The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Unspeakable Act

In discussing his new film, Yellow (2012), Nick Cassavetes recently made headlines at the Toronto Film Festival after he told an interviewer: “Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? . . . If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.” The provocative title of Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act (2012), which deals with a similar subject matter, turns out to be something of a smokescreen. The topic might be loaded – as evidenced by the intense reaction that Cassavetes’s comments managed to elicit – but Sallitt’s Rohmer-inspired film is actually a very sober look at the issue of sexual desire between siblings.

The Unspeakable Act begins with seventeen-year-old Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel), riding her bicycle through the tree-lined streets of what looks like a suburban Midwestern neighborhood, but turns out to be the Midwood Park section of Brooklyn. We hear her voiceover narration: “In the spring of 2011, at the age of eighteen, my brother Matthew got his first real girlfriend. I had somehow thought that he and I had an unspoken agreement that we belonged to each other, which was really pretty stupid of me.” Family tension soon becomes evident when her mother (Aundrea Fares) and sister, Jeanne (Kati Schwartz), fail to greet her as they busily prepare dinner in the kitchen, and Jeanne then explodes over Jackie’s complaints about having to help.

Shortly after this, Matthew arrives with his new girlfriend, Yolanda (Caitlin Mehner). Jackie initially monopolizes Yolanda, leaving the others to stand in awkward silence. In the midst of superficial banter during dinner, Jackie excuses herself to vomit in the bathroom in a wide shot that frames her enclosed by vertical lines. As Jackie and Matthew later smoke cigarettes together, Jackie demands to know whether he really likes Yolanda better than her. Matthew answers that he hardly knows Yolanda, but he really wants to have normal sexual relationships. Jackie answers: “Yeah, I know. You want to grow up and have mature adult relationships, not immature stunted ones like ours.” She ends up crying in his arms.

At the heart of The Unspeakable Act lies the complicated relationship between Jackie and her older brother. The surprise is that Jackie refuses to hide her feelings for Matthew. For her, it’s a given fact and something of a badge of honor; for him, it’s clearly a source of great personal conflict. The Princeton-bound Matthew is intensely shy and introspective, but he’s also very sensitive to the feelings of his sister. Although Jackie worships Matthew, no one else does, so it’s obvious that Jackie’s deep affection for Matthew bolsters his self-esteem. Not surprisingly, he and Yolanda, after sleeping together, break up soon afterward. As he tells Jackie, “My theory is she didn’t really want to be in a relationship; her theory is different.”

Considerably shorter than her mother and siblings, even physically, Jackie seems not to fit into the menagerie that constitutes her family. Mrs. Kimball appears depressed, speaks little, and has retreated into writing a journal. She idolizes her oldest son, Will, who lives in Paris, and spends a great deal of time writing long letters to him. Mrs. Kimball’s spirit appears to have been broken long ago. Jackie alludes to her mother’s past drug addiction, but character motivation for Sallitt, for the most part, is buried, and, as in real life, an elusive proposition. Jeanne, on the other hand, goes to community college and spends a lot of time with her boyfriend, Charles, whom we only see from a distance as he picks her up in his car. It is little wonder that Jackie would gravitate toward Matthew, who’s smart like her, and whom she insists is the “best person” she knows.

The Unspeakable Act might be the only film with a series of therapy sessions that is not really a psychological film. None of what is uncovered in the various sessions really explains Jackie either. Sallitt appears to be much more interested in philosophy than in psychology. Like Eric Rohmer, he believes in a dialogue-driven cinema based on language. Sallitt appears to be more interested in surfaces than in subtext. If most dramatic films use the latter to provide the undercurrent of energy behind scenes, while someone like John Cassavetes exploits repeated tonal shifts to propel scenes forward, Sallitt employs spoken language as a means for characters to give voice to their feelings. In a sense, language empowers characters like Jackie, who have a way with words.

