The Movie Club

Undeniable Denials

Scott’s “proverbial elephant in the living room” is perhaps too earthbound a metaphor. Michael Haneke’s Caché, for those who have not seen it—and I don’t want to spoil too much, as it has only just opened in major American cities—is a revenge-of-the-repressed movie with roots in the horror genre. Stephen King does this sort of thing all the time (Indian burial grounds, etc.), although he is loath, unlike Haneke, to leave anything unpinned-down. Our current critics’ darling David Cronenberg has made revenge-of-the-repressed a specialty since the days of infectious little phallus monsters roaring up from toilet bowls—the inevitable counterculture backlash to the desexed, de-bodyized ‘50s. David Lynch’s Lost Highway—a film to which Haneke owes a considerable debt—blew away the space-time continuum; like Lynch, Haneke has given the repressed its own video camera. But the willed amnesia he explores is social and historical: the massacre—and, just as important, the subsequent marginalization—of Algerian immigrants. As many others have pointed out (How can one not point it out?), Caché was stunningly prescient in accounting for the riots in France. My problem with the film is in its lack of psychological development. Its protagonist, played by Daniel Auteuil, is in mulish denial to the end and has no stature as a dramatic character. The director despises him too much.

But Caché points the way for American directors to use such genre gimmicks as a means to explore our even more repressed history—as well as to show us the dire consequences of our ignorance of American activities around the world. As Tony and Scott and (one-time Movie Club member) Manohla point out, the Twin Towers at the end of Munich and the climactic act of terrorism in Syriana serve as explicit warnings. It’s an indication of where we are right now in our public culture that merely to say that leaves one open to charges of being a “Hate America First-er” or the recipient of an Andrew Sullivan “Sontag Award.”

Which makes for an interesting transition—insofar as the type of American personality that Tony has noted in the work of Andrew Bujalski and the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin is a study in denial and avoidant behavior. The smugness with which Gordon-Levitt’s character, Neil, regards the middle-aged johns who solicit his sexual favors is a cover for his emotional dependence on those encounters—reminders of what he can’t help but remember as the most loving relationship in his life, with a child-molester. In the film Winter Solstice, another remarkable young actor, Mark Webber, hides behind an all-purpose smirk, cultivating a laconic superiority that is the last refuge of the emotionally crippled. The delinquent hustler played by the excellent Kevin Zegers in Transamerica is cut from the same cloth—and I wager there are a dozen more of those characters out there.

As you write, Tony, Andrew Bujalski specializes in this terrain. I wager not many of our readers have seen Funny Ha Ha, although it did air on the Sundance Channel and will probably see a surge in sales and rentals following your 10-best list. It is an exasperating, transporting, indelible film of young people in an existential limbo—of self-consciously cool, easy, inarticulate people terrified to pin anything down, its surface of nonsequiturs and random shrugs concealing intense emotions. (The film’s abrupt ending is its heroine’s first definite statement in the entire movie.)

I had an opportunity to meet Andrew Bujalski at this year’s lovely Virginia Film Festival and to confirm (no surprise) that he is very much on top of what he does: working with people he knows, nonprofessionals; cunningly shaping his scenarios; and then stepping back and watching (so closely) as the actors find their own voices. The balance of control and laissez-faire is unique in my experience. Tony’s comparison to Rohmer instantly trumps the standard Cassavettes one: Cassavettes’ psychodramas depended on actors’ self-plumbing and self-dramatization; the point of Bujalski’s characters is that they dramatize nothing. But Rohmer’s films are spare and tightly scripted, so I’d rather say that this director is sui generis. Mutual Appreciation, which has no theatrical distributor, is wonderful. It does not have the conceptual unity and the punch (or the wall-to-wall Kate Dollenmeyer) of Funny Ha Ha, but it is a richer work with a more complex structure. Dollenmeyer appears in the best sequence, in which the male protagonist stumbles drunkenly into a party long since ended, at which the last three young women are playing dress-up. It is sort of a deadpan Homeric interlude—both funny strange and funny ha-ha.

I had the good fortune to see both Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation on big screens, in a cinema, where they weren’t competing with my furniture, my telephone, or the urge to check my e-mail or cut my toenails or just multitask because that’s all I seem to do these days. I’m not sure how these delicate, semi-plotless works will fare on DVD. Beyond the size of one’s TV screen, there is something one brings to movies in a theater—a commitment born of an awareness that we cannot freeze the frame or rewind. Without having to make that investment, the returns are smaller, and, as moviegoers, we are poorer.