The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Frownland

Of the spate of recent mumblecore films, Ronald Bronstein’s debut feature Frownland is easily the most idiosyncratic and distinctive. The film received the Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” and Bronstein was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” Award. In addition, Chrissie Iles, the film and video curator at the Whitney Museum, also listed Frownland as one of her “Top Ten Films of the Year” in Artforum.

Frownland – the title comes from a Captain Beefheart song – is a character study of a highly dysfunctional, mentally challenged young man named Keith Sontag (Dore Mann), who just happens to resemble David Berkowitz, the notorious Son of Sam. Keith is more or less harmless rather than a serial killer, but, with his overly baggy clothes, grimacing facial tics, and obsessive-compulsive gestures, he nevertheless seems to be a walking time bomb, incredibly frustrated by his inability to connect with those around him.

Bronstein originally wrote a script for the film, but because Frownland is more character-based than plotted, things totally changed once he cast the actors. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Bronstein explains:

“In general, I’m pretty disenchanted with the standard industry approach to scriptwriting. I mean, I do find it helpful in terms of mapping out a structure and overarching themes and stuff, but the act of sitting alone in your room and trying to nail on the page the sort of ineffable dimensionality of human inflection just seems so completely backwards to me. ’Cause as soon as you try and pass that set text through an actor’s mouth, ugh, it’s like knocking a square peg through a round hole. All the immediacy and emotionality gets lost. Like a dubbed voice. Maybe this approach can work if you’re making something grounded in heavy plotting, where the characters and the dialogue exist chiefly to move the narrative from A to B. But I want to work in the reverse. I want the progression of the story to form organically out of the characters themselves.”

Frownland begins with Keith watching a monster flick on TV as he eats eggs and popcorn, but he’s interrupted by a call on the intercom from a female comic-artist named Laura (Mary Wall), who cries uncontrollably. She turns out to be equally as dysfunctional. As the two drive through New York streets in her car, Keith tries to find something to say, but he’s incapable of even constructing a coherent sentence. When Laura temporarily disappears from the car, the camera moves closer as Keith contorts his eyes and groans like a monster, eventually causing tears to well up in his eyes – a shot that’s pretty emblematic of the whole movie.

The scenes with Laura, which take up over fifteen minutes, would seem to suggest that this romantic plotline will be at the heart of Keith’s story, but this proves not to be the case. Laura, in fact, largely disappears from the film. Only much later do we learn that Keith believes that Laura, a self-mutilator, has taken money he left on the table. After we are forced to view Keith’s hairy naked body as he takes a shower, Frownland veers in unexpected directions from the initial setup. The film seems to be organized into episodic sequences involving: Laura, Keith’s door-to-door job hawking coupons for charity, encounters with his boss, his tribulations with his arrogant musician roommate, and his attempts to inflict himself on a male friend named Sandy. One structural oddity is the fact that, at roughly sixty-five minutes, the film inexplicably detours into following Charles for an extended period.

Whereas Blake in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days reduces dialogue to incoherent muttering and silence, Keith’s ramblings do not result in any form of mutual exchange either. In fact, Keith’s dialogue only has a corrosive effect on others. Keith’s line, “If I was you and some troll just came out of the water,” causes his boss to speed off in his van. Keith has the ability to drive anyone nuts, which becomes part of the sheer pain and exasperation of watching Frownland. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that female viewers of all ages score the film less than 2 on a 10-point scale on the IMDB Web site. For whatever reason, men seem more tolerant, probably because Frownland is so uncompromising in its portrayal of a truly grotesque male character.

During Keith’s door-to-door solicitation, we learn some background information, namely, that his estranged father died of a heart attack six years earlier. In a later psychiatric session Keith discusses an incident in which his mother ripped off his father’s toupee, exposing his baldness. He remarks, “And it was almost like she had pulled the electrical cord out of its socket.” The offscreen therapist probes, “How did that make you feel?” Keith answers, “Betrayal?” The therapist asks, “Who betrayed you?” After a long pause, Keith responds, “Her?” As Keith continues to ponder this, Bronstein abruptly cuts away. While this scene can be seen as an attempt to provide psychological motivation for Keith’s behavior, he’s actually so damaged that this memory of his father’s emasculation falls hopelessly short of explaining his character.

