The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

I Used to Be Darker

Matt Porterfield gained prominence in indie film circles with Putty Hill (2011), a second feature that was shot using a short outline after financing fell through on a more ambitious scripted project. A mixture of documentary and fictional elements, Putty Hill used an episodic structure, off-screen interviewer, and improvised acting to explore the reactions of family and friends to a drug overdose in a working class neighborhood of Baltimore. Porterfield’s new feature, I Used to Be Darker (2013), was scripted by Porterfield and writer Amy Belk. The film is about the corrosive effects of divorce, how it impacts everyone involved, including the children who also wind up being its victims. I Used to Be Darker premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing, and will screen as part of the prestigious BAMcinemaFEST on June 21.

I Used to Be Darker (the enigmatic title comes from Bill Callahan song lyrics) tells the story of a runaway teen from Northern Ireland named Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who flees to the beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland and gets pregnant. She turns up unexpectedly at the Baltimore home of her aunt and uncle, Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), only to discover that they are in the process of getting a divorce. What’s unusual about Bill and Kim is that they are actually hip musicians rather than your typical straight middle-class couple. It’s hard not to like the two of them, even though our sympathies lie more with Bill than Kim, largely because he’s the one getting dumped.

During a brief argument in which Kim is packing books, it becomes clear that the pressures of making a living have curtailed Bill’s musical aspirations, while Kim hasn’t given up the dream and continues to play with a local band. They know how to play the blame game. Kim suggests that once she’s gone, Bill will become more productive again. Bill tells her: “I just don’t write songs anymore. I pay bills. I pay for my daughter’s education. I pay for your health insurance.” Kim responds, “Well, not anymore.” Right after this, there’s a message on the answering machine from Taryn, announcing that she’s coming to visit.

When Taryn arrives, she ends up staying with Bill, partly because Kim is moving to a new place. Her cousin, Abby (Hannah Gross), is upset with her mom and is barely speaking to her. She tells Taryn, “Welcome to my personal hell!” The tension between Bill and Kim is palpable, especially when her fellow band members help to cart away her musical instruments. Bill’s reaction is to sit and play a song on his guitar before he calmly gets up and smashes it. Later, as the two of them attempt to discuss Taryn’s situation, Bill complains about having to shake hands with the men who took her instruments away. He tells Kim, “Yeah, you know, I think I’d probably rather take a punch in the face than to feel that handshake again.”

The beauty of the scene is that, even without the dialogue, it still manages to convey their discomfit through gestures: the way Kim nervously fidgets with her drink or periodically looks away from him, as well as Bill’s syncopated hand movements as he slouches in his chair. Even more revealing, however, are the musical interludes that are interwoven throughout the film, providing an emotional outlet for the characters (Taylor and Oldham are actual musicians). Taryn and Abby attend a punk concert, which gives vent to their pent-up anger. Music becomes a means for the characters to communicate and to express emotions that would otherwise remain under the surface.

Part of the power of I Used to Be Darker stems from the extraordinary performances Porterfield is able to draw from his nonprofessional cast. Campbell adeptly conveys a confused sexuality that has obviously gotten Taryn into her current predicament. It has the potential to complicate her life even more when she flirts with her aunt’s new band mate, Nick (Nick Petr). Taryn talks in clipped fragments delivered in a sing-song, heavy Irish accent. When Bill first confesses that he and Kim are in the process of separating, Taryn responds: “Can’t believe it. Had no idea . . . I’m such an idiot.”

Although Taryn is the lens through which we view the impact of divorce, Bill and Kim’s separation is felt most acutely by Abby, whose sullen disposition suggests that she’s extremely depressed about the situation. In one telling scene, her frustration is evident when she attempts to make waffles for breakfast only to discover that her mom took the waffle iron with her. When this finally becomes apparent, Abby dumps the batter into the garbage. She then takes out her anger on Taryn.

Oldham portrays Bill as someone who’s trying valiantly to hold things together. When he finally drops Taryn off with Kim, he informs her that Abby has split for New York and insists that she take responsibility for her sister’s kid. In arriving unannounced at Kim’s new place, he makes a discovery that leads to more heated conflict. Taylor’s sad eyes, low-key demeanor, and soulful songs, such as Days Like This, suggest the emotional pain that Kim is also experiencing. As she and Taryn look at her photo album together, the teen asks, “Does it suck being a mother? Kim responds in a voice barely above a whisper, “No, it’s hard, though, especially when the person you’d die for doesn’t want to talk to you.”

