20-something directors find their voices on video
Pity, if you can, the aspiring young filmmaker. On the one hand, twentysomething scribes want to heed the oft-heard maxim ”Write what you know.” On the other, what most of them know isn’t exactly dazzling: college dorm rooms, the corner video store, Schoolhouse Rock, and late-night bull sessions about…well, college, videos, and Schoolhouse Rock. Dialogue comes easily to them after years of mentally filing conversational fillips, but telling stories cinematically is another matter entirely.
No movie better epitomizes this chattering genre than Walking and Talking, winner of 1996’s award for Most Accurate Title. The characters in Nicole Holofcener’s feature debut do virtually nothing but walk and talk; even gum chewing would tax their resources. To be fair, this is an accomplished rendition of the story being penned by so many recent film-school grads (Holofcener attended Columbia): Best friends struggle to come to terms with adult responsibilities but find their relationship threatened by a Disruptive Event (in this case, an impending wedding). Leads Catherine Keener and Anne Heche banter skillfully, and a subplot in which a lovestruck video-store clerk (Kevin Corrigan) seduces one of them, only to discover moments later that she’s been referring to him as the Ugly Guy, is surprisingly moving. Holofcener’s functional style, however — a nonstop series of close-ups and two-shots — makes Walking less like a movie than a pilot for a nifty TV series about female friendship.
Is it possible to make a Talker worth looking at? Yes. Noah Baumbach’s little-seen Kicking and Screaming, about four new grads who’ll stop at nothing to avoid entering the real world, traffics in the usual now-what? insecurities, but his dialogue is unusually distinctive (sullen guy to girlfriend: ”Well, I haven’t been-to-Prague been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that stop-shaving-your-armpits, read-The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor, now-I-know-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing”). More important, Baumbach occasionally halts the conversation and lets the camera tell the story. One of the film’s best jokes, in fact, is unspoken: Max (Chris Eigeman) kicks shards of broken glass into a pile, carefully balances a sheet of paper reading ”broken glass” atop it, and casually walks out of the room. To his credit, Baumbach understands that a scene like this can convey as much about a person’s state of mind as five minutes of witty banter.
Let’s hope that Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats) figures that out in time for his next picture, because Chasing Amy (suggested alternate title: Chasing and Aiming), his ambitiously garrulous new-to-tape release, is as cinematically inept as it is dramatically audacious. A love story with a twist — a comic-book artist named Holden (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Alyssa, a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams) who returns his affection — it features plenty of Smith’s trademark foulmouthed riffs, the strongest performances of any of his films to date (though Adams is sometimes a bit shrill), and an appealing and sometimes genuinely affecting romantic streak. For the first time, Smith actually appears to give a damn about his characters’ predicaments and neuroses; when Holden impulsively blurts out his love for Alyssa halfway through the film, the smart-ass posturing abruptly halts and an astonishing (for Smith) maturity takes over. Amy is also refreshingly gutsy in its subversive take on the bond between Holden and his best friend and business partner, Banky (Jason Lee), a mild homophobe who may well be deeply in denial.
Trouble is, Smith has now made three films without yet demonstrating that he has the slightest idea of how to wield a movie camera. His idea of ingenuity is to have his characters throw darts at the camera, or to none too subtly intercut the emotional violence of an argument at a hockey game with the violence in the rink. That he’s hardly alone in this inadequacy is small consolation. It’s time for the next generation of auteurs to demonstrate that they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Walking and Talking: B-; Kicking and Screaming: A-; Chasing Amy: B-