The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Meek’s Cutoff

As a filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt is obviously on a roll. Following the critical successes of Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), expectations were enormously high for her latest film Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a period piece shot on 35mm with a budget much larger than usual. The film played at Venice, Toronto and twice at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. I’m glad I bought tickets to attend both of the NYC screenings because Meek’s Cutoff, which has been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories, turns out to be the best American indie film I’ve seen so far this year.

Meek’s Cutoff represents both a continuation and a departure for Reichardt. Jon Raymond, the gifted writer with whom she collaborated on her two previous efforts, came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay for Meek’s Cutoff, a “covered-wagon western” set in 1845. Despite Reichardt’s reluctance to discuss the new film in terms of genre, it’s impossible not to see the film as a revisionist western of sorts. In place of the hypermasculinity that characterizes the typical western, women play a crucial role in Raymond and Reichardt’s story. Whereas Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy tackle smaller themes – a relationship between old friends headed on different paths and a down-and-out young woman forced to decide what to do about her dog – Meek’s Cutoff is a pioneer tale about the settling of America.

Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of three families who have hired a mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them through the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley on the other side. His shortcut – the “cutoff” of the film’s title – causes them to get lost in the vast desert area of Oregon. Whether it’s deliberate or the result of sheer incompetence we’re never quite sure, but the settlers express misgivings that Meek might be leading them astray for political reasons having to doing with immigration into the new territory. We learn this information early on as Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her older husband Solomon (Will Patton) walk through the dark night carrying lanterns.

Meek not only turns out to be an unreliable guide, but an insufferable blowhard, full of tall tales that make him instantly unlikeable. Meek has the strange habit of asserting one thing, but also suggesting that the opposite might be equally probable, which is to say that his judgments amount to useless double talk. The only blatantly clear aspect of Meek is his unbridled racism, especially regarding the indigenous American Indian tribes. This will come into bold play when a Cayuse Indian on horseback begins to shadow the settlers, as they traverse the harsh terrain alongside three covered wagons hitched to oxen.

After the settlers manage to capture the Cayuse, Meek assaults him and wants to kill him on the spot, but the rest decide the Indian could be useful in finding the water they so desperately need. In confronting the “Other,” the settlers attempt to communicate with the Indian (played by stuntman Rod Rondeaux), but, of course, language proves to be an obstacle and neither party can understand each other. As the settlers’ situation worsens, they begin to rely on the Indian to help them gain their bearings, but he proves to be an enigmatic figure. Emily tries to befriend the prisoner, but he spits out the food she gives him. After she mends his moccasin, he takes to carrying her sewing basket with him as they journey on. The Cayuse marks symbols on the rocks they pass. Is he sending messages to his tribe, or is it merely part of his religion? Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), whose wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) is starting to lose it, becomes convinced the former is the case, but Solomon persuades the group otherwise.

Raymond’s spare script actually contains very little dialogue. The film’s emphasis is on the daily labor of the characters, especially the women. With domestic chores to do, there’s little time for small talk or camaraderie. There is wood to collect, fires to make, dishes to scrub, clothes to knit, garments to wash and hang out to dry in the blazing sun. What’s striking about Meek’s Cutoff is the complete lack of sex involving any of the characters, but then again Reichardt’s major features River of Grass (1995), Old Joy, and Wendy and Lucy are among the chastest films in recent American indie cinema. Facing scorching heat and a scarcity of water, it’s understandable why survival rather than sex should be the main preoccupation of these settlers. Shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Meek’s Cutoff is full of wide shots of the barren landscape, which serves to reinforce the formal space or distance between the characters. Chris Blauvelt’s extraordinary cinematography shifts from intense blue hues at the film’s opening to a warmer and washed out palette as the settlers and earth become parched from lack of water.

Characterization in Meek’s Cutoff is minimal. William White (Neal Huff), for instance, is devoutly religious. When he collapses from illness, the Cayuse stares at his shaking body and begins a medicine chant. Neither religion provides a cure. William’s wife, Glory (Shirley Henderson), is a bit on the ditsy side. She provides some of the only humor in the film, and even manages to get the other women to laugh at one point. If Solomon proves to be the most level-headed person of the bunch, Emily is the most compassionate and doesn’t hide her dislike of Meek from the very start. When he claims she must be flirting with him, Emily gives him a cold stare and insists he must not know anything about women. Meek proceeds to describe the female sex as “chaos” and the male sex as “destruction.” But when Meek gets out of line, it is Emily who stops him in his tracks.

