The Black Hole of the Camera

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Best Independent Films of 2012

My best film list always appears in February, but I’m late this year, mainly because, even though I saw a streamed version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to see it again in 35 mm. It played at our Cinematheque only last Friday. Yet, that issue aside, it’s been a hard year for me to keep up with the blog. Due to time constraints, I’ve been forced to be more selective in my coverage. As a general rule, I don’t write about films unless I’m enthusiastic about them and have an opportunity to view them at least twice.

More of my attention this year went toward other pursuits. My book, The Black Hole of the Camera: the Films of Andy Warhol, was published by the University of California Press in April. As a result, I’ve been screening films and lecturing more than usual. I gave two conference papers, a couple of presentations at the Brakhage Symposium in Boulder, a keynote in Sydney, and screenings and talks in Milwaukee, Boston, and Houston in the fall. I’m also co-organizing, with my colleague Kelley Conway, an international conference on screenwriting. The 2013 SRN Screenwriting Conference will take place in Madison (August 20–22) and will feature 70 scholars from around the world.

On one level, I could complain that independent cinema seems to have fallen off a cliff. Although there are more films being made than ever before, getting them distributed has become even more difficult than in past years. Many people, especially those living outside major cities, don’t seem to want to leave their houses. People want their media when they want it, so streaming has become the preferred means of distribution, relegating DVDs to the latest casualty of the digital revolution.

The situation for indie cinema is a lot like in the 1960s. Now that there’s less prospect of there being a pot of gold out there for the grabbing, independent filmmakers, in some ways, are making the films they really want to make. I applaud that impulse. Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham are now considered mainstream. You can make fun of mumblecore all you want, but it had an undeniable impact. By all accounts, 2013 promises to be a great year for independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski, Richard Linklater, Matthew Porterfield, David Lowery, Shane Carruth, Harmony Korine, and Jeff Nichols, among others, all have new films.

Most top ten lists are based on a film having a theatrical release. Using that criterion, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue count for this year rather than last. The same goes for Tim Sutton’s Pavilion. I’m starting to feel that the line has become extremely blurry. I wrote about Bad Fever and Green ages ago. Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was listed in my 2008 poll, only recently made it out on DVD.

I’ve seen many of the films that made other more eclectic lists: Holy Motors, Amour, Cosmopolis, Tabu, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with the Bike, In Another Country, and so forth. I also saw some wonderful avant-garde films, including several programs of Phil Solomon’s work, as well as programs by Vanessa Renwick and Stacey Steers during the past year. I also saw Chris Sullivan’s terrific animated feature, Consuming Spirits, but regret that I’ve only seen this new version once, and haven’t had the opportunity to write about it. I also try to follow what’s screening in museums and galleries. By far, the most impressive piece I saw was Eve Sussman’s self-generating and ever changing whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, made in collaboration with the Rufus Corporation. I found the interplay between the computer program and what appears on the screen to be utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the work with the film’s actor, Jeff Wood, who spoke at the screening I attended in Houston.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2012:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  2. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  3. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
  4. Starlet (Sean Baker)
  5. The Dish & the Spoon (Alison Bagnall)
  6. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
  7. Bad Fever (Dustin Defa)
  8. Green (Sophia Takal)
  9. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
  10. For Ellen (So Yong Kim)

I found the sheer ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild to be totally impressive. It’s worth noting that Sean Baker has now made three strong films in a row, as has So Yong Kim. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet convinces me that she has emerged as a major American indie filmmaker. Loktev has indicated that the film was incredibly hard to shoot. To anyone who has ever made one, that’s pretty obvious. In terms of performance, I found the chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in The Dish & the Spoon and between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in Starlet to be pretty riveting.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 28 February, 2013

For Ellen

So Yong Kim’s For Ellen (2012) begins with an illuminated directional road sign at night, followed by a close-up of the darkened face of Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) as rock music blasts from the car’s CD player. The image suddenly explodes into sharper focus when he lights the cigarette dangling from his mouth. As the exhausted rock musician tries to eat something the next morning after driving all night, the food falls into his lap, causing his car to swerve out of control on the snowy road. For Ellen is Kim’s third feature after In Between Days (2006) and Treeless Mountain (2009), two films that established her reputation as a major visual stylist and one of the most intriguing new American independent filmmakers working today. Like her earlier films, For Ellen explores the effects of the breakup of a family. In this case, it looks at a deadbeat dad, not as inexplicable absence and gaping hole in a daughter’s heart, as in In Between Days, but from his point of view.

