' ' Cinema Romantico: Nights and Weekends & The Guatemalan Handshake

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nights and Weekends & The Guatemalan Handshake

If Marisa Tomei has turned into America's answer to Kate Winslet in the arena of cinematic nudity than it would appear that Greta Garwig has turned into Mumblecore's answer to Marisa Tomei in that same arena. She was fearless in the recent "Greenberg" and in "Nights and Weekends", released two years ago, conceived and directed and mostly improvised by Garwig herself and Joe Swanberg, she is far more fearless. Or crazy.

The film opens with a decidedly unadorned, lengthy sequence in which James (Swanberg) and Mattie (Garwig), a long distance couple - he lives in Chicago, she lives in New York - that only spends random Nights and Weekends together, lay down on the living room floor and in one continuous take remove all their clothes (this is to say: all their clothes) and get freaky. Oh my. Now I'm sure if the DVD contained a director's commentary we would be told at length how this scene symbolizes the film's "naked honesty" or some such thing. But it looked to me like they were simply going for shock value: see this! See how risqué it is! See how "French film" we are!

From there the film presents the downfall of this long distance relationship, arguments between the pair, as often in real life, stemming from the most of trivial of matters and somehow ballooning. She visits him, he visits her and then in the third act - for reasons the film chooses not to reveal - they have already broken up but now James has come to New York City and so they re-unite as friends though clearly they are not over one another.

I saw "Nights and Weekends" not so much because I just recently saw Garwig in Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" but because I've been working my way through the Mumblecore genre. My first encounter with Mumblecore was Aaron Katz's "Quiet City" (2007). Except it wasn't. I had, in fact, already seen two Mumblecore movies but when I saw them I didn't know they were considered Mumblecore. "The Puffy Chair" left me rather underwhelmed and while I enjoyed "In Search Of A Midnight Kiss" to some degree I didn't think it was a particularly special film. But "Quiet City" smacked me upside the head in the way I wish more films would and I was so taken with it that 1.) I named it #9 on my totally personal, highly subjective decade-end list and 2.) Decided to immerse myself in Mumblecore.

I watched the work of Mark & Jay Duplass and Joe Swanberg and I watched "Humpday", which got some positive buzz at the time of its release. Yet with each film I found myself less and less impressed. "Nights and Weekends" left me feeling like I'd been swimming in raw sewage (and no, I didn't love it). Maybe this is because "Nights and Weekends" is specifically about the end of a relationship, which can be so miserable and noxious, and "Quiet City" was about the beginning of a relationship, hope and elation warming the screen. Except it was more than just the premise of each film. The filmmaking of "Nights and Weekends" was less compelling, much rougher around the edges, a sense of clueslessness posing as "low budget" and "faux documentary". Katz's images in "Quiet City" were more painterly (Erin Fisher standing outside the bodega late at night, or the shot of the two of them in the wind on the roof, or the film's closing shots on the train) and suggested a director who truly knew how to use a camera to tell the story with the script as a mere guideline whereas "Nights and Weekends" employed awkward transitions and nudity for "story" and "substance."

But the tipping point arrived with the "award winning" debut of writer/director Todd Rohal, "The Guatemalan Handshake." I use quotation marks not because it didn't actually win an award, because it did, but because I have no idea how it won an award. (Apparently it won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival.)

Rohal's film is about a demolition derby driver named - oh, Christ - Donald Turnupseed who vanishes in the wake of a power outage setting in motion a series of events affecting his pregnant girlfriend, his helplessly car-less father, a pack of wild boy scouts, a lactose intolerant roller rink employee, an elderly woman in search of her lost dog, and his best friend – a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs. Or at least that's the synposis given on Wikipedia. I used it here because as you actually watch the film you don't have any clue what's going on. You don't know who anyone is, where they are, or what they're doing. I hated "Away We Go" because I felt it was trying too damn hard to be QUIRKY. But at least "Away We Go" established a story of some sort. "The Guatemalan Handshake" completely dispenses with story and character in the name of being QUIRKY. It is QUIRKY to the point of mind numbing distraction. After all, a character's name - as established - is Turkeylegs. And another character's name - as established - is Donald Turnupseed. And Donald Turnupseed wears purple socks. "The Guatemalan Handshake" is what happens when filmmakers stop being real and start getting QUIRKY. I had to stop it after 45 minutes. I literally couldn't take it. It was excruciating. Later I realized the moment probably doubled as the one when Mumblecore died in my house.

The filmmakers responsible for the Mumblecore movement have, of course, bristled at the term. I find this hysterical. It's like Coolio getting incensed at Weird Al for spoofing "Gangsta's Paradise" or, even more so, it's like the Boston Celtics' Glen Davis getting upset over his longtime nickname "Big Baby" and asking people to start calling him "Uno Uno" (after his jersey number) instead. What....why....are you....people know you BECAUSE of "Big Baby". Probably more people know you as "Big Baby" than as Glen Davis!!! The only reason people know Mumblecore is, well, because of Mumblecore. The name has allowed the movement to gain traction which has given its "founders" more noteriety than they could have possibly hoped for and, you know, led to Greta Garwig getting a role opposite Ben Stiller and the Duplass Brothers making a movie with Jonah Hill and an Oscar winner previously mentioned named Marisa. But whatever.

Andrew Bujalski said this of the term: "It makes perfect sense for bloggers to sift through the films and pluck out commonalities. But the reductive concept that we’re somehow the same — that bugs me." And I realized Mr. Bujalski was exactly right. It is reductive. Mumblecore is not all the same.

"Quiet City" is fantastic and I'm content to do without all the rest.

1 comment:

blahblahblah Toby said...

i'm still yet to see any others from the mumblecore ouevre but i do love katz. hopefully i can find something else great outside of the katz canon.

what i'd really love to see is modern love is automatic though.

i think your appraisal of Guatamalen Handshake and Away We Go here is kinda perfect. i walked out of the cinema during away we go, offended by the attempts to be quirky and indie and actually had the same reaction to that darling of recent indie cinema 500 days of summer. being a hipster film seems to sell at the moment which may explain the award given to TGH?