Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The kids are all right, the adults more problematic: a brief history of the singular films of David Gordon Green on the eve of his multiplex breakout

If the industry conditions that were once sufficiently malleable for visionary American independents to thrive have all but vanished, does that make David Gordon Green our last hope? Having released five features in the last eight years, the skinny kid from Little Rock has proven more productive than Wes Anderson—who has stars, scope, narrative cohesion, pop sensibility and, well, Disney, on his side—and is now inching up on Richard Linklater, who’s benefited from a one-for-me, one-for-them strategy with regards to balancing a slate of personal and more overtly commercially viable projects. And it now seems that Green might be tearing a page from Linklater’s book, with
Pineapple Express, the latest from the house of Superbad mastermind Judd Apatow, storming into theatres next week to compete with the final rounds of big summer movie.

The question looming over Pineapple Express is whether or not Green’s distinctive—oft-labeled “regional”—sensibility, with its insistent innocence and pronounced idiosyncrasies, can be reconciled with what promises to be a rousing “stoner action comedy.” It’s a sensibility that announces itself even in Green’s student films, especially the instantly endearing ‘Physical Pinball’ (1998), in which Penelope (Candace Evanofski) looks to her widower father (Eddie Rouse) for guidance after getting her first period. With its abundant tenderness, sense of place, attention to atmosphere and playful use of Southern jive vernacular, the film feels like some miraculously inspired ABC Afterschool Special directed by Charles Burnett, with Evanofski and Rouse—with those bruised, Benicio Del Toro eyes of his—feeling so utterly authentic its as though they simply rose up from the rural North Carolina earth like a heat shimmer.

When we next see them, in Green’s feature debut
George Washington (2000), that sense of milieu, of the organic merging of people, landscape and industry, expands, unfurls and breathes deep. It’s both meditative and serene and rippling with funky humour and warmth, drifting through its multiracial community of kids and adults who work and play, more or less harmoniously, within the intermingling scrap yards, fecund woods and train tracks. Evanofski’s Nasia spends the first scene breaking up with Buddy (Curtis Cotton) because he’s too immature. She’s 13, he’s 12. “Did you think we were going to be together forever?” she asks. “Can I kiss you one last time?” Buddy counters, his plea dangling so fragile in the night air between them. Green envelops the scene with stillness, treats it without the slightest hint of condescension to the transitory emotions of pubescence. Rouse’s Damascus is likewise immensely present before Green’s camera, even while giving a trembling monologue worthy of an inaugural AA meeting about getting humped by a dog.

The peak sounds of labour echo, while a watery piano refrain permeates. A glimpsed journal reads “We are all friends.” A kid in a lizard mask delivers a soliloquy to an auditorium reclaimed by weeds. People ride motorbikes, eat lunch, and hug. One child rescues another from drowning and becomes a traffic-directing superhero. A man and a boy stand around discussing the boy’s sick mom and the colour of healthy pee, and crucially, the camera, as coaxed by Green and his marvelous cinematographer Tim Orr, never breaks away or gets in tight, just holds back in a wide shot, letting the scene play out through body language. This is still one of my favourite movies of our young century.

Though still gorgeous, charming, even startlingly sweet, All the Real Girls (03), Green’s love story, begins to reveal limitations. The kids have grown into adults—strangely, none are black now. An air of youth growing up and going nowhere blankets the landscape as palpably as Green and Orr’s permanent magic hour, which kisses everything with honey, rust and autumnal glow. The particular sadness of this world is best embodied in Tip (Shea Wingham), whose nickname likely stems from his pompadour, a vestige of classical teen rebellion, while he sports that most telltale accoutrement of resignation and despair: the fannypack.

The story focuses on local pussyhound Paul (co-writer Paul Schneider) and Tip’s little sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel), back from private school and a sort of beguiling alien in this place with her orbular eyes and lack of accent. Their romance is meant to give us some sweep, yet somehow the film feels more alive when listening in on some pretty brilliant diner conversation or hinting at the Oedipal overtones of Paul’s relationship with his single mom (Patricia Clarkson). The scene where Paul and Noel’s initial bliss is broken by a confession of infidelity does indeed achieve moments of genuine, aching emotional truth, but its route to truth feels too much like drama class improv, with Schneider really acting hard, while, combined with Deschanel’s inarticulate commitment anxiety (homework for The Happening, it turns out), the ever-hushed musical score is so soothingly beautiful that it takes a bite of the urgency, keeping the collective pulse at an al-too reasonable level. I could probably re-watch All the Real Girls over and over again, but I can’t say it isn’t overlong.

Undertow (04) was a first stab at something more marketable, or at least studio financing-friendly, while reacquainting Green with the actors who undoubtedly make his best collaborators: kids. As a fast-paced thriller, this “Deliverance, with kids”—Green’s description—is unsurprisingly wobbly, with its deranged, greedy uncle on the heels of runaway nephews motor never quite reaching full throttle. But as an homage to Night of the Hunter and an opportunity to soak up more Southern reverie, like watching a tyke eat paint or the closing reunion with grandparents, its aged surprisingly well. More problematic is Snow Angels (07), a tale of divorced parents (Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale) that has yet to hit many theatres outside of the major centres. It starts wonderfully, with a marching band playing ‘Sledgehammer’ and more hints of awkward young love, before sinking into a sort of hysterical murk as the story—from Stuart O’Nan’s novel—settles into the deep, way-deep darkness and loss that lies at its heart.

Being a comedy populated with capable comic talents—Seth Rogen, James Franco—it seems perfectly likely that Pineapple Express may be just the bridge the still very green Green, now all of 33, needs to imbue his adult characters with the same nuance he’s brought to kids. What is surely a well-structured script should also offer Green the sort of challenge he needs, one that asks him to use atmosphere as a means rather than an end. In any event, along with Green’s promised remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, there’s every reason to look forward to this marriage of outsider art and multiplex chops. God knows we need something to actually pull their increasingly divided audiences together.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The shoes are a dead giveaway; the monkey, I don't know what that's about

In Paul Cronin’s enormously entertaining book of interviews with Werner Herzog, entitled 
Herzog on Herzog, the legendary Bavarian filmmaker confesses that he’s long considered opening a film school, one where the entrance exam would consist of nothing more than traveling alone on foot—the suggested distance is 5000 kilometres—and writing about the journey. Upon examining the notebooks, Herzog, a proud autodidact, would then be able to discern who’d walked the full distance and who hadn’t, and thus who would make the cut. “While walking,” Herzog explains, “you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom.”

