The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Dark Horse

Todd Solondz’s career started with such a bang that it’s pretty shocking that his latest film, Dark Horse (2012), struggled to gain a theatrical release. Solondz no doubt bears some responsibility. The difficulties can be traced back to his decision to make the controversial Happiness (1998) following the breakthrough success of his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). Solondz recently commented: “A lot of doors opened after Dollhouse, and I suppose by writing this script I knew I could close a lot of them and see who was left standing.”

The gamble profoundly affected his career. Solondz chose to make pedophilia the focus of Happiness and persisted in sticking with this subject matter. His last film, Life During Wartime (2010), returned to the same characters, Bill Maplewood and his son, Billy, so it should not come as much of a surprise that Solondz’s box office appeal might suffer as a result, even though Life During Wartime is one of his best films.

Dark Horse moves away from contentious subject matter, yet the film’s protagonist, Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber), is as self-delusional as any other Solondz character. Rather than seeing himself as a loser, Abe, overweight and in his 30s, clings to the notion that he’s merely a “dark horse,” a come-from-behind kind of guy whom everyone underestimates, but who will eventually triumph. Despite the skewed inner script he’s following, Abe secretly knows that he’s a failure. In a series of recurring dreams or fantasies, his co-worker, Marie (Donna Murphy) serves as a reality check throughout the film.

Dark Horse begins with spirited dancing at a Jewish wedding to music by Kid Sister. Dressed in a tuxedo, Abe sits next to a woman with barely a pulse, named Miranda (Selma Blair). As the dancers are reflected in the mirror behind them, Abe leans over and announces brashly, “I don’t dance. It’s not my thing.” Miranda moves closer, looks at him quizzically, but doesn’t answer. He nevertheless chases her down at the coat check room as she’s leaving in order to get her phone number, which she only gives him with great reluctance.

Abe’s yellow Hummer, blaring loud pop music, pulls into the driveway of a suburban house, where Abe still lives with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). As he enters, he ignores his mother’s greeting, as she and her husband silently watch TV in the parlor. It turns out that Abe also works in his father’s real estate development firm, where Marie perpetually covers for him, and a cousin named Justin (Zachary Booth) sucks up to his dad. Rather than doing the spreadsheets his father impatiently waits for, Abe buys action figures on the Internet.

Abe interrupts a game of backgammon with his mom to make a date with Miranda, who hangs up before he can arrange the time. When he arrives at her house with a bouquet of flowers, she’s not there, of course, so he is forced to sit with her skeptical parents before Miranda eventually arrives. As she smokes a cigarette on the back porch later on, Abe demonstrates his lack of social skills by discussing a friend’s testicular cancer. He also brags about having a high sperm count and insists on the importance of numerology. “Dates and Numbers have to be right,” he tells Miranda, before he impulsively asks her to marry him.

Defeat is manifest in Abe’s downtrodden gait when he returns home and again ignores his mom. He mopes at work the next day, fails to provide the needed spreadsheets, and quits his job in a loud argument with his dad. Later that night, as his mother tries to console him, Abe threatens to move out and demands that she pay her backgammon debt. When she suggests that he see a psychiatrist, Abe launches into a tirade about people needing to face the truth. “We’re all horrible people,” he tells his mom, “humanity is a fucking cesspool.”

When he shows up at work the next day, his father counsels Abe to go back and finish college. He wants Abe to be more like his older brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), who is now a successful doctor. Abe, however, harbors deep-rooted resentment toward Richard as a result of the fact that his parents obviously play favorites. Richard calls his younger brother, but Abe only spews venom before hanging up.

Abe, however, gets a surprise phone call from Miranda, who feels terrible about what happened and invites him over. When Abe arrives, she’s sprawled on the bed. Once awake, Miranda confronts Abe: “Please tell me something, and I need you to be honest. Are you for real? And you’re not being ironic . . . like performance art or something?” If you don’t think those are hilarious lines, this film might not be for you.

