The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Computer Chess

computer-chess

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) represents a radical departure for this indie writer/director. Bujalski has been associated with mumblecore ever since Funny Ha Ha (2002) won recognition at the SXSW Film Festival in 2005 (even though the film actually debuted three years earlier). His first two films helped to define a film movement that captured the awkward social interactions of his own generation, as his characters attempted to navigate interpersonal relationships consisting of mixed signals and crushes on friends in a time of diminished economic expectations. In 2013, technology has become the new religion, controlling virtually every aspect of our lives. While it has been amazingly transformative – there is no question we are addicted to the minicomputers we carry around in our purses and pockets – it is also largely replacing jobs formerly done by humans, which has relegated many younger people, such as the ones who populated Bujalski’s earlier films, to marginal economic status. By going back in time to the period of the early 1980s, Bujalski explores the world of nerds just as they are on the verge of taking over the culture due to their skills at computer programming.

In re-creating the early years of personal computing, Bujalski has lovingly managed to capture the look and feel of a time we easily forget – before email, texting and Skype. In discussing the future of artificial intelligence, the videographer (Kevin Bewersdorf) at one point suggests it could eventually be used for dating, an idea that causes the programmers to chuckle at the unlikely prospect. Bujalski has a knack for nailing these nerdy characters with their baggy polyester clothes, overly large eye glasses, tie clips, and retro haircuts. His eye for detail includes a professor named Tom Shoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who arrives late, along with a wife and baby who seem like strange appendages. Computer Chess could easily be described as a study in gray and white. The lack of contrast in these images suggests a world that looks surprisingly like Eastern Europe during communism, an effect that Bujalski achieves through shrewd art direction and by shooting in a documentary-like style with a Sony AVC 3260 camera. Like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010), Bujalski finds an odd beauty in the degraded image of early video, complete with breakup, lens burns, cheesy split-screen effects, negative images, awkward superimpositions, dropout, Academy aspect ratio, and various glitches.

Computer Chess is a complex ensemble piece, with so many characters and plot threads that it is initially hard to get one’s bearings. The film centers on a weekend computer chess tournament held at a budget motel. The competition is portrayed as a kind of three-ring circus overseen by its nerdy ringleader, chess whiz Pat Henderson (played by film critic and scholar Gerald Peary), who is eagerly waiting to challenge the winner. Much of the film involves the competition between various computer chess teams, but, in some ways, this is the least interesting material. It is the peripheral sideshows and characters who manage to steal the show. Mike Papageorge (played by Bujalski’s school chum Myles Paige from Funny Ha Ha), appears on a panel early on, where he’s identified as an independent programmer. He frowns during the session, and when finally called upon, he tells Pat: “I find the programming of my fellow competitors to be almost as boring as this discussion.” Despite his bravado, it turns out he cannot afford a hotel room. His efforts to find one represent some of the most humorous incidents in the film.

There is also the lone female contestant on the MIT team, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), who becomes a veiled object of ridicule for Henderson and the other contestants, as well as an object of desire. Mike Papageorge is the first to attempt to crash her room, but it turns out that she’s sheltering her team’s computer, which is so large that it takes up much of the floor space, providing her with an excuse for not letting him stay there. Shelly, who wears a heart pendant around her neck, is so painfully shy and nervous that she can barely speak. The same could be said for Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a program assistant from the Caltech team, who, in many ways, helps to hold the multi-strand narrative together. Peter will later get Shelly to help him run experiments when his team’s computer, Tsar 3.0, takes on a life of its own by performing poorly against other computers, but not against humans.