The irreverence of this statement is hardly lost on me, yet the truth is it strikes me as an utterly solid idea. Anyone who truly engages in a creative act, however reliant on the imagination, however ostensibly sedentary, knows perfectly well that to create is physically demanding. I’d even propose that the more restraining the activity, the more strenuous the physical discipline needed to counterbalance it. By this logic, if making films requires walking, something as contained as writing requires an activity more aerobically demanding. But then, I’m totally biased. I’m one of those people: a running writer.

To say the least, I’ve never been athletic, but, to the surprise of many of my friends, running seems to suit me. It’s basically free, keeps me outdoors (where I’m often happiest), allows me to wander and daydream, to meditate or, just as importantly, wipe the slate blank and think of nothing. It’s also a form of preparation, of focusing, of testing one’s endurance, something you need a lot of when you’re sitting alone in a room with this arguably rather strange task ahead of you. (With any luck it’ll also, you know, keep me from getting fat.)

Writing and running both being essentially solitary acts, I only realized how relatively common running writers were when I found them by accident, like my dear friend Saskatoon novelist Shelley Leedahl, who, to my astonishment, I caught diligently doing her daily morning run in the staggering, sticky heat of Mérida, Mexico, where we met during an artist residency. I then discovered some writers who actually wrote about running, like Joyce Carol Oates in her memorable 1999 essay for The New York Times. And now, most satisfying of all, I’ve been able to read Haruki Murakami’s new memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Bond Street Books, $27.95), its title a re-working of Raymond Carver’s most well-known story collection, which Murakami translated into Japanese. (I'm pretty sure Carver wasn't a runner.)

Even if you didn’t know Murakami was a runner, if you’ve read a few of his novels you probably wouldn’t be too surprised. In Kafka on the Shore, to draw out an obvious example, Murakami’s titular protagonist experiences a transcendental state after hiking at an increasingly rigorous pace through wilderness while listening to John Coltrane’s rendition of ‘My Favorite Things’ (Murakami’s as obsessed with jazz as he is with running). This sort of transcendence is described in Murakami’s trademark everyman’s prose when he recalls running the final stretch of an ultramarathon. It was, he writes, “like my body had passed through a stone wall… I don’t know about the logic or the process or the method involved—I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through.”

Most of the time however, the experience of running chronicled in What I Talk About is of a perfectly banal sort—and I mean that in a good way. Murakami not being a competitive sort, or by his own confession even a sociable sort, treasures running as a way to meet his own private goals: 36 miles a week, six miles a day, six days a week is the routine he describes from his desk, which at various points is located in either Massachusetts, Hawaii or Hokkaido. He runs at least one marathon a year and, perhaps more difficult to comprehend since he doesn’t seem to like cycling, has also tried to squeeze in an annual triathlon to boot. He talks about fun incidentals, like what music he listens to (mostly rock, from Beach Boys to Beck), and shares anecdotes about running in exotic places and under diverse, sometimes humorous conditions. He’s frank about facing the realities of aging—he’s now approaching 60—and he reveals a keen eye for the eccentricities of running culture, even inventing a term for something most long-term long-distance runners probably know well: “runner’s blues.”

But I suspect that the tread running through What I Talk About that will appeal to the most readers, especially those who write, run, or both, is Murakami’s conveyance of the relationship between running and writing, both of which, not coincidentally, he took up around the age of 30. Analogies between running and writing allow Murakami to weigh the relative merits of self-destructive versus healthy behaviour—exercise junky he may be, but Murakami also loves beer and Dunkin’ Donuts—of talent and discipline, of pacing versus pushing one’s limits. He also offers some interesting techniques for both activities, such as quitting for the day when you still have some juice left in you, a sort of necessary reserve to utilize tomorrow.

At one point Murakami also mentions how the act of writing fiction releases “a kind of toxin that lies deep in all humanity.” As with that stone wall I mentioned earlier, he writes of this mysterious toxin without ever breaking his average guy, down-to-earth tone, as though it were the most acceptable notion in the world. This matter-of-fact treatment of the mysterious if of course something Murakami fans adore about his work, and even in non-fiction, it’s hard to imagine a Murakami book without a splash of it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The X-Files: I really wanted to believe, then mostly I just kinda wanted to leave

When former Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) find themselves once again standing outside the threshold of some gloomy office within the labyrinth of FBI headquarters in
The X-Files: I Want to Believe, they’re greeted by a cute if inconsequential sight-gag: on one side of the door hangs a portrait of George W. Bush; on the other, one of J. Edgar Hoover. I guess the idea is that during whatever era, there’s always going to be some crackpot and/or nincompoop in the executive branch trying to steer the ship. In other words, things never really change much in the shadowy, bureaucratically-fraught world of this beloved TV show-turned-potential movie franchise.

Lack of change is a problem however when you’re attempting to meet the demands of a distinct form. I Want to Believe feels very much like an episode of The X-Files, one that runs roughly an hour too long. As directed by show creator Chris Carter, the movie’s transitions, scene construction and corny “boo” effects, its use of Mark Snow’s boilerplate score and Mark Freeborn’s generic production design, feel overwhelmingly like a serial drama tailored for small screens and smaller expectations. The only sense in which it departs radically from television standards is, unfortunately, in its pacing, which is remarkably baggy, at times even aimless. The basic premise of Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz’s script is serviceable, but you can’t help but feel these guys haven’t cracked the formula that elevates such a premise to the level of urgency, stakes and endurance needed to fuel a feature film.

As I Want to Believe begins, Scully’s working at a Catholic pediatric hospital, while Mulder has opted for backwoods reclusion, killing time clipping newspapers and working on his beard. When an agent is kidnapped and a psychic, child molesting priest (Billy Connolly) stands as the FBI’s sole, rather dubious hope for finding her, Mulder and Scully are brought in. The initially reluctant Mulder is swiftly back in his element, though Scully is less enthused about returning to “the darkness.” She’s got enough on her plate, what with dying kids, agonizing parents and moody clergymen expecting her to perform miracles. In juxtaposing her trails at the hospital with the FBI’s search, the movie’s title assumes a multitude of variations, all of them boiling down to the necessity of faith when faced with dilemmas that stymie mere reason.

