Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers























MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS     B                       
USA  (75 mi)  2013  d:  Thomas Berninger 

Don't make me read your mind
You should know me better than that
It takes me too much time
You should know me better than that
You're not that much like me
You should know me better than that
We have different enemies
You should know me better than that

I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should leave it alone but you're not right

Can't you write it on the wall?
You should know me better than that
There's no room to write it all
You should know me better than that
Can you turn the TV down?
You should know me better than that
There's too much crying in the sound
I should know you better than that

I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should live in salt for leaving you behind
Behind

Think about something so much
You should know me better than that
Start to slide out of touch
You should know me better than that
Tell yourself it's all you know
You should know me better than that
Learn to appreciate the void
You should know me better than that

I should live in salt for leaving you behind
Behind
I should live in salt for leaving you behind
Behind
I should live in salt for leaving you behind
Behind

The National performing "I Should Live in Salt" Live on . YouTube (4:12), performing live in KCRW radio studios in Los Angeles, August 13, 2013

Heralded by Pitchfork as “the funniest, most meta music movie since SPINAL TAP (1984),” and Michael Moore as “one of the best documentaries about a band that I’ve ever seen,” it follows the success of last year’s award winning music documentary 2013 Top Ten List # 8 20 Feet from Stardom.  While the audience for the most part is comprised of followers of the indie rock band The National, they might be disappointed that little performance footage is actually shown, yet the incredible twist is the boneheaded persona of the filmmaker himself, whose lack of focus and overall air of ineptitude becomes the dominant force of the film, where it takes a certain amount of guts to release a movie showing yourself in such an unflattering light.  The director is eight years younger than his brother Matt, who is the songwriter and lead vocalist for The National, a band strangely enough comprised of two other sets of brothers, with Aaron (also keyboards) and Bryce Dessner playing guitars, while Scott and Bryan Devendorf play bass and drums respectively.  Thomas has no connection to the band whatsoever, where we see him in his mid-thirties doodling around and still living with his parents in a beautiful upscale home in Cincinnati, receiving a call out of the blue from his brother, who he’s barely seen for the past twenty years, where perhaps the only contact is over holidays, but out of his aimless complacency he’s suddenly offered a job as a roadie for the band’s upcoming High Violet European Tour in 2010.  While many would be thrilled at the offer and see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—not Thomas, who instead prefers metal bands.  What the viewer quickly understands is that this movie is not so much about The National, or even Matt, as it’s all about Thomas, who is the real goofball centerpiece of his own film.  While Thomas is offered minimal job requirements, he largely ignores his duties and instead decides to wander off and film whatever catches his eye while drinking and partying and leading the life of a hellraising rock band on the road.  He’s actually disappointed to discover his brother is not in a metal band like Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses, so his dreams are shattered.  At one point, Thomas is seen commiserating with grunge-looking drummer Bryan, suggesting he seems more “metal” than the rest of the band who are so “coffeehouse,” where at least initially he intended to name the film For Those About to Weep, in reference to AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock.   