Meanwhile, a group of spiritual seekers are also holding their own encounter therapy sessions in another part of the same hotel. Overseen by an African guru named Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott), the couples undergo group therapy by groaning loudly, fondling loaves of bread, and becoming reborn as free people. One of them, Dave (Chris Doubek), runs into Peter outside the motel and engages him in conversation. When Peter explains the tournament, Dave muses, “Computers play chess against computers. Wow!” He’s a bit too over solicitous. Although Peter looks about sixteen, Dave asks suggestively, “Are you married?” As he leaves, he remarks, “Hey, we got the same color eyes, man,” a discovery he’s made about his own wife during the encounter session. We are not surprised when he later invites Peter to his room where he and his wife, Pauline (Cyndi Williams), are ripe for swinging. She asks Peter, “Have you ever tried LSD?” She compares Peter to Columbus, but she and Dave worry that he’s not living up to his potential. Cats also seem to have a run of the motel, which Mike Papageorge discovers as he wanders the hallways. When management finally finds him a room after he tries to sleep on the couch in the lobby, it turns out to be full of cats, causing him to have an allergic reaction. He ends up sleeping under a table in the conference, which leads to his own bizarre engagement with the encounter group.

There are other equally eccentric characters. Early on, two guys who are not in the competition, John (Jim Lewis) and Freddy (Freddy Martinez), claim to be there to watch “them get ready for the end of the world.” One of the contestants, a British chap named Les Carbray (James Curry) of the Alliance team, extols the virtues of three Scotches as the secret to coding. Soon afterwards he smokes joints in John and Freddy’s room. John raises the “military” aspect of the game of chess and talks about government interest in the programming being done by these computer geeks. This induces a sense of paranoia in the stoned Les. He asks John, “Are you trying to recruit me? Are you from the Pentagon?” His sidekick, Freddy, comments, “It’s like my uncle said: ‘War is death, hell is pain, chess is victory.’” As the movie goes on, it gets weirder and weirder, especially when Mike Papageorge returns home to get money, and the film suddenly switches to higher contrast, grainy 16mm color film. Soon after, Peter’s teammate, Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), shares some startling revelations. Computer Chess culminates in a final scene involving Peter in which we suddenly enter the realm of science fiction.  

Computer Chess has far more plot than is found in Bujalski’s previous films, even though the earlier three features were scripted. For his new one, he only used an eight-page outline. When asked about the difference in approach, Bujalski explains in Cinema Scope: “So in that sense, it was surprisingly similar, because whether you’re working from a worked-out script or just a couple of paragraphs, you still have to make sense of it with the actors; that process is still the same, of talking it through with them and finding out what works for them. In fact, really the only difference was that I had to be better prepared because there wasn’t as thorough a document to rely on if my mind went blank. So I had to have a slightly better sense of what we were doing.”

Computer Chess is wildly inventive, especially in how it cleverly connects the various plotlines that initially appear to be a series of tangents. Bujalski has always been a humorist. The early days of computing and a computer chess tournament provides him with a minefield of awkward social interactions, especially in the form of the film’s two young characters, Peter and Shelly. But, with Computer Chess, Bujalski has moved beyond naturalism into a kind of madcap surrealism that is closer in spirit to Miranda July than it is to Joe Swanberg.

Note: I saw Computer Chess at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, where the director was also in attendance, along with Gerald Peary. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Lorber, which is good because it takes a second viewing to appreciate the film’s nuances.

Posted 29 December, 2013

All the Light in the Sky

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Considering how many feature films Joe Swanberg has made at this point in his career, All the Light in the Sky (2013) might be easy to overlook, especially following the recent success of his commercial breakthrough, Drinking Buddies (2013). Inspired by and starring Jane Adams, who will forever be identified with Joy, the inveterate family loser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), All the Light in the Sky tells the story of a middle-aged actress, Marie, who finds herself moderately successful but also very much alone. The visit of her twenty-five-year-old niece from New York, Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress, causes Marie to experience a minor mid-life crisis when she suddenly realizes that her life is on a downward slope.

Marie’s small Malibu house perched atop the rocks above the Pacific Ocean serves as a kind of metaphor for the precariousness of her situation. As often happens to female actors when they hit a certain age, Marie is starting to get passed over for parts in major studio films, and has to settle for appearing in low-budget indies that have start dates but sketchy financing. The film opens with a shot of Marie waking up to a self-help video. Without a partner to assist her, she struggles to get into a rubber wetsuit in order to paddle out into the ocean on a surfboard for morning exercise. We soon see that neither exercise nor a steady diet of blended health drinks can fully stave off the inevitable passage of time.