While giving Miranda a tour of his room, Abe suggests that his family’s house would be a great place for them to live once his parents move to Florida. Miranda is taken aback that he doesn’t want them to get their own place, but she makes a tearful confession and manipulates Abe by asking, “Is this going to affect things, make you change your mind?” Marie certainly thinks so. “I guess that takes care of that,” she counsels him, but Abe is not one to heed anyone’s advice.

From this point on, the trajectory of Dark Horse becomes even more complicated. Although many of today’s independent filmmakers appear to be moving away from scripts and heavy plotting, Solondz’s strength as a filmmaker has always involved his considerable writing skills and trenchant wit. Dark Horse mixes fantasy and reality throughout, but as the film progresses, the divide between the two becomes even more complex and intricate, and various revelations are made about several of the characters (though many of them occur in Abe’s tortured mind). The film’s final shot cleverly makes us rethink what’s gone before.

If Dark Horse seems like a romantic comedy, Solondz deliberately undercuts audience expectations about genre. As he puts it: “I think the only tradition I’m interested in pursuing is a tradition of upending traditions, and finding new meaning in the way in which these conventions and old stories are tackled. It’s good to not always give people what they expect, but I don’t think anyone would mistake this for a Wes Anderson movie.” I think it’s safe to say that no viewer will make this error.

Solondz uses pop songs, clashing color schemes, clever flights of fancy, and a series of repetitions to convey abrupt tonal changes in Abe’s mood and character. Abe’s yellow Hummer pulling into his parents’ driveway becomes a barometer of his fluctuation between depression and naive optimism. Irony is a recurrent theme. Dark Horse aspires to end with a wedding, but, as most of us know, it’s always a risky proposition to bet on a long shot.

Posted 21 February, 2013

Starlet

Starlet, Sean Baker’s fourth feature, is his most successful to date. Baker’s last two films, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), took an ethnographic approach toward their subjects. Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) delves into the world of Asian illegal immigrants by focusing on a home delivery person indebted to loan sharks, while Prince of Broadway is a portrait of a West African street peddler who sells knock-off merchandise and gets a baby dumped on him unexpectedly. Starlet again deals with characters living on the margins. The film tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a young woman in her early twenties and a gruff woman in her mid-eighties, following the purchase of an item at a yard sale. Baker’s new film also contains an ethnographic element, but that is not readily apparent at first.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) lives with two roommates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) in the San Fernando Valley, along with her male Chihuahua incongruously named Starlet. Melissa is an airhead and basket case who likes to get high all the time. Mikey apparently deals drugs, but also has other sidelines. Neither of them is terribly likeable. It is especially hard to care much for Melissa after she tries to get Starlet high by blowing smoke in the poor dog’s face. If we take a liking to Jane, much of it has to do with her genuine affection for her small companion.

The plot initially centers on a thermos that Jane buys from an elderly woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson). After initially mistaking it for an urn and deciding it would make a great flower vase, Jane discovers that it contains rolls of cash that amount to roughly $10,000. This causes a personal dilemma, along with myriad questions: Should Jane return the loot to the old lady? Where did Sadie get the money? How did it get in the thermos? The discovery creates an alluring mystery, but, as Starlet slowly unfolds, more mysteries abound.

Jane tries to solve the initial one by getting to know Sadie, who rebuffs her awkward attempts at friendship. The fiercely independent old lady is suspicious of Jane, and only wants to be left alone. In her obsession to find answers, Jane begins to stalk Sadie. She disperses Sadie’s cab outside the grocery store, so that she can give her a lift home. Once inside her house, Jane tries to strike up a conversation by asking the perplexed woman what she does for fun. When Sadie indicates that she likes to play bingo at a local church, Jane turns up there as well. After Sadie’s cab disappears once again, Jane gives her another ride home, but this time the elderly woman retaliates.

The rift between them is short-lived when Sadie calls Jane and apologizes. As the two resume their tentative relationship, Sadie gradually reveals aspects of her life to the inquisitive young woman, including details about her deceased husband, who was a gambler, and her love of Paris. It’s more than the mystery of the money, however, that Jane seeks. She seems to be a lost soul, who has little else going for her. One afternoon, while they are together, Jane gets a phone call from Melissa, who is experiencing a meltdown, which brings the two plotlines together.

