The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Bellflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 10 January, 2012

Tiny Furniture

A move toward the autobiographical has been one of the more interesting developments to surface in recent indie cinema. Azazel Jacobs’s Momma Man (2008) and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs (2010) can serve as reference points. Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), the second feature written and directed by the twenty-four-year-old filmmaker, represents the most recent example. It won the top prize at the SXSW Film Festival in March, is being distributed by IFC Films, and played at BAMcinemaFEST last night.

On some level, all of these films deal with the filmmakers’ relationships with their parents. Daddy Longlegs is a fictional portrait of Josh and Benny Safdie’s eccentric father, but it details their own conflicted feelings about their dad based on memories from their childhood. I saw the film for the third time at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April. I can tell you that Daddy Longlegs gets better with each viewing, and this last time, it packed an even stronger emotional wallop due to Frey’s response at the end.

The other two films take the perspective of young adults, whose parents also happen to be well-known figures in the art world. Jacobs uses a surrogate actor, Matt Boren, in Momma’s Man, but he casts his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, his real high school friend as Dante, and sets the film in the Tribeca loft in which he grew up. Jacobs later cuts in home-movie footage of himself as child, which makes the autobiographical aspect even more overt.

Lena Dunham plays the protagonist, Aura, in Tiny Furniture. The film is also shot in her family’s Tribeca loft in NYC, features her artist mother Laurie Simmons as her fictional single mother, Siri, and her high school-aged sister Grace as her fictional sister, Nadine. Her actual father, the painter Carroll Dunham, is not included in this family portrait. Aura has just graduated from college in Ohio (Dunham went to Oberlin), and the film is about leaving the safety net of college and Aura’s awkward attempt to navigate her life after graduation.

I don’t know the filmmaker personally – though I’m familiar with her film reviews – but the autobiographical parts, like in Momma’s Man and Daddy Longlegs manage to give the film additional layers of complexity. With semi-autobiographical work, a viewer is always conscious of how the filmmakers choose to portray themselves and their own family within a fictional world. Because the films are trying to blur the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction, those things that manage to be revealed – the unintentional slippages – actually turn out to be part of the work’s fascination.

Although Aura has all benefits of class privilege, she’s depressed to be leaving college. She fears her that her film theory degree will turn out to be useless in finding meaningful employment. Aura makes self-deprecating videos that feature her in very unflattering poses, such as in a bikini bathing suit, causing online viewers to ridicule her with comments like “whales ahead” and “what a blubber factory!” Upon returning home, she calls out, “Honey, I’m home . . . family?”

Aura doesn’t quite get the warm reception she somehow anticipates. Her mom is too busy photographing Nadine amidst dollhouse furniture (hence, the film’s title) for her art work. Aura questions why her mother has never photographed her. Siri claims that it’s because Aura is never around, but Nadine suggests that it’s because her legs are “longer and more supple.” In Aura’s absence, Nadine has pre-empted her room. There’s obvious sibling rivalry between them. Whereas Aura lacks self-confidence and is short and a bit on the pudgy side, Nadine, despite her age, is tall and slim and very self-assured.

Aura complains that she’s just broken up with her boyfriend, who has moved to Colorado. She gets very little sympathy. Nadine compares him to a “speck of Granola,” while Siri tells her, “You know, I always said he was really a sweet guy, but like the perfect first boyfriend – like the way a college boyfriend should be.” Her mother downplays her own twenties, thereby minimizing Aura’s feelings as merely reflecting a stage of life. While looking for a light bulb, Aura finds and begins to read her mother’s diary. Aura discovers intimate details about her mother’s life at her age, which she casually shares with her friends.

In Momma’s Man, Mikey’s mom dotes on him, reinforcing the image of him as an adult baby. Aura in Tiny Furniture is clingy and whiny and in need of her mother’s attention, but Siri is too self-absorbed and involved in her own art career to pay much heed. Aura has several female friends. One is from college – Frankie (Merritt Wever from Greenberg). While expressing great love for Frankie, Aura nevertheless backs out of sharing an apartment with her at the last moment, leaving Frankie in the lurch. Aura claims that it’s because her mother has become dependent on her and needs her, when it’s actually the other way around.