If only either story rose above Carter’s over-calculated thematic. Things don’t add up, timelines make no sense, supporting characters are woefully flat, and the best thing by far—Mulder and Scully’s conflicted, bittersweet romance—is given short shrift. Carter doesn’t even bother to show us how they find themselves in bed together after many years apart. It’s a shame, especially since Duchovny has slowly learned to transmit tenderness, and Anderson, with that transfixing gaze of hers, at once skeptical and flush with worry, is truly one of the finest, most unusual, most underused American actors of her generation. 

...On that note, what the hell is with Callum Keith Rennie, here playing a gay Russian organ delivery boy trying to stitch his husband's head to another person's body? Why do the Yankees always cast Rennie as scum? (For a recent example, see Sleepwalking.) Are lesser known Canadians the new Europeans, i.e.: the new ideal casting choice for baddies to be pummeled by all-American heroes? With all due respect to my man CK, the guy can't quite do the Russian accent anyway. Why not cast an actual Russian to front all of this funky Frankenstein shit? These, dear readers, are the real, deeper mysteries of The X-Files: I Want to Believe 

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fact is, he was talkin' to all of us

The yellow cab emerges silent, hulking, opaque and phantom-like out of the plumes of steam that waft up from the gutters, the gauzy, rain-slick streets bleed super-saturated reds and blues, the brass and snare drum conjure up oppressive waves of portent, and finally the darkness parts its curtain for God’s lonely man to make his entrance. He comes from nowhere, peers the world through slatted fingers, and can’t make convincing small talk to save his life. By his own claims he’s a Vietnam vet, an ex-marine, with no friends or family with whom he can connect or accept consolation from. A genuine outsider with only the most marginal sort of charisma imaginable, he seems somehow the unlikeliest of characters to mount the stage of movie history, but more than 30 years after making his first appearance there’s no denying that he’s earned his place there.

I think I’ve probably seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as many times as I’ve seen any movie, yet every time I revisit it I’m always caught off guard at just how abstract, even hallucinatory, those opening moments are that I’ve described above. I’m equally caught off guard by how goddamned young, even asexual, Jodie Foster is as the child hooker Iris, or just how deeply immersed Robert De Niro seems in the role of the titular cabbie Travis Bickle, how convincingly he nurtures Travis’ loneliness, alienated logic, and the notion that his movement toward vigilantism is inevitable and somehow even heroic, cleansing, this 20th century underground man determined to wash the scum off the mean streets.

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” Travis writes in his diary. “I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” As delivered by De Niro, the comical, crude poetry with which he expresses his delusions of conformity is marvelous, and just one of several elements that make Paul Schrader’s churned-from-the-gut screenplay one of the most perfectly realized of the New Hollywood era. And you can actually access the script as you make your way through the movie on Sony’s recent Taxi Driver two-disc set, stopping at any point to see how it matches with the final result. Its just one of a plethora of special features designed to entice fans who obsess over the film to a level that competes with Travis’ obsessing over his misguided vocation.

There have been a number of excellent multi-disc packages of Scorsese films in recent years, with the two-disc release of Raging Bull being a major standout. I’m not sure why it took so long to finally get Taxi Driver the same deluxe treatment, but its proven to be worth the wait. There’s good making-of type stuff and testimonies from everybody from Scorsese himself to his one-time student Oliver Stone to numerous New York City cabbies who remember just how mean the city streets were back when the film first came out.

There’s also a pretty smart little featurette that’s got plenty of interesting quotes from the always articulate Schrader, though the highlight of the whole package for me is Schrader’s full length audio commentary, where he discusses where he was at in his life while writing the film (i.e.: in miserable shape), how he’d connected with Scorsese, how they adjusted the project to best accommodate the cast and shooting conditions, how much of the film was scripted and how much improvised, and how little anyone expected the film to become the enormous success it did. Schrader talks matter-of-factly about the underlying themes of racism in the film, explaining why he though it essential that Travis attack blacks in particular, and why the racism in the film eventually became one of the factors that led to Harvey Keitel being cast as the jive-talking pimp Sport, a role originally meant for a black actor.

Taxi Driver is a film that speaks to the ages yet could probably only have come out of the particular conditions of its time. Its fixations are those of young, angry men, and Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro were just young enough to still really feel it. Its singular position both in its response to and shaping of film history is on exhibit all over the place, with Scorsese’s wildly adventurous playing with form indebted to his voracious consuming of the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, among many others. And it’s a film that’s finally a product of the heady 70s, that time when young directors with a newly-gleaned sense of film history's continuity could take control of their work, a time when mainstream audiences occasionally flocked to see films for reasons other than fleeting thrills (though Taxi Driver arguably has those, too), and the battle between art and commerce in movies found some near-perfect harmony for a few golden years. Taxi Driver is the grotesque child of that era, and one that deserves to be visited again and again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

North to Alaska, where CGI elk freak the shit out of oilmen, who in turn freak the shit out of us, in Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter

The Wendigo is a wintry, ashen, emaciated, blood thirsty and all-around nasty creature of Algonquin origin, a malevolent spirit said to possess human beings, especially those who practice cannibalism. Like so many mythical beasts derived from oral traditions, it cuts a figure that can be deeply terrifying when left to the imagination, and is especially potent when applied figuratively to dark stories about individuals who dare to step over the frontiers of taboo. It’s kind of a shame then that Larry Fessenden, the American character actor who’s conjured Wendigo in his previous directorial efforts, ultimately gives in to actually showing us a pretty cheesy-looking Wendigo in the final moments of his latest, slickest movie The Last Winter (2006), because this otherwise creepy, resonant and smart—if very didactic—chamber horror yarn, set in a small oil drilling base in Alaska, deserves to fully capitalize on its subtlety. It also, in any event, deserves to be seen by a larger audience, which with any luck it might find now that it’s on DVD from IFC.

Following a congressional hearing that finally opens up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a certain corporation called North smacks their lips and is ready to get drilling—if only they could get their equipment in. Sadly, Hoffman (the always terrific James LeGros), the “greenie” geologist hired by North to flesh out their PR campaign, has turned out to be a wicked messenger, the message being that this global warming stuff is really happening and the melting permafrost makes it basically impossible to traverse the tundra. Enter project manager Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman, that line-backer version of Tom Waits, here playing a highly enjoyable blowhard). An intimidating spokesman for the bottom line, Pollack arrives on the scene to ensure that North’s trucks make it through, even in the face of unnerving mishaps like employees going bonkers and a series of gruesome deaths.

