29 December 2009

Great World of Sound.

Fire up your own Great World of Sound dvd. Put it on in the background, chapter thirteen, 1:25.32 in. If you begin to watch it instead of reading this you're making the right decision, I won't take it personal.

Because Great World of Sound doesn't require qualification. It doesn't require familiarity with contemporary American independent cinema, conditions of society in the southern states, the bland disillusionment of stagnation, the frustratingly misleading dimensions of success, love between friends, between spouses, or between strangers. The film is a tour through a place and time, an introduction to its people, and shrine to the feeling of being there.

There isn't a single sentence which can describe the film. That's why I missed it in the theater. There's no angle. By the time of its release its distributor, Magnolia, was already a well-known independent; the director, Craig Zobel, had been the producer of DGG's George Washington (and here DGG is his producer), which implied certain recycled tendencies it seemed; partly because the trailer was, I think, misleading, because of the classic problem: Magnolia (or maybe even the director, what do I know), didn't know what it had. It wanted to fit Great World of Sound into this popular conception of independent cinema, and it made it seem like either a boring drama or an only slightly funny comedy. It made it seem like a 500 Days of Summer type movie, without the youth appeal. If you think I'm overstating this condition of indie branding which is brainwashing and neutering the market, please take a moment to glance over this year's Independent Spirit Award nominations. Please, take a moment.

Though you don't have to give a fuck about any of this. It's my theory on what happened to this film, from a personal perspective, but it doesn't matter. What I mean is, Great World of Sound doesn't give a fuck. It's liberated. It doesn't make an effort to belong to any movement or be a certain type of film, but, and this is very important, it also doesn't make any effort to be different. It allows its jokes to be fully expressed, its drama to be fully explored, its characters to learn and react, its story to evolve, and it does all this without an imposed cinematic frame. I heard the name Robert Altman thrown around at the time of its release, but I disagree with the comparison. Altman has a unique style, a strong voice, and pronounced features, all of which distinguish him from other filmmakers and imprint a worldview on his films. And I don't feel that Zobel is borrowing from or mimicking Altman. If they have common virtues, it's that they both allow their characters space, and subordinate the plot. Certain attributes are shared between two places off the map.

What delights me about Great World of Sound is the precision of the film. Zobel is a craftsman with a traceless touch, and he reserves cinematic punctuation for impacting moments. Songs work like dialogue, appearing briefly, stating their intentions, and then vanishing (including the auditioning characters). This is different from the bloated use of music in many contemporary films, which drift songs over multiple scenes and entire sequences, making their meaning ambivalent and their presence unmissable. So too does the story creep in the background. When done poorly, a story instructs and leads an audience. In Great World of Sound, the audience's knowledge of the film's circumstances expands as the characters move forward, and it's ultimately the characters who make the decisions that power the narrative. We learn about the reality of the Great World of Sound company through the experiences of the lead characters, and as their perspective changes, so too do their characters' hearts, which alters their decisions. The narrative tension, and the struggle, is generated as they begin to respond to shifting conditions while remaining consistent to their personalities.

Pat Healy and Kene Holliday are the perfect leads because they're comfortable playing the characters. They never feel like they're acting. They're so skillful, so unassuming and natural, that I assumed they were non-professionals or first-timers. Pat Healy and Kene Holliday, it turns out, are professional actors who have been at it for a long time, with many credits to their names. I apologize for my surprise at learning this, but it is of course a compliment, and their performances are commensurate to the accomplishments of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, or Philip Baker Hall, etc, actors who fill their roles with such capability, commitment, and detail that you can't even believe they exist somewhere off screen. Zobel's characters have a completeness, like in a Mike Leigh film.

It's not required of a film to contain the key to its own lock, but I never mind when they do. Great World of Sound does. There's a business meeting, the boss is up front discussing the objectives of the company, and he tells the new-hires: "Most people that make it in this country today just do it on volume. They come up with a simple idea, but yet something everyone can use. Like a bolt, or a slightly different bolt. Or a bowl that holds just a little more cereal. A slight change, small innovation." The message of this speech and its hilariously dead-end delivery enforces the absurdity of the company within the film, and also the treasures of the film itself, which is far more than just a slightly different bolt.

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