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Entries in sarah labrie (8)

Thursday
Jun212012

In Which We Look Back Or Look Out

Lumpy & Fuzzy

by SARAH LABRIE

Your Sister's Sister
dir. Lynn Shelton
90 minutes

Lynn Shelton makes slow, imperfect dramatic comedies about people melting into their late thirties. She shoots in and near Seattle, tinting her images with the washed out grays and taupes of a rainy day at the beach. Dialogue drifts from moment to moment, reflecting her characters’ ambivalent drift towards adulthood. Her actors are youngish but not young, jaded, but not old enough yet to be resigned.

In her second feature, 2009's Humpday, Joshua Leonard and Mark Duplass play former college best friends who haven’t spoken for a while. Andrew (Leonard) has been traveling through Mexico making dubious-sounding art, while Ben (Duplass) picked up a real job, a wife and a house. Andrew shows up unannounced one night and invites Ben to a party at a commune. There, drunk and goaded on by a pair of charismatic lesbians, he dares Ben to make a gay porn for a film festival. Both men are straight and their intentions are oddly pure — Andrew’s not attracted to Ben; he only wants proof that his old friend is still cool. Ben, meanwhile, wants to find out if, underneath the mortgage and the marriage, this is even true.

This is a ridiculous premise, but onscreen it works. Shelton directed from a ten-page outline, giving Ben (Mark Duplass) and Leonard (Joshua Leonard) free reign to make up a narrative as they went. In the year of the rise of Judd Apatow, I don’t think anybody expected 2009’s most emotionally honest buddy comedy to be directed by a woman. The movie was a surprise hit, taking home a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and winning Shelton a spot in the indie firmament next to Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha-Ha), Joe Swanberg (Nights and Weekends) and Duplass (The Puffy Chair). Those directors made careers off messy movies about twenty-somethings at a loss — Shelton’s film picked up where they left off, when the aimless years were winding down, but a purpose still hadn’t been found.

Watching it for the first time three years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what the same story would look like if Andrew and Ben were women. So when I heard about Shelton’s latest, Your Sister’s Sister, I was intrigued. I never jumped on the Bridesmaids train, and I wanted to see if she — if anyone? — could make a movie that proved women in their thirties could be listless and creative and insecure in a funny, meaningful, narrative-sustaining way.

Still, the poster gave me pause. Humpday fetishized Duplass and Leonard’s matching lumpy, fuzzy stomachs. The one-sheet for Your Sister’s Sister highlighted Emily Blunt’s feline grace and Rosemarie DeWitt’s porcelain jaw. Iris (Blunt) is meant to be secretly in love with her best friend Jack (Duplass), but next to Blunt, with her famous-person skin and perfect teeth, Duplass looks like a baked potato. I had a sneaking suspicion (confirmed) that no one was going to take the opportunity to address this disparity.

Shot on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle, the movie itself is beautiful, the camera lingering on fog over lakes and black trees against a navy sky. The story here has the same blue undertones as Humpday, but the narrative is tighter and twistier, the pacing more artful. Jack’s brother died recently and Jack is listing into alcoholic depression. Iris sends him off to recover at her father’s empty house on Puget Sound. Jack shows up to find her half-sister, Hannah, already there, self-medicating after a breakup. They have drunken, disappointing sex. The next day, Iris arrives for a surprise visit, and a quiet little chaos ensues.

Blunt is appropriately chirpy and adorable as the favored younger sibling. Dewitt is compelling as the alternately abrasive and affectionate older daughter. The sisters bicker and make up, bicker and make up—Iris slips butter into vegan Hannah’s mashed potatoes, Hannah retaliates by telling embarassing stories about Iris’ pubic hair. For a while, you worry this is as high as the stakes are going to get. And then, suddenly, things swivel in a darker direction. The plot turns soap opera thick, with formulaic intrigues — Jack is also secretly in love with Iris! Hannah is a lesbian who was using Jack to have a baby! — and an empty payoff of a finale. In the penultimate scene, everybody gets what they want and nobody gets hurt. It’s hard not to feel like Shelton rushed things, worried she was going to run out the clock on her audience’s attention.

