The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Pool

Maybe because two of Chris Smith’s earlier films have had the word “American” in their titles – American Job (1996) and American Movie (1999) – there seems to be something incongruous about the fact that his latest film, The Pool (2007), is an American independent film that takes place in Goa, India. If regionalism has been one of the many characteristics of indie cinema throughout its modern history, Chris Smith has expanded its scope to be more global – his film is in Hindi with English subtitles.

The genesis for the The Pool was a seven-page short story by Randy Russell originally set in Iowa. Smith distilled the central idea – one person’s obsession with another’s swimming pool – and transposed it to India. The Milwaukee-based filmmaker led a small crew to the ex-Portuguese capital city of Panaji, or Panjim as it’s translated in the film. Over the course of five months and 65 shooting days, he shot The Pool, which won a Special Jury Prize for “the most singular vision” at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and then promptly drifted into distribution limbo – the fate of most great indie films these days. It opened belatedly at Film Forum in New York City this past September. The Pool currently is playing in other major cities around the country, and it’s scheduled to screen locally at the Sundance Cinemas Madison starting February 20.

Although most manual writers and screenwriting instructors haven’t taken much notice, many of the best independent filmmakers these days have moved away from relying on a conventional screenplay. All films, out of necessity, need to involve some sort of pre-planning – The Pool did have some form of a script – but the process of making the film was decidedly more open and flexible. Smith, like David Lynch with Inland Empire, began filming before actually having a final screenplay. While many scenes were scripted later, they evolved and changed during the process of making the film. Once the actors were cast – Jhangir Badshah was recruited as one of the two leads while working at a restaurant the crew frequented – Smith  incorporated the actors’ own life experiences as part of their characterizations. Smith would shoot a scene and editor Barry Poltermann would assemble a rough cut on the fly. They would view it and then proceed from there. In some ways, it could be described as a more documentary approach applied to narrative filmmaking, and the resulting film represents an amazing accomplishment.

The Pool tells the story of Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), an eighteen-year-old hotel worker, who becomes obsessed with the swimming pool of a wealthy Mumbai businessman, Nana (Nana Patekar), who vacations with his disaffected teenage daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), in Panjim. The film begins with Venkatesh returning from a visit home. We see him riding the crowded bus, and arriving back to the hotel where, while hanging laundry, he kids a hefty co-worker named Malcolm (Malcolm Faria) about being unable to find him a wife because of his weight. But Venkatesh’s real friend turns out to be a pint-sized, eleven-year-old restaurant worker named Jhangir, who’s also his partner in hawking plastic bags around town – a small business venture that comes to an abrupt halt later in the film when plastic becomes banned.

Most films employ scenes that loudly announce their significance, but Smith’s film is so understated and subtle that most viewers might not notice. In a scene where Jhangir cleans the fish tank in the apartment of a wealthy boxer, Venkatesh reflects on their need to go to school. Venkatesh asks Jhangir what he’d study. He responds, “I’d be an engineer. I’d make big bridges and buildings.” When Venkatesh asks off-handedly whether he would build him a house, the young boy answers, “Yeah man, I’ll make one for you.” It’s a throwaway line. Shortly afterwards, Venkatesh becomes obsessed with the fluorescent blue swimming pool, even though Jhangir remains a skeptical critic. He thinks Venkatesh should sneak into the pool for a cool swim, but Venkatesh schemes to ingratiate himself with the owner instead. Even though he’s illiterate, Venkatesh buys a book about gardening, convinces Malcolm to read it to him, and positions himself to offer assistance when Nana visits a local nursery to buy plants.

Venkatesh’s initial relationship with Nana is one of master and servant. Nana is cold and aloof, and dismisses Venkatesh’s questions and personal revelations with few words. But he gradually warms to his new hired helper – whom he’s aware has been spying on him from a mango tree overlooking his property – and even encourages him to attend school once he discovers he possesses good math skills. Venkatesh also tries to get to know Ayesha, but – with her designer jeans, shoulder tattoo, obsession with reading, and airs of class privilege – she’s as sullen with him as she is with her father. When Jhangir wants to know whether she’s “hot,” Venkatesh arranges for him to judge for himself. The two approach her as she reads a book in the park, but she ignores their attempts to befriend her. As they buy Ayesha some chai and a fried samosa from an outdoor vendor, Jhangir asks, “What’s her problem?” He thinks she seems pretty weird – maybe even a bit crazy.