Marie is thrilled to see her niece. When she asks Faye about her boyfriend, the younger woman indicates that things are “the best” and the two are planning to get married. Although Marie doesn’t appear to react, this revelation invariably causes her to ruminate on her own life choices. After taking a dip in the ocean, the two women have intimate discussions about female bodies and sexuality. As they change out of their wetsuits, Marie laments that her breasts already sag and suggests that Faye should enjoy her firm ones as long as she can. Marie later confesses that she has always been used to being the object of male desire – “the image that starts the ball rolling” – a point that has been underscored when Faye’s boyfriend (Lawrence Michael Levine) gets her to expose her breasts while talking to him on Skype the night before.

When friends come over, Marie and an older stoner named Dan (Kent Osborne) seem to hit it off, especially when he plays the role of handyman by fixing her wobbly toilet seat and putting up a coat rack. Meanwhile, when they all use a friend’s hot tub, a young director (Ti West) comes on to Faye, but when she indicates that she has a boyfriend, he immediately loses interest, and she later watches him make out with another young woman (Lindsay Burdge). The socially awkward interaction between Marie and Dan seems promising at first, but it results in a one-night stand, as Marie skips out while Dan is still asleep, only to forget her car keys.

All the Light in the Sky is more episodic than plot-driven. It consists of a series of incidents that have thematic links. The intimate conversations between Marie and her niece, however, turn out to be the film’s most compelling material. To Marie, Faye has everything – her youth represents her power – but the younger woman already worries what will happen when she loses that weapon. Marie, on the contrary, knows only too well what it’s like to walk into a room and seem invisible. Marie insists that it’s different for guys. She attributes it to biology that her neighbor friend, Rusty (Larry Fessenden), is drawn to young women who are Faye’s age. Marie confesses to Faye that she always assumed that she would have kids, but concedes that she never met a reliable man whom she thought would make a good father.

At one point, Rusty and Faye sit on the beach watching the sun set at magic hour. He reflects on the fact that the surrounding houses overlooking the ocean are sheer folly – he predicts they’ll be gone in ten years due to global warming. Yet he’s content to live in the moment and enjoy it while he can. If this makes the film sound overly didactic, it actually feels quite the opposite – like we’re simply eavesdropping on two people conversing. Once Faye leaves to return home, Marie and Rusty have dinner together. Afterwards, the two of them lie together on the sofa, and he amuses her by doing Jack Nicholson imitations. When Marie takes umbrage at a number of his actions and comments, he accuses her of being on a “pity-party tear.” She rejects his attempt to turn their friendship into something more.

There’s something so casual about All the Light in the Sky that it feels invented on the spot. Much of the film’s strength derives from the performance of Jane Adams, who, though her character tries hard to remain upbeat, allows occasional flickers of sadness to appear in her eyes. Adams, who shares writing credit, describes the process of making the film in an interview in Entertainment Weekly: “We sent emails back and forth for a long time with ideas – and text messages even. Joe wrote an outline and sent it to me and we made a few adjustments and then he showed up with two actresses, Lindsay and Sophia, and we just started improvising and shooting. It was an exciting process.”

All the Light in the Sky is easily Swanberg’s most thematically integrated film, yet it might also be his most effortless. The flow of conversations seems as natural as the tide we watch going in and out, or the subtle changes in the bright California sunlight that illuminates so many scenes. Swanberg’s film seems to go beyond simple naturalism by confusing the boundaries between the artifice of performance and real life. It involves a delicate sleight of hand that Swanberg has managed to pull off masterfully. Swanberg shot the film himself, which no doubt contributed to the intimate dynamics of the production.

Swanberg has cleverly added an additional element. In researching a role for a film (this one?), Marie interviews a solar engineer (David Siskind), who measures sunlight with a pyrometer.  He later describes the sun as a “middle-aged star,” which, like all things, ultimately goes away. Her conversations with him contextualize Marie’s own situation within the broader context of flux and change in the natural world. The film’s spectacular final image encapsulates the entire film. In wide shot, Marie is rendered as a tiny figure against the ocean and vast expanse of sky, as she paddles out on her surfboard, while birds periodically fly through the frame.

