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 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.
Q. If a blogger falls in the woods after not posting for months on end, is anyone left to read about it?
A. You tell me.
Except: I didn’t fall in the woods. I fell into Alice’s looking glass, more like, sometime around when I saw John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. I dug its oldschool-NYC patriotism, though the movie itself proved surprisingly forgettable — proven scientifically by the fact that now, six months later, all I can summon is an autofellatio sequence (not hot, as it turns out) and Daniela Sea brandishing a feather (ibid, naturally). But the real problem materialized afterward, when I rolled out of the critics’ screening and fell in step with a colleague whom I knew only vaguely. Enough to know that he was very nice and equally discerning, in other words.
Typically, none of us really talk about the films too much when we emerge from screenings; for me it comes down to not wanting to shoot my load prematurely and, though others’ reasons might be articulated with less of a potty mouth, I suspect they’d amount to pretty much the same thing. So the critic, who’s almost exactly my age, and I talked about Other Stuff instead. He told me about the new condo he and his wife had just moved into, and about the baby they were expecting in a few months. Then he turned to me and asked brightly how things were with me.
I couldn’t settle on how to respond with the same level of personal detail without, well, shooting my load. There were facts that I wasn’t ready to throw out in the hopper yet. I didn’t know what to make of them yet myself, let alone how to present them. Those facts comprised every corner of my personal life and in the face of all his age-appropriate stolidness, I felt shamefaced about how upended I still was. I’m not suggesting his life, or he, was square. He’s not. Just decided. Whereas I was decidedly not.
So, the critic moved on gallantly. “Well, what’d you think of the movie?” he finally asked.
A movie in which the characters turned their sexualities inside out and then on their heads. One that resonated so much with the life I had been leading in the last four months that I doubted my ability to perceive it objectively. (Apparently I’ve since gained that confidence.) “Well.” I stopped and then started again.
And that’s about when I fell into the rabbit hole.
The fabric of my life has radically changed or, rather, it’s been torn up and I’m still sorting out how to repair it. Barely any relationships in my life have been spared serious reevaluation and so much of the way that I have identified myself — and kept my wolves at bay — is either no longer applicable or no longer fit for public consumption.
Some of the questions that have me snagged: How to write when the drama of your real life eclipses that which you’re reviewing. How to keep working when just keeping afloat feels like terribly hard work. How to obey instincts rather than reflexes. How to respond to the mildest of social prompts without frothing at the mouth like a crazy person. These are the queries of a teenager rather than an adult. I have struggled with all of them the last eight months anyway.
But the other day I fell upon this quote and it hit me like a Bob Dylan hurricane:
”I didn’t understand then that it was very important for me to work, whatever happened in my life.” Marianne Faithfull
I’m still struggling with these existential navelpickers, but I think I’ve got them sufficiently back in my, uh, pants so that I may rejoin this cultural conversation — issuing these reactions that feel like my truest actions — and write here again. At the end of the day, I just miss it so much. I dearly regret having let Dreamgirls (loved), Princesas(lerved), and the timedumpers that were last winter’s missives from Tres Amigos as well as a host of other film travesties and triumphs go undocumented.
Just two more things:
1. I may have responded viscerally to Cameron Mitchell’s headspin of a genderquake of a wtf movie but I still can’t quite dub it a great film. He doesn’t relish the medium of film specifically enough; it seems irrelevant to him as it does to that other indie-renaissance poster child, natty little Miranda July. The filmmakers whom I most admire must most admire film. And on that, Marty, I still love you. I thought The Depahted your finest comedy.
2. No matter what, I am and always will be first and foremost a Broad.
Come back soon, loyal reader.
Roughly speaking, it’s been a thousand years. I know that. And I’m not really posting now. Believe it or not, though, something’s due to arrive here shortly. In the meanhow, if you’re interested, I’m blogging this year’s Ebertfest. Do stop by!