Fessenden and his writing partner Robert Leaver had The Last Winter written back in 2001. As it generally goes with independent movies, the script took several years to be brought to life and by the time it saw the light of a movie theatre—it played briefly in New York last autumn—it’s political subtext had been beat to the punch by Al Gore and the little environmentalist documentary that could, An Inconvenient Truth (06). By the time most of us see it, its commentary on the sanguine undercurrent of oil drilling will have even been overshadowed by PT Anderson’s towering There Will Be Blood (07). But The Last Winter is here to—if you’ll excuse the paraphrasing—deliver the weather, not the news. Anyone who isn’t a total idiot doesn’t need a conceptual horror movie to know about global warming and the glossed-over evils of the oil industry, but The Last Winter channels these issues into a story that’s fundamentally designed to provide chills of a more primordial nature. As one character informs us, what is oil, after all, if not dead animals and dead plants? This perspective renders the cultivation of oil into a sort of ghoulish desecration, and helps make The Last Winter into a good old-fashioned tale of things that go bump in the night.

Speaking of bumping in the night, the film has some good subplots, such as the affair unfolding between Hoffman and Abby (played with just a hint of duplicity by the lovely Connie Britton), their noisy sexual activity keeping the emotionally bruised Pollack up in the wee hours, grinding the corporate axe with Hoffman’s name on it. I really liked that Fessenden and Leaver have Pollack engaging in territorial man-talk with Hoffman even when faced with the possibility of frozen death. It’s these very human details that keep The Last Winter buoyant, even when the bleakness of both big and little picture loom large over the proceedings.

IFC’s disc features a very worthwhile audio commentary from Fessenden, who’s informative, articulate and even quite funny in a rather dry sort of way. Of the film’s use of archival footage of oil drilling he explains, “It was very important to me to show oil drilling in a movie about oil drilling with no oil drilling.” It’s fun to hear him talk about his excitement over the benefits of working with a larger budget—the many helicopter shots, the dolly set-ups just for little stuff, the birds from Harry Potter, “the real stars of the movie,” Fessenden confesses— as well as with very good actors, and with Iceland, where he actually shot most of The Last Winter. (And it’s funnier still to learn that the groans of desire we hear from LeGros during his off-screen humpy-pumpy were actually taken from a scene in which he’s helping Perlman escape from drowning.) All in all, one can’t help but appreciate what Fessenden is trying to make: a thoughtful, medium-budget movie with indie credibility in a genre overrun with crappy excess. The Last Winter isn’t entirely a triumph in this regard, but it’s close enough to light the hope that Fessenden can keep going in this racket.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Will wonders never cease? Too much aliens and awe overwhelm the winsome ordinary in Close Encounters

It’s easy to chuckle over the fact that Steven Spielberg’s finest movies exhibit more of a knack for collaborating with alien puppets than with actual human beings, yet revisiting
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) serves to remind us that there was a time when America’s biggest brand-name director could evoke an extraordinary sense of the mundane. Close Encounters’ messy households full of noisy toys, cluttered kitchens, kids beating the shit out of dolls, parents hollering over each other and broadcasted cacophony possess a spontaneity, liveliness and sensitivity rarely repeated in later Spielbergs. Here, the amiable clamour of modern domesticity nicely juxtaposes the cosmic awe that eventually overwhelms everything. 

(So well orchestrated is the familial hum that, in combination with the emergence of the toxic emergency and its accompanying carnival atmosphere, one could arguably spot raw material for Don DeLillo’s White Noise within the movie’s best sequences.)

It has a brilliant first line—“Are we the first ones?”— and a great B-movie set-up, those stoic faces of air traffic controllers all lined up like Rushmore or reflected spookily on the radar screens. It has a little kid with the unlikely name of Barry, cute, boldly inquisitive in that particularly American way, and dopey as all hell, his only comment upon witnessing an alien air show being “Ice cream!” It has a terrific Richard Dryfuss flipping out, tossing uprooted shrubs, bricks and trash into his house to make an impressive installation in the living room, which, in one of the most inspired shots, looms between Dryfuss negotiating desperately with his deserting wife on the horn and a TV frantically whipping out exposition. It has good old Bob Balaban and, bizarrely, Nouvelle Vague forefather François Truffaut as his own kind of alien: a Frenchman, and the only one to acknowledge the heroism of Dreyfus’ crackpot. “Zey belong here more zan we,” he solemnly declares.

Unfortunately, Close Encounters also has John Williams, perhaps the biggest ham in movie score history, supplying accompaniment so bombastic and illustrative as to go over like a limpid parody of the same 50s sci-fi flicks Spielberg is trying to elevate to some sort of blockbuster art. And it has those pesky, anemic aliens, big on minimalist music and laser light shows, who take forever to finish with the New Agey dueling banjo shtick and land the damn ship already. The final act of Close Encounters is way more boring than contact with extraterrestrial life has any right to be, but we can still enjoy the earlier sections, evidence that ordinary humans anticipating a miracle are more fun than the miracle itself.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Silent Light: Carlos Reygadas introduces threads of classicism into his languid strategies, unearths something resonant, moving, miraculous

Set within a Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, Silent Light feels at once otherworldly and very much grounded in the most basic of human experiences. It’s a film about the searing caprices of desire, focusing on a love triangle at the centre of which is outwardly cheerful farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall). Johan loves Esther (Manitoba novelist Miriam Toews), the woman with whom he’s built up his life, but Johan has fallen so deeply in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), convinced that she’s the one he truly, spiritually connects with. And the demands of the spirit are not to be underestimated here, as this is also a film about miracles, some of which are found in the alchemical interaction of film and nature, others in acts that defy nature's predetermined logic.

Writer/director Carlos Reygadas book-ended Battle in Heaven with ethereal sequences involving a teary-eyed, pretty, young, upper-class woman fellating a working class, older man whose corporeal girth functions as emotional armour. More than anything else in Reygadas’ small but potent filmography, these sequences earned him his reputation as contemporary Mexican cinema’s enfant terrible. How interesting then to see sequences of such a similar purpose—yet on the opposite end of the taste meter—book-ending Silent Light: long, elegant, unbroken scenes which move from a field of stars to Johan’s family’s fields and back again, once our story closes. It is as though Reygadas’ camera searched the galaxy for its subject and decided to land upon this humble terrain for a spell. The film’s special emphasis on the miraculous is, from the start, made through bearing witness to the glory of the everyday.

