The Hard Graft of Movie Watching – Frownland

November 2, 2011

Perhaps the most significant and heated discussion in the film blogosphere this year was spawned by Dan Kois’ article in the New York Times Magazine about ‘cultural vegetables’ – i.e. the deliberately paced (read: slow) art films so venerated by critical culture that one who runs in that circle might feel nervous about expressing dissent toward the prevailing consensus.  Inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Kois saw fit to take swings at the narrative-forgoing Treme, Derek Jarman’s deathbed work Blue, and the contemplative (or dull, depending on your viewpoint) films of Tarkovsky and Antonioni.  Blogs and selected twitter feeds lit up in anger from both sides, and several months later, the dust still hasn’t entirely settled.  Even I contemplated entering the fray, though with the certain knowledge that nobody of influence would actually read it, but I abandoned it to the recesses of my hard drive for no particular reason.  I didn’t like Kois’ article – his broadsides against film critic snobbery were just another form of snobbery after all – but it does bring up an interesting quandary in a roundabout way: how do you judge a film that isn’t meant to be straightforwardly entertaining?  Meek’s Cutoff is, no matter if you liked it or not, intended to be slow and even boring and repetitive at times.  One of the features of the trek across the Oregon Trail it wants to highlight is the mind numbing tediousness of it all.  It isn’t fun, but it isn’t supposed to be.  There are lot more facets to that film, and I’m not here to talk about it at length, but if you’ve seen it, you hopefully understand my point.  It took less than ten minutes of Ronald Bronstein’s 2007 debut Frownland for me to start reaching for the remote, anxious to turn it off.  It wasn’t just that it was remarkably unpleasant, though it certainly was, but also I could tell it was never going to get any better.  This was the film Bronstein wanted to make, and I’m reasonably sure it was never intended to be enjoyable in the slightest for the viewer.

Dore Mann plays Keith, a man in his late-20s suffering from some unnamed severe social anxiety disorder.  His ability to interact with anything in a meaningful manner is hampered by his incessant stuttering.  When he finally gets the words out, they fly out in an almost incomprehensible stream of off-topic digressions that illustrate his points only in his own mind.  He lives in the kitchen of a small one-bedroom New York apartment, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and using the open oven door as a table.  His roommate, Charles (Paul Grimstad), is an aspiring musician and all-around hipster twat.  He has a suicidal female friend, Laura (Mary Bronstein), who says very little but turns up and cries.  Keith’s desperate attempts to show empathy include holding his eyelids open when she’s not looking to generate tears.  There’s also a bartender, Sandy (David Sandholm), who can’t stand Keith but is also not emotionally cold enough to tell him to leave him alone.  Keith, rather unfittingly, works as a door-to-door salesmen; he touts coupon books that nobody wants under the auspices that the funds go to charity, though based on his boss one imagines it’s a good deal shadier than that.  There’s no narrative to speak of, save a running issue with the power bill that Charles is meant to pay, and Keith’s inability to convince him to pay it.  The film moves along as a series of humiliating incidents, from Keith’s failed attempts to comfort Laura, his awkward encounters with potential customers at their homes, and his painful try at insinuating himself into Sandy’s home for a night in.

With a film this unpleasant, I was quickly listing the reasons why it was so bad.  It’s ugly!  It lacks any sense of grace!  Dore Mann’s performance is one-note and is essentially a series of ticks!  An hour into it, I was grateful when we unexpectedly leave Keith behind and follow Charles for twenty minutes as he begs for money from his parents and then attempts to find a job.  Without the walking anxiety attack on screen, I finally had a chance to breathe.  Charles ends up taking a standardized test to get a job, sitting it with another aggressive, angry-at-the-world (pseudo) intellectual type.  While waiting for the results, he steps out with the man for a cigarette, who goes on a tirade about the fascist qualities of the exam giver.  Charles attempts to join in and impress him by talking about the absurdities of the exam itself, but the man thinks he’s an idiot well before he drops in the adjective “Kafkaesque”.  The indescribable asshole roommate finally gets his comeuppance by looking like an idiot, and I was admittedly pleased at the sense of karmic justice and the levity provided.  Soon we’re back with Keith and the inevitable dust-up over the power bill, which sends him into an aggressive nervous breakdown and, eventually, into the night to run from place to place and finally a party.  Much to my surprise, I found myself invested in Keith, possibly for the first time.  Maybe it was the time away, but all of those earlier complaints went away.  It was still an ugly film, sure, but it’s an ugly world.  Shooting on 16mm, Bronstein employs handheld, tight close-ups almost exclusively.  The unpleasant nature of the film has a lot to do with the claustrophobic visuals these provide, which is exactly what we need to understand Keith’s outlook.  Eventually, Dore Mann’s performance takes on a kind of brilliance –still one-note, but with a purpose that somehow elicits our sympathy.

Because of this, in retrospect that digression with Charles, with all its conventional pleasures, turns out to be the most problematic.  Charles is never really treated as a full character.  Bronstein only sees a caricature of an entitled New York hipster musician that’s entirely full of shit.  We’re invited to laugh at his humiliation at the hands of the older, more adept New York hipster.  It’s cheap, lazy, and unfair, and it only left me questioning the motivation of the rest of the film.  When Keith is trying to hang out in Sandy’s apartment, are we meant to be laughing at his sad, awkward attempts and Sandy’s inability to just come out and kick him out?  Is it meant to be funny that Keith can’t pick up on the signals anyone sends out to him?  I’m not entirely sure.

Either way, I was left feeling wrung-out and frustrated, as I think was the intention.  In this sense, it undoubtedly works.  It isn’t fun or even vaguely enjoyable, but that’s not the point.  The same way Meek’s Cutoff isn’t supposed to be thrilling or entertaining all the time.  The same way Solaris isn’t meant to be a fleet-footed science fiction fantasy.  Sometimes watching films is hard graft, but in the end it’s worth it if it has an effect.  I wouldn’t call Frownland a great film – there are just too many question marks – but it’s an interesting film that, while not enjoyable, was worth watching.  The subtext of Kois’ argument is that some film critics and fans are pretentious rubes for being taken it by something they don’t like but feel they need to say they do for credibility’s sake.  That’s a narrow and, dare I say, ignorant view.  Films can provoke a number of different emotional reactions, and they don’t have to be pleasurable ones to be valid.

-M

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