Initially, Matt is comfortable with the constant presence of Thomas’s camera, “I wanted him to bring his camera to maybe make some videos or stuff for our website.  He didn't even know he was gonna be making a feature film at that point.”  So once the tour begins, the focus is on whatever the band needs, where Thomas is a behind-the-stage presence giving the band members 5-minutes notice, but there’s little interaction between the brothers, as Matt seems to be in his own little world when he comes offstage and doesn’t want to be bothered by the incessant camera pointed in his face from Thomas, where Matt’s wife is seen trying to explain the moodiness of a budding rock star who has certain anxieties, as he isn’t sure what to expect from this tour, explaining “He has to go to a place when he’s up there.  That’s the job.”  All of this seems to fly over the mental capacity of Thomas, where the first sign of trouble brooding is being called on the carpet by the band manager for ordering bottles of extra alcohol.  From that point on, we never see Thomas without a drink in his hand, where he’s still living in Wayne's World (1989 – 2011) or the Cameron Crowe fever dream depicted in ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).  But with this melancholic, low key band, there’s no drugs, no girls, no drinking, and no in-fighting, where it’s all just about the music, so Thomas takes it upon himself to become the alternate indie-band party animal, where he drinks too much, is brash and overly loud, where he often forgets what he is doing.  Unfortunately, he gets in the way of what others are doing by continually pointing his camera at them, where one of the guys trying to set up the lights and the electricity literally tells him to go away.  Thomas, however, is immune to the needs of others, and turns everything around to himself, continually peppering the members of the band with questions about his brother, wondering if he’s ever lost his temper, asking the guitar brothers which one can play the fastest, how many drugs have they done, whether they bring their wallets with them onstage, following them into the shower, or asking them to strike ridiculous poses for the camera, where despite their polite cooperation, for Thomas it’s all about doing whatever pops into his head while ignoring the menial tasks he was actually hired to do.  Incredibly, he grows offended when the five members of the band take a photo shoot with President Obama and Thomas was excluded (as was everyone else), where in his mind he’s an integral part of the band.  While we do see backstage footage of the band interspersed with a brief look at onstage performances, it’s surprising how few songs from the album are actually heard, where one of the hidden treasures that we are treated to is a healthy dose of The National - Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks - YouTube (4:12). 

While it’s clear Thomas has a hard time living in the shadow of his older brother, spending much of the film harping to others about that, it’s as if he uses this opportunity in an attempt to perpetrate his own delusion of self-importance, which adds a darker element to the film, as he comes across more as a slacker or a buffoon, where the viewer is not laughing with him, but at him, where at some point (mostly afterwards) he realizes, “Most of the things I thought would be really funny was actually depressing, sad and awkward.  And the stuff I wasn’t really happy with became the great stuff.”  One wonders what John Lennon or Bruce Springsteen might have been like with a pain-in-the-ass brother like this?  While staying at a plush Hollywood Hills hotel in Los Angeles, Matt points out what he believes to be Moby’s house at the top of the hill while Thomas is dog-paddling in an outdoor pool with an inflatable raft, immediately yelling out at the top of his lungs, “Hey Moby!”  But the more he screws up, forgetting to bring water bottles and towels onstage for every band member before each show, the more Thomas starts griping and complaining at continually being told what to do, where he obviously resents his lowly status as a grunt, and sees instead himself more as a struggling artist, just like the band.  But the tour is a huge success, greater than they could have imagined, but Thomas remains an embarrassing side show, where his brother calls him on it at one point, sharing a hotel room together, yet he leaves cereal and milk on the floor of the bathroom in the middle of the night, where he acts like a little kid saddled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  He obviously drinks too much, something his brother calls “his allergy,” and can’t focus on what needs to be done, missing the tour bus at one point because he’s still hanging around in the bar, spiraling further out of control when he loses the guest list, causing comped celebrities like Werner Herzog to remain stranded outside waiting on the street, which eventually costs him his job, as he’s sent home for dereliction of duties.  Back home, he commiserates with his parents, who remind him he’s the kid that never finished anything he started.  Once the tour is over, Matt and his wife Carin Besser, who is credited as a co-editor and a former fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, invite him to move in with them to finish editing his film, which has become a wall of post its pinned to the wall describing each shot.  Ultimately, Thomas makes a decision that he’d rather make the movie about himself than the band, becoming an often hilarious, self-deprecating portrait of a lovable loser’s futile attempts to live up to his more-perfect-in-every-way brother, where there’s an interesting shot where Thomas goes into the studio and hears the band working on their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, which includes the song The National - I Should Live In Salt (Live at the ... - YouTube (4:00, performed in the Gibson Showroom in Austin, Texas).  Throughout the film we hear Thomas continually rail on about his feelings of self-loathing, but in this four-minute song we hear Matt’s eloquent response to his younger brother, as he recognizes they’re not alike, but offers a sense of estrangement, where he feels guilty about having left him behind to pursue his musical career, while the film concludes, appropriately enough, still stuck in Thomas’s world, Oh Holy Night by Halford - YouTube (4:09).   

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