Through Venkatesh’s sheer persistence, the three of them begin to hang out together. Venkatesh and Ayesha view each other across a chasm of class differences. Whereas Venkatesh and Jhangir love the taste of fried food, Ayesha prefers fruit. When she asks Venkatesh whether he has a girlfriend, he tells her that he already has an arranged marriage – to someone who turns out to be only ten. Ayesha reacts with disbelief. She asks him, “What if you don’t like her when she grows up?” Venkatesh and Jhangir also invent things about themselves as a way of embellishing their routine lives. Jhanghir claims to want to go to America because he knows an American girl, while Venkatesh tells Ayesha he has a friend with a boat and proceeds to offer her a ride.

Venkatesh also spins yarns as he works for Nana. He talks about killing and eating rabbits while hunting in his village. He also tells Nana about drinking blood and being possessed by a female ghost for six months, which caused him to eat huge amounts of food before the fat spirit inside him finally was able to be exorcized. He also tells Nana about a fight, which sent him to jail for three days. His tales, whether true or invented, serve to show that he and his wealthy boss and daughter, for all practical purposes, live in alternate universes. When Venkatesh comments to Jhangir that he thinks Ayesha is sexy, Janghir sees the absurdity of his older friend’s desire. He responds, “Yeah . . . sexy. You two are meant for each other. You’re black and she’s white.” Jhangir adds, “I don’t like the way she wears those low-cut tops. She shouldn’t wear such skimpy tops.”

Yet, as Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha spend more time together, we even think a romance might be starting to blossom as she becomes more responsive. They visit an ancient fort and venture out into the harbor in a rented row boat. In the meantime, Nana offers to take Venkatesh to Mumbai where he can continue to work for him and attend school. On a bus trip to visit a forest that Venkatesh claims is inhabited by deadly monkey men, Ayesha brings up the plan to move to Mumbai, which comes as a complete surprise to Jhangir. She tells Venkatesh, “My dad’s an asshole. I don’t know how long it will take you to figure that out.” As they start to head into the forest, Janghir suddenly becomes scared and refuses to go further. When the two start to leave without him, he suddenly explodes in a jealous rage. Jhangir denounces Venkatesh to Ayesha as a stalker and opportunist, and the two friends end up in a fistfight, while Ayesha dismisses them as immature children. On the return journey, they all ride in separate seats on the bus.

Throughout the film, Venkatesh has become increasingly unhappy with his situation at the hotel. To Malcolm’s consternation, Venkatesh keeps showing up late for work. After Malcolm criticizes his singing, Venkatesh suggests turning on the TV, but Malcolm indicates it’s not permitted by the management. Venkatesh responds angrily, “Are you a human being or an egg?” Venkatesh later accidentally breaks a guest’s Walkman. He gives it to Jhangir to fix, but Malcolm ends up getting fired by the boss for stealing. Despite the fact it’s really Venkatesh’s fault that Malcolm gets blamed unjustly – Jhangir wonders why he doesn’t feel guilty – Venkatesh acts relieved that his critic is no longer there to bug him.

Nevertheless, Venkatesh agonizes over the decision of whether to go to Mumbai. He once again returns home where we see his impoverished rural roots in Karnataka (where the orphaned Jhangir is also from) and meet his mother and two sisters, one of whom is about to get married. His mother would like Venkatesh to move back. In most dramatic films, reconciliation between Venkatesh and Jhangir would be a difficult and extended process, but all it takes to reestablish their bond is another jar of chutney from Venkatesh’s mom. Ayesha is a different case altogether. Upon his return, Venkatesh attempts to give her a scrawny orange kitten as a gift. “I can’t keep it,” she tells him bluntly. To her bemusement, he abruptly abandons it in the park – it’s the same street cat we’ve glimpsed earlier – and he admits to her that it’s a stray he found. As they eat cake, she makes a personal revelation, but the scene ends in awkward silence.

Chris Smith, who also did his own superb 35mm cinematography, constructs The Pool as a series of vivid snapshots of these characters and the place they inhabit. Some scenes are short vignettes, with only several lines of dialogue. Smith is as much concerned with visual details – the rhythms of Venkatesh’s daily life – as with character. Or maybe it’s that the endless repetition of daily chores defines his existence. We see Venkatesh making up beds in the hotel, buying bread at the bakery, washing dishes in the kitchen, scrubbing the marbled floors and toilets, dealing with the laundry, opening and closing the heavy metal gate of the hotel each day.

One of major strengths of The Pool has to do with its complex characterizations. Of the two, Venkatesh is the dreamer, while Jhangir is much more of a pragmatist. It’s almost as if their relationship is based on a role reversal. In many ways, Jhangir really functions as the older brother – not the other way around. Venkatesh naively sees the pool as the solution to all of his life’s problems, but Nana and Ayesha both know better. It’s the reason why Ayesha is so sour and why her father, as Venkatesh describes him to Jhangir, often stares vacantly into space.