At a party, the hostess, Ashlynn (Amy Seimetz from Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last) manages to get Aura hooked up with a potential boyfriend, Jed (Alex Karpovsky), whose YouTube videos, unlike Aura’s, have gained him minor celebrity status on the Internet. When they meet, Jed tells Ashlynn, “I thought you told me there was going to be some grinding at this party . . . like straight-up, eighth grade-style grinding.” With a deadpan delivery, Ashlynn replies, “No, I said eighth grade-style crying. We’re all going to cry together.” This exchange epitomizes Dunham’s understated, but considerable humor.

At the same party, Aura re-meets a wacky childhood friend with a British accent named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who promptly slaps Aura in the face. She screams, “I’m so sorry I slapped you. I’m just so overwhelmed. Aura, are you here? Are you here?” It turns out that Aura has been deliberately avoiding Charlotte since high school. The two smoke pot together at Charlotte’s place afterward, even though Charlotte discloses that she’s spent time in rehab. She asks Aura, “Can’t we just start again as new friends, who were old friends?”

After watching Aura’s videos, Charlotte declares her a genius. Charlotte, who wears so much makeup she could easily be mistaken for a mime, curates art shows in Brooklyn and lives on her father’s credit card. She also gives Aura a tip about a hostess job at a neighborhood bistro. Despite Aura’s lack of experience, she does manage to get hired. Almost immediately she becomes attracted to the restaurant’s egotistical sous chef, Keith (David Call).

Both of Aura’s romantic escapades don’t end up well. Jed merely uses her because he needs a place to crash while he’s in New York City. He stays with her at her loft when Siri and Nadine are away scouting colleges, but their relationship remains platonic. Upon returning, Siri doesn’t approve of Jed and eventually insists that he leave. Keith lives with his girlfriend, but he really wants Aura to get him some Vicodin. Keith is a no-show for their first date, causing Aura to quit her hostess job.

When Charlotte arranges for Aura’s video to be shown in a group exhibit at an art gallery in Dumbo, Keith appears and the two have sex about as fast as Roger and Florence in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Once again, Dunham’s portrayal of Aura in this situation is hardly flattering, but it’s nevertheless extremely humorous. To her credit, Lena Dunham is not at all afraid to have the joke be at her expense.

Tiny Furniture, however, is less about romance and Aura finding her place in the world than it is about mother and daughter relationships or about the changing relationship between parents and their kids in this particular generation. Lena views her mother as a friend and even a role model, even though she craves more attention from Siri, who is rather cold and aloof and, after she hurts her back, glides through the loft like Morticia from The Addams Family.

Like Mikey in Momma’s Man, once back home, Aura also regresses. She walks around in the equivalent of her underwear. She begins to talk in a childish voice like a little girl, at times calling Siri, “Mommy.” Like Mikey, Aura also winds up sitting in her mother’s lap. She also finds it hard to leave and explodes at her mother and sister – she refers to the two of them as a “gang” – for not supporting her emotionally and making her feel like an outcast in her own home.

Although the motivation for Mikey getting stuck at home in Momma’s Man is never clear, he lies to his parents about his situation. Aura, on the other hand, tells Siri all about the sexual fling she’s just had, including the odd setting and the fact that she didn’t use protection. I recognize that there’s a gender difference at work in the two films. I can also assure you that I never would have dreamed of discussing such things with my parents.

Parents of boomer kids wanted them to have better lives, which is why they made incredible sacrifices to send their children to college. As a result, though bridged by love, a chasm developed between the two generations. Parents acted like parents not friends. Momma’s Man and Tiny Furniture are about young people who have hip, educated, and highly successful parents.

These days, there’s something almost incestuous occurring between some kids and their parents, such as Aura’s need to sleep in the same bed with her mom. Parents and kids expect to be close friends. They befriend each other on Facebook, where young people have few qualms about disclosing extremely personal aspects of their lives. In an interview, Lena Dunham comments, “I clearly project oversharing, it’s what I do!”

To me, Tiny Furniture feels very much a product of this current generation, whereas Momma’s Man doesn’t. This makes sense because Azazel Jacobs is considerably older than Dunham. Aura reveals at the end that she aspires to be as successful as her mother. When she adds that she wants to be as successful as Nadine, who has just won a major poetry prize, Siri indicates that’s going to be much harder. The film mimics Andrew Bujalski’s films in the abrupt cut that ends the film.

Dunham employs a type of naturalism that has become the prevalent style of many younger filmmakers today. But she and her extremely talented cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot Antonio Campos’s Afterschool, wisely decide not to use a hand-held camera. They favor wide shots that capture the expansive space of the loft, which is often divided compositionally by large stacks of books. The use of wide shots helps to create some distance from events that might otherwise seem indulgent.