I first saw All the Light in the Sky when it played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It was recently picked up by boutique distributor, Factory 25, and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York City. Joe Swanberg has been on a roll this year. He has a new film, Happy Christmas (2014), which is scheduled to play in competition at Sundance in January. And, judging by the success of Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-), Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013), and even the new film by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I think it’s fair to say that Swanberg’s influence as a filmmaker has never seemed greater.

Posted 22 December, 2013

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

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Set in Texas (though apparently not actually shot there), David Lowery’s second feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), is a modern-day western, chock full of references to both genre and other films. Its emphasis on visual storytelling recalls Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. Prior to this, Lowery worked on many indie features, most notably as an editor on Dustin Defa’s Bad Fever (2012), Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (2013), and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013). Lowery intended to shoot Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as a low-budget feature, but stints at the Sundance screenwriting and producing labs led to a $6 million budget and big-name stars.

Lowery had made an earlier feature, St. Nick (2009), which did not receive wide release, as well as a dramatic short, Pioneer (2011), featuring Will Oldham. He credits Pioneer with helping to attract Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara to his new project. He told Eric Kohn of Indiewire: “I made St. Nick on a 30-page outline. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a full-bodied script, but it still had a lot of room for improvisation. There were scenes that weren’t there on the page – just a sentence saying something happens. I was like, ‘We’ll figure this out when we shoot it.’ I was very surprised to a certain extent that they responded to it as much as they did. But what helped was that we sent the script out with Pioneer. When folks could read the script and watch that movie, I think it really helped contextualize the film we wanted to make.”

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins with a spat between a young couple, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), which ends on a blissful note once she confides to him that she’s pregnant. Their happiness, however, is short-lived when they attempt to pull off a robbery. In a shootout with law officers, one of the gang members, Freddy (Kentucker Audley), gets killed and Ruth shoots and wounds the local sheriff in the shoulder. As the officers move in and the couple’s situation becomes dire, Ruth tells Bob that there’s no way she can go to prison with their baby due. His hands covered with Freddy’s blood, Bob surrenders, and the two are escorted out by the police in handcuffs. Bob takes the rap and gets sent away, leaving Ruth to fend on her own.

The film’s setup occurs so quickly that it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Lowery’s cutting is not only fast-paced, but the film is also shot in a highly elliptical style. The film’s emphasis is on individual shots rather than on sequence. There’s a minimum of dialogue. Events unfold through a series of stunning images, rich in texture and atmosphere, underscored by natural sounds and a heavy dose of mood music. Bradford Young, who won the best cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival last January, often opts to shoot in low light. Scenes take place at magic hour or in a world of dark shadows. Lowery is less interested in having a tight plot – there are huge narrative gaps – than in creating a kind of filmic poetry.

It turns out that Bob is madly in love with Ruth and always has been. These are doomed lovers – like Kit and Holly in Badlands (1973). Rather than a road movie of a couple on the run, this is a story about the enduring pain of separation. In prison, Bob writes long letters to Ruth every day. In voiceover, he professes his undying love for her and vows to come back for her eventually. Meanwhile, Ruth has a little girl, whom she names Sylvie. Almost from the moment the baby is placed into her arms, Ruth’s bond with Sylvie represents a case of transference. As she grows older, Sylvie (played by Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) is so adorably cute, that it’s not hard to see why. Ruth suffers from intense guilt. Her life is based on a lie, but what other choice does she have? We sense the roots of this tragedy almost from the first few minutes of Lowery’s deeply heartfelt film.

In Bob’s fixation to be reunited with his family, he attempts to break out of prison multiple times before he finally succeeds. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a kind of surrogate father to Bob and the deceased Freddy, laments the loss of his own family. He seems intent on keeping his eye on Ruth and Sylvie by moving them next door. His own bitterness becomes a determining factor in his contempt for Bob, setting up an inevitable showdown.

