Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Unsound Logic: Martha Marcy May Marlene

(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)
             A woman walks away from a peaceful farmhouse. Wood is chopped there. Soup is eaten in silence around a wooden table. No breeze affects the foliage. She looks behind her and crosses the lightly paved road. She runs in to a path in the woods. A man calls out to her; “Marcy! Marcy May!” He pursues her in to the woods.
            She hides under a tree on a slight overhang. Two people run past her.
            She makes it in to a small town. She sits at a diner eating. A light haired man comes in. He sits and asks her what she thinks she’s doing. Says everybody else is worried about her. Marcy May says she wanted to go in to town. The man asks he why alone. She doesn’t have an answer. He eats some of her food, without quite getting her permission. He leaves her there.
            Outside, Marcy May picks up a pay phone.
            If you have not seen Martha Marcy May Marlene, then this scene may sound perfectly mysterious, and it may view that way also. To spoil it just a bit; Marcy May’s real name is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), and she has been living with a rural cult headed by her “boyfriend” Patrick for two years. The person she calls on the pay phone is her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who has not seen her in at least as long. Lucy picks her up and takes her back to the Connecticut lake house of her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). We learn that their Mother died and their Father was unreliable. We learn that Martha has a history of trouble, and may have suffered from mental instability before she joined the cult. As for the present, Connecticut isn’t helping. Martha can’t control herself. She thinks she’s still in the woods, a happy servant to a man who is, essentially, a pagan and a narcissist. And more.
            But if you don’t know any of that already, then you can watch that opening scene up to the point when Martha, with the look of a young girl who has been spanked, picks up the phone. There is already a certain unsound logic to the film. Why didn’t the runners in the woods see her, when she was barely hidden? Why did the young man, Watts (Brady Corbett), not forcibly take her back to the cult? Given what knowledge we gain of the cult, this is exactly what one of the men would have done.
(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)

            Or skip a few scenes. Many scenes. What kind of sister takes her younger sister, traumatized, wearing filthy clothes, missing for two years, home and never to a hospital for various tests, then to a psychiatrist as a preventative measure at the least? How lucid is Martha? One scene, she’s swimming naked. Another she’s sleeping on the kitchen floor and wetting her dress. In others, she’s criticizing her sister’s past shortcomings, critiquing capitalism, talking about memories before the cult. Is this woman a victimized outsider of the Dreyer--Von Trier line, or a mentally ill woman trapped in a situation even more disorienting to the viewer?
            Now here is writer-director Sean Durkin’s conflict: he seems to know all the answers, but he has designed his film to deny each one. First he sets his film up as a fractured memory narrative, and then he resets it as a psychiatric mystery. Then he resets it again as a sentimental narrative about the broad meaning of family, and then he decides on a bourgeois expose, before settling in the final scenes on a paranoid chase movie. Durkin has made the mistake of a movie in which the central character embodies so many concepts, so many screenwriting-class character motivations and secrets that it becomes impossible for Ms. Olsen to truly deliver. Which she doesn’t. This isn’t to say she’s incompetent; at least her character holds our sympathy most of the time. But she is surrounded by nincompoops; her sister, her sister’s husband, and her cult, all of whom are sketched as ambiguously troubled people who dance around her larger troubles. If the protagonist is mad, and there is nobody in the “sane” world who acts practical or the “mad” world who acts enthrallingly nuts, then what are we left with?
            Answer: John Hawkes. As Patrick, the charismatic, pathological leader of the cult, Hawkes is surely the strongest thread in the film, and his performance takes on an eerie presence that affects even the mechanics of the film. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes calms down when he’s in the frame; the camera shows him sitting on a wooden chair with a dinky acoustic guitar, playing a song called ‘Marcy’s Song’ while the commune watches him from the shade of a barn. The sound gets streamlined as he shows the girls how to use a gun and kill cats, the lighting decisive and shadowy as he sits on the steps watching an orgy. John Hawkes may be on his way to creating a film persona; a slightly rabid, but not inarticulate guy who looks quite comfortable in his woodsy psychosis. It was the same type of persona he played in the fantastic Winter’s Bone, and it’s got surprising flexibility.
(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)

