The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 10 April, 2010

Fish Tank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 7 April, 2010

Daddy Longlegs

Josh Safdie’s French New Wave-inflected debut feature The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) centers on a sociopathic protagonist named Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks) and played at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Eléonore robs people – purses, credit cards, cars, as well as pets from children – for the sheer fun of it. I’m not sure that the small coterie of New York movie reviewers who compared Safdie to Bresson, Godard, Tati, Miranda July and John Cassavetes did the young American indie filmmaker much of a favor, but Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film Daddy Longlegs, aka Go Get Some Rosemary (2010), which premiered at Cannes and played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is another matter altogether.

Many of the characters from The Pleasure of Being Robbed are back again, but Daddy Longlegs, a portrait of a harried and divorced father named Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), represents a leap forward in terms of filmmaking and proves that the Safdie brothers are indeed major talents. Much of the strength of the new film results from the complexity of its characterization. Although he’s not an actor – at least not until now – Bronstein brings intensity to Lenny, who appears to be overwhelmed by everyday life in New York City. Lenny, who works as a film projectionist, is perpetually someplace else – where else, we’re not exactly sure. His attention span appears momentary – like someone who suffers from ADD, which is mirrored by the shaky, hand-held camera work by Brett Jutkiewicz and Josh Safdie that captures the fleeting details of the action. Lenny at least tries to deal with his two mop-haired kids, Sage (Sage Ranaldo) and Frey (Frey Ranaldo) – the real-life sons of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo – even if he’s woefully inadequate to the task.

Ronnie Bronstein is no stranger to dysfunctional characters. He made the incredibly powerful Frownland (2008), which I admire immensely. The Safdie brothers were smart to cast him as the protagonist of their new film. Bronstein’s portrait of Keith, the horrific lead in Frownland, reflects the sensibility of an underground comic. It took months of improvisation and rehearsal to develop the characters who wound up on the screen. In Daddy Longlegs, there apparently wasn’t a conventional screenplay, but forty-four pages of notes that constituted a prose story. According to Josh Safdie, “So, with this movie, we wanted to keep it alive in much the same way that when, as a filmmaker, you read a short story or book you’re imagining the movie. We tried to use adjectives and certain words and syntax to indicate certain shots we wanted and certain emotions we were getting at.”

There’s a strong autobiographical undercurrent that flows through Daddy Longlegs, which is a bittersweet portrait of Josh and Benny Safdie’s own father and their conflicted feelings for him. The film contains the dedication: “For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments & our mother.” It’s interesting to note, even in the dedication, how the dad still manages to capture the fantasy and imagination of the children by his absence and irresponsible behavior, much like the father in So Yong Kim’s remarkable In Between Days (2006).

The two young filmmakers attempt to empathize with their own father, who found himself at their age with two young children. Single moms may have little sympathy for the character of Lenny – and rightly so – but he’s not really a bad person, but someone who fails miserably to adapt to the role of being a father when he gets to have the kids for a two-week period. Lenny is a deadbeat dad, but saying that sounds much too harsh. If someone referred to Lenny by such a label, he would no doubt be appalled, even though his parental behavior would most certainly not only get him in trouble with social services, but locked up.

Lenny is as much of a mess as Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Greenberg (2010), but the difference is that Lenny doesn’t psychoanalyze himself or try to rationalize his behavior, which, in a sense, might be his saving grace. The Safdie brothers manage to capture the sheer chaos of what it’s like to have young children within the confines of a cramped apartment in an urban environment. I confess I felt overwhelmed by the way Sage and Frey seemed to bounce off the walls in the scene of Lenny trying to play racquetball with them in the gym. Lenny doesn’t try to show them how to play, but instead ridicules them for missing the ball, indicating that he’s clueless when it comes to what’s expected of a father. Of course, it’s hard to concentrate on such things when there’s some naked flasher lurking in the locker room.

The film begins with Lenny dropping a hot dog as he attempts to scale a chain-link fence in the park. He at least has a sense of humor about himself, as his laughter continues over the hand-written opening credits. When Lenny picks up Sage and Frey at school, he immediately gets into conflict with the school principal, Mr. Puccio, who complains that Frey, the younger of the two boys, assaulted his math teacher. Lenny responds, “Okay, the kid is the size of a two-year-old, all right? So I don’t know what kind of ruckus he’d be causing in your classroom.” When Lenny curses, and the principal objects, Lenny insists with self-righteous indignation, “Do not reprimand me in front of my children! Do not reprimand me in front of my own kids, all right?” Lenny is full of ultimatums.

