Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu May 20, 2010 9:34 am 
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The troubling virtues of irresponsibility

For those who can put up with its (largely intentional) jumpy hand-held 16 mm. look, Daddy Longlegs is a heck of a stimulating and complex piece of work. It's autobiographical, yet collaborative and imaginative. It's improvisational, yet very well planned. It's appalling, yet also appealing -- a film that sticks in the craw but also lingers in the mind and the heart. It signals the arrival of yet another team of filmmaking brothers whom we need to watch.

On the face of it, this is the story of a criminally irresponsible divorced dad who gets to spend two weeks out of a year with his two boys, aged around seven and nine. Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) is young and childlike himself, thin, agile, athletic, but graying, terminally unconventional, a hipster, unstable, a film projectionist, a man whose life he has no firm grip on, but determined to love his kids and make his time with them as memorable as possible. When he picks up the boys, he immediately launches into dangerous play, walking on his hands across the street with them. Sage (Sage Ranaldo) and Frey (Frey Ranaldo) alternate between being delighted, excited, and scared to death by Lenny's games.

He has a one-night stand, and then the next day forces himself, with the boys, on the woman and her boyfriend when the latter drives upstate for the weekend. (The story otherwise takes place very much in a Manhattan whose wild grunginess and seemingly greater-then-normal tolerance for irresponsible behavior suggest the New York of the 1970's.) He takes the boys to play squash (a rough game for two pipsqueaks). He gets mugged by a peddler-thug (played by Abel Ferrara) coming home by himself with groceries and ice cream cones, but never mentions the incident to the boys or anyone. He has a date with an on-and-off girlfriend. With her around in the morning, he gives the boys a pet lizard he hides as a prize in a cereal box.

At least one of the things he does is really awful. He unexpectedly pulls an all-nighter at his job, and, because he can't find anybody to babysit with the boys, gives them crushed bits of adult sleeping pills. They go into a deep sleep and cannot be awakened. This lasts for several days; it could have lasted longer. A doctor friend who comes in explains this and says if he weren't a friend, he'd report this to the police. The really creepy feeling this incident gives you lingers on. But it ends happily. The boys are fine. And that goes for the whole experience, though this does not make Lenny's nightmare parenting techniques okay. The film is meant to arouse contradictory feelings and express the filmmakers' own mixed emotions toward their real dad.

Watching Lenny is like witnessing a train wreck but Bronstein is very good at keeping you from hating him. So are Benny and Josh, filmmakers, of course, who made this out of their own childhoods with a wealth of conflicting emotion. Their artistry and luck pay off in how complex the feelings are that Daddy Longlegs evokes. The film (and the collaboration with Bronstein) are a triumphant combination of cool reason in the planning and warm emotion in the making. Having had two brothers in charge who have that contrast -- one more logical, the other more romantic -- also doubtless helps maintain the fertile balance.

Lenny is more like a hyper older brother than a father, but that can be a lot of fun for little boys -- for a while anyway. This is only two weeks. During the other fifty Sage and Frey are with their mother (played by the young actors' real mother -- wife of the lead guitarist of Sonic Youth), who, from what we see of her, is thoroughly correct and provides a grownup and sensible environment of schedules, rules, homework, piano lessons and accountability.

But it's to be noted that Josh and Benny Safdie made this movie, about this riskier side of their experience, to evoke their childhood. Happy families are all alike, unhappy ones. . . you know the drill. Likewise, the smaller, crazy part of your youth spent with a divorced parent may be more memorable and complex and stimulating to the art that goes into making films than the safe, grownup, responsible part that nurtured you and protected you and kept you sane.

It's also true that when you grow up with divorced parents, you have two different worlds you move between, two families, and the "happy"-"unhappy" distinction may not apply. In this case the distinction might better be "safe but a little bit boring" versus "unsafe but wild fun." Josh and Benny have said this condenses all their times with their dad, who divorced their mother when they were six months and two years old, into these two weeks in the film.

They've also made clear that Lenny is an original creation, based on their dad, but built up very much in collaboration with Ronald Bronstein, who, though to them he looked remarkably like a classic silent film actor, was not an actor at all but a filmmaker whom they met at Austin's hip SXSW festival where they were all celebrated for their work. They sat down with Bronstein for days of talk in a diner where they hashed out all their ideas about their father and learned what Bronstein could internalize and what he rejected. Thus an improvisational collaboration grew, starting with reams of homemade films the Safdies' father made when they were boys; he was their inspiration for the 16 mm. look and the tireless recording of day-to-day detail, and his films and snapshots provided jogs to memory. They began also with a long short story, but Bronstein didn't see that till the work was done. Instead, after the character was formed at the diner, Bronstein worked constantly with the Ranaldo boys, always in character (a kooky new play dad) even when they were not shooting. Another element was the Safdies' and their team's guerrilla street filmmaking techniques used to incorporate non-actors along the way. "If Jean Vigo, John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin had a deformed child, we would be their best friend," the brothers told Interview magazine recently. This is a richer and more deeply thought-through mix than we usually get from Cassavetes' youthful Mumblecore offspring, a more intense mining of memory and experience.

Interviews with Benny and Josh show a bright and happy pair of young men who finish each other's sentences. It looks like they grew up just fine, their time with their real father having taught them to be alert and resourceful. Those dangerous, irresponsible weeks were a pebble that produced a pearl. This film was introduced at Cannes and shown at Sundance, and I saw it at the IFC Center. It is also available as Video on Demand. Benny and Josh, AKA Ben and Joshua, say that their real father, who's not to be confused -- all the time -- with Lenny, is not really an American and speaks less than the motormouthed Lenny, English being a fourth language for him. He also was not a film projectionist. That was Ron Bronstein's profession, introduced into the story. Their dad worked carrying consignments of jewels back and forth from the diamond district, and he has thus provided the material for their next film, about a man who does that. (Their well received earlier film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, I haven't yet seen, nor Bronstein's admired film Frownland).

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JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE (Filmmaker Magazine)

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