This is a shame. Shelton’s movies deal with people living through the age when hours become precious and wasting them starts to feel criminal. It’s around thirty that decisions turn irreversible and life ceases to feel infinite. In the years leading up to this age, it becomes more and more difficult to make any decisions at all. While Humpday’s meandering direction reflected this, Sister feels rushed and nervous, unwilling to probe that kind of stultifying darkness.

Your Sister's Sister also takes place in a contextless universe, free of politics, economic reality and people who aren’t middle class and white. It’s a little bit unfair to fault Shelton for something most other American indies are also guilty of, but this flaw is reflective of a larger issue. Shelton shot her third feature on a microscopic budget, the cast improvising the story from scene to scene. Without the constraints of studio notes and debt, they were free. Here was a chance to make a movie that didn’t look like other movies — the way Humpday was a buddy comedy that subverted the genre even as it raised the bar. Instead Your Sister’s Sister is a sweet romantic comedy perfect for watching on airplanes.

Time drifts along. Adulthood creeps up on all of us, whether we notice it or not. When it comes, it’s not always in a shape we recognize, and it’s never as tidy as we thought it would be. While this makes for a frustrating emotional reality, it could make for a really fascinating movie about two sisters. It’s too bad Shelton wasn’t brave enough to make it.  

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about Damsels in Distress. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Who" - David Byrne & St. Vincent (mp3)

"Save Me From What I Want" - St. Vincent (mp3)

Monday
Apr162012

In Which Whit Stillman Is Overly Familiar

Marbled Wonderland

by SARAH LABRIE

Damsels in Distress
dir. Whit Stillman
97 minutes

People like to give Whit Stillman a hard time for making movies about rich people who only care about themselves, but really he makes movies about rich people who care a lot about bad dancing. Metropolitan, Last Days of Disco and Barcelona all promote terrible dancing in public as a therapeutic pastime. Damsels in Distress — Stillman’s first feature in more than a decade — is also his first to elevate the bad dancing/therapy dichotomy to a cure for all life’s social ills. I, for one, came away convinced.

Damsel’s heroine Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) dreams of “changing the course of human history” by inventing an international dance craze. In off hours she tries to reform the Roman Letter Clubs (Stillman’s version of frats) of Seven Oaks College by showing up at their parties and waving her arms around. She’s a junior, I think, but she doesn’t ever talk about summer internships or studying abroad. She’s sacrificed a four-year education for loftier ambitions, like the prevention of suicide in the student body’s depressive population through tap.

With her normal-person body, gargantuan smile and eyebrows that don’t match her hair, Gerwig’s Violet is hard not to love. She’s the least movie-star-pretty girl in her posse of ladies, which means, of course, she is the leader. Her sidekicks, Rose and Heather glitter like they got lost on the way to a Gossip Girl shoot but they turn up mostly to protect Violet’s ego, along with the free donut box at the suicide prevention center where she volunteers.

Part of the reason we love Violet is that she fails and fails again. Nobody shows up for the premiere of her international dance craze, and in spite of her best efforts, students keep jumping off buildings. Still, she never so much as doubts herself and for this, she deserves a spot among the Katniss Everdeens and Lisbeth Salanders of the season, if not a throne in movie heaven next to Tracy Flick.

We all know people who claw through life cheerfully deluded, but oftentimes when these people show up in movies, they have penises. Violet has floral silk dresses and a Kate Spade full of good intentions. In the same way Young Adult gave us a female lead who, over the course of a two-hour film, didn’t learn anything or change, Stillman gives us Violet Wister and her all-consuming dedication to beautiful things that don’t matter.

If the whole set-up sounds twee, know that on screen Violet’s perspective comes off as darkly nihilistic. She wants to live in imaginary universe free of aggression, hostility, stupid nicknames, body odor, porn, politics, history or the Internet — a marbled, antiseptic female wonderland where perfume and a pastel dress code are strictly enforced. “In some ways, it is distinctly Whit Stillman,” Gerwig said in an interview, “but in other ways, it’s totally — it’s like an alien made it. But in a good, interesting way.”