When Sage’s friend, Alex tags along as they head home, Lenny confronts him, “What? What are you doing? What are you doing? You know, we have things to do, okay? I’m sorry, it was nice to see you. You’ll see him at school tomorrow, okay?” Alex tries to interrupt, but Lenny insists, “No moms, no play dates, nothing today!” As they walk along the street, Lenny brags to Alex who has to go to bed at eight o’clock that Sage stays up until eleven o’clock “because he’s a grownup.”

Lenny has a girlfriend named Leni (Eleonore Hendricks). When Leni comes over, she finds him and the kids wrestling on the couch together. Leni comes across initially as a sympathetic character, as she pretends that a live salamander is a prize in a cereal box, much to everyone’s delight. But within minutes, she has to call Lenny into the bathroom to complain about the way he’s acting. It’s no wonder that Lenny picks up another woman named Roberta (Dakota Goldhor) in a bar when he slips out to have a beer with a male friend once the kids are asleep. The next morning, after Roberta indicates that she’s heading upstate for the weekend, Lenny manages to tag along. Her boyfriend, Aren (Aren Topdijian) is flustered that she’s invited a stranger, but even more so when Lenny brings along his kids. Aren finally blows his top when Lenny and the kids sing a mangled rendition of the national anthem on the journey upstate.

Life can be precarious in a place like New York City. While carrying ice cream cones for the kids, Lenny runs into an aggressive street person (an utterly convincing and scary cameo by film director Abel Ferrara), who tries to sell him a bogus CD. Lenny insists he has no money, but when he offers the guy a piece of  bread, the street hustler flashes a gun and takes his money. What’s interesting is how quickly Lenny shifts his attention away from this seemingly traumatic event. Once Lenny returns empty-handed, it’s as if it never happened to him.

The same is true of his phone arguments with his wife, Paige (played by artist Leah Singer, Sage and Frey’s real mom), which the kids watch with grave concern (Sage has big eyes and bears resemblance to the Italian actress Giulietta Masina). When Lenny abruptly hangs up on her, he turns to the kids and says, “You see that, guys? You see that? That was awesome, huh?” He laughs, rips open his shirt, playfully jumps on the kids and starts to wrestle with them. The wrestling match is interrupted by the surprise visit of a crazy friend named Salvie (Salvatone Sansone), who plays a questionable game of stepping on the kids’ stomachs.

At work, Lenny mixes up his schedule with that of a co-worker, which causes him to be late to pick up the kids at school (where one of the teachers sports a prominent black eye). Mr. Puccio has called Paige rather than him, which riles up Lenny once again. As Paige holds her kids tightly, Lenny insists, “Hello? This is my screw-up. I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks. You can screw up for the rest of the year.” Kids in tow, Lenny rushes back to the projection booth, just in time for the reel change-over.

Lenny attempts to instruct Sage on the nuances of film projection, but Sage fails to push the button at the appropriate moment. The kids spend much of their time drawing comics in the hallway. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Sage acts out the panels of the comic (complete with sounds effects and laughter), in which Lenny’s boss asks him to get a glass of water, and he pees in a cup and gives it to him. The two kids make nearly a thousand copies of their comic on the film theater’s copier. In a later scene that evokes Jean Vigo’s 1933 classic Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct), the wind blows all the sheets in the air, as Lenny, Leni, and the kids chase after them on the street.

Lenny bribes a neighbor (Jake Braff) to watch the kids with a rare comic, so that he and Leni can go out to a Chinese restaurant for the evening. When they miss the train while returning home, Leni suggests walking on the tracks to the next subway stop. Lenny at least has the gumption to tell her, “With all due respect, that’s a really stupid idea.” Of course, Leni impulsively does it anyway. The scene is extremely disconcerting, especially because Lenny is so preoccupied with his own issues, and Leni’s too self-indulgent to sympathize with his plight. The worried look on Lenny’s face and the suspenseful ride to the next stop while Leni walks through the train tunnel turns out to be one of the film’s most powerful moments.

As pressures mount at work, Lenny gets more and more desperate. Let’s just say that his judgment gets even more impaired, which ends up putting the kids at risk and really crosses the line of acceptable behavior. There’s a dream sequence involving a huge insect that works much better than the one involving Eléonore’s fantasy of the polar bear in the earlier The Pleasure of Being Robbed. The final image of Daddy Longlegs strikes an exuberantly poetic note of sad nostalgia “for lost love but still something there.”

Daddy Longlegs will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival in mid-April. It’s one of the most impressive indie films I’ve seen so far this year, so if any tickets remain, you might want to snag them.