Not only is Melissa in the porn film business, but it turns out that Jane is new to the trade as well. This explains the shot of Jane getting a blood test in the doctor’s office earlier and the slight sway in her thin hips when she walks, as well as a couple of other well-placed clues. Shortly after the incident with Melisssa, we watch a porn shoot involving hard-core sex between Jane and a male performer, which Baker shoots in a documentary-like style.

There is a later scene at an adult entertainment expo, where Jane appears with a stack of her sex videos and has pictures taken with fans. Her boss, Arash (Karren Karagulian), talks about breast implants being the next step for her, but Melissa (who’s been “frozen” for a month for bad behavior) and Mikey crash the event, causing a major ruckus. After banishing them, Arash tells Jane, “That girl is bad news. I don’t want to see you with her.” Jane responds quizzically, “I live with her.” Arash snaps, “So don’t live with her anymore.”

Given the impersonal world that Jane inhabits, it’s no wonder that Sadie seems a welcome respite, even if Sadie can be remote and easily irritated. Baker manages to get arresting performances from the entire cast, but especially from the chemistry between Dree Hemingway and first-time performer, Besedka Johnson. Hemingway, with her lanky frame, seems to regress in the old lady’s presence, so that she appears to revert to a confused teen rather than young adult, while fissures appear in Sadie’s armor, before the mystery behind her character eventually is revealed.

Baker shot Starlet in actual locations connected to the adult film industry. The setting, however, provides more than just an intriguing backdrop to the story. It actually provides a crucial context for establishing the relationships between Jane, Melissa, Mikey, and Arash,as well as the motivation behind why Jane might be drawn to someone like Sadie. The film is, at heart, a fascinating character study, even if the screenplay (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch) contains more plot than is usually found in a Sean Baker film.

Starlet has a somewhat languorous pace compared to his previous films, but Baker has an innate feel for when to cut scenes. The cinematography by Radium Cheung captures the muted tones of the Valley, so that the colors, like the characters, appear to be washed out by the perpetual sun. In exposing the less glamorous underside of this social milieu, Baker shows how it affects young women, who get trapped emotionally in what he describes as a kind of dependent “pre-adolescent environment.” We come to see that, like her dog, Starlet, Sadie represents a kind of desperate lifeline for Jane.

Posted 11 February, 2013

Pavilion

Tim Sutton’s debut feature Pavilion (2012) begins like a conventional narrative, but then confounds viewer expectations. Those waiting for a story to coalesce will no doubt be puzzled when the film veers off in surprising directions. The focus on characters, for example, shifts abruptly after twelve minutes. Pavilion, it turns out, is far less interested in plot or even character development than in combining images, sounds, and music into a more purely cinematic experience that explores the insular world of teenagers. Sutton has said in interviews that he was interested in capturing the mystery of adolescence. Part of that mystery, however, is its opacity – its refusal to disclose fully. Yet the strength of Pavilion resides in how the film manages to render the lives of teenagers so vividly.

Pavilion begins with a group of teens shooting off fireworks. We watch them play with Nerf guns, ride their bikes through the neighborhood, get high, skateboard around fountains, and drive home at night. The film, which has the equivalent of a prologue and coda, actually has a sliver of a plot that holds it together. It centers on a fifteen-year-old named Max (Max Schaffner), who lives with his mom and hangs out with friends in upstate New York over the summer. He climbs trees, hikes in the forest with a female friend named Addie (Addie Bartlett), and the two take a dip in the lake. Through a phone conversation, we learn that Max is going to live with his dad in Arizona. Pavilion is less about causal connections between scenes than it is about striking visual images and strong contrasts once the film shifts locations.

