LOLĀ (2006)

If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.

I mention this in case you’re confronted with the movie LOL on one of those evenings when you in fact don’t want an unscripted little semi-plotless handheld film, but instead crave a Hollywood-du-jour mind-destroying offering like those which are currently available at the Metroplex. No sense wasting a tasty little morsel like this one when you really want a Big Mac, to torture the metaphor.

***SPOILERS***

But no, actually, I don’t think that I can spoil LOL for you just by writing about it. On the contrary, I’m guessing that the more you know about this movie before you watch it – the more prepared you are for it – the more you’ll appreciate it. But if you’re the type that likes to screen a movie cold, sans preconception and foreknowledge, then stop reading now and go do something else. Thank you.

Meanwhile, from Joe Swanberg the director: “LOL more than any other movie I’ve shot was a process of throwing things into the pot and seeing what comes out.”

Out of the pot this time came three young men, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), Chris (C. Mason Wells), and Tim (Swanberg himself). The conceit here was meant to be that cell phones, PCs, and other electronic means of communication would interfere, ironically, with the boys’ relationships with women – Alex with Walter (Tipper Newton), Chris with Greta (Greta Gerwig), and Tim with Ada (Brigid Reagan). Modest underlying plot points and arcs to the three stories are provided, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, and still don’t understand at least one of the climatic moments at the end of the film. In this respect, I treated the movie in the same way that I treat those complicated action flicks with convoluted plots. That is, I ignored the details and trusted that if I ever did take the trouble to pay attention, if I ever did truly make a study of the film, then all would in fact make sense to me in the end. But I didn’t.

In my defense on this point, it seems ok to me to watch the movie in the same way that it was made, which is to say, incrementally. Swanberg started out working on a little two-week to one-month film. Bewersdorf was back from Germany for his sister’s wedding and signed up to do the music for the film. Tipper Newton agreed to come over to Chicago for a month. Wells was going to be leaving the city but had some time before he did. So forth. Without a script or shooting schedule, Swanberg went out every day, camera in hand (Panasonic DVX 100, 24p mode, 16×9, standard definition video because this was pre-HD, but nobody at the time was shooting with this except for documentaries, because it wasn’t considered a narrative camera. And at least five guys handled it, depending upon who was in the scene), to see what would develop. So that instead of visiting Beversdorf’s grandmother’s basement once to shoot everything that they needed, for example, they ended up going back ten times. Then Swanberg looked up one day and eight months had passed and he was scratching his head and asking himself how this had happened. Ideas, bits, plot points, and the next thing he knew, he was wrestling with a feature film. Not to say that the results aren’t worthy, but as a viewer I’m ok with letting the finer points of the interior story slide by the first time while I lounge back and take in what bits of invention, inspiration, and invention I can.

I’ve seen the movie labeled by some a comedy, and Swanberg himself refers to hilarious scenes and the laughter of audiences at different spots in it. Although I liked the movie, I never smiled once. I know that LOL was filmed in the summer of ’05, and Swanberg meant for the boys’ techie behavior in the movie to be over-the-top comedic (e.g., video clips and pics transferred between phones, online stripper webcam, beatbox videos, etc.). But that’s all normal behavior now.

Anyway, Swanberg planned to put the three geeky guys in motion and, as they made a mess of their personal relationships, to follow along and record the hilarity that ensued. The movie gods, however, intervened.

Alex, geeky guy number one, misses out on the girl in front of his eyes, the 19-year-old Walter, because, ironically, he is obsessed with Tessa, an online webcam suicide girl. ($5/mo. subscription)

But wait. Alex’s obsession with Tessa and his hopes for meeting up with her are not believable. Not these days. Swanberg says that back in the summer of ’05, such naivete was still possible. No it wasn’t. The immediate effect of this weak setup is to free us from the plot and allow us to pay more attention to the Alex onscreen in front of us.