Opposite Violet, we get Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new student at Seven Oaks with baby deer eyes and a teensy-tiny head. We know right away Lily is trouble because she doesn’t wear dresses and she refuses Violet’s offer of a makeover. At first Stillman tries to pit Lily and Violet against each other but Violet doesn’t stand for negativity. Lily calls Violet arrogant and Violet thanks her for her “chastisement”. Lily calls Violet nosy and Violet vows to improve herself. Lily calls Violet crazy and Violet agrees. Lily calls Violet’s boyfriend Frank, “a moron,” and Violet tells her she’s being “a bit harsh.”

Over the course of Damsels, nothing changes, nobody yells at anyone, and nobody makes any decisions. In the end, the whole cast dances and then dances some more. Also, a frat boy who can’t name his colors sees a rainbow. I left the theater thinking, “Nothing as amazing as watching that movie is going to happen to me all year.” (Also: “Why isn’t Adam Brody in more things?”)

Seeing Greta Gerwig in Stillman’s shiny snow-globe of a universe is off-putting. So is watching her recite his blueblood-inflected dialogue. Gerwig got her start in grimy no-budget festival movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. (In Hannah she plays the trumpet naked in a bathtub with Kent Osborne and in Nights she has actual sex with Joe Swanberg on the floor.) Neither feature required her to memorize lines or finish sentences. Her presence in this film, at first, feels like a calculated wink to moviegoers who knew who Gerwig was before Greenberg. Probably, it is. Supporting actors include Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Hugo Becker of Gossip Girl, Zach Schwartz from The Office and Brody who will never need his credits listed. A consulting producer is Alicia Van Couvering who also produced Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Nobody Walks. Dunham was supposed to be in Damsels as was Chris Eigeman, but they both dropped out to do the Girls pilot.

Casting these actors helps Stillman prove he’s still hip in all his premeditated unhipness. It also meant he didn’t have to pay anybody movie star asking prices. Thanks to Damsels’ small budget, Stillman doesn’t need to pander to anybody to make his money back. He can include his weirdo P.G. Wodehouse dialogue and not cater to anybody’s narrative expectations but his own.

Untrammeled freedom isn’t always a good thing though, and parts of Damsels are genuinely bad. One of the damsels can’t act at all, and only one of the frat boys can. Some lines landed on the audience not so much with a thud as with the nervous through-the-nose exhale people reserve for New Yorker cartoons, or unfunny friends whose feelings they don’t want to hurt. “What was that?” asked the woman behind me as the credits rolled. “Whose idea was that movie?”

She probably wasn’t the only person who felt that way. One major critique I imagined coming out in reviews is that it’s tone-deaf to politics. The world the Damsels live in looks more like the Clueless era than this modern age of scrambling economics majors and unemployed law school graduates. But just because an agenda isn’t timely doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. What people who rail against the film’s superficial materialism are missing is that a major theme of Damsels is the decline of decadence. Adam Brody writes a paper on the topic and Violet and her posse attend a drunken frat boy bacchanal.

Perched on top of a rock situated high above the brawling mass of oafs, animals, spilled beer and toilet paper, Violet muses, “This is what happens when decadence infiltrates a society from within… such a society is destined to be overrun. Maybe that’s a good thing.” For all her oblivious insanity, you’d be hard pressed to argue she’s not making a valid point.

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Jennifer Egan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"At the Table of the Styx" - Will Stratton (mp3)

"If You Wait Long Enough" - Will Stratton (mp3)

The latest album from Will Stratton, Post-Empire, was released on February 12th.


Friday
Feb172012

In Which The Dreams Of Jennifer Egan Come True

Internal & External

by SARAH LABRIE

Look At Me is a novel by Jennifer Egan about a model named Charlotte who drives her car into a ditch and wakes up with eighty titanium screws in her face. Dropped by her friends and dismissed by her agent, disfigured Charlotte makes a final effort to revive her career and lands a shoot with Italian Vogue. On set at a loft in Soho, she stops mid-pose at the “odd snapping noise” of a man pulling a glove on over his hand.   

