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Lookee What Broken English Drug In

Broken English is the exact sort of film that gets lost in the Sundance shuffle. About a sadsack 30something single wiling her days in a nearly there New York existence (she works a chi-chi downtown hotel job rather than the art world gig she’d desired; friends with rather than a member of a prosperous gorgeous couple), its premise falls in with the listless fare that comprises festival fare these days. Not to mention that it stars lil Miss Indie America herself — Parker Posey, who acrobatically jumped her own shark nearly half a decade ago in a drift of tiny ironies masquerading as movies.

Anyone who’s read this blog over the last few years knows of my mounting frustration with the American independent film scene. Why I reserve my ire for this world rather than Hollywood is simple: I refuse to play frog to the scorpion of the major studio system. Complaining that a major motion picture is crap is pretty much like whining that Twinkies don’t yield nutritional value. The studio system is predicated on a business model in which the value of individual films is calculated on how much money they produce, plain and simple: if the studio doesn’t anticipate a film will make money, it shan’t be made. And if it anticipates that it will make money, made it shalt be — even if the script is riddled with holes, the stars radically miscast, and the editing as junky as the guys huddled on my corner. That the financial worth of these movies is predicated to some degree on people’s experienced (or anticipated) pleasure is the only place where aesthetic or social value enters this picture, ultimately, even if the individual cogs –the directors, the actors, cinematographers, editors, what have you—still care fiercely about the quality of the work they are producing for financially unrelated reasons. So a feature that boasts strong pacing and visual style — Ocean’s Thirteen, for example — is preferable for everyone. It will last longer on the shelf due to good word of mouth; it will be more fun to plunk cash down to see.

And, let’s face it, if their only job is to entertain plain and simple, often those big Hollywood blockbusters do their job better than the American indies do. Spiderman 3 may have been an inky disaster, a nasty clot of conceits and plotlines, but its predecessors provided great fun that snatched you right out of your mishegos for a solid two hours with great wit and color. The films with greater pretenses are harder to bear, obviously; those hardheaded bids for Oscar validation that glut the cineplexes as the end of each year approaches. I pretty much hate them all—the biopics, the Spielberg Serious Ventures (with the exception of Munich, which I didn’t mind for all its bumpiness), the war porns—but so does everyone, including the Academy, which is why they less and less frequently get made. All Hollywood does really well these days is Dissociation Junction: blockbuster action movie and the occasional romance (in which clothes and posh interiors usually star) and gross-out, no-schmabortion comedies. God love them all. A waste of money, but a fun waste: our country right now, in other words, for better but mostly worse.

For if Hollywood reflects America’s unchecked capitalist impulse, the state of US indies reflects our enormous identity crisis in its wake. We are a country at war but rarely acknowledge it except to make a point at someone else’s expense. We discuss how we are systematically decimating our environment while we swig from tiny disposable plastic bottles and veer SUVs down our ever-increasing highways. No one fully cops to how wide the gap between rich and poor grows daily because everyone on both sides of that great divide might judge themselves unfavorably. Not to mention: We barely educate our young. We sicken and die of the worst kind of diseases overly developed societies have to offer (diabetes, autism, cancer, lifestyle-related heart disease). And we live under the most corrupt, mendacious regime that this country has ever known. By many counts, we didn’t even elect it in — yet another sign that our democracy has grown largely theoretical. That we don’t storm the White House and completely revolt speaks not only to our addiction to comfort and to the illusion of stability but to the profound levels of dissociation that we all sign on to every morning when we get up and face ourselves in the mirror. The levels that Hollywood plays a large part in ratcheting up. God love it.

None of this is news, not in the slightest. I am either preaching to the choir or to deaf ears, and either way the question is she breaks nearly nine months of silence for this kneejerk song and dance?

And my answer is, yes, yes, yes. Because these facts are wildly relevant to the state of independent film. An institution I still care about and, more to the point, deeply need, but one that has proven as dysfunctional as most of the other deep loves of my life. For how do you make conscious film, film presumably made for other reasons besides profit and resume-building, in this environment? If it’s true that art is only as healthy as its culture, and I truly believe that it is, then independent film, the art made in some way to illuminate the human condition or to celebrate it or at least remind us that we are human, is bound to suffer. And it has.