In his previous films, Porterfield mined cinematic realism through use of nonprofessional actors, improvisation, found locations, and long extended takes. There’s a great deal more cutting in I Used to Be Darker, despite his continued predilection for highly formal framings and a languid pace. Porterfield often keeps his camera at a distance from his characters, suggesting a more observational approach. There’s a scene early on where, in a wide shot, Bill takes a dip in the backyard pool. He slowly swims off-screen. The camera holds on the undulating water for several seconds until he comes back into the frame again. Much credit for the film’s visual strength is no doubt also due to Porterfield’s talented cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, who also shot Porterfield’s other two features.

Porterfield felt that not having a script in Putty Hill made it a better film than his first feature, Hamilton (2006), because it made him more open to the possibilities of the moment. But having an 89-page script for I Used to Be Darker also had benefits. In an interview in Filmmaker, he suggests that “this imposed structure gave the actors more to work with and also push against, which elevated the level of performance.” Porterfield comments: “I feel lucky to have made Putty Hill first, because it liberated me from feeling absolute loyalty to the page. Several times during the shoot, when things we’d written weren’t working, I’d throw the script out and improvise with the cast. And the results were always better than we’d imagined.  Moving forward, I’d like to adjust the balance a little more, to give myself more time to work and play with the actors on location while still adhering to a pre-determined structure.”

This has been a great year so far for independent cinema. I Used to Be Darker played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April as part of an impressive program of new low-budget independent films that included Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue. Even though the script for his new film was co-written, Porterfield has indicated that he considers I Used to Be Darker to be his most personal and collaborative film to date. It’s also his best.

Posted 20 June, 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

The Catechism Cataclysm

Todd Rohal’s richly inventive debut feature The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) was overlooked by the Sundance Film Festival at the time. In retrospect, this seems like an inexcusable oversight. Lacking a distribution deal after playing at Slamdance, Rohal took a single 35mm print on the road for two years. At the end of the journey, according to IndieWIRE, he reportedly buried the copy in the desert and burned the film’s promotional materials as a form of catharsis. Rohal’s new film The Catechism Cataclysm (2011) played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but, unfortunately, that’s no longer an assurance of a lucrative distribution deal. Yet The Catechism Cataclysm, which had a very brief theatrical run at the IFC Center in New York City, deserves a better fate. The film has also played VOD and will be released on DVD next month.

The Catechism Cataclysm reiterates Rohal’s gonzo approach to narrative. The new film very much takes aim at notions of storytelling. Father Billy (Steve Little) begins the film by telling a story to a Bible Study group about an elderly woman who mistakenly thinks her car is being stolen and pulls out a pistol, only to discover that she’s having a senior moment. Several of his parishioners are puzzled: What is the moral of the story? Father Billy claims such questions ruin it. When confronted by his superiors about his failure to make his sermons more pertinent to his congregation, he’s given a sabbatical to find himself. In response, Father Billy concocts a plan to renew his faith by embarking on a canoe trip with his old idol, Robbie (Robert Longstreet), whom he has badgered with endless emails after locating him on the Internet.

The Catechism Cataclysm tells the story of two contrasting characters: Father Billy, an immature and unhappy young priest, and his sister’s old boyfriend, Robbie Shoemaker. In high school, Robbie was a writer and death metal musician, whom the younger Billy worshiped, but his sister’s boyfriend, it turns out, doesn’t remember him. Father Billy mistakenly believes that Robbie is a musician in a major band, when, in fact, he’s merely a spotlight operator. That seems not to matter to Father Billy, who persists in his fantasies about Robbie’s super cool lifestyle. When he pesters Robbie for stories about his escapades, the roadie tells him about a couple of relationships that seem anything but romantic.

The Catechism Cataclysm takes the buddy film to its outer limits. It plays up the homoerotic nature of the genre by immediately having the two characters sit in adjoining bathroom stalls after eating greasy food at the diner where they initially meet. Father Billy, for instance, tests Robbie’s ability to detect the difference between simulated and real passing of gas. Father Billy’s bible, which he has been using as an autograph book, falls into the toilet after he takes a dump. The film’s obsession with bodily functions exploits a kind of juvenile male humor that seems perfectly appropriate to the buddy genre and male bonding.

When the two men rent canoes, they meet two female Japanese tourists, who are enacting their own fantasy of being Tom Sawyer (Koko Lanham) and Huck Finn (Miki Ann Maddox), along with their guide, a black man, of course, named Jim (Rico A. Comic). Leslie Fielder’s famous essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” originally published in the Partisan Review, forever changed everyone’s perceptions of American literature by emphasizing the homoerotic strain in Twain’s classic novel, as well as establishing it as a major literary theme. Rohal also manages to insert references to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, connecting the controversies of that novella to his use of similar material in the film.

