Saturday, December 28, 2013

That Awkward Aftermath

White Reindeer is not a bad film. It has much going for it, particularly in its second half, and you can read about it in the generally positive reviews the movie got. I'll look forward to Zach Clark's future work and seek out some of the older stuff, and not just out of solidarity with other people named Zach C. But I want to focus on some things I didn't like so much because they are indicative of some larger trends in cinema that I find wanting.

First up is a way of staging conversations, featuring plenty of pauses in conversation and shots where Suzanne, the protagonist, reacts quietly, stoically, to all the ridiculous infelicities and minor, unintended cruelties of the characters around her. We see it in so many movies and television shows: interactions between people are that are predictably pitched to the setting of “awkward.” Sometimes this works well, as when small-talking Suzanne tells someone who says she's on disability that she looks healthy for a disabled person: an excellent moment not only because it's genuinely a bit uncomfortable and unexpected, but because it encapsulates something about the characters and their backgrounds. Yet overall, in the Age of Gervais, it can seem suffocatingly commonplace. These kinds of scenes are marked by cynical resignation about ineffectual families or myopic friends or co-workers who "just don't understand." In a particular corner of quirky comedy-dramas, both film and television, it is typical to see protagonists - or rather, audience surrogates - who float through a world that isn't as smart as them. Most of the world is thus comprised of oblivious, consumerist, platitudinous asses who aren't quite up to speed with good old Martin Freeman (The Office), Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan (Party Down), or Louis CK (Louie). I adore a great deal of work in this vein; in fact all three of the titles I've just mentioned are favorites of mine. But I've always been skeptical of this common aspect of them. (See also.)

So, in White Reindeer, for example, after an awkward (yup) exchange between Suzanne and a police officer following the murder of her husband, we soon cut to a shot of Suzanne on the toilet, underwear down, sobbing. (There is one brief shot between the scenes, indicating that she's staying in a motel.) There can be something touching about a moment like this, precisely because of its sense of vulnerability. But there's a sense in which I, at least, have grown tired of seeing these detached images of impassive emotional vulnerability. Why not shoot a scene where we see the breakdown, ride it all out, rather than cutting to the breakdown as a quick wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am piece of exposition on Suzanne's emotional state? Other examples: Suzanne impassively eats a salad while staring at the porn videos she's found in her late husband Jeff's browser history. There's another moment where she is sleeping on the couch and lets out a little fart. 

In one sense my criticism isn't very fair. I'm wondering why the film does X and doesn't do Y, which I'd prefer to X. And that's a shitty way to evaluate a work of art. But that's not really the crux of my dissatisfaction. There are instead two issues. One, the less important one, is that I think that White Reindeer is a decent film but suffers for being kind of trite overall in the way that it executes a lot of its scenes, especially the de rigueur awkward conversations and the brief moments of deliberate vulnerability. But that's a small thing. The larger criticism (and here White Reindeer is really not a bad offender - more a case of the straw that broke the camel's back) is how "awkward moments" have ossified into a very, very conventional range of expressions in so many movies today. This afflicts in particular that family tree of quirky comedy-dramas, which might describe anything from mainstream-mumblecore (e.g. Jeff Who Lives at Home), to plenty of sitcoms (some examples already noted), the entire Judd Apatow corner of the world, and even some of the more humorous strains in global art cinema that thrives primarily on the festival circuit. 

To all this, I simply want to pose the question, "Why can't it be otherwise?" This should be a vital concern for filmmakers working outside the mainstream system of production and distribution. It's not just a question of form or stylistic execution, but also of politics and ethics.

I'm not saying it's all bad. I just wish it weren't so prevalent. It seems to me that any number of indie films could, and would, cut to a shot in medias res of a character on a toilet in tears. And then cut away. Part of me just wishes that we had, say, a bit more of a Cassavetes approach to things - let's build up to a moment like that in a single scene, and follow it through. Don't let it be an expository blip; let it be an experience. Some of the powers of duration and observation that cinema affords are being under-utilized ...

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