22 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: THE MUMBLING DETECTIVE

Of all the filmmakers associated (usually against their choosing) with the Mumblecore branch of independent filmmaking, Aaron Katz always stuck me as having the most native talent; his debut, Dance Party, USA is among the best films of the generally indecent subgenre of inarticulate post-collegiates shuffling through life in the big city, unable to form attachments to much of anything besides hip music. It is possibly the case that this is so because it's about high school students rather than aimless twentysomethings; also that it is barely more than an hour long. Anyway, it's better than it ought to be, which is rarely enough true of American indie films that there was reason to be optimistic for his third film, the slice-of-life mystery film Cold Weather.

Sure enough, Cold Weather proves to be a satisfying movie altogether, although in a lot of ways it feels like a step backwards for Katz, artistically; or anyway, a firm and decisive step laterally, which is no better. All the charming things that make the Mumblecore aesthetic so grueling are here, all right, and they feel sharper and more prominent, somehow, than in Katz's previous feature. Bright, crisp, cloyingly artificial videography, of that very sort which flattens out spaces and murders smart compositions in their beds? Aye, there is that. Dialogue which tries so damn hard to sound realistic that it zips right out t'other side, incorporating references and turns of phrase so deliberately unfocused that it plays less like naturalism, and more like the worst improv warm-up in the history of acting class? Not so badly as in many films of the kind, though there is a lengthy conversation about Star Trek: The Next Generation that ranks among the most hideously stilted things I heard in a movie in all of 2011. Shitty, shitty sound recording? Sound recording that could only have been worse if the boom operator had been blowing on the microphone? Sound that bursts and crackles like the staticky farts of Satan himself? That, of course, is why it's called "Mumblecore", and as I have pointed out before, just because microbudget films have a harder time getting good sound, that is not an excuse to not get good sound. Not when you have the intention of charging people money to see your staticky-ass movie.

So, all that's a thing, and let us not ever pretend it isn't there. But here is why I love Katz: he finds a way - perhaps it is a huge and complete accident, and I am about to praise the director for serendipity - but he finds a way to make the inherent aesthetic shittiness of super-low-budget shot-on-video-in-my-apartment indie filmmaking somehow interesting, by pairing it with a story that goes into very different places than the standard fare of young people being ironic.

No, wait, I've gotten ahead of the film. Here's what happens: Doug (Chris Lankenau) has just returned to Portland, his hometown, with part of a degree in forensics completed before he dropped out of school. It's never completely clear what he expects to find back in Oregon besides a lack of unwelcome responsibility (we learn fairly quickly that he didn't want to be a forensic scientist, so much as he had a boyish enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes), but in short order, he's living with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and making a new friend, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), at his new job at an ice factory. That Doug works at an ice factory - and I have no doubt at all that ice factories exist; have we not all rushed out to buy ice in moments of party-planning terror? - is sign that Cold Weather can't entirely shake itself of the "ain't we cute?" mentality that has been strangling American indie films for the last 10 years, but let me not start bitching quite yet.

The first little twist comes when Doug's ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) arrives for uncertain reasons; not quite knowing what to do with this situation, Doug gently nudges her towards Carlos, and they make a date. Here is where the second and less big twist arrives: Rachel up and vanishes, Carlos is convinced that something terrible has happened, and Doug is way too excited for a chance to play real-life detective.

It's only just a mystery film, and not at all a thriller; in fact, there's nothing resembling a plot for more than a third of the 96-minute film. What there is, is a whole lot of loosey-goosey character interactions, the kind that seem aimless and boring when the film starts, and have quietly turned into something sweet and nice as the investigation ends up serving first and foremost to tighten the bond between Doug and Gail, and that sibling relationship ends up being far and away the real focus of the movie, not the doofus theatrics of the investigation (which veer irregularly from charmingly naïve to annoyingly cute throughout the movie). It's sort of like a humanist L'avventura, if such a thing weren't a contradiction in terms.

Even with the emphasis on the brother-sister relationship at its core, played with exceptional delicacy by Lankenau and Dunn as the adult reawakening of childhood dynamics - the film eschews the familiar "they are estranged now and have to learn to love each other again" plot of most sibling tales, instead showing us a brother and sister who still pretty much work well together, and examining how that works - Cold Weather is awfully slight for much of its short running time. Katz can't quite bring together a cogent commentary on detective fiction, or on our romantic affection for such stories - Doug's Holmes obsession is among the film's least-successful threads - but he does make a pretty insightful commentary about the nature of low-budget character driven talky indie movies, by refracting one through the lens of a genre framework. It tweaks our expectations and throws the artificiality of both genre fiction and narrative realism into relief; not that he indicts Mumblecore by adapting it into a chintzy noir environment, but he doesn't shy away from poking a little bit of fun at it, either.

Anyway, the collision of genre with the expected slow-moving study of twentysomethings learning a tiny bit about themselves is damned interesting, and it helps that Cold Weather is above-average as far as its character study goes: maybe it doesn't have much to say about its characters, and doesn't care enough about extrapolating from their experiences to tackle anything deeper and more universal. But it creates interesting people and lets us get to know them better, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, not at all.

7/10

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