In All the Ships at Sea (2004), the only other Sallitt film I’ve seen, a young woman, Virginia (Edith Meeks), returns after being expelled from a cult. She spends time at lakeside cottage with her older sister, Evelyn (Strawn Bovee), a Theology professor. After Virginia interrogates Evelyn about Catholic religious doctrine, she explains her own beliefs, which reflect those of the cult. As Evelyn sits and knits against a backdrop in which we can view two men fishing on the water, Virginia’s strong conviction and verbal dexterity bludgeon Evelyn into a personal crisis of faith. In a sense, Jackie’s insistence of her love for Matthew also overwhelms him. Toward the end of the film, he acknowledges her tremendous power, suggesting how easy it would be for him to succumb.

Every move Matthew makes to escape from Jackie causes her to experience a deeper personal crisis. Before he leaves for college, the two of them attend a concert in Prospect Park with another couple. Matthew and his nerdy pal, Tony (Mike Faist), argue about the significance of contemporary writers. Tony mocks Matthew for favoring Don DeLillo over Thomas Pynchon. Jackie, on the other hand, simply relishes the experience of the outdoor concert as a kind of date. As Matthew questions her about her fantasy of the two of them as they sit on a park bench, he asks Jackie whether it includes kids. It doesn’t, but she laments, “You certainly know how to kill the mood.”

After Matthew leaves for Princeton, Jackie experiments with sex with a classmate named Tristan (Colin Summers). In the name of openness, she shares the details of her sexual escapades with Matthew via email. When Matthew comes home from school for vacation, however, Jackie disses Tristan to be with her brother. But when Matthew finally threatens to withdraw his affections from Jackie, the thought of this becomes utterly unbearable and she panics, which leads to the film’s conclusion.

Brooklyn-based Tallie Medel seems perfectly cast as Jackie. There is no sense of mystery about what she thinks or feels. She’s blunt and outspoken almost to a fault; her candid remarks come at a velocity most people would find disarming. Or as Jackie puts it to the therapist, Linda (Caroline Luft), “Yes, I have this bad habit of embarrassing everyone by just blurting things out.” Yet Jackie, as played by Medel, is also incredibly vulnerable, because she doesn’t have the normal defenses most people do when it comes to her innermost thoughts and feelings.

If Medel is key to the film’s success – and her performance here proves she’s a rising young star — the supporting actors deserve enormous credit for their comparatively understated performances. The acting in Sallitt’s film strikes me as a type of stylized realism. The performers don’t seem like actors at all, but are more like real people. Even though the dialogue is scripted rather than improvised, they exhibit very little affect – the level of artifice has been toned down considerably. Sky Hirschkron, for example, plays Matthew as a character who needs to reflect before nearly every measured response. When Jackie comments about that the fact that he never cries, Matthew responds, “If I cried too, this house would be like washed away.” Hirschkron says the line so matter-of-factly that we suddenly glimpse the immense sadness of this character.

Sallitt is also a well-known film critic, who has written eloquently about improvisation in Joe Swanberg’s films. In discussing Silver Bullets(2011), he writes: “Even more noteworthy is the way that all these improvisations refuse to sacrifice the integrity of the characters’ positions for easy effect. The feelings underlying the characters’ stances are sufficiently complex that the characters naturally waver or double back on themselves under the pressure of relating to each other, and yet are sufficiently consistent that the duels lead to standoffs, to silences that require effort to dislodge.” It strikes me that perhaps the same thing could be said about the characters’ responses to each other in The Unspeakable Act.

Sallitt’s film is much more formally rigorous than any of those by Swanberg. The camera doesn’t move. The careful framings by cinematographer Duraid Munajim create rectangles within rectangles, indicating how trapped Jackie is by her feelings for Matthew. The film’s palette is determined largely by the colors of the Kimball family’s large green and yellow Victorian house. Sallitt holds on shots longer than most directors. Characters often exit the frame, but Sallitt sticks with a shot as long as possible before cutting to the next one. He avoids non-diegetic music, which allows scenes to play without additional emotional resonance. In terms of framing, shot duration, and the long silences between characters, Sallitt appears just as much interested in the negative space as he is in the positive.

