Art Films

Jennifer and watched THE SQUID AND THE WHALE this week, the allegedly independent film based on one writer’s memories of his parents’ divorce. Or somesuch.

It was an unsatisfying film that seems too typical of a genre of American films that aspire to be art by combining angst and awkward sex with slightly nervous camera work and alt-pop soundtracks. I could add TADPOLE and THUMBSUCKER (a film Vincent D’Onofrio could not save) to this list (TADPOLE was an okay film, but I wouldn’t watch it again), both films Jen and I have seen. I have been intrigued by RUSHMORE but expect it is more of the same and so probably will not see it. ELECTION, which I’d also put in this category, worked because of of the writing and Matthew Broderick’s and Reese Witherspoon’s characters.

The whole genre is unsatisfying. I’m no great fan of good-versus-evil films, since the world I live in (and have always lived in) is so thoroughly dominated by evil that the eventual victory of the forces of good seems stupid and simplistic to me. The world doesn’t work that way, and such tales simply have no emotional resonance. I’m a great deal more interested in watching fairly complex and compelling characters — believable characters — deal with the world. That’s why I read fiction (I find a lot of 100-year-old novels very satisfying this way), and that’s why I watch movies. In fact, by watching well done films with well-developed characters, I have gained an additional appreciation for good fiction.

But back to the “angst and sex” films. What is it I find that is so unpleasant about them? Partly it’s their flatness, the fact that too many of the characters are written and acted without much affect. Life is something that happens to too many of these characters. I’m no great fan of the great, flat and “affectless” suburban wastelands that too many of these characters appear to reside in (granted, SQUID N’ WHALE takes place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, and gets its name from a diorama at the New York City Museum of Natural History, and PIECES OF APRIL somewhere in Manhattan and along Long Island highways) but there has to be some kind of life in them somewhere. I suppose it is because the people who make those films are the people who fled the burbs (or Park Slope) looking for human life. Folks who stay in burbs tend not to make films. I’m not sure we’d want to watch those films anyway.

And then there’s the cliche — the camera angles and camera work all feels somewhat the same, the color has that (how can I put it?) sea foam green crayola feel, and then there’s the use of that juke box of lo-fi alt pop to create the same damn mood from film to film. Sullen seems to be the mood for the main adolescent character, detatched and clueless for male adults, and overprotective, indecisive and confused for the mothers. Maybe life is like that for lots of people, but I dunno. Is all sex that awkward and awful? (Mine isn’t…) Can it be that way for everyone? And why do we want to this stuff over and over again? And give the folks who make it awards?

As an aside, I have concluded that suburban life everywhere is about the same. I love Fountains of Wayne because the tawdry burbs of Long Island and the neighborhoods of far outer Queens — which I did not get the chance to explore when I was in NYC — sound an awful like lot the far distant burbs of Los Angeles I grew up in. They have done a fairly good job of created “the sound of the suburbs.” How long they can play that, write it, and make it interesting and compelling, I do not know.

(“Kid Gloves” is as beautiful a song about New York as Simon & Garfunkle’s “America,” and almost brings me to tears in the same way “America” does.)