The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

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

Beeswax

Andrew Bujalski’s much-anticipated third feature, Beeswax (2009), might appear to be about almost nothing at all, which is one of the risks of naturalism. I must confess that it took a second viewing for me to appreciate fully just how subtle and complex his new film really is. Beeswax explores the relationship between a pair of attractive twin sisters in Austin, Texas. Bujalski’s characters are older than in Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Mutual Appreciation (2006), and their problems are more substantive, but his focus still remains on the confounding mysteries of human communication.

Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) runs a hip vintage shop called Storyville, while her roommate sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is more of a free spirit, who perpetually seems to be searching for a job. As the film begins, Jeannie is embroiled in a conflict with her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), while Maggie breaks up with her boyfriend for no apparent reason. The sisters are distinctly different. Perhaps because Jeannie is in a wheelchair, she protects her independence. This quality, combined with other traits of her personality, makes her something of control freak. Having a partner – romantic or business – presents a challenge for her (and the other party), despite her seemingly casual demeanor. Lauren is the opposite. She parties all night and then still seems to be up for an early morning game of soccer. But Lauren has her own demons, which are merely harder to detect. She’s flaky to a fault – losing her phone, forgetting to relay important messages, and not really being there for her sister or anyone else.

Jeannie’s problems with Amanda cause her to reconnect with an old flame named Merrill (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, who’s really quite a good actor), but it largely has to do with the fact that he’s a law student, who is about to take his bar exam. Jeannie doesn’t mean to exploit Merrill. Like all people who use others, she just happens to get re-involved with him when she needs him the most, even though she refuses to acknowledge him as her boyfriend. Merrill is well-aware of Jeannie’s motives, but he accepts the dynamic of the relationship because it also suits his own needs. Jeannie’s legal problems at the boutique are a welcome distraction from his bar exam, and Merrill has a tendency to function better in “crisis mode.” Not much actually happens in the film, but Beeswax nevertheless has a deceptively intricate plot. Lauren applies for a job, but the interviewer turns out to be the brother of the guy she’s just dumped. Of course, she doesn’t get the position – at least not initially. But when someone else backs out of teaching in Nairobi, it gets offered to her. Whether or not she’ll go is another matter altogether.

At the center of the film is the dispute between Jeannie and Amanda over the business, along with the threat of a messy lawsuit. As the film opens, a new employee Corinne (Katy O’Connor) turns up at the store. She’s been hired by Amanda, who hasn’t bothered to tell Jeannie. That alone is revealing of the strained relationship between Jeannie and Amanda. Like Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe, Corinne has the annoying habit of turning every statement into a question. You can tell that she grates on Jeannie’s nerves, almost from the moment she first opens her mouth. At one point, she asks whether it’s okay to put up fliers in the store about a political demonstration. Jeannie is concerned that if something happens at the demonstration – and Corinne gets busted – she won’t be able to open the store the next morning. Corinne rightly suggests she also could get hit by a car, but their conversation reveals that the two of them, for all practical purposes, inhabit alternate universes. Corinne actually doesn’t get hit by a car or get busted at the political rally, but she does end up having an unexplained meltdown.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that Lauren chooses to withhold crucial financial information from Jeannie, namely, that her mother’s friend Sally (SXSW film festival producer Janet Pierson) really wants to help out. Maybe it has to do with the need of twins to keep secrets from each other just to maintain their own separate identities. It actually works both ways. Jeannie initially doesn’t want Lauren to know that Merrill has slept over. He gets caught and lies to Lauren that he was merely retrieving his cell phone, but Lauren makes it obvious that she doesn’t quite believe him. Lauren asks Merrill to go with her to play a game of soccer. He almost does, but then changes his mind at the last minute. In a sense, virtually every scene begins to feel like an open question.