Meek’s Cutoff unfolds at its own slow temporal pace, with shots lasting long enough for viewers to scrutinize what’s occurring within the frame. Reichardt’s film employs the type of narration we find in art cinema. Reichardt remarked after the Friday screening that until the film’s premiere screening at Venice she considered Meek’s Cutoff to be a “desert poem” rather than a western. And indeed, her work is profoundly poetic rather than narrative in its attention to small details and in its richly evocative qualities. Reichardt once again shows a mastery of visual storytelling. With the exception of Greenwood, her actors tend to be absorbed in physical actions, facial reactions, and communicating through body movements rather than dialogue. Michelle Williams and Will Patton, in particular, excel in giving restrained, naturalistic performances.

At least so far, Reichardt has proven to be the real deal as an indie filmmaker by not making films that can be read as industry calling cards. Even the release of Meek’s Cutoff was apparently delayed because Reichardt was teaching at Bard College and insisted on editing the film herself. In this tough economic climate, I try not to judge anyone because most indie filmmakers are struggling to survive these days. But Kelly Reichardt, as both Dennis Lim and Scott Foundas acknowledged in introducing her film at the festival, has somehow remained true to the vision of an independent cinema. Even though her budgets keep growing, she has not compromised her artistic integrity one bit.

Rather than wrapping up the minimal narrative with a sense of closure, Meek’s Cutoff ends with a question. Yet I found it amazing that audience members afterward really wanted Reichardt to interpret the film for them. They didn’t seem to understand that the film deals with the experience of being lost and living with uncertainty. Maybe the Cayuse knows where there’s water, but he makes no effort to communicate with the settlers. As a captive, why should he? Throughout the film, he speaks a language we can’t decipher, which somehow seems a key element in Reichardt’s new film. In the Q & A session at Toronto, according to Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, the director commented: “We all know what happens, how it ends, there’s a golf course on the other side. You know, the bigger ending.”

Posted 13 October, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

It seems an accepted truism that family secrets need to be explored, especially if it involves children tracking down biological or estranged parents. No one ever considers that there might be negative consequences – a proverbial monster lurking in the closet, so to speak. In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) talks his eighteen-year-old half-sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), into contacting the sperm donor for their lesbian parents. Joni is about to go off to college and expresses reluctance, but all it takes to change her mind is for Laser to tell her, “I never ask you for anything.” Joni makes the phone call and the two secretly meet their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a handsome restaurant owner and organic gardener. The initial verdict: Joni thinks he’s pretty cool, while Laser has some reservations, especially because Paul seems to be “a little into himself.”

The film’s hook is not only the quest to meet the sperm donor, but its exploration of a family with lesbian parents. Nic (Annette Bening), a successful doctor, is married to Jules (Julianne Moore), an airhead underachiever, who has decided to start a landscape design business. She’s already bought the truck, even though she doesn’t have any clients, which immediately becomes a source of friction. The bread winner/ piggy-backer dynamic will fuel their long-simmering conflict throughout the film. When they speak, the two often ask each other, “What do you mean?” It’s an odd question for a long-time couple to ask, but they clearly have issues to work out, as evidenced by Jules’s spotty employment record and Nic’s growing problems with alcohol.

Both Nic and Jules worry about their kids, and want them to be perfect, lest it reflect upon their lifestyle. Nic, for instance, insists that Joni write “Thank you” cards and Laser write a “Get well” card to a relative, reflecting her middle-class values. They’re concerned about Laser, however, who is hanging out with a psycho skateboarder named Clay (Eddie Hassell) and (unbeknownst to them) also snorting coke. Jules asks Laser, “What do you get from that relationship?” Male companionship might be one answer, but when Laser enviously watches Clay wrestle with his dad, we understand that there’s even more to it.

Nic and Jules actually think that Laser might be gay. And when they catch him and Clay viewing one of their own male porn videos one day, they interrogate him. Laser wants to know why they are into male rather than lesbian porn, but Jules insists, “It’s counter-intuitive.” Laser inadvertently spills the beans about the fact that he and Joni have met their sperm donor. The revelation sends his moms reeling. After Joni expresses the desire to see Paul again, Nic insists that she and Jules need to meet him first. At the arranged family meeting, Paul drives up on a motorcycle – shades of Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

Nic grills Paul about being in the “food services industry,” especially because his current interests – he turns out to be a college dropout – don’t appear to match the essay about himself he wrote years earlier. Nic wants to get rid of him pronto, but Paul hires Jules to do some landscape design work at his house. Once Jules starts working there, she can’t help but notice, “I see my kids’ expression in your face.” We suddenly know where this is heading. Paul has become smitten by the two kids for the very same reason. He spends time with Laser, who asks him why he donated sperm, which Joni earlier acknowledges is “pretty weird.” Paul answers that it was “more fun than donating blood,” then gives a more altruistic reason, and finally hedges. Laser asks him how much he got paid – a pittance – but Paul, staring at the results, insists that he’s glad he did it.

Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) wrote the script for The Kids Are All Right with Stuart Blumberg over a five-year period. For her, it was an attempt to write something more mainstream than her previous indie films. Blumberg’s influence is in making the film more blatantly funny and having a more conventional structure. Indeed, the film initially feels like a comedy – not a broad comedy like the Duplass bothers’ Cyrus – but a comedy nonetheless. Much of The Kids Are All Right is indeed hilarious, especially Nic’s drunken anti-New Age rant about “heirloom tomatoes” and “composting” at a restaurant with friends, as she says things like “I like my wine! Okay! So fucking sue me!”

What I find most intriguing about The Kids Are All Right, however, is the undercurrent of melancholy that permeates the first two acts. The key scene occurs at a dinner at Paul’s house, where Nic, after some detective work in the bathroom and bedroom, figures out what’s been going on between Jules and Paul. The camera focuses on Nic’s face as she drinks a glass of wine, while the dinner conversation recedes and turns into a grating sound. The subsequent fight between the parents causes the kids to learn about the affair as well. The third act switches from comedy into melodrama, largely because it focuses on the effect that the revelation has on Joni and Laser.

Given its controversial sexual politics, The Kids Are All Right doesn’t take the easy way out. If the film sets out to answer the right-wing criticism of the effects of gay marriages on children, then the answer is the kids are fine. It’s the parents who aren’t. Like all long-term relationships, they are plagued by problems. Jules, in fact, gives an apologetic speech about marriage, in which, consciously or not, Moore seems to be channeling Carol White at Wrenwood in Safe, only she’s more articulate in this instance, as she tells the rest of them, “Marriage is fucking hard!”

The two screenwriters attempt to depict lesbian couples as being no different than straight ones, so The Kids Are All Right ends up being a defense of the nuclear family, warts and all. The parents might not love each other every minute, but they love their kids. But the kids might not love the parents nearly as much. When Nic and Jules demand hugs from Laser, he suggests they hug each other instead. At college, Joni, who still seems very sad and crushed by events, embraces Laser and remarks, “I’m sorry to leave you with them.” The moms then smother her and cry like babies, as we watch Joni’s bewildered and embarrassed response.

For Cholodenko, who is openly gay and raising a young child with her partner, and Blumberg, who had the experience of being a sperm donor while in college, there’s an autobiographical element to the film. The genesis of the script stemmed from Cholodenko’s fears that the biological father of her child might some day turn up unexpectedly. The Kids Are All Right, ends up casting Paul in the role of the repressed monster, who wreaks havoc of the family. Whether he deserves to be or not, he must nevertheless be villainized and expunged.

The Kids Are All Right is a well-made film pitched to the mainstream. I don’t have a problem with that, especially because, at least in the interviews I’ve read, Cholodenko hasn’t tried to suggest that the film is really “indie at heart” or any of those other disingenuous deceptions indie filmmakers use when they deliberately make something more commercial. The Kids Are All Right has a terrific cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mark Ruffalo. But, for me, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska often steal the focus away from the stars through their subtle reactions and more understated and naturalistic style of acting.

Posted 25 July, 2010

Journal of Screenwriting #2

In the most recent issue of The Journal of Screenwriting (which unfortunately isn’t available online), Kathryn Millard has written a really terrific review of Paul Wells’s screenwriting book Basic Animation: Scripting. In her review, she also cites my book Me and You and Memento and Fargo. Kathryn Millard is a noted filmmaker, writer, scholar, and screen theorist based in Sydney, Australia. She writes:

“[Paul Wells’s] Basic Animation: Scriptwriting was designed to assist writers to initiate, develop and refine screen animation ideas. It does that admirably. More than that, though, together with J.J. Murphy’s insightful look at American independent screenwriting Me and You and ‘Memento’ and ‘Fargo’: How Independent Screenplays Work (Murphy 2007), this is one of the best books about screenwriting to have been published in recent years. Yet the two books could not be more different in style and approach. Murphy focuses on independent cinema in clear, engaging prose, tracking how a series of seminal independent features were developed and written and his case studies include scripts and films by Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Allison Anders, Miranda July, David Lynch and Gus Van Sant. Wells focuses on animation and a wide range of scripts and films. What the two books share is a depth of research and scholarship, an attention to the creative process of screenwriters and film-makers that goes far beyond the tired old clichés about beginnings, middles and ends and ‘Story’ being hardwired into humans trotted out in manual after manual, and at self-help and infotainment seminars around the globe. Both Murphy’s and Wells’s books suggest a rich vein of work on the art of writing for the screen that has barely begun to be mined.”