Stories within stories abound in The Catechism Cataclysm. When Father Billy insists that Robbie tell him another tale, he recites one about a Mexican worker named Miguel who gets trapped inside a concrete pillar support underneath a highway while pouring concrete. A Latina woman, Maria, finds him and they fall in love, even though they can communicate only through a very tiny air hole. Father Billy wants to know, “And then what?” When that’s all there is, he criticizes Robbie’s fable for not having an ending, and offers his own version, which includes Miguel getting such a huge erection that it smashes through the cement. “It’s not an amazing boner story,” Robbie chides the priest, who seems obsessed with penises and inadvertently makes eyes at Robbie. “Don’t wiggle your eyebrows like that,” the roadie tells Father Billy, “It’s a come on. Do you want to come on to me?”

As the canoe trip continues, more stories get told. Once Father Billy and Robbie get lost and then stuck on shore, they meet up again with the Japanese women and Jim, at which point The Catechism Cataclysm veers off in even stranger and unexpected directions. In a mind-bending twist, the film suddenly switches genres, with references to David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). There were a number of weird indie movies released this past year, including Michael Tully’s Septien and Calvin Reeder’s Lynchian-inspired The Oregonian. Ironically, both feature the actor Robert Longstreet, who had a breakthrough year as an actor by also appearing in Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter. Longstreet’s inspired performance as Robbie, an aging hipster with unfulfilled dreams, is a big part of the charm of The Catechism Cataclysm, while Steve Little somehow manages to portray a case of stunted development and regression with uninhibited, almost giddy comic intensity.

According to an interview on Twitch, Rohal originally planned to shoot from an outline, but the actors wanted a full script, which he then wrote quickly. But, as usually happens these days, the script transformed in the process of shooting. Rohal explains: “Steve and Rob met the day before we started shooting. Steve’s been a member of the Groundlings for years and thinks incredibly quickly on his feet. I could simply give him a seedling of an idea and he’d run with it to some far-out places. And Rob is just totally natural in front of a camera. He’s the easiest man in the world to talk to, an actor who doesn’t stop thinking or creating for his character. He would riff on the script over the phone to me, I’d write down those ideas and integrate them into the next draft.”

Todd Rohal’s sheer fascination with the wonders of storytelling, disregard for conventions, irreverent sense of humor, and idiosyncratic penchant for the absurd shines through once again in The Catechism Cataclysm. The incongruous mix of religion and death metal makes for an intriguing character study, but it’s Rohal’s willingness to take narrative risks that ultimately makes the film such a pleasure to watch.

 

Posted 22 January, 2012

Bellflower

In Bob Byington’s comedy Harmony and Me (2010), Harmony (Justin Rice) complains to an acupuncturist about his ex-girlfriend, “She broke my heart, but she’s still at it. She hasn’t finished the job. She’s breaking my heart.” He continues, “My heart is a snack. She’s like a bear with a fish in its paw.” Evan Glodell’s wildly kinetic and completely engaging Bellflower (2011) deals with the same subject matter, the absolute pain and misery of a broken heart, but his version is inspired by the Mad Max movies that the film’s protagonist, Woodrow (played by Glodell himself), and his adoring Jughead-like best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), saw on TV and then on VHS as kids in Wisconsin.

Bellflower begins with what at first seems like a prolepsis and may, in fact, be a flashback: shots of a crying couple, various key scenes from the film playing in reverse, and finally a head-on shot of the film’s dazed protagonist before it cuts to black. There’s a quote that references The Road Warrior, “Lord Humungous cannot be defied.” In voiceover, we listen as Aiden lays out their fantasy for the end of the world. The two friends will turn up in a bad-ass, flamethrowing muscle car, “and one of us gets out with a hundred pounds of brass and steel strapped to our back, and just starts torching everything.”

Glodell’s apocalyptic Bellflower is a complex play on the thriller and buddy genres, with the dialogue between the two male characters loaded with sexual innuendo that they seem unaware of, but will cause most viewers to chuckle. Aiden compares Woodrow to Lord Humungus and tells him: “Okay, listen. We’re going out tonight. If I even catch you looking at someone – I don’t care if it’s a fucking guy. You are going to hit on them. You are going to pick them up. You are going to take them home. And I’m going to be right by your side the whole time.” For these dudes, true male camaraderie knows no bounds.