When an elderly woman informs Keith that solicitation isn’t allowed in the housing complex and neighbors are watching, Keith’s solution is for her to invite him inside to use her bathroom. She naturally refuses, but we later watch as he pees by the dumpster. Keith has other inappropriate responses. He tries to get a woman who works at an Internet café to read a fabricated message from Con Edison to a friend for his birthday. As it turns out, Keith’s musician roommate, Charles (Paul Grimstad), hasn’t been paying the electric bills, which serves as one of the film’s few plot elements.

Keith calls a “friend” named Sandy (David Sandholm) twice, but Sandy refuses to pick up the phone. It’s clear from both his reactions and Keith’s messages on his answering machine that Sandy finds Keith completely annoying. Keith nevertheless shows up at Sandy’s apartment after he returns from work, presumably to retrieve his lost work badge. Sandy displays very little tolerance for Keith, who asks to use his bathroom and watch an old movie, but then falls asleep on the couch. Sandy fast forwards the videotape and indicates it’s time for Keith to leave.

Keith finally finds the nerve to confront Charles about his not paying the electric bill. He begins with another self-deprecating monologue, “I know what I must be like. One of those ghostly-like servants in the turn-of-the century manor houses in England, where you never really know they’re around until you hear a spoon drop.” Charles responds, “Who drops the spoon? You dropped the spoon. You’re a servant? I’m confused.” When Keith tries to explain the anxiety the unpaid bill causes him, Charles answers, “Has it ever occurred to you that your ridiculous, disjointed, splutterings might inspire me to want to malign you? That I might deliberately not pay the bill just to punish you for your pathologies?”

We see another side of Charles in the digressive sequence where he applies for a job at restaurant, takes an LSAT test presumably in hopes of training others for the exam, and ends up getting his Walkman stolen by a fellow test-taker. Already without electricity and faced with being evicted from the apartment, Charles now demands to talk about the situation with Keith, who no longer wants to discuss it. The power dynamic has been reversed temporarily, but Charles still insults Keith about his “mangled syntax” and refers to him as “a burbling troll in his underwear.” As they argue, Charles suddenly punches Keith in the mouth.

The violence escalates when Keith manages to find his way into Sandy’s building. Completely agitated, Keith insists on explaining himself, but the two get into a tussle, leaving Keith with a bloody ear. Keith shows up at a party, where, to the sounds of “Jailhouse Rock,” a couple of drunks place a lampshade on his head, like a dunce, causing him to freak out. Keith stumbles through the halls. He presses his hands to his face and cries and groans loudly, snot dripping from his nose. The next morning, Keith appears on the graffiti-covered roof. He eventually urinates in the corner, as credits appear over the scene, which ends with a closeup shot of Keith’s head buried in his hands as sunlight from behind nearly obliterates his image.

Shot on 16mm, Frownland has the overall feel and texture of an underground comic – dark and extremely hellish. Although Keith Sontag is a very sad and pathetic character, Bronstein never manipulates us into feeling sympathy for him or his plight. Rather he lets us see Keith for exactly who he is – the good and the bad – which is ultimately the film’s strength. There’s nothing endearing about Keith. Unlike its mainstream equivalents – Rain Man or even Good Will Hunting, for that matter – Frownland never resorts to sugar-coated humanism.

Bronstein favors long takes, lots of closeups, frontal shots, and grainy images. There’s a grittiness and deliberate artlessness to the film that reminds me of the DIY look and style of early punk films. While Frownland may not be for everyone, there’s something very authentic and genuine about Bronstein’s portrait of an inveterate loser. Rather than a calling card, the film really feels like a highly eccentric labor of love. As Bronstein describes it: “More succinctly, Frownland is my own small contribution to the sinking barge of the 16mm indie model; both an overripe tomato lobbed with spazmo inaccuracy at the spotless surface of the silver screen and a mad valentine to the craggy tradition of unadulterated cheapo-independent expression.”