The purpose of Joby Taylor’s long car trip soon becomes apparent, when he meets with lawyers and his estranged wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva), who is seeking a legal settlement and wishes to have no communication with him during the proceedings. He stammers, “We’re both adults now, right Claire? We can work this out.” When the signing is postponed for a day in order to give him more time to look over the court documents, Joby asks to have coffee with Claire, but she bluntly refuses. He follows her out to her car and tries to cajole her “for Ellen’s sake,” but, as Claire drives off, he shouts, “You fucking serious? Get the fuck out of here. I don’t even want to talk to you.” For emphasis, he kicks and spits at her car and curses at Claire.

Kim uses images and sound to convey Joby’s state of mind. For nearly a minute afterward, he sits in his car and appears to down some pills. This is followed by a shot of him checking into a motel, an extended wide shot of a couple of cars traversing the highway at dusk, an extreme close-up of his eye, a house fly, fragmented shots of his body, including his lips, before the fly crawls into his ear, causing him to jolt up in bed. It’s a sequence right out of a horror movie, but it might also be a reference to an early Yoko Ono and John Lennon film. With headphones on, Joby rocks out to music under the warm glow of incandescent light in his motel room. He plays pool at a local tavern and ends up embracing an attractive woman, followed by an exterior shot of a snowy field with trees and power lines in the background.

At a meeting with his inexperienced lawyer, Fred Butler (Jon Heder), the next morning, it soon becomes evident that Joby must sign over custody of his young daughter to receive a half-share of the house (for which he hasn’t actually made any payments). “You’re the lawyer,” he tells Fred in disbelief, “isn’t there something you can do.” He phones Claire and turns up at her house, where he spies Ellen inside and experiences pangs of guilt. He then calls Fred and insists that he needs to spend time with his daughter. He whines, “I mean . . . this is so unfair. Why does Claire get everything?”

The soft-spoken rock musician initially appears well-meaning. Like a child prone to temper tantrums, however, he has the capacity to explode into rage when he doesn’t get his way, first with Claire and then with a band member on the phone. As he paces outside his motel, Joby tells a fellow musician that he wants to “start re-tracking and add a little more heart to the songs.” He insists, “We need some real shit.” When the guy doesn’t buy it, Joby shouts into his cell phone: “You’re nothing without me. I’m the front man. I’m the fucking singer. What the fuck are you going to do without me? I’m fucking Joby Taylor. I am Snake Trouble. I started this fucking band. You don’t talk to me that way.” And he’s not beyond threatening Claire after she turns down his request to see Ellen.

Fred, who has picked up a copy of Joby’s first album at a yard sale, invites his client over to his house where his mother has cooked lasagna. She asks Joby a great many personal questions at dinner, causing discomfort. The awkwardness is momentarily broken when Joby invites Fred to go to a bar. After a beer and a couple of shots and a smoke outside, Joby suddenly breaks into a suggestive dance number and mouths Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” His rendition is so over the top and narcissistic that it freaks out the young lawyer. As Joby leans back a the bar as if nodding out, Fred asks him whether he’s okay, but Joby responds curtly, “Yes, I’m fine.” When Joby buries his head on the counter, Fred wonders whether he should call a cab, but the rocker snarls, “No I don’t want you to call a fucking cab. I want you to go.”

With its bizarre mood swings, the bar scene is one of the highlights of Kim’s film, especially in the way the erotic undercurrent of Joby’s rendition of the heavy metal song manages to seduce and repel at the same time. A master of the double message, Joby does eventually get to spend brief time with Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) after he plays his trump card. During their visit, he talks to the sweet but skeptical child more like a nervous stranger than a parent. Although Joby tries to play the role of interested father, he doesn’t exactly fit the part. With his greasy hair, painted fingernails, hoodie, leather jacket, piercings, tattoos, and wisp of a goatee, Joby looks decidedly out of place in either a toy store or playground.

Kim’s painful and engaging For Ellen is a skeletal narrative with only a smidgen of plot. It’s essentially a character study that focuses almost entirely on Joby. You can see the appeal of the role for an accomplished actor like Dano – he’s virtually the whole show. It’s almost as if Kim, for whom the subject has personal relevance – she met her own father as a four-year-old when he showed up unexpectedly – is trying to fathom this character through the power of observation and by embedding him within the frozen landscape of the film’s setting.

