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Washtenaw Flaneurade
13 December 2007
Extroverted Suicides
Now Playing: Thin Lizzy--"Whiskey in the Jar"

God, that song's so fucking cool.

 Mutual Appreciation (2005):

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Ummm... I have eyeshadow."

By all rights, Mutual Appreciation should have annoyed the living crap out of me. Focusing on three hyper-articulate young people living in New York City (Brooklyn, from the credits), it tells the story of Alan (Vincent Rice), a musician trying to make it big there after relocating from Boston, and the effect his decisions have on his friend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski, who also wrote and directed) and the latter's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Filmed in grainy black-and-white with a presumably handheld camera (it certainly looked like it), Mutual Appreciation had "twee indie nightmare" spraypainted all over its smug wine-and-latte-stained mush. On the back of the DVD case, Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly declares that "Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation." Turns out, though, that he probably is, and Thoth help us all. Fortunately for me, against all odds, I rather enjoyed it. Mutual Appreciation is one of those movies, like Miranda July's Me And You And Everyone We Know of the same year, that just manage to stop death-defyingly short of some artistic precipice leading directly to talky, "quirky" hipster cinematic hell (in the liner notes, Bujalski fantasizes in the form of kids' book drawings about July turning into a waffle at a film festival--because he likes her, I hasten to add). Those are actually the only two I can remember, but hopefully there are others out there, so that I don't have to continually console myself with flicks that predate me. Alan moves to Brooklyn, has a few abortive romantic encounters with DJ Sara (Seung-Min Lee), comes between Lawrence and Ellie in a number of ways, plays his songs, and acts not quite enough like a chode to be aggressively unsympathetic (although in a couple of scenes, he actually looks like an aroused koala, which I thought awesome). For my money, the central joke of the movie is that Alan's stuff (apparently written by Rice), despite the strained quasi-English accent, is actually very good--it would have been so easy to make him a delusional hack. Rice himself is one of the founding members of Boston band Bishop Allen, some of whose songs feature in the movie, apparently, and who I should definitely investigate. The leads are terrific (Bujalski and Clift, despite their characters' problems, make a lovely and realistically endearing couple), and Bujalski nails urban (or "rural," for that matter) hipster dialogue with squirm-inducing accuracy. It never gets irritating, though, only one catchphrase managing to make my skin crawl, and that for relatively unrelated reasons. Bujalski himself will be someone to watch in future (I'll make it my business to catch his 2003 picture Funny Ha Ha, also including himself and Rice), particularly since he had the stroke of genius (I'm guessing it was his decision, anyway) to put the cast and crew's parents on the DVD commentary instead of, say, himself and one of the lead actors or the cinematographer. That way, instead of getting all this snarky, self-referential stuff about songs and music and performance pieces and pop culture, you actually hear people unfamiliar with the world shown trying to make sense of it, particularly in the context of their own experiences as teenagers or young adults. Like the movie itself, it could have been a cheap exercise in cutesy "ironic" mockery ("heh, they just didn't get it"), but it happily doesn't turn out that way. Some, of course, did say they just didn't understand. Some said they just didn't like the movie itself (as I was almost one of these, I had a great deal of sympathy, if not agreement--and dear God, how often do you hear that on a DVD commentary?). Some understandably fawn all over their kids (you can tell how proud they are, even if they don't "get" it). Others (it somehow helps that you usually don't know which parents these are--only a couple identify themselves for certain) make a fair number of extremely incisive comments about the nature of the relationships, the characters, the structure of the movie, Alan's hair, and even technical matters like sound and cinematography (one minor actor's father had the same issues I did with the occasional and--if intended--pointless lack of focus in certain shots). It was a real trip watching the movie bare and then with commentary, for once genuinely like watching two different flicks. Mutual Appreciation is one to investigate, and one I can safely say for people of all ages.

