“The notion that four nineteen-year-olds pledge to kill themselves if they, in essence, grow up, and then having grown up discover that adult life is nothing but misery and so are bound to follow through with the pledge, is … absurd? distasteful? callow? gauche? ridiculous? At the same time, it’s the primary element that gives the film its allure. To see an idea like this carried forward in a serious, non-ironic way is remarkable.”
One of my personal objects of fascination is the movie in which achievement and failure are deeply blended. I’m sometimes tempted to think that these are the movies from which we learn the most about the workings of the art form, and the most about the categories of artistic achievement and failure themselves. Bad movies can be instructive, but usually only in terms of the negative; true masterpieces can feel as though there is no way to break them down and look inside, as though they have such a perfect unity that the most we can do is point and say: “There it is, just watch it.” But the beautifully flawed movie possesses something different: call it the charisma of the attempt, or the magnetism of belief, or a purity of world view. Movies that trade in camp, as well as many so-called cult classics, often exhibit a strong element of this. They are brilliant in respects, yet hobbled, or overwrought, or simply too idiosyncratic; in many cases the brilliance is exactly the source of the flaw.
Little seen and much maligned, Mark Pellington’s I Melt with You is one of these movies. To talk about it, I will eventually have to give away one of the things that makes it so fascinating: a plot turn that sends the second half off into a remarkably strange direction. This will, of course, spoil the film if you haven’t seen it. As an over-the-top attempt that runs at two hours, and as a film that made a number of critics’ “Worst of 2011” lists, I’m not exactly recommending that you do see it, although I think you probably should; before I talk about the plot turn I’ll try to lay out, at least in part, some of the reasons for this.
First, the basics of the first half of the film. Four old college friends, now in their forties – Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, and Christian McKay – get together once a year for a reunion. These reunions are focused on drinking, ingesting enormous amounts of drugs, and renewing the bonds of friendship. This year, each man’s life has reached a nadir. Lowe is a divorced doctor whose practice consists of little more than selling prescription pills to rich, horrible women; Piven is an investment guy who is about to be indicted for fraud on a massive scale; Jane is a failed fiction writer now working as a high school English teacher; McKay has never gotten over causing the death of his sister and his boyfriend in a car accident several years ago. In the opening hour of the movie they rent a house on the coast, party, reminisce, and try to prevent themselves from sinking into melancholic reflections about their lives. The tone is dark and debauched enough that we suspect something is coming in the second half – perhaps a death, or a series of breakdowns in the friendships – but we’re not sure what.
There are some real strengths in this. The acting is exceptional, and fully committed. In a way that doesn’t get discussed much in the representation of friendship, the actors have a real chemistry. This allows the film to build a dynamic that is difficult to get right in representations of groups of men: the entire group has an internal relationship, meaning that its members act differently with one another than they do in the other parts of their lives; at the same time, there are clearly individual relationships between the group members. The writing in this regard is sharp, accurate, and feels unconstructed. (This is in the exact inverse of the way that what we might call the Apatow school of male dialogue, with its long strings of stagey back and forth, feels like a construction.) The believability of this central matrix of relationships gives the film a certain charisma and a certain emotional force.
The other noteworthy aspect of the film is Pellington’s direction. To say that, visually, the film at times resembles a music video, or a clothing commercial in which super-hip people do super-hip things, is not to make a judgment but to acknowledge a fact. The film’s governing approach is the attempt for a certain kind of beautiful shot pregnant with meaning that we’ve come to associate with these genres. Pellington is very good at constructing this aesthetic, and it gives the movie a certain allure. He has a wonderful eye, and an ability not simply to find an evocative shot, but to use it to drive emotion. As might be expected from the quality of this aesthetic (and the fact that Pellington cut his teeth as a director of music videos), the soundtrack is also excellent: it features a mix of punk and post-punk, and is nearly ever-present. But it’s in the profusion of these beautiful elements, their almost assaultive force, that the problems of the film come to the fore.