Kim shoots Joby in extended takes, suggesting that if we watch him closely enough, he might suddenly reveal the mystery behind his self-absorbed behavior. Despite how often he looks at himself in mirrors throughout the film, Joby can’t really see himself. When he tells Ellen, “I want what’s best for you,” quite sadly we grasp that he’s confusing the pronoun.

Posted 13 June, 2012

The Exploding Girl

Bradley Rust Gray pushes cinematic naturalism to the brink in his intriguing second feature The Exploding Girl, where very little happens and the real interest lies almost entirely beneath the surface. Gray is mining territory that has been explored previously by films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron’s Katz’s Quiet City (2007), but also So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (2006), a film that Gray co-wrote with his wife and creative partner, Kim, who also co-produced and co-edited The Exploding Girl.

Mumblecore films, to which Rust’s new film invites comparison, tend to be highly verbal films about relationships, whereas The Exploding Girl employs words sparingly. It uses temporality – the passage of time – rather than language to suggest the awkwardness of youthful interactions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Mumblecore films, for the most part, deal with characters who consider themselves hipsters. The Exploding Girl, on the other hand, focuses on a pair of nerdy college kids. Mumblecore films are populated by nonprofessional performers, mostly friends of the filmmaker, whereas Gray uses professional actors here.

Indeed, the performances of Zoe Kazan and Mark Rendall are key elements to the success of Gray’s film. Kazan, in particular, is as amazing in The Exploding Girl as Michelle Williams is in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, as she finds inventive ways to fill dead time. The writer Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay for Wendy and Lucy, talks about Michelle Williams being able to express the inexpressible. He told an interviewer: “To me, the incredible thing she accomplished, and which I can only imagine is like the black belt of acting, was somehow to express the idea that she was, in fact, withholding expression. Somehow, she managed to give the impression of blocked feelings, which to me seems almost impossible. How do you express that you are not expressing something? It seems really hard.” Zoe Kazan also earns a black belt in acting for her portrayal of a character with bottled-up feelings in The Exploding Girl. In fact, she won the best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

The plot of The Exploding Girl is extremely slight. The story centers on a young student named Ivy (Kazan), who returns home to Brooklyn from college in upstate New York over break, along with an old school chum named Al (Rendall) who ends up staying at her house. In the car, Al, who attends a different college, asks Ivy whether her boyfriend Greg (Franklin Pipp) is planning to visit her. Greg isn’t, but Al’s reaction suggests that it’s actually a loaded question. It soon becomes obvious from Ivy and Greg’s cell phone conversations, that their relationship consists mostly of reporting what they’re doing at the moment, and, for Ivy at least, it seems to involve moping around and waiting for him to call her. So it comes as no surprise when Greg dumps Ivy as she stands on the street in the midst of heavy traffic.

Ivy has epilepsy, which partially accounts for her fragility. She has to be careful not to drink too much or get stoned or overly stressed, but she’s also so repressed and depressed that her passivity becomes pretty exasperating. Not that her handsome and overly polite pal Al, who’s into biology and has the face of a sad clown, is any better at expressing what he feels either. Under the guise of their close bond – they go back to eighth or ninth grade – he confides in her about his crushes, and asks her advice about wanting to kiss another woman. Yet it’s obvious in the hushed and sincere tone he uses when speaking to her that the two have feelings for each other beyond friendship, even though they might need a sinking ocean liner for it to register.

Ivy’s mother (Maryann Urbano) runs a dance studio. Other than when the three of them play a game of cards, she seems more preoccupied with her own life than with spending time with her daughter. Al’s parents aren’t much better. They’ve rented out his room (or at least that’s what he claims), and his parents never come up again. Gray uses the art-cinema technique of burying the motivation of his characters. Babies, real or imagined, surface several times in the film. Along with Ivy’s mom, Ivy and Al visit her cousin, who has a new baby, which Ivy holds, while Al stares with wonder and touches the baby’s tiny hand. Later, after a party where Al gets very stoned and the two share a milkshake, he asks Ivy whether she wants to have babies. She explains that, given her medical condition and need to take medication, it would be more complicated for her, which leads to this exchange:

IVY: Why? You want babies?
AL: Yeah.
IVY: You want my baby?
AL: Yes. (Ivy laughs) I didn’t mean it like that.

