Sunday, August 8, 2010

Get Low

      If a house burns in rural middle America and nobody’s around, does it have consequences? This is the question posed by the film that follows this mysterious image of a burning house that opens Get Low. The man who flees that house at the end of the shot is Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall as an old man who is quirky enough to have combined curmudgeonly reclusiveness with a deep and eerie sadness in to a person who is all at once shy and egotistical, hilarious and frightening. That the 79-year old Duvall manages to orchestrate this performance is a triumph because he manages to preside over an otherwise misguided film. His Felix Bush is the consequence of every shot.

      Set in the very early 20th-century Midwest—though it often feels as if it wants to just be in the present—the film follows Felix Bush’s plans to stage his own “funeral party.” He enlists a professional funeral arranger named Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) who helps him to plan the party, but is baffled by Felix’s indecisiveness and reservations. Felix’s original plan is to invite everybody in town to attend and tell a story about him. He then offers up a lottery in which he will cede all his property to the winner once he dies. He then realizes that not many people have good things to say about him, and backtracks on the idea completely. Coming between it all is a woman whom he may have loved once (Sissy Spacek), and a preacher (Bill Cobbs) who appears to be his only true friend, but who does not want any part in Felix’s funeral. For this preacher, Felix did something fantastic once; he built a beautiful wooden church. One structure was built, another burnt to the ground. All leading up to a strange old man’s funeral.

     This dichotomy of two buildings, one destroyed, one incarnated, is one of the interesting patterns that Get Low establishes, but unfortunately, it never follows through. This is because director Aaron Schneider is confused as to what he wants his film to be; it could be a dark comedy about an incredibly vain old man’s outrageous ideas, but it only is for the first third or so. It could be a folktale set in a semi-nostalgic past, with moral leanings, but it only bumps against this type of story. So with Chris Provezana and C. Gaby Mitchell’s solid script, Schneider resorts to what he knows best: cameras. Schneider has been a cinematographer on many televisions shows and has also worked on films as monumental as Titantic. To the close viewer, Get Low will clearly be an exercise in cinematography, if well disguised. Schneider has an fetish for shadows; every character gets at least one shot where half their face is cloaked in darkness while the other half is lit up. He has an obsession with colors too, though at least this obsession is playful; red goes against red as Sissy Spacek sits on her couch, trying to reason with Felix; Felix wears a colorful quilt in a similar scene. He dreams of a woman in striking white against the gray forestry and green pops up in smatterings, wherever Schneider wants it to. The film looks gorgeous, but not in a way that transcends the obvious; the shadows communicate only unease and mystery and the colors communicate only lavishness. It all distracts us from scenes that are going on too long, or are simply uninteresting.
      Towards the end of Get Low, there is a fantastic, all-stops-pulled monologue delivered by Duvall at his funeral party, in which he reveals the secret that has been troubling him for so many years. He elicits genuine pity for Felix only in this scene, which feels as if it could have been a short film in itself. But it is followed by a sentimental ending, complimented by yet more of Schneider’s cinematographic know-how. The film ends on the dead image of a camera rising just above the treetops to reflect on the scene below. Schneider is a painter with a camera, but he is not yet a storyteller. The good news is that he certainly wants to be; the bad news is that for now, his burning house is our mere distraction.