Max’s more idyllic life with his mother in rural New York contrasts starkly with the arid landscape of Arizona, where Max suddenly finds himself stranded in a motel room with his unemployed dad. Lush nature gives way to barren, flat stretches of desert and cement; stability gives way to transience; the freedom of the outdoors transforms into claustrophobia, an expansive lake shrinks to a small swimming pool, and a carefree mood turns more melancholy. After observing the local kids riding bikes below his motel window, Max eventually hangs out with them. He strikes up a friendship with a kid named Cody (Cody Hamric), who, along with his pals, has a penchant for performing mountain bike stunts. While the film focuses mainly on Max, he eventually recedes into the background, to be replaced by Cody.

The teenagers in Pavilion inhabit a world which, for the most part, remains inaccessible to most adults. Early on, a kid’s mother, who calls her son “dude,” tries to get a kiss from him as he heads out the door, but he ignores her request. She laments, “I gotta try!” Max’s mother laughs giddily as Max and Addie dive into the lake for a swim. She later offers a positive assessment of Addie, but barely receives a response from her son. Conversations between teens and parents or between the kids themselves consist of words that don’t so much communicate as fill up awkward pauses. As a result, there’s very little “dialogue” in the film, and what’s said is not terribly significant.

The kids are largely unable to articulate their feelings. Max’s conversations with his father, for instance, are short and perfunctory. When Max and Addie trek in the forest, they obliquely discuss the fact that he’ll be moving to Arizona, but this appears to have little emotional impact. It is almost as if the events controlling the kids’ lives are occurring in an alternate universe. Will Max and Addie miss each other? We haven’t a clue. Do they have real affection for each other? It’s not clear. At one point, as they get far into the woods, the two of them stop. We might expect them to kiss, but Addie merely takes Max’s hat off his head and puts it on her own.

Pavilion is very much a product of the process by which it was made. Like many of today’s filmmakers, Sutton didn’t rely on a traditional script to make the film. He’s working in the tradition of a visual stylist like Wong Kar-wai, who has explained the limitations of that approach: “You can’t write all your images on paper, and there are so many things – the sound, the music, the ambience, and also the actors – when you’re writing all these details in the script, the script has no tempo, it’s not readable. It’s very boring. So I just thought, it’s not a good idea (to write out a complete script beforehand) and I just wrote down the scenes, some essential details, and the dialogue.”

Wong is not the only established filmmaker to dispense with a traditional script. Gus Van Sant has made a number of films using only outlines. Jim Jarmusch improvised in shooting The Limits of Control (2009), and Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs didn’t rely on a full-blown script in making Haywire (2012). Soderbergh, who announced his retirement from cinema, has expressed reservations about conventional narrative. He told an interviewer: “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”

For Pavilion, Sutton chose a number of teenagers and two major locations: an area in upstate New York, where he grew up, and Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. Sutton wrote a short story instead of a script, but he did so mostly to communicate with his cinematographer. He then created an outline of scenes that would change and develop in the course of shooting them, so that the film grew organically out of the process of making it. As a result, Pavilion is composed of stunning imagery, physical actions, bodily and facial gestures, snippets of conversation, intricate sound design, and a haunting musical score by Sam Prekop.

Beautifully shot by Chris Dapkins and seamlessly edited by Seth Bomse, Pavilion has even less narrative than most other indie films it resembles – from films by Gus Van Sant to Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010) and Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss (2011). Pavilion played at SXSW and BAMcinemaFest. It was picked up for distribution last summer by Factory 25, which has been busily scooping up some of the most challenging recent indie films.

Pavilion is scheduled to open at the IFC Center in NYC on March 1.

Posted 31 January, 2013

Tiger Tail in Blue

Although hardly unknown within indie film circles, the films of Frank V. Ross remain under the radar for more mainstream audiences. His new film, Tiger Tail in Blue (2012), represents his seventh feature since 2000, yet Ross, whose films have been associated with those of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, has had trouble getting his films distributed more widely, despite playing at SXSW and other notable venues. Hopefully this is about to change. Tiger Tail in Blue was nominated for the “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” Award at the recent Gotham Independent Film Awards, and rated number five on the “Best Undistributed Films of 2012” list on Indiewire.