Posted 31 March, 2010

Bike Boy

© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

The motorcyclist has been a figure of rebellion in American popular culture in the Post-Second World War era, as exemplified by Marlon Brando’s role in The Wild One (1953). Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), a film that strongly influenced Andy Warhol, focuses on the image of the motorcyclist and uses montage editing to create connections between a gang of motorcyclists, Christianity, and Nazi imagery. The film is about how leaders of each of the three groups use ritual to create a death cult. A motorcycle also features prominently in two other Andy Warhol films, notably the unfinished Batman Dracula and Couch. What no doubt attracted Warhol to the subject is the way the figure of the motorcyclist functions as an icon of both masculinity and gay desire. In Bike Boy (1967-68), Warhol cleverly deconstructs the power of this iconic image through his extended portrait of a biker named Joe Spencer.

Bike Boy begins with a close-up of Spencer’s face. In a series of strobe cuts that focus mostly on his muscular upper torso and on various parts of his body, we watch Joe take an extended shower. While little attention has been paid to Warhol’s use of color in his films, Joe is bathed in warm golden light against a background of black shower tiles. Spencer continually looks offscreen for some sort of direction. He’s obviously soaped up the various parts of his body and rinsed under the shower head numerous times already, but Spencer obviously doesn’t have a clue about Warhol’s desire to make his naked body the object of the camera’s gaze.

Joe Spencer has been set up beforehand. The shower scene goes on for an interminable length of time, the clothing salesmen treat him as a comic figure, and Ed Hood, playing the role of friend and confidant, gets Joe to reveal a side of him that most people wouldn’t want to know. It’s not a pretty picture. The scene with Ingrid Superstar in the kitchen is an obvious setup as well. Joe stands there, leaning against the wall and smoking a cigarette, as he strikes a Marlon Brando-like pose for the camera while she exposes her naked breasts behind him. Brigid Berlin goes right to the heart of the matter by calling Joe a “faggot.” Brigid ridicules his working-class accent and corrects his pronunciation of various words. Joe is no match for the verbal dexterity of either Brigid or Viva.

The scene with Viva is by far the longest in the film. Joe finds her more attractive than Brigid, whom he repeatedly claims isn’t his type and doesn’t turn him on. He seems far more interested in the prospect of making it with Viva, who calls him on his clichéd tattoos, especially the swastika, and his morbid obsession with death symbols. Of course, Viva, who subsequently would make an acting career out of pointing out men’s sexual inadequacies, is the perfect casting choice to puncture Joe Spencer’s grandiose sense of himself.

Joe claims that Viva’s not going to be able to handle what he’s going to do to her, but she challenges him. Joe’s description of having sex with women seems more appropriate to a butcher shop. He makes it sound as if he’s filleting a piece of meat, “Boy when I get them in bed, lay them out flat, you know. First I strip them down, you know. I lay them flat on that bed, you know. I go like that, you know, rub my hands, and (makes a sound) . . . right in bed I go.” Viva later tells him, “You sound like a meat cleaver.” He answers, “I’m just a saw.”

Despite his professed interest in having sex with Viva, Joe tries to evade it for as long as possible. The two of them eventually make out on the couch with their clothes on. Joe slips off his boots. After a smoke, Joe disrobes Viva, who lies naked, while Joe also strips. In various strobe cuts, Warhol has Spencer repeat the action of him pulling off his pants. Joe stands up naked. The action repeats. Joe keeps giving Viva a drag from his cigarette, but as he stands, his limp penis is obvious. He then sits down next to her on the couch. We see his naked body in the foreground of the shot, as Viva’s hands embrace him and she looks up at him and begins to laugh. When Joe asks why she’s laughing at him, Viva tells him, “I’m not laughing at you at all. . . I’m just laughing because you’re so funny.”

In a perverse way, Bike Boy lives up to its billing as an exploitation film. Brigid Berlin is absolutely right in her assessment of Joe – he’s “a lot of talk.” By film’s end, we’ve grown tired of Spencer’s macho bluster – his threats of violence, his revelations of bestiality, his misogyny, vulgarity, narcissism, bad politics, juvenile jokes, general stupidity, and inability to become sexually aroused by a naked woman. Warhol initially presents us with a sexy, muscular motorcyclist, but he deflates this mythic figure, as we watch Joe turn gradually into an object of ridicule.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Bike Boy and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 16 March, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Bad Lieutenant (1992) might be the most wonderfully demented independent film of 1990s. The story of a New York cop, who descends into a nightmarish hell of compulsive gambling, sex, and nonstop drug abuse, Bad Lieutenant is most notable for Ferrara’s abject subject matter, religious symbolism, and stylistic excess. The script was co-written by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who also appears in the film, and died seven years later (reportedly from a drug-fueled heart attack). Added to the mix is the film’s obsession with baseball player Darryl Strawberry, who would later wage his own public battles with substance abuse. The bravura lead performance of Harvey Keitel, however, turns out to be the defining factor in Bad Lieutenant. In the midst of a messy divorce at the time, Keitel somehow pushes the character of the Lieutenant so far over the edge that he transforms the film into something that feels more akin to psychodrama than fiction.