– Kathryn Millard, Journal of Screenwriting 1, 2 (May 2010).

In the same issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, Steven Price has an article about last year’s “Rethinking the Screenplay” conference in Helsinki, which drew 120 scholars from five continents, and was a very enriching event. I gave a paper on the collaboration between the writer Jon Raymond and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Price writes:

“What was particularly impressive was the degree to which participants from such differing backgrounds could consistently engage in productive and friendly debate about the validity and parameters of the field. Torban Grodal of the University of Copenhagen, as the opening keynote speaker, shared his work on the appeal of certain film genres and film narrative s due to a common ‘cognitive DNA’ of audiences due to generations of experiences and teachings. David Howard of the University of Southern California provided another keynote address concentrating on classic story structure. From Gary Lyons’s inside account of dramatized television documentaries and J. J. Murphy’s similarly detailed discussion of collaboration in contemporary feature film to Paul Wells’s entertaining exposition of the role of the screenplay in animation and Bridget Conor’s critique of screenwriting manuals, this was a conference in which connections between widely differing disciplines could be posited, interrogated and explored in the kind of cooperative and supportive environment that has until now been lacking in a field that rarely receives the institutional recognition it deserves.”

I expanded my paper into a book chapter that will appear in Jill Nelmes’s upcoming anthology, Analysing the Screenplay (Routledge, 2010).

Analysing the Screenplay is scheduled to be unveiled at this year’s Screenwriting Research: History, Theory and Practice conference, September 9–11 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference is sponsored by the University of Copenhagen.

I will be giving a paper entitled “Less is More: In Praise of the Underwritten Screenplay” on a panel with Ian Macdonald of the University of Leeds and screenwriter Howard Rodman (Savage Grace) who teaches at USC. I’m also chairing a panel on “creative collaboration” with papers by Bridget Conor, Mats Björkin, Eva Novrup Redvall (one of the conference organizers), and Miranda Banks. There will be keynote addresses by Mette Hjort, Steven Maras, and Janet Staiger.

In other personal news, Mike Everleth over at Bad Lit: The Journal of Underground Film also happened to write a lengthy and very thoughtful review of Me and You and Memento and Fargo last week. It is always a good feeling when someone connects with what you’re doing.

If you don’t know Bad Lit or his Underground Film Guide, you’re really missing out. I check out Bad Lit all the time. Since Mike restarted his weekly “Underground Film Links” again, it’s the first thing I look at every Sunday morning. What I love about Bad Lit is Mike’s total passion for alternative cinema. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the site, I highly recommend this informative blog.

Posted 21 July, 2010

Greenberg

It was inevitable that if the young filmmakers associated with mumblecore couldn’t capitalize on the phenomenon at the box office someone else would. Films like The Puffy Chair (2006), Baghead (2008), and Humpday (2009) were all expected to become commercial successes, but all of them fizzled badly. Noah Baumbach, who somewhat surprisingly produced Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), shot his latest film Greenberg (2010) with mumblecore mainstays Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig.

Just as John Schlesinger turned themes that Andy Warhol was exploring in My Hustler into the Academy-Award winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) with Jon Voight playing a male prostitute, so too has Focus Features’ Greenberg mined territory similar to mumblecore, while far exceeding the success of probably all of those films combined. Greenberg, in a limited theatrical release, has already grossed $3 million domestically. Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative in my analogy. Noah Baumbach is hardly John Schlesinger, and none of the mumblecore directors are in the same league as Andy Warhol. But the surprise here is less that Baumbach’s Greenberg is a modest commercial and critical hit than the fact that he has managed to turn Greta Gerwig into an overnight star.

A. O. Scott’s glowing article on Gerwig in the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago might have seemed over the top to many people. He writes: “Ms. Gerwig, most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence. She seems to be embarked on a project, however piecemeal and modestly scaled, of redefining just what it is we talk about when we talk about acting.” Because acting is the one aspect of a film about which people most disagree, I’m pretty sure that The New York Times received a great deal of flack over this claim about Greta Gerwig.