At the rooftop pigeon coop toward the film’s end, he shows her a couple of baby birds. Ivy gushes and wants to touch them. Is this an indirect way of trying to bring up sex?

In terms of the film’s use of buried motivation, there seems to be one skeleton in the closet that’s never brought up, namely: What happened to Ivy’s father? If The Exploding Girl is the b-side of In Between Days (both titles come from songs by The Cure), as Gray has indicated in several interviews, I would hazard a guess that this might be the key to unlocking Ivy’s character. In Kim’s film, In Between Days, the absence of Aimie’s father remains the main source of her pain and confusion. Why is Ivy so depressed? Why is she in a relationship with a guy like Greg, who is clearly cheating on her behind her back? The answer actually isn’t in the text, so to speak, but part of the pleasure of watching films like In Between Days, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and The Exploding Girl remains filling in the missing blanks.

The Exploding Girl is deliberately underwritten – the screenplay is a mere 60 pages for a film that’s 79 minutes long. Gray calls the process of making the film “exciting because we made it out of nothing, like making cookies with ingredients you find in your cupboard.” According to an interview with Ramin Bahrani in Filmmaker, Gray wrote the character of Ivy based on conversations with Zoe Kazan after she agreed to be in his film, while Al’s character derived from things Grey had learned about Rendall from an actress friend of his. Thus, there’s a close connection between actor and role in the film. As was already evident in In Between Days, Gray has mastered how young people communicate (or don’t) with each other, especially via cell phones. As Ivy walks down the street, Greg calls her:

IVY: Hello?
GREG: Hey . . .
IVY: Hi. Hey.
GREG: Hey.
IVY: Um, I called you last night.
GREG: Yeah, I was with my parents, and . . . we’re going to lunch now.
IVY: Oh . . . (her phone rings) Oh, hang on a second. Shit, I have another call. Um, can I, can I . . . can you hang on?
She gets another call, which turns out to be from Al.
GREG: Ah, yeah.
She talks briefly with Al, and then returns to Greg.
IVY: Hey . . . Greg?
GREG: Hey, yeah, sorry I can’t talk long now. I’m with my parents. I just . . .
IVY: Oh . . .
GREG: You know, wanted to check in.
IVY: Okay.
GREG: I miss you.
IVY: Yeah, me too.
GREG: Ah, okay, so I’ll call you later. Okay?
IVY: Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll have my phone on. (Pause) Okay, bye.
GREG: Bye.

In other words, the whole purpose of Greg’s phone call is to tell Ivy that he can’t talk to her.

Rust differs from mumblecore directors in being far less oriented toward dialogue and in relying instead on visual storytelling. Gray cites Hou Hsaio-hsien as a major influence on this piece. The Exploding Girl embodies a cinema of observed gestures, silence, and intricate sound design rather than plot and action. Gray uses a longer focal-length lens to compress his images spatially. It allows him to embed his characters within documentary-like shots taken on the street, which add to the film’s realism. Even though Gray includes a fair number of closeup shots, especially of Ivy, he and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, often place obstacles between the characters, such as framing Ivy behind the doctor’s shoulder during her checkup or filming her through passing traffic while she’s in the bookstore.

The most visually exhilarating scene occurs on a rooftop when Al takes Ivy to see his friend’s pigeon coop, where she finally breaks down, while pigeons swirl in formation overhead. The film is also book-ended by the trip from upstate to Brooklyn, where the moving landscape is reflected on Ivy’s sleeping face, and the return ride back, where Gray relies on the power of the camera to capture those subtle moments that are somehow beyond words.

The Exploding Girl, which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, will be shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 19 February, 2010

Best Independent Films of 2009

Most people do their “best films” lists at the end of December. That makes sense, but, in my case, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have too many other projects in the works, so that even maintaining the blog is a pretty challenging endeavor. But beyond that, because I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin rather than in either New York City or Los Angeles, it now takes considerable effort on my part to view the important independent feature films that surface within a given year.

Most of them aren’t playing at my local cinemas. They play at film festivals, or on VOD, or I have to wait to see them when they are finally released on DVD, or sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch them when I’m in NYC to visit museums and art galleries, where an alternate universe of film and video is also on display (such as Cyprien Gaillard’s mesmerizing Desniansky Raion, which I saw on separate occasions at the New Museum and White Columns this past year).

Three of the indie films on the list below – Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, and The New Year Parade – played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last spring. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me is scheduled to screen at this year’s upcoming festival in April. Only two of the films – Goodbye Solo and The Girlfriend Experience – had commercial runs locally. But that’s also true of many of the best international art films as well.