Given his position as representative of the law and the expectations of genre, the sheriff, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), would seem the more likely antagonist. He runs into Ruth at church, turns up at her house, and takes a kind-hearted interest in her and Sylvie. Ruth tries her best to keep her distance from him, but given her own dead-end situation, he represents the kind of stability that Bob can never give her. Several nasty individuals also manage to surface (are they bounty hunters?), so that when Bob finally returns, he faces three different sets of foes that stand between him and his family.

Casey Affleck, looking like a younger David Byrne, is riveting as the love-struck criminal. He might stand outside the boundaries of the law, but he wears his love of Ruth as his own shiny badge of honor. She’s the only thing he has going for him and he knows it. Rooney Mara, as Ruth, is a woman of few words, despite the intensity of emotions that smolder inside her. Ruth is caught in a trap of her own making, and looking for any means of escape. She is well aware that her options are limited. Ben Foster, as Wheeler, harbors no particular resentment toward either Bob or Ruth – he views his injury merely as a hazard of his job. Yet, like Ruth, he has his own inner conflicts, especially regarding his duty to hunt down Bob.

Like Jeff Nichols’s Mud (2013), which grossed over $20 million at the box office this year,  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  – the meaning of the title eludes me – aspires to be a mythic American film. But Lowery’s film is far less conventional than Mud. Mud is a narrative film with rich poetic flourishes, whereas Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is much closer to a poem with narrative touches. I initially watched the film on pay-per-view, which left me underwhelmed. The dark palette simply did not play well on the smaller screen. After having a chance to see it at our local Sundance Cinema, I simply can tell you that this film really needs a big screen and good sound to work its considerable magic.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints might remind you of other great genre films you’ve seen, but that’s actually its strength rather than a weakness. Lowery’s emotionally affecting film is one of the most impressive cinematic achievements in a year filled with an unusual number of exceptional releases.

Posted 4 September, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Eric Hynes recently wrote an article in the New York Times about the new films by Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, suggesting that mumbecore has finally grown up. Given the fact that mumblecore reflected a youth culture and the problems of a generation of characters in their twenties, the passage of time would, of course, inevitably have that effect. Bujalski is now thirty-six, while Swanberg is thirty-one. Both filmmakers are married with young kids and have to make a living, which is hard to do making micro-budget indie features. Yet the new films by Bujalski and Swanberg couldn’t be more different. Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), a period piece set in the early days of computing (circa 1980), represents an entirely new direction for him, whereas Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is a larger-budget romantic comedy that still has links to the style and substance of his earlier works.

I have seen quite a few of Joe Swanberg’s films over the years (roughly ten features by my count), even if I haven’t written about his work at any length until now. Like James Benning, Swanberg has been amazingly prolific in the digital format. Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with someone who has used sheer quantity as a means to survive as a filmmaker. This is in contrast to Bujalski, who has made only three other features since Funny Ha Ha (2002), the film that is credited with starting the mumblecore phenomenon. Yet, when all is said and done, Swanberg has made a number of equally strong films. I happened to take another look at Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) the other day for a book chapter I’m writing, and the film certainly holds up upon multiple viewings. In fact, it only seems to get better and better each time.

Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky (2013) screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. I considered it one of the highlights of the festival, which had a very strong indie lineup. Starring Jane Adams, the film has been largely overshadowed by Drinking Buddies, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Eric Kohn in Indiewire suggests that most of Swanberg’s films prior to Drinking Buddies are merely sketches, but I disagree. I find All the Light in the Sky to be a mature and sensitive look at the problems of being a middle-aged female actor, who has made great personal sacrifices to have a career. The main character, Marie (Adams), lives in a spectacularly nice house overlooking the ocean, but now finds herself without a partner and suddenly being passed over for major acting roles.

