Sunday, February 12, 2006

2 Reviews (The Reception; Me and You...) + Another Take on Winter Olympics

The ReceptionOn Friday night I finally rented John G. Young's The Reception, which Bernie blogged about, with praise, last summer. Tonight, courtesy of Netflix, I finally saw video artist and filmmaker Miranda July's sparkling little film Me and You and Everyone We Know. These two movies easily constitute the best 1-2 film combo I've seen in a while (perhaps since Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 last spring). The inventiveness of both film's plots, the high quality of their scripts, the very persuasive acting (especially in July's film), and the sense that I was watching original visions unfold in ways that hadn't been tried endless times before or that drew upon the tired conventions that have soured so many Hollywood films for me underscored the ongoing importance and necessity of independent film as the real heart of American cinematic art.

The Reception, a chamber drama set in and around a house in upstate New York, near Kingston, spans only a short but tense week but evokes a rich and compelling world. Jeannette (Pamela Stewart), the house's owner, is a wealthy White Frenchwoman with writerly pretensions who's fled a series of bad relationships and is lubricating her troubled days and nights with copious amounts of red wine. She lives in a quasi-marriage with Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), a Black, gay HIV+ artist, who when not serving as her companion, caretaker and comforter, and suffering through her drunken cruelty, shuts himself up in a barn he's converted to his studio, though he's painting nothing. He too has fled past crises, in Paris and New York, and when the film opens--quite effectively in medias res--we grasp his and Jeannette's intimately symbiotic but platonic and dysfunctional relationship.

Things threaten to break wide open when Jeannette's daughter Sierra (Margaret Burkwith) arrives from New York with her new husband, fellow schoolmate and law student Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans), who's also Black. Since she's found a husband, she'll be able to inherit the house and money from her mother. Jeannette is quite enthusiastic about her new son-in-law, who exudes bourgieness and confidence, while Martin takes kindly to him as well. We quickly learn, however, that Jeannette, very young when she had her daughter, basically abandoned Sierra to her abusive ex-husband, so anger and recrimination linger between them. The mother's domineering behavior provides the film's title when she decides, against her daughter's wishes, that there will be a reception to honor the newlyweds. What also becomes even clear is that Jeannette's love for Martin, which is tinged with domination and neediness, cannot be reciprocated in the ways she craves. After Andrew warms up a bit towards Martin, they take a long walk through marvelously picturesque woods, and the younger man presses the older man about his life in upstate New York. Martin reveals in words what his actions have effectively already demonstrated: his profound, searing loneliness. Black gay men aren't a high priority up there, he tells Andrew, and he's been sublimating his emotional pain and isolation in the bucolic setting.

[SPOILER ALERT] Yet the first sign of trouble has already appeared shortly after they all convene outdoors for the first time and are heading back into the house. We hear Andrew mumble what sounds like "your mother" is sexy...or does he say "Martin?" Sierra alerts him to the fact of Martin's homosexuality, warning him that should keep his mouth shut. This is a key detail, because what is really at issue is the elaborate house of illusions each of the characters has erected to get by; each will in turn come tumbling down. At Jeannette's soirée to show off her daughter and son-in-law to local friends, Andrew gets very drunk (and ghetto--Sills-Evans has it down), and when Martin attempts to calm him and put him to sleep, he responds with a passionate kiss that stuns the older man. The next day he confronts Andrew, who's come snooping in his studio, and the deceptions begin to unravel: Andrew is really DeAndre, an old friend of Sierra's who's participating for pay in her elaborate ruse to get her money. He's also, we learn, a longtime New York escort of wealthy older White men, who's has fallen fast and hard for the gentle, honest brother he's been forced to spend time with. This revelation speeds the film to its powerful conclusion, in which all of the characters come to terms with the fictions they've been maintaining, and Martin overcomes his sense of shame and abjection by placing his own happiness and wholeness first.