We never know why Lauren won’t tell Jeannie about something so important, especially when they take a trip to talk to a potential investor, played by film director Bob Byington, whose disheveled appearance makes him look like he’s just crawled out from under a rock. His eyes keep darting between Merrill and Jeannie in the scene before he simply tells Jeannie once Merrill is dispatched to get beverages, “I’d like to be your guy, but I don’t know if I’m your guy.” Both Karpovsky and Byington appear in Byington’s Austin-based indie Harmony and Me. The two are actually much funnier in that film, which is a comedy that relies on very brief scenes, precise comic timing, and a wider range of emotional peaks and valleys.

Bujalski’s scenes in Beeswax, on the other hand, are much longer. They have a very methodical quality, as if guided by some inner metronome that controls the carefully-modulated pace and tempo that has become something of a stylistic trait of Bujalski’s work. As in the earlier Bujalski films, conversations don’t follow the usual structure and conventions of movie dialogue, but appear to meander in ways that often appear to confuse even the participants themselves. Bujalski has become the master of circumlocution and indirection. His characters get so lost in the labyrinths of their own words and language itself that they often say the opposite of what they mean or intend. Their unconscious slippages turn out to be funny as well as embarrassing. The actual behavior of Bujalski’s characters is equally unpredictable, suggesting that, deep-down, human beings are an utter maze of baffling contradictions.

Bujalski makes us acutely aware of the fact that attempts at humor often carry the greatest personal risks. A wonderful example of this occurs in a scene where Lauren strolls in and tells Jeannie and Merrill that, among other things, she’s just learned that a high-school boyfriend has died:

LAUREN: I’ve gotta pee and go to bed. I do have some stories to tell you, the saddest and quickest of which is that A.C. told me that Daniel had died. Some heart thing, I don’t know, some kind of unexpected heart failure, or maybe drug-related, maybe not.
JEANNIE (softly): Jesus . . .
LAUREN: So . . .  (To MERRILL) This is my first boyfriend from high school.
MERRILL: Oh, I’m sorry.
JEANNIE: I’ve never . . . I’ve never kissed a dead guy.
MERRILL: Maybe if you were a better girlfriend in high school, he’d still be alive today.
Jeannie, lying on the couch, winces, then laughs.
LAUREN: Maybe so.
MERRILL: That sounded horrible. That came out totally wrong. I’m sorry.
LAUREN: I don’t know . . .
MERRILL: Why would I say that? That’s terrible.
Lauren excuses herself.
LAUREN: I’m gonna head to bed.
MERRILL: Goodnight, Lauren . . .  (To JEANNIE) In my mind, it sounded so different than the way it came out. It sounded hilarious. It came out so not hilarious.
JEANNIE: Yeah, I guess not. No.
MERRILL: No, maybe not. That was terrible.
JEANNIE: You didn’t know Daniel.
MERRILL: I didn’t know Daniel. That’s really no excuse.

Lauren, however, does know Daniel, yet she appears to have no emotional response either, which says a lot about her character.

What distinguishes Bujalski from the cohort of filmmakers with whom he’s often associated is his strength as a screenwriter. In an  interview with Livia Bloom in cinema scope, Bujalski explains, “I did realize that I think I’m an auditory sort of writer. For me, writing starts from hearing voices in my head. My films are quite dialogue-heavy, and I think maybe that’s partially because I hear them first.” This is hardly surprising. Bujalski has always been considered a character-based director rather than a visual storyteller. Or as he later puts it, “I feel like I’m running toward the images, and the way I’m getting there is by listening to the words.”

Yet Beeswax does represent a significant advance in terms of visual style. The film opens with vintage dinner plates of numbers being removed from the frame, which is a clever way of suggesting the countdown leader on a film. The cluttered compositions of Storyville create a striking contrast to the more spare framings inside Jeannie and Lauren’s place. Jeannie uses her wheelchair to traverse the space of the vintage store, making the viewer self-consciously aware of the camera’s tracking shots to follow her, with wooden artist mannequins suggesting the human anatomy amidst the lime and peach color-scheme and golden light. But the tranquility of this image will soon be shattered by a loud knock at the door, which will introduce the ensuing turmoil.

