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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.

The Scoop on Hollow Wood

It’s been a long time since I bothered to see a Woody Allen film on a big screen — longer than I’ve posted on this blog, even. And in general Woody Allen has always been a topic I’ve avoided for what I consider two exceptionally valid reasons:

1. Allen’s movies, churned out at an ever-increasingly feverish rate, have devolved into mere dissociation devices from his utterly disturbing life. And I resent playing audience to emotional resistance-as-art—which is why I also yawn at the redundantly pathological works of David Lynch, who once proclaimed that he discontinued therapy when he realized it would change his art. Yes, yes, neurosis provides the backbone of most great art, but as a starting-point rather than as a place to permanently malinger. After Husbands and Wives, the gloriously cinema verite Dear John in Special 3-D 20-20 Hindsight that he filmed presumably right before he passive-aggressively let his partner discover nude pics he’d taken of her daughter, I’ve always contended that Mr. Konisberg lost his footing. Since then, he has only clocked in shoddy rationalizations of artistic narcissism (Hollywood Ending, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Everyone Says I Love You); doggedly light, me-thinks-he-protests-too-much contrivances (The Jade Dragon); and lethal cocktails mixed from both (Celebrity, Melinda and Melinda, in which he dragged his characters-are-mere-marionettes conceit down to a whole new low).
2. Physically, he is a dead ringer for my dad. I may fancy myself more Jungian than Freudian, but any discussion of Allen’s creepy sexuality (which seemed that of a dirty old codger even back in the ‘60s) sends this broad running for the psychoanalytic, psychotropic hills, blood flowing copiously from my eyes. Like, in a Woody Allen movie or something.

But there’s something burning in the air, and I do believe it is Hollow Wood. At a cineblogala the other night, I found myself launching into Allen with a renewed vigor. A few days later The Looker was kind enough to supply me with Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s brilliant Woody autopsy (not available online, alas). And then, during this last hell-hath-no-fury heatwave I actually plunked down a sawbuck to catch the, ugh, Scoop — drawn by the curiously new tone of its critical reception (even sharp-toothed Times critic Manohla Dargis described it as “oddly appealing”); by how tarot cards played a leading role along with hotter-than-the-Fourth-of-July Hugh Wolfmanjack; and by assurances that Woody had demoted himself, finally, from a leading man to a sidekick whose sexual lusts have been supplanted by heartburn.

Even at 90 minutes, Woody’s latest bogs, but I must report that I dig it anyway. Like last winter’s vastly overrated Match Point (crazy that its highest praise was how un-Woody it was), it’s based in London — though, this time he stars American actors and costars British actors who, blessedly, don’t speak Allenese. (Nothing more inadvertently funny than Jonathan Rhys Meyer whining in a posh British accent, “Mooother, you know that’s her emotional Achilles heel….”). The new backdrop liberates Allen to realistically represent class dynamics for the first time since he himself started making real cashish. He’s neutered himself enough so that I can finally stomach him, although his brand of hand-wringing still looks suspiciously like self-molestation. And Dargis is right; Allen may not be Side Effects funny here, but he’s looser in his skin, not only as a writer/director (he remains too derivative to merit the term auteur) but as a performer no longer hindered by the existentialism and compensatory cheeriness of yore.

As the Great Splendini, an American magician, Allen’s greatest trick may be his stage patter: vintage Wood strained through All That Jazz-era Ben Vereen cheesecloth. Early in the film, he regales his audience with the old Manhattan chesnut “You’ve been a sincere sensation” and then pulls out of his aging tuchus ye olde “You’re incredible humans. I feel great love.” He’s a little wizard, all hopeless eyes and clownish hand-flailing and head-tilting, whose eyebrows waggle into many forms of punctuation behind the trademark glasses that dwarf his now-wizened face — not unlike the robot he aped in a Sleeper many eons ago. With his limbs flapping in billowing layers of plaid sportsjackets and Hawaiian shirts, he’s a shrimp scampi who can’t resist laying card tricks on unsuspecting uppercrustaceans (forgive my lapse into Shellfish). Finally, he has reprised his original shtick — the superficial wisecracker less troubled by the fate of the world than by how he can pull one over on it.

