Friday, March 11, 2011

My Effortless Brilliance V. Humpday

A Slate article from a few years back noted the disparity between the movies people add to their Netflix cues and the ones that actually make it to their mailboxes. Overtime, people tend to compile a lengthy list of the movies they believe they should see while the guilty pleasures always seem to make it to the top of their list and get shipped. This creates a metaphorical void in the Netflix queue with the bottom of the list (with titles like Le Dolce Vita and Cries and Whispers) representing the sophisticated version of ourselves we wish to be, while the top of the list reflects the reality that, on average, people are pretty average (and like Caddyshack.)
When viewers are actually confronted with a title they feel they should see but have no desire to devote an evening too, that title tends to stay in their possession for an extended period. The Netflix customer will not come to admit that they have desire to choke down quality films that challenge and provoke them, and this is the reason that Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List stay out longer than any other titles in Netflix history. We are almost as likely to ship out as missionaries to the third world as to let those countries invade our home entertainment. Still, we cannot admit to being so shallow and unsophisticated, so we hold on to the disc, waiting for the day when a harrowing yet inspiring story of African and/or Jewish genocide seems more enticing than seeing Point Break for the umpteenth time. Not to say that Point Break isn’t harrowing and inspiring in its own right.

For six months My Person Brilliance has been the Hotel Rwanda I can no more watch than bear to send back unmolested. Yes, I am going to stick with that word choice. My brother, who spends most of his time in Alaska and the rest of it bored out his mind while he visits family, recently came to me after committing to the 2009 Mumblecore late one night. The next day, he was almost hostile that I had allowed him to commit to a film with “Absolutely no point to it.”
All I could say was “Yeah, I know. It Mumblecore.” As if the hipster genre of late were a problem we simply had to deal with nowadays, like the economy or global warming. My prediction is that mumblecore is about six months away from becoming a pejorative term, like hipster; something easily identifiable that no one will want to cop to. I’m saying this as someone who likes many of these films, but I don’t see much of a future for a subgenre that serves mainly to remind us why we prefer escapist fare to seeing real, inarticulate, meandering life represented on film. I’m amazed that I Can Do Bad All By Myself ended up being the title to a Tyler Perry film and not a Mumblecore opus, because that has been my response to most of these movies; I can be inarticulate and twenty something all by myself, why does this exist?
Watchiing Lynn Shelton’s two efforts as a director illustrates exactly how Mumblecore can make or break a movie. Her first film, My Effortless Brlliance (2008), is essentially a home movie that ruined 80 minutes of my brother’s life, whereas Humpday (2009) takes a concept (two straight friends agree to have sex on film) that would flounder as a broad comedy but works because the tension between the actors is so palpable.

In My Effortless Brilliance, Sean, an extremely effeminate, somewhat successful novelist, asks his college friend ,Dylan, to bring over Indian takeout. Upon delivering the food, Dylan announces that he thinks his friend is an asshole and leaves. A year later Sean arrives unannounced at his estranged friend’s rurally isolated home and then just stays there despite the fact that his friend clearly (and correctly) thinks he is still an asshole. That’s it. There’s some business about hunting a cougar and I half hoped the film would end in the highly unlikable cast’s violent mauling but the climax is actually the two men doing a crossword together and Sean driving off in his Prius. You can see why my brother was pissed.
The only feature on the DVD is a short making of documentary. There’s an heir of self satisfaction from all involved that they were improvising all of their dialogue and shooting the entire film for only a few thousand dollars (I’m guessing all of that went into catering) and far be it for me to tell these well adjusted arty types they shouldn’t be out there making naturalistic movies that capture the “real” moments of life, I just don’t know why the end result needed to be shared.
Humpday is another improvised story of an unwanted houseguest but avoids those meandering pitfalls by using actors who are actually skilled at improv and giving them situations that allow the scenes to unfold.

Andrew is a self styled Bohemian type who seems to have been couch surfing for years when he arrives at Ben’s home late one night. Ben is trying to make a child with his wife, Anna, and seems equally annoyed by Andrew’s presence and embarrassed that he didn’t do down a similar Bohemian road.
After a night if indulging in red wine and pot with some of Andrew’s earthy artist friends, someone brings up Boinkfest, a festival of homemade erotic films that Ben, in a drunken bid to win back some of the avante gardiness of his youth, declares he will enter with Andrew.
Two straight men agreeing to make a porn together. Played more broadly, this concept would just be a list of contrivances ( “We have to save the orphanage and gay porn is the only way!” or something) but in the context of Humpday it is totally believable that these two men could egg each other on to the day in question as a mode of getting back the artistic edge.
Some of the funniest moments come from Andrew’s dawning realization that, although he avoided Ben’s nine to five lifestyle, he really isn’t all that hip or progressive. At one point he is invited into threesome with two fairly attractive ladies, only to realize his sexual mores are not as advanced as he thought. My Effortless Brilliance would have had some momentum if Shelton had thought then to have a character whip out a dildo from time to time.
Although I’m usually annoyed when a film is about the creative process instead of the result of one, I liked that Humpday seemed like Lynn Shelton’s very entertaining answer to My Effortless Brilliance. Why do people go out and pursue these creative projects of no commercial and limited artistic value? Apparently because it’s the only way they can think to bond with their college friends. At least her end product is improving.