Or, no, hang on. When I was in college, I myself was obsessing over Freda, a young woman who sat 15 feet away from me in orchestra, holding a cello between her legs. I gave her a lot of thought, way too much thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually approach her. Meanwhile, Sophie was stopping by my dormroom every couple of days to hang out and get high and talk about her boyfriend in Spain. Finally, after orchestra rehearsal one day, our conductor asked Freda and me to go out and put up some concert posters around the campus. We had just started and I was just warming up to finally ask her for a date when somebody ran by shouting that President Kennedy had just been shot. We split up to go watch the TV broadcasts from Dallas and I never did ask her out. Instead, she just kept soaking up my dating psychic energy. I now realize that Sophie and I… Well… She never did get back together with her boyfriend. And there she was, stretched out on my bed night after night smoking dope and eating Ho-Ho’s. What the hell was I thinking? So maybe Alex’s behavior with Tessa and Tipper isn’t so unbelievable after all.

But nevertheless, as for Alex being a geeky loser: first of all, Bewersdorf wrote all the music in the movie and it’s not bad. I knew that up front and for me that knowledge manufactured some serious Alex aura onscreen. Plus, secondly, he had been living and working in Germany, which for me enhanced the aura. Thirdly, he did the A/V beatbox-type montage clips that divide up the movie and they’re pretty neat. Fourthly, his dog Button is present. Alex feeds Button cookies. Must love dogs. Aura builder. Fifthly, Tipper Newton is right there next to him throughout the film and she obviously likes him. Chemistry. Sixthly, he’s got a little Tim Roth vibe going up there. Seventhly, yes he obsesses over the webcam stripper, but she’s Kate Winterich from “Kissing On the Mouth” and I was starting to obsess over her a little myself.

(And, btw, speaking of how the movie evolved, Swanberg called Newton and described the project and invited her to Chicago to meet Bewersdorf and see what she thought about working with him. She flew out and showed up at a party where Bewersdorf was performing. Swanberg filmed her watching Bewersdorf, whom she hadn’t met yet, and then her talking to him, and decided that the vibe was right, so he put that film in the movie as Alex and Walter’s first meeting. If the vibe hadn’t been right for him, Tipper would have gone back to school (she was 19 and in college and can be seen doing her homework onscreen in the St. Louis scenes) and the whole thread would have been dropped.)

So in the event, Alex, the supposedly hopeless geek, builds a screen presence that might not equal Brando in “On the Waterfront,” but ain’t too shabby, either. By the time the credits roll, he’s the man in this film. The way I read it, he wises up on his way back to Chicago from St. Louis, calls Walter, and they push the reset button.

Geeky guy number two is Tim. Tim spends all of his time on his PC and cell phone. His woman fumes. He’s hopeless! What a loser!

But hang on again. This Tim happens to be Joe Swanberg. Of course the dude is working on his PC. Of course he’s on the phone. His woman? Hell, he hired her to be in the movie. You’re telling me that he’s a hopeless geek because he’s acting like Joe Swanberg probably acts at home? Let’s ask Swanberg’s wife what she thinks of the movie. Or go ask Kevin Smith’s wife about husbands online. (Actually, listen to Smodcast and she’ll tell you direct.)

For example, there is a scene at the beach, with Swanberg working on his PC while his girlfriend flirts with a surfer dude. “You don’t look too comfortable out there,” somebody says to Swanberg on the commentary track. “Well,” he says. “I hadn’t been outside in three weeks.”

In other words, Tim and Ada aren’t right for each other. If she was right for him, he’d log off/hang up more often. No way his phone and PC take the rap for the couple’s problems in the sack.

Speaking of which, I’ve had a Blackberry in my back pocket since March ’01. Initially it was a litte thing powered by a single AA battery, with my corporate Exchange account on it and nothing else. Now it’s been replaced by a PPC, a Treo, and a SmartPhone, all of them running browsers, media players, with phones, recorders, cameras, and other options I don’t even know about. In bed before lights out at night, while the spousal unit reads a book, I’m surfing. And who’s on the cell more during the day, my SU or me? Her. Swanberg says that he filmed the Tim/Ada relationship with the idea that the two were almost through with each other anyway, so how to blame the electronics? The two could be any everyday modern couple.

