Bright Lights Film Journal

Pretend We’re Dead: The 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival (July 30-Aug. 16)

Screenshot from Larry Clark's The Smell of Us

How radically mundane can things get?

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Doing Nothing, Really Well

At her workshops in New York, the renowned screenwriter Yvette Biro asks students to come up with “the most boring story ever told.” Not merely dull, the tale must be “profoundly boring” and filled with platitudes: a reversal of the rules by which drama is created. According to Biro, this exercise energizes the class: asked to write in a monotone, everyone gets perversely excited.

When creativity is banned, the air crackles with ideas: instantly, a blank page seems full of potential. Relieved of the burden of being interesting, the writer is freed from unnecessary contrivance. All of the variety and complexity we normally strive for are forbidden, yet they invariably find their way back into the script. Biro’s task is one of those devices that just works, like some mysteriously effective exercise on the piano. Students learn to put aside nagging ideas about tone, intrigue, and suspense – all of which can be saved, for a later day.

How radically mundane can things get? This year, the Melbourne International Film Festival announced that it was going to screen the entire season of HBO’s The Boring Life of Jacqueline, as part of a retrospective on director Sebastian Silva. Lacking the attention span to watch ten episodes online, I felt thrilled. It’s not often that TV presents boredom as its goal, with plot and character development seen as gratuitous.

In fact, The Boring Life of Jacqueline is a celebration of tedium writ large. An out-of-work actress (Jaclyn Jonet) spends time in her apartment, thinking thoughts of no particular interest. Her aspirations are the usual ones: fame, having a desirable boyfriend, and sticking to a diet. Flashbacks and fantasies involve body issues and weight. There is some of the stylish monotony familiar from arthouse cinema: routine scenes of eating, sleeping, urinating. Sometimes there are even “events,” such as the odd audition or a celebrity sighting. But overall, Silva stays true to his vision of the unexceptional: we feel the drone of dailyness as the camera watches Jacqueline, lying around in the same old pajamas, eating cereal.

Jacqueline’s days consist of small, frantic gestures alternated with big globs of nothingness. Gradually, we see how much of life is taken up by stuff that is rarely talked about: seeming fun on Facebook, regretting poor shopping decisions, being needy in friendships rather than affairs. A great deal of time is spent on social media: the camera keeps us poised, hovering, as Jacqueline decides how many smiley faces to add to a “casual” message. It’s a science of the underwhelming, but Silva gives space and significance to every choice involving presentation of self. If you want to appear jubilant but ironic, what is the correct number of exclamation points? Are the wittiest Tweets depressingly thought-out?

By TV standards, this show has a peculiarly flat affect. Tiny movements loom incongruously large – an effect magnified in the cinema – and the protagonist and camera are fixed in attitudes of waiting. The dominant image is of a blank Facebook box, waiting to be filled: “What’s on your mind?” Most of the time, the answer is: whatever’s around. In front of the computer, at least, one’s head gets emptied: Jacqueline becomes a creature of sudden whims and no pre-existing preferences.

Screenshot from The Boring Life of Jacqueline

Yet the whole series is somehow riveting: exhilaratingly loose, with its lack of overarching story. By assuming boredom as its default mood, the show makes any point of interest seem comically exaggerated. A change of heart about breakfast sends the camera into a tailspin; a spilled make-up case has us sprawling on the floor. Images on TV tend to be either clean and precise or artfully blurred. But The Boring Life of Jacqueline looks eerie and sloppy, with its big, deflated shapes and the lack of tension between them.

Most dramas tax us by advancing relationships and plotlines, portraying a depth of personality that can seem contrived. People evolve, without reflecting on the nature of their event-packed lives. By contrast, this show has a protagonist who is always taking her emotional temperature – which never changes.

This flatline mood is refreshing for TV: who needs to go on a “journey” with yet more characters? And yet, despite the best efforts of the script, Silva ensures that we become engrossed with the textures of ordinary life: Jacqueline’s consumer habits, her unimaginatively furnished apartment, the epic hesitations over minor social exchanges. In that, he treats boredom as a constant source of rejuvenation.

Dead to the World

Do you remember that Saturday Night Live skit about “narcoleptic hunks”: handsome, eligible bachelors who fall asleep at the drop of a hat? This was ’90s comedy at its peak, where the likes of Phil Hartman would nod off while discussing their version of a perfect date. These men seemed ideal, albeit unconscious most of the time.

Sleep has a strange power on film – see, for instance, Anna Kannava’s Dreams for Life (2004), in which reclining bodies give off an irresistible charge. Another Australian film, Julia Leigh’s extraordinary Sleeping Beauty (2011), shows men who are connoisseurs of sleep rather than sex – they will pay for the pleasure of simply lying next to someone.