Nana Patekar is a famous Bollywood actor, but Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah give outstanding performances for being non-professional actors. Both play their parts with a combination of concentration mixed with distraction, which adds to the naturalism. It is their bodily gestures that convey their characters as much as the words they say. When Nana brings up the proposal of going to Mumbai, Chavan taps his knee with his finger as a kind of nervous tic. Chavan’s not acting – he’s just being himself.

And there is something about Jhangir Badshah’s upright gait and the energetic way he swings his arms as he walks next to Venkatesh that suggests his fierce determination and survivor instincts. He also has a great laugh, most evident in the scene where Venkatesh tells him about some guy on the bus who couldn’t hold it and ends up defecating in his pants. There’s also a funny scene where Jhangir gets something in his eye as the two boys sip sodas on some steps. Venkatesh offers to take a look, then suddenly blows hard into Jhangir’s eye. The little kid responds, “Hey man! What the . . .?” The incident says everything there is to know about their relationship. In the scene where they say goodbye, Jhangir’s eyes flit momentarily up the street before shifting back to Venkatesh and his own inner feelings of sadness. It’s moments like this that suggest an authenticity that non-professionals often can bring to the screen.

The dialogue has the indirection of everyday conversation. In one scene, where Jhangir and Venkatesh discuss the pool, Jhangir asks Venkatesh whether he’s going to pick at his food or eat it. When they discuss Ayesha being sexy, Jhangir’s criticism of her “skimpy tops” seems like a non sequitur, especially when he follows it by suggesting, “She’s solid and cute. I’m starting to warm up to her.” Ayesha has some of the best lines in the film. After telling Nana to “fuck off,” he asks her where she’s going. She answers, “To kill someone.” It’s not just what the characters say, however, but the cadence of their responses. When Jhangir talks about wanting to be an engineer and to build big bridges and buildings, what comes out of his mouth sounds more like a Lettrist sound poem – as if we’ve suddenly become transported into Isou’s Venom and Eternity.

Barry Poltermann’s editing of The Pool is nothing short of remarkable, and this final cut, which differs from the one originally shown at the Sundance Film Festival, is the best I’ve seen. The post-production sound work by Didier Leplae and Joe Wong has impeccable nuance: the wind rustling through the vegetation when Venkatesh, Jhangir, and Ayesha visit the fort; the clown horns of street traffic which mark the passage of days; or the whir of a small bird as it darts through the frame that makes the last cut of the film even possible.

It wasn’t so long ago that the British film journal Sight & Sound did a cover story lamenting the sorry state of American indie cinema after a less than stellar Sundance Film Festival (as if that is the sole barometer of anything). Despite the current crisis in distribution – the fact that so many smaller companies have gone under – the independent films this year have been terrific. And Chris Smith’s The Pool certainly stands as one of the highlights.

Posted 11 January, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s first feature River of Grass (1994), a regionally inflected, feminist riff on genre set in the area between Miami and the Everglades, drew critical attention within independent film circles, but received only limited theatrical distribution. It would be over ten years before Reichardt’s collaboration with writer Jon Raymond provided the unexpected spark that reignited her career. Made on a micro-budget of $30,000 and adapted from Raymond’s short story (itself the result of a collaboration with photographer Justine Kurland), Old Joy (2006) managed to become a major critical hit and to gross ten times its production costs. Reichardt and Raymond’s latest effort, Wendy and Lucy (2008), produced for a mere $300,000, not only fulfills the promise of Kelly Reichardt’s earlier work, but catapults her squarely into the forefront of major independent directors.

Both of the Jon Raymond short stories on which Reichardt’s last two films are based have just been published in a collection entitled Livability (Bloomsbury, 2009), allowing viewers an opportunity to understand the nexus between word and image in Reichardt’s work. The story of a camping trip between two old friends whose lives have taken different trajectories, Old Joy deals with the impermanence of relationships in a culture of accelerated technological change. Raymond’s “Old Joy” turns out to be even more understated than the film, which includes an important added element, namely, that Mark (Daniel London) is married and soon to become a father. After Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark get lost while searching for a remote hot spring, the pair end up camping overnight in a garbage-strewn area in the forest. As the two shoot empty tin cans with a BB gun in front of a golden bonfire, Kurt, stoned and drunk, discusses his theory of a falling tear-shaped universe. Afterwards, Kurt has a sudden emotional outburst. He cries that he misses Mark, and insists that something has come between them. Mark impassively denies this, but, of course, it’s something he can’t admit to himself.