While showing similarities to films associated with mumblecore, Ross’s work mines somewhat different territory. In contrast to fellow Chicagoan Joe Swanberg, for example, Ross carefully scripts his films, even though they might easily be mistaken for being improvised. If early mumblecore films dealt with the confusion of twentysomethings jumpstarting their adult lives, Ross’s characters seem to be a very different breed. They are less urban hipsters in a transitional stage of life than young, working-class suburbanites, who find themselves already trapped in humdrum lives and less than satisfying routines. They accept their fates with a certain resignation, yet feel stymied and unfulfilled as they struggle to make ends meet in a world of diminished prospects.

In Hohokam (2007), which is set in sweltering Phoenix, Anson (Anthony J. Baker) is an ex-marine working as a laborer, while his girlfriend Lori (Allison Latta) is stuck in a cramped office cubicle where she haggles on the phone with customers about their late medical payments. Anson has aspirations to start a restaurant or a car wash, but it’s not clear that he has the necessary drive, skills or luck to make that happen. To make matters worse, even Lori has her doubts. In Audrey the Trainwreck (2010), Ron Hogan (Baker), works as a purchaser for an ATM parts company, while the new girlfriend he meets on an Internet dating site, Stacy (Alexi Wasser), delivers parcels. It turns out that Ron hates his job, but can’t admit it to himself. In fact, he’s already secretly counting the days to early retirement (the working class dream), even though he’s only been employed there for three years.

If dead-end jobs largely define the worlds of Ross’s characters, they also consume so much of their lives that they don’t have much time for leisure. But the characters also appear to live in a cultural and artistic vacuum. In Hohokam, Anson and Lori decide to go out on the town and do something, but they are somewhat at a loss to figure out what that might be. For lack of anything better to do, they end up visiting the local zoo. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron spends time in coffee shops and dark bars. Beyond that, he plays volleyball with co-workers, while Stacy attends a bridal shower. The main characters in Tiger Tail in Blue go sledding down a not-very-steep hill.

What’s unique about Ross’s films is the way he deliberately eschews classical narrative. There’s no catalyst or inciting incident 10 or 15 minutes into the film to propel the story forward. In fact, there’s not much story per se. Viewers expecting a dramatic premise might question exactly what it is they’re watching. Yet Ross merely has a different agenda. He’s less interested in story conventions than in exploring the boundaries of narrative. At times, he even teases viewers by playing with their expectations. There is Anson’s gun, Lori’s flirtatious officemate, and another co-worker named The Jeffery (Joe Swanberg), who weasels a ride home from Lori early in Hohokam. Plotwise, these all turn out to be red herrings. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron’s roommate, Scott Kaniewski (Danny Rhodes) appears to have a crush on him, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, and is treated as a simple fact of life. If there’s a story there, Ross chooses not to tell it.

Ross seems to exult in chronicling the ordinary or the mundane. He gives equal weight to what would be excluded in most other films: bodily functions, pumping gas, office rumors, a phone call from a child that turns out to be a wrong number, breaking a favorite coffee mug, an older couple dancing in a restaurant, the surprise of getting a buffalo head nickel, the pleasure of a doughnut break or eating ice cream, the annoyance of cell phones, or a bad case of shingles. Ross’s characters talk very matter-of-factly, even provocatively, about sex, but the erotic pleasure appears to be more in talking about it – the possibility of sex – rather than actually engaging in the act. Any declaration about making love becomes an empty threat.

The sense that Ross’s characters feel trapped in their suburban lives and by jobs that “suck the life out of them” probably accounts for the fact that they get easily annoyed by little things. Ron gets upset about restaurants that claim to have the best hamburgers; the bride-to-be complains to Stacy about a parent interfering with her wedding plans. Chris in Tiger Tail in Blue gets irritated by older folks who call him “dude,” while Brandy’s roommate, Leonard (Baker), is convinced that reality television is making kids stupid. Scott launches into a long tirade, lasting several minutes, about security screenings of children at airports. He insists he’d rather be blown up than subjected to such “indignities.” “Just agree with me,” Scott heatedly vents to Ron, “that kids taking off their shoes at airports equals a shitty world.”