The mystery and surprise of The Unspeakable Act is how such a cerebral film can be so emotionally affecting. It is currently playing the festival circuit and screened at BAMcinemaFest this past summer, but this low-budget indie gem deserves to be seen more widely. This impressive feature provides strong evidence that Dan Sallitt is one of the most underappreciated major American indie writer/directors out there.

Posted 26 September, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No independent film this year has received more fanfare than Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which was directed by Benh Zeitlin and made in collaboration with a collective of artists based in New Orleans. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the Camera d’Or for Best First Film at Cannes this spring. Based on a play by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the script, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like less of a conventional narrative than a visual poem in the tradition of Terrence Malick. Shot in southern Louisiana, the film recalls the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, but its scope is much broader. It is about one’s attachment to place, a mythic exploration of the defiant human spirit and the precariousness of life in the face of threats posed by the natural world.

The film centers on a six-year-old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a flood plain called “The Bathtub.” The area is separated from the mainland by a government-built levee, which has isolated the area even more and aroused contempt in those who remain there. Even though they realize that they’re extremely vulnerable and ultimately doomed in the event of a major flood, the eccentric residents remain steadfast in their refusal to abandon their homes and primitive way of life. Indeed they have created an entire mythology to sustain themselves. The folks in the Bathtub scorn and ridicule those protected by the levee. They believe that they are strong, even heroic, while they consider the others to be wimps.

Hushpuppy lives in an enchanted world close to nature. For her, everyday is a holiday. She feels sorry for the folks on the other side of the levee, who don’t have many holidays, eat fish that comes in packages, and exist in the shadow of ugly oil refineries. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), an irascible and very ill drunk, whose cruelty to his daughter is a way of preparing her for the time when he will no longer be there. Hushpuppy’s mother has already abandoned the family. According to the little girl, who narrates the film, her mother just swam away one day. Wink has created additional folklore surrounding Hushpuppy’s mom, whose beauty was powerful enough to ignite the burners on the stove.

Hushpuppy’s conflicted relationship with Wink is mirrored in the fact that they live in separate ramshackle trailer houses until she burns hers down. When she is forced to move in with Wink, he draws a strict boundary line. Because Hushpuppy has become a huge burden – “you’re killing me,” he complains bitterly at one point – he tries to get rid of her, but the two of them nevertheless share a strong bond – his cruelty toward her is actually a form of caring. Wink indoctrinates Hushpuppy with tactics geared toward survival. He slaps her, throws things at her, and gets her to flex her muscles and repeatedly shout “I’m the man.” When a neighbor tries to show her the proper way to eat a crab using a utensil, Wink irately insists that she “beast” it instead, which is his term for eating it with her hands.

Early in the film, Hushpuppy picks up a chicken and a crab, puts them to her ear and listens intently. She claims to understand what they’re saying, but admits that they sometimes speak in code. A bizarre lecture by her teacher causes Hushpuppy to identify with prehistoric beasts known as aurochs. These large boar-like creatures with tusks posed a threat to the early cave dwellers. As a result of global warming, the aurochs eventually get released when the icecaps melt, and, through special effects and the film’s own brand of magic realism, eventually confront our young heroine as well.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is told through Hushpuppy’s naïve and innocent point of view. Hushpuppy is convinced of her own self-importance and that in a thousand years scientists will know about her life. She believes that everything, even the smallest part of the universe, fits harmoniously together. But she is eventually forced to readjust her world view once the inevitable flood wipes out their neighborhood, causing residents to exist on makeshift boats amidst an ecological disaster. Wink concocts a plan to take revenge against the levee, but the residents of the Bathtub are eventually taken against their wills to a government shelter. Because the rag-tag interracial group of adults and children cannot be civilized, their only recourse is to flee back home.