      “Hold it,” I said, fighting my way to a standing position in the copious dress. “What’s going on?”
      Startled, Ellis turned to Spiro.
      “He’s going to cut you,” Spiro said, as if this were self-evident.
      “Cut me where?      
      “Your face.”
      “I don’t cut deep at all,” Ellis said softly. “You’ll hardly feel it.”
      “Does it bleed?”
      “Well, of course it bleeds,” Spiro said. “That’s the whole point.”

Egan has a habit of stretching everyday clichés until they circle in on themselves and become something else. If the fashion world is superficial, why not chip at the surface until the models bleed? If modeling is insular and elitist, why not have Charlotte’s understudy be a North Korean refugee? (The new fashion photography trend, Charlotte’s agent tells her, is “People in the news.”) If you’ve read 2011's A Visit from the Goon Squad, you know Egan's fiction sometimes doesn’t read like fiction so much as it does gonzo reporting from a parallel universe. But what separates her from other post-modern satirists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace is that sometimes the impossible situations she dreams up actually, creepily come true.  

The oddest example of Egan’s clairvoyance — and one the author doesn’t tend to bring up very often — involves a different character at the center of Look at Me, a shadowy Islamic fundamentalist working for a Middle Eastern terrorist cell. Pale-skinned  and gifted with accents, Aziz (a.k.a. Z, a.k.a. Michael West) infiltrates Charlotte’s glamorous pre-accident life disguised as a nightclub investor. From a payphone in New Jersey he calls his bosses in Iran to explain why he’s targeting Charlotte: 

“If the collective goal was to be seen — to saturate the airwaves with images of devastation that would serve as both a lesson and a warning — why not strike at the famous people themselves? Were they not at the conspiracy’s very heart, its very instruments? If the goal was symbolism, how could leveling a bridge or a tunnel or even the fucking White House approach the perfect symmetry of this idea?... Witness the World Trade Center fiasco [of 1993]; only seven people dead of the many thousands who worked in those buildings…Structural damage completely underground. In short, nothing to see!” 

Like a lot of people who didn’t live in New York at the time, the thing I remember most about 9/11 is the video footage that played over and over on CNN: the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the smoke rising, the screams. I saw it on so many televisions in so many different rooms that the colors burned themselves into my dreams. But when Nan A. Talese/Doubleday released Look At Me to reviewers in 2001 shortly before September 11, it doesn’t appear many of them gave this passage a second thought.

Oddly, it's difficult today to find an original edition of this novel, which was repackaged and reissued in 2002 by a different Doubleday imprint, Anchor Books. If you search Amazon or wander into a Barnes and Noble, this 2002 version is the one that you will see. I found, and um, okay, stole, my 2001 edition off a bookshelf at an East Village café.

Egan’s political prescience is weird, but her technological prescience is weirder. Into the Manhattan of Look at Me, Egan inserts a countervailing force, a megacorporation that wants to profit from our image obsession instead of using it to destroy us. For the second time, Charlotte finds herself at the heart of a conspiracy looking to use her face as its pivot. Over lunch at a steakhouse that smells like “arugula and money”, a young Berkeley graduate named Thomas Keene explains: "It’s a database," he said. "A database for ordinary Americans. Each one of these folks will have their own home page — we’ll call it a PersonalSpace — devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external."

When Charlotte asks what these PersonalSpaces will look like, Thomas replies: Photographs of the subject and his or her family. Childhood Memories. Dreams. Diary Entries — everyone was required to keep a weekly diary, and daily entries were encouraged. Future Plans/Fantasies. Regrets/Missed Opportunities. And people could add their own categories, too: Things That Make Me Angry. Political Views. Hobbies.

