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Today

I realized,
maybe for the
first time,

this walk
will be
so long.

2015

Next year I’ll
climb the mountain
while my brother
walks through
the door.
Who would have
thought in
Vietnam in
America we
would find
each other?
Who would have
thought we
would find
ourselves
here still
climbing
still
here.

“I was English, with a minor in history, just to make sure I was fully unemployable.” – Jesse Fisher

Liberal Arts

I vaguely remember the first time I heard rumblings about Josh Radnor, star of the hugely popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, acting as a director and writer on dramatic projects outside of the TV realm. A quick bit of research back in the day also revealed that his earlier project Happythankyoumoreplease had met with more than a few charges of annoyingly humble-braggy tendencies. Being that Radnor’s follow-up film, Liberal Arts, earned slightly less caustic criticism and a good deal and is available on Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl.

Hmm. What to do with a film like this? On the one hand it has some charming performances but is utterly waylaid by predictable plot turns and an annoyingly insular premise. While the whole thing is filmed in an acceptably indie style with plenty of shifting focus shots and some nice natural cinematography, the whole thing frequently stalls as a result of scatter-shot plotting and an overall sense that the aimless nature of the main character leaves the film itself with a frustratingly nostalgic wanderlust.

Manhattan and Garden State are stylistically checked in this maudlin story of revisiting the salad days of youth, irresponsibility, and the sense of freedom that comes so quickly and with aplomb in college years. Radnor’s character, Jesse, finds his inspiration in a typically MPDG young woman (look, she does improv! And says yes to EVERYTHING!) he meets through some mutual friends of a professor (Richard Jenkins) he happens to be visiting on the occasion of a retirement professor. You can see, perhaps, the various layers of leaving/reminiscing/idealizing at play. Still, it’s all so half-baked and the focus is so minimally on minor characters like Jesse’s former Brit Lit teacher (Allison Janney) or even his newfound friend in a young, troubled student (John Magaro) that the audience never quite knows where to fix its gaze.

There are some troubling gender and sexuality themes beyond the youth of the central relationship explored. Perhaps most troubling is the bizarre attitude towards “virginity” displayed in the fact that Jesse seems mainly not sleep with 19 year old conquest because he finds out just before he does the deed with her that she’s never had sex before. His whole character feels like a microcosm of the worst traits of the annoyingly sententious OTHER character Radnor is famous for, Ted Mosby. Here the literary references feel overwrought, the plot is a sparse 97 minutes but feels at least 120, and the whole thing resolves weirdly, and uncomfortably neatly. I’ll give it points for attempting a good-natured refusal of nostalgia as cure-all, but there’s absolutely nothing about this film which distinguishes it as anything more than junk-food cinema to get you through the week.

(6.5/10)

“When you perform it is a knife and your blood, when you act it is a fake knife and ketchup.” – Marina A.

The Aritst is Present

I caught a bit of this HBO documentary back in the day and have frequently heard its virtues extolled by friends and fellow artists. I was very pleased to see it come to Netflix, especially as I’ve drifted away from the documentary vibe a bit in the last few months. While I’d be no means call this documentary essential, it’s definitely an intriguing glimpse into an important artist of the last few decades and her unique process.

While the documentary is largely centered on an infamous MoMA performance by Abramovic in which she spent three months in the museum every day face to face with a variety of patrons, there’s also a bit of room for an exploration of her career and identity. Appearances are made by a variety of strange and beguiling visitors including her former lover and artistic partner Ulay and film star James Franco. An intriguing balance is hit between focusing on Abramovic’s work as it relates to the thorny world of contemporary art and finding a balance in which she connects strongly and empathetically with the many guests who visit her exhibition.

