Monday, September 19, 2005

Broken Flowers

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Broken Flowers, features Bill Murray as an aging Don Juan named Don Johnston. Completely depressed and lost (and rich, of course), Don sits in his home, staring at the walls. Yet when he receives an unsigned letter from a former lover claiming she gave birth to his son many years ago, Don is spurred into action by his neighbor Winston, played by the charismatic Jeffrey Wright.

Wright’s storyline about a working class man married to a happy homemaker (seemingly), with a houseful of children to feed could be an entire film itself. The fact that Winston takes such strong hold upon Don’s mystery indicates some sort of story there, perhaps a yearning within Winston for more. Or he could be the world’s most generous person in the world. Is his wife really that happy in her chaotic home with a man who chooses to spend his rare moments of free time writing detective stories rather than helping her with the kids or the cooking? As presented, this couple seems to have a house filled with love and energy, contrasting Don’s sterile and silent abode. Yet Jarmusch drops hints that Winston’s life isn’t perfect.

Encouraged by Winston, Don visits four former lovers. The acting across the board is fantastic. Jarmusch takes his time, allowing the scenes, especially the uncomfortable ones, to play out. When Don eats dinner with Frances Conroy’s character and her husband, Jarmusch brilliantly captures the emptiness of the fraud that is the American suburban fantasy, simply by focusing the camera on a plate of food. This is not an obvious film. Rather, the visuals speak for themselves, evoking emotion even when they do not reveal all the secrets of their meaning.

In between each visit, the camera follows Don as he drives to each destination. These extended scenes feature no dialogue, defying us to enter Don’s mind as he approaches each confrontation with his past. Watching these scenes, I tried to discern what message Jarmusch was trying to tell me. Is he making a point that American highways look so similar but lead to drastically different destinations? Is he building tension by delaying the approaching encounter? Or is he simply displaying his characteristic style: a careful and close observation of his subject in his element?

Oddly, we never see Don as a Don Juan. Sure, he sleeps with Sharon Stone, but aside from a certain sarcastic humor, Don never plays the seducer. Does he win women with his confidence? His suavity? Does he have a routine, a classic story (a la Joey on Friends) that always makes a girl’s toes curl? With Julie Delpy as a girlfriend, he must have something going on. Perhaps it is simply his detachment—maybe the women in the film like the challenge of an emotionally distant man.

Episodic in nature, the film climaxes with Don engaging in a conversation with a young man that he believes must be his son. Jarmusch doesn’t answer this key question—is the boy Don’s son—indicating that the film is more about the journey than the destination. Somehow, this isn’t completely frustrating: perhaps because Don finally indicates some sort of desire. The man who floats through his life without attempting connection finally reaches out to someone, only to be rejected as he rejected so many women before him.

Broken Flowers
frustrated my boss. She didn’t appreciate the female character depictions. All of the women are a little left of center: quirky Sharon Stone with a daughter named Lolita who strips for Don, quiet and buttoned up realtor Frances Conroy, earthy but angry pet psychologist Jessica Lange, and finally the brutalized Tilda Swinton. As the film progress, Don’s visits degrade from a woman happy to see him to the final woman who screams out her rage.

Certainly, it is no surprise when Don finally gets punched in the face: after all, he has apparently loved and left countless women. Unfortunately, a man punches him (always disappointed to see a man appropriate female anger), but Swinton’s Penny’s rage gave me pause. Are we supposed to view these women as somehow damaged by Don’s abandonment (though we never know for sure how each love affair ended)? Does this explain why they come off as flighty or damaged? Lange’s character left a career as a lawyer to speak to pets. Conroy used to be a happy flower child but now lives in a fake world with a fake husband eating fake food. Not that Don is exactly the picture of mental health, but considering these women collectively, what view of women does Jarmusch project?

With Hollywood (and the world’s) obsession with youth, Broken Flowers deserves praise for offering incredibly talented mature actresses complicated and challenging roles to play. Yet like Don, we see a piece of their lives and then leave them behind, seeking nothing more than an answer to the Don-centric question: did you have my son?