The politics of the film are a curious mixture of anarchism, subcultural resistance, and what could easily be interpreted as a Tea Party-like hostility toward government. There’s no denying, however, that the film’s sentiments stem from a deep love of the environment and this particular place. The film operates on the level of myth. What’s amazing about Beasts of the Southern Wild is its epic sweep. In the mold of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Hushpuppy becomes a pint-sized embodiment of untamed and rugged individualism. This adorable little girl, with her white rubber boots, short pants, and hair illuminated by golden light, is clearly a force to be reckoned with. She’s been conditioned by her situation to be as tough as nails and ultimately proves to be unafraid of the giant aurochs.

Quvenzhané Wallis gives such an extraordinary performance that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It seems downright uncanny that the face of a young child can register such a wide range of emotions, while Dwight Henry manages to convey a remarkable depth of intensity. It’s not surprising that Henry refused to abandon his store during Katrina, or that scenes in the film were rewritten based on Henry’s own personal experiences. Yet it’s Wallis in the form of Hushpuppy who steals our hearts.

It’s hard to think of another low-budget independent film in recent years that has quite the ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Who would dare to conceive of such a complicated film, especially one that relies on special effects, unless you had unlimited capital and the backing of a major studio? Who would cast a six-year-old nonprofessional as the film’s lead, alongside the owner of a local bakery? Given the high degree of difficulty, you have to wonder how Zeitlin and his cohorts were able to pull off this impressive feat, and still live to tell about it.

Posted 5 August, 2012

The Innkeepers

In shooting the horror film, House of the Devil (2009), Ti West and his crew stayed at a historic 19th century hotel called the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut. When a big studio ghost movie West was scheduled to direct fell through at the last minute, this location became the inspiration for his own low-budget one. The resulting film, The Innkeepers (2012), uses the architecture of the sprawling hotel – its long corridors, maze-like staircase, and pitch-black, cavernous basement – to create a sense of suspense in telling the story of two slackers who work at the haunted hotel.

Ti West has become one of the leading young indie directors making horror films today. What distinguishes his work, especially The Innkeepers, is his concern for rich characterization, as well as the intriguing ways he riffs on the genre. The film has a formal elegance, which is evident in how West deals with the location spatially through careful framing and mobile camera work. The opening credit sequence contains a montage of historical photos of the interior and exterior of the hotel, set to a Bernard Hermann-like score by Jeff Grace. The film is divided into chapters, conveyed through titles that suggest silent cinema.

In a high-angled wide shot, a young woman, Claire (Sara Paxton) walks toward the imposing building. It’s the final weekend before the hotel is scheduled to go out of business. As Claire hangs up her winter parka, her co-worker, Luke (Pat Healy), saunters out, eating a stick of beef jerky. He says ominously, “So this is it, huh, just you and me . . . end of days?” Shortly after this, Luke insists he has something to show her on his laptop. As she stares at the screen and the camera moves in on an image of an empty rocking chair, Claire receives a scary jolt, which causes her to gasp for breath and reach for her asthma inhaler. West shows that he knows how easy it is to frighten an audience with cheap tricks, but the relationship between the two of employees is really what lies at the heart of The Innkeepers.

The contrast between them can be seen in their hairstyles. The older Luke sports a huge curl on top of his head that makes him look like a Kewpie doll, while Claire’s short blond hair is chopped off unevenly, as if someone gave her a haircut using garden shears. Luke is passive-aggressive. He concocts paranormal experiments involving evp recordings for the benefit of Claire, whom he secretly has a crush on. At the same time, in his dealings with her, he tries to hide this as best he can by adopting a cynical and grouchy veneer. He also gets his rocks off by constantly scaring her, so that he comes across as an annoying older brother.

When a well-known TV and film actress, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), checks into the hotel and Claire gets overly excited, Luke appears to be indifferent. He shoves her hotel receipt at Claire disdainfully, and says, “Well, here’s your autograph, just relax.” But right after that, as she optimistically details her desire to make contact with ghosts on this final weekend of the haunted hotel, he gawks at her, as if moonstruck.