To be fair, many filmmakers are trying. It’s just that their efforts show, and I resent being bombarded by the seams of a filmmaker’ intentions — no matter how earnest they are. Truly, most indie fare these days suffers from overearnestness of one ilk or another. There are the Sayles babies, who attempt to solve or at least tackle all the world’s problems in one swell foop. Even those ventures that are banging in theory still go down like medicine that could use a spoonful of sugar. Then there are the many indie filmmakers content to merely approach their own problems via the medium of film. Admittedly, this self-searching, however initially masturbatory, has served as the chief impetus of most art since the beginning of time. (As a certain someone has been known to say: “now you’re going to start knocking my hobbies?”) But there’s a difference between, say, Noah Baumbach, who dresses his 90-minute therapy session (Squid and the Whale) in early 80s nostalgia rather than in any greater relevance, and European film, which philosophizes about human emotion rather than wallows it. So much of American indie that doesn’t labor to wake us with dirty buckets of cold water — clunky ventures such as Fast Food Nation or, oy, The Situation — languishes instead inside the grime of a writer-director’s navel, albeit one charmingly or whimsically adorned.

But.

But I still believe movies satiate very primal longings in this crazy constructed modern world we call home these days — call it the desire to be understood; the need, ideally fulfilled in meditation or prayer, to surrender to your problems from a healthy remove in order to more thoroughly comprehend them; and the need to connect those problems to someone else’s, to many else’s. Boys, and some girls, who never cry in their real life sob unabashedly at the movies. Girls, and some boys, sneak into romances or, you should pardon the expression, chickflicks when our own love lives come tumbling down round our ears. It’s why the only moderately talented Sandra Bullock radiates such great appeal. She willingly swings us and all of our problems, be they loneliness or addiction or rampant immaturity, over her shoulder in an emotional rucksack as she embarks on often surprisingly successful pilgrimages for redemption.

Ideally, films connect us back to our authentic selves rather than our mere egos via a painless honesty typically only achieved through drugs or spiritual transcendence. But that’s because film is a drug and movie theaters are our temples. Where else can you at least expect so many varied humans to sit in rapt silence for hours on end these days? Where else can you hope in this ruptured dream that we call the US that we might commune with both beauty and truth shoulder to shoulder with strangers and loved ones alike?

Admittedly, it’s a lofty way to regard film. But (and here’s the real but) why not? Why can’t the films purportedly not solely made for profit aspire to be art? Art that does not merely proscribe our wretched existences but prescribe a little insight even it’s merely insight into our what’s breaking each of our hearts? And why not expect such films to entertain as well as to illuminate? As Edmund White once wrote, “What I really like in art is entertainment, if what is being entertained is the mind as well as the parts of the spirit and body that can register pleasure.”

So on said admittedly lofty note I wind myself back to the example of the little-indie-that-barely-did: Broken English. In the face of all the solitude that has proven to be the ides of my 30s, the hard questions that being alone raises amongst the Noah’s Arks coasting in my New York sea, I can recognize myself in this film without hating Posey-as-protagonist or even me in absentia. Posey for once has less channeled her bratty deadpan than offered herself up as a cracked, dusty mirror that’s beautiful in all of its flaws.

Small but not small-minded, linear but not leadfooted, herein lies a film that channels an American optimism grounded out by a European ability to withstand personal misery. In fact, the film is bighearted in its acceptance of misery, important in its insistence that misery doesn’t always require company in order to be ameliorated, political in its suggestion that coupledom is so often a placebo. And that often true solutions only appear when we’ve settled into their absence.

I knew at the critics’ screening that this film largely would falter in reviewers’ eyes. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; its pacing at time devolves from graceful ambling to downright choppy. But it faltered because it’s not about people who’ve fallen through the cracks grandly nor is it about the critic-by-proxy nor is it about the odds-beaters (though the ending is for sure a gimmee). It’s about a wildly condescended-to demographic: the single woman, and Zoe Cassavetes, who knows of what she writes/directs, attempts to articulate that existence with more low-key dignity than sturm und drang and soundtrack cues and lascivious winks. I contend that lady indie filmmaker did her job well. A fact, in this current environment, that is worth noting. Trumpeting even. Like this.

On Drinking: A Love Story (Caroline Knapp, 1960-2002)

I’ve been rereading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, for a gig, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:

There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid….Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.

These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often really aren’t to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read that passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthesias, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, that I deferred to rather than simply trust myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.

Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker. I still believe, however, that it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have even liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me running to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. The beauty of a really skilled memoirist, though, is that through her perspective you can connect with a person whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how gifted Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never once met her while she was alive. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for the life she did manage to live.