Old Joy is completely understated – it relies almost wholly on subtext for its narrative tension. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. We get mobile shots of Portland to the sound of Air America on the radio, purely cinematic sequences of the majestic countryside accompanied by music, and extended treks through the dense woods with Mark’s playful dog. Reichardt’s long takes include everything that would be cut out of most other films in the service of succinct storytelling. When Mark drives to Kurt’s house, for instance, we watch him park, get out of his car, and walk all the way to Kurt’s front door. In one memorable scene, the camera frames Kurt smoking a joint inside the car, as we view Mark studying a map through the windshield. Mark heads away from the car down the road. His cell phone rings. We watch him jog back to retrieve it, and then amble back away from the car. We can’t hear Mark’s conversation with his wife as he paces, but we can sense her irritation, as can Kurt, no matter how dulled his senses have become.

In Old Joy, Lucy (the director’s dog) inserts herself into the film, enough to become a character by often seeming to favor Kurt over Mark. In Reichardt’s latest effort, Lucy has finagled her way into a title role. Reichardt indicated in the recent issue of Film Comment that what she most admires about Raymond’s stories is that “he writes these really interior kinds of characters, and then the challenge for me is just figuring out how to physicalize that in turning things over into a script.” Ironically, “Train Choir,” the source for Wendy and Lucy, provides more motivation for the protagonist Wendy (Michelle Williams) than the film, even though Raymond’s writing style is rather spare. Ray Carver used to talk about life in terms of people having either good luck or bad luck, and his characters were left to grapple with whatever life dealt them. Wendy is down on her luck. While it’s not made explicit in the film what has left her in such a dire predicament – she elicits no sympathy when she phones her sister – Wendy’s hell-bent on making it to Alaska, where she believes she’ll be able to earn enough money to start her life over.

En route from Indiana to Alaska, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small town in Oregon. With a tight budget and food running out for her pooch, Wendy attempts to pilfer a couple of cans of Iams from a nearby grocery store. On her way out the door, she gets stopped by a young worker named Andy (played by John Robinson, the protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, no less). With a silver cross around his neck, he’s strictly Old Testament, insisting on retribution for her petty crime. After vacillating, the spineless boss lets Andy call the cops, and Wendy is hauled away, fingerprinted and booked by an inept officer, before she’s forced to pay a fine she can’t afford. By the time Wendy returns to the grocery hours later, her beloved Lucy has disappeared from the parking lot where she was left tied up outside the store. Wendy’s search for her missing dog, which takes up most of the film, might be exasperating if Reichardt weren’t such a masterful visual stylist and storyteller. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Wendy visits the local pound. Reichardt’s camera tracks past the various cages of dogs, suggesting the inside of a prison.

The film involves a series of episodic incidents, mostly with the people Wendy happens upon in the vicinity where her car has stalled. In Wendy’s initial jaunt into the woods, Lucy leads her to a group of young street people, one of whom pets the dog, while another, appropriately named Icky (Will Oldham), spins a rambling tale about driving an expensive bulldozer off a cliff in Alaska. There’s the security guard (Walter Dalton), who tries to befriend Wendy by allowing her to use his cell phone. As becomes painfully clear as Wendy tries to navigate her desperate situation, you can’t really exist in this society without an address or digital means of communication. In one of the film’s only redemptive gestures, the kindly guard later tries to help Wendy by stuffing crumpled bills into her hand – it turns out to be six dollars.

There are also those only too willing to take advantage of people less fortunate or down on their luck, such as the indifferent cops or the auto mechanic (Will Patton), who cons Wendy into junking her car for the reduced towing charge. And when Wendy’s forced to spend the night in the park, she has the misfortune of running into a scary derelict (Larry Fessenden), who rifles through her stuff while Reichardt’s camera focuses mostly on her face. Wendy breaks down afterward in the bathroom of the gas station. By the end, she’s so beaten down by events that she can no longer even think straight. The film seems to suggest that it’s bad luck that leads to reckless decisions – not the other way around.

It’s impossible to talk about Wendy and Lucy without mentioning Michelle Williams, who has short-cropped dark hair and wears the same plaid shirt, pedal pushers, blue hoodie, and distressed sneakers during the entire film. Williams’s understated performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Critics often talk about acting as if it were somehow unrelated to the script. If Wendy’s motivations are not always delineated, this gives a truly gifted performer such as Williams even more creative room to maneuver. In her interactions with others, she has a tendency to turn completely away from them (and the camera) as an innately defensive response. It’s only with Lucy that Wendy is able to exude any warmth or emotional spark.

