Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 15, 2008 7:16 pm 
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An Internet date for New Year's Eve

Richard Linklater appears in the "thank you" list of In Search of a Midnight Kiss,and this grainy black and white movie shot on a tiny budget follows a similar trajectory to the latter's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Barry Jenkins' unreleased Medicine for Melancholy is another recent version of the genre--shifted to African Americans in San Francisco--similarly in digital black and white, low budget and providing an un-touristy look at an urban California setting. This time LA gets the up-close and off-beat lensing--by Robert Murphy. But the cast and crew all appear to hail originally from or be based in Linklater's hometown of Austin, Texas.

In In Search of a Midnight Kiss, two almost-thirty-somethings meet on New Year's Eve for a blind date arranged via "craigslist" by protag Wilson (Scoot McNairy). Holdridge's film is a bit more raucous than the previous examples: it adds in some strong language and threats of violence they avoid. It opens dodgily with Wilson getting caught with his pants down masturbating to a nude photo onto which he's photo-shopped the head of Min (the very pretty Kathleen Luong), one of his roommates. Also barging in at this embarrassing moment is the other roommate, Jacob (Brian McGuire), Min's boyfriend.

Though the down-in-the dumps Wilson is thoroughly mortified by this, Min doesn't mind; she finds it flattering. But Min and Jacob decide it's time for Wilson to be with a real woman. So they push him to the "craigslist" entry: "misanthrope to misanthrope," he goes, pumping up the angst level as a young man will do in LA when he's a recent arrival from elsewhere, was dumped by the girl back home, and is a failed writer and actual video store attendant who hasn't found a job in three months.

The online listing brings a couple of quick responses and shortly Jake is dropping Wilson off at a café armed with five of his condoms. Vivian (Sara Simmonds) talks to Wilson a bit, then makes him take a number and sit apart while she interviews another prospect, a plump divorcé with two young kids whom she quickly rejects. She's already screened several others. Whoever she picks, she'll spend the evening with--if they hold up. If not she promises to dump them at sundown and find somebody else. By a process of elimination, Wilson is chosen. Vivian is a would be actor from elsewhere whose thoroughly mean manner may owe something to recent events in her life. Not long ago she found her boyfriend "hanging out" with another woman and she's moved into a motel. This doesn't come out till later, of course.

The risky appeal of this setup is how very unpromising the pairing is: depressed guy, hostile girl. Wilson is eager but wary. Vivian is just plan nasty. Any coupling seems unlikely. This was the strategy of Medicine for Melancholy too, except the couple in that one had coupled the night before, but were so drunk they don't remember. The guy wants them to get to know each other the next day but the lady is highly resistant much of the way through.

In Search follows a similar path. Vivian is ready to bolt at a moment's notice. Wilson feels a lot is invested in this evening--he sees it as his last chance to salvage a miserable year--and will do anything to hold onto her. Eventually there is potential violence from Vivian's rejected boyfriend, but Wilson's willingness to spend his last $100 on a good dinner in an Italian restaurant puts them both in a good mood, and some honesty and some tears happen. The midnight kiss takes place, appropriately for LA, stuck in traffic. The mood of this little film ranges from flippant to dark to cuddly. Not all the scenes work equally well, but the proceedings are saved by dialogue that has lively, funny, vernacular qualities, and actors who're fresh and unfamiliar --though not everybody plays or photographs equally well. (McNairy's angular face seems to come off best in the contrasty images.)

You'd have to go a long way to achieve the beauty of Linklater's diptych with July Delpy and Ethan Hawke, whose classic qualities owe a lot to finely crafted dialogue and the elegance of European settings. Only by a miracle could you equal the richness and simplicity of of John Carney's little minimalist Dublin musical romance, Once. But Holdridge, despite his being of UK origins, is striving, rather successfully, for something thoroughly vernacular and American. Working out a brief encounter has all the virtues and weaknesses that can be witnessed in Linklater's virtually flawless examples--a bittersweet wistfulness, a real-time immediacy on the one hand; a certain lack of depth on the other. When people don't know each other and are young, it's cute, but it's not profound. Wilson's experience of pain seems to be self-dramatizing; calls from his perky mother (Twink Caplan) chirpily urging him on from a party show his background is benign. Though she remains largely a mystery, Vivian obviously has more of an edge: Sara Simmonds provides the film's emotional complexity. Min and Jacob, who get engaged, seem to represent a more conventional and stable couple, and Brian McGuire, in real life a music producer and techno impresario, provides cheer. Holdridge has something going here. Medicine for Melancholoy's dialogue and action may seem more real, because the two actors play so well together: they are explicitly members of a small minority within a small minority, young African-American urban sophisticates. The director, Barry Jenkins, doesn't push for drama. The saltiness of Holdridge's dialogue (he wrote as well as directed) seems pushed. Still, the film's attempt to achieve an edgy LA Gen Y feel is not unsuccessful.

And furthermore, whatever the style, in the midst of a summer's bombastic blockbusters and crude comedies, a little black and white romantic comedy with a real-time precision to it provides a welcome break.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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