Ross’s characters also tend to have very short fuses. Lori and Anson get into an argument over an offhanded racist comment. Lori’s failure to approve of Anson’s choice of clothes leads to a blowup that causes her to storm out of the house. During a game of volleyball, Ron angrily throws the ball at his co-worker Jeremy (Swanberg) after he slips on water that Jeremy accidentally spills on the court. Ron argues with Scott, and also gets into an altercation at the local bar with a smug contractor named David (Nick Offerman), who belittles the significance of Ron’s line of work. It’s the kind of situation we fully expect will escalate into a fistfight, but, in this case, David’s wife wisely intervenes before the two come to blows.

Ross’s films present slices of life rather than conventional narratives. They are not easily summarized or explained. In some sense they are character studies of couples. Anson and Lori seem to be a mismatched pair. They don’t have very much in common, and she finds it weird that he walks around with a loaded gun. In fact, Lori seems to share greater camaraderie with her gay friend, Guy (Rhodes) than with Anson. Audrey the Trainwreck explores the life and frustrations of a single guy who’s starting to get up there in age, but is still on the prowl, painfully aware that the clock is ticking and his prospects are narrowing. Tiger Tail in Blue examines the pressures of everyday life on a young married couple in suburban Chicago.

Tiger Tail in Blue feels less angry than Ross’s previous films. If Audrey the Trainwreck accentuates warmer, yellow and orange hues, Mike Gibisser’s assured cinematography gives the new film a cooler, bluish look, as befits the melancholic mood suggested by the title, and which is reinforced by the jazz score by Mike Medeski and Chris Speed. Ross has always excelled at getting strong naturalistic performances from his actors, and Tiger Tail in Blue uses an ensemble cast – Ross himself and Rebecca Spence, along with Megan Mercier and Anthony Baker in a cameo – to great effect. Ross continues to be the master of throw-away lines. If the anger has dissipated somewhat, it nevertheless lurks just under the surface, so that Tiger Tail still retains its edge. Ross is keenly observant of human behavior. The simplicity of Tiger Tail turns out to be a deceptive mask.

In Tiger Tail in Blue, Chis (Ross) is an aspiring writer, who also works nights as a waiter, while his wife, Melody (Rebecca Spence), is a high school teacher. As a result of their conflicting schedules, the two hardly see each other. Melody is already asleep by the time Chris gets home, which puts strain on their love life. Not only do their different work schedules create enormous tension between them, but Chris also flirts with a co-worker named Brandy, which causes him to linger at the restaurant even longer. Melody resents Chris’s aspirations to be a writer, especially because it affects them financially. To her, his pursuit of writing is a luxury they can’t afford. When Chris is late coming up with his share of expenses, it leads to a spat. They also get into an argument later when Chris needs Melody to give him a ride home after he has his eyes dilated. Melody’s resentment becomes evident when she refers to their health insurance as “my” insurance. She’s the one who has the job with benefits, even though she might not be able to keep it long-term.

Ross’s films have cryptic titles. They don’t actually describe the films they represent, but rather resonate in idiosyncratic ways. Hohokam suggests that Phoenix is less a mecca for young singles than a dying civilization. Audrey the Trainwreck refers to a drunken woman on the dance floor that Scott describes to Ron, while Tiger Tail in Blue alludes to the type of doughnuts that Chris and Melody eat on the street. For this couple, stopping for doughnuts represents one of the few pleasures in life that breaks the monotony of their daily grind. Ross’s films usually incorporate unexpected elements. In Tiger Tail in Blue, the film’s naturalism is confounded by the fact that Spence plays not only Chris’s wife, Melody, but also Brandy, the waitress with whom he works.