A great film of plain beauty, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor is about guys who doze off: during lunch, at the movies, while talking about their passions. At a clinic in the Isan region of Thailand, Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) cares for a group of soldiers suffering from narcolepsy. They lie in rows of beds surrounded by green lights, temporarily serene.

What will it take to rouse this silent army from the dead – and who knows what disordered dreams of war they are experiencing? Jenjira begins to project emotions onto her patients, especially a good-looking officer named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi). Flat on his back, Itt appears to be the strong, silent type: like a drowsy lion, with hands and feet trustingly outstretched. Sleeping people look soulful: sweetly obedient, but with an unlimited potential for action. For others, sleep also provides a good opportunity to pry secrets out of the dreamer: psychics and nurses are asked to extract details about money, housekeeping, and fidelity, as well as past lives and espionage.

Everyone here speaks in low, soothing tones in order not to wake the soldiers. This gives the film a radiant calm – much of the dialogue is murmured, so that we become hypnotized by the lapping waves of small talk, the whir of electric fans, and the cat-like slumber of the men. Jenjira and her colleagues perform very delicate gestures: feeding, cleaning, and stretching the bodies with great care. The film takes on the rhythm of these healing and cooling sounds, with our perceptions hazed by the soft glow of lamps and the wreaths of mosquito nets.

With all the talk of former lives – and an astonishing scene in which two goddesses casually come down to earth – the body appears to be the site of multiple positions and time frames. The clinic is seen as a palace of dreams, in which the battles of Isan warriors are mentally restaged. While the army sleeps, a war is being fought, but whether it takes place in the past or future is unknown.

Screenshot from Cemetery of Splendour

This is a tremendously graceful movie – it is part of a spate of recent films, including The Tree of Life (2011) and Mundane History (2009), that link everyday acts with the epic movements of history. But compared to those two films, which depict the vastness of space and time, Cemetery of Splendor seems very unaffected, rooted in the commonplace. In one of the most beautiful shots, we watch the drift of two long escalators up to a cinema in a mall. The steady, meditative glide toward an upstairs chamber resembles the process of falling asleep – in fact, Itt does need to be carried out of the theater after snoozing. For Weerasethakul, it is this kind of low-key image that connects the mundane with dreams.

In Praise of Blandness

In his first three films, Andrew Bujalski sketched out a micro-world: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005) uncovered the small, quick calculations and power plays that underlie relations between friends. Nothing much “happened,” other than the observation of strategy behind humor and small talk. But his newest work, Results, is different – it is Bujalski’s first film to be set in the land of events and forward momentum. Its lead characters are not slackers but hard-bodied perfectionists with snappy lines. Trevor (Guy Pearce) and Kat (Cobie Smulders) are personal trainers, models of energy and drive beside their all-too-human clients – especially Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a wealthy, overweight man in a funk. The trainers encourage Danny to adopt a results-based approach to life: to stop reflecting and start embracing society’s standards, such as they are. This might be a message to all of Bujalski’s previous characters: the ’90s are over, underachieving is no longer charming, and tangible success is what’s needed. Go get some trophies.

Trevor, Kat, and Danny don’t mesh, or have any real reason to be together – and to Bujalski’s credit, he doesn’t force growth or chemistry. In this, Results has some similarities to James L Brooks’ wonderful How Do You Know (2010), with its sense of huge space and minimal plot between emotionally stranded characters. But in shifting to the world of streamlined bodies and on-point marketing, I feel that Bujalski’s scripts have lost some of their fragile magic. I found it hard to keep my eyes on Corrigan, while the references to Kat’s rarely seen “dark side” seem like token efforts to beef up the female lead. These people lack mystery, yet there is nothing radical about their flatness. If anything, Results could stand to be a little more boring – it is hard to tell if the generic modeling of the characters is deliberate.

MIFF presented a retrospective for brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, directors specializing in rough-hewn films set in New York. Their latest, Heaven Knows What, has an intriguing use of sound: a synth score by Isao Tomita is used to aurally pierce and perforate the images we see. This keeps us on pins and needles, even during seemingly routine shots. The music sticks metallic spikes into soft-focus outdoor scenes; it creates patterns of build-up and comedown that confuse our vision.

Harley (Arielle Holmes) is a drug addict in an unstable relationship, bouncing around the city in search of a roof and a fix. As in their previous film, Go Get Some Rosemary (2009), the Safdies hook up their camera to a jittery person, and then disconnect that sensibility from any one character. The result is a roving lens that keeps dashing against objects: a freckled face, a particularly compelling nose bridge. We feel as if we are tripping along with Harley, lurching from scene to scene.