Bad Lieutenant begins with a scene of the Lieutenant taking his two sons to school after they apparently missed the bus because their aunt monopolized the bathroom. Their father berates them, “I’m the boss, not Aunt Wendy. When it’s your turn to use the bathroom, you tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom. What are you: men or mice? She’s hogging the bathroom. Call me – I’ll throw her the fuck out!” As soon as the police officer drops the kids off at school, he immediately snorts coke in his car. A visit to a crime scene becomes an occasion to gamble on the baseball playoffs. He then buys and smokes crack, becomes involved in a sexual threesome, shakes down two African-American hoods who have robbed a Korean grocery, and visits a girlfriend (Zoe Lund), with whom he freebases.

Bad Lieutenant is technically a crime film, but it sidesteps genre by being highly episodic. Other than a series of incidents in which the Lieutenant indulges in vices and abuses his power, the razor-thin plot centers on his escalating gambling debts and a heinous crime involving the rape of a nun in Spanish Harlem by two young thugs. Ferrara intercuts the rape with an image of Christ as he cries out in agony on the cross. When the Lieutenant learns that the Catholic Church is putting up a $50,000 reward, he responds cynically, “Leave it to the Catholic Church. Girls get raped every day. Now they’re gonna put up 50 Gs just because these chicks wear penguin suits.” As the Lieutenant investigates the crime – he wants the reward to pay off his mounting gambling losses – he peers at the naked body of the nun from a crack in the door of her hospital room and learns that she was sexually violated with a crucifix. The saintly nun, however, forgives the perpetrators and refuses to identify them.

If the graphic rape of the nun – we see her panties and habit being ripped off – is not shocking enough, as rain falls, the Lieutenant pulls over a car containing two young Jersey women, who’ve just visited a nightclub. When they can’t produce the license and registration, he forces one to expose her bare buttocks, and gets the driver to simulate oral sex as he masturbates – a scene that lasts for eight excruciating minutes. As he drives though the city and snorts more cocaine, the Lieutenant listens to the playoff game. After the Mets once again best the Dodgers, he becomes so enraged at losing another wager that he shoots out his car radio, puts on his siren, and screams expletives as he races through city traffic.

His bookie warns the Lieutenant at his daughter’s First Communion that the mob will blow up his house for not paying his debts, but the cop continues to double his bets in hopes of getting even. After the Mets win another game, the bookie tells him, “You think maybe because you’re a cop, he [the mobster] won’t kill you. You’re this close already to death.” His face bathed in red bar light, the Lieutenant acts as if baptism has immunized him against harm. He boasts, “I’ve been dodging bullets since I was fucking fourteen. No one could kill me. I’m blessed. I’m a fucking Catholic.”

After placing a bet on the final playoff game, the Lieutenant visits his junkie girlfriend who helps him to shoot up. As he nods off, she tells him: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves . . . We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left, but appetite.” Ferrara presents a Burroughs-like view of the world, in which human beings are the sum of their addictions.

The Lieutenant confronts the nun in the church as she’s praying. He offers to avenge what’s been done to her, but she questions his religious faith. In a drug-induced hallucination, he imagines a statue of Christ in the center aisle. He screams out, “What? You got something that you want to say to me? You fuck! You rat fucker! You rat fuck!” He rants about trying to do the right things, but laments the fact that he’s weak. He crawls down the aisle and kisses the bloodied feet of the statue. A neighborhood woman leads him to the two hoodlums afterward. He smokes crack with them in an abandoned building and threatens to shoot them, thus putting his conflict of religious faith to the ultimate test.

Because of its skewed vision of a truly lost soul battling his own demons, its conflation of the sacred and the profane, gutter dialogue, tortured hallucinations, and Keitel’s twisted performance, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant might seem like one of the least likely independent films to be remade. Yet Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans proves to be less a remake of the earlier film than an extended series of quotations from it. Whereas Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is essentially a character study, Herzog’s film (from a screenplay by William Finkelstein) is a plot-driven crime caper set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Ferrara, who was not happy at the prospect of the new film, was quoted as saying, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”

The religious impulse that infuses the earlier film is missing entirely from Herzog’s secular version. The nameless cop of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has been replaced by Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), the son of a police officer (Tom Bower) who’s in the process of drinking himself to death. Ferrara’s police lieutenant had no backstory. We know nothing about him or how he came to be addicted to drugs and gambling, other than by being subjected to crime every day. Terence McDonagh, on the other hand, gets strung out on drugs as a result of a back injury he incurs while saving a prisoner named Chavez (Nick Gomez) at the film’s opening.