The story is told in chapters. In the first, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” after the two friends nearly finish assembling their flamethrower, they wind up in a bar where Woodrow gets into a cricket-eating contest with an attractive blonde named Milly (Jessie Wiseman). She trounces him at downing live insects, but he ends up asking her out on a date. The next evening, he politely shows up at her house with a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers. Because it’s their first date, Woodrow wants to take her to someplace nice, but she prefers that he take her to the “cheapest, nastiest, scariest place” he knows. “Oh, my God,” Woodrow responds disbelievingly, but Milly’s request sends them on a journey from Los Angeles to Texas. As they lie together in the back seat of a car and he giggles with delight at their blossoming romance, Millie warns Woodrow that she’ll hurt him. A true tough guy, he doesn’t believe it.

While Woodrow and Millie are away, Aiden hooks up with Milly’s best friend, Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). At her birthday party, when Aiden drunkenly insults a woman and a huge thug accosts him, Woodrow rushes to the aid of his friend and smashes a beer bottle over the guy’s head, forcing them to split. Woodrow and Milly make love later on, but when Woodrow tells her he’s leaving for a day, their blissful courtship comes to an abrupt and bitter end. This leads to intrigue and betrayals of all sorts, involving the four main characters in the film.

It’s not the plot of Bellflower that keeps us riveted, so much as the film’s visual pizzazz, its golden and fiery orange color palette, rhythmic pacing, comic antics, and the intricate way the love story is interwoven with Woodrow and Aiden’s adolescent quest to build a flamethrower and Medusa car in anticipation of the world’s imminent demise. Woodrow’s broken heart leads to a terrible car accident that leaves him temporarily incapacitated and then to a fury that turns Woodrow into a vengeful monster, who unleashes an inferno that’s been foreshadowed by Aiden’s initial voiceover.

Reportedly made on a shoestring budget, Bellflower was a surprise hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is an obvious labor of love by a collective group of friends (Coatwolf Productions), who dedicated themselves to making this incredibly ambitious project over an extended period of time – without the financial means and against impossible odds. Bellflower definitely calls to mind a number of filmic references, including Harmony Korine’s deliberate degradation of the image in Trash Humpers (2010). And listening to the film’s awkward naturalistic dialogue, it’s hard not to think of numerous mumblecore films:

MILLY: So, who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
WOODROW: Ah, wow! Okay . . . I live around here, but I’m from Wisconsin originally. And I spend . . .
She looks down at his shoes.
MILLY: Oh, my God!
WOODROW: What?
MILLY: Sorry. Your shoes.
Cut to a shot of his tattered sneakers.
WOODROW: Oh, yeah! I need to get new ones. They’re pretty bad . . .
MILLY: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What do you do?
WOODROW: I’m building a flamethrower.
MILLY: You’re building a flamethrower?
WOODROW: Yes.
MILLY: Fuck you.
WOODROW: No, I really am, and I’m really excited about it.
MILLY: That is probably the weirdest thing I ever heard. I like you.
WOODROW: I like you too.

If the acting style is rooted in naturalism, the performances by Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman, and Rebekah Brandes transcend the style. Dawson, as Glodell’s impish sidekick, causes every scene he’s in to sparkle with his nutty brand of humor, while Wiseman and Brandes are perfect in their roles and would seem to have promising careers ahead of them. It’s hard to imagine how a low-budget DIY film like this could get better acting from a cast of unknown performers.

Not only did the filmmaker and his crew build an actual flamethrower, from parts culled from a hardware store, that shoots a burst of flame 72 feet, but they also spent a great deal of the budget on their flame-spewing Medusa car, which left P. Diddy so impressed he forked over a “grand” toward their project. And they adapted a digital camera with lenses that had dirt smeared on them, which gives Bellflower the antique quality it strives for.

Some people might try to dismiss Bellflower as merely a juvenile male fantasy, but the film deals with a substantive issue – the transformational power of love, and when it goes sour, its attendant dark side. I’m convinced the film provides its own self-critique. The bravado and macho fantasies of Woodrow and Aiden are a way of their overcompensating for their inadequacies. Early on in the bar, Milly insists that Aidan is “a little bit of a bastard,” but Woodrow, of course, defends him. He responds, “Aiden? No, he’s just crazy. Once you get to know him, he’s like the sweetest dude you’ll ever know.” “Sweet” is a word these dudes throw around with abandon, but they seem acutely aware that their fantasies are completely gendered.