But back to Johan’s world, where all quotidian pleasures shrink as his inner torment grows, its shadow looming large enough that his suffering Esther can hardly help but notice. Johan needs to make a serious choice, yet while adulterers in the secular world might have it tough, the milieu in which he exists, has always existed, and has no desire to part from, is far more prescriptive than those most of us know. When Johan speaks of his dilemma in terms of destiny, a friend suggests that a brave man can make destiny with what he’s got. Yet is this bravery? To avoid conflict and heartbreak when a more fulfilling life promises eventual redemption?

Reygadas considers these questions through taking deep, languid pleasure in scenes of bucolic splendour, the one in which we see Johan’s kids swimming and bathing in a local watering hole being especially beautiful—and painful. Johan tries to compliment Esther on the way she scrubs her children and the unintended use of past tense makes the whole moment turn into one of quiet agony—which Reygadas turns away from to take in sumptuously blurry flowers. Yet for all this muted despair, emotions do gradually escalate to high drama, with music (from Jacques Brel!), attempted farewells, rash acts of violence amidst tempestuous weather, and an act of generosity so pure as to summon the mercy of something like a god, while invoking a famous scene from one of the great films of Carl Dreyer in an act of inspired and audacious homage.

Reygadas, it seems, only borrows from the best sources, but he utilizes his borrowings in such a way as to give us something entirely fresh, at once classical and organic, and surely one of the most striking and unusual films you’ll see this year.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Guy down in front next to the lady, he's our man in Panama: a comic chronicle of heartache, humiliation and pathology in Key West, circa 1978

I have never been to Key West, Florida. At least not, you know, in the conventional sense. But I have written about it, several times in fact, and what’s more I even wrote about Key West for the people of Key West. My pal Paul moved down there and got me a gig with a local magazine, interviewing Key Westers or, in any case, people somehow associated with the place, however incredibly tangentially. I’d talk to them and then write about our conversation in such a way that made it seem like I personally had something profound to say about Key West, even pretending it was a place I could in some way call home. The ruse was encouraged by my superiors. It was weirdly fun.

Most of what I do know about Key West I learned the same highly dubious way I learn most things: from reading fiction. Key West’s literary history is of course formidable, with its Hemingways and Tennessees and Elizabeth Bishops, though the period that really got me interested occured after their time, a period that previous to this gig I knew absolutely zilch about. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about Key West seemed to talk about what the place was like in the 70s, the time before colossal gentrification, the time of locally sanctioned madness, cheap real estate, too many guns, too many drugs, rampant corruption and literary outlaws. And I don’t know that any one figure seemed to sum up that time better than Thomas McGuane, a.k.a. Captain Berserko. Dude was so crazy he even married Margot Kidder. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t live there anymore.

The McGuane novel that everyone considers to be the his defining Key West work is Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), which he himself eventually made into an amiably off the wall movie with Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton and Kidder (enough said). But the one that strikes me as the genuine article, the one that comes closest to mapping out the particular pathology of that era/place/generation is in fact the novel McGuane took his biggest critical whipping for, largely on account of its disquieting degree of autobiographical content delivered in the treacherous wake of McGuane’s time spent courting Hollywood and seducing starlets. Literary types tend to find it distasteful when ostensibly serious writers overstep the boundaries of literary celebrity, and Panama (78), dragged McGuane’s private hysteria and public fumbles out into the open. You ask me, it’s a hell of a book, that much better—not to mention funnier—than its predecessor for laying its heart so crudely bare—though like Ninety-two, the mercurial comic prose is in high gear.

Panama’s protagonist is one Chester Pomeroy, returning to Key West to lick his wounds following some sort of debacle, or a perhaps series of them. The back cover blub explains that Chester’s a washed-up rock star, though you’d never glean that from anything described in the meat of the novel. He mentions being on tour, seems to like music, and at one point recalls having lunch with Jean-Luc Godard, but the way he conveys his past vocational adventures tends to be willfully oblique and/or surreally embellished: “I was making a tremendous living demonstrating, with the aplomb of a Fuller brush salesman, all the nightmares, all the loathsome, toppling states of mind, all the evil things that go on behind closed eyes. When I crawled out of the elephant’s ass, it was widely felt I’d gone too far; and when I puked on the mayor, that was it, I was through. I went home to Key West and voted for Carter.”

Chester’s two central concerns upon his return, the poles of some Oedipal wish-fulfillment, are: a reunion with Catherine, a woman he apparently married years ago in Panama, though neither can remember the ceremony, a woman he publicly insulted at some point in his blurry past but whom he still loves with an aching force, so much so that he stalks her in super markets and actually nails his left hand to her door while super-loaded on Bolivian cocaine; and to continue denying that his father is still alive, wealthy and boring, rather than a store detective who died of smoke inhalation in a Boston subway fire years ago. This is just one example of our hero’s selective or severely damaged recall skills. Chester’s memory issues are offered some degree of remedy when Catherine hires a private detective to follow him around so as to report back later on his actions. Yet in Chester’s first-person narration there’s never anything less than a rich sense of someone less than obsessed with coming to terms with his own identity. In an especially memorable moment, that sense of self-actualization is specifically concerned with how his relationship to place: “I didn’t know what I was, not a Southerner certainly. A Floridian. Drugs, alligators, macadam, the sea, sticky sex, laughter, and sudden death.”

In a certain sense Panama is a novel of redemption, though the shape or value of this redemption is hardly clearly defined or entirely resolved. It is a sort of staggering celebration of self-implosion and fiery bullshit, and a treatise on the limitations of willing oneself toward insanity. And it’s thick with a palpable, desperate heartache that refuses to surrender to the notion of a polite, quiet laying down of arms in romantic battle. What’s important too is that it speaks so specifically of a geography and a people as an entry point into persona and story. Whether or not the Key West of Panama really existed matters less than the fact that only Key West, that crazed, slightly suicidal Key West of the 70s, could have helped give birth to this heartfelt, daring, extraordinary goof of a novel.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Otherness versus other people: the dual nature of Werner Herzog's strange, haunting Encounters

The delivery of fresh, wakeful images as an antidote to the world’s endless avalanche of worn, numbing ones has been a guiding promise throughout Werner Herzog’s career, a prolific filmography going back 46 years now. Thus Herzog’s acceptance of The Discovery Channel’s offer to make a film in Antarctica was surely spurred in part by the vast, inhospitable continent’s own promise of abundant, beguiling strangeness. It seemed inevitable. Peruvian jungles, African deserts, Bavarian highlands, outer space, or the South Pole: the landscapes where the unusually determined—and usually highly eccentric—few dare to traipse has always been Herzog’s creative habitat, the places with the strongest current of vision, apparition and mirage.