Terence McDonagh is a conflicted, schizoid character, but it’s not due to Catholicism or a crisis of faith, but to his dependence on drugs. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has almost no plot, whereas the new film has the kind of intricate plot with unexpected twists and turns we associate with the genre. McDonagh, as played by Cage, limps around in a baggy suit with his gun sticking prominently out of the front of his pants. If the symbolism isn’t already obvious, when his weapon gets taken away from him by two guys from the Public Integrity Bureau, he muses to his father, “A man without a gun; that’s not a man.”

The richly atmospheric Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans begins with a snake slithering through the murky waters of a flooded prison cell. McDonagh and his partner, Stevie (Val Kilmer), find the prisoner about to drown in the rising water. Stevie, who is far more callous than McDonagh, wants to let him die, but McDonagh, despite having on fancy French cotton underwear (an expensive gift from his girlfriend), plunges into the water to save Chavez. His bravery gets him promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

In Ferrara’s version, the rape of the nun provides the pretext of a plot. Here it’s an execution-style massacre of an African family by a local drug gang that drives the story, especially once McDonagh gets put in charge of the case by the police chief (Gary Grubbs). McDonagh’s injury causes him to take prescription painkillers, but he needs to supplement them with illegal ones. He steals hard drugs from the station’s property room and shakes down drug users to feed his own habit. McDonagh also has a drug-dependent girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), who works as a prostitute.

During the investigation of the crime scene, McDonagh finds a small notepad on which the murdered Senegalese child, Babacar, had written about his pet fish: “My friend is a fish. He live in my room. His fin is a cloud. He see me when I sleep.” As he stares at the colorful fish in a small cup of water, the sentimental cop is profoundly affected by the child’s heartfelt words. But there’s also a lot of pent-up rage in McDonagh, who explodes at the pharmacy when the black woman behind the counter keeps him waiting for his prescription while she talks on the phone.

McDonagh also routinely shakes down young couples as they leave a nightclub. After finding drugs, he smokes crack with one woman and forces her escort to watch him have sex with her. He later steals coke from one of Frankie’s tricks. McDonagh also terrorizes two elderly women by cutting off the oxygen of one of them. After threatening to shoot both of them, he shouts, “You’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain.” It is in scenes like this that Cage reminds us of his equally deranged performance in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), where he swallowed a live cockroach. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching this character is experiencing his wild and unpredictable mood swings, which veer from tender childhood reveries to psychotic outbursts.

As he pursues the investigation, McDonagh discovers clues to the murder, such as the fact that a fifteen-year-old boy delivery boy named Daryl (Denzel Whitaker) was in the house at the time of the murders, making him the sole witness. He also learns that three African-American drug dealers – Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), Midget (Lucius Baston), and another nicknamed “G” (Tim Bellow) – are responsible for the murders, but he spends the rest of the film trying to prove it, even if his means of doing this are circuitous and not exactly aboveboard.

Other subplots – Daryl’s disappearance, the recurring problems with alcohol of McDonagh’s father and wife Genevieve (Jennifer Coolidge), a feud with a well-connected developer’s son and another gang of criminals, McDonagh’s growing gambling debts, and his budding romance with Frankie – intersect with the main plot line. Yet it is Nicolas Cage’s wigged-out performance that proves to be the film’s most engaging aspect, as he channels Crispin Glover in River’s Edge (1987)and Jimmy Stewart to great comedic effect. McDonagh’s erratic behavior, propensity for drug-taking, maniacal laugh, and appropriation of black vernacular (Sup!) unnerves even the criminals. Big Fate tells McDonagh, “You’re my kind of motherfucking cop, man. You’re a crazy motherfucker!”

The film’s nuttiest moments involve McDonagh’s hallucinations when he’s high, notably the scene where an iguana sings “Release Me,” and another where McDonagh imagines a dead person’s soul still breakdancing and insists on shooting it. It’s not surprising that Herzog wants the film to be seen as a comedy. He told an interviewer, “On my knees, I hoped secretly, please, audience: laugh. Bad Lieutenant [Port of Call New Orleans] is a new step in film noir because it gets so debased and vile that it becomes hilarious.”

Note to Local Readers: I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans at Sundance Cinemas last weekend. The film cries out to be seen on the big screen and with an audience, so I don’t recommend you wait for the DVD.

Posted 3 March, 2010

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