As a narrative, Bellflower is far more complicated than it first appears. Two viewings have yet to answer all my questions, which involve its temporal shifts and multiple endings. It’s like Glodell is so in love with his film that he can’t seem to let it conclude. Even after the end of the world, Bellflower somehow manages to play on.

Posted 10 January, 2012

Green

Sophia Takal’s Green delves into the lives of a young urban intellectual couple from New York. Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his girlfriend, Genevieve (Kate Lynn Sheil), retreat into the country, presumably somewhere down south, for an extended period. Sebastian is a writer, whose project is improbably about sustainable farming, while Genevieve has tagged along to be with him. Fissures begin to appear in their relationship, especially when a neighbor, Robin (played by Takal), in her own naïve way, exacerbates the hidden tensions between them. Interviews with the director suggest that the film is about female jealousy, but, for me, Green also explores class difference, which, as we all know, has recently developed into class warfare. Given the current polarized political climate in this country, this is precisely what makes Takal’s film resonate so deeply.

We get a sense of Sebastian and Genevieve’s relationship in the pre-credit sequence when they sit around with peers (Alex Ross Perry, the director of The Color Wheel, and Dustin Guy Defa, the director of Bad Fever, among others) and compare Philip Roth to Proust. Although it occurs early on, so that we don’t yet have a grasp of the characters, Sebastian puts down Genevieve’s difference of opinion by suggesting that she only read the first 30 pages of Roth’s novel When She Was Good. She claims otherwise. In defending his love of Roth, Sebastian drapes his arm around her, winks to the others, and smugly tells them, “I’ve read a little bit more.” This cuts to a wide shot of two lawn chairs on the bottom left of the frame of a rural landscape, as their car pulls up and they begin to unpack.

As Sebastian writes, Genevieve quickly becomes bored by life in the country. Suddenly left on their own, the two are revealed to be utter strangers, whose hip intellectual snobbery is the only glue that holds their fragile relationship together. Once Robin shows up – they initially find her asleep on their front lawn – she becomes an easy target for their ridicule. A southern working-class country bumpkin, she intrudes upon their lives, without quite realizing that she’s the object of their scorn (as well as their desires). Early on, Robin comes over with some groceries and a magazine. When Robin asks Genevieve what she’s reading, she answers, “Georges Bataille.” The clueless Robin responds, “Oh, cool.”

Sebastian and Genevieve’s stint in the country begins to feel like a regression into ’60s nostalgia, especially when Sebastian begins to wear a headband. But the hippie idyll has its dark side. In one telling scene a good forty minutes into the film, Genevieve and Sebastian make love. Her refusal to play along with his sexual fantasy exposes a deep personal rift between them and appears to trigger what follows. Green may take its sweet time to get going, but once it does, it moves with the swiftness of a natural disaster. As Green continues to unfold, Genevieve gradually bonds with Robin, before beginning to unravel. She views her relationship with the older Sebastian with a sense of disdain mixed with extreme insecurity, especially when she starts to imagine him being sexually involved with Robin.

Genevieve wants to go back for an art show, which has gotten a good review in Artforum, but Sebastian pontificates: “Honey, I knew this guy at Dalton. Okay? He couldn’t even string a complete sentence together; no less create a coherent piece of art.” As Genevieve shakes her head in disagreement, Sebastian insists, “He basically fills a room with junk and then a group of moronic quasi-intellectuals come in, mentally masturbate, and decide it actually has some meaning to it.” As he tries to explain installation art to Robin, Genevieve becomes openly rude to her. When Robin unexpectedly shows up with a date one night, Genevieve finally loses it. In a field, the film reaches an ambiguous climax, but the film’s resolution is cruel enough to spark a class uprising.

Shot in a mere two weeks, Takal’s directorial debut won a prize at SXSW and has been playing the festival circuit. Some scenes were initially improvised and then later scripted – a technique that’s being used more and more these days. Takal is not interested in naturalism, but what lies beneath its surface. In an interview in Hammer to Nail, she commented: “I think mumblecore movies are really honest and natural, but I wanted to use the medium to explore someone’s psychology, and what was going on inside of [Genevieve]. That was important to me. So I definitely did want to step away from handheld naturalism.”

Takal, who has a budding career as an actress, conveys such genuine sincerity as Robin that she exposes the mean-spirited flaws of the other two characters every time she opens her mouth. A psychodrama with overtones of the horror genre, Sophia Takal’s Green has the feel of a sharp spike rammed into an unsuspecting heart.

Posted 12 December, 2011

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