Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Troubled Souls: Collapse and One too Many Mornings

(Both films reviewed here were shown at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, which I attended, from March 12-14th. Neither are in theaters yet.)

The term Subject, should be used strictly in its first three definitions when talking about Collapse, a recent documentary directed by Chris Smith. The first definition: A person under the authority of another. The second: A person subject to a sovereign. The third: An individual subjected to an operation or process*. Michael Rupert, a graying, portly, chain-smoking journalist is all three in this film, and he dominates every heavy-handed frame with the stress that so are we, in world society. Yet one also wonders if Chris Smith himself is not also the person being subjected, by his own subject, to a process that makes one question Rupert about as much as they question they way our government(s) operate.
Michael Rupert enters, with his only friend, his dog, in to a dank garage or basement at the start of the film. He sits down for the interview, not so much politely waiting for a question, as waiting to expose his pain. He mentions in the film that he is “past debating” and his face shows it. Rupert is a former LAPD officer who was fired from his job after refusing to help the police smuggle drugs in to the country, and going public with their secret demand. From then on-- since the late seventies-- he has been an independent reporter who has exhaustively researched energy crises, especially peak oil, and the various scandals and coverups surrounding them. He notes that over fifty percent of his predictions have come true, including the current economic recession, and believes, essentially, that the end of the world as we know it is nigh. The recession is far from over-- in fact, it is just beginning-- and the world won’t ever know the standard of living it is now used to, because in thirty years, we will have used it up. Images of tent cities cropping up in the U.S and massive riots in Greece sprinkle his contention that humanity is just now entering the ‘Anger’ stage of a psychological realization process that will eventually lead to an acceptance that the world’s energy will soon be used up, there will be massive starvation and population decline and people will have to learn how to “build a lifeboat.” The only hope Rupert has how people can survive this transition is for action at a communal level. He continually falls back on the theories of Darwin; that only the one’s who can adapt to changing conditions will survive. “I’m not advocating social Darwinism,” he nearly yells at one point in the film, over found footage of animal species. “I’m witnessing actual Darwinism.” 
One wonders by the end of the film exactly how many apocalyptic notions Rupert believes in; he never mentions the 9/11 truth theories, or the popular idea that the Mayan calendar says the world will end in 2012, but he is the type of person who believes in predictions and elaborate designs of all sorts, so it would not be surprising if he has flirted with such beliefs. But it is not even his beliefs that are so fascinating, or the most disturbing parts of the film. The glimpses we get of Rupert’s personal life paint him as a deeply lonely individual, and his general demeanor suggests a narcissist who does not even think he is somewhat self-absorbed; merely that he genuinely knows what’s going on and it’s too bad that you don’t. He was set to marry a woman who worked for the CIA, but the relationship broke down when he came to believe that she was a double agent involved in drug trafficking. He has no children. He has been shot at and had his office ransacked, by, he believes, the FBI. Nowadays he says he is mainly focused on playing music with his band and walking with his dog on the beach, seeing how many times they can make people smile during their walk. The eventual, inevitable breakdown he has towards the end does not come across as the standard documentary tactic of ‘the-subject-truly-opening-up.’ It comes as a genuine burst of tears from an obsessive and unhappy man who has deliberately removed himself from many of the pleasantries of life; even though he admits that twice he “tried to walk away from it all.” 
So this film ends up playing as an hour and a half pessimistic burst of emotional appeal from a man whom we are not sure we should place our faith in. Smith was right to craft his film in this direction; he stays out of the way for the most part and lets his subject, cloaked in darkness, dominate half the film, while grainy images of doom populate the remainder. The most gripping moment in the film comes during Rupert’s own collapse; the filmmakers do break in, as we see Rupert telling the cameraman that he needs to cut. We then cut to a shot of the continuity guy and boom operator setting getting out of Rupert’s way for the next burst. The film’s method, story and facts are all fluid and alarming; it is the subject who is ruptured and disjointed. He is utterly alarming, not as a subject, but as a person. Rupert wants to make himself out to be the leader of his movement, but his assertions have been predicted elsewhere, mostly by economists, and there are numerous environmental manifestos that have been written in the past few years that are less crazed while presenting all the same evidence. Rupert’s fact-based basement rants should be taken both as serious issues and with a grain of salt. Here is a subject-- unintentionally fascinating, smoking, aging, offering a continuous stream of blackness and personal neuroses-- who nobody will want as their prophet. 

One too Many Mornings 
A more straightforward take on personal neuroses is One too Many Mornings, a minimalist comedy from first time director Michael Mohan. Mohan’s approach is to shoot the film in gray, sun-dappled shades of black and white that recalls the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, the great Swedish Cinematographer who shot Ingmar Bergman’s films from 1960 onwards. The difference is that Nykvist essentially invented this relaxed yet anxious tone of Black and White cinematography, while Mohan is merely using it. Yet Mohan’s film is something of a laid-back buddy picture with an undercurrent of real angst to it, so his approach is justified. The film begins with a head shot of Fischer (Stephen Hale) rising up against a blank gray wall and then bending over to vomit, twice. He is suffering from yet another hangover, having gone on a month-long binge while living upstairs in a church and coaching soccer for school children. His friend Peter has recently fallen out with his girlfriend, after she cheated on him, and decides to spend several days hanging out with his far more outgoing friend. Fischer is determined to get his mourning and introverted friend laid and so they pick up older women at a bar, in a disastrous move for Peter. Later, they try going to a party with a larger crowd of people closer to their own age, and it is here that, just as Peter proves himself capable of grace and charm, Fischer reveals himself to be belligerent and utterly tactless.The film’s title is counterbalanced against the equally true alternate: one too many disastrous nights. 
The film could have easily become a foul-mouthed piece of over-the-top Apatowism, but its low budget and gorgeous imagery saves it. Southern California, where the film is shot, is a low-key and deserted place, full of empty streets, and actual deserts surrounding all inhabitants on all sides. There are contemplative scenes on empty beaches and drives through desert highways. The setting by its very nature gives the film a psychological expression, and remind one of why filmmakers were attracted to this mysterious location in the first place. One too Many Mornings could have been a great landscape film, but it chooses to be a character study. This is not the wrong decision, and in fact the story is handled with more care and less pomposity than the majority of independent films. Each scene is controlled, even if the dialogue is casual and semi-improvised; this is a independent comedy that is resolutely directed. One is left simply wanting more of the backgrounds and a greater exploration of Nykvist-esque photography. If Mohan can recognize this, then he can create films that do not slide in to the drollness or faked irony of the rest of indepent film in the U.S. California and Swedish anxiety helped him out this time.