06 July 2010


Quietly, amid the flurry of Toy Story 3 and Last Airbender conversations, the Duplass brothers became the first writers/directors from the hardcore independent group of American filmmakers self-named the mumblecorers to release a bona fide movie with John C. Reilly and Catherine Keener as its cornerstones. I'd been anticipating this achievement for a while now, this breakthrough of new and adventurous young talent into the stale fabric of contemporary mainstream-indie cinema. I assumed it'd be good, I don't know, maybe a lot of us did.

I throw around that Borges quote which goes "Madame Bovary is realistic, Hitler isn't" because it reminds me of the limitations of believable absurdity and too the synthetic naturalness of fiction. Or like, simply, fiction can be easier to believe than reality. I try to keep it in mind when I watch a narrative unfold, and I look for perhaps moments in which the filmmakers are reflecting not fictional conventions but organic nonconformity. Because I believe in the validity of this concept and seek out its manifestations, part of what's been so riveting about recent American indies for me has been their allowance of ugly moments, bad people, and wrong turns. Some say this is reckless abandonment of effective creative tools and it's possible to justify truly poor creative choices by enveloping the work in a mist of freedom, and accuse the mumblecorers of being lazy at best or irresponsible at worst. I see it as creative asceticism and think it's great. There have been enough of these films now, too, to be able to tell both that indeed conscious and formal deviations are taking place, and that there are huge variations in the levels of talent.

The Duplass brothers haven't demonstrated an extraordinary talent to tower them above their peers, but until this film I always thought they were honest. Or that's kind of bullshit; tell you the truth I'd only seen their Puffy Chair prior to this. So I thought Puffy Chair was honest. I don't think Cyrus is honest. What's interesting to me is the shape of its failure, and the way certain contradictions form by considering the film through a prism of honesty and asceticism. First of all there has been a lot of criticism here in Portland about the lack of depth given to the female characters in the film - which again I stand opposed to the Portland film majority, because I think there are only single dimensional characters in the film, period. What these people probably mean is that the females, Keener and Tomei, are the objects of the story, but as characters they are hardly allowed to affect the narrative, and I'd agree and say that is one of the film's problems. Though I think they're lucky to be saved from the idiocy of the struggle between Hill and Reilly.

Second of all, there is the idiocy of Hill and Reilly, and more specifically, there is the enormous and unforgivable idiocy of Reilly. This is the contradiction I referred to - because in Cyrus there are the raw moments of emotional revelation that I first complimented the Duplass brothers for, but there is a lack of character depth that prohibits me from experiencing the force or range of these moments. So I ask them to make their film in a way they feel truthful, and then I criticize them for skimping on character design. Reilly plays the now popular manchild role, and though it's easy to mistake his dimensions as more authentic because the camera is hand held and the settings are homes and apartments, there isn't more to him than the manchild Dewey Cox, or the manchild Ron Burgundy.

His manchildness generates unearned sympathy from the audience. It's a dramatic shortcut, the kind I expected the Duplass brothers to eschew. It also forces the character to behave inconsistently, because the Duplass brothers like to have both scenes of comedic simplicity and scenes of introspection and emotional resonance. "Shawn, inconsistency itself is a huge component of reality, and earlier you referred to the absurdity of reality and expressed contempt for the dishonest veneer of dramatic form." That's a great point, but I didn't mean to say that a piece of work shouldn't have an inner logic. Without an inner logic, it's difficult for me to enter into the film and discover the broken passages and fragmented realms of the film's characters. Right?

The film plays the notes of a sincere drama, and at its core is a complex, interesting dilemma, but it plays the drama and the dilemma without exploring the characters. The plot is like an ice cream truck moving down the street and the characters are like children in the street who chase after it, wildly gesticulating for attention. Everything has a dramatic function, which makes this not a more honest drama, but simply a different type of lie. And when I say lie I mean there's a disconnect between me and the film that leads to mistrust on my end, because of course all films are lies, but the good ones don't remind you of this.

01 July 2010

The Kids Are All Right and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

I went to see The Kids Are All Right because it was an industry screening and because since Julianne Moore is in it I thought maybe local filmmaker Todd Haynes would be in attendance (he wasn't). Also, I wanted to see Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work at 8:55, so I expected to stay for the beginning of The Kids and then abscond midway without a concern in the world, because I had seen the trailer to The Kids and it was pretty stale and life's short, except that thing happened in which a movie slowly takes hold of you and at one point I was totally beguiled and stayed through until the end, dashing out as soon as the credits appeared and not missing any of Piece of Work.