Reichardt has always gravitated to those vulnerable characters who seem to exist on society’s margins. Wendy and Lucy, in fact, begins and ends in a train yard, as if deliberately conjuring up the past – the mythic figure of the hobo – in order to suggest that the Great Depression of the 1930s is back again. As such, the film can be read as a searing indictment of the Bush economic legacy. Reichardt creates rectangles within rectangles, evoking all the ways Wendy manages to get herself boxed in. There’s one shot in particular, where the camera follows Wendy as she walks in front of a brown wall. She turns the corner, but the camera stops abruptly, dividing the space of the frame in half. Reichardt relies on a symphony of train sounds and Wendy’s humming rather than music to create emotional resonance. With its muted colors, rusted metal, and grey skies, Wendy and Lucy manages to create an overall sense of melancholy that seems to reflect the protagonist’s psyche.

Posted 28 December, 2008

In the Company of Men

Neil LaBute’s disturbing black comedy, In the Company of Men (1997), was easily one of the most provocative and controversial films of the 1990s. A romantic office triangle involving two white collar workers and a deaf secretary, the film ended up winning the Filmmaker’s Trophy for Best Dramatic Feature at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, but nevertheless had trouble finding domestic distribution. Most distributors, including Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, worried that the film would offend audiences, especially women, before Sony Pictures Classics eventually decided to take the risk. According to LaBute, “One of the Sony guys said it made them sick when they first saw it, but then they realized that reaction was a business opportunity.”

Like To Sleep With Anger and Boys Don’t Cry, In the Company of Men uses a more conventional structure for its unusual subject matter. By pushing the limits of acceptable speech and behavior, In the Company of Men shares a number of qualities with edgier indie films such as Reservoir Dogs, Happiness, and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Although LaBute’s debut feature can be read, at least at first glance, as a backlash against the more progressive aspects of independent film and its bent toward political correctness, the film’s more provocative elements – its misogyny, racial insensitivity, and exploitation of the physically challenged – actually function as a deceptive masquerade to explore the darker recesses of the white male psyche. As a result, In the Company of Men offers one of the most devastating cinematic critiques of male power relations by dissecting the dog-eat-dog mentality that has come to epitomize what it takes to achieve success in the white male-dominated world of corporate business.

Prior to making his debut film, LaBute had a successful career as a playwright, having attended both the Graduate Dramatic Writing Program at NYU and the Sundance Institute’s Playwright’s Lab. Ted Hope of Good Machine was interested in producing In the Company of Men, but LaBute decided to go forward with the production on his own when a couple of friends invested an insurance windfall of $25,000 in the project. In the Company of Men was conceived as a classic low-budget film – a three-actor ensemble piece with a low shooting ratio and a minimum number of locations. Although the film was shot in LaBute’s own hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana over the course of eleven days, In the Company of Men, like Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989), lacks the strong regional flavor of many other independent films. The locations, in fact, are minimal and have a completely generic feel to them. Much of the film takes place in office cubicles, conference rooms, men’s rooms, hallways, restaurants, and airport waiting rooms. As LaBute comments, “I’m intrigued by minimalism and I wanted the look of the film to have an antiseptic and timeless feel. The business world has looked relatively the same since the fifties, turning it into a bit of a cliché, so I tried stylistically to be very timeless.” On a visual level, In the Company of Men emphasizes stylization rather than heightened realism, which is reinforced by the minimal post-production sound work.

The plot of In the Company of Men appears to be rather straightforward. The film tells the story of two young white collar workers – old college buddies – who get transferred to a regional office for six weeks and concoct a plan to victimize an unsuspecting female co-worker, who happens to have a disability. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is a handsome jock, while Howard (Matt Molloy) is something of a wimp. LaBute’s description of the two main characters provides an interesting contrast. He describes Chad as: “29 years old, dark, tallish. The mouth of Belmondo and the eyes of Caligula.” About Howard, he writes: “He is 28, more boyishly attractive than handsome, perhaps shorter than he might wish to be.” According to LaBute, “It’s a simple story: boys meets girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” But such a description hardly does justice to what actually happens during the course of the film, namely, that gender politics merely provide a subterfuge for office politics. As it turns out, Chad’s misogynistic game provides a deliberate smokescreen for his real ambition, which is to knock Howard out of his position as project boss and replace him. That is the film’s major twist, as well as its redeeming quality as an independent film, because this has the effect of shifting the subject of the film from being about sexist male behavior to a study of men’s relations with each other.