Based on a single page of notes (according to the filmmaker), Swanberg builds Drinking Buddies around a specific location, a craft brewery in Chicago, which reflects his current personal obsession with beer. The film centers on two couples. Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the events planner at the brewery, or, as the boss puts it, its “face and voice.” In the close-knit operation, Kate is very much at its center, as she organizes various public functions, much to the admiration of the guys who work there. Kate appears to have a special bond with the bearded Luke (Jake Johnson), who, with his boisterous personality, has an equally large presence among the workers. At the bar after work, we learn that Luke has a partner, Jill (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t seem at all his type. Although he’s up to partying some more, she prefers to go home, much to the annoyance of the others, especially Kate, who begins playing pool.

Luke and Kate have a very close and flirtatious relationship, so much so that we’re equally puzzled when she later shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Compared to Kate, Chris (Ron Livingston) is not at all the type of guy we expect someone like her to date. He’s soft-spoken as opposed to loud, a good deal more of an intellectual than Kate, as well as considerably older. When she quizzes him about his day, Chris wonders whether someone playing a cello in a rock band was being ironic, and admits that he can no longer tell. As the two start to make love, he suddenly interrupts their foreplay to give her a present, which turns out to be a hardback book (later revealed to be John Updike’s novel, Rabbit, Run). Rather than staying the night, Kate rides her bike home, ostensibly because a package is being delivered to her house in the morning.

Chris tags along with Kate to the big brewery event she’s organized, which gives her co-workers their first glimpse of her boyfriend. Seeing the two of them in the midst of her work milieu, the mismatch between Kate and Chris seems both surprising and obvious to everyone who works there. Jill is also with Luke as well. She turns out to be a special education teacher, very straight, and later jokes about being a “bourgeois pig” when she carries a set of plates and glasses in her backpack on a hiking trip. What is she doing with a guy like Luke, who exults in continually playing the role of the house blackjack player, a job he previously held on a riverboat casino?

When the two couples decide to visit Chris’s cabin, presumably on Lake Michigan, they end up spending more time with each other’s partners. Chris wants to go hiking, but only Jill expresses any interest in accompanying him. The film cuts back and forth between Chris and Jill walking through the woods and stopping to picnic, and Kate and Luke back at the cabin. Later that night, after a great deal of drinking, when Luke and Kate find themselves the only ones still up, he proposes building a bonfire on the sandy beach. Kate accepts the challenge and later provocatively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake.

The events of the weekend getaway, however, take their toll when Chris breaks up with Kate upon their return. Kate announces the news the next morning: “The shackles are off, I’m free,” she exclaims loudly, which is clearly an open invitation to Luke, but he actually has a mixed reaction. Kate begins to behave wildly after work, especially when she has a fling with one of the brewers, a guy named Dave (Ti West), and rumors swirl around the brewery. Needless to say, Luke gets both annoyed and very jealous. Meanwhile, things between Luke and Jill also become strained. She’s pressuring him to get married, and he acts as if he’s much too busy to get involved in planning a wedding right now. As he puts it, “figuring it out is the boring part.” Things reach a head when Jill goes away for a week to Costa Rica, leaving Luke to his own devices.

During the first half of Drinking Buddies, I confess that I missed the usual group of Swanberg performers. Despite cameos by regulars Frank V. Ross and Ti West, it took me awhile to warm to this group of professional actors. Only gradually did I begin to understand that Jill’s desperation to get married had to do with her life stage. When Kate tries to get back with Chris, he tells her they’ve been together long enough (eight months) for him to know their relationship isn’t going to work. It’s time for him to move on. For Jill, who’s been with Luke far too long (since she was twenty-one, we learn), she’s painfully aware that time is running out for them.

Although Jill might seem more suited to Chris, and Kate to Luke (especially in terms of social class), Drinking Buddies, in its observational style, suggests that there’s some truth to the old adage that opposites attract. Luke is much too comfortable in front of the bonfire to plunge into the ocean with Kate despite her seductive invitation. When Luke shows up at Kate’s apartment to help her move, he is grossed out by the fact that her place is such a mess. When Luke cuts his hand badly while moving her couch, Kate is too freaked out by the sight of blood to be able to offer assistance, whereas Jill’s response comes naturally and is just the opposite. While Kate and Luke make great drinking buddies, would they make a viable couple? Relationships generally need a certain balance or stability to keep them from veering wildly out of control. Referring to Luke and Jill’s nice apartment, Kate jokes, “I want a Jill . . . Does she have a male clone?”