Lena Dunham might play a sad sack, clownish figure, but don’t be fooled for a moment. Her achievement in Tiny Furniture is impressive by any standards, but it’s even more extraordinary given her age. This talented filmmaker is just getting started.

Posted 12 June, 2010

The Box

knowing-box-0309-lg1.jpg

As much as I admire Richard Kelly’s wildly eccentric indie debut Donnie Darko (2001), I confess that, like most people, his much anticipated second effort Southland Tales (2007) left me cold. When asked by an interviewer in Wired whether his new film The Box (2009), which I saw last weekend, was another Rubrik’s Cube, Kelly responded, “No vulgarity, no porn stars, and no nuclear bombs. It’s something that will make the studios say, yeah, we can sell that.”

This is another way of saying that The Box represents a retreat into genre – suspense, science fiction, horror, and melodrama (that ultimately goes way over the top). In trying to be more safely commercial, Kelly has fashioned a slightly different version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed with weird Lynchian tics and a score by members of Arcade Fire that mimics Bernard Hermann’s soundtracks for films by Alfred Hitchcock. The Box is an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” that later became an actual episode of Twilight Zone. Kelly expands the brief story into a deeply personal and somewhat autobiographical feature that imagines his own parents as fictional characters – ordinary good people who become implicated in supernatural murder as a result of greed. Warner Brothers is actually having a difficult time selling this. Reportedly made for $30 million, The Box so far has recouped less than half of its production costs.

Even as science fiction, the story itself seems fairly implausible. Set in Virginia in 1976, a package arrives at the door of the Lewis family early one morning before Christmas. The enclosed “button unit” (as it’s called) comes with a proposition: push the button and get paid $1 million, but a stranger will die as a result. Things just happen to be go wrong for the couple financially as they are deciding whether to accept the offer. The school teacher wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), learns that exclusive Libby Hill is getting rid of the faculty tuition discount that will impact their overly inquisitive son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), while her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), employed by NASA and part of the Viking space mission to Mars, fails to get into the astronaut program as a result of flunking the psychological test. Given only twenty-four hours, the couple grapples with the moral decision. Norma suggests they barely are able to make ends meet, which causes us to wonder why Arthur drives a fancy Corvette. Whatever the case, Norma impulsively pushes the button, wrecking havoc on their lives.

Kelly has made a very old-fashioned and conventional film on some level, but loaded it with many personal (his father worked on the Viking project at NASA and his mother taught school) and downright odd touches. There aren’t many Hollywood genre pictures where the characters spout the philosophical views of Jean-Paul Sartre regarding personal freedom. Kelly includes lots of exposition to explain many of the nutty events that subsequently occur, but most viewers nevertheless will end up scratching their heads. “I like mystery, don’t you?” responds the overly formal, but menacing antagonist, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), at one point, as if Kelly is aware that the answers he provides only lead to more questions. He invokes Arthur Clarke’s Third Law, suggesting that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which allows Kelly to dispense with classical notions of causality.

Kelly himself appears obsessed with scientific and paranormal mystery, Sartre’s vision of hell No Exit, NSA conspiracies at Langley Air Force Base, mind control experiments, portals to other dimensions, radio signals from Mars, and existential choices between self and others and between spouses and children. He’s also intrigued by issues having to do with the physical body, such as disfigurement. Norma limps as a result of an accident and medical malpractice when she was only a teenager – she lost four of her toes as a result of radiation when the doctor inadvertently left her foot under an X-Ray machine. Arlington Steward was struck by lightning and has lost half of his face, and he now claims to be working for those who control the lightning.

Norma’s limp is a focus of everyone’s morbid curiosity, including one of her students at Libby Hill, who gets her to expose her mutilated foot to the class. At Langley, Arthur is working on fashioning a prosthetic foot as a holiday present for Norma. When Norma and Steward meet at the library, he questions her about her first response to seeing his disfigurement. Rather than feeling pity, Norma admits that she actually felt deep love for him. Although she has lost several of her toes, she can’t imagine what it would be like to have to wear her deformity on her face. In other words, Norma identifies so strongly with the grotesque that it might in some way explain why she pushes the button in the first place.