There are several different types of film acting. “Star” acting aside, Hollywood acting, as embodied by someone like Meryl Streep, is the kind in which the artifice is completely evident in her performance. Every emotion is being telegraphed to us as viewers. In other words, when watching such performances, I’m always aware of exactly what the performer is doing – there’s never really a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, the performance in question is judged precisely on recognizing the divide between actor and role. Did you really believe for a second that Jon Voight was a male hustler? Probably not, but mainstream viewers appreciated his characterization rather than its sense of realism.

Think of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in the scene where the Fowlers rip each other to shreds in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. That’s Hollywood acting, as we watch how the two veteran actors build their performances step by step. I’m not saying that what they are doing isn’t powerful or emotionally affecting – with artifice it is always a question of degree. In Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, there’s the scene where Mike (River Phoenix) tells Scott (Keanu Reeves) that he loves him as they sit by a campfire. The scene is painful and embarrassing to watch as a result of Mike’s vulnerability. River Phoenix doesn’t look at Reeves, wraps his arms around himself, assumes a fetal position, and rocks back and forth as he exposes his true feelings toward his friend. What I’ve just described is the artifice that Phoenix adds to a performance that is otherwise more naturalistic and more believable than that of Spacek and Wilkinson.

The last type of acting (of course I could break it down into any number of finer gradations) is naturalism. Non-professional performers, such as Cris Lankenau and Erin Fisher in Aaron Katz’s Quiet City would be examples. Warhol’s whole notion of the “superstar” was someone who plays herself or himself, which in some way represents the ideal of naturalism. It is interesting that A. O. Scott mentions two performances that I have raved about previously: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl. Those are professional actors who bring tremendous skill to their naturalistic roles in these films. Scott distinguishes the untrained performance of Gerwig by noting: “Part of her accomplishment is that most of the time she doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The transparency of her performances has less to do with exquisitely refined technique than with the apparent absence of any method.”

In assessing the earlier performances of Gerwig – and I’ve seen the films he references – in light of Greenberg, Scott later suggests that “you begin to intuit a degree of calculation and craft beneath the spontaneity and sincerity.” In other words, he acknowledges that Gerwig is “acting.” By the same token, it would be naïve to think that a Warhol superstar such as Edie Sedgwick isn’t acting or playing to the camera in such films as Kitchen, Poor Little Rich, Beauty # 2 Restaurant, Afternoon, Space, or Outer and Inner Space. Edie is very different in each, and in audio recordings Edie’s personality diverges even more from anything I’ve seen of her on screen. As Erving Goffman and others have made clear, all of us are engaged in a series of roles in negotiating and performing our lives.

Much of this is related to the issue of improvisation or structured improvisation, which has some bearing on naturalistic performances like those of Lankenau and Fisher in Quiet City or Gerwig’s previous work with Joe Swanberg in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends. Swanberg’s films don’t have actual scripts. When asked in an interview how Greenberg differs from her previous work, Gerwig mentions that the new film represents a change in scale. She adds: “And I think having such a strict script is a big difference. I mean there was no improvisation in the movie. I mean, not a single word was different from how it was written. I’m always so happy when people ask me if I improvised, because that means that we sold it. But Noah writes in such a specific rhythm. He almost writes like a playwright, in terms of the way it needs to sound and read. There’s something about it that it just has this kind of musical quality, and if you miss a word, it sounds weird; it’s like hitting a false note in a song.”

To her credit, Gerwig manages to hit every note in Baumbach’s Greenberg, a romantic comedy which features Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old misfit named Roger Greenberg who returns to Los Angeles to house sit for his rich brother, Phillip (Chris Messina). Phillip has just taken the family to Vietnam, leaving behind the family dog, Mahler, and their personal assistant, twenty-five-year-old Florence Marr (Gerwig). Florence explains to one of the kids that she and Mahler aren’t going on the trip because they’re “not family.” Although Florence runs the household, she’s not very assertive in asking to be paid promptly. She meets Roger when she stops by the house to pick up her pay check. In the meantime, Florence impulsively sleeps with a guy she’s met at some art event. She tells him, “I just got out of a long relationship.” He responds, “This isn’t a relationship.”