Posted 28 December, 2007

Todd Rohal: The Guatemalan Handshake

In one of their podcasts for Four Eyed Monsters, entitled “Losers,” Susan Buice and Arin Crumley list the many reasons they consider themselves to be losers. One is that their film didn’t get into Sundance, but rather Slamdance, thus making them losers because they were unable to come away with a distribution deal. The result has been a non-stop, grass-roots campaign to get their film shown theatrically, to sell DVDs, and finally to have it seen by over 500,000 viewers on YouTube this past week as a special promotion with Spout.com.

 

Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) apparently just barely missed getting into Sundance and also had to settle for the consolation prize of Slamdance, even though his film won a Special Jury Prize. Rohal discussed the ramifications in a recent Filmmaker interview with Nick Dawson: “I knew that the film would be a tough sell for anyone to see. There was never a thought that it would be distributed and put out in a million theaters, but it needed that legitimacy of Sundance taking it, saying, “This is a different kind of movie, and we’re going to show it.’” Rohal later comments: “After the Sundance thing didn’t come through, I said, ‘This is going to be a long journey . . .’ It’s definitely been a struggle.”

 

In the latest issue of Cineaste, there’s an article by Rebecca M. Alvin on microcinemas that discusses the changes that have been affecting art houses around the country, most notably, the sheer expense involved in showing smaller films and the competition from home-entertainment systems that are taking away public audiences. She writes: “But it is the third factor – the intertwining of mainstream and art-house audiences – that is most troubling in hastening the disintegration of art-house subculture.” The article talks about the effects of all of this, including the subsequent rise of microcinemas in out-of-the-way places as well as their attraction for people who still seek a community experience. Of special relevance here is the fact that Alvin’s article provides an interesting perspective on the difficulties that indie films face in being screened at theatrical showcases these days. It explains why, for instance, a pseudo-indie like Little Miss Sunshine might play at an art-house multiplex, but not anything more risky or challenging like Mutual Appreciation, Four Eyed Monsters, or The Guatemalan Handshake.

 

The Guatemalan Handshake, which just finished up a limited-engagement, one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is definitely not a mainstream movie. It’s been associated with the mumblecore movement for reasons that elude me, except for the fact that Rohal has acted in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the film seems to be influenced by the work of David Gordon Green. Otherwise, it deals with entirely different subject matter than other mumblecore films. It doesn’t focus strictly on the relationships of twentysomethings, and stylistically it bears little similarity to films by Bujalski, the Duplass brothers, or Swanberg. Shot in 35mm by the talented cinematographer Richie Sherman, The Guatemalan Handshake is an ensemble film, much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) or Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). It involves multiple characters and multiple plotlines that revolve around three main events: the mysterious disappearance of a man named Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham), a power outage that develops at nearby Three Mile Island, and a demolition derby race.

 

The film is narrated by a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Hayward), who considers Donald to be her best friend. Nasia mythicizes George in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000); Turkeylegs does the same with Donald. Like Nasia, Turkeylegs isn’t a terribly reliable narrator, mainly because she’s only a child and her view of the situation is incomplete. Turkeylegs hangs on to a vision of Donald no one else shares. Little does she know that Donald’s not necessarily deserving of her admiration. Many of the characters have names that sound like they’re right out of a children’s book: Turnupseed, Turkeylegs, Ethel Firecracker, Lunchmeat, and Neckface. Another is scatological (Stool), or in the case of Sadie’s heavy-set, African-American half-sister, Dalabia, laden with sexual overtones.

