If you've ever seen Gummo, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.
But I'm not here to waste more words than have already been written about Harmony Korine's turd of a film. Instead I want to talk about two films dealing with a similar theme; one a charming-yet-flawed indie newcomer, the other a tried and true freakshow-nightmare master piece,
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Directed, written, and starring performance artist Miranda July, the film features an impressive ensemble cast of unknown actors, especially the child actors. At the core is a love story between its principle characters but a larger theme unfolds in the vignette stories within the plot, one which weaves through and binds all the characters in Magnolia-esque fashion. It is a theme of lost innocence in the rapidly shrinking boundaries of the digital age and the simultaneous self-imposed isolation in which we increasingly place ourselves.
I really wanted to like this movie, as I've already been a fan of Miranda July for some time. Her 1998 album The Simon-Binet Test ranks among one of my favorite spoken-word albums ever. In her first outing as a feature film director, Ms. July certainly exhibits plenty of passion for her project and it shows in the care with which it is filmed. While not visually stunning, nor creatively shot, nor possessing any iconic photographic moments, it is pleasing to watch. Unfortunately, she drops the ball on everything else.
There simply is very little character development. They're caricatures with no histories or futures; just shallow impressions of people you know or have known. This lack of depth in character makes it difficult to invest in anyone in the picture. Also with concern to character, there's very few people who you feel like you can actually believe. Everyone talks in literate double-entendres and does quirky, eccentric things which are windows into their SOUL, man. The pretentiousness of July's characters becomes laughable after a while. To her credit, she has one character point this out to the character she portrays, when he accuses of her behaving like she's a character in a book.
Which is ultimately, the problem with the movie. I was constantly conscious of the fact that this was a FILM. I was never sucked into the story and I never cared what happened to anyone in it.
Blue Velvet (1986)
In stark contrast, David Lynch's treatment of the loss of innocence of a couple of small town busy bodies is multi-faceted, multi-layered, filled with rich characters and stories. I've seen the film a few times and decided to revisit it when I discovered that my girlfriend was not familiar with Lynch's work in general and Blue Velvet in particular.
As a story-writer, Lynch grasps and utilizes something which Miranda July didn't employ: the importance of a credible straight man. In Kyle MacLachlan's portrayal of Jeffrey, we have the all-American kid from small-town America, home from college to be with his family after his father has a stroke. After finding a severed human ear in a vacant lot, a mystery unfolds which he decides to investigate further, finding himself sucked into a seedy underworld completely foreign to anything he has ever known. As the parade of ne'er-do-wells crawl out from the rocks he begins to look under, their eccentricities, flaws, and depravity are magnified by the foil of Jeffrey's wholesome goodness.
Dennis Hopper's portrayal of Frank Booth stands as one of the great bad guys in modern cinema. The reason is that, for all of his psychosis, he's basically a hopeless romantic at heart giving his character a quality that you can't help but like, even if he expresses it in completely inappropriate, sadistic, and morally reprehensible ways. Most complicated of all is probably Isabella Rosselini's treatment of Dorothy Valens, a character who, to this day, I still can't wrap my head fully around. Most of all, she makes me feel embarrassed for her, which is a testament to Rossellini's performance and the guts it took for her to portray a character like Dorothy.
With an inventive score/sound design, interesting photographic compositions, and the sorts of scenes and characters that stay with you for a lifetime, Blue Velvet is classic cinema, in every sense of the word.