Roger has come back to LA from New York with a lot of heavy baggage involving his brother, former band members, Ivan (Rhys Ifans)and Eric Beller (Mark Duplass), and an old flame named Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares story credit with Baumbach), who now has a couple of kids. Just out of a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown, Roger, a carpenter by trade, is preoccupied with writing letters to various companies about a litany of petty complaints. When Roger first meets his tall British friend, Ivan, he reads him one of his letters rather than engaging with him on a personal level. When they attend Eric Beller’s party, Greenberg literally sweats the whole time.

Roger and Florence become involved with each other almost immediately, even though Florence tries to slow things down after the fact. In the middle of it, she asks him, “Do you hear a train?” Florence, for all her competence, is full of self-doubts. She apologizes for her ugly bra and tells him, “I get kind of nerdy.” And, as if speaking for her generation, she also confesses, “I don’t read enough.” Roger, for his part, is pretty much impossible. He’s extremely neurotic, but in a mean-spirited (though funny) way. He goes down on Florence in a matter of seconds, but when he suspects she might have a cold sore on her lip, he runs off to the bathroom to investigate and decides to make a quick exit. When she gives him a flier announcing that she’s singing at a small club, he announces, “We probably shouldn’t do this again.”

After Mahler becomes ill with an autoimmune disease, Roger and Florence reconnect – Roger no longer drives – and he does show up to watch her sing. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Florence’s friend Gina (Merritt Wever) says knowingly, but Roger refuses her invitation to join Florence’s friends. When he gets together with Eric Beller, there’s still residual anger on Beller’s part over the fact that Roger torpedoed their band’s record contract years ago. As a result, Ivan developed a substance-abuse problem and now fixes computers, and poor Beller has been reduced to directing television. The friends are full of regrets involving the past. Ivan tells Roger at one point, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Roger answers, “I’d go further. Life is wasted on people.”

Roger spends much of the film venting about his life. At his birthday celebration at the restaurant, the waiters arrive with cake and candles and sing “Happy Birthday,” Roger startles everyone by shouting, “Sit on my dick, asshole.” The more reprehensible Greenberg behaves, the more Florence becomes enamored. She tells Roger she’s impressed by him, especially because he doesn’t seem pressured to be successful. She even says, “You can stay over. Wink. Wink.”  But when Florence tells him a silly story about her and a friend impersonating sluts with frat boys who videotaped them, Roger explodes and yells, “That’s the stupidest story I ever heard!” As he bolts out the door, he adds angrily, “What’s the point of that story?”

Roger, however, is still hung upon his old girlfriend Beth. He even calls her from his birthday celebration after inviting Florence to join him and Ivan. Roger tells her, “My dog is sick.” She responds, “My mom is sick.” But it’s a stalemate – he can’t imagine what that might actually mean for her. Roger manages to remember all sorts of small details about their earlier relationship, while it turns out that Beth has forgotten virtually everything. Their relationship obviously meant more to him than her – he’s been stewing over it all these years and wants to rekindle it. When Roger suggests that they should make a dinner date, Beth wisely refuses.

As Roger and Florence keep seeing each other, she comments on the fact that he likes old things. She then asks, “Do you think you could love me?” It is said in such a touching and heartfelt way that most men would melt on the spot, but Roger’s response is to ask her to stop calling him and to express a preference for someone older “who has low expectations about life.” He also psychoanalyzes her, managing to connect her behavior to being sexually molested. Florence at one point tells him, “You like me much more than you think you do.” Of course Roger does, but Greenberg is very much about a clash of generations. At a party later on, while Florence is temporarily out of the picture, Roger gets high and engages the college kids regarding their supposed differences. Roger calls them insensitive, and insists, “I’m freaked out by you kids.”

Baumbach’s risk in Greenberg is that not everyone will be amused by someone so angry. Coming to terms with adulthood and a life you never planned might not be easy, but everyone else his age but Roger has made the transition. On the other hand, Florence remains remarkably cheerful and upbeat despite her low-status job, a singing career that’s nowhere, her crush on a lunatic, and experiencing a traumatic event that she endures without complaint. Baumbach’s spin in Greenberg is putting these two different generational world views in conflict, which is also reflected in the acting styles. Ben Stiller is doing traditional comedy, while Gerwig excels at humorous naturalism. My guess is that most audience members will side with Florence, who’s quite likeable, rather than a self-absorbed character with an early mid-life crisis.

Critics have been proclaiming the death of mumblecore almost from the moment the term was coined by Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, in 2005. A. O Scott writes: “It will be interesting to see how far Ms. Gerwig can go and also whether the aesthetic she represents will continue to blossom and cross-pollinate with other, older strains in American cinema.” He sees Baumbach’s Greenberg as suggesting “an intriguing transgenerational entente.” A more cynical view might call this a form of cooptation.