 

One plotline involves an elderly woman named Ethel Firecracker who has lost her little white dog. Donald, who’s searching for the dog for his own selfish reasons, witnesses its electrocution as a result of a surge in the power lines early in the film, just prior to his disappearance. Ethel puts up posters, hallucinates seeing the dog while sitting in her car, runs across her own obituary in the newspaper, and then attends her own funeral wake. As she blows her nose, Rohal creates a sound bridge to a bunch of neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers, which continues as she drives off in a hearse. Mr. Turnupseed’s abandoned electric car, which Donald was last seen driving, is stolen by a couple of boy scouts, who sell it to Dalabia’s friend, Stool (Rich Schreiber), who in turn trades it to Ivan, the crazy and hyperactive father of Donald’s girlfriend, Sadie (Sheila Scullin), for his run-down school bus. Sadie moves in with Donald’s father after getting kicked out by Ivan, presumably for getting pregnant.

 

A derby race gradually develops in importance as one of the film’s storylines when Sadie, despite also having a broken arm, proceeds with plans to participate. Her major competition is her own father, who happens to be the reigning champion. The various plot strands at various times intersect, though it’s more often as the result of sheer coincidence rather than motivated by either character or plot. An example occurs when Mr. Turnupseed encounters Ethel Firecracker at the local café. In response to her lost dog, Mr. Turnupseed offers the somewhat Buddhist explanation that if you love something you have to be willing to “set it free,” which must be his own self-delusional rationale for seeming to be unconcerned about the fate of his own missing son. 

 

We get flashbacks in the film of past events involving Donald, such as his conversation with Sadie regarding his sick turtle in which she suddenly throws it into the creek because she really would rather have a dog. Sadie expresses her regret about the incident to Stool, who reveals that he was the person responsible for the mishap at Three Mile Island – something we’ve actually seen earlier. Afterwards, in a pixilated sequence, Mr. Turnupseed signs insurance papers related to Donald. All of the characters, including the insurance agent, head to the demolition derby. While Ivan provokes a fight at the derby, Mr. Turnupseed spies his electric car, and, adopting a Dick Vitale-like persona, drives off with it.

 

Meanwhile, even though Sadie’s about to start the race, Stool passes her a note proposing they go to the beach, but she turns him down. Now without a car, Ivan begs Sadie to let him in hers, suggesting that they could become a powerful duo like Laurel and Hardy. Sadie refuses, but Ivan chases after her and manages to jump in through the open back window. The demolition derby becomes the film’s climactic scene, as Rohal deftly crosscuts between the contest, chanting fans, Ethel seeing her dog at home, Mr. Turnupseed setting off fire works, the electric car rolling backwards, a turtle on the road, Mr. Turnupseed’s car being driven off by a stranger, and Turkeylegs at the nearby amusement park. Sadie wins the race, but, even in victory, she still refuses Stool’s overtures. Donald never reappears, but the film ends on Turkeylegs, who’s still perplexed about what could have possibly happened to him.

 

Rohal deliberately refuses to tie together the loose ends of his episodic narrative, to follow conventions or even alternative strategies of narration employed by other successful independent films. Rohal takes a great many narrative risks, the biggest one being that no one really seems to care about the central mystery involving Donald’s disappearance other than Turkeylegs. Sadie seems depressed and regretful, but she doesn’t try to locate him. In the new romantic plotline, the horny loser Stool attempts to replace Donald, but that proves to be a red herring because Sadie simply rejects him. The fact that Sadie wins the race also does not really matter in terms of the story, except to the locals in the small town.

 

I think most people agree that the first ten minutes of the film are a real tour de force, but the dramatic momentum of the overall narrative sputters at times from too many incongruities. Like Harmony Korine, Rohal is ultimately more interested in individual scenes, non sequiturs, and small details of characterization. Often a character, such as Stool, will simply give up or capitulate in a scene, thereby diffusing the dramatic tension and energy. It’s the imaginative visual style of the film, however, that represents Rohal’s real strength and achievement as a filmmaker. For every scene that misses, there’s another one that soars, especially the flashback to childhood involving Spank Williams or the adapted Moldy Peaches duet that Donald and Sadie sing together.