Kelly appears to be so obsessed with providing the sci-fi backstory that he fails to notice the bewildering elements of his plot. Much of the story centers around Norma’s sister getting married. Their father (Holmes Osborne) conveniently happens to be a cop, but I can’t tell you why the wedding rehearsal and wedding are such extravagant affairs, or why the dad isn’t paying for it. Or, for that matter, why does Norma’s sister seem less her sister than a total stranger? Kelly could care less about such narrative details. It is during the sequence at the library, however, that he completely loses control of the material, as Steward’s wife makes an unexpected appearance and zombies proliferate. Arthur chooses a gateway that determines his fate, travels through a tunnel of light, and ends up in a mass of water that hovers over Norma’s bed as she sleeps, before crashing down on her and flooding the house. Walter asks, “Where did all this water come from?”

In interviews, Kelly seems extremely proud of the fact that he shot the film with a Genesis camera. He did this largely to manipulate Steward’s face digitally rather than through makeup. I found the extreme soft focus and mustard palette of the cinematography to be a bad tradeoff, even if Kelly uses the digital effects and art direction to recreate the look of the 1970s. The Lewis’s home is dominated by outrageously kitsch patterned wallpaper. There are jokes about Lynard Skynard, wide sideburns, and peace signs. We even glimpse a shot of the Clipper ships passing the World Trade Center on TV.

Critics have had decidedly mixed responses to the film. J. Hoberman, for instance, calls it “basically a sock of coal for Christmas,” while Amy Taubin in Artforum writes that “the movie generates a free-floating anxiety that lingers long after the lights come up.” What I appreciate about The Box are its moments of unintentional wackiness. Mainstream films are neither this unabashedly personal nor this cryptic. Yet I’m baffled by Kelly’s suggestion that in making The Box he’s somehow giving the studios what they want. He told the New York Times: “They’re the bank, so you’ve got to just figure out how to work with it. I’ve learned that the smart way to go about it is to learn how to play ball.” Kelly doesn’t seem to have a clue about the logic and strategies of films targeted to appeal to mass audiences. I suspect for him Hollywood might represent the ultimate paranormal mystery.

Posted 28 November, 2009

Ingmar Bergman RIP

When I was in college, I was already familiar with the major Bergman films – The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence – through various film society screenings. I spent a good part of one summer attending a retrospective of Bergman’s work at MoMA, which enabled me to fill in all the gaps in Bergman’s oeuvre. Seeing a complete retrospective, however, diminished rather than enhanced Bergman’s accomplishment for me. The early works highlighted his background in theater; they lacked a strong sense of visual style.

There is no doubt that in many ways Bergmann epitomized art cinema in the ’60s. As a college student during the Vietnam War era, I could relate to all the existential torments of his characters – it very much reflected my own psyche. Existentialism was very much in vogue. I read Sartre and Camus, and found Bergman to be grappling with similar issues. Even his questions about God seemed relevant to Harvey Cox and the “Death of God” movement prevalent at the time. Bergman was definitely a part of the zeitgeist. Despite this, I was often disturbed by the overly symbolic nature of his more mature work, which was parodied in the film De Düva: The Dove (1968). In fact, when it came right down to it, the only film of Bergman that I absolutely loved was Persona. His other work gradually seemed to pall in comparison.

As a graduate film student, I worked as the department projectionist, and had the misfortune of having to project The Seventh Seal eleven times. A knight playing chess with the figure of death during a terrible plague – this really seemed so utterly obvious and over the top, especially with each new viewing. All the weaknesses in his work became apparent. It caused me to lose interest in Bergman. While annotating the history of Film Culture as an assistant on a research project, I happened to read Manny Farber’s classic article, “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art.” Farber never really mentions Bergman, but instead attacks the pretensions of European art cinema as represented by Tony Richardson, Truffaut, and Antonioni. About Antonioni, Manny Farber writes: “Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” That really sums up my feelings about most of Bergman’s work with the exception of Persona.

I saw Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and later Fanny and Alexander, but my original passion for Bergman never returned, and his subsequent tax problems and self-imposed exile seemed a bit overly melodramatic from a distance. Ingmar Bergman, however, has come back to me through the work of filmmakers I greatly admire. Persona is an obvious influence on David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, and the work of Finnish filmmaker and installation artist, Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose psychodramas focus on the interior lives of women at the breaking point, could be read as a long homage to Bergman. For me, Bergman’s death yesterday is a lot like learning that an old college friend has passed away. There are really fond memories, and I will never forget the pleasures and excitement of watching his films throughout the 1960s. They were really important to me at the time. I regret that, for whatever reason, I somehow lost touch with his films. Maybe this event will prompt me to take another look.

Posted 31 July, 2007