Indeed, in the opening moments of Encounters at the End of the World Herzog confesses that it was seeing some especially evocative Antarctic underwater photography, taken by his producer Henry Kaiser, that made him want to go. So while Herzog’s bold, observant, opinionated, probing and often dryly hilarious narration is, as always, a highlight, the sequences which unveil the grandest spectacles of the seemingly alien world of Antarctica—coral looming like nicotine thunderheads, jellyfish resembling free-floating atomic explosions—are precisely the ones that leave Herzog speechless, his silent wonder providing all the more space for us to attempt to absorb and grapple with what we see. Not to mention what we hear, like those seal calls that one scientist, at a loss for more empirical points of comparison, simply describes as sounding like Pink Floyd.

(A personal favourite moment: three parka-enveloped scientists silently pressing their ears to the ice floor to listen to seal calls, looking like participants in a Beckett play. Herzog lingers on this, milking it for deadpan comedy.)

Yet the richest source of fascination plumbed in
Encounters at the End of the World is, perhaps surprisingly, not the otherness of Antarctica but other people. When Herzog and his crew of one arrive at McMurdo Station, an international encampment of ugly prefab buildings and circling Caterpillars, and are forced to wait some days before they’re able to venture into the white wilderness, they turn inward rather than out, wandering through various dorms and laboratories, meeting the 1000 or so people residing therein: a Colorado banker who joined the Peace Corps in Guatemala and now drives “Ivan” the Terra Bus; a European philosopher who had Homer read to him before he learned to read; a Chicano plumber whose bizarre finger lengths indicate Aztec royal family ancestry; a linguist now working on a continent with no languages. In McMurdo, freaks are the norm. So well-suited are they for the director’s interests it’s almost as though these people are auditioning for Herzog, the preparation for which consumes a lifetime. To paraphrase one of these subjects, it’s as though everyone who wants to fall off the map finds themselves sinking to the bottom of the world, to the point where all lines converge.

In Grizzly Man, his last documentary, Herzog was charged with constructing a portrait of a dead man through the editing together of the dead man’s own video footage, an act of cinematographic archeology that gave Herzog plenty of room to editorialize, drawing lines that convey where the exploratory sensibilities of Herzog and the self-styled bear activist Timothy Treadwell met and parted. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog is less inclined to steer the conversation, letting his subjects dictate the themes, a major one of course being the title’s allusions to human extinction, directing our attention to the astonishing manifestations of global warming visible to anyone who lives among the polar ice shelves.

There is one key figure for whom Herzog does however attempt to speak for, a lone penguin fleeing inexplicably from the safety of his brothers, heading straight toward a distant mountain range where only certain death awaits. Why does he do it? Herzog wonders, regarding the penguin’s seemingly suicidal impulse in a way that’s at once comical, philosophical and sad. Herzog reveres the penguin’s mystery and keeps conjecture to a minimum, but it’s parallel to our own species’ rushing toward apocalypse can hardly be missed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Born slippy: too close for comfort encounters with unidentified life forms, too few encounters between James Cameron and editor

Just a glance at the personnel involved in
Alien (1979) serves to remind us just how remarkable this movie—at once science fiction and slasher flick, not to mention a chamber drama—truly was. The cast included John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm, while the director came fresh from his in many ways never bettered debut The Duelists (77), and would thereafter make a little futuristic detective yarn called Blade Runner (82) which managed to revolutionize a genre. His name was Ridley Scott, he came from advertising, and while time hasn’t proved him the world’s deepest director the guy had style to spare and a cunning, merciless sense of economy.

The strength of the ensemble cast is emphasized early on, their first scenes being group ones of seemingly regular folks amiably bitching about their jobs. Intriguingly, the film’s hero only establishes herself roughly halfway through. We only really start to notice—if not entirely trust—Ripley (a long, tall and very cool Sigourney Weaver) after we see just how badly things go with the unidentified creature she alone insisted not be let aboard the spacecraft, the first major spasm of mayhem occurring in that still utterly traumatizing “birth” scene where the only overtly sympathetic character dies writhing in his own blood. It's a scene that instills a sort of corporeal discomfort that would undoubtedly make David Cronenberg smile. From there onward a showdown of intergalactic Darwinism locks the movie between its teeth, playing out on a brilliantly claustrophobic set from one of the great periods in sci-fi design, with gear made of industrial strength material, stuff with actual weight you want to wrap your knuckles on.

Edmonton's Metro Cinema is screening Alien this coming Sunday afternoon along with Aliens (86). There are camps that claim the sequel superior, yet to my eye the relationship between the two is nearly identical to that between The Terminator (84) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91), which Metro screened last week and which were both directed, like Aliens, by James Cameron. Aliens indeed establishes its themes of ruthless maternal and/or propagatory instincts more clearly, and develops Ripley, awakened after a 57-year sleep to help fight an entire colony of the acid-blooded, multi-mouthed aliens, into a fully fleshed out character with a resonant backstory and inner conflicts. Yet after Scott’s style and economy we go straight to Cameron’s workmanlike flabbiness. Like T2, Aliens is another two-and-a-half-hour movie full of over-cooked sequences and abundant redundancies. The climactic scene where Ripley discovers and then escapes from the queen mother’s lair, all goopy vaginal egg pod thingees, smoke and sweat, is masterfully handled—too bad we’re then forced to sit through a “surprise” second ending that’s not half as thrilling and just takes forever.

There are concessions, like a sinister Paul Reiser as the corporate weasel, Bill Paxton, fresh from playing Chet in Weird Science (85) and reveling in playing a babbling human Nerf ball, and Lance Henrikson, proving robot scientists can actually be nice guys, always lending a hand, even when their bodies are chopped in half. For better or for worse, there’s more of everything in Aliens, though I’d pick its predecessor for the stronger, meaner chills and thrills any day of the week.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Broken circle: Before the Rain endures not for its literal depection of interconnectedness but for the jarring disconnect of its spasms of violence

Milcho Manchevski’s feature debut
Before the Rain (1994) operates around a tripartite structure, each strand offering a distinct narrative—one set in England, the other two in Macedonia—that connects in unexpected ways to a whole that comes full circle only in the closing scenes. Thanks to Criterion’s new DVD, I’ve just seen the film again for the first time since its release, and it seems to me now that what’s more important, and certainly more durable than the ways in which these threads literally connect are the ways in which each thread poses a variation on the same build-up toward an act of senseless violence, eviscerating whatever assemblage of order previously existed. Though made during the spike of international awareness of the chaos of the war-torn Balkan states, Before the Rain isn’t really a commentary on that particular political trauma or even on civil war in general. It’s about eruptions and the normally invisible geometry that links them.