In discussing the fact that his characters bring such radically different perspectives to events in Beeswax, Bujalski relates it to his own situation in making independent rather than mainstream films. He told the interviewer on the auteurs: “I think it’s probably deeply ingrained in all of the work I’ve done. Certainly the Jeannie and Amanda conflict in Beeswax is a question of two people who look at the world differently and get torn apart by that. They can’t figure out how the other one could possibly see the world. My career is about that. Why aren’t as many people going to see Beeswax as are going to see Avatar? Of course it doesn’t make sense to me: I don’t share the worldview that would produce that mass opinion. I’m up against that every day.”

Posted 5 February, 2010

Loren Cass

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Chris Fuller’s Gummo-inspired Loren Cass, is easily the most controversial indie film of the past year – a film so dark that it somehow makes even Antichrist seem upbeat by comparison. Originally completed in 2007, the film finally had a limited theatrical release this past summer and recently became available on DVD from Kino International. Loren Cass received a number of favorable reviews in the press, most notably a very glowing one from Nathan Lee in the New York Times. Like Korine’s film, however, the targeted audience for Loren Cass is certainly not mainstream viewers, who will no doubt find its subject matter far too disturbing and depressing.

The connection to Harmony Korine is appropriate for a number of reasons. Fuller cast Jacob Reynolds, who played Solomon in Gummo, for a cameo appearance as the Suicide Kid. But beyond that, Fuller has created a truly provocative film that attempts to push beyond Korine’s fictional saga by presenting an uncompromising view of youthful anomie and skinhead culture. Like Gummo, Fuller employs an associational structure to weave together an evocative mood-piece that captures the angst and despair among the alienated young people of St. Petersburg, Florida. He depicts his home town as a vision of hell.

Lile Korine, Fuller often disguises his sources and appears to be more interested in individual scenes than in the larger narrative. Indeed he uses a romantic plotline as something of a smokescreen in order to disguise to his real intentions. It’s not, as some folks on the Internet suggest, that Fuller doesn’t know or understand how to make a narrative. A film has to be judged by the criteria it establishes. For someone to evaluate Loren Cass on strictly narrative terms or on the basis of classical narration is like criticizing a poem for not having a plot.

Loren Cass begins with music over black leader, followed by a shot of a road with buildings in the background. A raspy voiceover, reminiscent of Solomon’s opening monologue about the tornado in Gummo, says, “Back in 1997 . . . ” Subsequent sequences, involving virtually no dialogue, introduce us to the film’s three main characters: a garage mechanic named Cale (Fuller himself under a pseudonym), his heavily-tattooed punk friend, Jason (Travis Maynard), who proceeds to lie boldly in the middle of the street as if begging to be run over, and a promiscuous blond-haired waitress, Nicole (Kayla Tabish).

In a sun-drenched wide shot, Nicole slips out of bed and gets dressed. The covers slowly start to move, and a black man becomes visible. She mumbles something to him, passes her parents without speaking, and then gets into a red convertible. Cale’s car stops in front of the still-prone Jason. As they drive away, Nicole’s car follows them down the street. The two vehicles pull side-by-side at a stoplight and when the light changes, they disappear from the frame, only to reappear in the parking lot of a school.

After a montage of street signs and empty corridors, lockers, a stairwell, and finally a men’s bathroom, feet can be seen underneath the front toilet stall. Fuller cuts to a closeup of male hands loading five bullets into the cylinder of a revolver. As Cale and Jason later leave the nearly empty parking lot, they hurl an empty beer bottle at the remaining vehicle and we hear the sound of shattered glass. A guy races out of the building, gets in the van, and gives chase. At a stop sign, a black man jumps out and begins to pummel Jason through the open car window, but Cale stomps the guy with his foot as the screen cuts to black.