            But the film has too much flexibility. And this is the problem with many recent films to come out of Sundance with a blaze of hype behind them. They are hyped for their concepts rather than their craft. They are cleanly shot ideas with no internal logic, and so much polished narrative material that is too much for the average twenty-something actor/actress getting their big break. By the time we get to the end of Martha Marcy May Marlene, we’ve seen at least several conclusions, and the undeniable truth, suggested by the title, that Martha’s identity is scrambled. She must choose Martha Marcy May or Marlene; the film chooses all of them at once, calls them all legitimate, and goes stark raving mad.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guest Post: Take Shelter (by Tyler Rubenfeld)

(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)
Like Gena Rowlands, Klaus Kinski and, yes, even Nicolas Cage, Michael Shannon can carry an entire film simply by being unhinged. With wide-set eyes and a tight mouth that doesn’t so much speak as it secretes words, Shannon is one of the most magnetic character actors working today. It’s no surprise that he’s played crazy enough to pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination along the way, for Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.” It’s also no surprise that he’s been cast as the villain in Zack Snyder’s God-forsaken “Superman” reboot. These scenery-chewing parts are tailor-made for queer ducks like Shannon, and though they seem like easy paychecks, who can argue? Give him a complex and he’ll entertain.  
Unlike Nicolas Cage, however, Shannon is equally bewitching in “normal” parts. Call it the Ryan Gosling effect: his blank expression could be read hundreds of different ways. Even as the sanest one on screen, he’s imbued with the greatest mystique. This was achieved best in Jeff Nichols’ debut film “Shotgun Stories,” a startling piece of Southern Goth centered on the escalating feud between two sets of half brothers. Shannon’s taciturn Son Hayes, the eldest brother, snaps between responsible father and vengeance-fueled barbarian. Yet both facets are always present—he’s both an upstanding citizen caught in a violent uproar and a domesticated beast sipping beer on the porch. It’s one of the more believable portraits of revenge committed to film in recent memory. Nichols takes full advantage of Shannon’s ever adaptable poker-face, and though it would be a giddy thrill to watch him explode in a fit of Crispin Glover-style batshit insanity, he keeps the crazy at bay. It’s always there, simmering, but for “Shotgun Stories,” that’s enough.
Nichols’ sophomore effort, “Take Shelter,” amps up the energy. Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio family man and chief crewmember at a local drilling company. Like Son Hayes, Curtis’ biggest concern is providing for his family. His wife Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, takes care of their deaf daughter and sells her embroidery at a flea market. With this system, they’ve more or less reached financial stability.  They can afford their daughter’s cochlear implant and can start planning for a bigger house. 
(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)

As the film opens, Curtis stands in his yard observing a menacing set of storm clouds. It begins to rain a thick, amber liquid reminiscent of motor oil. These visions occur night after night, become increasingly frightening, with rabid groups of people and Curtis always scrambling to protect his daughter. He later explains that the weather is making people crazy; it’s a credit to Shannon’s performance that it took me days to realize that this is also the plot of “The Happening.”
Structured like a hurricane, “Take Shelter” eventually subsides on the night-after-night dream sequences, and the film enters an eerie calm. Though this portion contains some of the most chilling set pieces, it’s restrained, and it’s hard to scale back on the explicit horror without losing some steam. Audiences looking for more of the nightmares’ mainstream thrills (or more similarities to the canon of M. Night Shyamalan) may start to lose patience. Nichols has already established a base level of foreboding, and it’s here, in the stillness, Curtis stops his car on the side of the road—his wife and daughter asleep in the back—to observe soundless lightning, splayed in all directions. He says aloud, “Am I the only one seeing this?” It’s a real question: Curtis has a history of schizophrenia in his family, his mother developing it around his age.
Whether it’s impending doom or impending mania, it’s impending, and Curtis won’t rest until his family is safe. He breaks the bank on canned food and gas masks and a tornado shelter. The LaForche family budget flies off the handle as much as its patriarch, and it’s a cringe-worthy thing to witness. Though a common practice in Fassbinder films, it’s odd that, in today’s economy, few films use the act of overspending to heighten suspense. Monetary woes are always front and center, giving “Take Shelter” much more recession-era immediacy than the tacked-on relevance of “Up in the Air” or “The Company Men.” Curtis’ visions echo the country’s fears of climate change and terrorist attacks—violent upheavals that no man, no matter how good of a protector or provider he is to his family, can face. The cost of braving the storm is staggering. 
(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)

