Monday, July 7, 2014

In a World and The American Astronaut

It wasn't my intention when I went in to the video store, but I ended up with two Citizen Kanes. A "Citizen Kane" is when the same person writes, directs, and stars in a movie, as in "Shakes the Clown is the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies."

In a World

In a World was exactly the movie I expected it to be but was somehow still surprising. I mainly knew about Lake Bell from Childrens Hospital and Wainy Days, and I thought she was a really good comic actor, so I was excited to see that she had written and directed a movie. I'm always happy to see women making comedies, and it's always cool to see an actor you like turn out to be a triple threat.

Even without the Lake Bell bona fides, In a World would have caught my eye because it's about the world of voice-over artists. Having spent years as a hack voice-over actor in various Foleyvision shows, I have a special affinity for the field. I've been hearing a lot lately about how you should zero in on a subculture to write about, and I'm glad Bell is the one to have made a go of this one.

The movie is great. Light-hearted comedy with a solid cast of comedy pros (Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro) and a tight script that hits all its marks. What surprised me though was how Bell produced some real strangeness as well as real emotional depth. Rob Corddry gets to bust out of his smarmy dickhead persona to play a really interesting put-upon husband. It's his arc with his wife (Michaela Watkins) that provides some real adult humanity to a pretty typical lovable loser story. But what's great about how Bell navigates these scenes is how she allows incompatibility and inarticulacy and disconnectedness to just hang there without underscoring them for big, obvious laughs. There's a great almost-monologue that Corddry goes into about wishing there was some sort of bubble with no future and no past or something--it doesn't really make any sense--but the emotion behind it is sincere and evident. Bell mirrors the audience's confusion, but it's clear she really wants to get it and to be there for him.

Even better is a moment when Ken Marino finds Bell in his secret hideaway lair and, as a pretty off-target seduction gambit, tells her that he likes to go in there and take off all his clothes and just remember what's it's like to be uncomfortable. It's a great moment because it subverts your expectations. Usually people get naked to feel more comfortable. It also is such a lame come-on, but it works because the strangeness of it registers as a kind of innocence. There are a lot of moments like this in the film: lines that could have been exploited for cheap laughs, but instead, the characters just kind of roll with them because that's the way life is: You rarely say the right thing, and instead of really connecting, you end up just half-assing it the best that you can. Every once in a while, you get past all the misfires and get a chance to really jibe. Or maybe you don't. Corddry and Watkins never quite get there, but their love is built on the strength of their emotional magnetism. Not everybody needs to line up just so. Bell seems to get this in a way that a lot of writers gloss over.

I hope she directs more films because it's really nice to see some humor that doesn't depend on obnoxious boors or gross-out gags. The world could use a lot more of that.

The American Astronaut

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this movie. It is easily the strangest movie I've seen in a long time, Computer Chess notwithstanding. I had no idea what to expect when I put it in. The box advertised it as "A Laurel and Hardy skit directed by Salvador DalĂ­," but I'm not sure that even scratches the surface.

The film was entirely conceived and executed by members of a band called The Billy Nayer Show with whom I was not familiar. The band's singer Cory McAbee wrote, directed, and starred, and the drummer, Bobby Lurie, was the music director, not a small task considering the film was a space-western rock opera. I've recently been circling around the idea of watching Zachariah, which looks insane, but I'm sure it can't even come close to how unbelievable this movie was. I say "unbelievable" because the film constantly provoked a feeling of "It is impossible that that just happened, that someone thought of that and then actually rehearsed and filmed it. No way." There were definitely some Lynchian moments: sequences that seemed to be more interested in off-kilter tonal surges or performative recalibrations than any kind of narrative flow ( This one's a shoo-in for Bordwell's "parametric narration.").

McAbee resembles a Rumble-Fish-era Dennis Hopper, and a lot of the population and look of the film has that early-Jarmusch, NYC-music-scene hipster kind of feel but coming out of a much stranger subcultural niche. Maybe a twinge of Kaurismäki in there, too. The closest comparison I can come up with is if Three Day Stubble executed a remake of A Boy and His Dog. The plot is negligible to such an extent that McAbee delineates the whole thing in a short speech featured prominently in the trailer. And, right on schedule, the film follows the map he lays out beat by beat. McAbee isn't interested in plot twists or big reveals. Even so, the film constantly manages to surprise and confound expectations largely because it doesn't conform to any known conventions of mainstream filmmaking.

The main formal device here is the songs, which the story links like the projected lines of a constellation and which almost always are both unexpected and disorienting. Witness:

This is easily the best scene in the film, if not the most unusual. I feel bad taking some of the sucker out of its punch by posting it here, but it does an exemplary job of showing how the film functions. Our assumption when the men enter the restroom is that we're headed toward a confrontation and toward violence. And even when the men start singing and pacing the floor, that menace abides. As the dance gets stranger and less likely, constantly expanding and reconfiguring our expectations, it maintains that sense of danger and malice all the way up to the snap of the Polaroid, a final and abrupt veering from the payoff that the scene has taken such pains to set up.

Not that the movie is always this good. It definitely ventures into Ed Wood territory at times (though in this instance, the filmmakers are in on the joke), and one has to have a very specific cluster of predilections to appreciate some of the more jarring stylistic choices. I thought it was incredible, but I know this is one of those movies that, even given someone whose Venn diagram of cinematic tastes overlaps so overwhelmingly with mine as to appear more like an eclipse than the usual cell-in-the-final-stages-of-mitosis figure eight, would remain in that little sliver of corona that belongs to just me. Maybe this sums it up best: My wife was in the next room while I was watching, and after about 15 minutes, she got up and went to another part of the house. The next day, I made her watch the "Hey Boy" scene, and she said "Wow. That was amazing. When you were watching it last night, it sounded horrible." She was probably right in both declarations. I think I'm going to try to get the other Billy Nayer Show film collections. Check 'em out here.

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