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Review: The Freebie

1.5

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The Freebie
Photo: Phase 4 Films

When a contemporary director wants to impart a heightened sense of naturalism to a fictional film, he or she often draws on the aesthetics of the documentary—specifically those techniques associated with direct cinema—to serve as a signifier of authenticity. Whether it’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck employing handheld cameras and lurching half-zooms to add immediacy to their tale of a Latin-American baseball player displaced in the hinterlands of middle-America in Sugar or Joe Swanberg employing his close-views and trademark, um, functional framings in any of his movies, it’s become an article of faith that a specific set of documentary techniques instantly equals you-are-there naturalism and creates a greater sense of intimacy than would otherwise be possible. Of course, the use of verité strategies in narrative films is nothing new (and, indeed, all of film history can be read as the interplay between documentary and fictional modes), but never has it seemed such a readily available option for such a wide range of filmmakers and never has it been so frequently used as a crutch to bolster substandard material.

In The Freebie, Katie Aselton’s look at the unraveling of a young couple’s marriage, the director calls on the whole range of documentary techniques to signify the sort of laying bare of the truth that her intimately detailed screenplay can’t quite manage. Never are Aselton’s failings more evident than in a pair of dinner party scenes, one of which opens the film, and which involve the central couple and their friends in a discussion of the nature of romance. As the director’s handheld camera picks out individual faces in framings that have the feel of randomness rather than spontaneity, the characters reveal their conventional attitudes toward romance and lifestyle (“What made you two want to have a baby?” a character asks an expectant couple. “It’s just kind of the next logical step,” the soon-to-be-father replies). But just as these rounds of Symposium ultra-lite fail to generate any dialectical tension, so Aselton’s verité technique is unable to impart the sense of eavesdropping on folks-just-talking, as the camerawork calls attention to itself and the actors have trouble selling the lines with the offhand manner required to sustain the illusion.

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When the film’s central couple, Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Aselton), return home, the director maintains the technique, but in the face of a more probing consideration of the problems of romance that soon takes over, it loses its insistent sense of signification and becomes a less officious vehicle for documenting the conversation. After a sexy photo shoot finds the couple responding by easing into their nightly routine of crossword puzzles instead of fucking, the pair begins a discussion of the sexual failings of their relationship. As they try to remember the last time they got it on, Darren talks his way around the act, never uttering the word “sex,” as if embarrassed by the need to talk about such things. In the end, they conclude that, though they haven’t been intimate in months, neither feels the celibacy as a vital lack and what’s important is that they love each other. But what Aselton makes clear in this sensitively directed scene is that even as both parties confess their contentment, they’re clearly each disturbed, if not by the absence of the sex act itself, than by the fact that the conventions of romantic relationships deem that they should be bothered by their sustained bout of abstinence.

In fact, the conventions of coupling are very much the background of the film, expressed most explicitly by a gleefully monogamous friend of the pair who insists that he has not the slightest desire to cheat on his girlfriend. All of which makes the solution that the couple eventually reaches—one night of mutual infidelity, no questions asked—feel like a potentially productive challenge to those conventions. But Darren and Annie seem, if possible, more traditionally oriented than their friends and it’s clear from the start that their experiment, which they discuss obsessively in hypothetical terms until the hypothetical becomes the actual, can only end in disaster. “So what good will this do for your relationship?” demands Annie’s sister when Annie floats the idea and that sibling’s critical attitude toward the exchange of “freebies” points out not only the weakness in the couple’s plan, but in the movie’s central narrative as well.

From the moment Darren and Annie agree to sleep with another person, their downward trajectory is pretty much guaranteed. Intercutting between each member of the couple on their night of sanctioned romance, Aselton gives us the setup but not the finale, withholding the certainty that each partner went through with the act and adding a note of ambiguity to an otherwise by-the-numbers denouement. Unsurprisingly, after the event, an air of sullen non-communication crops up between the formerly easy-going pair and, when, after days of silent misery, Annie forces a discussion, the two exchange hurtful recriminations. Thus, the essential movement of the film is to trace a couple putting into practice a really awful idea and then to observe the misery that results.

I’m all for willing couples engaging in swinging, but it’s painfully evident from the start of the film what the result is going to look like for this particular pair. All that remains is to sit back and watch the fireworks, but beyond informing us that a night of consensual cheating probably won’t re-spark a couple’s sex life, there’s very little insight into the nature of long-term romance that emerges from the director’s working out of the couple’s experiment. “What a fucking stupid idea,” Darren concludes, a week after engaging in his life-changing act, “all to avoid going ‘Hey, we need to fix this’.” Well, no shit.

Cast: Dax Shepard, Katie Aselton, Frankie Shaw, Ross Partridge, Sean Nelson, Bellamy Young Director: Katie Aselton Screenwriter: Katie Aselton Distributor: Phase 4 Films Running Time: 78 min Rating: R Year: 2010 Buy: Video

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

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Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

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“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

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In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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