The acting of the four principles is uneven; the two women are less convincing than the men. But this may be because Sims and Sills-Evans really shine. Sims conveys Martin's tightly coiled and repressed bundle of personal torment superbly; each time that Jeannette strikes out and humiliates him, Sims shows the visceral pain Martin experiences and the swift psychological deflection that follows. As a result his transformation, which is also a peeling away of layers of figurative scar tissue, thoroughly convinces. Just as fine is Sills-Evans, first as a somewhat pompous straight man, and later as a boho gay urbanite who is willing to openly make known what he wants. What especially moved me was seeing the sort of people I recognized from my own life, on screen. The plot is, as I said above, inventive and fast-paced, but never implausible. The writing, which tackles a range of themes, is strong and rarely descends to cliché. Though the ending on one level seemed almost too neat, on another, it was also very believable and heartening; I thought to myself, this little American film is like an anti-Brokeback. Yet because the two male leads are Black men and because it's a low-budget flick shot in 8 days on digital video for $5000, it will never get the same level of attention and praise. And perhaps it isn't as great a film as the Ang Lee production, which I've yet to see. But it certainly deserves some accolades.

One final thing I'd like to note is the representation of Black men and male bodies in this film. While I enjoy seeing attractive, muscled Hollywood stars, it was also refreshing and exciting to see regular-looking men, Black men, for a change in a feature film, or on TV outside "reality" or crime shows. Seldom still do such images make in onto the big screen. Sims, though well-built and quite handsome, has a pitted, lived-in face the the camera fortunately didn't hesitate to linger on. Sills-Evans is tall and skinny, with full, uneven lips, widely spaced teeth and the thinnest grown man's arms, clothed or nude, I've seen in a movie in some time. When they initially connected emotionally, and then sexually, however, their scenes smoldered. Their averageness, their everydayness made the development of their relationship feel even more real and powerful, and made them, at least to my eyes, that much more beautiful.

Me and You and Everyone We KnowMe and You and Everyone We Know (IFC Films) is a 2005 feature debut from video artist, writer and actor Miranda July. Several major critics, like David Edelstein, named it to their Top Movies of the Year lists, and it's not hard to see why. In addition to offering a tightly and yet seemingly lightly structured narrative, excellent acting and delightful music, July's movie offers some of the sharpest commentary on our contemporary, atomistic, inward-looking society, the rampant sexualization of our culture and its complex effects on children, and the ways in which art and life intersect.

The film revolves around two parallel narratives which eventually connect: the first involves a single, loopy video performance artist, Christine Jesperson (July), who's creating seemingly inconsequential but very humorous personal videos for herself when she's not serving as a chauffering around clients for Eldercar (the name is self-explanatory). The other focuses on a man whose marriage has fallen apart. Richard Swersey (John Hawkes)--no, fellow writers, I didn't make that name up--a Vincent Gallo lookalike, is a White shoe salesman whose Black spouse, Pam (JoNell Kennedy), has met another man and is throwing him out; his two adorable sons, the adolescent Peter (Miles Thompson) and 6-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), respond to the trauma by not responding directly; instead, they sit hooked to a computer, creating trompe d'oeil visual images from keyboard punctuation (in this instance, a tiger) based on a guidebook, when not engaging in sexually precocious Internet play. Richard's immediate response to this turn of events provides one of the film's most striking images: performing his own private drama in public, he goes outside their window, sets his hand on fire, then tries to beat out the flames on the front lawn.

If this sounds like bizarrerie, it is, and yet July manages to make it pay off in the end. Everyone, she seems to be saying, has her or his touches of weirdness, and sometimes, with the right context (the right person, the right form, the right perspective, with enough humor), the strange and odd don't seem so strange and odd anymore. Or they do, but they don't bother us, because they're properly placed. Such is the case for Christine, who ends up taking one of her clients to buy shoes, and falls for Richard. In the course of subsequent events, she decides to submit her personal artistic creations to the local contemporary museum, and this occasions one of many funny moments, and the beginning of a metacommentary, when the haughty curator not only doesn't want to accept her videotape by hand, but doesn't even want to speak to or really look at her. Richard, who struggles throughout the film with his own inarticulateness and inability to fully see beyond his isolation, becomes smitten with Christine and vice versa. This leads to another of the film's highpoints, Richard and Christine's stroll down an anonymous-looking city street near his job, which becomes an unforgettable philosophical meditation on life and love that the film's plot eventually bears out.