The film’s opening takes nearly ten-and-a-half minutes. Other than sounds of a trumpet and Nicole’s mumbled line of dialogue, Fuller relies entirely on visual storytelling. Yet Loren Cass has already managed to evoke an ominous mood and create expectations that something really terrible is going to happen, as evidenced by the loading of the gun, the broken glass, and the stomping of a black man. As Jason walks toward us at night, we hear voiceover narration: “St. Petersburg – a dirty, dirty town, by a dirty, dirty sea because the soul of the railroad is the chain gang . . . ”

Fuller, who began Loren Cass as a teenager and completed it when he was twenty-one – indie films usually rely on these kinds of back stories – teases the viewer with bits of an elliptical narrative. But mostly he relies on the technique of collage. Fuller uses passages of black leader and assorted verbal passages – rants with four-letter words and drunken songs by gutter punks, fiery revolutionary rhetoric by Omali Yeshitela, readings by poet Charles Bukowski, and allusions to Nelson Algren, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and the beat writer Jack Kerouac, who lived there. He also includes documentary television footage of the 1996 race riots in St. Petersburg.

In addition, there are more racially motivated fist fights, sequences of gutter punks combing through the trash and creating a makeshift shelter out of wooden skids, or pulling shopping cars with pickup trucks, or guzzling bottles of beer in the back of them until they get busted by the “pigs.” They throw insane tantrums at invisible adversaries and beer bottles at passing cars, or they attack trash cans with their bare fists (which references the infamous wrestling match with the chair in Gummo). Fuller shows footage of a hardcore concert, in which a shot of the jumping boots of punks intercuts with footage of the race riot on TV and words of Yeshitela talking about armed resistance.

It takes a full twenty minutes before the two friends, Cale and Jason, ever speak a word to each other. At the heart of Loren Cass, however, is a romantic plotline involving Cale and Nicole At fifteen minutes, Nicole drives into the gas station with radiator problems. She later returns for her car, and, on the way out, asks Cale if he wants to get some dinner at the restaurant where she waits tables. The scene of them at the restaurant is notable for the fact that Fuller begins the scene by focusing on their legs and feet as they sit in a booth. Nicole eats, but Cale doesn’t touch his cheeseburger. Instead they just sit there in awkward silence for nearly two-and-a half minutes, before she scribbles a note on a piece of paper and and passes it to him.

The above scene is mostly handled through body gestures and reaction shots, but the ensuing dialogue, which occurs over the next minute, is cryptic beyond belief, especially because four of the six lines turn out to be questions.

CALE: I’m hanging in there. You?
NICOLE: I’ve seen better days.
CALE: Like?
NICOLE: Did you have a rough night?
He just shakes his head.
NICOLE (Cont.): So, you’re going to eat?
He makes a sound.
NICOLE: Let’s get out of here.

At her car, Nicole writes her phone number on Cale’s hand and splits.

Cale later calls Nicole and makes a date for the following night. In between, however, she gets picked up by a young customer (actually he’s not much of a customer – he only orders water) and has sex in the back seat of her car, which is conveyed behind the open car door by means of a jump cut. This is a film where shots of a pickup truck being towed – and the objects shuffling around in the back of it – are given equal weight to a scene that involves sex, which is part of the film’s extreme formal rigor.

We get more shots of feet when the two share the same restaurant booth on their date. Like Korine’s dialogue in Gummo, the exchange between Nicole and Cale is full of non-sequiturs, and once again involves more questions than coherent statements. Fuller actually uses their fractured dialogue as a means to depict his characters’ inability to communicate what’s going on inside them:

NICOLE: A few years ago my parents took me on this road trip. We went up the coast and rented a van. I hated it. We went by a “South of the Border.” You know that place?
CALE: Yeah, Carolina?
NICOLE: Yeah. I’m leaving soon. Not here, but more back home.
The two stare at each other.
CALE: That all you remember?
NICOLE: Motel . . .  headlights. You?
CALE: I went to Brooklyn once. (Pause).
He hands her a cassette tape.
CALE (Cont.): Listen to this when you can. (Pause) What’s your name?
NICOLE: Nicole.
CALE: You’re gonna go for a ride?

