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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

Am I surprised? Having seen Undertow a few days ago, I can’t say that I am. Not even five full years since its release, Undertow strikes me as the typical forgotten film: not brilliant enough to be considered great, not faulty enough to be worthy of venomous derision, not complex or ambiguous enough to inspire endless debate. I have multiple thoughts on the film, but for the most part I’d like to approach this discussion through your views, and I’ll start by asking you a question: Did you submit Undertow for examination here because you think the film is criminally misunderstood or because you think it’s criminally unknown (or something else in between)?

Ed Howard: I wanted to talk about Undertow largely because it’s been forgotten: you’re right that almost no one brings it up these days in talking about Green, who’s mostly known for his first two films and now the Judd Apatow collaboration Pineapple Express. Ebert’s rave aside, I believe Undertow got decidedly mixed reviews upon release, including its fair share of very negative ones, but on the whole I wouldn’t say it’s maligned so much as simply overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because in my opinion it is Green’s best film thus far, the film that comes closest to fulfilling the tremendous promise he’s displayed in all his features. It’s not a perfect film by any means, not a masterpiece, but in its own strange way it is “great,” a baroque fable about the loss of childhood innocence and the totemic power of family. I don’t use that word “fable” lightly, either. I think Green is quite consciously tapping into the language and aesthetic of fables and children’s stories, especially the darkness running through the Grimm fairy tales or, in movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. This is what I like so much about this film. All of Green’s films are fables to one extent or another, heavily stylized fantasy visions of the South. It’s tempting to call George Washington or All the Real Girls “realist,” or maybe “poetic realist,” but in fact they only give the impression of realism. The rhythms of these films approximate the slow rhythms of life, with lots of start/stop conversations and languid pauses, but the language and aesthetic choices distance the films from ordinary reality.

Undertow is the first of Green’s films to fully embrace this tendency, to revel in the artificiality of his vision of the American South. The film contains realism as just one mode among many, one choice that the director might make for a time before shifting to something else. There’s a lovely, moody silent sequence in which Green cuts back and forth between the brooding John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) smoking in his den, and his rebellious son Chris (Jamie Bell) constructing a rough wooden toy for his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan). This is Green’s poetic realist moment, as is the mumbled, halting conversation between John and Chris afterwards, but the quietly realistic sensibility of these moments jars against, for example, the cartoonish performance of Josh Lucas as John’s bitter brother Deel, or the exaggerated idiot savant behavior of the paint-eating Tim, or the barrage of filters and effects applied to the opening credits. The film shifts genres fluidly: the credits seem to promise a darkly comic farce, a rural parody of 70s cop TV, while later the two brothers move from a low-key domestic drama to gory horror to a chase thriller drawn heavily from The Night of the Hunter. This is Green’s loosest and most imaginative film. Here he discards the urge toward realism that ran through his earlier films, and finally admits, “this is a myth.” And it’s a poignant, affecting myth, centered around the relationship between two young brothers and their desire for family, safety, security and love.

JB: Ebert’s review makes similar observations. He ends his assessment saying: “Films like Undertow leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably by the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of walking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard.” That’s right on the money. It’s to Green’s credit that Undertow shifts genres as “fluidly” as it does, and yet I wonder if these transitions are too seamless for their own good. I imagine that watching Undertow made many moviegoers feel like WALL-E in the scene when the robot goes to file away one of his latest detrital treasures and realizes with confusion that the utensil in his hand doesn’t belong in the cup of plastic spoons or the cup of plastic forks, because it’s a spork. Right or wrong, audiences and sometimes even critics tend to file cinematic sporks in the waste bin of filmmaker gaffes. But there’s no question in my mind that Green is confidently and intentionally crossing genre lines here. He’s a filmmaker who isn’t rebellious so much as he is liberated from such restrictions to the point that he almost seems oblivious. That’s a compliment.

As for the notion that Undertow is Green’s best film, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. George Washington is the kind of picture that should (and did) make people drop everything and take notice of a filmmaker in his 20s, but there’s an intentional aimlessness about that film that I find overwhelming. In Ebert’s Undertow review he cites the moment when the girl asks, “Can I carve my name in your face?” and I laughed reading that, because George Washington is a collection of similar non sequiturs (not all of them spoken). By comparison, All the Real Girls is far more conventional, and it’s the closest Green film to my heart, because of the effortless and understated way in which Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel paint a heart-rending portrait of young love. That said, I’m not convinced that Green has made a “great” film as yet, though he’s certainly done enough to convince me that he’s a great filmmaker.

EH: That “carve my name” moment that both you and Ebert mention is a very good example of what Green is aiming for. As I believe Ebert points out, no one ever expresses themselves in quite that way, and yet everyone has felt the kinds of things that are being expressed: the confusion and potential pain of love, the angst of adolescence and puberty. The line is funny just because it’s so bizarre, so completely unexpected, and yet it’s not just an empty non sequitur. It’s a way of summing up, in a single line, the awkward, weird tensions of young love and desire. You get the feeling that these kids don’t know how to express themselves yet, don’t know what they want or what they mean to one another: they’re saying things, and doing things, they don’t fully understand. As good as they are, both George Washington and All the Real Girls sometimes feel self-consciously quirky, and I think Undertow is the first of Green’s films where the off-putting weirdness of his aesthetic is more purposeful. This film is a fable because fables are universal, they express feelings and fears we all have in stylized form. The distrust of strangers runs through the grisly tale of Hansel and Gretel, the desire to be able to transcend oneself drives the mermaid who wants to become a human, and Undertow is motivated, above all, by the need for family structures, for comfort and security.



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