There is unmistakable attraction and affection between Kate and Luke. The two feel enormously comfortable around each other, even physically, as they lie intertwined on the couch together. On some level, they’re very close, but what Swanberg seems to be suggesting in Drinking Buddies is that best buddies don’t necessarily make the best mates. As a result, there’s a sad undercurrent that runs throughout the film, which explores issues of friendship and romance, and the difference between casual crushes and actual commitments. Kate and Luke’s relationship seems to involve a series of missed connections. As it turns out, they might actually make better drinking buddies than lovers.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, in particular, give outstanding and believable performances as strong working-class characters. Kate (who has the piercing eyes of a Siamese cat) might act like one of the guys, but when she feels judged by Luke, she responds with the fierceness of a caged animal. As played by Wilde, Kate is very much her own person, and certainly no one to mess with, which makes her one of the strongest female characters in any of Swanberg’s films. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, plays the part of Jill with such understated vulnerability that it’s easy to miss the subtlety of what she’s doing, performance-wise.

In Drinking Buddies, it’s interesting to watch these actors respond to Swanberg’s more improvisational approach to filmmaking. In an interview, he discusses the benefits of working with professional actors: “They have a whole rich life and thought process to draw from, and so then in the moments where they’re sort of put on the spot they have stuff to talk about . . . Olivia reads a lot, she’s engaged in politics in the world around her, she has opinions about things. That’s all you need for improvisation – to be a person who is able to express yourself. If you’re working with good actors then everybody’s doing that, and you end up with fascinating scenes.”

Drinking Buddies is playing on Amazon Instant as a two-day rental for $10 (as well as on iTunes). I ran across it quite by accident, but I was happy to have an opportunity to see the film before it is released theatrically in late August.

Posted 1 August, 2013

I Used to Be Darker

Matt Porterfield gained prominence in indie film circles with Putty Hill (2011), a second feature that was shot using a short outline after financing fell through on a more ambitious scripted project. A mixture of documentary and fictional elements, Putty Hill used an episodic structure, off-screen interviewer, and improvised acting to explore the reactions of family and friends to a drug overdose in a working class neighborhood of Baltimore. Porterfield’s new feature, I Used to Be Darker (2013), was scripted by Porterfield and writer Amy Belk. The film is about the corrosive effects of divorce, how it impacts everyone involved, including the children who also wind up being its victims. I Used to Be Darker premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing, and will screen as part of the prestigious BAMcinemaFEST on June 21.

I Used to Be Darker (the enigmatic title comes from Bill Callahan song lyrics) tells the story of a runaway teen from Northern Ireland named Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who flees to the beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland and gets pregnant. She turns up unexpectedly at the Baltimore home of her aunt and uncle, Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), only to discover that they are in the process of getting a divorce. What’s unusual about Bill and Kim is that they are actually hip musicians rather than your typical straight middle-class couple. It’s hard not to like the two of them, even though our sympathies lie more with Bill than Kim, largely because he’s the one getting dumped.

During a brief argument in which Kim is packing books, it becomes clear that the pressures of making a living have curtailed Bill’s musical aspirations, while Kim hasn’t given up the dream and continues to play with a local band. They know how to play the blame game. Kim suggests that once she’s gone, Bill will become more productive again. Bill tells her: “I just don’t write songs anymore. I pay bills. I pay for my daughter’s education. I pay for your health insurance.” Kim responds, “Well, not anymore.” Right after this, there’s a message on the answering machine from Taryn, announcing that she’s coming to visit.

When Taryn arrives, she ends up staying with Bill, partly because Kim is moving to a new place. Her cousin, Abby (Hannah Gross), is upset with her mom and is barely speaking to her. She tells Taryn, “Welcome to my personal hell!” The tension between Bill and Kim is palpable, especially when her fellow band members help to cart away her musical instruments. Bill’s reaction is to sit and play a song on his guitar before he calmly gets up and smashes it. Later, as the two of them attempt to discuss Taryn’s situation, Bill complains about having to shake hands with the men who took her instruments away. He tells Kim, “Yeah, you know, I think I’d probably rather take a punch in the face than to feel that handshake again.”