I’m certainly a huge fan of global cinema, and indeed found great pleasure in viewing such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, Three Monkeys, Hunger, The Headless WomanGomorrah, Tony Manero, Tokyo Sonata, Somers Town, and Police, Adjective, among others. And from the studios, I was impressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Yet, due to the main focus of this blog, my list remains confined to American indie films.

If there’s one trend among the best indie films of the year, it is once again naturalism and some flexibility toward the script. The second appears to be a move toward globalism and a renewed interest in regionalism. While So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo were shot in Korea and Rwanda respectively, the other films were set in Austin (two of them), Winston-Salem, Vermont, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida. That alone seems pretty remarkable, especially when Hollywood has tried to make it appear as if Los Angeles somehow reflects everyone’s reality.

This is a rough time to be an independent filmmaker. Three films on the list – Severed Ways: the Norse Discovery of America, Munyurangabo, and Loren Cass – took a couple of years after being finished to have a theatrical release. Now that digital technology has made it so much easier and cheaper to make feature films, the biggest challenge continues to be how to connect them with an audience. Most commentators lament the lack of commercial support. The fact that the studios and their subsidiaries virtually have abandoned indie cinema may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but only provided that some new and better digital exhibition and distribution model can emerge from the ashes.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2009:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
3. Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
4. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
5. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
6. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
7. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
8. The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
9. Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
10. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

If the new list seems more obscure than last year’s, I think this partially has to do with the fact that indie films are opening in more alternative venues such as Film Forum (Treeless Mountain and Beeswax), Anthology Film Archives (Munyurangabo,) or even The Museum of Modern Art (Harmony and Me). As a result, these films haven’t received nearly the level of publicity they deserve.

Posted 8 February, 2010

In Between Days

As the typewritten title scrolls across the lower right portion of the screen, we hear footsteps crunching snow, which continue over black. Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a Korean-American teenage girl in a fur-lined parka, trudges toward us in closeup, as we see a couple of high-rise buildings in the background. Over an image of this desolate urban landscape (Toronto), she writes to her absent father about going to school, “My friends are white, black, Chinese, and Japanese, too. Isn’t that amazing?” The film cuts to a closeup of Aimie’s face as she eats a sandwich by herself in the lunchroom. After school, she spends time with a male Asian friend named Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). Aimie asks Tran whether his breaking up with his girlfriend Janet is somehow connected to her, but he denies it. What she’s really asking is whether he likes her, but the subtlety of her indirect question is lost on him, a pattern that will continue throughout their courtship. In her debut feature, In Between Days (2006), So Yong Kim (who also directed the recent indie film Treeless Mountain) does a terrific job of capturing the mixed signals that often pass for communication amongst teenagers, especially when they are compounded by the pain of divorce and cultural displacement. In Between Days manages to convey the temporal aspect of adolescence – the sense of boredom of teenagers simply hanging out together for long stretches of dead time.

In Between Days deals with Aimie’s life as a new immigrant, but does so mostly by focusing on her relationship with her only friend Tran, a petty criminal and slacker, who wears a signature hand-woven wool ski cap for most of the film. When Aimie talks about “doing it” with him, we assume she’s talking about sex, but it turns out to involve her giving him a tattoo. But when he later asks her again while they’re watching television together, it is clearly sexual. This is never made explicit, but rather conveyed through subtle gestures and reaction shots. Like the characters themselves, the viewer tends to get lost in the labyrinth of their confused and conflicted personal feelings for each other. Aimie does not even possess the vocabulary to articulate what she’s experiencing, which is why adolescence represents such a traumatic period of transition for most of us. This might explain the film’s title, which also happens to reference a song by The Cure.

Aimie writes Tran’s name on the fogged window of the bus, indicating her romantic feelings for him. But when he suggests that they engage in sexual intercourse, Aimie indignantly refuses. Right afterwards, she quits her English class in order to buy him a very expensive bracelet. When she gives it to him, she says diffidently, “Hey, I saw this and got it. I thought it would look cool on you.” Kim’s camera focuses on the reaction on her face and then on his to capture the ambiguous resonances of this moment. At a party afterwards, Aimie becomes jealous when she sees Tran flirting with other girls, and retaliates by doing the same, causing Tran to insist that they leave. As the two wait at the bus shelter and then ride home, the tension between them is palpable. Concerned about his infected tattoo, Tran awakens her in the middle of the night, but when Aimie comes over, she shows little sympathy and calls him a sissy. Tran later feels up her breasts as she dozes off. She responds by calling him a pervert. He counters, “You got nothing to grab anyway.” A subsequent shot of Aimie looking at lingerie in a store window reveals her true feelings.