In the Company of Men involves a short setup followed by intertitles that indicate each of the six weeks, and an epilogue that occurs “weeks later.” In the published version of the script, LaBute describes In the Company of Men as having a five-act structure,” but he never delineates the actual breakdown. The film nevertheless conforms to the traditional three-act paradigm. The inciting incident occurs when Chad proposes the sadistic game to Howard and he drunkenly agrees to be part of it at 11 minutes. After Chad locates the perfect victim in Christine (Stacy Edwards), Howard’s date with her at roughly 24 minutes serves as the first turning point because it signals his actual complicity in the scheme. The entire middle act concerns Chad and Howard’s attempts to outmaneuver each other in the competition to win Christine’s affections. The second turning point occurs at 71 minutes when Howard retaliates against Christine for rebuffing him by informing her of Chad’s malicious game. The climax happens at the point of the major plot twist, namely, when Chad reveals his own secret to Howard. The structure of the film thus breaks down into a first act of 24 minutes, a middle act of 46 minutes, and a third act of 22 minutes.

Given LaBute’s background in theater, the conventional structure of the film should hardly come as a surprise. LaBute’s description of his own writing process, however, suggests that he relies very heavily on intuition, and that he doesn’t believe that everything can be pre-plotted in advance. As he told Filmmaker, “I will often set out with an idea, a set of characters. I’m not a person to put the little yellow Post-its all across one wall of my bedroom and plot out a story. I like to see where the road will lead – [an approach] which can lead to a lot of backtracking, revisions. But I’m not afraid of that. I welcome it. My biggest maxim is probably, ‘Whatever works.’” LaBute emphasizes that excitement and surprise are two of the most critical elements in writing screenplays. This would seem to work against an overly formulaic and predetermined approach to the material, which is why he tries not to “storyboard it out.” As he explains: “I want to be as excited [when writing it] as someone seeing it for the first time. The great hook in writing is for an audience to say, ‘What happens next?’ To continually say that from beginning to end. And I want that to happen to me as well.” Such a position emphasizes an important fact about screenwriting, namely, that writing a screenplay is a creative process of discovery rather than a mere application of rules.

Even though In the Company of Men is predicated on an unexpected and surprising plot twist, LaBute’s film works more as a character study, as Chad and Howard become immersed in a game of cat and mouse with their chosen prey, Christine, as well as with each other. The men represent two sides of the same coin, which is actually how LaBute describes them: “the ego and id of one person.” Which of them is the protagonist? Or are they both? Of the two, Chad is clearly the more dominant character, the one who pushes the story forward and makes things happen. But it is hard to discuss his character in terms of goals because Chad has a secret hidden agenda, and because his motivations never really change. The real surprise involving his character is precisely that there are no surprises – he, in fact, turns out to be as just as cynical and opportunistic as he appears. For this reason, it would be hard for a viewer to identify with him as a protagonist. In fact, he displays exactly the kind of negative qualities we expect from an antagonist. Howard, on the other hand, essentially remains an extremely weak but vulnerable character throughout the course of the film. He is clearly no match for Chad, especially on the romantic front, in terms of the competition for Christine. Nevertheless, Howard’s character does undergo a major change once he falls for her, and, as the clear underdog, he does manage to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the viewer – at least initially. On some level, though, Howard also lacks enough redeeming qualities to serve as the lone protagonist.

If neither Chad nor Howard seem to function as the sole protagonist in the story, perhaps they might be considered what Kristin Thompson would call “dual protagonists,”or an example of a Plural-protagonist because they share similar goals. But once Christine becomes involved, the very nature of the love triangle forces the two men into a fierce competition. This changes the situation, pushing the men to have contrary goals, even though neither Howard nor the viewer grasps Chad’s real intentions fully until the very end. For this reason, I would argue, that it probably makes more sense to view Chad and Howard as forming what Robert McKee calls a “Multiprotagonist.” In some sense, each of them serves as the other’s antagonist, not only in relation to the romance character, but also in the hyper-competitive world of the workplace.

As a combined Multiprotagonist, neither Chad nor Howard are particularly likeable, which runs directly counter to the advice found in the manuals. Chad, whose character LaBute establishes in the very first scene, is an angry suit. At the airport, he is rude and hostile to women who pass by laughing. Chad complains about being mistreated by women, but he also rails against people in the workplace. He describes the bosses as “bastards” and the young guys as “vultures” waiting to displace him from his job. Chad clearly knows how to push Howard’s buttons, as he discusses the threat posed by the new person at the office. Chad refers to him as “big guy,” in contrast to Howard, who is rather short. Chad also mentions that he’s an ex-baseball player, “a hell of a shortstop,” which takes on particular meaning later on when Howard fibs to Christine that he was on a baseball scholarship when he blew his arm out during sophomore year in college.