Curtis becomes such a tight-lipped, quivering mess that, when he does begin to explode, it’s downright terrifying. He literally becomes the proverbial soothsayer snarling about the apocalyptic flood that will wash everyone away. This is the batshit Michael Shannon that we’ve come to love and fear, and his transformation is a sight to behold. He’s matched by the justifiably ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who breathes life into the normally underwritten role of “the scared, patient wife.” Her options dwindle by the minute until she has no choice but to weather her husband’s storm.  Unfortunately, “Take Shelter” ends a few scenes after it should, and it’s hard to think of its frustrating ambiguity without thinking of the doggedly debated denouement of “Inception.” Though by no means a letdown, the ending merely hints at a less intriguing interpretation of the events.  Oh well. Narrative clumsiness aside, “Take Shelter” is one hell of a rush. Whether it’s the end of the world, the fall of the American empire, or the descent into madness, catastrophe will come with a hefty price tag. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
 Tyler Rubenfeld is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. He's on Facebook, and he tumbles: http://burnthemonfire.tumblr.com/

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Worst Theater in New York

          Of the outer-boroughs, the neighborhood I have always found the most straightforward and relaxing is Sunnyside, Queens. Straightforward because it makes no pretensions about being an outlet to a highway—where Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard join with route 495—but it takes advantage of this commerce, making it a sort of compressed streak of the kind of ethnic food and small business-meets-large retail stores you might find in the rest of Queens, all lined up on either side of the train tracks. Relaxing because of all the space, trees, homey brick buildings and relative quiet. I have never felt unsafe there; I have even walked home through the neighborhood late at night, and it seemed to honestly say; ‘Yup, I look pretty shady now, don’t I? But don’t worry. We cool.’
            Yet Sunnyside is also home to the Sunnyside Center Cinemas, a seldom-visited movie theater with a fairly incredible reputation. Incredible here means horrible. It has an average three-star rating from a mere thirty-six reviews. Reviews read: “Between the overpriced multiplexes and places like this…no wonder people wait for the DVD releases;” “Worst movie theater I’ve ever been to. I don’t care that the tickets are $7.50. This place is a f-ing dump;” “What more could you ask for even if you’re kind of desperate…and maybe a little drunk;” “Gross.” Indeed, elsewhere one can read or hear backup evidence that this might be the worst theater in New York City. On the appealing side of things is the fact that tickets go for an astonishing five dollars for matinees. On the sentimental side is the fact that, apparently, this theater is a neighborhood landmark. On the side of abstract-appeal is the notion, as one reviewer kindly put it, that the theater “…should suit the tastes of those who like things slightly on the fringes.” As someone who occasionally enjoys things on the fringes, who writes, and who was recently fired from his job at a different, somewhat fancier movie theater, I realized that I would inevitably have to see a movie there. So one breezy October Sunday, I did.
            I arrived at the box office just before 2:30, to see the 3:00 show of Dream House. I asked the gentleman at the box office if it was true that tickets were five dollars on Sundays. He said yes, for matinees. He was actually very amiable and well-dressed; I considered that maybe people were giving this place an unfair rap. But then, there were the handwritten signs taped to random posters announcing midnight screenings of The Ides of March and one other movie, because somebody was too lazy to put them on the marquee. There was the inside of the theater, which resembled the inside of an asylum that the inmates did not just take over, but got tired of long ago. There was the fact that I saw nobody else entering or leaving the theater, causing me to wonder exactly how the place survived. But no matter. I walked around for a little while, ate a doughnut, sent a friend a text message about writing for Collectors.
            I should now clear up some preliminaries about the theater. First off, the Sunnyside Center Cinemas shows only bad movies. The films playing when I arrived were Abduction, Dolphin Tale 3D, Dream House, What’s your Number?, and Killer Elite. The sort of gleeful, obtuse trash glorified by Quentin Tarantino in all his redundancy? No, but also not the type of material that anybody reading this years from now will have heard of. Secondly, the theater has no website. Either it is too good for any real presence on the internet, or too terrible, but who draws such a line. Third, it is listed on Fandango as “good for kids.” Hmm.