So Tim, the supposedly hapless geek who loses his girlfriend at the end? He’ll find a better fit next time. Or the time after that.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Geek number three, Chris, is winding down his relationship with his girlfriend over the phone. He’s in Chicago and she’s in New York. Greta never actually appears live in the film. Instead, we hear her voice and see pictures of her that she sends over the phone. As the movie progresses, Chris and Greta, onscreen and in real life, spiral downward, relationship-wise. (Swanberg, because he uses non-actors and no script, frequently employs the technique of filming real-life situations.) Meanwhile, Chris gets lucky at a party. I’m not casting the first stone here about that. Chris and Greta are essentially separated. The phone is the only thing left keeping them in contact.

So yes, Chris does ask Greta for some naked pictures. Greta (the real-life Greta) was studying for finals and when Swanberg nudged her to produce, she closed her notebook, went into the college library bathroom, stripped in a stall, adopted a wide stance, took a set of photos, sent them to Swanberg on the spot, got dressed again, and went back to the books – in case you parents are wondering what your kids are doing at school this semester.

Post-movie, I see Chris, like Tim, meeting somebody new, whom he can spend time with in the flesh.

So this result in LOL – that the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless – reminds us that for the millennial generation, so called, as for most kids in their 20s over the years, it’s the time of first experiencing true social connections and intimacy as an adult – life’s greatest adventure, not to get sappy about it. In LOL, the actors and their characters are left free at the end to move on and seek out whatever and whomever comes next for them. In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for it, spending 81 minutes with these young people could be a great idea. It was for me.

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Funny Ha Ha (2002)

First paragraph of a review that I posted last year:

“If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.”

My assigned movie, “Funny Ha Ha,” would be perhaps the first film in the mumblecore genre. Did I read something somewhere about how frequently, for some mysterious reason, the first in a genre is also the best? Homer, Milton, and Cervantes were mentioned. Could this be true of FHH? Is it the purest, as well as the first, mumblecore expression of newly-adult American modern life on the hoof, before the mumblecore melodrama of Mutual Appreciation or the variations on a theme in “LOL” or the psychological depth of The Puffy Chair? A question to keep in mind as I watch.

Haven’t heard much from the mumblecore community lately. What’s the buzz? What’s the buzz around saying what’s the buzz? Stephen Holden called Baghead a mumblecore movie – comedy/horror mumblecore? Are movies like In Search of a Midnight Kiss moving mumblecore into some new merged genre? Was Old Joy really mumblecore, as it’s often listed; some genre morphing might have already taken place in that one. Andrew Bujalski, who wrote, directed, and starred in FHH, hasn’t made a feature film in years; he’s done some acting but not made any movies. Kate Dollenmayer, who plays Marnie, the lead in FHH, appeared in Bujalski’s next film and then disappeared behind the camera. There’s an album with her name on it; otherwise, she’s light on the google.

FHH caught me in one of my watching-the-last-half-of-the-movie-first phases. I’ve recently finished Rules of the Game and War, Inc. that way. Watching those two films backwards helped them, in my estimation. I’m guessing in advance that watching “Funny Ha Ha,” starting at the 45-minute mark, will not harm my enjoyment of the film and may help it. But we’ll see.

Fooey! Now I’ve slipped up and taken a peek at the first few paragraphs of A.O. Scott’s FHH review in the NYT, wherein he tells us that the film is about a young woman’s fruitless search for a little love and meaning in her life. Why did I read that? So now why should I bother dropping into the middle of the movie, already knowing that? The adventure and mystery are ruined. Feh. But I’ll do it anyway. So. There Marnie is, passed out in a car. Now she stays with a girlfriend and her girlfriend goes on a job interview. Oops, Marnie is the girlfriend, not the drunk in the car. Confusion. Good. That’s how I like it to be. No harm done reading a little A.O. Scott. Meanwhile, the theme of the movie is made clear in minutes, middle start or not, once I’ve got Marnie in my sights. Perhaps my initial excitement was a little attenuated, but now I’m involved, so onward!