You are probably ahead of me by now, but let me make apparent what I haven’t yet said openly: the film is adept at projecting certain kinds of raw force – of friendship, of charisma, of the emotive power of image and music – and it’s able to do this because it has a an absolute, and almost touching belief in the value of that force. To put it differently: if you have sensed that the film is slightly – or quite a bit, depending on your view of these things – overdone, you’re right. From the beginning, it rides the bathetic line. The opening sequence features a flashing list of written descriptions of aging male insecurity – SHE LEFT ME, I’M JUST LIKE MY FATHER, I’M NOTHING LIKE HIM, MY KIDS NEED ME, I’M LOSING MY HAIR. In one scene, subtitles for dialogue spoken in English make an appearance, and there is another scene in which one of the characters glances down, notices the camera (meaning us, the viewers), and blows cigarette smoke onto it. Is there a cogent reading for all of this? Perhaps there is; one element of the soundtrack is an interview in which Johnny Rotten proclaims that the goal of his band was to put to death a decadent art form. But even given a generous reading, we are definitely standing at the border between technical cool and frivolous overuse. And this is even before we’ve reached the turn that sends us into the second half of the movie. Which it’s time to talk about.
After the third night of partying, McKay, the man who killed his boyfriend and his sister in the car wreck, hangs himself in the shower with a belt. He leaves a note, which it turns out is a note they all wrote together, and signed in blood, when they were in college. The exact contents of the note are only slowly revealed, but we eventually discover that it’s a declaration of youth at all costs. As college kids, they pledged that if they ever forgot the feeling of being young – the friendship, the energy, the belief – they would all kill themselves, together. Now their lives are in disarray, as if exactly what they feared has come to pass. They’ve forgotten what life means, and in that forgetting have failed, deeply and absolutely, to become the people they wanted to be. So, one by one, through the second half of the movie, the other three friends kill themselves as well.
This is in some sense an unmistakably juvenile premise, but what’s fascinating about the film is the absolute conviction with which it is played out. After McKay kills himself, the feeling of the movie is one of men coming to grips with something they are foreordained to do, regardless of their desires. The final one to kill himself is driven almost to the point of madness by the inevitability of the situation. This sincerity of belief, this grandiosity, lays the film open to ridicule: the notion that four nineteen-year-olds pledge to kill themselves if they, in essence, grow up, and then having grown up discover that adult life is nothing but misery and so are bound to follow through with the pledge, is … absurd? distasteful? callow? gauche? ridiculous? At the same time, it’s the primary element that gives the film its allure. To see an idea like this carried forward in a serious, non-ironic way is remarkable.
What’s at play here, I think, is the question of filmic force. To what extent can a film be carried simply on blunt emotive power? Pellington excels, as I’ve indicated, in generating a type of emotional intensity, and the premise of the movie embodies this ability in exactly the way the visuals do. In both its technical and its narrative construction, the movie believes in the absolute compulsion of the intense feeling of existence. This is the basis for its reliance on emotively striking images; it’s also the basis for the narrative conceit that the bond of shared euphoric experience is enough to force a group of men to commit communal suicide. And it is exactly this intensity, and belief in intensity, that pushes the film into its excesses.
The montages set to cool songs, the bonding, the partying, the camaraderie – these are all winningly imagined. And the movie knows that there have to be smaller, more intimate moments to balance them out. But, with a few notable exceptions, these moments utterly fail. And they fail for the same reason the successful moments succeed. So, for example, a successful bonding scene: on the first night of the bacchanal, Rob Lowe (the doctor), is prodded into telling a story by Thomas Jane (the English teacher). The story he tells, it appears, is one that only Jane among the friends is aware of: it involves Lowe anesthetizing an attractive female patient, getting her onto the exam table, and then … at this moment Lowe cracks, and we realize the whole story has been an improvisation with Jane, to send up the other two friends. This sequence works, because it’s believable in character terms and because it’s a canny bit of storytelling: by this point, the audience has begun to sense some dark turn coming and is fooled in exactly the way Piven and McKay are. But it also relies almost entirely on charisma and bravado, the feel-good backslapping of camaraderie, and on the broadly constructed force of these things.
This success highlights the failure of a later scene, in which McKay asks Jane why he’s never gotten married. They are alone and relatively sober; it’s the kind of moment of quiet intimacy the film needs for balance. It’s also the kind of moment that is essential if we’re going to have rounded characters. But Jane’s reply is that he can’t love just one woman because he loves them all, and that he’s afraid of what a woman will think if she ever really gets to know him. Behind the fatal weakness and cliché of the dialogue lies a deeper problem: the film does not believe in subtlety or depth of character. The men are instead imagined as examples of pure tragic charisma, each with a single major issue in his life. They are reduced to polar beings. Because of this, when the film raises a question of true and complex human emotion – why has Jane never married – it isn’t able to offer a true and complex human answer. It’s trapped by its own faith in the force of sentiment, of grandiosity, and falls into melodrama.