Except now that he’s not trying to get down girls’ pants, he’s free to expose the soft underbelly of that sizeable, cantankerous wit: a fuddy-duddy sensibility that’s not subversive so much as classically conservative. Allen’s legendary narcissism is such that he takes umbrage with whatever trespasses outside of his comfort zone, be they jocks, bean sprouts, EST, cocaine, shopping malls, strong emotions, spirituality, or, mothers, or, now, Scarlett Johansson’s blowsy sexuality.

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:

Filmmakers like Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati differ critically from Allen in the degree to which they express their conflict between narcissism and self-hatred in relation to their comic personae….They usually maintain enough distance from their own characters to allow audiences to have a critical perspective on them.… Allen, by contrast, is too close to Woody to allow us this detachment; his task is to seduce us into sharing his character’s confusions and ambivalences without being able to sort them out. ….There is a lack of ironic distance on his characters, and if [his films] genuinely attack self-interest, [they are] seriously handicapped by being unable to see beyond it. Allen’s problem is both coping and scoring — and he is more concerned with scoring than coping at the end of the day.

Until recently, I believed Allen’s films only dipped into that abject shallowness when his life took on a drama that overshadowed anything his films could ever approach. God knows as a teenager I worshipped such mid-70s and 80s works as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors as wry homages to the havoc inevitably wreaked by human desire. Indeed, they are widely upheld as his richest, most emotionally resonant works. But now that I’m (roughly) the same age as these films’ characters, I recognize them as the obsessed, overly cerebral, arrested development cases that they are; as such lily-livered self-rationalizers that they actually render him a relative, if relativist, martyr. Which is, of course, the point — however unintentional. If writer/director Neil Labute sacrifices the plausibility of his characters to his misanthropy, Woody has always drowned his creations in Narcissus’ kiddie pool.

And Woody’s plotting, especially in already-established genres like mysteries or crimes of passion that don’t allow much wiggle room, suffers radically from that same narcissistic inability to see past his navel or outside his own ass. Any machinations requiring more than Alvy Singer-style fumblings — be they third acts, legitimate motives and true suspense — elude him as they’d also require that all-elusive big picture that would shrink his own self down to a mere cog. In fact, if any truly philosophical or truly intellectual dilemma has ever really fueled his work, it was really another just another variant of his narcissism: what Rosenbaum refers to as his “compulsive morbidity,” as evidenced in everything from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters. The ultimate sign of a selfish person may be a blinding obsession with the extinction of that self.

I’ll take it a step further: Allen’s moral and philosophical investigations amounted mostly to him struggling to sort out if God truly existed — and if he were a punishing sort. From Crimes and Misdemeanors all the way to Husbands and Wives, the question was not so much whether transgression was morally reprehensible as whether it was mortally punished by a vengeful God. Once mannerly Martin Landeau as doctor gets away with murdering his wife, he experiences nary a bad dream. Once erudite Michael Caine as businessman gets away with fucking his wife’s sister, he settles back into domestic harmony.

Woody resolved that dilemma in Husbands, when his alter-ego, a writing professor, opted out of shtupping his student in the eecummings rain only to have his wife leave him for another (taller) man anyway. Suppressing your basest impulses hardly reaps rewards unto themselves, he seemed to suggest, and soon after, he took the leap of unfaith. And when no bolt of lightening struck him down him (and even the media forgave him surprisingly quickly), he jumped his own personal shark as well. God doesn’t exist, he had determined, and so there no longer existed a reason to strive to be a good person to please him. No reason to refrain from fucking your stepdaughter. No reason to pursue self-improvement.