You see how everything worked out okay? In The Kids, everything also works out okay, kind of, to a certain extent. In Joan Rivers, mostly everything works out kind of okay. In my amateur opinion that's the emotional orientation of many people in America, 2010: everything is kind of okay. Some shit's fucked and some shit's notfucked, and here and there little bits of beyond notfucked are sprinkled across our lives, moments of beauty and instances of transcendent harmony, etc.

The Kids is the type of movie that encourages people to scrutinize and dissect its social politics, by virtue of its intricate social relationships, which span sexual, cultural, and generational boundaries. I'm not above that. For example I noticed that sexual promiscuity is clearly judged, gay is represented as a complex condition of the personality not limited to carnal desires, and liberalness is more complicated than open-mindedness. Also some comparisons and contrasts on the functions of gender role models.

It's a compliment to the film that despite its slight political progressiveness it's a relatively simple film. It means that although our social order becomes more confusing, human behavior continues on as ever. Maybe that'll mean accusations of simplification or reverse- or counter- or even anti-permissiveness, as the film is smart enough to have its characters fall on one side of the line, like many people do in real life. There's this tradition of serving thematic ambiguity with depictions of alternative lifestyles - a tradition that was less prevalent in the 70s and I think is ebbing its way out of some contemporary films too.

This is a movie about a family, and it's as plotted and mechanical as most family films. The beginning is a montage with (I think) Vampire Weekend playing: the boy skateboards, the girl talks sex over Scrabble, Ruffalo fucks on the couch, and the moms are in love. Their emotions will travel, but the character limitations won't budge. Or rather, the exposing of the character traits will remain perceptive but blunt. They're fairly superficial depictions with fairly standard progressions, and it feels more like a Thanksgiving dinner conversation than a film of real people with true dimensions. The narrative surprised me a few times - the characters never did. I'd be bullshitting if I thought Ruffalo was going to be venomously referred to as an "interloper," but I'd also be lying if I said that scene is a revelation of character. I LOVED the female actresses, including the young 18 year old daughter, whom I'd never seen in a movie before I think. Though, tell you the truth, my favorite character was the gardener, and he's the only character I felt really broken through into reality, even if it was in a skewed, sortafucked way.

In that regard, The Kids is a classic Hollywood type movie. A straight story, complicated emotions, transgressive overtones, and talented actors. Piece of Work is a fairly emotional documentary that's questionably authentic - your typical documentary of an artist. The best indication of this comes from a candid display of potential emotional manipulation: Rivers in her limo gazes out the window, implications of worry and deep contemplation across her face. That is until she makes a joke of her pose and suggests the moment would have more reality if not for her just off camera assistant.

I would have thought it was a woman trapped in a lonely moment of introspection if not for the joke. What if the joke hadn't been made? How many times were the emotions forced? Because there's a lot of crying in Piece of Work, and there are a lot of tough admissions and naked moments. Naturally, I'm hesitant to match my emotions with hers unless I know she is coming from a genuine place. It's fair to say that Joan Rivers is herself a woman of extraordinary emotional depth, and her fragility is certainly on full display. She tells you though: she's always acting. She says she's an actor playing the part of a comedian, even, and she's best known for her comedy.

That's part of the intrigue in any documentary of an artist. When people choose to become performers, their lives too take on the shape of a performance. Piece of Work works though because of other things it shows us and other things Rivers does not do. She doesn't take her play to NYC, where negative reviews would once again severely harm her sensitive self-image of her acting abilities. There are clips from her stand-up performances, in which she is definitely a 75 year old woman still making anal sex jokes. She's open about her relationship with her daughter, open about her past mistakes, and open about her professional indiscretion and greediness. It's tough to judge someone for their faults when they're brave enough to publicly display them, and even sometimes willing to discussing them. Joan Rivers is 100% human.

Why did I group these two together? Well, there's the practical reason, which is that I saw both of them last night. I also think they're thematically linked, they both express this burgeoning sincerity in our culture, a fearlessness toward confronting our problems even without fully comprehending their solutions. I like that; I always have.