An Orthodox Christian monk (the beatific, rather opaque Grégoire Colin) hides an Albanian teenage girl accused of killing a local shepherd. A London photo agent (the late, always wonderful Katrin Cartlidge) having an affair with a famed photojournalist discovers she’s pregnant. A Macedonian (a zesty, deeply watchable Rade Serbedzija) returns home after years abroad to discover a homeland where he’s considered an outsider each time he attempts to apply some moral logic to the madness of tribal disputes. Each of the major players make some sort of an appearance in each of the individual parts, a technique striking in its day that has since been exploited in some of the most awkward, overbearing and self-important films of the last several years, reaching its nadir with the likes of Babel (2006) and, worst of all, Paul Haggis’ Crash (04).

These later movies talk down their audience, straining to emphasize the theme of global interconnectedness by literally connecting their characters in risible feats of dramatic irony, as though we wouldn’t be able to sense the figurative connections without such guidance. If Manchevski’s spin on this feels less schematic, it may come down to simply having origins in an genuinely organic approach to dealing with a story that’s ultimately more about generating a specific feeling than hammering home an outsized message. More problematic are Manchevski’s use of rhymes or echoes throughout the film—a cryptic proverb, a turtle, vomit, the swatting of a fly—something meant to be subtle but actually has the opposite effect, drawing far too much attention to moments and gestures that start to feel awfully banal when trapped under the spotlight of Manchevski’s camera.

Still, it’s a privilege to criticize a movie for such details. While things might not quite mesh with the grace and quiet provocation intended, while certain events, such as the first killing, feel very forced, the poetry of Before the Rain is essentially of a fairly unimposing sort—I love the scenes of people dreaming of someone’s appearance right before the actually appear—while the performances are at times nothing less than sublime. I also feel more endeared toward Manchevski after hearing the audio commentary he does with scholar Annette Insdorf. While Insdorf keeps aligning Manchevski’s work to that of Kieslowski (a comparison that does Manchevski no favours), Manchevski unabashedly and unpretentiously points out the film’s obvious relationship to Pulp Fiction, which came out the same year, while pointing out little homages to Psycho (60) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In the essay included in the DVD package, Ian Christie takes this one step further, wisely seeing Before the Rain’s true lineage as being in late period westerns. With readings like this one, Before the Rain, unlike the movies it’s most obviously influenced, may actually just look better and better with age.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Journey to a hollow Center: new 3D variation on Verne adventure classic is really in your face

3D, they say, is a thrilling experience all over again. By way of confirmation, the vast experiential gulf between watching Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D and “normal vision” is swiftly established in the very first images displayed. A crab thingee’s antennae thingees wave in your face! A guy falls from a cliff and seems to get really far away! Brendan Fraser brushes his teeth in an utterly pointless jump-cut sequence and the glass he gargles from comes really close! Whoa! Of course you also get to wear—and, I think, keep—the new generation of 3D glasses, more nerd chic than Devo. If they keep doing press screenings in 3D, pretty soon I can start my own band! (Of course it'll be a half-blind band, since 3D glasses tend to have the reverse effect of normal prescription glasses.)

But right, the movie. Hunky dreamer Trevor Anderson (Fraser, a perhaps slightly more convincing science teacher than Mark Wahlberg) gets stuck minding grumpy nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) just as volcanic activity in Bolivia, Hawaii and Iceland is looking really good, so, anxious to prove a longstanding theory about volcanic tubes that would redeem the legacy of his ten-years-missing brother—who’s also Sean’s dad—Trevor scoops up the 13-year-old and flies to Reykjavik, where the pair gear up for high adventure underground. With little in the way of a plan they luck out, meeting Hannah, an Icelandic beauty whose dead dad also shared dead bro’s “Vernian” notions about subterranean wonders, and who also happens to be an expert mountain guide, leading the boys safely into creepy caverns where fun awaits. (In a movie where pretty much everything is a special effect, the filmmakers managed to get a genuine Icelandic beauty, Anita Briem, to pay Hannah.)

A rollercoaster ride through a mine shaft, razor-toothed jumping fish, burbling lava, glow-in-the-dark bird buddies and carnivorous vaginal plants: there’s more than enough stuff in Journey to the Center of the Earth to wave under our noses, though little of it seems terribly frightening. Director Eric Brevig, who, believe it or not, has a resume mostly jam-packed with visual effects work, takes minimal interest in much outside of the film’s stable of spectacles, and the cast can only make up for so much when a solid third of their dialogue consists of screaming each others’ names and saying “Look out!” or “Hang on!” It’s basically an amusement park ride—but it does have the virtue of being half the length of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Breaching the life/art divide: synthesis, style and seppuku in Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Mishima's own Patriotism

If Japanese author Yukio Mishima seemed unusually anachronistic it may be above all because he staked so much on the equation of aesthetic power and political power, trusting that attaining the one would naturally lead to p
ossessing the other. Yet that he also staked everything on the romantic belief that beauty and destruction must court one and other on equal terms, the former reciprocating the latter in fortitude, gets perhaps closer to the deeper truth of this man, the only genuine key to the mystery. Great beauty, in Mishima’s highly disciplined ontology, could receive no higher honour than to meet with a magisterial death.

Paul Schrader’s remarkable, at once beguiling and grotesque film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) wisely founds every aspect of its complex portrait of the artist within the consideration of this deeper truth, bookending itself with the event that most boldly exemplified Mishima’s aesthetic convictions. On November 25, 1970, Mishima ate no breakfast. He carefully laid out his pristine uniform, the one he had specially designed for his private army. He gathered his closest aides, laid siege to Japanese military headquarters, and attempted to rouse a disinterested audience of soldiers and journalists with appeals for Japan’s return to imperial rule. He then committed ritual suicide, or seppuku, before having his men chop off his head. In the nearly four decades since, Japan still seems unable to process this event.