            When I returned to the theater ten minutes later, I first noticed two signs on the doors. One said that all bags were subject to searching, and the other read “All Exits final. No re-entry.” This second sign I found particularly weird. What if I bought a ticket, but had to run outside to make a call, smoke a cigarette or meet a friend? You still won’t let us re-enter, even with stubs? Or is it even more drastic? Does this sign really mean that once you’ve been the to Sunnyside Center Cinemas, you can’t come back? If that were the meaning, it contains a sort of cardboard poetry which I may approve of. In any case, I don’t think these people thought through, or enforce, their sign’s warnings.
            Opening the door, I encountered an overweight girl throwing something in to a trashcan in the lobby. Nice introduction. I asked her if I could go in. She looked at my ticket and asked me what time it was (she asked me what time it was!). I was forced to take out my cell phone and tell her, after which she told me to come back in ten minutes and the theater would be ready. I walked back through the lobby, the stickiness of the floor threatening to suck off my shoes any second. For those ten minutes, I mainly lurked around outside the theater, acting like somebody who might see movies there regularly. I watched a few more people arrive and buy tickets from the nice ticket guy. A few people left the theater. I noticed while I observed them that the clientele seemed decent. By decent, I mean regular people. Not the type of “regular people” who tend to live elsewhere in the country and whom most New Yorkers are terrified of meeting. Regular people who represented all ages, who all seemed part of the lower and middle-middle classes, who looked like they had jobs and families to go to, who looked educated to at least some extent, just not devout New York Times readers. Regular people. All in all I counted forty of them, including both comers, goers and myself.
            It was now 2:58 and people were exiting the theaters from all directions. Also in all directions was a tiny hallway with the most menacing carpeting I have ever seen. A guy in a pink shirt, who looked like he wanted to be John Travolta in Grease, except Hispanic, took our tickets and told most of us to go to theater one, where Dream House was showing. I walked in and sat down. This auditorium was bigger than the smallest auditorium at the theater where I had previously worked, but smaller than just about every other auditorium in the city. I sat down in a seat: a plus! The seats were comfortable. Although the lights were off, sparing us the potential trash-heap we were sitting in, I didn’t even mind slouching down in the chair and putting my feet up: perhaps because of living in my wretched apartment for the past eight months, topped off with a bedbug infestation, I have a higher tolerance for generally unsanitary places. I counted sixteen people including myself who walked in to the movie theater. Not terrible for a Sunday afternoon, but I doubt the numbers ever got much greater. A rickety old guy who didn’t quite know where he was sat behind me.
(Dream House/Universal Pictures, 2011)
            The trailers started. Jack Black and Steve Martin making wisecracks in the woods; Leonardo DiCaprio squinting, failing to be more than an adolescent drama student; that Ben Stiller heist comedy where he robs some Bernie Madoff-symbol. But oh my God. This projectionist apparently found it sufficient to play each trailer to the point of; ‘Ben Stiller in—‘ Cut. Next trailer. ‘Jack Black—Steve Martin.’ Done, you get it. Next. Then a trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Jesus Christ, did this theater go out of its way to show even the most insipid trailers? This was the not the industrial-rock music video trailer that everybody thinks is cool; this was some drawn out summary of the movie that, naturally ended with ‘Daniel Craig in-‘
            Daniel Craig was also in Dream House, which came on after a few minutes. And how was the movie? Well I’m sorry, but I already gave it away a few paragraphs ago. So I’ll put it a different way; it was a piece of shit. The first thing I noticed in the movie was; that is some fake snow. Daniel Craig played a man leaving his firm in Manhattan for the countryside of Connecticut amid a snowstorm that looked like a snow globe with lights left on by an disgruntled gaffer blaring in to the scene. Then we met Craig’s young daughters and his wife, played by Rachel Weisz, who strangely (appropriately, as I soon saw) acts more like an imitation of a person than the real thing. They go to their new house in Fairfield, but soon realize that the previous owner had gone insane and killed his family in that very house, five years before. They also realize that their neighbor (Martin Csokas) is a total grouch and that his pretty wife (Naomi Watts) holds some mysterious secret. Here’s the thing: the twist in this movie, not that hard to guess, comes about halfway through, after which the movie morphs in to a whodunit, then a sappy love story, then, in the last few minutes, an action movie with ghosts. Before the twist, the story is implausible: why didn’t the real-estate agent tell them about the murders? Didn’t they even tour the house beforehand, sparing them the discovery of those spooky symbols? Why does Daniel Craig staunchly refuse to put on anything but his James Bond accent? After the twist, it becomes utterly ridiculous. Dream House seemed to me a film that took the idea of artistic roots to mean formulas that Steven King invented but has now grown tired of himself. Its visual rhythm looked to be based on how drastically the makeup on Daniel Craig’s face could be altered. My favorite moment came at the point when the rickety old man behind me exclaimed, “She can’t even act!” I took the film, about a couple moving in to a creepy house, as a thin metaphor for me entering the Sunnyside Center Cinema. Hell, for me entering New York.
            As I left the theater, I thought about checking out the bathrooms, just for good measure, but quickly vetoed the decision. I walked outside, remembering, of course, that there was “no re-entry.”
            I stopped at the box office and asked the polite guy if there were other Center Cinemas in New York. He said yes, on Main Street in Flushing. I asked him how long the theater had been around. He shrugged and said a long time, he thinks the 70’s. I thanked him and left.