While this is initially confusing, a different actress (Megan Mercier) takes over the role at two crucial points in the film. The first occurs when Melody pays an unexpected visit to the restaurant; the second happens when Chris comes over to Brandy’s house to borrow a CD. Ross is not the only filmmaker to cast the same performer in different roles, but a viewer might question why he employs this unusual strategy here. Ross’s point seems to be that Chris’s feelings toward Melody and Brandy are tempered by the situation. Work allows Chris and Brandy the space to enjoy each other’s company, whereas the responsibilities of marriage conspire to snuff out the spark of romance between Chris and Melody.

Ross, in fact, states it bluntly in an interview with Hammer to Nail: “I mean, romance goes away at a certain point. You displace your feelings after a certain amount of time, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh wasn’t it fun when we did this?’ But it’s a new relationship now, and if you can’t enjoy it, you’re going to, you know, do what happens in the movie.” The film’s loopy song-and-dance number perfectly embodies Chris’s personal dilemma. A curious amalgam of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical and a John Wayne western, the scene is so playful and exhilarating that its tonal shift catches us completely by surprise.

Along with Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (which was just acquired by Factory 25) and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Tiger Tail in Blue strikes me as one of the best indie films to surface in the past year. The film will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago later this month and at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 18 January, 2013

San Diego Surf

Andy Warhol, San Diego Surf, 1968/1996, ©2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

San Diego Surf (1968) is one of the later films from the period in which Andy Warhol made sexploitation films. These include: My Hustler (1965), I, a Man (1967-68), Bike Boy (1967-68), The Loves of Ondine (1967-68), The Nude Restaurant (1968) Imitation of Christ (1967-69), Lonesome Cowboys (1967-68) and Blue Movie (1968). In terms of chronology, San Diego Surf falls between Lonesome Cowboys and Blue Movie, Warhol’s final work as a director. Both Lonesome Cowboys and Blue Movie would run into censorship problems, but San Diego Surf, which was filmed shortly before Warhol was shot and seriously wounded by Valerie Solanas, was never released. Now, forty-four years later, the film has been restored and finally makes its debut on October 16 at the Museum of Modern Art, where it will be introduced by the legendary Taylor Mead, who starred in it. The film will have an extended run at the museum from January 23–28, 2013.

Although the sexploitation films were initially dismissed by many critics and scholars, a revisionist perspective on this body of work has emerged over the years. In his book, Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, Gary Indiana, for instance, writes: “Whatever else could be said of them, [the sexploitation films, or what he deems ‘the crypto-narrative talkies’] are among the most audaciously, emphatically spellbinding displays of polymorphic sexuality and verbal frankness in film history, in part because of the camera’s, or the director’s, disregard for continuity or narrative construction, the inclusion of unintelligible stretches of sound track, the pockets of total silence, the use of stuttering zooms, and, confuting their deliberately amateur qualities, a mixture of innovative and classical framing, the inclusion of synechdotal  figures and evocative objects at frame edges, and the improvisatory brilliance of actors provided with the sketchiest story premises to work within (when they remember to).”

The plot of San Diego Surf will certainly strike viewers as “sketchy.” Viva is married to Taylor Mead, a rich property owner who is supposedly a golf and tennis champion, but he can’t manage to climb the social ladder of La Jolla because he’s not a surfer. On the verge of getting divorced from Viva, Taylor indicates that he plans to marry Nawana Davis, an irresistible dancer who is the “wealthiest girl in La Jolla.” Nawana, however, considers Taylor to be a stalker, but she’s trying to give him some “soul.” Despite Taylor’s professed interest in her, he really has his eye on two men: Joe Dallasandro, a newcomer who’s also trying to learn how to surf, and Tom Luau (Tom Hompertz), a local Hawaiian surfer. A subplot involves Ingrid Superstar, who might be two months pregnant, and Viva’s attempts to find her a husband, even though Ingrid already has a steady boyfriend, Eric Emerson, who admits that his three previous marriages were a way of compensating for his homosexuality.

