Monday, March 8, 2010

Like Icebergs and the Titanic - A Review of Beginner's Luck

Deniselle's note: I've recently been in contact with Robyn E. Kenealy, who wrote a very impressive Baltar fanfic that she will make into a blog sometime soon. She's a great writer and thinker, so I was curious what she'd think about Beginner's Luck. She enjoyed the film much more than I did, and seemed to "get" it more than I could. Since I loved reading her thoughts, I asked her to write an actual review for my blog. Here it is.

Like icebergs and the Titanic

A review of Beginner’s Luck

by Robyn E. Kenealy

I forget where I read this – probably it was in one of those Sci-Fi magazines that geeks like me always have at our houses – but anyway, someone had interviewed James Callisi about the way he as an actor had handled the “one year later” transition at the end of Battlestar Galactica’s second season. If I knew where I’d read it, I’d look up the exact words for you, but as it is you’ll have to rely on my summary. In broad strokes, it went like this: “Gotta be a curveball, huh?” the interviewer (kinda) asked him “so did you think up a back-story for what you’d been doing in that year?” Callis’ answer was (more or less) a British version of “hells no.” “I don’t do that kind of thing,” he (sorta) continued. “I just start in the moment.”

I was reminded of this interview while thinking about Beginner’s Luck, a 2001 feature written and directed by Callis and his actor pal Nick Cohen. Characters in this film floated onto the screen, and then they floated past me into the profoundly jittery ether at the edges of the film’s diagesis, and this reminded me. It was a film in which nobody had much history, nobody had much suggestion of a future, and most characters had very little present. Few characters even have surnames. In short, it was a film in which every character started and ended, more or less, “in the moment.”

This reads like a criticism, but actually, when I saw this film recently, I liked it a lot more than I had expected to, and mostly because of this. I tend to be squiffy about films made by people who are famous for something other than filmmaking at the best of times, and Teh Internets had made it sound like the kind of heartwarming light-headedness I would have changed the channel to avoid.ii Not to mention the fact that at first glance it had all the earmarks of a film that, as a friend of mine who was there when I started watching it put it, was “made by a couple of rich kids who think they’re edgy.” I’ll also freely admit that when I began watching I had to battle a bit with the constant montage,iii the inability of the camera to settle on a shot for more than an instant, and the directorial team’s failure to understand that film is a visual medium EVEN WHEN THE SCREEN IS NOT FULL OF AN ACTOR’S FACE. But then, somehow, after a while, somewhere after I accepted that it was made by actors and therefore was going to be relentlessly devoted to actors whether or not I wanted it to, I started to get what Beginner’s Luck was about. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. What I mean to say is that I started to get what I was going to enjoy about it. But anyway, what it was about (inside the terms of aboutness that I have qualified) was that. Starting in the moment. Leaving such back-story as could be thought to exist somewhere very much else.

This question of back-story is one that’s of interest to me. I’m big on it, of course, being as I’m a dork who reads psychoanalytics for fun, but also, as a writer, I’m incredibly pedantic about how back-story gets done. Personally, I tend to infer it from my own narratives rather than create it in advance. It’s like… you feel around for the character, and then you let them tell you, and then you can start to figure out the back-story for them the way you would about someone you’d just met (am I the only person who does this? When I meet a new person, I like to spend a couple of hours afterwards trying to figure out everything that happened in their childhood. This behavior is, of course, a direct result of everything that happened in MY childhood) and then maybe you use it. Maybe. Maybe it’s just something you know, and that informs your construction of that character. Do you get what I mean? I’m interested in character composition in general, and it was at this point of recognition, the point that I noticed that character development in Beginner’s Luck was unusual, that I got interested. Character development in this film reads like a series of floating icebergs. We get a feature length fiesta of 10% tips. The remaining 90%, all that stuff under the surface? It’s not for you, gentle viewer. Dive under that water at your peril, because Cohen and Callis are not going to guide you. Either because they’re terrible filmmakers, or because they are, as I secretly suspect, deliberately trying to impede you.

Perhaps with good reason. To recap, for those of you who are newcomers to this blog, Beginner’s Luck is full of people you probably don’t want to know that much about. It is the story of career loser/douche-bag Mark Feinman (played by Callis) and his attempt to command a performance of The Tempest. Unlike Prospero, he does not win at command.iv Over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly apparent that everybody, and everything, is going to fail. And not fail in a hijinks way. No, it’s all going to fail in a very horrible you-WISH-it-was-hijinks way. There will be no awesome performance of The Tempest. There will be no lasting romance. Mark’s dad, even though he loves his son, is not going to be proud of him. The troupe’s lives will not be transformed into tales of arty magic. The nervous underachiever will not develop confidence and a sense of self-worth. There will be no restitution for the large amounts of money and time the theatre troupe have invested. Beginner’s Luck could easily have been re-titled A Series of Unfortunate Events without too much trouble. It is a mess in more ways than one.

The thing is, though, as messes go, it seems a rather personal one. Of course, the struggling-actor content, and the way the Cohen/Callis team talk about the film in their making of doco begs this kind of reading, but even without that, Beginner’s Luck, I think, feels an awful lot like something I’d tend to identify as a “self burn” (where “burn” is a personal humiliation that happens in a public space. Like the way they say it in That ‘70’s Show.) And if it is a self-burn, it is also the kind of thing that TV theorist Barry Langford would describe as “painful comedy.” A lot of British narrative art is like that. Painful, even when there are laughs. You know, like the Steve Coogan oeuvre or Peep Show or The Office. Sometimes when I watch shows like that I have to cover my face with my blanket (we don’t have central heating in New Zealand) because I know how it will play out and I just can’t stand to watch.

For me, some of this is self-recognition; but increasingly, as I get older and crankier and less willing to accommodate the wishes of others, it is societal recognition. Always it is about the knowledge that the social contract, especially in relation to the ironclad, unchallengeable structure of British class, prohibits any of us from acting entirely honestly. “Proper” social interactions, according to some British narratives, are floating queasily atop a sea of things that we are trying not to admit. I recall writing about Peep Show for school in 2009 and writing particularly about that, about the panopticon of the class based British gaze (and with some familiarity, as I did once live there.) According to Langford, The Best of British is frequently about failure, and specifically about failure that is aided by an attempt to hide the self. At its best it makes this obvious, and problematizes it. Sometimes this experience makes for really horrible viewing.

Beginner’s Luck seems to specialize in this particularly British kind of horrible viewing. In fact, the formal difficulties I had while watching it, the absolute inability of the film to settle itself visually, eventually came to reflect Mark's state of being, and hence the tone of the film (for me.) Especially as all the other characters, especially Jason (Sascha Grunpeter), start to mentally break down or at least become “looser” the further they were drawn in. And it feels so especially horrible because of the vague, simmering impression that Callis/Cohen are nailing themselves, over and over again. Beginner’s Luckbrutalizes the dreams and attitudes of white, upper middle-class, self-involved art boys, with Mark as its central effigy. Talentless but self-important, reflexively sexist and airheaded about women, because being an “artist” gives him that kind of right, unaware that difficult things take work, unthinkingly supported by privilege. The film is not kind to him. It doesn’t want me to understand or empathize. Mark Fienman, if not Cohen/Callis, IS a rich kid, who is tenuously and desperately holding on to the fact that he thinks he’s edgy.

This is made more apparent by the introduction of the character Jason, a poor kid who has a family job. Jason is psychologically and socially destroyed by his involvement with Mark’s faux edginess, selling his mother’s jewelry, sacrificing the health of his cat, attempting to cut off his hand when it all goes wrong. I’ve got no real idea what happens to Jason, or anyone else after the narrative’s close. Mark, meanwhile, despite his ineptitude, ends up wheeler-dealing in Hollywood, in what the producers naively describe as a hopeful ending. Hopeful for Mark, maybe. If we’re going to assume that living out the rest of his life without having to face or change any of his self-isolating behavior is a hopeful thing. Or that success on financial terms can be considered in and of itself hopeful, regardless of the quality of the thing produced. I don’t, personally. And in fact, I’m reminded of a great quote from Alex Cox, the director ofRepo Man: “if you’re a fascist in Hollywood, you work with great regularity.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Beginner’s Luck to regard it as such a deliberate chronicle of self-loathing – or description of the kinds of self-loathing and uselessness conferred by societal entrapment - but it is a reading I enjoy. Also, I found this impression particularly striking in relation to the treatment of Julie Delpy’s character, Anya. This is because Anya is almost a parody of Celine, the character Delpy plays in Linklater’s 1995 effort Before Sunrise. I don’t know about you, but I really, really hate Before Sunrise, so this gave me a great deal of pleasure.