Nashville (1975): One of the great American classics, and one I've shockingly avoided throughout my checkered career as a cineaste (Do the Right Thing and Raging Bull were two other--until recently--inexplicable exceptions, all the more inexplicable as I believe Lee and Scorsese to be exactly as good as advertised). My problem is that I find Altman incredibly overated. M.A.S.H. (1970) is probably the centerpiece in my conviction, and Short Cuts (1993), though handicapped at any rate by its swollen length, ran hot and cold (mostly cold). Cookie's Fortune (1998)--okay, Cookie's Fortune??? I have The Long Goodbye (1973) at home on VHS, and still haven't watched it due to a lingering dread. Fortunately, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was fantastic (if draining), 3 Women (1977) was one of the most genuinely hallucinatory movies I've ever seen, and I found myself thoroughly engrossed by Tanner '88 (1988), a mockumentary cooked up by Altman and Doonesbury writer Garry Trudeau covering a minor congressman's campaign for President--the sequel, Tanner on Tanner (2004), again featuring Cynthia Nixon as Tanner's daughter, wasn't quite as good but still well worth a look. All these eventually convinced me to give Nashville a try. Considered by most (if I'm not mistaken) as Altman's masterpiece, Nashville looks at a wide array of characters taking part in the events leading up to a fateful political rally--this being Nashville, many involving the country-western music world of the period. It's hard to summarize the plot and the characters except with that sentence. The cast list is daunting--Keith Carradine (who won an Oscar for his song "I'm Easy"), Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Keenan Wynn (really some of his best work, but I still found myself suddenly wanting to watch Shack Out on 101), Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn, Elliott Gould and Julie Christie in minor roles as themselves, and a couple of my personal favorites, Barbara Harris and frequent Altman performer, Tanner star Michael Murphy (again playing a mildly shady political type). Even more interesting were people I didn't know that well--Robert Doqui, Gwen Welles, and especially country singer and occasional Bob Dylan muse Ronee Blakely as a fragile, unstable... country singer who gets caught up in the film's climax. Besides painting an exhaustive portrait of mid-postwar life (Chaplin is funny as a goofy BBC radio journalist trying to make sense of the "real America"), Altman has a number of things to say on the nature of politics and celebrity and what happens when those worlds collide--certainly nothing new, even thirty years ago. For once, I think a movie described as "essential" actually is.

Jason X (2002): Why? you ask. A determination to prove my willingness to watch anything? Something to tell my grandnieces and nephews? I remmber hearing that it would be made, way back when, with a combination of awe and stupefaction (now, when I heard about Saw IV, I was just depressed). I remember well the inimitably derisive tone of my grad school colleague Sean when it was mentioned one day in an Akron bar--"isn't that the one where he's in space?" He is, indeed, and let me tell you, Jason X makes Leprechaun IV: In Space look like Silent Running. Right, so in or around 2000 (the date changes at several points throughout the "plot"), Camp Crystal Lake has been turned into a research facility exclusively devoted to finding out why Jason keeps coming back to life. He manages to escape, slaughters a couple of security guards and the greedy government suit who wants to profit from Jason's regenerative abilities (the latter a cameo of some note in the world of horror--and general--cinema, and, though not one of my favorites, I've always respected him and he really should have known better), delivers a critical wound to Rowan, a gutsy scientist (Lexa Doig, and if that character name's a Wicker Man reference, that just makes it worse), and then accidentally freezes himself and Rowan in the same cryogenic chamber for four centuries (give or take; the movie certainly does). By that point, Earth's been irretrievably poisoned, everyone lives in various interstellar colonies (I imagine; there seems to be little interest in humanity's living situation except to provide plot points), and a scantily-clad-as-the-situation-will-even-remotely-plausibly-permit student archeological expedition unearths Jason and Rowan, with fairly predictable results. Jason X manages to rip off Aliens, Alien: Resurrection, and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock with brio that might be commendable if the movie weren't so stupid (there were a few other sources of "homage," but I lost track). As some of you know, I've got a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing, but Jason X just gets dumber and more obnoxious as it goes along; every time you think it can't plumb yet another depth, it proves you wrong and (probably) laughs at you. I surely doesn't help that I'm not a big splatter fan; excessive gore, more often than not, is just a way to avoid having to work for your chills (unless you're Dario Argento and you're making Suspiria). On these shores, I don't think a lot of directors got the message, particularly the Friday the 13th series' Sean S. Cunningham (who merely produces Jason X--I'll be nice and omit the director's name). Two things make it even worse. The cast is unexpectedly likable in a weird way (the acting varied, but Doig is pretty decent in her role, which made me feel especially bad for her), most unusual for slasher flicks, and it sucks to think of them probably having such a good time only to produce this taintscrape. The script, too, comes well enough after, say, Scream to try and be "ironic" and "witty" in certain passages, which might have worked if the drumrolls weren't so heavy-handed, and some of the funny bits so loathsome, and, dare I say, if the movie weren't about Jason being unfrozen four hundred years later on a fucking spaceship. It's even sadder when you consider that Joss Whedon was making Firefly that year. The best thing I can say about Jason X is to crib the marvelous Leonard Maltin summation of 1986's Iron Eagle, with Lou Gossett, Jr. and Jason Gedrick: "Not boring, just stupid." 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:54 PM EST
Updated: 13 December 2007 9:32 AM EST
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