As excellent as the adult actors are, the children steal the show. Each of enacts in the most convincing fashion possible their own battles with isolation and precocity; in the neighborhood where Richard decamps at the instigation of his friend and coworker, the extremely bright but severe little girl next door, Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), has created a "hope chest" as part of her "dowry," and is in certain ways functioning at an adult level even though she hasn't reached puberty. Two other neighborhood girls, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), pretend they're 18 years old and bait Richard's coworker in a disturbing erotic game whose ends they don't really comprehend, but which they decide they'll act on. To satisfy one of their queries, they enlist Richard's son Peter in appears to be his first sexual experience. But then it depends upon how you define sex; both of the boys are farther along than either parent imagines, as 6-year-old Robby wanders into cybersex, provoking the film's most troubling potential consequences. Thompson's affectless, hangdog persona charms to no end, while Ratliff's big-eyed stares and canny innocence are magnetic. Both young actors galvanize the screen whenever they're on it, demonstrating that they're actors to watch for the future and that July is one of the better younger directors out.

The film's narrative threads cleverly, humorously and ironically braid--though without a perfect knot, thankfully--in the end. The adults deal with the effects of their almost childlike approach to the world. The children, we realize, are well along in the process of growing up. For both, the possibilities of wonderment remain, as does opportunities for real interpersonal connections. Christine's video creations prove not only to be works of fine art, but also the means for the sort of psychological and emotional reconciliation that otherwise might have no outlet. Just as Peter has created his own picture, without a guide, that he shows to Brandon, who asks what it is, and gets the reply, "Me and you and everyone we know," so July, with an original and disarming personal vision translated beautifully onto the screen, creates one of the freshest portraits of American life in some time.


Journalist Paul Farhi takes an acerbic but convinging position on the Winter Olympics in today's Washington Post, titled "Where the Rich and Elite Meet to Compete." Unlike the summer version, these games have historically been dominated by a half-dozen or so mostly very rich North American and European countries, and because of the financial requirements of training equipment and so on, will continue to be for years to come. Though 85 countries are now participating, many are only sending a few athletes (or even just won). The truth is, he states,

As always, the biggest delegations, and the big winners, will come from a familiar pool. In the history of the winter competition, dating from its inception in 1924, competitors from only six countries -- the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany (East, West and combined), Norway, the United States, Austria and Finland, in that order -- have won almost two-thirds of all the medals awarded. Only 17 countries have ever amassed more than 10 medals during the past 19 winter Olympiads. Only 38 countries have won even one medal.

This final point was one Bob Costas kept making during his opening ceremony commentary, though without the more acute analysis Farhi provides. China seems poised to break open the tiny circle of winter Olympiad competitors and medal winners, though through the first day, Norway, Germany, Italy, Austria, the US, France, the Netherlands and Italy have unsurprisingly snapped up all the available medals. Still, there's almost two weeks more to go.


  1. John,

    I skipped over the first review once I saw SPOILER. But July's work I had seen, recently. I agree her casting and directing of the kids was amazing, although I think at a certain point Thompson's bland expression descended into artifice--maybe I haven't been around enough morose teenagers lately. The deleted scene where he leaps around with great energy was a welcome change. Though its length would have created too much of a change in the rhythm of his performance, I felt the absence of a hint of this energy and counterpoint in the whole of his portrayal. I thought July was great at directing everyone except herself because at a certain point, although she has this amazing timing and nuanced sense of hesitation, her performance became, for me, a bit "precious" after a certain point and I've experenced this in her video and performance work as well. Still, I admire her way with her vocal modulations and gesture, she understands how how to create deceptively small seismic shifts that can get under a viewer's skin.

  2. Audiologo,

    I didn't mind Thompson's sullenness, which struck me as so true; he really only opens up online, when he's in particular settings (with the neighbor girl, and remember when he approaches her and she rejects him because she's with those much smaller children, which is a bizarre scene on several levels), and when he's showing his little brother his creation. I love that scene; I thought, July deserves some kind of honor just for eliciting it and capturing it onscreen. Her preciousness didn't bother me, for whatever reason. I've never seen her other work, but I was blown away by her ability to move from solo performance pieces to a full-scale, fleshed out feature like this one.

    BTW, thanks for responding to one of these movie reviews. I wonder sometimes if they're just too long, too boring, too ineptly written, or what. I'm mean, wouldn't a review titled "Gay Sex in the 1970s" draw *some* readers in? LOL