She ends up crying in his arms.

At the heart of The Unspeakable Act lies the complicated relationship between Jackie and her older brother. The surprise is that Jackie refuses to hide her feelings for Matthew. For her, it’s a given fact and something of a badge of honor; for him, it’s clearly a source of great personal conflict. The Princeton-bound Matthew is intensely shy and introspective, but he’s also very sensitive to the feelings of his sister. Although Jackie worships Matthew, no one else does, so it’s obvious that Jackie’s deep affection for Matthew bolsters his self-esteem. Not surprisingly, he and Yolanda, after sleeping together, break up soon afterward. As he tells Jackie, “My theory is she didn’t really want to be in a relationship; her theory is different.”

Considerably shorter than her mother and siblings, even physically, Jackie seems not to fit into the menagerie that constitutes her family. Mrs. Kimball appears depressed, speaks little, and has retreated into writing a journal. She idolizes her oldest son, Will, who lives in Paris, and spends a great deal of time writing long letters to him. Mrs. Kimball’s spirit appears to have been broken long ago. Jackie alludes to her mother’s past drug addiction, but character motivation for Sallitt, for the most part, is buried, and, as in real life, an elusive proposition. Jeanne, on the other hand, goes to community college and spends a lot of time with her boyfriend, Charles, whom we only see from a distance as he picks her up in his car. It is little wonder that Jackie would gravitate toward Matthew, who’s smart like her, and whom she insists is the “best person” she knows.

The Unspeakable Act might be the only film with a series of therapy sessions that is not really a psychological film. None of what is uncovered in the various sessions really explains Jackie either. Sallitt appears to be much more interested in philosophy than in psychology. Like Eric Rohmer, he believes in a dialogue-driven cinema based on language. Sallitt appears to be more interested in surfaces than in subtext. If most dramatic films use the latter to provide the undercurrent of energy behind scenes, while someone like John Cassavetes exploits repeated tonal shifts to propel scenes forward, Sallitt employs spoken language as a means for characters to give voice to their feelings. In a sense, language empowers characters like Jackie, who have a way with words.

In All the Ships at Sea (2004), the only other Sallitt film I’ve seen, a young woman, Virginia (Edith Meeks), returns after being expelled from a cult. She spends time at lakeside cottage with her older sister, Evelyn (Strawn Bovee), a Theology professor. After Virginia interrogates Evelyn about Catholic religious doctrine, she explains her own beliefs, which reflect those of the cult. As Evelyn sits and knits against a backdrop in which we can view two men fishing on the water, Virginia’s strong conviction and verbal dexterity bludgeon Evelyn into a personal crisis of faith. In a sense, Jackie’s insistence of her love for Matthew also overwhelms him. Toward the end of the film, he acknowledges her tremendous power, suggesting how easy it would be for him to succumb.

Every move Matthew makes to escape from Jackie causes her to experience a deeper personal crisis. Before he leaves for college, the two of them attend a concert in Prospect Park with another couple. Matthew and his nerdy pal, Tony (Mike Faist), argue about the significance of contemporary writers. Tony mocks Matthew for favoring Don DeLillo over Thomas Pynchon. Jackie, on the other hand, simply relishes the experience of the outdoor concert as a kind of date. As Matthew questions her about her fantasy of the two of them as they sit on a park bench, he asks Jackie whether it includes kids. It doesn’t, but she laments, “You certainly know how to kill the mood.”

After Matthew leaves for Princeton, Jackie experiments with sex with a classmate named Tristan (Colin Summers). In the name of openness, she shares the details of her sexual escapades with Matthew via email. When Matthew comes home from school for vacation, however, Jackie disses Tristan to be with her brother. But when Matthew finally threatens to withdraw his affections from Jackie, the thought of this becomes utterly unbearable and she panics, which leads to the film’s conclusion.

Brooklyn-based Tallie Medel seems perfectly cast as Jackie. There is no sense of mystery about what she thinks or feels. She’s blunt and outspoken almost to a fault; her candid remarks come at a velocity most people would find disarming. Or as Jackie puts it to the therapist, Linda (Caroline Luft), “Yes, I have this bad habit of embarrassing everyone by just blurting things out.” Yet Jackie, as played by Medel, is also incredibly vulnerable, because she doesn’t have the normal defenses most people do when it comes to her innermost thoughts and feelings.

If Medel is key to the film’s success – and her performance here proves she’s a rising young star — the supporting actors deserve enormous credit for their comparatively understated performances. The acting in Sallitt’s film strikes me as a type of stylized realism. The performers don’t seem like actors at all, but are more like real people. Even though the dialogue is scripted rather than improvised, they exhibit very little affect – the level of artifice has been toned down considerably. Sky Hirschkron, for example, plays Matthew as a character who needs to reflect before nearly every measured response. When Jackie comments about that the fact that he never cries, Matthew responds, “If I cried too, this house would be like washed away.” Hirschkron says the line so matter-of-factly that we suddenly glimpse the immense sadness of this character.

Sallitt is also a well-known film critic, who has written eloquently about improvisation in Joe Swanberg’s films. In discussing Silver Bullets(2011), he writes: “Even more noteworthy is the way that all these improvisations refuse to sacrifice the integrity of the characters’ positions for easy effect. The feelings underlying the characters’ stances are sufficiently complex that the characters naturally waver or double back on themselves under the pressure of relating to each other, and yet are sufficiently consistent that the duels lead to standoffs, to silences that require effort to dislodge.” It strikes me that perhaps the same thing could be said about the characters’ responses to each other in The Unspeakable Act.