 

The Guatemalan Handshake is richly poetic as well as chock full of visual sketches and ideas. Rohal captures the texture of life in a small Pennsylvania town, especially one existing in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. In that sense it’s really a small-town portrait (Stool even tells an Amish joke) — a character study of some of its inhabitants. Rohal creates many scenes that are deeply heartfelt and affecting, but these often involve the two characters who desperately care: Ethel and Turkeylegs. The overall tone of The Guatemalan Handshake is elegiac. Ethel Firecracker’s love for her dog continues even beyond her own death. Rohal also does a superb job of capturing what it feels like to be a small child in a world that seems somehow confusing, mysterious, and full of intense melancholy.

Posted 18 June, 2007

Mumblecore and Four Eyed Monsters

In terms of Andrew Bujalski, the subject of my last post, one significant change that has occurred in the meantime has been the fact that his work has become associated with a number of other regionally-based young indie filmmakers, now generally referred to by the term “mumblecore.”

There’s a diagram that charts the various connections of this group on  Cinephiliac, and even David Gordon Green turns up as a cousin in the familiy tree. (I wonder whether that also makes Terrence Malick a cousin once-removed. I did notice that both settlers and naturals seem to mumble their dialogue in The New World, making it nearly impossible to decipher.) Other than the two films by Bujalski, Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair (2005), and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005), most mumbelecore films have not been available through the usual commercial channels. Instead they can be purchased directly through the filmmakers’ Web sites, or some of the smaller Web-based companies such as Austin’s B-Side Entertainment (bside.com), which distributes Arin Crumley and Susan Buice’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005).

Andrew Grant, the film critic who runs the popular film blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater and Aaron Hillis of Cinephiliac have also created a new DVD distribution company, Benten Films, whose first release (available shortly) will be Swanberg’s LOL (2006). Mumblecore is very much a Web and festival-circuit phenomenon, which has been able to gain surprising traction outside of regular commercial distribution channels. Several of the films have had limited theatrical runs.

In any event, there have been two recent articles on mumblecore that deserve mention here. There’s a rather lengthy one by Alicia Van Couvering entitled “What I Meant to Say” in the Spring 2007 issue of Filmmaker. And a second by Andrea Hubert recently has appeared in The Guardian, causing SXSW’s Matt Dentler, the biggest promoter of the movement, to write: “In the UK, The Guardian has decided to hop on the ‘mumblecore’ bandwagon, with a recent feature introducing the American indie film movement to the Brits. It’s really cool that they chose to do this article, especially considering that most of these films have never officially screened in the UK.”

Besides Bujalski’sFunny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), the only other films I’ve seen from this group are Jay and Mark Duplass’s The Puffy Chair, Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (2006), Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, and Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters (2005). Alicia Van Couvering writes in her Filmmaker piece: “If we were going to generalize, we might say that generally these films are severely naturalistic portraits of the life and loves of artistic twentysomethings. The genre’s ultra-casual, low-fi style has been simmering for the last decade, made possible by the accessibility of DV and inspired as much by reality shows and YouTube confessionals as by earlier American independent cinema.”

Based on what I’ve seen, broad generalizations are indeed difficult to make about a number of these films, which are clearly as different from each other as they are similar. Rohal seems to be mining territory similar to David Gordon Green, while Swanberg seems more influenced by cinema vérité and reality TV. The Duplass brothers appear to be more interested in creating dramatic arcs than the others, while Crumley and Buice employ an art-school aesthetic and elements that derive from digital media. There are other differences as well. Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth includes lots of graphic sex, Four Eyed Monsters talks a lot about sex, but depicts it sparingly and poetically, while Bujalski’s two films are remarkably chaste by comparison.