Claire’s relationship with the actress is equally conflicted. When Claire delivers towels to her room, an arm sticks out of the bathroom door, as the hotel worker swoons from such close proximity to a celebrity. The actress then seductively steps out from the shower with only a towel wrapped around her. “I’m a really big fan of yours,” Claire suddenly blurts out. The actress asks, “And what do you do?” The question causes panic in Claire, who stammers, “I’m kind of like, you know, in between stuff.”

Claire becomes distraught over the interaction, and admits to Luke, that “She kind of made me feel like an asshole.” Claire asks him, “Why do people have to have such high expectations?” He responds, “Everything happens for a reason, Claire. Nobody just ends up at the Yankee Pedlar.” That fatalistic comment might serve as the film’s mantra, especially once Claire becomes obsessed with finding the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, who committed suicide at the hotel and now haunts the place.

Leanne Rease-Jones turns out to have forsaken acting and is now a clairvoyant. Virtually everything she says is loaded with innuendo. Brandishing a crystal pendulum, she warns Claire, “You mustn’t go down into the basement,” before suddenly becoming evasive. Yet what good is it to foresee the future if you can’t do anything to change it? It’s the hotel’s third and final guest – an old man (George Riddle) with the craggy face of a walrus and a voice from the crypt – who ultimately sets the film on the path to horror. For nostalgic reasons, he insists on staying in the honeymoon suite on the closed third floor despite the fact that the room no longer has any furniture other than a bed.

If horror remains the main attraction of The Innkeepers for most viewers, the film exhibits a great sense of humor, so it’s not surprising that West refers to it as “a charming workplace comedy,” in which the horror element “kind of raises the stakes.” At one point, as she works the night shift, Claire becomes so frightened that she awakens Luke, but when he finally invites her into his room and she glimpses him in his underwear, she suddenly has second thoughts. Lena Dunham also makes a cameo as a barista with boyfriend issues. After Claire returns from her trip to the coffee shop minus a latte, Luke asks, “Does that annoying girl still work there?”

Sara Paxton and Pat Healy do a terrific job of conveying both the frustrations of their lowly status and the unresolved tensions in their relationship. Claire approaches situations with wide-eyed enthusiasm, even if she’s easily deflated, while Luke has conceded defeat years ago and has resigned himself to his fate. The most he can hope for in life, as Claire discovers, is watching online porn. Early on, Claire asks him whether he regrets dropping out of college. In a weary intonation, he responds, “Every day.”

It’s hard not to chuckle throughout The Innkeepers at the witty dialogue and all the odd little details of characterization. True horror fans might be disappointed with West’s more classical and stylized approach to a ghost movie and references to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but the film’s real innovation lies in the clever ways it deliberately plays against the more clichéd expectations of the genre.

Posted 24 July, 2012

The Dish & the Spoon

Alison Bagnall’s The Dish & the Spoon (2012) contains elements not usually found in low budget independent films: children’s nursery rhymes, antiques, colonial history, period costumes and dancing, 19th century literature, references to early cross-dressers, and flights of fantasy that mix with a more familiar naturalism. The film stars Greta Gerwig and features indie standouts Eleonore Hendricks and Amy Seinmetz in small roles, along with Adam Rothenberg.

Bagnall and Gerwig had written a script together in which the female actor was to play the lead role, but it fell through at the last moment due to issues of financing. With Gerwig’s career about to take off following her breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), Bagnall came up with a new story. She and co-writer Andrew Lewis wrote a script for Gerwig and the young British actor, Olly Alexander, whom the director had discovered in an audition for the larger budget film.