Postcript:

Since posting the above entry on Greenberg, I re-watched Hannah Takes the Stairs in order to take another look at Greta Gerwig’s performance. Joe Swanberg’s film is about a young woman, Hannah (Gerwig), who gets involved in multiple relationships over the course of a summer in Chicago. Why? We aren’t sure, nor is Hannah, other than the fact that she’s young and confused – a bit like Florence. Hannah dumps her current boyfriend Mike (Mark Duplass), who has quit his job, when she’s realizes she’s unhappy in the relationship. The reasons given are that she resents the fact that Mike is funnier than her and that he doesn’t even know the names of her sisters. Hannah drifts into another fling with her office mate Paul (Andrew Bujalski). He’s supposed to be a hot new writer, but, as in his own Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski plays a nerdy intellectual. Hannah soon tires of Paul as well, presumably because he’s not really there for her.

Hannah finally winds up with another co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne). When he confesses to her that he’s on anti-depressants, Hannah has a meltdown. Although much of the film feels as scattered as the characters, this scene with Hannah is the one where her acting talent is most obvious. Hannah tells Matt, “I tend to leave destruction in my wake.” When Matt asks her how things are going with Paul, she stares out the window rather than at him and suddenly begins to cry. The camera stays very close to her. Hannah talks about using him. Matt tells her he doesn’t even know what she’s sad about. Hannah responds, “I don’t know. I just feel like I’m seeking too many people out.” She talks about the manic nature of having crushes on people and her regrets after acting on those impulses. Four and a half minutes later, Matt unlaces her black sneakers and the two begin kissing. Hannah realizes that she’s using her looks and sexiness to cause other people pain, but she nevertheless feels helpless to do anything about it.

I went back to Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film in The New York Times from August 22, 2007. In the context of the mumblecore/ DIY film festival at the IFC Center at the time, he writes:

“For devotees of recent D.I.Y. moviemaking, “Hannah” will evoke melancholy feelings, and not just because the heroine finds (probably temporary) bliss without seriously examining her preconceptions. Mr. Bujalski is writing a movie for Paramount; Mr. Duplass and his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass, are writing and directing features for Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television series to NBC; Mr. Swanberg and Ms. Gerwig are already finishing a new movie, and are so talented that they may not have to scrounge for financing for the next one. In light of all this, “Hannah” plays like an incidental swan song, a signpost marking the point when mumblecore became a nostalgic label rather than a present-tense cultural force, and its most acclaimed practitioners moved on to bigger things. Mr. Swanberg’s third movie is a graduation photo in motion: D.I.Y., class of ’07.”

For the record, Swanberg and Gerwig’s Nights and Weekends (2008) – the film to which Seitz is alluding – grossed a total of $5,000 at the box office worldwide (Hannah Takes the Stairs did $25,000). Andrew Bujalski subsequently made Beeswax (2009), a film which I consider one of the best indie films of last year. Despite generally favorable reviews, it made considerably less money than either of his previous two self-released films.

Mark and Jay Duplass’s Baghead, which was distributed by Sony Classics, grossed $140,000, but Mark Duplass also appeared as the lead actor in Lynn Shelton’s more commercially successful Humpday ($428,000) and now, of course, he has a smaller role in Greenberg. But the Duplass brothers’ latest film Cyrus (2010), which played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features name actors and is backed by the marketing muscle of Fox Searchlight. It appears to be their real bid to break into the mainstream. I’m basing this on watching the trailer and the Variety review. We’ll know for sure when Cyrus opens theatrically this July.

Posted 10 April, 2010

Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold’s disturbing second feature, Fish Tank (2009), tells the story of a disaffected fifteen-year-old girl named Mia, who’s stuck in a dead-end life. She lives with her single mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who constantly parties and drinks too much, and her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), in a housing project in Britain. Brilliantly played by eighteen-year-old non-professional actress, Katie Jarvis, Mia is full of pent-up adolescent anger. Mia and her mother are in a state of open warfare with each other. Their hostile relationship consists not only of physical abuse, but they continually trade expletive-laced insults and engage in a series of shouting matches. Joanne screams at Mia, “What’s wrong with you?” Mia snaps back, “You’re what’s wrong with me!” Even the potty-mouthed Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) has nothing nice to say, completing this portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Mia’s sole claim to an identity is that she listens to black rap music and fancies herself a break dancer. Early on, when Mia sees a group of neighborhood girls dancing in formation, she ends up viciously head-butting one of them as they argue. She also tries to unchain an old white pony from a fenced-in area of tattered mobile homes underneath the highway. Because the horse must seem to her like a metaphor for her own fate, Mia doesn’t give up easily in her desire to free the animal. After she returns with a hammer, Mia gets roughed up by some  guys. Even though she fights back with all her might, they cop free feels as she struggles. Mia eventually strikes up a relationship with a grease-monkey named Billy (Harry Treadaway), whom she helps steal a car-part from a junkyard.