Baseball actually figures prominently in the film. A co-worker (the one Howard sends off to Montana for the holiday weekend) complains to Chad, “If I could throw a curve ball, I mean, a really good one – just that, nothing else, no education, nothing – none of this would matter.” Sports represents the idealized career for these men. As the same person puts it, “Play in the big leagues for maybe ten years, retire to Oahu.” For these yuppie jocks, the business world represents nothing more than a consolation prize for those who cannot make it in the truly privileged world of professional athletic competition.

The irony, of course, is that these men are actually never seen working at any point in the film. They are usually too busy telling sexist jokes, practicing their golf putting, eating, smoking, standing on line at the copier, or loitering in the bathroom. They make personal phone calls and do other forms of personal business, even slipping out to have sex with the secretaries on company time. Chad chews out the African-American intern, Keith, for chasing other interns around the break room and hanging out with the shipping clerks, but there is no difference between what the interns are doing and the actions of Chad and Howard. On the other hand, the women, such as Christine, are seen typing, and the ones who seem to be keeping the office operational. In fact, women are virtually nonexistent in the film other than Christine. They often appear only as disembodied voices in this otherwise male-inscribed world.

Chad warns Howard numerous times to “watch his back,” but Howard is too distracted by his own personal problems to pay much attention to what Chad is telling him. Chad is upfront with Howard about his own cynical value system: “I do not give a shit. Not about anybody. A family member. The job. None of it. Couldn’t care less . . . .” He shares that revelation with Howard early on in the film, but Howard ignores the warning. Later, when Chad humiliates the black intern by making him display his testicles, he explains, “Listen, you got a pair, the kind men are carrying around, practically wear ’em on your sleeve! ’S what business is all about . . . what’s sporting the nastiest sac of venom. And who is willing to use it.” Chad proves that he is clearly up to the task.

When Chad finds out from his co-worker, John, that Christine is deaf, he makes fun of her in an incredibly cruel-hearted way. Chad’s ridicule of a physically-challenged secretary would be considered despicable anywhere outside the office. But Chad expresses the same contempt for his co-workers as he does toward Christine. As he sees it, everyone is a prick, a bastard, a cocksucker, or a cunt. He rails against everyone inside the company. Chad acts very friendly towards John, one of the few other employees we meet, but he has nothing but scorn for him once he’s in the men’s room with Howard. Chad comments, “’S John Merrick, that’s the only thing I can think of, the whole time . . . I am sitting across from the fucking Elephant Man.”

LaBute does not really attempt to provide any psychological explanation for Chad’s behavior other than his gender. Chad says to Howard: “Let’s hurt somebody,” a line that LaBute credits with providing the starting point for the script. When Howard begs to know why Chad completely screwed him over at the end of the film, Chad tells him very cooly, “Because I could.” Chad is governed by power rather than feelings – it is a case of Darwinism, plain and simple. But there is a pathological aspect to his cruelty. This becomes even more apparent when he admits that he used Howard’s hotel room when he had sex with Christine in the hopes that Howard would find her there. When Chad hurts Christine by acknowledging that he’s been playing games with her, he immediately wants to know what she feels. And when Chad humiliates the young African-American intern by making him pull down his pants so he can gauge the size of his testicles, he asks him afterwards, “Alright, great . . . (beat) You feel okay?” At the end of the film, when Howard shows up at Chad’s new townhouse and they discuss the fact that Howard has told Christine about the game, Chad quizzes him, “So, how’d it feel? Hmm?”After he devastates Howard by acknowledging to him into what has actually transpired, Chad asks him once again, “So, how’s it feel, Howie? How’s it feel to really hurt someone?” Because he seems to feel nothing himself, Chad constantly needs to seek confirmation from his victims. The importance of the question is highlighted by the fact that it is actually the very first line of dialogue in the script.

Howard, of course, is not all that much different from Chad. We first see him in the bathroom, nursing a wound he received for making an inappropriate pass at a woman at the airport. Because Chad does not attempt to hide the fact that he is a horrible person, the viewer tends to have greater identification with Howard, at least initially. But there’s actually very little difference between the behavior of the two men, except that Howard can at least feel pain – he seems terrified of rejection – whereas Chad views it as a loss of control, the worst mistake any male could possibly make. Chad announces this very early on, “Never lose control. ’S the key, Howard, that is the total key to the universe. Trust me . . .” It is obvious right from the start, that Howard will be no match for Chad, who promptly manipulates him into going along with his plan. Chad appeals to a juvenile sense of comradeship as the bait to get Howard to conspire with him. This will be something they’ll always be able to look back on. It will always represent their personal triumph, no matter what insult or injury happens to them later in life.

