Friday, March 7, 2008

Hell's Kitchen: Frownland

Reading the press notes for Frownland, Ronald Bronstein’s 16mm-shot, indie fest hit about a painfully inarticulate misfit who hawks coupons door-to-door by day and spends his nights “trapped in a squalid apartment situated in some particularly hellish outer ring of New York,” I was expecting to see a gritty film set somewhere in the far-off burning Bronx. So I was surprised to find that Keith Sontag (in a breathtakingly nuanced performance by newcomer Dore Mann) actually lives in, well, my obnoxiously hipster Brooklyn neighborhood. Which leads me to the main problem with Bronstein’s celluloid love letter to Cassavettes and Co. – it attempts to be something it’s not.

Bronstein’s choice to shoot in 16mm gives “Frownland” a cozy and familiar, automatic retro feel. We’re right there with the debut director, a projectionist who claims to have watched an average of 600 movies a year, back in the good ole days when guys like Jarmusch grabbed the art house scene by the balls. But “Stranger Than Paradise,” nearly a quarter century old, was at the time something fresh and new – not because it was shot on film but because the characters were on an Antonioni-esque existential journey the likes of which was rarely seen on these shores. Jarmusch’s characters actually move, both physically and emotionally, embark on a journey of spiritual growth. In contrast, Bronstein’s lead weirdo goes no further (inside or outside) than his daily reverse-commute to the suburbs.

Which renders “Frownland” a little too self-knowing and hipsterish, quirky for quirkiness’ sake. When Keith’s love interest Laura (Mary Wall, looking straight out of “Slacker,” in an unimpressive turn for the only trained actor in the cast) asks for a mirror Keith hands her a metal spatula – after he tries to communicate via a puppet show with her socks. She says she’s allergic to his pillows then self-destructively rubs her face into one. Finally. she sticks Keith with a pushpin. This is nothing more than low budget “Juno,” with licorice (a character is belittled because in the middle of “an ontological crisis” his “safety net is Twizzlers”) in place of orange tic-tacs, Bronstein’s Tarantino-like, “projectionist” hype about as deep as Diablo Cody’s stripper shtick.

Would “Frownland” have garnered those SXSW and Gotham accolades if it were shot on video? I can’t see how since its nostalgic look, and believable acting by the cast of nonprofessionals, is its only allure. What’s missing is the story. Keith Sontag drifts aimlessly from his dead end job to his dead end life, sputtering and stuttering and pretty much driving everyone he encounters crazy. That’s about it. That Dore Mann is so fascinating – and not the least bit annoying – to watch in this otherwise boring film is a testament to his own calibration of character and natural talent (much like Marion Cotillard in the underwhelming “La Vie En Rose”). Bronstein has made the classic first-timer’s mistake in thinking that piecing together a bunch of your friends’ real-life experiences into a series of vignettes constitutes a script. The genius of both Jarmusch and Antonioni is that while both seemed to rely solely on composition and camerawork as a substitute for words, neither ever shot a scene that didn’t further the story. That’s what makes their films so edge-of-your-seat engrossing!

The other big “indie” mistake Bronstein makes is assuming that weird equals artistic. The sci-fi music and overlapping voices as Keith rides in the work van, the roommate who plays his synthesizer really loud as Keith listens to the message from a telemarketer on his answering machine – the strange occurs so frequently as to become normal and lose any punch it may have had. Once again, certain directors (like Terry Gilliam and Alex Cox) can get away with the downright bizarre because their films are always grounded in a solid story. In contrast, Bronstein’s film anchors itself to rat-a-tat dialogue (much like its big-budget sister “Juno”). When Keith calls his friend Sandy in the middle of the night seeking a “badge” he lost when he was last over at the apartment he asks, “Can you look on the couch?” “You weren’t on the couch. You were on the yellow chair,” Sandy replies. “Can you look anyway?” Keith persists. After Sandy finds it he continues, “Do you mind if I stop by? I’m only a couple blocks away from your apartment.” “Why are you a couple blocks from my apartment?” Sandy wonders. Which made me wonder if these going-in-circles lines served any purpose other than sheer cleverness. “Frownland” is just a series of scenes designed to show us how uncommunicative, desperate to connect the character is. (Yeah, we got that in the first ten minutes with the sock puppets.)

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about “Frownland,” though, is that this awkwardly apologetic lead character that makes his living as a door-to-door salesman was ripe for deeper, Willy Loman probing – and the director sacrificed the opportunity at the throne of cool quirk. In a shrink’s office, asked how he felt before he learned that his dad’s full head of hair was really a toupee, Keith snaps back with, “Gave me hope for the future.” It’s an out-of-character, quick-witted response from Dore Mann rather than an excruciating speech attempt by Keith, yet if we’d seen more of these sudden moments of clear articulation in the face of pain it would have given us greater insight into why the other characters around Keith put up with him.

Not that the other characters are all that different from freaky Keith. In a nod to Juno-speak, Keith’s Moog-loving roommate Charles, after failing to land a job waiting tables, applies to become a “test administrator,” where he ends up debating a fellow applicant, a good dose of Keith-spluttering along the way. It could just as easily have been Keith on that job hunt, learning to speak in coherent sentences and growing through his pain in the process. Instead Bronstein, seemingly on a whim, turns his lens on the roommate’s storyline. The only saving grace is a very funny discussion initiated by Charles by candlelight (the failure to pay a Con Edison bill a running gag) back at the apartment – after he’d berated Keith early on for always initiating discussions. Charles has some hilariously poignant lines. “How dare you judge my work pattern!” he haughtily exclaims upon Keith’s noting that he sleeps till noon while Keith awakens at daybreak to pay the rent (only proving that he Charles is “more ambitious” for refusing to get swept up in the nine-to-five grind). But alas, all this is too little too late. By the end when Dore Mann’s Keith utterly and believably flips out we’re wondering if living in the hellish outer ring of hipsterville is what really did him in.

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