Monday, June 04, 2007

GoodTimesKid and Hannah Takes The Stairs

from Jake Meaney for

Jake Meaney

[1 June 2007]

These films share connecting tendrils of a strident defiance of convention, of this total faith in the surface non-sequitur; a seeming senselessness that really only masks the deeper connections and traditions flowing beneath their surfaces.

TheGoodTimesKid (dir. Azazel Jacobs)
I absolutely adore the tagline for Azazel Jacobs’ highly idiosyncratic, utterly charming TheGoodTimesKid: “A story about stolen love and stolen identities, shot on stolen film”. I’d also add that he may be stealing a march on some of his Ameri-Indie peers, as well, drawing deeply from a rich well that’s gone relatively untouched lately. But I love this notion of “stolen” film, which is meant both very literally and as a perfect metaphor for the space the film inhabits, a space woven entirely out of stolen ideas and stolen moments, but transformed into something refreshingly unique.

But yes, I do mean literally stolen. Costar Gerardo Naranjo, who, along with Jacobs plays one of two characters named Rodolfo Cano, “borrowed” the 35mm stock the film was shot on from a bigger budget project he’d been working on, claiming that the latter film wouldn’t miss it. Who knows what the film was, but I’m happy for their “generosity”. A good portion of TheGoodTimesKid’s success, if predicated in large part of the fact that, despite its obvious microbudget, it very much looks like “the movies” (and this is a film greatly concerned with other films, though not explicitly), having that richness and depth 16mm or DV just don’t have.

But its real ace-in-the-hole, which makes it stand out above the parade of inferior, low-budget peers, is its buoyant, ambitious orchestral score by first-time film composer Mandy Hoffman. A riot of clashing styles and loopy refrains, referencing everything from musicals to spy films to Westerns, her compositions provide vital aural clues to the “action”, which is mostly free of dialogue and, well, free of significance too, it seems. But it’s also just a lot of fun to listen to on its own, and I hope beyond hope that it somehow gets a separate release as a CD. During the Q&A following the screening, Jacobs joked that the score is bigger—both bigger in budget and more ambitious—than the film itself, but I think he’s right.



Because very little seems to really happen in TheGoodTimesKid. The film is such a purely cinematic experience, that any attempt at summarizing it would be both a disservice and probably impossible. The “story”, if there is one, centers around a waify girl named Diaz, as she navigates between two men with the same name; her troubled boorish boyfriend Rodolfo Cano, and an unassuming schlub who lives on a houseboat, also named Rodolfo Cano. The two Rodolfos cross paths at an Army recruitment office, and the second Rodolfo eventually ends up at a a birthday party Diaz has thrown for her boyfriend, which the first Rodolfo has stormed out of.

Rodolfo 2 and Diaz wander through the night together searching for Rodolfo 1, eventually ending up back on Rodolfo 2’s boat and giggling together in the dark as his ex-girlfriend shows up, hollering and swearing at him. The next morning, Diaz looks like she is going to run away with Rodolfo 2, but inexplicably, he takes Rodolfo 1’s place on the Army bus that pulls up, and, well, that’s that.

It doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it doesn’t sound like anything at all. And maybe it’s not. But channeling early Godard, early Jarmusch, and maybe even Chaplin (TheGoodTimesKid almost works as a traditional silent film comedy, albeit with that wonderful score), Jacobs summons a good deal of the vitality, oddness, and spirit of fun that seems to have been lost in independent film lately. Scenes arise and flow into one another naturally, even though they are seemingly random and unconnected. The connections are in the grammar of cinema itself, in the accretion of the underground histories of new wave movement.

There’s an innocence here, a purity, that burns off any apparent pretension. In a way, TheGoodTimesKid reminded me strongly of Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly sui generic Punch-Drunk Love. Both films move to odd rhythms that seems born out of the very lifeblood of cinema; primordial and inchoate. But they’re only odd-seeming because we’ve been trained to ignore if not loathe such innocent stylization.

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Hannah Takes the Stairs (dir. Joe Swanberg)
Speaking of loathing, if the walkouts during the screening I saw are any indication, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs may be on the “right” track, as well. A loose, totally handheld shot collection of improvised scenes of white 20-somethings yakking at each other in inanities and faux philosophical ruminations, hooking up, making out, getting naked in the tub, and bleating out the “1812 Overture” on trumpets, Swanberg’s film is likely to confuse and irritate as many people as it excites. Count me among the latter.

Along with cowriter and player Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), Swanberg is one of the key figures in a nascent movement of amateur indie film hearkening back to American indie roots of Cassavetes, and, yes, back to French New Wave, as well. A revival of amateurism for its own sake, these films are shot in an affected verite style, usually on grainy, hand held cameras, hewing almost dogmatically to a dedication to formless improvisation, letting the actors take the film where they will, script or story be damned. It’s a style that favors the mundane, the inane, the non-sequitur.

The film moves not so much to its own rhythm as to no rhythm at all. It is herky jerky, tedious, mostly drama free, entirely dependent on the whims and talent of the actors (amateurs all). And yet, I can’t see any of these as faults—Bujalski’s films are two of the most exciting and hopeful American indie films I’ve seen in years, and now I’d couple Hannah Takes the Stairs with them. But though I find these films especially refreshing, I wonder how long they can keep this up, since really, they are almost making the same film over and over again. The names change, the situation is always different, but there is eventually a sameness to their execution.

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Your reaction to Hannah Takes the Stairs and the other films in this “movement” (I have a feeling Swanberg and Bujalski might blanch at the thought of being the ringleaders of any such thing) is not based so much on your tolerance for naval-gazing, self-involved hipsters, as it is for a type of cinema that is deliberately, unapologetically uncinematic; a style that eschews narrative, character, development and focus, in favor of the immediacy of the mundane, of those lost moments that you never see in other movies, those moments you could probably call “real life”, if such a thing is possible in a narrative film.

And though TheGoodTimesKid and Hannah Takes the Stairs couldn’t be more different in conception, style and execution, there are these connecting tendrils of a strident defiance of convention, of this total faith in the surface non-sequitur, a seeming senselessness that really only masks the deeper connections and traditions flowing beneath their surfaces.

* Hannah Takes the Stairs Trailer

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