The film cuts to them sitting in the back of an empty bus. During the ride, which lasts over a minute-and-a-half, Nicole leans her head on his neck.

After a punk concert, Cale runs full-speed from his room through the streets. Nicole drives her car and inserts the cassette tape into the deck before she crashes into him. He flies up onto the hood of her car and gets thrown back into the street. Nicole gets out of her car and the film jumpcuts to them kissing in the headlights, and then silhouetted against the car. In the film’s most remarkable scene, Jason, while riding the bus at night, envisions himself sitting in an armchair. He suddenly bursts into flames, leaving him burnt to a crisp. In the same dream sequence, he imagines the aftermath of his death – a shot in the cemetery as someone jumps on his grave. As Jason walks home, he gets the shit beaten out of him, and is left a bloody mess. Once home, he dyes his sideburns with his blood.

At the three-quarter mark, Bukowski reads his poem, “The Last Days of the Suicide Kid” on the soundtrack and there’s a shot of the Suicide Kid (Reynolds), smoking a cigarette and then slugging from a bottle at a party. Cale and Nicole also show up and make love in the bedroom. After Jason leaves the party and goes to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, where all the punks hang out, the Suicide Kid heads to the same place. As he drives there, we hear snippets of Budd Dwyer on the radio. When the Suicide Kid gets there, the horizontal stripes on his red shirt are filmed against the diagonal lines of the bridge. There’s a cut to a TV screen. Fuller shows the notorious television footage of Budd Dwyer (the Pennsylvania public official convicted of corruption in 1987), putting a gun to his mouth and then pulling the trigger during a press conference.

The horrific footage of Dwyer committing suicide serves as a visual shock, which was set up earlier by the use of synecdoche, namely the loading of the gun in the bathroom stall. The visceral impact of splicing the Dwyer footage into the film as a surrogate for the Suicide Kid’s death serves as the film’s most controversial aspect. It makes perfect sense given the fact that the entire film can seen as a suicide note, but at the same time you can argue that the “reality” of it somehow gets reduced to a chilling metaphor. Shortly after this, Jason will tattoo the enigmatic words “Loren Cass” on his arm, adding to the film’s opacity, before he overdoses on pills, and a voiceover negates everything that has gone before.

Loren Cass succeeds largely through its cinematic aspects – meticulous compositions (William Garcia’s superb cinematography), languid pacing, the densely-layered soundtrack by Gary Boggess, and inspired music, including Propagandhi’s “Letter of Resignation,” which plays over the final credits. For all the film’s unbridled nihilism and cultural disgust, Chris Fuller’s Loren Cass is actually an intensely heartfelt labor of love.

Posted 25 January, 2010

Harmony and Me

It’s sometimes hard to understand why some mediocre films get all the buzz, and some great ones don’t. For the life of me, I can’t explain why Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me (2009) received its theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art rather than a commercial theater, and to my knowledge, still hasn’t as yet found a distributor. Yeah, life ain’t fair – of course, I know that. Yet if I were to pick one indie film of the past year that I would jump at the chance to see over and over again, it would be Harmony and Me, a film in which every single scene manages to work, while being woven into an intricate medley of idiosyncratic humor. And I say this as someone who generally shuns comedies for the simple reason that most of them aren’t very funny.

Variety, in a favorable review, called it “a mumblecore film without the mumble.” That sounds a bit like calling something a chocolate bar without chocolate or a milk shake without milk, so I’m not exactly sure what it means. In any case, like the Variety reviewer, other people might also assume this film to be another example of mumblecore. After all, Harmony and Me features Justin Rice, the talented front man of the Brooklyn band Bishop Allen, who was the lead actor in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, (and who, like Benjamin Button, seems to grow younger and younger with each passing year). The film is also set in Austin, Texas, edited by Frank Ross, and is even about relationships involving twentysomethings.