The beauty of the scene is that, even without the dialogue, it still manages to convey their discomfit through gestures: the way Kim nervously fidgets with her drink or periodically looks away from him, as well as Bill’s syncopated hand movements as he slouches in his chair. Even more revealing, however, are the musical interludes that are interwoven throughout the film, providing an emotional outlet for the characters (Taylor and Oldham are actual musicians). Taryn and Abby attend a punk concert, which gives vent to their pent-up anger. Music becomes a means for the characters to communicate and to express emotions that would otherwise remain under the surface.

Part of the power of I Used to Be Darker stems from the extraordinary performances Porterfield is able to draw from his nonprofessional cast. Campbell adeptly conveys a confused sexuality that has obviously gotten Taryn into her current predicament. It has the potential to complicate her life even more when she flirts with her aunt’s new band mate, Nick (Nick Petr). Taryn talks in clipped fragments delivered in a sing-song, heavy Irish accent. When Bill first confesses that he and Kim are in the process of separating, Taryn responds: “Can’t believe it. Had no idea . . . I’m such an idiot.”

Although Taryn is the lens through which we view the impact of divorce, Bill and Kim’s separation is felt most acutely by Abby, whose sullen disposition suggests that she’s extremely depressed about the situation. In one telling scene, her frustration is evident when she attempts to make waffles for breakfast only to discover that her mom took the waffle iron with her. When this finally becomes apparent, Abby dumps the batter into the garbage. She then takes out her anger on Taryn.

Oldham portrays Bill as someone who’s trying valiantly to hold things together. When he finally drops Taryn off with Kim, he informs her that Abby has split for New York and insists that she take responsibility for her sister’s kid. In arriving unannounced at Kim’s new place, he makes a discovery that leads to more heated conflict. Taylor’s sad eyes, low-key demeanor, and soulful songs, such as Days Like This, suggest the emotional pain that Kim is also experiencing. As she and Taryn look at her photo album together, the teen asks, “Does it suck being a mother? Kim responds in a voice barely above a whisper, “No, it’s hard, though, especially when the person you’d die for doesn’t want to talk to you.”

In his previous films, Porterfield mined cinematic realism through use of nonprofessional actors, improvisation, found locations, and long extended takes. There’s a great deal more cutting in I Used to Be Darker, despite his continued predilection for highly formal framings and a languid pace. Porterfield often keeps his camera at a distance from his characters, suggesting a more observational approach. There’s a scene early on where, in a wide shot, Bill takes a dip in the backyard pool. He slowly swims off-screen. The camera holds on the undulating water for several seconds until he comes back into the frame again. Much credit for the film’s visual strength is no doubt also due to Porterfield’s talented cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, who also shot Porterfield’s other two features.

Porterfield felt that not having a script in Putty Hill made it a better film than his first feature, Hamilton (2006), because it made him more open to the possibilities of the moment. But having an 89-page script for I Used to Be Darker also had benefits. In an interview in Filmmaker, he suggests that “this imposed structure gave the actors more to work with and also push against, which elevated the level of performance.” Porterfield comments: “I feel lucky to have made Putty Hill first, because it liberated me from feeling absolute loyalty to the page. Several times during the shoot, when things we’d written weren’t working, I’d throw the script out and improvise with the cast. And the results were always better than we’d imagined.  Moving forward, I’d like to adjust the balance a little more, to give myself more time to work and play with the actors on location while still adhering to a pre-determined structure.”

This has been a great year so far for independent cinema. I Used to Be Darker played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April as part of an impressive program of new low-budget independent films that included Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue. Even though the script for his new film was co-written, Porterfield has indicated that he considers I Used to Be Darker to be his most personal and collaborative film to date. It’s also his best.

Posted 20 June, 2013

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