The only woman Don expresses a particular love for lies six feet under. The women he visits do not challenge him with any questions about their relationship: they do not hold him accountable (even when someone punches him, this action results from a reaction to present-day aggravation rather than decades old pain and abandonment). What does Don learn from visiting all these women? Will his life improve? Will he return to Julie Delpy a changed man?

The film begins with Delpy’s character asking Don the rather clichéd relationship question, “what do you want?” (does anyone talk like this in real life, or is this just a movie thing?), followed by a long pause indicating that he has no answer. Delpy deserves more than this, but more to the point, does the film answer this more urgent question: what does Don want? What is missing from his life that keeps him from wanting to move forward (at work, in relationships, etc.)?

The film leaves a lot of stones unturned, yet this feels real. Life, unlike Hollywood fare, usually leaves many questions unanswered. Jarmusch feels little need to present a completely well-made film with every rough edge smoothed over. Broken Flowers is a cypher—taunting and haunting but somehow cold—yet certainly worth the time of the journey.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Donnie Darko

For three weeks, I had time to watch only one movie in a theatre. Since then, I’ve been playing a mad game of catch up. During two weeks in particular, I saw Broken Flowers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Four Brothers, Junebug, and Wedding Crashers. Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I have also seen Dodgeball, Donnie Darko, and Friday Night Lights. Among those films, I enjoyed many, but of special note are Friday Night Lights and Junebug (more about them later).

Still, having so many movies going through my mind, I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps this embarrassing story will help. After watching Dodgeball, I checked out some of the DVD extras, including the “alternate ending” in which the Cobras win. The director’s voiceover relates that although he and the cast preferred this ending, which maintained the film’s artistic integrity, ultimately the skittish producers got their way.

I actually pondered this for quite a while, wondering if he was being serious. Could director/writer Rawson Marshall Thurber really prefer this downer of an ending, and if so, what could that possibly mean for an otherwise ridiculous riot of a film? Searching through imdb to determine if this alternate ending was legit, I found nothing in the trivia section to confirm or deny my suspicions that this was a joke. It took the people at work laughing at my naivete to confirm that in fact, Thurber was kidding.

So, I’m gullible. No shock there. But more to the point, I tend to over think, which is why I’m more drawn to drama than comedy. That said, this issue of endings and what they mean for a film’s overall impact struck me.

Consider Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, a film that pulls a Dallas-type maneuver, depending on how you look at the film. Virtually everything we witness during the two hours of the movie is completely undercut by a time-traveling miracle through which Donnie sacrifices himself to save those that he loves. So was the whole movie a fantasy in Donnie’s mind? Something that flashed through his head in the moments before death to justify his untimely and sudden demise? Or perhaps did he truly travel through time, justifying his obsession with the mechanics of time travel throughout the film?

The indictment of suburban life, though in no way breaking new ground, resonates. Donnie’s parents can’t see that he’s breaking down right before their eyes. The attractive inspirational speaker enjoys kiddie porn. Donnie himself gets away with incredible acts of vandalism, almost defying authority figures to see behind his doe eyes to acknowledge the suffering young man inside. In this world, if the surface looks good, no one digs deeper—appearances are accepted as fact, hiding the ugliness beneath.

Donnie proves himself unable to deal with reality. Although the engine of a plane crashes into Donnie’s bedroom, disturbing the peaceful existence of his suburban town, in fact, Donnie’s trouble begins before this. As the film opens, we find Donnie lying in the middle of a street in his pajamas (a note on his family refrigerator begs the obvious question, “Where is Donnie?”). In one of many reversals, the falling engine appears to be an inciting incident when in fact, it is merely the conclusion of the story, serving as a sort of twisted foreshadowing of Donnie’s demise.

The logic of the film may not hold up to intense scrutiny (I'm still trying to figure out how to process all the implications of Sparkle Motion), yet the ending satisfies. Continually cutting away, questioning reality, and elevating the stakes, the film almost requires some sort of explosion because maintaining this level of tension is virtually impossible. Living amidst the ease of suburban luxury, Donnie refuses to accept the fraudulent façade of this world. His death, in some ways, seems inevitable. Confusion about the film’s overall meaning aside, there’s a lot to admire in Donnie Darko; it impresses with its daring, artistry, and shocking reversals.