Not an easy movie to like, but I did wind up respecting it. Gillespie presses the Verfremdungseffekt very hard, constantly deflecting the current of the story’s ample pathos with direct addresses into the camera, ruined moments of narrative tension, careening edits which end not in climax but sputters. It’s very intense and fast in the modern way, the tendernesses quick and cheap and fleeting, a constant oscillation of giddiness and violence. It’s a coincidence that I saw this so soon after seeing The Florida Project but I thought a lot about the similarities, poor whites desperate to escape through (or into) magic. Gillespie occasionally comes close to letting us read this as a farce instead of a tragedy and those are the moments I most resented. If you think this is a comedy you’re doing it wrong.
Like most everything Charlie Kaufman does, this is so wrong yet so right. The sad and simple story could come from Updike, or maybe Dreiser, or, if it were a little funnier and not so very American, from Chekhov. The author of a half-baked but successful book on marketing arrives in Cincinnati (starring as the epitome of flyover country: “See the zoo!” “Try the chili!”) to give a paid lecture to a convention of phone bank managers. He’s an utterly typical disappointed mid-life crisis type, unhappy with his perfectly fine family, desperate to feel like he’s still attractive. He calls up an old flame who lives in town and invites her for a drink; when he propositions her, she rightly chews him out and leaves. Desperate, he hooks up with a naive telemarketer who sees him as a celebrity: just his type. After they fool around, he gets histrionic and hyperbolic and decides she’s the love of his life, he’s leaving his wife, but of course she isn’t and he doesn’t. There’s a little bit more — some kind of paranoia about invisible forces pulling strings in the basement — but that’s just normal Kaufman neurotic epiphenomena. It’s all pretty straightforward, right? Sure it is.
EXCEPT EVERYONE IS A PUPPET.
There’s some other formalist funny business going on here — many of the characters (again, PUPPETS) have the same faces and voices, which I guess symbolizes something about something — but the overwhelming main thing about this movie is, obviously and thunderously, that everyone is a puppet, causing the viewer to have to ask him/herself at every single moment, regardless of how touching or pathetic or funny whatever is happening on screen may be, “Why is this happening at all?!”
It’s one thing to do the Svankmajer or Brothers Quay stop-motion puppet thing with texts like Alice in Wonderland, Faust, or The Street of Crocodiles — texts congenial to the grotesque and uncanny — but why would you shoot this sad little Updike story like this? People, it took two years! Some days they shot for twelve hours to get 12 frames! That’s half a second of screen time!
So inevitably and quite deliciously, the movie possesses an extraordinary Verfremdungseffekt. The story presents itself as pure naturalism; the ostentatious, even aggressive display of artifice completely thwarts any possibility of submitting to the narrative dream.
How does that insistence on the artificial map onto the movie’s narrative, and vice-versa? I think there’s a reading to be made there, something along the lines of the way that the customer service guru character is a sort of construct unto himself, a surface alluding to depth without possessing any, but I’m still in a swoon and not inclined just now to unpack this any further. Wonderful night at the movies.
For a movie that’s ostensibly a comedy, there’s a surprising rip current of anxiety and fear just beneath the surface of this story that seems constantly about to suck everyone under. So much is at stake for all the main characters; even as they try to act playful about the games they’re playing, they’re all very evidently terrified. To have no money, to lose your reputation, to be alone, to be cast out, to be cheated, to be stolen from — everyone scrambles to avoid these catastrophes, pressing for advantage, using whatever leverage fate has lent them. If you’re beautiful, you use that to get over; if you’re rich, you use that; if you’re clever, you use that. It’s all coated in sequins and soaked in champagne, but it’s a lot closer to Mother Courage than it looks. I see on Wikipedia that Fassbinder called it one of the best ten films ever, which seems insane until you think about it — isn’t Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee just as determined, wily, brilliant, desperate, and calculating as Hanna Schygulla’s Maria Braun? We know the story (thanks in large part to Fassbinder) of people doing whatever they had to do in postwar Germany to survive; maybe this movie proposes an analogous situation for single American women in the same period, with fewer weevils in the bread and more singing and dancing. Or maybe it was and is always thus. Anyway I found it depressing. Featuring matrimony in its usual role of deus ex machina.
There’s the subject, and then there’s the form. The subject of this book exhausts and depresses me. It’s about a few residents of a slum in Mumbai and the various social and political factors that impede them from improving their lot in life. Their situation is terrible. They lack adequate water, sanitation, and food. They subsist by scavenging in the garbage. The institutions that ought to serve and aid them — police, government, courts, schools, charities — in fact do them more harm than good, exploiting their labor and extorting their meager resources. It’s terrible, but not terribly surprising; we know full well that situations like this exist all over the world.
What is surprising is the form of Boo’s book. It’s not a study or a history; it’s a story. There are no statistics or interviews with experts or extended analyses of causes and effects. Boo spent years in this one relatively small slum, interviewing and re-interviewing the same residents, and tracking the particular setbacks and advances they made in their individual lives. The questions of how or whether these particular examples might be used inductively to fuel broader conclusions about poverty in general is not here entertained or answered.
The effect, for me, was disorienting in two ways. First, because the book follows the narrative arcs described by the lives of persons, those persons felt like characters to me, rather than humans. Second, their stories seemed radically decontextualized. I wanted to know more about what was going on in the city around them, the slums around them. I wanted to know more about the history of the country, the political situation, and so forth. At the same time, I realize that my sense of having no context is analogous to the contextless-ness of the slum dwellers themselves, who have few means of understanding what’s going on in the world outside the slum.
This is a good book but a strange one. I am having a hard time assessing the nature of my reaction. I guess another way to put it is that I wanted Bertolt Brecht to have written it. It needs a dash of the alienation effect, so as to ensure that I don’t think of humans as characters or vice-versa.