Sallitt’s film is much more formally rigorous than any of those by Swanberg. The camera doesn’t move. The careful framings by cinematographer Duraid Munajim create rectangles within rectangles, indicating how trapped Jackie is by her feelings for Matthew. The film’s palette is determined largely by the colors of the Kimball family’s large green and yellow Victorian house. Sallitt holds on shots longer than most directors. Characters often exit the frame, but Sallitt sticks with a shot as long as possible before cutting to the next one. He avoids non-diegetic music, which allows scenes to play without additional emotional resonance. In terms of framing, shot duration, and the long silences between characters, Sallitt appears just as much interested in the negative space as he is in the positive.

The mystery and surprise of The Unspeakable Act is how such a cerebral film can be so emotionally affecting. It is currently playing the festival circuit and screened at BAMcinemaFest this past summer, but this low-budget indie gem deserves to be seen more widely. This impressive feature provides strong evidence that Dan Sallitt is one of the most underappreciated major American indie writer/directors out there.

Posted 26 September, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No independent film this year has received more fanfare than Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which was directed by Benh Zeitlin and made in collaboration with a collective of artists based in New Orleans. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera d’Or for Best First Film at Cannes this spring. Based on a play by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the script, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like less of a conventional narrative than a visual poem in the tradition of Terrence Malick. Shot in southern Louisiana, the film recalls the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, but its scope is much broader. It is about one’s attachment to place, a mythic exploration of the defiant human spirit and the precariousness of life in the face of threats posed by the natural world.

The film centers on a six-year-old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a flood plain called “The Bathtub.” The area is separated from the mainland by a government-built levee, which has isolated the area even more and aroused contempt in those who remain there. Even though they realize that they’re extremely vulnerable and ultimately doomed in the event of a major flood, the eccentric residents remain steadfast in their refusal to abandon their homes and primitive way of life. Indeed they have created an entire mythology to sustain themselves. The folks in the Bathtub scorn and ridicule those protected by the levee. They believe that they are strong, even heroic, while they consider the others to be wimps.

Hushpuppy lives in an enchanted world close to nature. For her, everyday is a holiday. She feels sorry for the folks on the other side of the levee, who don’t have many holidays, eat fish that comes in packages, and exist in the shadow of ugly oil refineries. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), an irascible and very ill drunk, whose cruelty to his daughter is a way of preparing her for the time when he will no longer be there. Hushpuppy’s mother has already abandoned the family. According to the little girl, who narrates the film, her mother just swam away one day. Wink has created additional folklore surrounding Hushpuppy’s mom, whose beauty was powerful enough to ignite the burners on the stove.

Hushpuppy’s conflicted relationship with Wink is mirrored in the fact that they live in separate ramshackle trailer houses until she burns hers down. When she is forced to move in with Wink, he draws a strict boundary line. Because Hushpuppy has become a huge burden – “you’re killing me,” he complains bitterly at one point – he tries to get rid of her, but the two of them nevertheless share a strong bond – his cruelty toward her is actually a form of caring. Wink indoctrinates Hushpuppy with tactics geared toward survival. He slaps her, throws things at her, and gets her to flex her muscles and repeatedly shout “I’m the man.” When a neighbor tries to show her the proper way to eat a crab using a utensil, Wink irately insists that she “beast” it instead, which is his term for eating it with her hands.

Early in the film, Hushpuppy picks up a chicken and a crab, puts them to her ear and listens intently. She claims to understand what they’re saying, but admits that they sometimes speak in code. A bizarre lecture by her teacher causes Hushpuppy to identify with prehistoric beasts known as aurochs. These large boar-like creatures with tusks posed a threat to the early cave dwellers. As a result of global warming, the aurochs eventually get released when the icecaps melt, and, through special effects and the film’s own brand of magic realism, eventually confront our young heroine as well.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is told through Hushpuppy’s naïve and innocent point of view. Hushpuppy is convinced of her own self-importance and that in a thousand years scientists will know about her life. She believes that everything, even the smallest part of the universe, fits harmoniously together. But she is eventually forced to readjust her world view once the inevitable flood wipes out their neighborhood, causing residents to exist on makeshift boats amidst an ecological disaster. Wink concocts a plan to take revenge against the levee, but the residents of the Bathtub are eventually taken against their wills to a government shelter. Because the rag-tag interracial group of adults and children cannot be civilized, their only recourse is to flee back home.

The politics of the film are a curious mixture of anarchism, subcultural resistance, and what could easily be interpreted as a Tea Party-like hostility toward government. There’s no denying, however, that the film’s sentiments stem from a deep love of the environment and this particular place. The film operates on the level of myth. What’s amazing about Beasts of the Southern Wild is its epic sweep. In the mold of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Hushpuppy becomes a pint-sized embodiment of untamed and rugged individualism. This adorable little girl, with her white rubber boots, short pants, and hair illuminated by golden light, is clearly a force to be reckoned with. She’s been conditioned by her situation to be as tough as nails and ultimately proves to be unafraid of the giant aurochs.

Quvenzhané Wallis gives such an extraordinary performance that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It seems downright uncanny that the face of a young child can register such a wide range of emotions, while Dwight Henry manages to convey a remarkable depth of intensity. It’s not surprising that Henry refused to abandon his store during Katrina, or that scenes in the film were rewritten based on Henry’s own personal experiences. Yet it’s Wallis in the form of Hushpuppy who steals our hearts.

It’s hard to think of another low-budget independent film in recent years that has quite the ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Who would dare to conceive of such a complicated film, especially one that relies on special effects, unless you had unlimited capital and the backing of a major studio? Who would cast a six-year-old nonprofessional as the film’s lead, alongside the owner of a local bakery? Given the high degree of difficulty, you have to wonder how Zeitlin and his cohorts were able to pull off this impressive feat, and still live to tell about it.

Posted 5 August, 2012

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