I am in a theater. It is a small theater, with perhaps seventy seats, and a small screen. The lights go down.
The film that comes on the screen, as is clear from the get-go, is about still imagery. Next, it is about voyeurism. An old man walks down a sunny sidewalk in some squished New York park. Then it becomes about analysis; The man sits, in real life, with Theo (Chris Messina), the photographer he hired to snap shots of him going about his day. Theo lives with his girlfriend, Nat (Rashida Jones) in a loft in Brooklyn. He has created the unusual profession of a “Gumshoot;” a photographer hired by people to photograph them unawares, in their daily lives. As he sees it, it “pays the bills.” So then, the film could be about profession.
It soon becomes clear that it is not about profession in anything more than a peripheral sense. Which is a shame; the craftiest pieces of the film come to life when Theo is doing his job. He photographs a mysterious woman with the online moniker of “subgirl” (played by Meital Donhan), sitting on a park bench, fondling herself. He looks at the pictures on his computer and zooms closer to her legs, then closer to a tattoo on her heel. He photographs a wedding by a lake, sick with tension, and watches the bride and groom veer from forced contentment to argument within the frame of his camera, before he finally snaps the photo.
|(Monogamy/ Oscilloscope Pictures)|
How images embarrass us. What really goes on within a frame. This is strong visual ground for the director, Dana Adam Shapiro. Unfortunately, he slides that ground out from under himself. The only reason the photographs of Theo’s elusive exhibitionist are important is to show that Theo has a perverse side. But if he has a perverse side, then why can’t actor Chris Messina show any evidence for it? Then the thematic ground slides away; the only reason the wedding scene is so extended is to show us a mirror of Theo and Nat’s relationship troubles. Shapiro doesn’t want to understand that we don’t need a mirror for such a grand theme; we’ve taken fraught relationships as a given.
Then the screen goes blank. The projector bulb is out. The sound continues over a blank screen. It looks appropriate, for a second—still images give way to moving images, which then give way to blankness—but of course, it’s an error. I know the projectionist—Christ, I work in this theater—so I don’t want to say anything. Some other viewer leaves to complain. Soon the lights go up and I can see the projectionist back there, re-threading the film. I may have an engagement later tonight. But I wait.
Sound. Picture. The wedding scene, the tail end of it. Theo finishes the job and gets back home to Nat, who wants him to come to her gig over the weekend. But while talking and chopping garlic, she cuts her thumb with the kitchen knife. It is at this point that the film branches off in to a surprising parallel narrative; first, Theo goes on an obsessive hunt for subgirl, whom he tracks to a nighttime rendezvous with an aggressive stranger (does the stranger see him?). Meanwhile, Nat’s cut develops in to an infection, and she is rushed to the hospital. That Nat is staying in the hospital while her boyfriend pays her vague, half-assed visits pumps some juice back in to the story, by default. Theo’s nighttime lurkings, disguised as business, keep the juice going. Theo might be getting in over his head. But why is it such a mundane deep end? Girl is an exhibitionist; likes it rough; stalks around at night; dresses in mysterious symbols. The film thinks it’s too good to be a genre piece, but that’s the territory it is lurking in.
(At this point, I consider yelling at the three girls sitting in front of me, not even watching the film, chatting and lighting up their cell phones.)
Blankness again. Again, it somehow looks right. The sound stops and the few audience members groan. Oh, what is wrong with these films? How hard has film projection become for the modern projectionist? I take a phone call for a few minutes. When I come back in, I still have a few minutes of sitting before the lights dim.
Sound. Picture. Theo rides his bike, in a wide shot. He goes on to click on his pixelated close-ups of subgirl’s provocative acts. He shows the pictures to a friend, resulting in the poorest scene in the entire film. This friend, who we have barely been introduced to, has a chat with Theo out on his roof, thereby veering away from a flesh-and-blood chum and in to an embodiment of the film’s moral voice. Go talk to your Girlfriend, Theo. She needs You. You are wasting your Life with this perverted Fascination. Take a hold of Yourself.
Only after another episode of blankness, and another re-threading of the film, probably a few calls for refunds, perhaps a few more text messages for the girls sitting in front of me, does the third act start, and, thank god, it works.
The most obvious comparison to Monogamy is Antonioni’s 60’s groove fest, Blow Up. In that film, there was another photographer, and he also took pictures of people in their every day lives. He also became too transfixed with one of his more sinister images. He also followed it to a distorted and maddening conclusion. But sadly, this type of story did not work when Antonioni did it, either. Like Monogamy, Blow Up was too interested in the hipness of its ideas to even move along at a decent pace. Which is why it is a relief when, in its final act, Monogamy becomes a quick, bluesy mystery. Nat gets out of the hospital, but not without Theo first unearthing one of her own secrets. Then he goes out on his nightly stalk to find subgirl and her married lover. The film becomes a sleuth film, not a pile of vague, deep questions. It offers a few twists and turns, rather than versimilitude.
Some twenty minutes later, it’s over. As I leave the theater, I feel as if those breaks in the picture followed by silences were not errors, but the way the film should be seen. It was like the god of movies had intervened, trying to force the film to be what it could be. But even he could only do so much work. In the end, perhaps those three chatty girls were giving the most appropriate response the film deserved. I felt frustrated, because I knew my engagement was off, that my friend would not call me back that night. But mostly, I felt deeply frustrated by the last twenty minutes of Monogamy. If only Shapiro could have looked at his footage and realized that this was his story, that this was what he could expand on…I would have sat through a million projection errors.