Friday, April 24, 2015

Ned Rifle

NED RIFLE               A-                   
USA  (85 mi)  2014  d:  Hal Hartley                         Official site

But it’s funny about Henry, Tom Ryan and I had this conversation about how he would be different.  I remember Tom articulating it really well, saying, No, Henry doesn’t change.  Henry is exactly the slob, the childish, self-involved but hilarious guy that he’s always been.  The context changes but he’s like a rock at the center.  I think there’s something in that.  I think the third one could be really quite hard on him, without bashing him, but coming to the brutal truth about a character like that. I could definitely see the son saying, ‘You know, Mom’s in a Turkish prison.’  Or, think about it, if Fay is accused of treason by the United States—we’re the only country in the world that kills people for this.  She could be executed.  You can be executed.  It could really come down hard on his father.  This could definitely be a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader type thing, like he’s going to kill the old man.  But I could imagine him finally not doing it because he understands that this man is just a child.  He’s a perpetual child.  He doesn’t know what the implications are of everything that happens to him.

─Robert Avila interview with writer/director Hal Hartley from Fandor, August 16, 2013, MEANWHILE, Hal Hartley's Been Busy | Keyframe - Explore ...  

In typically unorthodox fashion, this is another spinoff from Henry Fool (1997), Hartley’s humorous critique of the modern world that won a Best Screenplay at Cannes when it premiered, the third variation on a theme that also includes Fay Grim (2006), where the revelation of this film is the introduction of a new character, Aubrey Plaza as Susan, identified as Simon Grim’s stalker, who is herself a study of secrecy and repressed motives, immediately fitting right in to the Hartley universe of deadpan expression and over-intellectualization, a somewhat salacious character who places herself at the center of this unraveling mystery along with Ned (Liam Aiken), the offspring of Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Fay Grim (Parker Posey), essential characters in all three features of the trilogy.  The Long Island-born Hartley studied painting before becoming a filmmaker, where critic J. Hoberman describes his work as a “Godardian mixture of ardent talk, deadpan hyperbole, and unexpected action.”  Hartley’s films are much funnier with more clever dialogue than anything Godard has done in half a century, yet he’s an author that fits into the category of least appreciated.  Think of the acidic black humor in the Coen brother’s Fargo (1996), but this is even more bleakly obscure, where the entire fascination with this film trilogy is never being able to take anything too seriously, as it all feels like a tongue-in-cheek satiric parody, where the smarter you are the more room there is for disappointment in your life, as if excellence in schoolwork and a college degree haven’t really prepared anyone for the calamity that’s waiting for them after they graduate.  Perhaps only Wes Anderson possesses the same overly satiric approach, where humor is literally entrenched through every developing scene, layered in a deadpan sarcasm that refuses to give away the punch lines.  Instead it’s the comic absurdity that awaits each character in every new situation, ensnared in a web of intrigue from which they can’t escape.  Bordering on the ridiculous, life is not what it seems, as the fear and paranoia of the post 9/11 world has altered our perceptions of one another, showing little tolerance or understanding anymore, where the capacity for human connection has become so confusing and disorienting that real intimacy is rarely ever achieved, as instead it resembles an apocalyptic sci-fi world of the future where the Keatonesque humor is so dry as to be almost unrecognizable.  Characterized by his trademark deconstructed storytelling where dialogue comes in rapid-fire outbursts, sounding like they’re commenting on the filmmaker himself, or perhaps the state of art in general, featuring deliberately artificial performances and offbeat deadpan humor, Hartley still writes his own musical scores and remains a true independent voice at a time when that term has lost much of its meaning and significance, and while his fan base hasn’t exactly grown, he’s stuck to the path that’s made him such a unique auteur.      

