THE MEND C+
USA (111 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: John Magary
Otherwise known as squalor and self-loathing in New York City. While this is undoubtedly uncompromising indie filmmaking, it joins a field of miserablist outsiderism, like Mumblecore, that distinguishes itself by being outside the mainstream of conventional filmmaking, eschewing any narrative approach or the idea that characters onscreen need to have some redeeming quality. Instead it seems to thrive on its own intentional discomfort that some identify as comedy, but more likely adheres to a state of continual dysfunction. Much like Andrew Bujalski was predicted as being the second coming of a new generation of American indie filmmakers by Amy Taubin in Film Comment, perfectly capturing the ambivalence of the slacker lifestyle, describing Bujalski “as a poet of demurral, hesitation, and noncommitment in whose films there are as many minute variations of meaning implied by the phrases ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I mean’ as there are said to be words for snow in the languages of the Inuit.” Others have made their own predictions about the future of the indie movement, but if this film proves anything, it is that intentionally alienating audiences comes at a cost, and that is that few will actually show up to see it, and fewer still will “like” it. What it does have going for it is an abstract musical soundtrack and sound design by Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko that has been woven into the fabric of the film like some sort of expressionist mosaic, where the idea that it doesn’t fit is felt throughout, yet that is predominantly the intention. In this way it can be said that this film in its finished product is exactly what the filmmaker intended. Of that one has little doubt. Where it struggles is with the idea that all provocation is good, so that one is not accused of complacency. This is a film filled with unlikable characters, a trend that may have started with the lead character in the Coen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2012), who is such a fuck up with everyone he encounters that audiences begin laughing at just how pathetic he really is. This film was written with that idea in mind, where like watching cartoons, some in the audience will find it hilarious to watch just how excruciatingly screwed up these guys actually are, incapable of dealing with even the most trivial moments without alienating everyone around them with revoltingly obnoxious behavior. Without an actual story, the film is instead a series of these unfortunate incidents strung together over a period of time, where each sequence is presented with meticulous scrutiny, where little is left to the imagination. While it has the feel of life happening spontaneously, it is instead scripted down to every last detail, where there is some question whether anything about this method is actually interesting. Some contend they are mesmerized, but they are likely to be in the minority, or high on weed, as most will simply tune out.
Perhaps a better example of this is David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn (2014), which features a truly miserable lead character as portrayed by Al Pacino, yet the performance is outstanding, where audiences are riveted in their seats wondering what craziness he’ll pull off next. That is not the case in these low budget productions that don’t have the luxury to hire Al Pacino, though many have given similar high marks to Josh Lucas in this film. While it is admittedly different than what he’s normally asked to do, that doesn’t mean it’s better, and one could argue that it’s a new low. A barely revealed yet central theme of the film is the social effect of smartphones on the modern generation, where they spend so much time connected to electronic gadgetry that they’ve forgotten how to communicate with other members of the human species. While this is ostensibly a relationship film, showing how little effort is exerted in actually trying to remain in the good graces of others, thinking instead that it’s too much effort, so one always ends up alone with their smartphone, as if that’s all they really need to get by. Remaining connected even while taking a shower, it’s one of the few films that actually shows the debilitating effects from a dependency on smartphones and how it interferes with one’s striving for love, where like Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), one falls in love with the smartphone instead of an actual person, as there’s too much energy involved dealing with the staggering unexpectedness of human deficiencies when people aren’t what you think or expect they are, but are something else altogether apparently too difficult to figure out. Computer technology, other than the occasional connectedness interruptions, is exactly what we think it is, remaining as devoted and predictable as the loyal lapdog. One of the common elements of Andrew Bujalski or Mumblecore films is the extraordinary ambivalence of the characters who have trouble committing to anything, even an idea, much less another human being. So these films often show people stumbling around in the throes of various states of indecisiveness, where uncommon attention is paid to each minute detail involved in the present moment, where not much of anything happens, as each episode is some variation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot lovable losers, Vladimir and Estragon, chatting endlessly as they wait in vain for something significantly important to happen in their lives, all triggered, apparently, by the existential absence of faith in God, so what on earth is there to believe in? Undoubtedly the answer lies in paying attention to one’s self. And therein lies the biggest difficulty with these films, where one grows exceedingly tired of the juvenile, self-absorbed nature of these exceedingly vain and self-centered human beings. If the director is trying to hold up a mirror to society, it may no doubt reflect their own circle of friends, but it hardly matters beyond that short reach. It in no way reflects America, but it may provide insight into a certain segment of indifferent, middle-class, white, educated, and overprivileged twentysomethings that are relatively bored with their lives, feeling they are entitled to and deserving of love, but aren’t willing to exert any effort in the event it’s not simply given to them.
The question one always has to ask with these films is what’s the point? Does this have any effect on my life? Haven’t young adults always felt alienated and disconnected from their parent’s generation? So what’s so different now? These films would have you believe there’s a different element of hopelessness involved, as if there’s so many choices to be made that the easiest thing to do is to simply make no choices at all and do as little as possible, leaving as much open space as possible for doing whatever you want. This lack of commitment or moral responsibility is a throwback to the Me Generation where all people want to think about is themselves. That is perfectly reflected in this movie, which is comprised of small fragments of their lives, in no apparent order, where everyone wants to talk about themselves but no one wants to listen to others. A couple toys with the idea of getting married, as Alan (Stephen Plunkett) has created the perfect vacation trip to Nova Scotia or parts unknown with his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) for the sole purpose of proposing marriage. Immediately prior to this major event, Alan has an all-night party in his apartment that seems to go on forever, where his annoying brother Mat (Josh Lucas) shows up, putting a damper on the event for anyone within earshot range, though the highlight is a visit from a psychedelic friend of their father Earl (Austin Pendleton), a throwback to the 60’s revealing all kids of icky information about the kinky sexual habits of their mother and father, driving Mat into drinking excessively to the point of passing out, ignored the following morning when Alan and Farrah head out on their new adventure. Meanwhile, Mat remains a constant parasitic fixture in their apartment, a lowlife and leech with no ambition whatsoever who’s perfectly comfortable taking advantage of the hospitality offered by others, until quickly wearing out his welcome when he’s forced to inhabit another warm body and sucks the blood out of that creature as well. This is how he survives. Leading the life of a bum, his depravity and slovenly habits kick in with no one around to tell him what to do, so he doesn’t do anything except drink excessively and criticize others to the point of exhaustion. When Alan returns unexpectedly, as things apparently did not go according to plan (no explanation offered), he settles into his brother’s biorhythm of doing as little as possible, staying out all night drinking while passed out sleeping during the day. Inevitably the two get on each other’s nerves and argue about their differences, where their frustrations rise to a boil, spilling over into their empty and meaningless lives, where they’re each incapable of doing the most basic things in taking care of themselves, refusing to exert an ounce of energy to wash dishes or clean things up, instead living in a cesspool of their own making. This regression into childhood where they’re waiting for their mother or some significant other to clean up their messes for them feels typical of an overly pampered generation who has had everything done for them, as they’re overly consumed with only doing what they want to do, even if that means doing nothing at all. While there is excruciating detail built into the absurdity of each moment, the musical dissonance heard throughout accurately reflects the emotional discord felt throughout, where nothing is ever communicated except anger and dysfunction. In the end, as in the beginning, there’s some question as to whether they’ve arrived anywhere.