In one memorable scene, Taylor sings a song to a baby whom he holds in his arms. Viva complains to Joe that Taylor is not a caring parent. After she takes the infant from him, Taylor suggests that if he and Joe have a baby, he’ll be better, to which Viva mockingly replies, “In whose womb?” We hear the sound of motorcycles outside, which causes her to launch into one of her infamous tirades: “Damn motorcycles out there. The whole neighborhood’s going to pot. First they let the hippies in. Then they let the motorcyclists in. The next thing you know we’re going to have the Ku Klux Klan racing down the streets.” As Viva scoops up another child, the baby suddenly slips out of her arms, but Joe somehow miraculously manages to catch the falling infant. Obviously ruffled, Viva blames Taylor, who quickly retorts, “You were nearly a complete failure as a mother.”

Warhol films are notorious for their unpredictability. The near catastrophe of the baby slipping out of Viva’s arms, in many ways, epitomizes that element. Yet it contrasts with the staged quality of the inhibited Tom Hompertz pretending to urinate on Taylor Mead later in the film – an act that was accomplished through editing. It represents one of the few instances in Warhol films that seems to runs counter to everything his films seemed to stand for. In the scene, Taylor lies on a surfboard and begs Tom to urinate on him. Tom discreetly takes down his pants and stands up, so that the framing only shows his legs. While Taylor pretends to masturbate and squeals about suffering and the cruelty of surfers, his face is sprayed with a foamy liquid (beer). Taylor is clearly ecstatic at what he considers to be his initiation into surfing and insists that he’s “a real surfer now.”

Warhol seemed well aware of the shortcomings of San Diego Surf. He wrote: “Everybody was so happy being in La Jolla that the New York problems we usually made our movies about went away—the edge came right off everybody.” Interestingly, he adds: “From time to time I’d try to provoke a few fights so I could film them, but everybody was too relaxed even to fight. I guess that’s why the whole thing turned out to be more of a memento of a bunch of friends taking a vacation together than a movie. Even Viva’s complaints were more mellow than usual.” Joe Dallesandro has suggested that there wasn’t a very clear idea for the movie prior to filming. Looking at the material, it’s hard to imagine how the film could have been interesting given its narrative premise and lack of a central core. Victor Bockris attributes the film’s failure to the influence of Paul Morrissey. He indicates that Viva appealed to Louis Waldon “to beat the shit out of him and save this film from his cheap commercial tricks.”

San Diego Surf is a surfing movie that doesn’t show feats of surfing or, for that matter, even big waves. That might sound Warholian on some level, but here it works against the film for the simple reason that the shots of the ocean are merely intercut with the narrative. Warhol wasn’t interested in fidelity to genre expectations per se. After all, he worried that Horse, which was shot in the Factory, was too much “like a real Western.” Like Horse, San Diego Surf could have been shot entirely in the Factory. But because the film is shot on location, audience expectations change. In Lonesome Cowboys, the pop-top cans of soft drink, sounds of airplanes, filtered cigarettes, allusions to Superman, and so forth, announce the film’s contrivance, whereas San Diego Surf actually pretends to be something that it’s not. Warhol must have realized this because that certainly wasn’t the case with his next film, the notorious Blue Movie, in which Viva and Louis Waldon don’t pretend, but actually engage in sexual intercourse on camera.

San Diego Surf is not without interest in Warhol’s film career. It’s a transitional work. Although it lacks Warhol’s patented strobe cuts, idiosyncratic framing and camera movement, the film nevertheless features many of his most famous later superstars: Viva, Taylor Mead, Louis Waldon, Joe Dallesandro, Eric Emerson, Ingrid Superstar, as well as Tom Hompertz. For me, even a minor or unsuccessful Warhol film contains aspects that make it intriguing to watch. Warhol’s films were high-wire acts that contained the risk of possible failure, which was a crucial element of his conceptual and aesthetic approach to film. You have to respect Warhol for that. Most filmmakers simply aren’t that daring.

Note: For more detailed coverage of Andy Warhol’s films, including the sexploitation films and San Diego Surf, please see my new book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Taylor Mead, Viva, Joe Dallesandro, and Paul Morrissey recall the making of San Diego Surf in Interview.

Posted 14 October, 2012

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