Byington, however, has tried to distance himself from mumblecore. When asked how he felt about the association, Byington told Karina Longworth in New York Magazine, “I like the humor in Broadcast News more than, say . . . I don’t know how to say more without seeming like I’m being dismissive of other movies. I’m very interested in watching how some of the mumblecore directors continue. I certainly don’t consider myself one of them. I understand the connection, but the movie and I are interested in other things.” In other words, Byington is politely suggesting that his real interests lie in comedy.

What distinguishes Harmony and Me is Byington’s absolute command of comic timing, which I suspect is also the result of careful scripting. One of my favorite scenes in Mutual Appreciation is the one where a drunken Alan (played by Rice) stumbles into party and the three women in wigs convince him to dress in drag. Rice’s comic timing stands out in that particular scene, but then again he’s playing a rock-musician character who at least bears some resemblance to himself. Yet I didn’t find this quality at all evident in Jonathan Blitstein’s Let Them Chirp Awhile, in which Rice was cast as a Woody Allen wannabe.

After seeing Harmony and Me, I’m convinced that Byington deserves much of the credit for Rice’s outstanding performance here, in which his deadpan delivery and reactions are totally spot on. He’s not playing himself, but a hapless loser with a broken heart, who can’t seem to get past it. As Byington puts it in the same interview, “In Harmony, it’s like Justin’s walking around with a broken record, asking people to listen to it. ‘Please listen to my broken record.’ Our worst nightmare is having to listen to our friends tell us about their stupid breakup. There is a way to make that situation funny.”

Harmony and Me begins with a voiceover quote from the lyrics of a Madonna song. Harmony says, “Something in your eyes is making such a fool of me.” It takes all of eight shots to move from the romantic bliss of Harmony and his girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker, the film’s producer) to Harmony lying on a couch. We assume he’s in a therapy session. Harmony says, “I can’t seem to . . . I walk around with this idea that I want and can’t be happy without some version of, I don’t know, possessing her? Of having her love me in a way she’s not even wired for, not even set up to do.”

As the camera holds on Harmony muttering to himself, a voice asks, “Can I help you?” Byington cuts to a wide shot and the back of a proprietor and what appears to be an empty furniture store. The film cuts to black. Justin sits talking on a cell phone to one of Jessica’s friends, who claims that Jessica describes him as a loser. The revelation is painful. We learn in the next scene – once again involving a cell phone conversation with the same person – that Jessica had already started grieving over the loss while still in the relationship, which has given her a big head start over poor Harmony.

As a form of therapy, Harmony begins taking piano lessons. In voiceover, he suggests, “Lately, the way I shake people’s hands feels spasmodic . . . like I have a hand buzzer. I can’t find any rhythm.” What follows is a series of episodic skits. We see him at work, with his mother (Margie Beegle) and his impish younger brother, Wes (Bishop Allen bassist, Keith Poulson). Brad (Don Herminghaus), his boss at the tech company where he works, has only a day to live and his mother turns out to have lung cancer, but Harmony is too fixated on his own broken heart for these things to register.

Harmony’s tries to get sympathy from his family, but his mother suggests that next time he should “find one that can move her arms and legs,” and Wes can only muster snide remarks. After a family tennis match, Harmony concludes, “I’m pretty sure I grew up with limited access to mental health. My older brother, who was supposed to be a mentor in lieu of our deceased father was deficient. Suffice it to say that he didn’t pick up the slack.” His older brother Jim (Bob Byington) is the type who insists that Harmony remove his shoes before entering his house. He’s about to get married, and, at least according to Harmony, has just bought the wrong-colored tan suit.

Harmony’s friends are no more sympathetic or understanding than his family. Carlos (Kevin Corrigan) calls Jessica “dull” and won’t admit she’s pretty. Another, Prince Valiant (Nick Holden), puts his arm around Harmony and suggests that his uptight response is homophobic. Harmony insists that it’s a personal-space issue, while his friend claims it’s cultural. To be more cruel, the friend rates Jessica only an 8 on a 10-scale. Still another one, Mean Man Mike (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky) who’s unhappily married to a woman named Milius (Baseera Khan), takes Harmony to a Chinese acupuncturist. After the friend uses a “stagnant pond” metaphor to describe his problem, Harmony explains to the acupuncturist, “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.”