United by one of Philip Glass’ finest scores, Mishima’s final hours, shot in quasi-documentary style, are interwoven with biographical episodes, shot in black and white, and dramatizations from three Mishima novels—Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—that help to convey his persona as it paralleled or imitated his fiction. These sections are the most visually extraordinary, vibrantly colourful, highly theatrical sequences that owe as much to the special genius of designer Eiko Ishioka as to the formal brilliance and collaborative skills of Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey. The result, buoyed by the charming, tormented, spookily focused central performance of Ken Ogata, is not a comprehensive bio-pic so much as a study in meticulous self-invention, and an investigation into a very particular psychopathology. As Glass puts it, Mishima is about “how the unimaginable becomes inevitable.”

Watching Mishima on Criterion’s new two-disc set, it occurs to me that the only other movie that shares something of its specific approach to literary portraiture is David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (91), which is more a portrait of William S. Burroughs than it is an adaptation of his famous experimental novel. Both movies fuse their writer’s lives with their fiction, both blur artifice and naturalism, both wrestle with their writer’s complicated relationship to homosexuality in fittingly complicated ways, both fixate beautifully on fetish objects and use the body as the site of drama, and both use death as a catalyst of creative propulsion. I bring up this comparison not to diminish Mishima but rather to try and supply a better idea of just how special the movie is.

Criterion’s supplementary material, generous by even their standards, can of course offer a far better idea. The audio commentary by the always engaging Schrader and producer Alan Poul—recorded two weeks after the death of Schrader’s brother and Mishima’s co-screenwriter Leonard—is especially enlightening and lively. Apparently Schrader’s first idea for a movie about an artist willing himself toward death was a Hank Williams bio-pic, though clearly in Mishima—his brother’s idea—he found a subject that would truly up the ante regarding the themes of narcissism, obsession and death he’d been exploring in Taxi Driver (76) and American Gigolo (80). The bulk of the commentary focuses on the extreme sensitivity of the Japanese toward everything to do with Mishima and the many, sometimes frightening campaigns to shut down production in the country where the film has never been theatrically released to this day. Another highlight is a short video featuring insights from Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, who was also a friend of Mishima’s, and Mishima biographer John Nathan. Both speak eloquently and respectfully about Mishima’s painstaking efforts to stage-manage his own life and construct his own celebrity.

Arguably the greatest example of Mishima’s will to synthesize art and life—outside of his novels—is found in Patriotism (66), the 29-minute film he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, which is also now available from Criterion in a separate package with its own very good array of supplements. Shot secretly with a borrowed crew in silent black and white, Patriotism concerns the double suicide of a Japanese Lieutenant and his wife, based on a real event that occurred in 1936. The film feels wholly disinterested in developing narrative, leaving context and developments entirely to title cards. What we get instead is a stark, theatrical, inventively photographed, eroticized aestheticization of suicide, replete with the spilling of entrails and great splashes of blood on white surfaces. The film, obviously, was one of many unabashed rehearsals for its author’s death.

Besides an informative essay by Tony Rayns, the best material on Criterion’s Patriotism disc comes from Mishima himself, who, in both archival film and audio-only interviews, discusses his ideas on Japan’s defeat in WWII, nationalism, death, literature, the West, and much more. Curiously, Mishima makes consistently compelling arguments for even his most unnerving points of view, and his particular charisma, even weighed against the violence of his life, enchants and entices from beyond the grave.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Not hi-5 nor finger-snap nor knuckle buckle nor forearm grab, The Guatemalan Handshake is hard to learn

It opens with a beguiling slow-motion plume of tire-squalled dust. It then glides through a montage of black and white expository tableau, sumptuous colour images and sonic elements that seem lovingly culled from scrapbooks for David Gordon Green’s first two movies: a little girl swinging over a river backwards through time or a demolition derby, the scenes arcing across the screen while the little girl—her name, which she’ll no doubt come to resent, is Turkeylegs—speaks through voice-over about her best friend Donald. What she says here is, in its way, crucial. There are three things Donald would like to see before he dies, Turkeylegs tells us, “a lake of chocolate, a turtle the size of a horse, and a trophy with his name on it.”

The Guatemalan Handshake unfolds in a Pennsylvania town, dividing its time between various representatives of its citizenry. The film’s catalytic event is a power surge that, in a compelling sequence, inspires a mist of varied voices that speak of malfunctioning appliances with the awe of hurricane survivors or pilgrims who’ve witnessed a miracle. Yet might the real, underlying catalyst that afflicts the characters in writer/director Todd Rohal’s feature debut be something more like a toxic spill? Judging from those reactors lingering in the background, maybe it was a nuclear accident? Something funky must have infected the water supply in these parts, because the local eccentricity meter is way into the red.

The flashback to Spank Williams’ failed public death, a grieving dog owner’s attending her own funeral, a story about Amish time travelers, a guy who sounds like he’s gonna have a coronary every time he talks, a photo of a man posing with Willie Mays and the world’s biggest chewing gum, a handicapped boy who explains that nose-picking is “awesome”—when do such bubbles of quirkiness reach critical mass? There are several inspired gags, like whenever Stool (Rich Schreiber), the movies’ most awkward date since Jackie Earle Haley, spontaneously takes off his shirt in some misguided act of foreplay—but a lot of these gags would probably work better if they weren’t all shoved into a single, heavily saturated comedy.

Rohal’s definitely gone out on a limb here, making something this unapologetically, warmly goofy, yet the goofiness rarely seems to serve much more than goofiness itself. On occasion this tack is so cartoonish that it only distances us further from the characters it purports to have affection for, like that grieving dog owner. Rohal’s story is basically a chain that links characters with accoutrements—a turtle, an electric car, a wheelchair, a headband—and a scattering of events, such as Donald’s disappearance following emotional trauma and a dog’s electrocution, or the double injury at the roller rink. Things feel most harmonious is when we get evidence of what may be Rohal’s true gift: his ability to nurture strong performances from a cast of mostly non-professionals, especially Katy Haywood, who plays Turkeylegs, and Sheila Scullin, who plays Donald’s estranged girlfriend Sadie. There’s also a very appealing performance from musician Will Oldham as Donald himself. Strikingly clean-shaven after his beardy turn in
Old Joy, Oldham looks and sounds so endearingly boyish here he could’ve walked right off the set of Matewan, a movie made when he was all of 16.

The Guatemalan Handshake is threaded together by themes of paternal anxiety—manifested in a pregnant woman participating in a demolition derby and the father of her unborn child absconding—and the letting go of childish things. Yet the film itself often feels stunted, closely guarding its own preciousness, retaining each and every affectation whether they actually gel together or not. If Rohal’s next film works better than this one, it will likely be because his eccentricities are the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.