He quit analysis and declared instead: “The heart wants what it wants.” But having taken the leap and survived, having not been felled by a taboo of Oedipal proportions, his films lost the one artistic tension that had fueled them. He had made his bed and no longer feared lying in it eternally. The problem: How can you reinvent your work if you’re no longer courting change? How do you make intriguing art when you’re travelling in the denoument of your own life’s dramatic arc?

Judging from the ensuing films, he grounded himself on that one for a while. No only did his growth as an artist completely halt, but his acknowledgement of the basic passage of time, as well. He continued to cast himself against gorgeous 20- and 30something women, and though New York grew ever more culturally complex and financially stratified, his characters remained white 30something artist types who listened to Bach and, naturally, Louis Armstrong (though there ain’t nothing wrong with Louis!) and lurked in cavernous, well-appointed flats. And every other picture completely mimicked without improvement an already-existing genre, whether it be music mockumentary (Sweet Lowdown), Hollywood musical (Everyone Says I Love You) and Old men Take the Money and Run Small Time Crooks, a new form of metamovie, in which he limply ripped himself off.

But Scoop heralds a new Woody era, in which the Woody persona finally reverts to its rightful place in his cinematic universe: a largely irrelevant, Sleeper-era borscht-belt court jester sidelining the main event, just out to make’em laugh, make’em laugh without any underlying existential angst or divorced-dad self-pity. Casting the fulsome 21-year-old Johansson has a lot to do with that. Though she frequently costars with significantly older men, something about the sensuality of her full-lipped, lingering baby fat highlights the creepiness of their desire — so much so that 70something Allen has finally capitulated to the role of a pseudo fatherly advisor, though he grouses about it bitterly all along the way and luxuriates in the joke that he’s hardly decent papa material.

As Sondra, a journalism student keen on cracking the story of the century with help from a recently deceased ghost and good old Splendini, Scarlett has shed her normally flattened demeanor. And it turns out Scarlett animated is terrifying. Braying in entire paragraphs and windmilling her limbs every which way, she is positively Ethel Mermanized, an overeager dork who fucks often but without much skill or any neurosis. Hey, as Woody himself has been known to say, 80 percent of life is just showing up. And it is actually quite fun to watch her barrel right over his protestations and nasty little digs (her fingers, they’re stubby! She can’t swim, she’s not buoyant!) rather than transmogrify into a Woodette, as even his most formidable leading ladies normally do. In fact, from a brilliantly cut set of scenes, in which she matter-of-factly shrugs off fucking a musician for an interview she doesn’t even land, Scarlett as Sondra establishes a sexuality Woody could never relate to but as a filmmaker, finally, does not judge. Splendini does, but his very assignation is that of a walking anachronism. It’s a new millennium, Woody is acknowledging, and he’s just an old man dancing on its grave.

Of course, he still treats such plot necessities as dramatic structure and tension largely as nuisances; I barely understood or even cared who Scoop’s murderer was or how he was caught. But though Allen may not have entirely transcended his narcissism, or at least his limited abilities to execute a real whodunit, he’s come to terms with all of it.

And that’s what distinguishes Scoop most. Allen as filmmkaker no longer fears or is ashamed by his own insignificance. At the end of the film, he blithely offs a Splendini rushing to save Sondra (though she hardly needs saving), and the world, or even film, scarcely ends. Rather, its characters take his demise in stride with nary a pause — exactly what would have sent Alvy Singer into paroxysms into despair.

The film ends with Splendini riding a slow boat to nowhere, literally cheating Death with his nifty deck of cards, and literally skimming the surface, just as he should. Yes, Allen seems to be saying, he doesn’t change. But the world around him does — women change, technology changes, New York changes, and his own body changes — and he now accepts his increasingly limited relevance. After all, there really is no fool like an old fool. If his classic joke was, “I’ve always been two with Nature,” finally, finally good old manchild Wood has become one with his own.

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.

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