by Ben Poster
A two-fold appreciation.
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Tone seems to be the order of the day in some of the better, recent films. From the excessive, ‘fault-free’ cosmetics of Marie Antoinette, to the wandering, natural, uncertainty of Old Joy—shit, I’ll even throw in the relentless oblivion and mild-mayhem that drives Borat across our country—established, and even ‘less-established’, filmmaking talents have thrived to give their features an aesthetically consistent cohesion. And that priority has been an apparently attainable one as each aspiring auteur has been successful in perpetuating a look and feel where perhaps such ‘details’ as dialogue, assured answers, or even… well… historical fact may have more difficult to accomplish.
This leaves nice, pleasant, little mood pieces that, depending on their genre, stay in, or ‘out’, of their respective ‘rooms’; and as long as the wallpaper is at least pretty pretty—or dirty and funny as hell—everyone seems to be satisfied in getting what they paid for at the movies.
Well, scrawl the name Mutual Appreciation—by a… perhaps ‘reluctantly-aspiring’ Andrew Bujalski—onto that current tone list; but put a sloppy little asterisk above it. What Bujalski’s able to achieve with his ‘small’ seeming film is actually much greater than any big-budget pop-princess might even hope to accomplish if someone were to mention that she might be interested in it—in addition to tone, Bujalski adds content. Where these other ‘tone-ers’ may have had characters, Bujalski adds character development; where previous efforts have displayed varying vague issues or possibilities, Bujalski shows us problems and… there not-quite resolutions. Yet, what makes his work an ultimate one-up on these others, is that he not only engineers an existent narrative arc, but he does so with even more of an emphasis on tone than his predecessors; and, most importantly, he seamlessly incorporates that tone into his said existent narrative arc.
I am by no means knocking the films listed above as incomplete, or inadequate. I really thought that Old Joy was one of the better movies that I’ve seen in a while, it’s just that—in the words of Jean-Luc Godard here—‘to me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated’. And Bujalski really couldn’t separate them if he tried. The ‘stylized’ button he presses in his accurately elongated scenes of awkwardness that make everyone in the room almost… physically squirm is just as clear at making the point of his character’s awkwardness and general uncertainty, as their inability to say as much. Where the composed/rosé-tinted romanticism of Antoinette seemed to have little to do with… what we were to understand as her character development, or the impending French revolution; and where Old Joy’s content may in fact be the ‘style’ that it’s two protagonists find themselves living in, it isn’t exactly succinct, (if those two’s lives were to indeed reflect the tone of that film… they’d basically have to be like… monks or manatees or something).
I think this is why people seem to be aiming as high as they are in their praise for Mutual Appreciation. ‘Style + content’ seems to be such a rare movie-making equation at this point that it must equal… ‘The voice of a generation’… ??!? Maybe. I think the truest accomplishment of this film though is that it uses BOTH of its means to a pretty specific and small end—telling the story of… well… a potential love triangle. And while it’s through stylistic choices that the content of that love triangle remains ‘potential’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s even about all love triangles, or the tone of all love triangles, or especially not the tone of all of the lives of all of the people who are the same age as the people in this love triangle. This is just a completely made filmic piece, whose parts not match, but fit, and work to move the whole vehicle forward. And that vehicle may be only a tricycle, or some bike-mobile made for three characters and not an entire generation, but that doesn’t at all mean that we still can’t appreciate it. We just need to appreciate it for what it is.
Ben Poster is a film critic liviing in Chicago.
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