Each of the main characters is created in the same, repetitive way. McKay has the great ability to love but has caused the death of his lover; Jane had the ambition to change the world through literature but has failed absolutely in that ambition; Lowe had ambition to change the world through medicine and failed; Piven had the overriding desire to make money so he could support his family and was eventually forced to steal to do so. That the characters do not come off as ridiculous from the opening is a testament to the skill of the actors; the larger point is that, inasmuch as they succeed in humanizing their characters, the actors are working against their own film. They want to play these men as complex humans with interior lives; the film wants to reduce them to polar beings of ambition and failure in the belief that there is something true and forceful and charismatic in this simplification.
This issue with character is directly analogous to the failure that emerges from Pellington’s technique. (Throughout the essay I have been, of course, conflating Pellington and cinematographer Eric Schmidt when I talk about the camera work.) The quality of Pellington’s eye allows the film to capture, many times, arresting images that aid, or magnify, or ironicize the euphoria or disintegration of the characters. At the same time, however, there are more than a few moments when this ability pushes itself over into an obsession with affect.
This becomes clear when, twenty minutes in, the film introduces a sheriff who will eventually begin to investigate the disappearances of the friends. This is a plot line that, along with much of the rest of the film, combines measures of the good (it creates, or brings to light, a strand of very dark comedy) and the ridiculous (it is, in some sense, a bald plot device created to inject an element of tension into the proceedings). Here is how the sheriff is introduced. We cut from the closing scene of debauchery on the first night to a sunny long shot of the coast the next morning. We pan slowly across the landscape, with the sound of wind becoming audible, to find the sheriff leaning on a fence gazing out over the coastline. We slowly close in on her face. She is watchful, expectant. We then cut back to the men and don’t see the sheriff again for almost an hour of screen time. Here is technique put to silly ends. The shot is full of portent. It has a certain force, and we move out of it feeling that some vital new element has been introduced. Reflecting on the film, we realize that the shot has a narrative purpose: Pellington felt he had to introduce the sheriff so that when she does appear again, in the wake of the first suicide, she’s not coming out of nowhere. But instead of figuring out a way to do it that didn’t involve an attempt at a grand, beautiful image, he just went for the grand, beautiful image. The result is the kind of moment – portentousness falling into ridiculousness – that draws laughter from audiences who know it’s coming. That is, Pellington’s ability to create visual force so far outstripped his ability to coherently use that force in the scene that it undercuts the larger work. And, as with the failed human moments, this is not a single occurrence – it happens enough that it becomes a constituent element of the film itself.
In the end, how ought we to judge a movie like this one? It is a question that lingers behind all of our talk of cult classics and flawed gems, as well as our (perhaps necessary) reliance on punchy reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores. It’s also a question to which everyone will have their own answer. For me, the beginning of the answer lies in the degree to which a film gets something right. This is an old artists’ refrain, and rightness here has nothing to do with some accordance with reality. Is has instead to do with, in the words of the art historian E.H. Gombrich, the degree to which an artist “has achieved something to which nothing could be added … an example of perfection in our very imperfect world.” It is a certain feeling of harmony, a coherence that seems to reach beyond the constituent parts. For all its flaws, there is an element of I Melt with You that rings in this way. There is something rightly arranged in the consistency of its approach. There is something perfect and unified in its belief. Its flaws arise from of this unity, rather than despite it.
There is also a deep honesty in the movie. Its overextended technical achievement is something of a rebuttal to a filmic world in which, from indie filmmakers to Michael Bay, technical visual prowess is seen as hard currency. There is an element in Pellington’s film that begins to explore, intentionally or not, the degree to which the control of this currency can be damning. The film pushes into the open what so many of our other films desperately believe but will not admit: life is youth, and youth is force, charisma, a splendidly imagined party; the ability to project and experience these things is the most valuable possession in the world, and when you lose that you might as well just kill yourself.