So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.

There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:

It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I’d spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I’d just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.

Pauline Kael, Film Criticism’s Good Mommy

Perhaps around the time that New Yorker critic David Denby published “My Life as a Paulette,” in which he described how the late film critic first mentored him and then wrote him off as “not really a writer,” I lost my taste for Pauline Kael. Not because of her dismissal of Denby — if I’ve learned anything, it’s that film critics backbite each other worse than mosquitos in a swamp — but because the piece brought home how she spawned the monotone dominating contemporary film criticism. It wasn’t her fault necessarily, though some reports suggest she encouraged great flattery from her adherents. But the plainspoken chattiness that was her trademark has congealed into a sometimes ugly glibness when attempted by the many critics who’ve either taken cues from her or, perhaps, reacted against her. Once upon a time a review would be about whether or not the reviewer recommended the film — a simple, even simplistic, goal but a nonetheless honorable one. These days, a review still may serve that purpose, but too often it engages in a variation of the following dialogue: Q. Would you fuck it?” A. Ah, but you just did, my friend. Fair or not, I named Kael as the godmother of all that glibness.

Then the other night, I watched Altman’s Three Women and fell knee-deep under its spell: the illusive, elusive dichotomies that Lynch should be so lucky as to achieve; the mirrors found in pools and windows and fishtanks and dumb lugs; the spot-on performances from Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duval. At the film’s end I still lacked much insight into its characters or plot or even intentions. Yet I was utterly hooked — deeply uncharacteristic for a girl who tends to dismiss such opaqueness as mere smoke and mirrors. It was a moment when I longed for a teacher or a good review to illuminate me or even frame the context of the conversation, and I realized that more than anyone I longed for Kael and her smart-cookie two cents.

For the first time in a dog’s age I cracked open one of her review collections: I Lost It at the Movies. And, though I never found her essay on Three Women (I did suss out that he’d improvised the film from a dream), in my search I fell knee-deep under her spell as well. In a way, Altman and Kael’s tone is of a piece: marked by a high-minded chattiness that never borders on pretension even when it misses the mark. What distinguishes Kael’s writing, even after all these years and even in this era of critical oversaturation, is that she’s writing for someone who’s already seen the movie.

She never lost what they call in yogic circles “beginner’s mind,” always demonstrating a generosity more typical of viewers who’ve paid for a sitter and consumed a heady cocktail of popcorn and smashing trailers before the feature. It’s why her now-infamous second person voice doesn’t grate nearly as much as when others slather it on: she really was talking to us. Her reviews were written as if we were all cradling cups of tea around a kitchen table after having seen the movie togther, savoring the pleasure of the experience with a satisfying post-mortem. That’s why, even when she didn’t like a film in question, her prose never devolved into vitriol.

Her musings on the ’60s and ’70s classics are best remembered; how (like Sontag, like Warhol) she relished jop and pazz and dispensed briskly with such dichotomies as high and low culture that other critics still drew upon with a straight face. But even when reviewing a mostly mediocre batch, like the films in Movie Love, her collection of 1989-1991 reviews, she drew upon her significant body of knowledge to excavate positives — a lingering shot, a director’s development, a new actor’s performance. And when she did find fault, she did so cheerily, with no loser-in-a-black-cape fury fueling her assessments.

It’s been said that Kael didn’t much cotton to female Paulettes in her life, but none of that Adrienne Rich “exceptional woman” pathology colored her prose. She admired actresses as well as actors, and pointed out without rancor where sexism sank plots by not fleshing out female characters. She was funny, but only in service of more precisely nailing her point rather than gilding her reputation. She was smart but in a matter-of-fact, unshowy way that suggested she’d be a smart observer of any human milieu. Her calm, confiding tone inspired both confidence — and confidences — in each of us, and she used her good name to cultivate filmmakers and critics and an American audience whom she recognized as worth cultivating.

Only Kael tapped into the basic psychology of film-viewing; that there, in that temperature-regulated womb of a movie theater complete with a light flickering at the end of the tunnel, we each, alone but together, shoulder to shoulder, are silently reborn again and again. She remained both open-hearted and open-eyed to the end, a too-rare combination these days in any field. She may have been the progentitor of contemporary film criticism but more than that (I smell test tubes in that word, anyway), she was, and remains, its good mommy.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy