Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 04, 2003 11:30 am 
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Charm but no wisdom

Nobody is sure what an “indie” film is. Supposedly it’s a movie that cost a pittance to make. But what’s a pittance these days, $30,000 or $15 million? Is it a movie that’s non-commercial in design and risky in content? Not necessarily: Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” ushered in a softer kind of indie film that makes a deal with the mainstream. If an indie gets a distributor, it may be Miramax, which belongs to Disney, and what’s indie about that? Maybe the only films with true indie spirit are the ones nobody sees.

But though “indie director” may be only a transitional status, indie certainly ought to mean an American movie made with both modest means and daring ideas. Small is beautiful. It can be creative and liberating to have few complications and a small staff. With no big studio pressures to conform to, the director can take chances: working small, without thinking small.

Sometimes indie magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t. In Raising Victor Vargas and American Splendor, it happens. In The Station Agent it doesn't. Though audiences seem pleased and the film has won awards, it’s a film that dropped the ball. Essentially it not only works small but thinks small – in more ways than one. The magic isn't there; the challenge wasn't met.

The Station Agent is a film about a dwarf. In taking on this subject, Thomas McCarthy has given himself a tough assignment. It’s tough to be a dwarf. It’s tough to understand what it’s like to be one. McCarthy is apparently interested in taking a realistic approach. This isn’t the fantasy creature of spooky movies; it’s not David Lynch’s hieratic dwarf in Twin Peaks. It’s just a man who happens to be a dwarf. That fact dominates his life. It’s equivalent to having a major handicap.

One of the weaknesses of indie filmmakers may be a sort of outsider fetishism; at any rate McCarthy seems to have fallen prey to such an attitude in this movie. The Station Agent never gets beyond the fact of being a dwarf; neither does it go deeply into what its main character’s experience is like. Instead, with self-congratulatory zeal, the movie embraces the dwarf’s outsider status and makes him seem accepted, having begun by telling us that he is not. The film is comforting, charming, quirky, but superficial. Certainly the denial of Lynch’s hieratic, ominous figure – a demonized outsider – is necessary to get at the character’s essential humanity, but in the process his experience is made bland and tasteless.

Fin (Peter Dinklage) is really a rather good-looking man, but he’s a dwarf. Every time he walks down the street people stare at him, make rude remarks or run in fright. His stance in the face of this alienation is a studied indifference. He makes clear he’s had to work to achieve that response. When he was young he was very angry, he says. (“About what?” someone asks. “Being a dwarf,” he answers, with a look as if to say, “How the hell can you ask that?”) If Fin ever dreamed of acceptance by the general population, he has given up.

But the narrative doesn’t let him stay unloved for long.

What happens is that an elderly black man for whom Fin works in a Hoboken hobby shop repairing model trains, drops dead and leaves him a property – with a little train station on it. Fin goes to live there. It’s a remote part of New Jersey apparently replete with lonely people, four of whom immediately make friends with Fin. The rest of the film consists of their interactions with him.

The audience's need to feel broad minded toward Fin is rewarded through the prompt arrival of these characters who can hardly wait to embrace him. He’s befriended in quick succession by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban-American running his sick father’s food stand; Olivia, a ditsy middle-class lady separated from her husband (inde queen Patricia Clarkson); and Cleo, a plump young black girl (Raven Goodwin, who’s an inde child, since she starred last year in Lovely and Amazing). Cleo’s presence is more peripheral; but she does lure Fin into her classroom to talk about trains.

Joe, Olivia, and Cleo are outsiders too, but only provisional and temporary ones compared to Fin. Joe is innately gregarious and in fact stunningly normal. He’s mildly grating, but also rather charming. He’s at once too needy and too nice not to offer Fin his friendship. How he has ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere occupying his father’s food stand across from Fin’s train station is a puzzle. Let’s just say he needed to be there. Olivia literally bumps into Fin. She’s such a bad driver she knocks him over a couple of times with her SUV. She too wanders into Fin’s sphere out of sheer plotline necessity, but stays there out of loneliness. Cleo is a loner who haunts the area hunting for stuff in old train cars, but she’s in school like every other kid.

By coming into Fin’s life, Joe, Olivia, and Cleo neutralize his outsider status and completely obliterate their own. There’s even a very pretty young librarian (Michelle Williams) – rebuffed, eventually – who’s really turned on by him. What has happened to the challenge of being a dwarf? It’s been neutralized. Fin comes to seem just a grumpy grinch who needed to be brought out, like Scrooge.

To do him and the movie credit, Fin manages to remain resolutely, balefully cool -- except for a startling moment of drunkenness in a bar. He begins to smile a bit half way through, but does so with such restraint that the transformation never seems corny -- or even very noticeable. The Station Agent is low keyed to an indie fault. Fin doesn’t appeal obviously to our sentimentality or, in fact, overtly seem to “appeal” at all. He’s the most self-contained of characters. Joe, Olivia, and Cleo (if not the librarian) are crushingly needy in comparison -- and that doesn't change. There are no transformations among the secondary characters, and there is only the tiniest one in Fin.

And thus there are, in fact, no chances taken -- beyond the initial casting.

Dinkelage’s presence on screen has been called "strong." Well, yes: because he’s a dwarf, and also a trained actor, he knows how to use the fact that even his stillness draws attention. Dincklage understands as well as a Michael Caine the necessity of understatement in film acting. But he’s no Michael Caine. It's very difficult to warm to him. His glum voice has a depressing flatness. He does ably manage the gradual segue into those few smiles. But neither the actor nor the movie grants us true insight into Fin’s character or the ordeals he has faced. Being a dwarf is a difficult assignment and so is making a film about one. It seems to me that the director’s courage went little beyond his choice of a main character. The way Fin is accepted is too easy and the result is a bland, unchallenging picture. The little encounters of the four other characters with Fin and each other have a quiet charm, but despite its choice of an unusual protagonist the movie ends up being pale and unenlightening.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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