To be sure, this documentary is not for everyone. It often relies solely on visuals, gleaning much from the audience studying the eyes of Abramovic and her guests amongst a host of tear-tumbling footage to establish depth and stakes. That written, the footage can sometimes feel a bit migratory in relation to the ideas being expressed. Obviously there’s something to be said for the slow, methodical shooting style reflecting the inherent slowness of the process being undertaken by Abramovic, but about 2/3 of the way in it started to drag rather unnecessarily. Likewise, I appreciated the stripped-down visuals and concentrated visual aesthetics used to introduce different artists and commentators. The music, especially near the end and in scenes surrounding Ulay, tended to be a bit obtrusive and cloying despite itself. Since so much of performance art is about trusting the audience to follow along, I would have appreciated the filmmakers trusting me a bit more to engage emotionally rather than being spoon-fed the drama which the MoMA curator suggested this performance would avoid.

Perhaps its greatest failing, however, lies in the sense of hero worship which surrounds Abramovic and her work. I’ve noticed in my time with character-study documentaries that perhaps their most key weakness is a palpable sense that they refuse to really probe the depths and difficulties of their subject. Rather, this film is so quick to fully exalt and praise Abramovic that the real complexities of her work (i.e. its relationship to self-adulation, fame, and celebrity) are almost completely missed. One wishes the filmmakers had interrogated the notion that Abramovic is anything less than a bullet-proof deity a bit more carefully and thoroughly. Once the glamor settles after the first hour the film frequently falls victim to a lack of stakes and inertia. This lack of vitality and tension threatens to collapse the whole thing and, while it frequently makes for compelling viewing, it rarely rises above the niche which Abramovic herself claims to be working against at a pivotal moment in the film. This is the moment where performance art could go mainstream, she intimates, and yet the film itself seems to be wrestling for a conclusive audience.

(7/10)

Small feature I worked on recently at WFYI. I performed at this event in July and was happy to return for the second installment of the performance series while working behind the camera.

Look I found her
Red Coat
Look I found her

I’ll write off the bat that this thing’ll contain spoilers. How does one discuss a film like this without acknowledging the central conceit? There’s a (potentially) science-fiction element at work here. Or, at the very least, an elaborate metaphor. Safe to write that the house presents an idealized version of your partner and, from the looks of things, has been doing so for a while. That much, maybe, is clear.

The One I love

This film got quite a bit of press when it dropped, so I was surprised to see it on Netflix. But, along with a recommendation from someone very close to me, I was ready to dive into the heady world of all things Duplass and Moss. Fair warning, these are both actors I happen to like quite well. Not exceptionally, per-se, but they’ve both done very solid (and pretty consistent) work in other projects that I think are deserving of attention. Safety Not Guaranteed and Top of the Lake to name just two.

In this flick they’re a couple with some clear romantic issues. Love’s not really popping off like it used to so they decide to take a weekend getaway and, as the above paragraphs suggest, things get weird. In a move reminiscent of another popular indie (The Brass Teapot), the two are introduced to the concept of the magical guest-house full of idealized romantic partners and swiftly take to abusing it and hampering the potential of their own relationship. Think of it like Groundhog Day or a more contemplative, low-key version of The Matrix. Much is made here of the eerie sci-fi elements, but the real strength is actually in the solid performances from the two leads as they bring to life multiple versions of themselves. Some really good chemistry and endearing comedy happens in the first half, though it all goes a little screwy near the end. Even moreso, the somewhat typical twist near the end feels super forced in light of the fact that the film does such a good job in the first hour of keeping everything delightfully grounded and non-melodramatic.

While not exactly perfect, the film does a great job of realizing some big ideas beneath the guise of a super humble indie aesthetic. Duplass has been doing this kind of thing for a while, and if you’ve seen fare like Your Sister’s Sister you have an inkling of what you’re getting into. Nevertheless, the script is smart and asks many of the right questions. Even more importantly, it forwards a character driven experience with innovation and creativity instead of simply throwing money at the solutions and expecting SFX to cover up the lack of a developed story. In its rush to pull off a “twist” I think the film falls prey to the sort of conventions that similar fare such as Like Crazy often plumb, but the story is kept short and sweet and it never overstays its welcome. A rewarding, occasionally short-sighted adventure through the strange (and often every bit as surreal) world of the long-term relationship.

(8/10)