Tran turns up at her house and suggests that he was joking and thinks of her more like a “guy friend” – an attempt at an apology that completely backfires. To get back at him she tells him she kissed Steve at the party, which makes Tran noticeably jealous, indicating that they know exactly how to wound each other. When Tran asks whether Aimie really did kiss Steve, she denies it. Aimie, however, becomes even more sullen and withdrawn. Once they are together again, Tran asks her, “Are you on the rag?”Aimie laughs in disbelief at his crassness and calls him a jerk. After he flirts with another girl on the way back from the bathroom, Kim’s camera lingers on the two of them as they sit in a game room and don’t speak to each other, unable to break the stalemate.

Things don’t get any better between the two teens. Tran tries to get Aimie to go to a party, but she refuses for no apparent reason – she stays home and does laundry – other than the fact that she’s still angry with him. As the night wears on, she proceeds to call Tran and ends up alone in a karaoke place, where she sings an animated but sad pop song. Tran later shows up at her house after he’s been thrown out of his. Aimie makes Tran beg to be let in, then insists that he sleep in her closet, so as not to be detected by her mother. When she finds out that Tran is planning to move into a room at Michelle’s house, Aimie becomes upset once again. After she presses him, Tran insists, “For me . . .you’ve always been . . . from start to end . . . just a good friend.” The camera again focuses on their faces before Aimie simply walks away. We see her delayed emotional reaction as a tear streams down her face while riding a bus.

Like Jim Jarmusch, So Yong Kim (who co-wrote the screenplay with her filmmaker husband Bradley Rust Gray) builds the story from an accumulation of details, and from character rather than plot. She told director Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson and Sugar) in an interview in Bomb: “I usually develop my characters from little moments, and hopefully at the end of the writing process, I feel like I have a whole person. Everything – other supporting characters and the whole overall story – has to be based on my main character. I don’t really put that much importance on a big story or a theme.” Her main character is as ambivalent as Willy in Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Even after viewing the film twice, I still have a few questions about what’s going on between Aimie and Tran, but Kim suggests that adolescence is rooted in buried motivation. And, like Paul and Noel in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003), the story of Aimie and Tran is ultimately one of missed connections.

Aimie’s real love and feelings are channeled into the letters and images she sends to her deadbeat dad back in Korea. His absence only causes her love for him to grow larger in magnitude. Aimie’s anger over her parents’ divorce is reserved only for her mother (Bokya Kim), who works hard to support the two of them as a single mom in a new country. When her mother asks how she would feel about having a new father, Aimie answers that she already has one. The mom insists that her father abandoned them, but her daughter snaps, “Is that my fault?” When her mother gets ready to go out one night, the sulky teenager calls her “a cheap whore.” Yet Aimie hears her mother crying on the couch one night and calls out to her, as she watches sympathetically from the stairwell. It’s the only bit of warmth we see between them. Otherwise her father remains the specter behind what Aimie is trying to work out with Tran. It’s her father rather than Tran who represents the gaping hole in her heart – the source of her incredible loss and longing – that no doubt results in her moody and erratic behavior.

Kim uses wide shots and spoken voiceover for Aimie’s letters to her dad, which serve as transitions in the film. Otherwise, cinematographer Sarah Levy keeps extremely close to the characters by using a hand-held camera that gives a sense of intimacy to what transpires. Aimie and Tran often simply stare at each other as a substitute for talking. So Yong Kim trusts the camera to capture the emotions that are registered on their young faces, especially those of Jiseon Kim, who gives a truly extraordinary performance for a nonprofessional actress. What’s not said between Aimie and Tran is more important that what’s actually said, which suggests the unspoken undercurrent – the film’s subtext – that provides the real energy in the film.

There’s the scene in Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise after Eva leaves New York City, where Willie and Eddie sit and drink beers in awkward silence for what feels like an eternity. So Yong Kim keeps her scenes extremely short by conventional standards, but milks the dead time – the negative space of the film – in a similar assured way by relying on visual storytelling rather than dialogue to tell her story.

Posted 9 November, 2009

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