Heaven Knows What is a barrage of arresting effects, which are not yet a distinctive style – the overwhelming feeling is of nostalgia for Cassavetes-era Manhattan. Like Cassavetes, the Safdies’ preference is for big-gesturing characters with tall tales, people who impose their bodies and mannerisms on us. There are some original touches, including a shot where Harley’s face looks as if it is being repeatedly slapped by light. But for now, their films still feel like homages to a period: the desaturated color comes across as a ’70s signifier, rather than generating new meanings.

Carried Away

Larry Clark is the king of bland beauty in adolescence. Bully (2001) was a spring awakening: a film about gorgeous, complacent youth and the full taste of its own power. Clark’s teenagers are scowling bombshells, with rose lips and pale eyes, and no mercy for the middle-aged – who can’t help seeming pathetic by contrast.

Other than its Parisian setting, The Smell of Us is familiar: a group of restless kids trade on their looks by working as rent boys for older clients. One boy is able to tune out while his johns get off, although others find the experience of paid sex harder to shake. All appear headed for burn-out – yet, from their perspective, that is far better than aging. The adults in this film have a desiccating touch – they seem to have grown old on purpose, to irritate or corrupt others, and their idea of sex is to ape the poses of youth.

However, for the first time, Clark’s work lacks energy and surprises. Once again we have the Botticelli boy whose assurance masks inner conflict, while the female lead is a Bijou Phillips type: a lipstick Lolita, her fresh face harshly made up. In the past, Clark has excelled in comparing his characters to models of classical beauty, but that motif is exhausted in this film. There are too many close-ups of limpid, cherubic bodies, overemphasizing the link with fine art. Pixilation is used to create mosaic effects that are lovely but very self-conscious. The pairing of jazz standards with bare buttocks is particularly unconvincing.

Sex may contain a certain amount of preening, especially where social media is involved, but the nudity here seems played up for delectation – less like teen exhibitionism than an attempt to tweak a shockable arthouse audience. For every inspired scene there is a fatuous depiction of what it’s like to be young and spirited, à la Sofia Coppola. Coppola, along with François Ozon and Pedro Almodovar, seems intent on using younger and younger bodies these days. Not a problem in itself, but are they really so interested in jeune et jolie, or is it just that vieille and laide are unmarketable? Clark is not in that category yet – but with this film, he risks becoming predictable.

We know what to expect from a Hong Sang-soo film: exquisitely nuanced banality, enhanced by maddening repetition. Yet somehow, the formula never gets old: the films get more brilliantly assured and condensed. We want to see more shifty men and tactically vague women negotiating a maze of affairs. Mori (Ryo Kase), the protagonist of Hill of Freedom, is less placidly self-deceiving than most of Hong’s men, although it may not be a coincidence that he spends a lot of time asleep. A Japanese visitor in Seoul, he refuses to generalize about ethnicity (very unusual in Hong), and he is, for the most part, a true-hearted lover, looking for a woman he considers a paragon of wisdom. However, he often speaks generically, due to language limitations as well as local mores.

In Hong, everyone tends to exchange rote pleasantries (“It’s great.” “You look very nice.”). When misunderstandings occur, one resorts to agreeing out of politeness or confusion. Conversational passion is meaningless, whether it involves sudden professions of friendship or fury at a perceived slight. This is especially the case in Hill of Freedom, where several characters speak in their second tongue, and even carefully worded comments fail to hit a mark. People give sage meditations on what others must be feeling, based on very little evidence; they take offence to bald-sounding remarks, since they have no ability to read visual cues. Mori finds it hard to communicate: not only because he is foreign, but because the locals doubt whether he is sufficiently Japanese. In particular, pronouncements about human nature and the world have no content. However, even when working with these blunt tools (and language is definitely a weapon here), Mori manages to make his sense of alienation apparent.

If you are a character in Hong, beware the director’s famous forensic close-up: the “what are you really thinking?” zoom. The camera checks in at unexpected moments, probing and insinuating, hoping to catch a glimpse of bad faith. Anyone can be cornered into what looks like a sly admission of guilt. When Mori sleeps with a woman who is not his ideal, the camera examines their faces closely post-sex, as if to say, “Is this afterglow for real?” Mori is scrutinized for traces of insincerity, while his partner may be guilty of playing her emotions up a notch, in order to secure a commitment. The intensity doesn’t break after the expected declaration of “I love you,” which Mori politely reciprocates.

Given the tangle of relationships, the only way that love can occur is through wish fulfilment – as in Eric Rohmer, dreams can come true, but only by extraordinary chance. The film’s ending is magically bifurcated, leaving two fictional options open. One is to live the fantasy, a notion that is both daring and comforting. The other is to go back to sleep.