Howard’s difficulties with women go much deeper than making inappropriate passes at women in the airport. As he walks down the corridor with Chad, he reveals his own insecurities involving rejection in his previous relationship with a woman named Melanie. The first time we glimpse Howard in the new job, he rants at his mother on the phone about Melanie. Although Melanie has resorted to calling his mother, Howard still refuses to deal with her – at one point, he even refers to Melanie as a “bitch.” But it is not until later in the film, in the jewelry store, that we get the truly ugly picture of their breakup when Howard has the jeweler clean and repair the ring he has forcibly taken back from her. Rather than being a victim who deserves our sympathy, this monologue reveals the fact that Howard has a physically abusive side. He also tries to use force with Christine in the car. As LaBute describes the action in the script: “He [Howard] slams the lock down with a free hand and lands nearly on top of her, holding her down. He tries to kiss her as she screams at him. He fails.” Christine tries to get away from him, but Howard becomes even more violent: “Suddenly HOWARD grabs her jaw in his hand, holding her as she fights to pull away.”

Howard does other nasty things. He asks the wrong woman out and then leaves her dangling once he finds out the mistake. He also lies to Christine about why he’s late for their date at the zoo. He tries to impress her the first time they go out by fabricating a story about being on a baseball scholarship in college. When Christine tries to stop him from proposing and confesses her love for Chad, Howard does not try to spare her feelings, but instead retaliates by saying some of the most hurtful things imaginable. Howard tells Christine that Chad loathes her: “He detests you and your pathetic “retard” voice . . . ’s what he calls it.” Even after this, Howard still attempts to pass himself off as the good guy, but what is patently obvious is that Howard considers Christine to be his inferior, and he tells her as much in no uncertain terms.

In contrast to the brash and arrogant Chad, Howard seems to suffer from both a lack of self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. When he tells Chad about his problems with Melanie, Howard reveals a tendency to become obsessed with women and an inability to deal with any form of rejection. This allows Chad to concoct the scheme that will eventually place Howard in a no-win competition with him for the attention of Christine. Chad uses Howard’s distraction with Christine in order to sabotage him in the workplace by failing to fax key documents at crucial points in the project. Howard’s pathetic attempt to provide business leadership also borders on the comical. In the one meeting that we observe, Howard not only confuses Jonestown with Jamestown, but when he tries to divide the workers into two teams, Chad quickly interjects, “I thought you wanted to do the projection thing.” After he ends up getting demoted, Howard attempts to reassert himself by venting to a colleague. The co-worker, however, deflates his anger, by asking, “What’re you talking about?” In fact, Howard falls apart shortly afterwards.

Besides the strength of its characterization, In the Company of Men works largely as a result of its energetic dialogue. Labute’s dialogue has a concise, constructed quality, which is masked by elements of realism. LaBute, in fact, refers to it as “. . . a kind of hyperreality, this kind of language that I’ve admired in certain playwrights where it sounds exactly like people, yet nothing like [the way] people talk.” There are shades of Pinter as well as David Mamet.

LaBute’s dialogue is not only continually shocking, but enormously funny. Chad, in particular, loves to hear himself talk, and true to his last name – Piercewell (an obvious sexual pun) – he launches into long, venomous monologues in which words become his main weapon of hatred and deceit. Chad, for instance, pretends to offer helpful professional guidance to a minority intern, but he is really threatened by what he perceives to be Keith’s privileged status within the company. By subsequently chewing Keith out, correcting his pronunciation and demanding to see the size of his testicles, Chad’s words belie his true intention in this situation, which is to use his power to humiliate the black intern in a an utterly brutal and sadistic way. Chad also peppers his conversation with strangely constructed bromides, such as the remark he makes to Howard about their game with Christine: “’S a serpentine road, we travel, this life . . . see where it takes us.”

In the Company of Men seems most indebted to sex, lies, and videotape in being able to capitalize on an unorthodox script that requires only a minimum number of locations and a small ensemble cast. By shooting on a shoestring budget and employing minimal camera work – alternating between medium and wide shots, and sustained long takes – as well as a pared-down mise-en-scene, LaBute is able to focus most of his attention on simply telling what amounts to a compelling story with a whopper of a twist. Although his study of white-male venom and deceit proved shocking and controversial when it was commercially released, In the Company of Men nevertheless grossed a respectable $3 million at the box office. While Hollywood tends to avoid controversy in its attempt to appeal to the widest audience possible, independent films are generally not forced to operate under such constraints. Even though LaBute’s film had a tendency to polarize audiences, as Sony Pictures realized, that also turned out to its major selling point. The subsequent success of In the Company of Men simply proved that mature audiences in the late 1990s had a strong appetite for more provocative fare than what was being provided by the major studios.

Posted 26 October, 2008

Welcome to the Dollhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 30 June, 2008

Mister Lonely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 3 May, 2008

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