Friday, April 22, 2011

Cold Weather

Dir. Aaron Katz

After the unprecedented and widespread success of mumblecore during the first half of this past decade, it now seems that the movement is split between two distinct ideological strains: Movies About Real People and movies about real people. The former contains the opposing poles of mumblecore. At one end is the Hollywoodization of the movement (or as I like to call it “The Michael Cera/Ellen Page Effect”) based on the pretense that awkward lovability, dialog that sounds spontaneous, and fantastic scenarios that betray the central conceit of being a film that is ostensibly realistic, will sell tickets across demographics and appeal to the debatabe desire of the viewer to see him or herself represented on screen. The other strain, of course, is the origins of mumblecore. The early films of Andrew Bujakski, the Duplass brothers and others initially brought together low budget necessity and modest conceptions about identity and place within culture. From these lowly origins these filmmakers created a genre so seemingly artless and affectless that their films eventually came full circle; transformed into trite and self-conscious pieces of anti-cinema.

So what about films about real people (perhaps, given the nature of the argument, even the italics should be done away with)? In Cold Weather director Aaron Katz mines the myriad complexities of utilizing a medium that relies heavily on invisible artifice to create something that is breathtakingly of-the-moment. He begins by utilizing a common template of mumblecore: nerdy loner type can’t find a job. Thankfully this characterization, unlike so many other mumblecore films, does not become the film’s premise. Doug, the aforementioned nerdy loner, moves in with his sister, Gail, in Portland, Oregon. While she finds a respectable job at a law office, Doug, a forensic science major, can only manage to get work at an ice factory. Doug has a subtly complex relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel, which eschews backstory and exposition in favor of meaningful yet discreet gestures and insinuations. At the ice factory, Doug meets Carlos who seems specifically designed to tear down negative Latino stereotypes. Yes, he is a factory worker with a sideways baseball cap, but he’s also a popular DJ and a Trekkie. Admittedly, Carlos' characteristics are a little out of left field. Katz is far more convincing when dealing with confused and specialty-less 20somethings with all the self-defeating baggage of the under-employed, over-educated middle class.

The structure of Cold Weather allows for these characterizations to blossom and grow quietly in the restful pauses between the driving narrative moments of the film. After a neat inversion of the meet-cute formula (Doug purposefully introduces Carlos to his ex), what feels like a rom-com-for-the-rest-of-us, takes a surprising turn when Rachel disappears from her motel room. Though it may seem a conceit, given Doug’s love of the Sherlock Holmes mystery novels, the manner in which Katz puzzles out Rachel’s disappearance is compelling and highly original. Despite an early reference, Cold Weather is thankfully more Law and Order than CSI, and still more frustratingly grounded than either. Rather than follow the slippery slope of montage “crime solving” sequences, Katz concentrates on the rhythm of detective work. Scenes of silent snooping are contrasted by frantic car rides set to the sharp syncopations of Keegan DeWitt’s score, which owes much to the on-point neuroticism of Jon Brion’s Punch Drunk Love soundtrack.

As the mystery unravels, Katz’s influences begin to unpretentiously reveal themselves. Rachel appears and admits that she is involved in a money smuggling plot that involves a very Lynchian henchman in an anachronistic cowboy hat and vintage muscle car. So too does the gorgeous scenery and graceful camera movement of the film suggest a great love of cinema, in particular the effortless tableau of Hitchcock. However, the film's most enjoyable aspect is seeing Doug and company “play detective.” Comedy is meticulously grounded (no meta-isms here) and the drama and suspense plays out naturally though little is directly explained beyond Rachel’s mid-film reappearance. The point is the process not the result, as painfully realized by Katz’s conclusion. Sitting atop a parking lot waiting for Carlos and Rachel after slashing the tires of the “bad guys” and stealing back the briefcase full of money (the tropes look deliciously fun on the page), Gail and Doug enjoy a moment of downtime, the kind that punctuates the film and generally adds to our emotional investment with these undeniably likable and relatable people. As Doug plugs in a mixtape he made for Gail in high school the film abruptly cuts off.

So unexpected was the ending that the viewer has to be left wondering if there isn’t a missing final reel somewhere that, in lieu of wrapping up loose ends, would at least provide a logical closing frame. Katz, who cut his teeth in mumblecore, inexplicably falls prey to the spontaneity of the low-budget filmmaking process. In the process he disappointingly disturbs what was otherwise a thrilling, yet understated exploration of the dynamics of mystery. Cold Weather is a compelling study of what it means to represent real people in cinema and how best to utilize the classic conventions of a genre piece in innovative ways, yet it ends up demonstrating the unfortunate signs of mumblecore’s precocious eccentricities. Still, one cannot undervalue Katz’s unflagging commitment to his art and the accomplishments therein. Let’s just hope that next time Katz remembers to deliver the goods before celebrating his victory.

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