Marnie is wearing a T-shirt from a Newton grammar school. Newton is an upscale community in the Boston suburbs. Always made me think of fig newtons, not Isaac. I seem to remember a mall there, back in the 60s, out on Commonwealth Avenue. Bujalski was born in Boston. A good place to locate a movie about the just-graduated and I speak as one who swam in that social sea after college for a couple of years. Youth, out of school at last. FHH is the pure unvarnished article. The essence of mumblecore. Absolute minimum script, or so it appears onscreen. The meta experience identical to the dramatic experience; that is, there are two layers working here, carrying the same message: (a) level one, the young woman moving along through her first adult life structure while (b) level two, the actors live their lives for us by acting onscreen, so that, for this viewer at least, the element in FHH most profoundly moving is the sight of these twentysomethings struggling with their craft, new adult members of society, now with the responsibility of paying rent and negotiating car insurance (no small task in Massachusetts!), with the need to discover meaning in the challenges that they face and in their responses to those challenges. Not the characters, you understand, but the actors themselves. A reviewer comments “The semi-improvised performances seem so natural that it is tempting to confuse the actors with their characters,” but the point is that these performances highlight the actors not as the characters they portray but as individuals working – that is, acting. Or am I just being fooled into thinking that I’m seeing the actors, not the characters, because of Bujalski’s style? But no. I know nothing about the actors; perhaps they have something in common with their characters, perhaps not. There is a signature cadence in untrained improvisation, with its small pauses not heard in everyday conversation, neither conversation between those who know each other nor that between strangers, tiny pauses born of the actor’s interior monolog, pauses which replace the verbal overlaps and gaps found in everyday talk. So that as we watch, the actors think about their lines, or the direction just provided offscreen, or the act of acting, anything but the less conscious social drivers propelling the rest of us day-to-day in casual conversation. Each actor steps into the frame with an ineffable sense of innocence, usually with an embarrassed grin, and speaks, and we understand that here onscreen are living reminders of already-came-of-age, struggling with dialog as an instantiated metaphor for the whole all-of-it struggle involved in becoming an adult. I find this evocative in the extreme, a spiritual supermagnet pulling me back to that same time in my own life, with all the memories, nostalgia, speculations, and regrets attendant to it – a time in my own life when I’m more than ripe for that to happen. Could I, would I, do better a second time around? That question forms the emotional core of the movie for my demographic; the same thing happens when we watch our own children in their twenties. Where else can you get that in cinema? Not in The Incredible Hulk, that’s for sure.

The Boojer, by the way, saves the juiciest scenes in the movie for himself – an excruciating dinner and a later sort-of-extended-date with Marni. Cultural extra credit: compare and contrast the boy/girl dinners in FHH and I Think I Love My Wife.

At the end of the second half, I return to reviewland and find:

A.O. Scott: “What gives this film its quiet pathos is not so much the relative bleakness of Marnie’s circumstances but the modesty of her expectations. At one point, she makes a to-do list, and its lack of ambition – spend more time outdoors, make friends with Jackie, learn to play chess – is both funny and sad.”

Carina Chocano: “Mainly, Marnie is staying afloat and trying to connect with others who are equally lost.”

