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The Girlfriend Experience, Pontypool
and Away We Go

The Stop Smiling Film Roundup

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009


The Girlfriend Experience

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
(Magnolia)

Pontypool
Directed by Bruce McDonald
(IFC)

Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
(Focus)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

*****

The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Porn stars are fantasy objects, so no surprise if critics seem to be projecting their own obsessions onto Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and its lead actor, then-20-year-old porn-star-as-performance artist Sasha Gray. The film, and especially “Chelsea”, the faux-girlfriend escort played by Gray, have been taken as metaphors for cinema itself — in the opaque Chelsea’s manufacture of illusion — and, more specifically, for frequent Hollywood gun-for-hire Soderbergh. (The presence of critic Glenn Kenney and journalist Mark Jacobson, playing “versions of themselves” who attempt in very different ways to penetrate Chelsea’s facade, suggest her industry of performance is analogous to moviemaking.) Given the film’s timestamp — shot last October, and admitting much gnashing of teeth regarding the presidential election and the collapse of the economy — and the illusory nature of Chelsea’s transacted affections, she may be the Aughties bubble economy incarnate.

It’s that now-ness and documentary texture — seemingly mundane interactions captured digitally, in a specific historical moment — which leads me to my own reading. It seems to me that Chelsea — note that her nom de prostitution matches a waterfront neighborhood turned bohemian enclave turned outdoor mall — and her world is a miniature not just of the past decade’s paper-tiger economy, but of the New York gentrification fueled by all that balance-sheet sleight-of-hand. A few interludes aside, the film is shot in mid-to-lower Manhattan, in luxury hotels and reserve-your-table-a-week-in-advance restaurants, warehouses gone condo and gyms with floor-to-ceiling windows; the film is populated by personal trainers and their (and Chelsea’s) clients — all played by nonprofessionals (Gray excepted). As a snapshot of this epoch of Manhattan excess, the locations are even more spot-on than their Muscle Milk-chugging financier inhabitants. The restaurants that Chelsea mentions (alongside other name brands) in voice-over accounts of “dates” sound familiar to readers of New York magazine’s restaurant scene-monitoring Grub Street blog; a late encounter is shot in front of a new condo development, on East Houston and Avenue B, whose progress I remember marking on my walk to and from the subway, back when I could still afford to live in Alphabet City.

If this reading seems dependent upon a privileged, perhaps fetishistic, awareness of the evolution of a few New York neighborhoods, consider the atmosphere of abstracted affluence in all those Modernist luxury hotel rooms and expensive restaurants — the way their sleek light fixtures give off starbursts, like the neon casinos of the Ocean’s movies. Significantly, when Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris takes a trip with some broker “friends” (they subsidize his trip in exchange for his company), they fly to Vegas, where Clooney, Pitt, Damon et al perpetuated their movie-star fantasy. In Vegas, at least, the fantasy of wealth can be maintained: the women at the party in Chris’s hotel room seem to be hookers. It’s legal there — but back in the real world, at least one of the East Village restaurants where Chelsea meets a client isn’t there anymore.

*****

Pontypool
Directed by Bruce McDonald

The anxiety pervading the real-time Girlfriend Experience has an unlikely analogue in a Canadian zombie movie. The fear driving its compulsive money chatter comes from the uncertainty of living through events not yet resolved, the economic collapse a slower-motion version of the terror of, say, 9/11 — of repeatedly refreshing the browser window in vain hope that information can travel fast enough to deliver reassurance.

The cloud of unknowing hangs especially dark, one imagines, over newsgathering organizations: in the race to process and relay new catastrophes, reporters must be more aware than anyone of the lag in our understanding of events. One such organization is the small-town Ontario radio station CSLY of Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, where an exiled shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) try to make sense, by phone calls to friends and the police scanner, of a zombie virus. Spread by speech, it renders its victims first nonsensical — repeating words past the point of meaning and into pure sound — then bloodthirsty, in the lumbering manner of George Romero’s middle-Americans.

Our perspective, like Grant and Sydney’s, is confined to the CSLY studios, in a church basement. (Miroslaw Baszak’s seasonal-affective cinematography, all brooding hues and dark at the corners of the widescreen frame, nails the eerie claustrophobia of artificial light in winter.) That the outbreak hinges on a communication breakdown seems not just a wink-nudging invitation to get semiotic with a horror movie (we’ve never needed an excuse before), but appropriate to Pontypool’s very resonant, localized fright, where the struggle is to make sense of — to define — the inexplicable.