Bagnall explains: “So in this story that fell out of the night, I imagined a woman, freaking out from a marital crisis, and this British boy who is as much an apparition as he is real. And how he becomes a sort of guardian angel and witness to her insanity and he helps her just by being there, but he also gets drawn in by her.” The actors were given a great deal of latitude with their characters, altering the script in discussions before shooting and adapting scenes to the site-specific locations of an off-season beach town in Delaware. It’s hardly surprising that much of the pleasure of The Dish & the Spoon derives from the inspired performances of Gerwig and Alexander, who have script credits for providing additional material.

The film begins with an extended shot driving through a tunnel. Framed from behind, Rose (Gerwig), who’s wearing a red woolen hat and a baggy winter coat over her pajamas, sobs to a ringing cell phone, which she angrily chucks out the window of her station wagon. At a general store, she uses her remaining change and crumpled bills to buy doughnuts and beer. As she plops herself down and gulps a beer inside a stone observation tower on the coast, she discovers a teenager curled up and shivering on an upstairs landing. She initially tries to take the boy to a hospital, but he refuses to go and suggests she’s drunk. The scrawny young man has a British accent, a tailored pea coat, tight-fitting high waters, and long disheveled hair that makes him look like a young Bob Dylan.

At a restaurant, the lad pretends to be Ishmael and begins reciting the opening passage of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, while Rose, who misses the allusion, averts her eyes, looks away, and makes a face. She finally interrupts and asks, “Do you have any place I can take you?” He responds coyly, “Where do you live?” Rose shakes her head from side to side. “Nope, nope,” she tells him emphatically, “I need to take you somewhere.” He tells her he’s a rent boy, a term he has to explain. When she doesn’t believe him, he asks, “What? Am I not attractive enough to be a male prostitute?”

After admitting he’s only kidding, the teen tells a series of tales about himself, including that he’s been abandoned by a girlfriend after waiting six hours for her “like a spoon,” so that it’s impossible to determine what’s fantasy from what’s real. He adds telling details, such as that his girlfriend wasn’t as pretty as he remembered. When Rose interrupts him again, he tells her, “You’re much prettier than she is . . . was.” As Rose becomes even more frustrated and he flirts, the teen takes a sip of his hot chocolate, so that he has a milk mustache from the whipped cream.

The Dish & the Spoon involves the continually shifting dynamic between the unlikely pair. Rose has just discovered that her husband cheated on her with a yoga instructor named Emma (Hendricks). She vents her anger by leaving threatening phone messages on answering machines and showing up at Emma’s house wanting to kill her, which unnerves her teen companion.

Rose and the boy hang out together and get drunk on a brewery tour. He continues to tell stories about himself. At Rose’s summer cottage, when he talks about being the only boy at school who hadn’t  reached puberty at sixteen, Rose laughs uproariously and guesses that part is true, causing the nameless teenager to end the game abruptly. Whoever he is, the teen wears fashionable clothes and has money in his wallet, which the penniless Rose needs. Although the two appear to bond, she’s not beyond stealing from him or sticking him with the bill.

Rose’s anger at men turns decidedly mean. At one point, she dresses the cute teen in women’s clothes, lipstick, and nail polish and the two of them reverse gender roles. As he sits on a bench in drag, she strolls by, dressed like a man and wearing a tie, and picks him up. It’s at this point that the element of fantasy, games, and role playing veers into psychodrama when she abuses the young man by kissing him roughly and demeaning him. Although Rose later apologizes, her behavior feels downright cruel and a bit too real, as she plays a psychological mind game.

Still dressed as a man, Rose calls Emma on the phone. When she reaches her answering machine, Rose now takes on the role of her adulterer husband. She tells Emma, “My wife, she’s crying all the time, but I don’t want you to think it’s your fault, baby. It’s not your fault. My wife is crazy, crazy before this ever happened . . . She was always flying off the handle and, you know, she got so fat . . . it was disgusting.” Rose continues sarcastically, “You didn’t cause it. You’re beautiful and perfect. You teach yoga. You’re hot.” She ends on an ominous note, “By the time you get this message, I hope my wife is dead.” Rose is clearly becoming unhinged, and shortly after this, she contemplates suicide, but the beach entrance is closed.

