Friday, August 17, 2012

Clowns in my coffee, clowns in my coffee

Kevin explains it's all part of a cosmic pattern and it is.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012) is part of the subcategory of Shaggy Dog Stories in which everything takes place on one magical day after which Nothing Is The Same.  Such conceits carry a high component of whimsy (and as Groucho said when told he was full of whimsy, "Can you tell from over there?") but that is somewhat familiar country for the Duplass brothers, as is stories about battling brothers in different places in their lives and the struggle for meaning and purpose.

But Jeff pulls off a neat trick which I can only analogize to Hitchcock's feat of switching audience sympathy from Norma Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho.  As the film starts, one gets the impression of a nascent stoner comedy, with Jason Segal, as Jeff,  trotting out his pathetic man-child yet again.  But he is not so pathetic as he is poetic.  He is part of the half of the human race which thinks everything makes sense cosmically and in the long run and that everything eventually connects.  I just have to point out that this is a natural bias for an author, who has the power to make his or her universe do just that thing, connect, make sense and explain itself.  I would advise authors subject to that trap to spend some time doing group improvisation, let go of the need for control and see what it does for their writing.

In the book of interviews Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock discusses his troubles with the part of the audience he calls the "plausibles."  He dismisses criticism about coincidence, asserting that life is full of coincidences, but rejects convenience, by which the creator makes things too easy on himself and gets the snake to swallow its own tail.  I can't accuse the Duplass Brothers of making things easy for Jeff, but they do permit some self-satisfaction on the basis of a single selfless and, indeed, heroic act which does not do a thing to address the serious problems in Jeff's life, and which in fact, he seems to use to justify his continued aimless existence.  Nonetheless, warm fuzzies all around.

And speaking of coincidence, a man was fished out of his car the very day in the very city I saw this film.  As that provided no benefit to me, I guess Hitchcock was right.  Coincidental, but not convenient.

It is interesting to see the way artists like Les Freres Duplass can enter the mainstream partly because the type of actors they need to execute their ideas, actors like Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Ed Helms and John C. Reilly are available and bankable (at least for Duplass-level budgets).  A nice case of artistic temperament meeting the zeitgeist.

Speaking of the zeitgeist, can we put to bed, the term "mumblecore."  All it means is a low-budget film which is dialogue based.  That defines at least 80% of low-budget films, because the cheapest thing in the world to shoot (and safest) is people talking to each other.  Untrained actors often don't have the most distinct diction, just like actual humans.  And maybe if film writers stop using the term mumblecore, the Duplasses will no longer feel obligated to fool around with the zoom on the camera constantly.  In at least one case in the film, the zoom felt like a "meta" comment on what was happening, like Jimmy Finlayson swinging his head around in a big vaudeville doubletake in a Laurel and Hardy movie.  This zooming doesn't make the film feel natural, it feels just the opposite, constantly saying to the viewer, "Don't get involved, don't get attached.  This is just a movie, it's all fake."

I direct plays with novice actors and I have to teach them that one of the most unnatural-feeling postures on stage, standing straight with your arms at your side looks the most natural on stage, far better than folding one's arms or clasping hands.  Try it.  Try standing with your arms hanging straight down and doing nothing.  Feels weird, right?  Doesn't look weird.  So in film, it seems artificial to take a camera, pick an angle and plonk the camera down on a tripod and leave it alone.  Almost theatrical, setting a frame around the actors and events.  But on screen, it looks natural, just as cutting between opposite angles looks natural.  Perhaps we've grown accustomed to these conventions, or they are inherently natural, but they pass by our eyes without objection or comment.  Shooting hand-held, whipping the camera around to catch the action and fiddling with the zoom and focus ARE natural, but LOOk unnatural.  So, Duplasses, your next movie, however low the budget, get a tripod.  People will start treating you like grown-ups.

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