It’s true, as some have complained, that McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess leave tantalizing threads hanging. The political implications of Canadian English being virulent stay out-of-focus, and no definitive answer on the trigger of the virus is provided, though viewers may develop their own theories. But it’s arguably right for Pontypool leaves us in the same cut-off, unresolved state as its characters.

*****

Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes

Playing a Scranton paper salesman on The Office, John Krasinski integrates a liberal-artsy self-effacing charm into a world of sports banter and guy-code behavior. He’s the rare actor who can seem just as natural and appealing while playing a rung or so down the socioeconomic ladder. In Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, as one half of a couple road-tripping in search of a new home for themselves and their unborn daughter, he’s a college-drop-out insurance salesman in possession of some very Eggersian whimsy and global awareness (name-dropping hotspots like Chechnya in his one-liners) — the kind of guy who decides he wants to be the kind of dad who whittles, even if he calls it “cobbling” at first. Krasinski comes off as a blue-state dude with some unironic red-state tastes; the movie around him, though, pulls off the arguably neat trick of condescending to both the lower and upper middle-class.

Pace critics who’ll inevitably find a way to fit the movie to strong preexisting opinions pro or contra Mendes and Eggers, it’s hard to tell where the script ends and Mendes’ tendency to pitch performances to the back row of the balcony begins. But either way, the friends and family Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) visit in Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami are mostly pretty appalling caricatures. The assumptions behind the character types are alternately snobbish — Allison Janney as Verona’s cackling white-trashy ex-coworker — and reverse-snobbish — particularly Maggie Gyllenhaal as Burt’s childhood friend turned Women’s Studies prof and attachment parent. Given that she’s first glimpsed breast-feeding a toddler, it’s possible Gyllenhaal intends to skewer her own hippie-mom image, but her subsequent shrill pronouncements, of the racially overfamiliar and their-ignorance-is-not-their-fault-but-society’s variety, go pretty deep into a hateful grotesque of liberal condescension. (She does, though, have better taste in music than the movie does: Vashti Bunyan and the Stranglers play at her house, while the overpunctuating nondiegetic music comes courtesy Alexei Murdoch, who is to Damien Rice as Damien Rice is to Nick Drake. Apparently Mendes didn’t want to unpleasant music to play at the house of an unpleasant character; I think I know why, and I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Burt and Verona’s anxieties about parenthood are projected onto the indifferent, overbearing, disappointed and deadbeat parents they meet — but seem to be resolved by conversations affirming that They Won’t Be Like Them. This is not an unrealistic attitude for characters to take, but a movie about such characters shouldn’t take it at face value. The fright-mask characterizations don’t extend to Verona’s sister (Carmen Ejogo) or Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) — and Verona’s interaction with her sister is literally bathed in sentiment, the two of them cocooning in a tub and assuring Verona of her fitness for motherhood.

For all of its broad brushstrokes, Away We Go is too vain a movie to be truly messy. Burt and Verona travel to a lot of places that Sarah Palin would say qualify as “the real America”, but Away We Go doesn’t lower itself so far as to actually look average. Phoenix — home of Janney, cowed bottled-water-stasher Jim Gaffigan, and the only kids in the entire movie who act like real kids, sullen and embarrassed — is disgusting, but the way Eggers, Vida and Mendes visualize Burt and Verona’s disgust with Phoenix is through a trip to the dog track. Gauche, sure — but still photogenic, which is more than can be said for that city’s hours of sprawl. A couple hours down the I-10, Verona’s sister complains that her new boyfriend only takes her to chain restaurants — not that we ever set foot inside a Long John Silver; instead Tucson is all saguaros and sunsets. (I’ve been to Tucson. I bought luggage in a Ross at the foot of a canyon.)

Movies with era-appropriate tacky interior design — my ideal here is beer-label Seventies skuzz like California Split, but picture your own — end up with dated, nostalgic texture: the ill-advised furnishings locate the movie historically, maybe even match up with the periphery of a childhood memory. Especially in his stage work, Mendes’ sculpted space can hum with tension, but he’s not the kind of director who appreciates the insides of houses inhabited by actual people: Away We Go’s widescreen compositions vibrate with symmetry, like a living room all slipcovered and plastic-shielded. Despite the wealth of unstylish Americana at his disposal in Away We Go, he’d rather shoot key scenes under the boughs of orange trees. In this movie about finding a place to call home, the final destination is telegraphed almost immediately — and it’s a postcard spot that looks as artificial as the conflict that got us there.

 

 

 

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