But it’s not her relationship with Billy that becomes the film’s focal point, but rather the one she develops with her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Almost from the moment Mia bumps into the handsome shirtless older man in her kitchen one morning, we sense something begin to percolate under her otherwise opaque surface. He comments, “You dance like a black. That’s a compliment.” Mia’s response is antagonism, but she nevertheless repositions herself to stare at his muscular back as he disappears up the stairs. Mia rifles through his wallet and steals some money afterward. Connor appears to be reasonably nice. He eventually comes to provide a welcome contrast to the strained non-relationship Mia has with her mom. Connor gradually takes an interest in Mia. He tries to build up her self-confidence, encourages her to enter an audition for dancers at a club, and even lends her his video camera to document her dance moves.

The boundary in their relationship becomes blurred almost from the beginning. When Mia steals a bottle of booze at one of her mother’s drunken parties and later passes out, Connor carries her up to bed, removes her clothes, and places a blanket over her. At a family outing to a lake, Connor manages to coax Mia, who can’t swim, into the water, where he catches a fish with his bare hands. After Mia injures her foot on a rock, Connor attends to her wound. He tells her to jump on his back as they head to the car. As Connor breathes heavily under her weight, Mia rests her face close to his. The two dance together in the parking lot afterward. The inevitable occurs when Connor brings her drunken mom home from the pub one night, and the he and Mia end up on the sofa together. From here, the plot takes a number of twists and turns and reversals, though I managed to predict most of what transpires. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter – the film will keep you riveted. But if I were to criticize Fish Tank (and I’m very reluctant to), it would be on the basis of its somewhat conventional plotting.

American manual writers have been spreading their screenwriting gospel across several continents now. Most affected are the national development boards that decide which films will receive government funding. Fish Tank received National Lottery Funds, so I can’t necessarily blame Arnold for the type of tight plotting she employs. It easily could be based on reader reports. For a discussion of this, I recommend that you read Kathryn Millard’s excellent article in the first Journal of Screenwriting. She writes, “Many development processes simply shape screenplays to pre-existing templates so that the distinctiveness of works can be gradually eroded, assessment by assessment, draft by draft.”

Everything else about Arnold’s Fish Tank is otherwise distinctive, especially her complex characterization. Roger Ebert writes, “Some reviews call Connor a pedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist.” The distinction amounts to splitting hairs. Does Connor take up with the mother to target Mia? No, I don’t believe so. But the film provides an almost textbook example of “grooming” – how an older man, such as Connor, sets up someone underage in order to exploit them. I find what he says to Mia in the heat of passion to be the most revealing aspect of his character, and Arnold subsequently exposes additional layers of deception. A poor neighborhood is a perfect playground for such a predatory character, who’s clearly slumming, even in striking up a relationship with Mia’s mother. Michael Fassbender does a masterful job of balancing the inherent contradictions of Connor’s character by creating just enough ambiguity to keep viewers off-balance.

It is Jarvis’s portrayal of Mia, however, that really stands out. Her feral intensity makes the screen crackle with raw energy – it’s no accident that she identifies with tigers – and serves to mask her vulnerability, confusion, and loneliness. Joanne is about to have Mia sent away, so the teenager has little to lose in running from the social worker. What she does with Connor amounts to a form of revenge, but, of course, it’s ultimately on herself. Arnold’s hand-held, highly mobile camera (the film’s cinematography is by Robbie Ryan) captures the kitchen-sink realism of the drab block buildings of the housing project and the desolate surrounding landscape. It’s no wonder that both the adults and kids drink anything that will numb the pain of their pathetic lives. Fish Tank is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. This extraordinary British independent film contains several scenes of such emotional power that days later I still can’t get them out of my mind.

Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank won a well-deserved Jury Award at Cannes last May. It is being distributed by IFC both on VOD and in theaters. It opens at Sundance Cinemas Madison this Friday, April 9.

Posted 7 April, 2010

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