Sunday, July 24, 2005

My first post.

Like a first date, this post will be a little awkward. Until I get comfortable here, I'm going to have to be a little more formal than necessary. Don't worry. I'll loosen up with time.

Here we go, my take (which may or may not be published elsewhere some time soon) on Me and You and Everyone We Know:

Love in the Time of Internet

Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July’s brilliant award-winning new film, tells the interlocking stories of a lonely shoe salesman, his two sons, a quirky video artist, a smitten senior citizen, a seemingly cold-hearted museum director, two sexually curious teenage girls, and a young girl obsessively collecting items for her dowry. Each of these characters is isolated, unable to properly connect with the people around them, guarding themselves from the vulnerability of true emotional connection.


In the opening scene of the movie, Richard the lonely shoe salesman (John Hawkes) douses his hand in lighter fluid and lights it on fire, an act he later describes as trying to save his life. What he’s trying to do is maintain a connection with his sons as he and his wife separate, to mark this transition in their lives with a magic trick that would exhibit his continuing control over his life in spite of adverse circumstances. Unfortunately, as he admits later on, he realizes too late that he needed to use alcohol instead of lighter fluid for the trick to work and, as a result, he communicates only his own incompetence by badly burning his hand.

This scene sets the tone for much of the movie. Ostensibly, Richard goes outside to perform this act of self-immolation so that he won’t accidentally set the house aflame, but the pane of glass separating him from his sons also serves to establish an emotional distance between them; in a way, it makes this gesture – as extreme as it may be – far less real than an actual conversation would be. The glass of the window is much like the glass of a computer screen and accordingly his sons Peter and Robby – played by newcomers Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff, respectively – look upon him with the same detachment and indifference registered on their faces as when they surf the internet. Richard makes an emotionally guarded attempt to connect with his sons and, because of its indirect nature and inscrutability, he fails.

From this point onward, Me and You and Everyone We Know skillfully highlights the ubiquity of this fear of emotional vulnerability. Occasionally, the dialogue that relates most directly to this theme – such as Richard’s explanation of the protocol of helping customers try on shoes – comes off as clunky and heavy-handed, but these brief moments of verbal awkwardness quickly fall to the wayside in the light of the overwhelming cogency and clarity of July’s vision. As writer, director, and actor, she depicts a world of swirling insularity, in which people come in contact with one another, but never touch, not because they can’t, but because they are afraid to. Intimacy is an object of both intense desire and intense fear, and, as a result, social interaction becomes a playful yet guarded dance, in which the characters leave everything up to interpretation.

At no point does the film communicate this notion more beautifully and clearly than in a romantically-charged conversation between Richard and Christine, the quirky video artist played by July, as they walk to their cars. Having determined that their paths will diverge in a little over a block, they flirtatiously measure their remaining time together not as a brief encounter on an anonymous sidewalk, but as a long-term relationship where every one of their steps represents years of their lives together. The camera captures them individually – cutting back and forth – in jumpy, handheld shots that draw the viewer into this romantic metaphor, but also display that Richard and Christine are too wrapped up in the text of the metaphor itself to take note of its actual meaning. Only at the end of their walk do they realize the weight of their words and, accordingly, occupy the same frame. Their response, however, to this prospect of intimacy is not enthusiasm but fear. They recoil from one another as the camera reverts to steady, static shots that once again remove the viewer from the action.

Overlaid upon this romance is a subplot surrounding the character of Nancy (Tracy Wright), the director of the local contemporary art museum where Christine is trying to exhibit her video art. Cool, confident, and seemingly emotionless, Nancy’s character is not a person so much as the spirit of the film itself. While discussing the relative merits of various pieces of art in the context of the digital age, she makes the off-handed comment that “E-mail wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for AIDS,” explaining how fear of disease sparked a pervasive culture of isolation and insularity and created the digital age. There would be no more touching, no more face-to-face interaction; everything would be filtered through another medium, through the internet, through email. Although electronic correspondence only plays a small role in the actual plot of the movie, this culture of separation infuses itself into every interpersonal relationship in the film, crippling them with the semblance of safety offered by distance.

Hawkes and July both deliver outstanding, touching performances as their characters attempt to overcome the self-imposed barriers between them. Hawkes’ Richard is a sensitive, caring, and sentimental character. In an earlier era of cinema, a man like him would stride through a film confident and untroubled; he knows how to connect with people in the context of a bygone era, but not in Nancy’s digital age. Rather than impressing us with a sense of potent masculinity, Hawkes’ weaselish looks imbue Richard with a pathetic charm as his characterizations alternate between wide-eyed wonderment and momentary euphoria to contemplative sadness and overwhelming frustration. July is similarly well-fit for her role (possibly because she may indeed be playing herself). Her body language, her hopeful and desperate smile, and her innocent blue eyes all speak to her unrepentantly idealistic and emotional nature.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is an unflinchingly ambitious film and, as its successes at both Cannes and Sundance indicate, it truly realizes its potential. Although the film is not without the occasional narrative hiccup, its originality and its beauty entirely eclipse its minor flaws. In her first feature film, Miranda July has captured a penetrating snapshot of the quotidian workings of contemporary society; she has revealed just how detached from one another people have become. It is ironic, then, that this film about emotional distance and isolation communicates a greater depth of feeling than any other I’ve seen this year.

3 Comments:

Blogger A Sheltered Town said...

Keep it up.

July 24, 2005 5:35 PM  
Blogger red wine said...

you're hot.

July 25, 2005 2:21 PM  
Blogger Quimby said...

Steve,

mm...apathy and disengagement, irrational and passionate obsession, pretty cinematography and cute kids sayin dirty words and doin dirty things. i love it.

tight review, and kudos for dodgin the moral high ground.

-D

July 25, 2005 6:40 PM  

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