            The 70’s: a time when theaters like the Sunnyside Center Cinemas were a slew in New York, though mainly in Times Square instead of the outer boroughs. A time when bad movies like Dream House were trashier, less dressed-up, more symbols of nostalgia than dull narratives. The 2010’s: A time when every bad movie can be seen anywhere, when even the worst movies are ironically “good,” and when cinema feels too certain of its future, while I remain uncertain of my own. Perhaps I was a little disappointed in the theater; angry that it had not been much shittier. Perhaps I’m too picky about what the shittiness of today must look like, cinematically or otherwise. I turned on to 48th street, saw the sky getting cloudier, and walked on home.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Motion Studies: Clowns

           As the montage that opens Sean Dunne’s American Juggalo moves along, it becomes more tempting to see not largely clown faces, but only clown faces.
            But of course, American Juggalo is about many faces. So we watch, in not-too-slow-motion: a man in face paint pouring soda over his head in the back of a pickup truck stuffed with fans of the Insane Clown Posse; two boys in ICP t-shirts and white face paint staring at the camera with a gang-like blankness; a man in a black shirt and red baseball cap dancing on a picnic table for his friends a grouping of shirtless youths on a makeshift raft, trying to stand on the raft and happily falling, because that was the whole point.
            About half of these people wear makeup, about half do not. Some are shirtless, some are clothed in the style of teenage suburban Americans who can only afford so much, but make style from what they do have on their bodies. Some are intense, unapproachable, un-emotive, perhaps out of a genuine resentment for anything societal, perhaps from drugs and alcohol; these people stay stoic in the camera's frame. Some are emotive, approachable, articulate, and apparently carefree; these people move around generously in the camera's frame. At about the time the music changes from a drone to a dance beat—at the point when we watch the man dance on the picnic table—our conclusion is not that this is the stoicism, articulation, and mobility of young Americans. Not of clowns.
            But these young Americans must understand how that clown face-paint looks colorful, zesty, enticing against the sunny countryside of Cave-in-Rock, Illinois during the annual Gathering of the Juggalos.