Egan, again, is writing before 2001, years before Facebook taught college students to think of themselves as a bundle of tags, status updates, movie quotations and shares. Still, doesn’t Keene sound wildly Zuckerbergian when he tries to explain to Charlotte exactly why PersonalSpace matters? He says, "I see this product as being for people. I can’t emphasize that enough. I see us contributing to people’s knowledge of one another and connectedness — wearing down that weird divide."

Connectedness is, of course, a means to an end. What Keene really dreams of is book deals, movies, television shows, product placement deals, all based around the lives of Ordinary People. So while Zuckerberg chose Harvard and Stanford and Princeton and Yale as his vanguard, Keene targets early adapters more likely to have interesting lives — "an autoworker, a farmer, a deep-sea diver, a mother of six, a corrections officer, a pool shark."

Charlotte will belong to an upper echelon of Extraordinary PeopleTM, meaning people who are undergoing unusual experiences. The more interesting the lives they construct are, the more money they will make. By taking social networking to its logical corporate media hybrid extreme, Egan also prophecies the rise of the reality star. Or, as Charlotte puts it: "Joe Schmoe gets rich from being Joe Schmoe." "Well, I don’t know about rich," Keene answers. "The thing you really can’t put a price tag on, is how it’ll feel for Joe to know he has an audience, that people care, that they’re interested…I’d put money on the fact that Joe’s life will be enhanced in nonmaterial ways."

Unsurprisingly, Keene’s enterprise turns out to be wildly successful. Charlotte’s PersonalSpace gets its own spinoff in the form of a TV sitcom, a film, a doll, a video game, a book, guest spots on Letterman and The Tonight Show. Charlotte becomes a brand and winds up rich. This is years before anyone knew who Lauren Conrad was, and almost a decade before Bethenny Frankel’s name meant anything. 

Exploiting your own name for fun and profit is a concept that’s been puzzling me lately, mostly because I keep getting Google Alerts for another Sarah LaBrie with a much more active online life than mine. This other Sarah is an erotic hypnotherapist in Florida who recently expanded, I think, into full-on porn. She has a website (www.sarahlabrie.com), a Tumblr (sarahclabrie.tumblr.com) and a Flickr stream, where she promotes her services dressed sometimes like a "fallen angel" and sometimes like a "sexy nurse." Almost every day, I get a new e-mail alert in my inbox for an "intense orgasm mp3 download" by Sarah LaBrie that I, Sarah LaBrie, did not record.

I am admittedly lazy about keeping up my own Internet persona, and I’m beginning to feel a flickery concern about the pretty, perpetually half-naked web personality who shares my name. So last Tuesday, I took the 1 up to Columbia University to see Jennifer Egan speak as part of a lecture series called "Rewiring the Real." It felt important to find out what else she had to say about the future.  

Egan in person resembles a foreign correspondent for CNN, quick, witty, professional, the type of person who can travel long distances on short notice with little luggage. She talks the way professors talk, in full paragraphs that lead always towards surprising but inevitable conclusions. In the first five minutes of her lecture, she drove home points about Proust, nostalgia, the meaning of time, airplanes, cell phones, San Francisco and the rise and fall of punk rock, all ingredients that make up A Visit From the Goon Squad, the novel that last year won her a Pulitzer and turned her into a household name.  

Goon Squad, if you haven’t read it, is a novel made up of short stories about the fading glamour of the recording industry. In another, more important way, it’s about the way time moves in both directions at once, the past and the future both halves of the always unfolding present. Writing the novel, Egan told us, she came up with three rules: "Each chapter had to be about a different person; Each chapter had to have a different texture; Each chapter had to stand on its own." When the moderator suggested that the flicking back and forth between lives in Goon Squad mimicked the experience of using Facebook, a worried look passed over Egan’s face. “Well, no,” she said. “I had never been on Facebook when I wrote that.” 

