Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

In 00s Hollywood, indie film has become a kind of genre, filled with quirky characters and a low key, absurdist humor. Think of Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, films that aren’t bad, but aren’t particularly challenging in any way. Two years ago, I wrote a post about the way that this shift in what is independent has had a catastrophic effect on American cinema. Much like the Bush administration has changed definitions of what conservative and liberal are, to the point that simply wanting to undo the most catastrophic “tax cuts” in the history of America is seen as class warfare, American cinema has to struggle with a marketplace where mainstream cinema has become so formulaic and lowest common denominator that it’s up to “indie cinema” to make the movies that would have been regular studio movies in the 30s or 70s.

That’s all a way of saying how refreshing it is to see a movie like Rachel Getting Married that manages to capture moments of life and sadness and joy in a way few films can. Most of the attention the film has gotten has been for Anne Hathaway’s lead performance, and she is great, but there’s a lot more to the movie than her. The movie recalls Robert Altman’s 70s films, like Nashville, which are more concerned with human behavior and using large events as a structural element to reveal the nuances of the various characters. I haven’t seen Altman’s A Wedding, but I’d imagine that film influenced what Demme does here.

The film’s best scenes for me were the moments where the event takes on a momentum of its own, and you look on, like a spectator at the actual event. The dancing in the tent segment at the wedding itself had this feel, the camera seemingly abandoning the narrative to instead capture an almost abstract take on the party. I loved the hip level shots of the guests dancing, and though the many, seemingly random musical performances came out of nowhere, they generally worked. I also loved the moment where Kim is trying to dance, but just can’t quite get into the music. She’s probably not used to being at a party without being drunk or high, and though she does her best, she just can’t ignore all the bad stuff in her head and get lost in the moment. But, just because she can’t doesn’t mean the people around her aren’t, Sidney and Rachel dancing in the center of the circle, or the random breakdancing sequence are both exuberant moments.

The film had to walk a difficult line of never straying too far into narrative histrionics, and also never getting too lost in simply showing what happens at a wedding. The rehearsal dinner sequence starts off with a lot of momentum and fun, but by the tenth speech, it starts to get a bit repetitive. Conversely, the loading the dishwasher sequence starts out great, capturing the energy when a large number of people spontaneously decide to do something and all get caught up in it. It reminded me a lot of big family dinners we used to have when I was a kid, if you could get 15 people all together to do something, it felt pretty cool. But, that scene lost it for me when the Ethan plate came out, it was a bit too on the nose,

That’s not to say all the Ethan stuff didn’t work. It was best when it remained under the surface, informing the jealousies and ill feeling of the family without being made explicit. I love the scene where Kim describes what happened at NA because it makes clear that sometimes it’s easier to tell strangers stuff about yourself than it is to reveal it to your family, the people you should ostensibly be closest to. I also like the conundrum that what happened with Ethan creates in Kim. It’s not like she started using to get over this trauma, his death is the legacy of her drug abuse, but at the same time, living with this guilt and trying to get clean is too much for her to handle. There’s no easy answers for her, and the film doesn’t try to provide them. In the end, Rachel and Kim don’t resolve their issues so much as agree to move on and try to live in the happy moments.

I really liked the look of the film. Here, I found the graininess and distinct visual quality of digital video more interesting than the clarity of 35mm. There was an immediacy to the photography that I rarely see. Particularly when blown up and viewed on 35, digital video can look amazing, and it did here.

I’ve seen people criticize the film for its cliché indie handheld camera. The film definitely had a lot of signifiers of realism, in films nothing says real like a character taking a piss. But, I think the camera did a great job of doing what shots in a film should do, direct our attention where it needs to go and use the visuals to reflect character emotional states, and be aesthetically interesting in their own right. These shots weren’t pretty portraits, but in context they worked great. I was particularly impressed by Kim’s lonely drive through the night.

It seems that film culture in America has split in two. Living in New York, the week’s big new releases aren’t the 3,000 screen Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the 3 screen indie movie that’s just coming out. Rachel hasn’t gone wide yet, but it’s what the film communities on the internet are talking about, hell, at this point I’m a couple of weeks behind talking about it. It’s unfortunate that it’s so tough for people to see movies like this when they come out, but I guess if more people did go to challenging movies in the theater, they’d get wider exposure.

Either way, it’s not up to this film to save cinema. What it is is a really well made, emotionally engaging film, and we can never get enough of those.


Anonymous said...

I find your review very intriguing.
I found Rachel getting married to be too painful to watch. It was esp. painful to watch Kim go thru the continued rejection of the peeps she continued to try to connect with. It was very sad to me. I did an article on it too. But I was disappointed.
I can see your point - it's just too painful for some to watch ... :) said...

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