Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All the Light in the Sky

ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY                C+     
USA  (72 mi)  2012  d:  Joe Swanberg                         Official site

Another minimalist work from one of the creators of Mumblecore, which may have its devotees, some praising the so-called naturalism expressed, but the problem seems to be no creative idea ahead of time, where these films are made up as they go along.  What little story there is can be lost in the minutiae of daily life, where these filmmakers love capturing random moments where lives intersect, expecting something of interest to be found through improvisation, but mostly what’s revealed are dull and uninteresting characters who are never developed through any dramatic complexity, but just exist in the aimlessness of the present.  Swanberg has made six movies in 2011, four movies in 2012, and three movies in 2013.  That’s over a dozen movies in just 3 years, compared to Tarkovsky, for instance, one of the greats, who made just 8 films in his entire career, or Cassavetes who made 12, but they were considerably more thought out and brilliantly conceived *before* shooting than the likes of this, a film that’s typically not really about anything, and where nothing ever seems to matter.  Opening with Jane Adams as Marie, an independent actress, where we see her on the phone talking to her agent about two projects, one where she didn’t get the part, while the other is getting a go ahead, with no firm commitment, however, about financing.  So while we may think this reality reflects the financial instability of making American independent films on the fly, think again, as Marie soon arrives at her beachfront Malibu home with windows and a balcony overlooking the vast expanse of the ocean.  Typically of many films we see these days, despite the enormous wealth needed to afford an idyllic home like this, we never see anyone in the film actually work for a living.  Instead these films play out like working class fantasies, where the players involved supposedly represent someone’s idea of success.  

What’s problematic, however, is that when we finally spend time with the characters living this dream, they don’t hold an ounce of interest, as their lives are even more boring than our own, and the audience often questions why they deserve all the fringe benefits of a good life overlooking the ocean, when they’ve seemingly done nothing to earn it.  This moral and economic vacuum is visually on display, with panoramic shots of the ocean throughout, but the truth of the matter is the film doesn’t even attempt to address this issue.  Instead we suffer through the machinations of ordinary moments with dull and witless people from Southern California who spend their time eating health foods and taking dope, consumed by the idea of youth and sex, even while relationships are almost nonexistent in their lives, as moments of intimacy are supremely awkward, and sex is nearly absent.  Marie goes gaga over a visit from her niece from New York, Faye, Sophia Takal, a much younger version of herself, more attractive, but following in her footsteps as she is just starting to get into the acting business.  Their scenes together consist of Marie talking endlessly about God knows what, with Faye smiling politely, presumably listening, but there’s no interaction whatsoever.  Faye has a boyfriend that she’s crazy about, where they have late night skype sessions over the computer while Marie puts herself to sleep while listening to the endless drone of a psychiatric self-help monologue.  The next morning, Marie concocts some natural kelp juice from her blender, and the two pretend to enjoy it. 

Swanberg dots the film with a smattering of other characters, including an appearance from horror director Ti West as a sleazy LA director that wants to get into Faye’s pants, but the most interesting is next door neighbor Rusty, indie perennial Larry Fessenden, an offbeat character who drinks beer and is perpetually optimistic, where he and Marie go paddle boarding in the ocean together, but his roving eye is usually scoping out younger girls.  Their habit of wearing wet suits into the ocean in sunny California seems like the latest craze, as they’re never seen far enough off shore to really justify the need.  Mostly Marie spends her time with Dan (Kent Osborne), a guy who is perpetually stoned, where sleeping together is an expected formality, while also being something they’d both quickly like to forget.   Enter Simon Barrett as a science geek who spends his time talking endlessly about various solar projects in the works, “harvesting” wind and solar energy, where perhaps Marie is delving into the subject for a part she’s playing, but a good deal of the film is spent hearing about earth’s relationship to the sun, as evidenced by various technological gadgets that measure the sun’s rays and the overall presence of light.  Science, one supposes, is the reality they are all avoiding in this film, deluding themselves about ephemeral pleasures and the so-called happiness of youth, when most are not so young anymore.  There’s an interesting parallel about the shoreline eroding, showing the natural world aging, where these beautiful homes will eventually be swept into the sea, a metaphor for their own youthful lives that also eventually wear down over time.  But the overall mood seems to be why worry about that today when there are still so many more insipidly dull existential moments one can aspire to.  Without the physical presence of ocean, whose magnificent expanse allows the audience to breathe and provides its own timeless beauty, this superficial view of life in Southern California feels like slow death via mindlessness and claustrophobic suffocation.   

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