Rose rebounds afterward. She tells the teenager: “I have a plan. The plan is it’s just you and me.” As they hold hands, he takes her to a dance hall, where he plays the piano, while she tap dances. When Rose later asks him why he never smiles, he reveals that he’s ashamed of his teeth, which he then bares to the camera at some length, creating another naked moment. The two eventually kiss more tenderly and, like young kids, fantasize getting married and having ten children. They even go to a costume shop and dress in period costumes – he looks like a dandy – and have a mock wedding picture taken, but it’s all a whimsical game.

Gerwig and Alexander are mesmerizing to watch, especially when it feels as if, in terms of their performances, they are at times walking a very thin tightrope without a safety net. The circus metaphor is somehow apt. The two provide a stark contrast. In her baggy clothes and exaggerated outbursts either on the phone or outside Emma’s house, Rose seems to be channeling Gena Rowlands and rants like a petulant clown, while the nameless teen wears extremely large and narrow shoes that make him walk like a hobo.

Bagnall, who co-wrote Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998), is not afraid to deal with intense emotions. Although Rose has been cheated on, her reaction seems so extreme that it becomes comedic. And the smitten teen is so unabashedly romantic that he also sets himself up to be a doormat once he falls for Rose and follows her around like a devoted puppy dog. In fact, as his opening monologue indicates, he’s very much a refugee from a bygone era. His flights of fantasy, while endearing, are at odds with his own situation, a melancholy young British kid alone and adrift in a nearly deserted American resort town before the Christmas holidays.

Shot by Mark Schwartzbard, who uses light to imbue the setting with a sense of magic, The Dish & the Spoon feels influenced by vaudeville as much as other indie films – from the work of Cassavetes to Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2006). Yet, at heart, the film remains an intriguing character study. Bagnall, who had watched the two main actors do an improv together, remarks: “I liked the way they looked next to each other, and during the improv Olly revealed this provocative insolence, which triggered a prickly, somewhat merciless response in Greta that was really compelling to watch.”

In The Dish & the Spoon, which has been released on DVD, we sense that the psychological complexity of the main characters stems precisely from the way the two actors are constantly testing the limits of each other’s personal boundaries. They are playing a game of “chicken,” in which neither one flinches.

Posted 17 June, 2012

For Ellen

So Yong Kim’s For Ellen (2012) begins with an illuminated directional road sign at night, followed by a close-up of the darkened face of Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) as rock music blasts from the car’s CD player. The image suddenly explodes into sharper focus when he lights the cigarette dangling from his mouth. As the exhausted rock musician tries to eat something the next morning after driving all night, the food falls into his lap, causing his car to swerve out of control on the snowy road. For Ellen is Kim’s third feature after In Between Days (2006) and Treeless Mountain (2009), two films that established her reputation as a major visual stylist and one of the most intriguing new American independent filmmakers working today. Like her earlier films, For Ellen explores the effects of the breakup of a family. In this case, it looks at a deadbeat dad, not as inexplicable absence and gaping hole in a daughter’s heart, as in In Between Days, but from his point of view.

The purpose of Joby Taylor’s long car trip soon becomes apparent, when he meets with lawyers and his estranged wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva), who is seeking a legal settlement and wishes to have no communication with him during the proceedings. He stammers, “We’re both adults now, right Claire? We can work this out.” When the signing is postponed for a day in order to give him more time to look over the court documents, Joby asks to have coffee with Claire, but she bluntly refuses. He follows her out to her car and tries to cajole her “for Ellen’s sake,” but, as Claire drives off, he shouts, “You fucking serious? Get the fuck out of here. I don’t even want to talk to you.” For emphasis, he kicks and spits at her car and curses at Claire.

