Monday, January 9, 2012

Mumblecore Mystery

Portland's been showing up a lot lately in the media I've been ingesting. First in the wonderful sketch comedy show Portlandia (available on NWI, starring Fred Armisen of SNL), then in the podcast WTF (with Marc Maron), when he interviews Gallagher in Portland, but only after a bit of commentary on the city iteself, and finally in the film Cold Weather, a subtle tribute to the city and its surrounds because of its compelling cinematography. I haven't been to Portland in 6 years, but I've got a longing to be there again. It really is a unique city with a very distinctive culture and way of life.

Now that I've seen both films, I understand completely why the Drive/Cold Weather discussion got so much mileage. I have not yet been back to read what you all wrote (there's a lot of it, so it's going to be tricky), but I'm excited to do so. I may offer my own thoughts on the comparison of the two films (I saw them back-to-back, one last night and the other today), but first I want to talk about how much I loved Cold Weather.

Have you ever been watching a mumblecore (I really do hate that term, but it identifies a type of film that's really hard to classify otherwise) film and wondered to yourself, What would happen if these characters actually DID something? On the surface, that might sound like a sarcastic question, but I mean it seriously. One of the things mc (I'm not going to spell it out anymore) does so well is create and facilitate connections with its characters, whether you like them or not. I find myself often genuinely interested and invested in them. The characters spend so much time in a state of being with each other that the audience gets to experience that with them. And everyone has experienced that knowing that comes from just being in someone's presence. Katz is more effective at this in his films, because his characters are quieter and more contemplative, but it may be that I just like them better--contrasted with the Duplasses' characters which are often a bit too self-absorbed for my taste. I still appreciate a Duplass film, but after having seen Katz's, I understand much better why a distinction is made between the two.

So, in Cold Weather, the first half hour or so is spent in traditional mc fashion: we're watching people work and eat dinner and play games sit in silence with each other. We're getting to know our characters much more intimately than lengthy exposition or flashbacks can afford. I read an article that criticized that portion of the film for going on too long, but I can see that only if you're not a fan of that style of storytelling. I, on the other hand, felt it gave me time to connect with Doug and Gail and Carlos so that I not only cared what happened next but had a frame of reference in which to interpret their decisions later on in the film.

Because of this intimate connection with the characters, and because mc dialogue is less scripted and feels more lifelike, when the film took a turn into new genre territory, I was almost unprepared (even if I knew more or less that the mystery was coming). I was still in the typical mc state of mind, and carried into the next part of the film.

I'm not sure if I can express this effectively, but it has to do with the lenses we watch film with. When I'm getting ready to watch a horror film, I put on my horror glasses, so to speak. I get into a specific frame of mind that has to do with the expectations I have for a film, particularly genre films. They all have a different feel to them, you know? I put on my arty film glasses or my drama glasses or my Kubrick glasses. It's why I don't read about films before watching them if I can help it. I like being surprised. And while I knew Cold Weather was a mystery, or involved a mystery, I didn't know the specifics and couldn't really put my mc glasses and my mystery glasses on at the same time because it was just too dark. So here' the fascinating part: I put on my mc glasses because that's what I'm used to from Katz, so for the whole last hour of the film I'm watching a mystery with my mumblecore glasses on. I'm sure I'll get teased  for that statement but the truth is that it was an incredible experience. We put on and take off our different film-watching glasses unconsciously, and it's almost impossible to go into a film without knowing anything at all about it (how weird would that be?), so it's almost impossible to view a film in a genre through the lens of another. You really need help from a director like Katz, who can get you set in a certain frame of mind and then turn the tables on you before you get a chance to change those glasses. And it's not like the film changes completely once the mystery is introduced; we watch Doug and Gail throwing grapes off the top of a building and talking about going on a date right in the middle of our mystery. Or sitting in a car at a stakeout eating Swedish Fish (with a Dragon tattoo?) talking about ex-boyfirends. This is mc behavior, not mystery movie behavior. You don't want to take off your mc glasses because at its heart, Cold Weather is still an mc film.

So what does it mean that I'm watching a mystery with mc glasses? It means that rather than thinking about the plot and what's going to happen next, I'm thinking about the characters and how and why they respond to the events of the film the way they do. I believe that Drive, for example, attempts to do this, but we have our action film glasses on, and the style and pace of the film encourages us to keep them on, so the characters seem more distant and unreal. In Cold Weather, it could be me in that car with the briefcase of money, or me slashing somebody's tires. I mean, Doug doesn't think to do that until he's outside running for his sister's car. This is real people behavior. He's waiting for his sister at the restaurant and he gets out of the car because she's taking too long. Again, real people do these things. Ryan Gosling never gets out of the car. It's because he's a character in a movie, not a real person. He's an archetype. But Doug is an ordinary guy who didn't finish school and works at an ice factory who has this unexpected opportunity to apply what he knows to his circumstances. It's kind of like when that weird hobby you have comes in handy in a way you never thought it would. Granted, Doug wants to be a detective, but in that typical twenty-something way, wanting to do something may just as easily mean thinking you're supposed to want to do something. Forensic science is not really relevant to his life at this stage. But in a situation where he (and we) least expects it, he is called upon to use this knowledge where he wouldn't have ordinarily thought he'd need to. Just like all the rest of us.

I also loved the ending. Staying true to mc parameters, we're not told very much about what's actually going on between Rachel and the guy with the cowboy hat, who he is or why he wants the money or what the money's for or who ultimately is going to get it. Details like this are secondary to being with our main characters in their present situation.

You know it's funny, because ultimately I think that Drive is also character-driven, though Driver is the only character that's really fleshed out in any way. But it's a totally different film. I think it really must come down to the glasses we're wearing, eh?

I hope Katz continues in this vein, but, honestly, now that we know he's capable of this sort of thing, I'll just put on my Katz glasses beforehand. It's gotta be tough to be a director in the critical eye. Anything you do now becomes what you do and so you have to go beyond it in successive films. I'm sure Micahel Bay doesn't have that problem. Regardless, watching Cold Weather was one of the most unique filmwatching experiences I think I've had. I loved it.

Incidentally, Jeffrey, I think you're right about Driver being a killer. He's clearly a professional and the incident in the elevator reveals definitively to the audience that darker side. It's true what they say that even a fool is considered wise until he opens his mouth. Or kicks somebody's skull in.

Waiting in the getaway car:

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