Seems like I’ve seen a lot of this kind of hangdog vibe around the FHH reviews – negatives about mood and lifestyle – and I am not down with that (although I otherwise agree with the NYT and LA Times FHH review content). Perhaps having reached the top of the mountain makes it hard for Scott and Chocano to see those younger who are still way back down in the foothills. Marnie and her friends in FHH are newly-minted adults living life in that broad, spacious, undefined socioeconomicsphere found in first-world countries, a landscape where middle-class children find themselves free to roam, after emerging from college, if they happen to be situated in the middle of the startingout spectrum: neither at one end on the turf of the cinematically-ever-popular male slackers so often seen onscreen, nor the other end on that of the striving medical-school, law-school, and computer-geek proto-professionals; that is, Marnie and her friends are living the unfocused life that many of us lived in our twenties. I speak as one who stumbled off the college campus for the last time to find myself, at the age of 23, living alone in Boston, working at a job I wasn’t interested in, and looking for love after refusing to commit to marriage and being dropped by my intended, who switched to her Plan B awfully quickly, it seemed to me. The quiet pathos for my demographic didn’t happen then, it’s happening to us now, in our dotage, on the viewer’s side of the screen. Where is the pathos in Marnie’s freshness and energy and in the potential of youth, for Marnie and her friends with an open and unknowable and limitless future stretching ahead of them, or in the knowledge that Kate Dollenmayer herself has moved on into that future, or in Bujalski’s vision? Marnie’s to-do list in no way lacks ambition; is in no way funny or sad. The act of making that list metaphorizes the ambition of the young; the contents of the list highlight the innocence of youth; it’s a list drawn up by someone with all the time in the world and, interestingly, it is a list quite similar to such a one as made up by someone at the other end of life, without much time remaining.

So I asked my daughter about this quiet-pathos thing, her being 23 and a recent graduate and living in Boston, all the same as Marnie; her reply: “As far as waitressing goes, I feel embarrassed about it at times, but I’ve actually made some valuable connections and now have places to stay and help finding employment if I want to go to South Carolina, Maui, Australia, or Columbia (have business cards/notes/emails from all of these people). Plus I make ok money, work with nice people, take home free food (ok, thats not completely kosher but its not like I get a salary or even hourly pay that amounts to anything after taxes). Plus, Im learning to speak Haitian Creole while simultaneously turning enemies into friends (the cooks didnt like me at first bc they assumed I was racist and told me so, but when I asked to learn their language they are suddenly happy to see me each day). So from my lowly job Im gaining: communication skills, agility training, extreme multi-tasking experience, networking opportunities, and employee benefits (that’s the free food). Sounds almost ambitious when phrased correctly. This isnt to say I dont doubt what Im doing because I do, every day, multiple times a day. I get asked time and again by my bosses, co-workers and customers “why are you here if you have a degree from an Ivy League school??” One person even went so far as to say I was being selfish because letting my parents spend all that money to send me to a good school only to “disregard” my qualifications by working in a chain restaurant was just like throwing all that tuition money in the trash. Obviously obtaining “street smarts” and trying to experience different ways of life before choosing the “purpose-driven” one is something only misfits and failures do… So what am I trying to say here? Maybe im just trying to rationalize my own current existence when in reality it is just as ambitionless and lost as Marnie’s. But maybe if the reviewers got off their NY Times and La Times high horses and really thought about what it means to EXPERIENCE and LIVE life, they might see things a wee bit differently. Or maybe not. Am I giggly all the time? as my friend Lynnea would say: “HELLS no!” But I dont think Ill look back on this period of my life and see it as a time of just “staying afloat” (my high school years on the other hand…).”

One more take on the pathos meme, quickly, before getting on with the movie: Marnie celebrates her birthday quietly. Proactive note to lugubrious reviewers: this also is not pathos. What the heck did I do on my birthdays back in Boston? Who knows? I do remember being in a laundromat at North Station on Christmas Eve one year. It was snowing. Neither the Bruins nor the Celtics were in town, so The Garden was deserted except for me and an old woman. I went back to my room and drank. I still remember that, so I guess it means something to me, but I didn’t feel pathetic at the time. I felt lonely but pretty good.

Ginormous. I’ve had that word in my head. I’m thinking that if I write it down here, maybe it will go away.

And so on to the first half of FHH.

