Friday, April 8, 2011

Some Days Are Better Than Others

USA  (93 mi)  2010  d:  Matt McCormick 

Largely a mood piece on societal rootlessness and aimlessness, expressed by a theme of people in transit, economically on-the-fringe individuals who feel they are leading meaningless and indifferent lives, whose marginalized existence seems to stand for the new poverty in America, educated people who aren’t likely to ever reach the kind of economic security their own parents may have experienced.  Shot entirely in Portland, the visual design pays homage to Gus van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), especially the skyward shots of silhouetted telephone wires and lightposts, showing the unreachable vastness of the world above, which is certainly a contrast to the dilapidated buildings or worn out transient motels that dot the vicinity.  Portland and Seattle have been the center of various indie explosions, perhaps starting with Martin Bell’s documentary look at street kids in Seattle, STREETWISE (1984), shot entirely on location, followed two years later by van Sant’s MALA NOCHE (1986) or DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989), both shot in Portland, where kids in droves flocked to these areas, soon to feature the grunge music revelations in Kurt Cobain and Nirvana in the late 80’s, not to mention the feminist, aggressively punk all girl band Sleater-Kinney from the 90’s, or even the Shins from the late 90’s.  Oddly enough, two of the three leads are from these eclectic bands, Carrie Brownstein, lead guitarist for Sleater-Kinney, and James Mercer, the lead singer/songwriter for the Shins.  This film is a reflection of this West coast state of mind, featuring a kind of perpetual restlessness akin to a nomadic existence, where no one wants to get pigeon-holed into being part of the establishment.  The worst sin apparently is contributing, in any shape or fashion, to the faceless scourge of inhumanity known as corporate excess.  In order to accomplish this task, one must literally drop out of mainstream society and find an alternative means of survival, which in this film means a neverending series of dead end temp jobs.       

Without ever resorting to the narrative contrivances of Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose criss-crossing storylines inevitably express his themes of global interconnectedness, this film seems to do the opposite, as the economic isolation of the individual leaves them vulnerable and exposed to sudden economic downturns, where their own persistence in pursuing a lifestyle of fringe outsiderism leaves them voiceless and unprotected.  These are people who typically avoid confrontation, but see their own lives in a state of friction with society at large, constantly victimized, where they simply walk away and move on, content with the small moments of freedom.  Brownstein sees herself as a somewhat confessional video diarist who thinks there may be a place for her on reality TV, that others may learn from her experiences, which at the moment is consumed with having her heart broken after being left by a callous guy who cheated on her.  She only discovered the truth by examining the contents of his e-mails.  Mercer is strictly a temp worker, a guy who routinely moves from job to job, always justifying his actions with an equal portion of complete disinterest in doing any real work.  In his eyes, work is meaningless, something one must resort to as little as possible, while following his steadfast routine of eating out for less than $6 dollars per day.  Renee Roman Nose has indigenous features, perhaps Hispanic or Native American, and rarely utters a word as she works in a thrift store collecting donated goods that people discard and have little use for any more.  But she becomes fixated when she discovers a child’s urn with her cremated ashes still intact.  Despite telling her boss, who has the name reported to the police, like an official lost and found, she can’t get her mind off of this dead child, as if her poor little restless soul is still wandering, never finding the peace of the hereafter.  Perhaps the strangest of the group is an 84-year old man (David Wodehouse) that Mercer visits regularly, mostly for the use of his car.  This distinguished gentleman has a video camera set up near a window where it can constantly take pictures of light reflected from a bowl of liquid soap, turning the screen into a rainbow kaleidoscope of constantly moving coagulating colors, something hard to imagine that takes on a life all its own.  Wodehouse is content to look at it from time to time, eventually adding a narration, exhilarated by the beauty of invention.

Oftentimes these indie projects get consumed by a certain indulgence, where for lack of a better word personal ambition seems to blind the artist from their own vision.  But that doesn’t happen here, as the writer/director has created a harmonious whole that has a poetic honesty about it, especially in the balance of the interior mood of the characters and what’s reflected by the original electronic sound design written by Matthew Cooper, from the band Eluvium, who can be heard on two YouTube videos shown here:  Eluvium - Under the Water It Glowed (8:26) and Eluvium - I Will Not Forget That I Have Forgotten (5:21), mirror images of one another, and a group whose music gets at the heart of the sad, lingering loneliness in these lives.  The film also does an excellent job expressing interior and exterior space, as it’s something these characters thrive on, yet have such difficulty fitting into pre-established societal molds that they must immediately reject, finding them tainted and artificial substitutes for what they’re really searching for.  One of the best sequences in the film is seeing Mercer alone in his room singing such a heartfelt version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which accentuates to the core the inner soul of Brownstein, another character apparently unknown to him, but instead we see an ongoing montage of beautifully photographed foreclosed homes, each one representing lost and abandoned lives.  The film does not sink into contrivance or cheap sentiment and maintains a genuine concern for these lost souls, reflected by Mercer’s musical chairs of lost jobs, the abandoned dogs Brownstein works with at the animal shelter, the cremated remains of the missing girl, or even the impossibility for Wodehouse to enter into another serious relationship, having outlived the two loves of his life.  Like Aaron Katz in his recent COLD WEATHER (2010), this director makes excellent use of Cannon Beach, one of the most gorgeous locations in Oregon, located about 70 miles from Portland, which offers a kind of spiritual transcendence unreachable to these characters, who instead spend their lives moving from place to place, but mostly going nowhere. 

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