Brad seems to recuperate miraculously. He ridicules the heart-shaped locket containing Jessica’s picture that Harmony wears around his neck, and also suggest to a female employee that he’s only interested in underage women. When Harmony tells Mean Man Mike that his boss implied that his chain and locket  made him look gay, the friend concurs that you only see such jewelry on either black people or gay people. When Harmony runs into Jessica on an elevator, she comments on the fact that his shirt and sweater and shoes match, and then laughs and remarks, “It’s cute.” Harmony demands his sweatshirt back, while she reminds him he still has her yoga mat. He also runs into a neighbor, Natasha (Allison Latta), who’s obsessed with her boobs and seems to have a crush on him.

Music becomes a means for Harmony to work out his emotional turmoil and also communicate with his friends, including Mean Man Mike and Carlos. The piano teacher (Jerm Pollet) claims, “No one wins in love.” He realizes his wife is no longer interested in him, but a lawyer who happens to make a lot more money. To him, it’s not personal, but attributable to a change in taste – like preferring crème brûlée to crab cakes.

One of the funniest and most uplifting scenes occurs at Jim’s wedding, where Harmony is brought up by the band to sing, while the Wedding Singer (Austin musician Bob Schneider) checks out the bride, who’s six-months pregnant, and Wes munches on cake. Harmony wanders down to where the Wedding Singer is practicing a song on the piano and gets tutored in how to play it. This is intercut with the Wedding Singer who leads the bride onto the dance floor and sings an exuberant rendition of “Changing Your Mind” to her on bended knee, with his head pressed against her extended belly. Embarrassed, she looks over, and the ensuing camera movement over to Jim and family at the table is as hilarious as you might expect.

As the movie progresses, Jessica takes up with the boss’s son Matt (Pat Healy), whom Harmony regards as “pretty clearly an imbecile.” Harmony goes bowling on his birthday with Matt and Brad, which ends disastrously. Harmony attends Brad’s funeral, where he delivers a eulogy that gets him fired, and has an affair with Natasha that turns out badly, and references There’s Something About Mary (a film I could never watch twice). After she complains that the sex was bad while standing on the balcony in her undies, Harmony responds from the parking lot, “Are you sure you shouldn’t just be thankful that I don’t murder you?” As he walks away, he tries to turn his words into lyrics for a song.

When Harmony’s forced to borrow money from Jim, his brother suggests he values his tabby cat far more than him. Harmony later returns home to find Jessica who’s returning his sweatshirt and wants her yoga mat. When Harmony asks her inside, she suggests that he’s like a character in a movie that you don’t care about, and, after a deep breath, tells him, “I just know that I’m not interested in you.”

Harmony burns Jessica’s pink yoga mat. In a self-destructive gesture – the idea stems from an incident involving Natasha and her dog – Harmony ends up in the hospital, where he spends a week in a coma. It’s here that Byington’s mosaic-like structure becomes fully evident. Most directors would try to pare down the number of characters, especially in such a sequence, but Byington creates a series of short jokes involving Harmony’s mother and Wes, and various friends who turn up to visit Harmony there.

Once Harmony wakes up from his coma and Jessica finally shows up, everyone clears out of the room. After she leaves, everyone returns to his bedside and Harmony, a white bandage still wrapped around his head, ends up playing the song he’s been working on for the entire film, called “The Finishing Touches.” Aren’t broken hearts the staple of most pop songs? Byington’s brilliance is the clever way he works music seamlessly into the film, transforming Harmony’s broken record into a brand new song.

Harmony and Me will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival (April 15-18) this spring. You can also check out the film’s Web site for other screenings. Like most comedies, it’s much funnier to see it with an audience.

Posted 7 January, 2010

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