Kim uses images and sound to convey Joby’s state of mind. For nearly a minute afterward, he sits in his car and appears to down some pills. This is followed by a shot of him checking into a motel, an extended wide shot of a couple of cars traversing the highway at dusk, an extreme close-up of his eye, a house fly, fragmented shots of his body, including his lips, before the fly crawls into his ear, causing him to jolt up in bed. It’s a sequence right out of a horror movie, but it might also be a reference to an early Yoko Ono and John Lennon film. With headphones on, Joby rocks out to music under the warm glow of incandescent light in his motel room. He plays pool at a local tavern and ends up embracing an attractive woman, followed by an exterior shot of a snowy field with trees and power lines in the background.

At a meeting with his inexperienced lawyer, Fred Butler (Jon Heder), the next morning, it soon becomes evident that Joby must sign over custody of his young daughter to receive a half-share of the house (for which he hasn’t actually made any payments). “You’re the lawyer,” he tells Fred in disbelief, “isn’t there something you can do.” He phones Claire and turns up at her house, where he spies Ellen inside and experiences pangs of guilt. He then calls Fred and insists that he needs to spend time with his daughter. He whines, “I mean . . . this is so unfair. Why does Claire get everything?”

The soft-spoken rock musician initially appears well-meaning. Like a child prone to temper tantrums, however, he has the capacity to explode into rage when he doesn’t get his way, first with Claire and then with a band member on the phone. As he paces outside his motel, Joby tells a fellow musician that he wants to “start re-tracking and add a little more heart to the songs.” He insists, “We need some real shit.” When the guy doesn’t buy it, Joby shouts into his cell phone: “You’re nothing without me. I’m the front man. I’m the fucking singer. What the fuck are you going to do without me? I’m fucking Joby Taylor. I am Snake Trouble. I started this fucking band. You don’t talk to me that way.” And he’s not beyond threatening Claire after she turns down his request to see Ellen.

Fred, who has picked up a copy of Joby’s first album at a yard sale, invites his client over to his house where his mother has cooked lasagna. She asks Joby a great many personal questions at dinner, causing discomfort. The awkwardness is momentarily broken when Joby invites Fred to go to a bar. After a beer and a couple of shots and a smoke outside, Joby suddenly breaks into a suggestive dance number and mouths Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” His rendition is so over the top and narcissistic that it freaks out the young lawyer. As Joby leans back a the bar as if nodding out, Fred asks him whether he’s okay, but Joby responds curtly, “Yes, I’m fine.” When Joby buries his head on the counter, Fred wonders whether he should call a cab, but the rocker snarls, “No I don’t want you to call a fucking cab. I want you to go.”

With its bizarre mood swings, the bar scene is one of the highlights of Kim’s film, especially in the way the erotic undercurrent of Joby’s rendition of the heavy metal song manages to seduce and repel at the same time. A master of the double message, Joby does eventually get to spend brief time with Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) after he plays his trump card. During their visit, he talks to the sweet but skeptical child more like a nervous stranger than a parent. Although Joby tries to play the role of interested father, he doesn’t exactly fit the part. With his greasy hair, painted fingernails, hoodie, leather jacket, piercings, tattoos, and wisp of a goatee, Joby looks decidedly out of place in either a toy store or playground.

Kim’s painful and engaging For Ellen is a skeletal narrative with only a smidgen of plot. It’s essentially a character study that focuses almost entirely on Joby. You can see the appeal of the role for an accomplished actor like Dano – he’s virtually the whole show. It’s almost as if Kim, for whom the subject has personal relevance – she met her own father as a four-year-old when he showed up unexpectedly – is trying to fathom this character through the power of observation and by embedding him within the frozen landscape of the film’s setting.

Kim shoots Joby in extended takes, suggesting that if we watch him closely enough, he might suddenly reveal the mystery behind his self-absorbed behavior. Despite how often he looks at himself in mirrors throughout the film, Joby can’t really see himself. When he tells Ellen, “I want what’s best for you,” quite sadly we grasp that he’s confusing the pronoun.

Posted 13 June, 2012

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