March 2, 2011
Across this blog and throughout my video-book I’ve worried about the “ironic free-fall” currently defining video on YouTube and the mediascape more generally. I’ve suggested that the hold of the fake and insincere has become so deep that even the sincerity card can no longer be played (by our president, no less!) So, imagine my surprise when earnestness is pleasantly pulled off by no less then hipster, indie smart-guy, Miguel Arteta, and an strong cast of supporting once-cynical fools (John C. Reilly, Ann Heche, Ronald Wilkes).
Just like heirloom tomatoes speak well to one too many happy meals, and crafting is a reasonable response to Walmart, it makes sense that we could only stand the pleasures of cynical unknowing for so many Offices, remixes, and Catfishes without eventually needing its reverse: earnest goodness. And this is what Ed Helms (playing Tim Lippe) produces: an affectedly unaffected look at the blessedly unaffected. The film imagines how such a man–insurance salesman, Mid-Western, milque-toast, small-town Lippe–could still exist in these callous, over-mediated, cynical viral times. A man actually under-exposed to the corruption of mediated self-knowing!
Now, we’ve seen a lot of this guy in recent movies. Childlike, prepubescent, preternaturally naive men-who-would-be-boys literally litter our screens. But these pretty-well-played-out 40-year old virgins of the Farelleys and Ferrells, Apatows and Carrells are fuel for mean-spirited (often misogynistic) fun where the men and their films always descend into puerile bad-boydom, no lesson learned. The other version of the man-boy (as played again and again by the genre which is Michael Cera and sometimes Jesse Eisenberg), isn’t as mean as it is nostalgic and Peter-Panish. I won’t grow up, I just won’t, given that the world is so mean.
But Lippe’s (and Arteta’s) unexpected movie path is towards better mandom—so unlike those sorry, naught, silly lost boys before them—and ultimately a better viewerdom. However do they pull it off?! In the insurance salesmen talent show held in the tacky hotel entertainment lounge, our intrepid cast trains us in the new ways of sincere-viewing. Lippe sings the kind of cornball “real” bad Christmas carol-cum-insurance-commercial that underwrites the logic of current cinema misanthropy: fake “bad” performance of fake “real” person cut to close-up of either a face with an utterly blank reaction (which means a cutting lashing read just below the surface), or cut to close-ups of a subtle knowing look between two horrified, snickering friends who will only too soon unleash a mocking tirade of abuse (no doubt on YouTube). But no! In Cedar Rapids that crowd, so primed to mock, hoot, or wither away in a sea of embarrassment, instead, slowly, ponderously, on uncertain feet, decide to, well, like it, and him. Then, so do we. It’s a strange and unexpected feeling (given that it has no smarmy uncertain under-core) from a contemporary movie.
In the end, while I may not believe a pre-contact man like Lippe actually exists (even in Wisconsin), I do believe that goodness and sincerity in movies can and am certain that left without representations that connect us to belief and hopes for betterment we’re doomed to cynical remixes of mockery, a cycle that seems (in Cedar Rapids at least) already on its way post.
September 4, 2009
I’m provoked. Just saw Paper Heart and this charming pseudo-naive cynical/happy fake-rumination on love by comedienne Charlyne Li pushes this blog’s fixations on fake documentary’s current yummy banality to new highs or perhaps lows.
I propose Paper Heart to be another member of what I’d like to call the slow-film movement (I’ve already written about Be Kind Rewind and Zach and Miri Make a Porno as high achieving students in this pseudo school, but we’d need to remember Dogme 95 as well), by which I really mean the bad-film movement, by which I refer to corporately financed and released feature films that at once mimic, make fun of and glorify an over-the-top parody of hand-made (DIY, YouTube) style. It seems that just as it true with food and foodies who relish expensive old-fashioned tomatoes, filmmakers are rebelling against corporate made excess, manipulation, expense, blandness and froth by faking the heirloom forms and humble preoccupations of people-made video: intentional shadows where any studio would produce over-lit scenes, staging actors in stinky Motel 6 lodgings as if anyone would stoop to such grimy lows, or actors underplaying scenes and feelings to the point of the zero-degree non-acting (of the fake-doc Office) that is all the rage on television and the YouTube that both leads and follows it.
However, the ultimate pinnacle of this new practice is represented through the inclusion of Yi’s childish puppet shows (and hand-made score, written and performed by fellow [real movie] star, Michael Sera) which punctuate her film to illustrate the “true” love stories of the “real” corn-husker over-weight charming real-people documentary subjects she “finds” “on the road” (although critically, this film really does seem to like its real people, unlike say Borat or the recent indie narrative that covers much of the same ground as Hearts, Away We Go) as if the art practices of six year olds are the new cherished vernacular for adult indie cinema even as, or perhaps precisely because today’s six year olds actually produce masterful, highly mediated video through the ubiquitous use of home video programs (many made for children) that allow anyone to make slick media. My kids would never show the edges of cardboard and pieces of string in their puppet shows. This corporate-financed retro-futurist throwback winks at nostalgic memories of an improbable time when there was any terrain of media untouched by the machine, just made by the wee babes. But face facts: it’s made by the machine. Hmm.
And how does Yi’s movie-making feel to adults? Sweet-ish. I guess. Sappy but self-knowing. Cynical in reverse. Because, of course, I’m currently working on my own mean-spirited contemporary fake doc, The Owls (just wrapped principle photography, yeah!) returning in its special middle-aged way to the hand-made styles, desires, and communities of its actual (not imagined) forebearer, the new queer cinema and the “real” indie feature of the 90s. We actually did shoot The Owls for $15K (and The Watermelon Woman for $30), while Paper Heart pretends to (I’d love to know its budget and finance history), and our crew actually fights about (and self-reflexively tapes) whether we should still strive for the beautiful Hollywood style many of us have become accustomed to or whether a brash, bad, ugly style that marks our actual poverty would be more interesting. The one Yi fakes. Furthermore, Yi and Cera bumble into love, playing themselves as naive, nerdy, almost asexual pre-teen-like grown-ups (something Owl’s star and director Cheryl Dunye did in her earliest work, She Don’t Fade for instance), while our cast plays it all as post-love: the site of violence, sadness, manipulation, and anger.
Which brings to be mind the edgy fake doc anthem of my youth, Sandra Berhard’s Without You I’m Nothing.
In our time we loved this fake doc because it angrily pushed against simplified and packaged ideas of race, sexuality, and gender. To fake was to cut, hard. Now it’s just to play, soft. Love/Schmove.