But I should explain - I know I’m a bitter curmudgeon. I know I’m a horrible feminist spoilsport, but I just hate it. I can’t stand the way the beautiful Celine floats into Ethan Hawke’s Jesse’s life and provides him with culture. A lot of people I know like, or have liked Before Sunrise at some point in their lives, and I hear their reasons, because there are very good reasons to like it, but to me it’s just another one of those frakking films in which perfect women indulge irritating men (and the philosophy in it isn’t very good. It’s lame philosophy, and there aren’t any proper politics. And so there.) I feel reference to this in Beginner’s Luck. Anya arrives by train, with no last name, no country of origin, and no apparent motive for her interest in the Vagabond company orThe Tempest. Mark fetishises her the way Before Sunrise fetishises Celine, much to everyone else’s confusion and dismay. He is awestruck by her beauty, her ethereal calm, and creeps on her in a way that is probably best described as “Baltar-eque” (only lamer. Dr. Baltar, the character Callis plays inBattlestar Galctica, is, at the very least, suave, if in a deeply fragile way.) Anya eventually rewards him for his trouble by rejecting him, and telling him “you’re horrible,” because he is. I am able to read, in my very particular way, a reference to the filmmakers themselves, as standing in for every arty type who loved Before Sunrise and dreamed of just such a magical European encounter with a woman far wiser and better and almost not even human. Anya all but destroys the magic of Celine by telling Mark the truth about that. When he makes his final play, after giving her an uncomfortably long hug that she visibly dislikes, she tells him “you don’t know me” and leaves. It’s fair. He doesn’t. He knows only what he wanted her to be.

But the thing is, I don’t know her either. Nor do I especially care to, since she isn’t very likeable. This is, for me, the crux of the Beginner’s Luck matter. There is no character development in the film. None. But there are characters. It’s just that they don’t develop. It’s as if, to use the word development as a handy metaphor, we simply see the photographs but aren’t allowed in the darkroom. These brief punctures – Mark’s childish relationship with his father (that speedy peck on the cheek? Fascinating.), the fly-by visit to Jason’s place of work, Charlotte’s resolute manner during her production ankle-ing phonecall, the fact the Hettie is a lesbian, and has possibly just figured this out– suggest that whoever these people are, almost all of their lives happen somewhere else, somewhere off screen. It is unbelievably alienating. I don’t know anyone in this movie, and because of this I am not permitted to like them or feel any sympathy for them, no matter how many girl-on-girl kisses or self-harm boozefests I get to be party to. So I’m left with two options: a flat, unpleasant viewing experience like watching a car-crash on the news (or engaging with Andy Warhol’s Disaster series? Food for academic thought?) or profoundly uncomfortable self-recognition. My own experience sat somewhere between the two.

Great. No, seriously. Great. Yes, the general yuckiness of the film (as well as something I am able to read as a pointed subversion of an ending which is supposed to be hopeful) is something I have since tended to present as a selling point of Beginner’s Luck when I’m talking about it at parties. Partly this is because I’m a big fan of things that make me feel uncomfortable and unpleasant - Tennessee Williams, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the novels of Junchiro Tanazaki, British comedies in the manner I have mentioned, and so forth. Not to mention that one of the coolest moments in my life was when I got to play a bit part in Alexander Greenhough and Elric Kane’s 2004 feature Murmurs. The Aro Valley Digital movement, of which Murmurs is somewhat representative, and from which my comics and writing take a great deal of influence, tends to deal relentlessly in the uncomfortable and unpleasant, and partly because it is about that tenuous position of social privilege that exists but is not felt by the person who has it. Especially, directors Greenhough, Kane, Campbell Walker, Colin Hodson, Andy Chappell, like to make you feel, as my husband Dick Whyte (co-writer and actor on some features, and experimental film-maker himself) put it during a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington’s film department, as if “the problem is me.” (This translates, when you’re the audience, to remembering all the ways that the problem is you.)

In short, I am inclined to enjoy films that won’t let me relax, that block me from escaping, that remind me that I am, regrettably, stuck in a shitty cinema in a shitty world in which things are harder than they look and in which people fail, except where they are wealthy and loathsome, in which case they tend to rise to the top and make awful movies (the film that Mark is attempting to promote at the film’s close is called Escape from Doom Island.) And that part of the reason it happens this way is because of who I am and what I’m thinking about, and the fact that I won’t admit it. It’s bleak, yes, and, as the producers correctly point out, somewhat inaccurate in the case of the people who made the film. I suppose, if I were their writing coach, I would probably tell them to start making films that hinted at the broader social causes of such bleakness, because I’m the fun police and that’s what I tell everybody (the personal is the political, I’m afraid. Sorry.) However, in this case, I appreciate the fact that Cohen/Callis have opened a door for me to observe the manner in which the problem is them. I’m comfortable with this. Or rather, I’m UNcomfortable with this, and I like that. Beginner’s Luck has its flaws (and also, given the filmmakers I know, it’s funny to hear people talking, as everybody did in the making-of, about $40,000 and upwards as a budget of “literally no money.” Tell it to Colin Hodson, who made Shifter for one hundred and ten dollars) but my pleasure in its displeasure (as it were) sustained my involvement. Hell, it was like a sudden, unpredictable shipwreck from which I couldn’t look away.

