New Pollution #1: All Features Great and Small
Introduction • I'm Thinking of Ending Things • She Dies Tomorrow
Why "New Pollution"? In part from having Beck on the brain after a beach day re-listen of Odelay. The rest because I like the idea of "New Releases" (and I plan on stretching the term) as contaminants to sift through and refine via critique. I've long loved the wrap-up columns, circa the '30s and '40s, of Otis Ferguson in The New Republic and James Agee in The Nation, and wanted to try my hand at something similar and sustained. So this is that. Though given my generally erratic creative drive, I won't commit to any concrete schedule. Experience has taught me that some days/weeks/months are more prolific than others. Also, not everything need, nor should, be written about. Though as an ethos, I tend toward unattainable completism. It's a fun way to live, knowing you'll never get where you want to go and forging ahead anyway. Last thing: I'll be considering motion picture art of all stripes — theatrical, televisual, gallery. All features great and small. Shorts, too. And series. And forms that, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, don't exist yet. In such matters, I prefer not to discriminate, or differentiate (too much, anyway — as an aesthetic catch-all, I quite like Amy Taubin's descriptor, "lens-based"). You, however, do you. I'm not out to convince. Just, maybe, entertain and edify. Thanks for reading.
No fan of Charlie Kaufman's tormented burlesques, I was pleasantly surprised that I'm Thinking of Ending Things clicked near-instantly into place. Might be my soft spot for muse stories: It was clear from the start that Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his multi-monikered girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) were subconscious projections of the aged school janitor-cum-frustrated creative (Guy Boyd) who appears infrequently throughout. Jake and his gal are dramatis personae in embryo, identity- and ideology-shifting stars of a similarly slippery work of art (an imploding-relationship drama; a meet-the-parents farce; a Beckett-like journey through a wintry hellscape) that will never be seen. Though it is, paradoxically, being seen by us.
Kaufman's film is not unlike a mo-pic rendering of Edward Albee's creative process, which he described thusly in Interview: "I conduct an experiment to find out how well I know my characters. I will take a walk on the beach and think up some situation that can’t be in the play that I’m planning to write, and for a half hour or so I’ll walk around with my characters, making them improvise dialogue for that situation. And if I can see and hear them existing three-dimensionally in an improvised situation, that indicates to me I probably know them fairly well, and maybe I can trust them to be in my play."
Kaufman trusts little beyond his own myopic misery, and the further away he got from Being John Malkovich, the more it felt like joy of any sort was leeched from his art. As if even taking pleasure in the creation of an unrelentingly bleak vision (as, say, the Kaufman-comparable Darin Morgan does on The X-Files and Millennium) was a betrayal of some gospel certitude about the human condition. God help the director who makes me long for Michael Haneke. But then, "We're all fucked" is as bullshit a belief to me as "It'll all work out in the end." No. And No. Search for the truth of the matter, if so inclined, in the contradictory spaces conjured by the extremes.
Kaufman hasn't suddenly seen the light with I'm Thinking of Ending Things, but his work here is more open, his collaborators given rein to experiment rather than just slavishly realize his woebegone vision. I particularly responded to how Plemons often resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose blubbering gloominess (his stock in trade) made Synecdoche, New York such a claw-your-eyes-out torture. Jake leans in the same self-pitying direction as Caden Cotard, though Plemons as a performer tends toward a beady-eyed sociopathy that negates the mawkish melancholia and, as a result, unnervingly fucks with our sympathies.
He's matched, if not outdone, by Buckley, whose "character" is much more than the depressive pixie dream girl she initially seems. The actress expertly juggles every conceit Kaufman throws her way, be it a Pauline Kael pan reworked into a fiery meta-monologue, or old age makeup in the Beautiful Mind vein (an intentional reference, apparently) that's so ridiculous it achieves the sublime. A blessing beyond measure that Brie "I'm Proud to Play Mason Weaver in @kongskullislandmovie" Larson dropped out.
Props also to Kaufman for plopping Toni Collete, as the off-her-rocker "Mom" to David Thewlis's Billy Crystal-hating "Dad," in the same frame as an actual sliced ham. Said frames are composed by the terrific Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal, who, as in Ida and Cold War, goes for an often-unbalanced square aspect ratio that is as moment-by-moment unsettling as Robert Frazen's arrhythmic editing (like synapses firing on less-than-all cylinders). All this and an American in Paris-esque climactic ballet, too? I'm Thinking of Ending Things is another Kaufman fable about a nonentity shuffling off this mortal coil, and the first of those close to greatness.
She Dies Tomorrow is like Meshes of the Afternoon as shot in Nic Refn's basement. Not a compliment. Though I liked when James Benning popped up as a menacing leather merchant. I hated when Jane Adams was forced to endure yet another onscreen rejection — this time by hot doc Josh Lucas. (S'ok: Far as I'm concerned, Adams is still off google-eyeing with Miguel Ferrer in Twin Peaks.) And I think writer-director Amy Seimetz did this sort of apocalypse-now?!? anxiousness much better in the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, which is like Belle de Jour as a gangrenous MCU origin story. That is a compliment.