Oh my God. Bujalski saddles Marnie with an unrequited-love jones, up front. Booge, how could you? What were you thinking? This is something a novice twenty-something filmmaker would do. Oh, right. But this is why watching War, Inc. backwards helped the movie so much; the process cut out loads of unnecessary plot points till it was too late to matter. In the same way, I was able to watch the downslope of FHH without these moulting feathers of love annoying me. Hmm. Now Marnie liplocks some dude at the twenty-eight minute mark. I would never have predicted that. Oh, no, and then she osculates again three minutes later with her married-dude friend. I’m so glad I’m coming to this at the end and not at the beginning. Why? Because in the second half she’s staring into the future without seeing beyond the walls of her room, locked in her head while her anger percolates unfelt somewhere down there lower in her body – after the drinking and smooching fail her – but I understood that, in the second half of the movie, without the presumptive romance-o-motivation of the first.

No. I’m overreacting. Belay that last paragraph. I’ve been Hollywoodpavlovianized. This is not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the last minute of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. This is random lowkey young adult semijoyless evolutionary smootching, pebbles in a pond that cause no ripples. Marnie pretends that it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and I’ll do the same. Romance is a big deal for these kids, perhaps the biggest deal. My twenties were mostly a history of bad dates. Easy to put off career issues to the next decade while getting the living part right. So Booge perforce makes use of that, but not so much that we can’t shrug when the lips meet, and then move on. But still, this series of fraught encounters with men, I don’t know; quit beating the drum, Booge. This does remind me, though, that I watched the original Forsythe Saga backward. As with Marnie and Alex in the second half of FHH, something heavy had obviously gone on between Irene and Soames, and Fleur’s life was constantly perturbed by it, but it seemed more romantic to me to not know what that something was, not to know what had happened – seemed more romantic than watching the first half and seeing whatever it was that happened actually happen. Thesis: nostalgia coupled with imagination is always stronger than dramatic invention, probably because lived experience, including the actual act of imagination, is more visceral than skoptophilia and its milder brethren.

New-Age side note: Coincidence #1: Earlier in this screed I wrote a sentence using the word “evolutionary” and then I started FHH up again and watched the last ten minutes of the movie, which I hadn’t seen yet (minutes 35 to 45) and Marnie says to Alex or Alex says to Marnie, “You’re the most evolved person I know.” Coincidence #2: Later that day, I went to Blockbuster to return Get Smart (I’m rating it “j” on a scale of 1 to q) and while there I picked up The Last Request, which somebody somewhere liked a little bit, and while I was checking out, the clerk asked me how I liked Get Smart and I said, Anne Hathaway is no Barbara Feldon, and when I got home and started The Last Request, there Barbara was, in a starring role. The odds of plucking up a Barbara Feldon movie at random? Antiginormous. Coincidence #3: Marnie’s shirt has the number 18 on its back. I’m 18b. My daughter, I learned THE SAME DAY, is living in apartment #18 in her building on Concord St. Consult your Jung! These coincidental whorls in the universal fabric happened ON THE SAME DAY as Obama’s election and mean that FHH is connected to the core zeitgeist of the planet. You read it here first.

Propositions: (1) The first half of a movie is usually better than the second half when the movie is watched in normal order. (2) Watching the second half of a movie first often improves the movie. Sometimes, watching the second half is sufficient in itself. (3) Thus, perhaps whichever half you watch first is the best.

I had to ask Wilson, who assigned this movie to me, what the last two spoken lines of the last scene were. They seemed crucial in defining the mood of the movie, but mumblecore being named mumblecore for a reason, I couldn’t make out what Alex and Marnie said to each other. Fortunately, Wilson could. And those two lines bear out my contention, or so I think, that Bujalski is a deeply optimistic guy and FHH is, in the end, a celebration, not a paean. In that final scene, Marnie shows some anger, a desire to move out into the world, and a rejection of the feckless Alex. Good for her and good for a society and economy (knock on wood) where youth is able to rattle around a little. I watched a mumblecore movie made by Joe Swanberg a while back, in which the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless; Bujalski throws down some marbles in Marnie’s path, but his affection for her never lets her fall hard enough to break anything.

This film that launched a genre reminds us that being young and being old are two entirely different things. (Bujalski turned 30 this year.)