In real life Egan is a Luddite, it seems, her interest in new media just an extension of her fascination with words, like a photographer’s interest in light. She doesn’t use Twitter and she bought an iPhone only recently, sick of going home all the time to check her e-mail. She writes in longhand, like Proust, reclined. The most famous chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad is written from the POV of a little girl creating a PowerPoint presentation. But when she wrote it, Egan has said, didn’t know what PowerPoint was. She’d only heard about the program thanks to a few corporate friends and her sister, an executive at Bain. She drew out the slides manually, tracing rectangles and pie charts and bullet points on a yellow legal pad by hand. 

What Egan is interested in, she says, is the question of whether or not “the impulse to construct ourselves from the outside in” — that is, as a collection of Tweets and Tumbls and Flickrs and Facebook profiles — “has changed the way we see ourselves and who are.” The conclusion Egan came to after writing two critically-acclaimed novels on the subject, is  “no, of course not.”  

In the epilogue of Look at Me, Charlotte is a reclusive millionaire, happily divorced from her online persona (maintained now by a team of animators), and paid well for her time. I sold Charlotte Swenson for a sum that will keep myself and two or three others comfortable for the remainder of our lives, although not (I’m told) for nearly what she was worth. I dyed my hair, changed my name and walked out the door of my twenty-fifth floor apartment for the very last time.

Charlotte has the privilege of starting life under a new name, financed by profits she earned by allowing a social networking company to use her. While all of this is nice for her, the rest of us won’t be so lucky. Later this year when Facebook goes public, Zuckerberg stands to make five billion dollars in salary (plus twenty-three billion in stock) off the data we give him for free. Meanwhile the rest of us will keep using fb to stalk our high school frenemies and procrastinate at office jobs we sometimes don’t like and never get paid enough to do. The fact that Facebook makes some people rich but doesn’t seem to make anybody (besides Zuckerberg and his execs) happy is old news, written about before here and here. Less written about is a different problem, an issue Egan touches on in Look at Me, but never fully explores.  

There is another central character in Look at Me, the older brother of Charlotte’s childhood best friend, whose name is Moose. Moose starts out as a popular teenager but grows up into a fanatical academic who may not suffer from schizophrenia. His psychotic break manifests in the form of “visions”, like this one: Moose had sense that a terrible reversal was in progress, a technological disaster whereby the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves; whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had been once.

At first, this paragraph reads like your typical paranoid robot uprising wolf cry, but if you look closer, it dissolves into something else. I mean, what are Tumblr posts and YouTube uploads and status updates and Flickr albums and texts and Gchat conversations and Facebook messages and E-mails and Tweets and Wall Postings and Blogspot blogs and Comments and Notes if not pieces of ourselves? And what makes this fragmentation possible if not the machine descendants of the Industrial Revolution?  

Rachel Silverman explains in the WSJ that there's no need for resumes because employers at some companies would rather Google you, and decide whether or not to hire you based on the results; what the Internet has to say about you now carries more weight than what you have to say about yourself. This worries me, and not just because I'm pretty sure Sarah LaBrie the erotic hypnotherapist and I have vastly different professional goals. 

Egan might be right that our "creating our selves from the outside in," doesn’t have any fundamental impact on who we are. But what she didn’t bring up is whether "who we are as people" will matter anymore when employers (not to mention banks and mortgage companies) are this deeply concerned with our Google search results. What if, as Moose suspects, rather than us determining the parts, soon it will be the parts that determine who we are? What if this is already the case, a result of decisions made on our behalf by the companies with whom we feel increasingly compelled to share all our basic personal information

Last week I got rid of my iPhone, unfollowed all the people on Tumblr whose feelings I didn’t think would be hurt, and locked myself out of Facebook. I wrote the first draft of this essay out long hand, leaving my laptop at home so I wouldn’t be tempted by the screen. I wrote in the 8th floor quiet reading room in the NYU library, taking breaks to stare through the picture window at the view of Washington Square Park. The buzzy static in my brain receded and left behind a clarity I hadn’t experienced since high school. On the F train home I thought about two things: how lovely it felt to be free for a day, and how strange it was that this feeling had become so unfamiliar. 

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Rubber. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"The Rainbow" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Time Will Save the Day" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Justify Me" - Ben Kweller (mp3)