Mumblecore films are a manifestation of the current twentysomething youth culture, much like the works that dealt with the beats (Ron Rice), or punks (Beth and Scott B), or slackers (Richard Linklater) previously. So there’s that. Even Aaron Hillis’s desire to chart the interconnections of these filmmakers on Cinephiliac comes from the impulse behind social networking on MySpace or Facebook or even on Amazon.com, where even putting books you have no intention of buying on a wish list becomes a form of identity and camaraderie for cyberspace friends. This is a clearly a generation obsessed with personal relationships, and how people connect to each other, which is reflected in these films.

Van Couvering quotes Swanberg as indicating that personal relationships are really the only subjects he feels qualified in addressing. He insists: “I don’t feel I have anything to say right now about the Iraq War.” Of course, an obvious question might be: Why not? His remark seems puzzling for someone who cites Dziga Vertov as one his major influences. On the other hand, Hubert quotes Mark Duplass as conceding, “Sometimes I see films like ours and I think ‘Fuck off, dude, there’s a war going on, who cares about your relationship?’”

Hubert’s article on mumblecore in The Guardian begins: “The ‘mumblecore’ movement has been credited with reviving the US indie film scene.” Frankly, I think that remains to be seen at this point. Hubert also concludes her piece by indicating that “Jay and Mark Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski now make money writing for big studios, which goes directly into financing their own projects.” She further quotes Bujalski as conceding that he might someday make a studio movie and remarking, “It would be good to turn naturalism into a crowd pleaser.” Despite this, Hubert still insists of mumblecore that “these guys are the real indie deal.”

There is no question that the studios always have their eye on the youth market, which is why they scout major film programs in search of young talent, much like the major art galleries in New York and Los Angeles have been raiding MFA programs. In the case of Bujalski and mumblecore, this has the potential threat of turning their alternative aspirations into mere industry calling cards, which is something we have witnessed before. I should mention that Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters can be viewed for free this week as part of a special promotion for Spout.com, an online film and video community. For every person who signs up for the Web site’s free service, Buice and Crumley will receive $1.00, up to a maximum of $100,000. Touting the free screening of Four Eyed Monsters as the first feature to be shown on YouTube, Spout claims the subsidy is for Buice and Crumley’s next film project, while the two filmmakers indicate it will be used to retire credit-card debt on the last one. Buice and Crumley have proven themselves to be extremely adept at exploiting the social-networking possibilities of the Web as a marketing and self-distribution tool for low-budget indie films.

I highly recommend Four Eyed Monsters, which is easily the most formally inventive of the mumblecore films I’ve seen. Four Eyed Monsters deftly mixes autobiography with fiction in telling the trials and tributions of a love affair spawned by Internet dating. Played by the two pasty-faced filmmakers, Buice and Crumley play two artists who decide to turn their budding relationship into a Fluxus-inspired performance piece – a potpourri of emails, hand-written notes, photographs, drawings, animation, and videos. Their lovemaking is depicted through a montage of shots: a flock of pigeons taking flights from a rooftop, black moving clouds, fragments of their naked bodies, shadows being cast on a building, and a shot of pigeons eventually landing.

Crumley’s monastic desire to avoid talking provides one major obstacle in the story, but the possibility that he’s contracted a sexually transmitted disease from Susan takes up pretty much the entire middle act, and includes a hilarious rotoscoped sequence involving Crumley’s experience with a doctor at a free clinic. The complication is drawn out by the fact that Buice has left New York City for an artist residency at Studio Vermont (a place that sounds as crazy as Wrenwood in Todd Haynes’s Safe), and the test results take a couple of weeks.

The two eventually get back together, but not without additional issues; the result turns out to be the film, the ending of which is deliberately left open for purposes of serialization. In terms of their more free-form style of visual storytelling, Buice and Crumley have a natural instinct for what’s important and when to cut, which turns out to be frequently – something that differentiates their work from the extended-take realism of other mumblecore films.

The film has already made $16,059 from its YouTube screening, and can be viewed directly on the Four Eyed Monsters Web site.

Postscript: The special promotion has been extended through August 15.

Posted 12 June, 2007

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