Perhaps it’s the modern era’s disconnection with films of the Silent era, where they simply don’t recognize nonverbal communication anymore, but Aubrey Plaza gives a master class on facial expressions and making the most out of silent moments, then completely catching the audience off guard with a verbal barrage of such intellectual weight and unaccustomed insight that we hardly believe what we’re hearing.  This emotional and intellectual imbalance is at the core of Hartley films, because it requires an off-center perspective to make sense of it all.  The beauty, of course, is that it doesn’t even have to make sense, but exists in a wonderfully constructed netherworld all its own.  Few other artists are so consistently unique and weirdly original where they can ever hope to actually create a look that is all their own, but Hartley’s been doing it with a loyal group of actors working with next to no budgets since the early 90’s while receiving some of the more scathingly negative reviews from film critics.  Despite having American indie roots at his core, he remains an enigma, a stranger in a strange land, something of a misunderstood misfit who places his own artistic dilemma front and center in his films, poking fun at his own obscurity.  As the film begins, the focus is upon Ned Rifle, the gloomy offspring of Fay Grim (Parker Posey) and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), first seen as a 6-year old in Henry Fool where the debauched Henry brings him to a bar/strip club and offers him his first taste of whisky, now being raised in suburbia by a kindly minister (Martin Donovan) and his wife in foster care, hidden under the witness protection program, becoming a devoutly religious young man with a deeply troubled past, where he’s about to reach 18, the age of emancipation where he’s free to go where he wants.  On television we see the news reports of public demonstrations angrily protesting against the light prison sentence of his mother who is given a life sentence, with an irate public clamoring for an even harsher death penalty for betraying her country after having been convicted of committing a terrorist act, charged with conspiring with the known international terrorist Henry Fool who remains at large.  Immediately we see the mindsets at odds with one another, as we know his mother is no terrorist but simply an overprotective mom who was coerced by the CIA to retrieve valuable documents from what was believed to be her deceased husband, only to be drawn into a nefarious network of politically questionable operations by her very much alive at the time husband, where the government’s twisted spin on the story is a fabricated lie meant to conceal and protect their own bungled secret operations.  Nonetheless, Parker Posey is hilarious as a maximum security prison inmate, visited first by her loving son, somewhat astounded that he’s a religious convert, affectionately urging him to call as he leaves, reminding him “I’m always here,” and later visited by the minister who informs her that her son has left home with Oedipal designs to kill his father, who he blames for all his mother’s dismal misfortunes.  With that, the film turns into an extended road movie where Ned seeks out his father, where except for an aerial shot of Seattle consists entirely of local establishments in the state of New York made to resemble other parts of the country.  

Before he hits the road, however, Ned pays his Uncle Simon a visit, a poet laureate holed up in a New York City hotel that he never leaves, where he’s undergone his own conversion, of sorts, refusing to write serious poetry anymore that no one would ever read anyway, throwing that aside for a more popular YouTube website that channels his inner clown, writing jokes and posting comic videos, coached by a comedy instructor, believing in this manner he actually connects with his public, where among the more popular draws to his site are regular posted comments of excoriating personal denouncements of Simon’s stand-up blog coming from a disenchanted viewer somewhere in Seattle whose disgruntled voice can be none other than Henry.  Hanging out in the lobby of the hotel, however, unbeknownst to Ned, is a stalker of Simon, Susan Weber (Aubrey Plaza), someone who wrote a phonebook-sized graduate school dissertation on his work, who remains planted on the premises hoping to catch a glimpse of him.  With a penchant for lipstick, excess mascara and an overcoat covering thigh high stockings, she coolly nestles up to Ned for her way inside, becoming an alluring femme fatale figure, literally attaching herself to Ned throughout the rest of the film where she’s infinitely more interesting than he is, though she’s secretly motivated by traumatic events during her troubled childhood, which includes stints at a psychiatric hospital.  With Ned playing straight man to her crazy antics, she provides the twists of fate, the hyper-literate dialogue, the comic bewilderment, and the central thrust of the film, much as Parker Posey did in the previous installment, becoming her natural heir apparent.  Simon is obviously deeply touched by the complexity of her academic analysis, showing incredible psychological insight into a dysfunctional situation that he finds a bit troubling, believing she must be seriously disturbed herself.  But when she recommends he ditch the website, he asks, “You think its okay for me to be unpopular?” to which she bluntly replies, “Oh, I think it’s necessary.”  Ned and the uninvited Susan, who always seems to show up, set out for Seattle on an adventure together searching for the missing Henry, perceived as a diabolical fugitive from justice, where the trip only grows more convoluted along the way, where the personal motives and deeply reflective philosophizing are subject to change at any given moment, where Hartley’s shrewd writing ability blends a group of irreverent moments and satiric asides into emotionally compelling glimpses of an underside of America, as seen through unanticipated detours (delusions) and side effects of the war on terror, religious fundamentalism, secret prisons, the CIA, Homeland Security, gun love, a pharmaceutical industry gone amok, and the pretentiousness of academia.  Like a world spinning out of control, the innocent get arrested while the guilty remain free to commit even more havoc, where Ned’s naïve innocence is manipulated at every turn, leaving him devastated to discover that his dad is even more incorrigible than he ever imagined, a man incapable of expressing remorse, yet even his innate goofy charm doesn’t begin to match just how delightful the unusually bewitching Susan becomes over the course of the journey, where her intoxication level rises to the unimaginable, leaving the open-ending film in a state of limbo, with no real resolution except an ending that recalls the zany prison finale of THE PRODUCERS (1968), as Fay forms a book club in prison where they begin with some of the longest works on record, like Don Quixote and War and Peace, as these women have plenty of time on their hands.   

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