I’ll never know for sure how much of that was meant, though. Like Roland Barthes, who I believe had a brief cameo earlier on this blog in reference to this same film, I know I can’t pin the authors down, as much I crave to. I can’t get a clear reading on them. Or on Beginner’s Luck, really. But of course, this is because I don’t have any characters to work with. All I have is a series of floating moments and an enticing sense of impending social doom.


Author’s note:

I haven’t continued Deniselle’s discussion about fat acceptance or gender in relation to Beginner’s Luck. I’d intended to, but in the end I agree with her analysis. At best, the film is explicit about the issues it references, at worst it’s ignorant of them.


iThe person to whom this blog is fully, unapologetically devoted.

ii Don’t get me wrong, I like heartwarming – one of my fave films EVAR is Legally Blonde, for example. It’s just that British ensemble cast heartwarming has never done it for me.

iii The one bonus of this being the fact that I got to sing the South Park montage song all the way through the film – “show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on…”, “you need a montage! Even Rocky had a montaaaage!”

iv Incidentally, I’m not even going to try to do the reading of how Beginner’s Luck is like The Tempest. I’ve only read the Wikipedia entry on the play, and I don’t know enough about Shakespeare to write about that in a way that sounds accurate or cool. But you could, I reckon. Discuss.

About the author: Robyn E. Kenealy is a wannabe academic who writes Battlestar Galactica fan fiction and comics about dead celebrities from the nineteen sixties. In her spare time, she enjoys chain smoking and just generally being redder than a sunset in Cuba.


kixxa said...

Wow! You raise some great points there. I agree with it all, but really connect about the film's aura of incessant bleakness. The flashback scenes - which for some reason peter out half-way through - I assumed were there so the story could be told from a vantage point of a modicum of success. A gentle looking back at the struggles towards success. In fact, the joke's on us as they're told from a point of total failure and a certain bitterness, but we're not let in on that secret until the end, because in the end, there's literally nothing. It ends. That's it. But, then again, they had to be interviewed for something, didn't they? People don't get interviewed over failure, however epic the failure was.

Apart from Jason, who at the end is either working or visiting a library, we don't know squat about the other characters. I'm left wondering if this was intentional, accidental, or the striving sincerity of two young film makers trying to be deadly serious and ending up with a product that falls between, well...just about everything.

Really enjoyed your review!!

Robyn E. said...

Thanks Kixxa!

Don't you love Grunpeter's acting in Jason's interview scenes? He conveyed someone who was fragily recovering from a nervous breakdown... which I suppose was the intention, huh? Every glimmer of the other characters in the post-production-interview stage implied a certain degree of desperation.

BTW, I love your point about the switcheroo implicit in the film's narrative/filmic design. It really does frak you in exactly that way, doesn't it? Hey, here's a nice film for you... oh wait, no it isn't!!! Mwahahahahaha!!

Robyn E. Kenealy

Deniselle said...

Great post, and very glad to publish it :)

I still don't enjoy watching the movie. But I see your point- maybe they wanted to make a movie that wasn't strictly enjoyable, or one that defied expectations and comfortable reactions. Like an uncomfortable and unpredictable art movie, one that people would have to think about once or twice.

The subject matter itself is not uncomfortable at all - and yet it is, because watching others get embarrassed and humiliated is always a bit like that. But there's nothing directly vile or graphic about the movie and yet I felt a bit yucky watching it, which is also something you mentioned.

The film felt like epic fail when I first saw it, possibly because I was expecting something more feel good or deep-thinking or something else I associate with James. But maybe it's actually a great success, if that yucky uncomfortable feeling was what they were going for. It may just not be my bag.

"Hey, here's a nice film for you... oh wait, no it isn't!!! Mwahahahahaha!!"

Yeah, exactly. :D It's just strange, because I guess it's not what I expect of James. I'm not sure what I expected (maybe something quirky yet uplifting? Actually, if the castaways had liked each other and found out something about being different and yet OK the way you are, I may have loved the film.)

Deniselle said...

And while I love Alan Partridge and the Office - it's strange I never considered them in relation to Beginner's Luck. It's the same kind of awkward comedy in some ways. I'm not sure what BL was missing that those two had (I did laugh quite a few times, esp at the opening night).

Possibly the cinematography is a bit distracting in BL. (Amen at your montage comment!)