Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Aug 30, 2003 4:42 pm 
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The myth of plotlessness

I’d never paid so much for a regular film showing as I did for All the Real Girls. I went to see it at the Electric Cinema on the Portobello Road in London, not knowing that there, except for Mondays, the cheapest seats cost $16 -- and that's in the first three rows. The leather seats are handsome and new, but that didn’t do much good on a hot humid day when they were just sticky. Thus I began the experience in a state of mild annoyance, but determined to get the best out of my expensive seat.

I did finally get a slightly better idea why there is a fuss made about David Gordon Green. Having only watched his George Washington on video on a small monitor, I hadn’t been able to appreciate his visuals, which here are indeed often stunning. They can descend to Hallmark card prettiness at times, but since he’s working with a decaying North Carolina mill town as a backdrop, that doesn’t happen too often, and his use of maximum aspect ratio does create a sense of the “decayed grandeur” that my own father used to love about the American South. Close-ups of people are large and striking. Green’s cinematography has a kind of epic, glorious shabbiness and can be original, if he’ll steer clear of the Hallmark moments. His editing and overall style are certainly original, but whether they succeed is another question.

It seems to me that Green has been overrated as a director. His improvised, apparently plotless, meandering filmmaking has appealed to some major film critics who no doubt are starved for freshness and originality and are willing to overlook crudeness and self indulgence when it’s an escape from the conventional slick films they see every day. But Green’s style is more than a little self indulgent and has yet to live up to the hype.

Before you award top marks to All the Real Girls I suggest you rent a copy of Hillary Birmingham’s The Truth About Tully (2000, but not released till late 2001 as Tully) and ask yourself if that version of virtually the same story isn’t clearer, more involving, and dramatically more complex.

Tully, like All the Real Girls, is about a rural lothario who’s had sex with all the girls in town and then falls in love with an innocent young virgin and becomes shy and awkward because he’s found “the one” and can’t take her seduction lightly. There’s a powerful subplot about Tully’s father (wonderfully played by grizzled unknown Bob Borrus) and an ending that's quietly heart-wrenching.

The first problem with Green’s film is the casting. He has combined the better known Zoey Deschanel as the virgin with his own actor from George Washington, Paul Schneider, as the town seducer. The trouble is that Deschanel, though her ability to mimic naivety and authenticity is still there, is a bit too polished and pretty to be right for the part, and that Schneider, conversely, isn’t smooth or attractive enough for a Cassanova.

Anson Mount, who plays Tully, exudes confidence and dangerous sex appeal in every scene, and his costar, Julianne Nicholson, has a homegrown freckle faced freshness about her that’s just right. Put them together in a scene, and the plot develops almost automatically. But Tully is very much plot-driven, suspenseful, and tightly organized, and All the Real Girls is not.

Deschanel and Schneider embarrass because their improvisation, while meandering and seeming to go nowhere, only reveals how wrong they are for their roles. In particular Schneider’s clumsiness short circuits any sense that he could be a serial seducer. He’s puffy faced and without polish; you can’t imagine how all the girls would fall for him. Even impoverished southern towns have sexy guys, and Paul isn’t one.

Some like the way scenes break off unresolved in All the Real Girls, or appear for five or ten seconds and suddenly vanish. The idiosyncratic editing certainly gives the film a unique style that in some abstract sense is fun to watch. The movie ends with a one-way conversation between Paul and his dog, which refuses to try swimming. Paul's mother plays a clown for parties and a hospital, which does little but add an oddball, downbeat note -- and a vaguely familiar one.

Green’s ability to get at and awaken raw emotions (chiefly our embarrassment at the principals’ confusion and guilelessness) far exceeds his skill or subtlety as a storyteller. It’s in the nature of improvisation that plots fray at the edges, as watching Cassavetes will show you, and Green’s impulsive editing style only makes the edges fray still further.

Despite their questionable casting, all of the magnetism of All the Real Girls is due to Schneider and – especially – to Deschanel, who still unquestionably has the ability to be pretty and charming and at the same time awkward and authentic-seeming. It’s become a bit of a schtick for her; but let that pass. However, Green ought to have modified Noel’s back story to fit with her quality of having been around the block. And he ought to have created reasons for Schneider's bumbling quality, such as making him older and more experienced, but not the town lothario.

Green was lucky and smart to get Deschanel for his movie because she’s the point of light in a dim cast. The fact that Noel has a retarded younger brother only makes you wonder about the other males in town. The dialogue among Paul’s pals makes them seem even dumber than they’re meant to be. Green manages both to romanticize his locales and to be condescending toward them.

Noel has just returned to town after many years at a Catholic boarding school. After lots of Marty-like hesitation between her and Paul, and a huge roadblock created when he learns she’s a virgin, she leaves town with friends but without Paul for a drunken party weekend and loses her virginity to a stranger. Instead of taking this in stride Paul completely loses his cool and turns against Noel.

Noel’s brother is Paul’s best friend, which of course complicates the situation since he knows Paul’s history better than anyone. But the relationships among the guys are developed through atmospheric scenes rather than through plot developments. Another close friend of Paul begs to become “number two” with Noel. After the estrangement of the two would be lovers, Paul cleans up, shaves, and puts on a suit and tie (a momentous event in this run-down town) only to find that Noel is in fact with “number two.” There's a little peacemaking but the situation is left unresolved.

In Tully, the same problem exists: Tully doesn’t know what to do when he finds he’s really in love with a young virgin. Our sense of this situation isn’t weakened, but on the contrary is strengthened, by the fact that specific plot developments and well defined and concluded scenes occur around this basic conflict. And it is misleading to think of All the Real Girls as plotless. Rather, the plot elements are made a hash of and handled badly. The emphasis is on atmosphere and the visual element at the expense of resolution.

All the Real Girls is the kind of movie that evokes strong reactions in some people. Some adore it and others think it absolute rubbish and its characters contemptible. My own impressions are far less clearcut, however. I would be hard put to rate it. I found it self indulgent and badly put together. Plot is a necessary element in any film, a structure upon which the relationship between the audience and the movie's various elements of character and situation must rest. The unresolved aspect of Green’s movie weakens its emotional impact. Nonetheless one does have the impression of having watched something special and original. Green tries to weld amateurishness into art much as Robert Frank did in the early Sixties, and his movies are assured of a cult audience. I wasn’t so happy about paying $16 for a seat, but I didn’t ask for my money back either.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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