Saturday, February 12, 2011

Detective Story

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Over at Palimpsest, a literary forum I frequent, a discussion has flared up over a statement made by Martin Amis regarding children's fiction and children's authors, the gist of which is that Amis would never write such fiction unless he suffered "serious brain injury." That's the controversial part, but I chose to defend Amis based on the actual point he was making (badly, it must be said), which is that:
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"...the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable...I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write."
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This strikes me as entirely fair, to the point of being purely logical, and in my defense of Amis I pointed out that this shouldn't, or needn't, be read as a knock on children's writers (at this point, I was trying to distance myself from that whole "brain injury" thing) because a great deal of very fine, even great, fiction is written under restrictions self-imposed by the author; genre fiction, for example, of which I am a great and tireless defender (you may have seen me on CNN, addressing Congress on this issue). I think the restrictions inherent in genre fiction are much less binding than those of children's fiction, because the audience is more naturally mature (or so one hopes) and less specific. But still, if you're writing a horror novel, you'd better put some horror in there; if you're writing a crime novel, you'd better have somebody commit a crime.
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This all applies to film as well, of course, and yet Cold Weather, Aaron Katz's new film -- a detective story, of a sort -- tries to play with the above as much as it can. Before I get into that, though, I should note that Cold Weather is, I'm told, a "mumblecore" film, a part of that new movement (I guess) of low-fi, ramshackle, urban-white-person cinema that has thus far been profoundly, and surprisingly, divisive among critics. I have to admit that I've largely avoided the stuff myself, on the grounds that I'm not being paid to watch movies and therefore shouldn't feel obliged to watch the ones I think look like crap. I did recently break my embargo, however, and I checked out Uncle Kent, from mumblecore elder statesman Joe Swanberg, thinking, mostly accurately, that 72 minutes of this stuff couldn't possibly kill me. Well, here I sit, bright and alive, but my earlier lack of interest in mumblecore was validated when it turned out that Uncle Kent's entire emotional reserve was tied to the big reveal that the dickhole at the film's center once played with his nephew. As an uncle myself, I've done the same thing -- where the hell's my movie?
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Cold Weather, however, is a somewhat different kettle of fish, I'm at least a little bit happy to say. It looks great, for one thing, and Katz composes his images of Portland, the film's setting, with all the eye for composition and detail that Swanberg lacks. And for such a curious entry into the detective genre, Katz also manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense out of his meager story. That story centers around Doug (Cris Lankenau), an odd duck who once studied criminology and forensic science before leaving school and moving in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn, who, if I may say so, is gorgeous). Gail is the more accomplished of the siblings, having a steady job and an apartment, though a certain loneliness is apparent in her slightly quiet, slumped demeanor. Her slump has nothing on Doug's, though, whose stiff-armed walk and obvious intelligence that has been blocked by some inner barrier, made me wonder about any number of mental disorders. But he does land a job at an ice factory, where he befriends Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a sometime club DJ who Doug turns onto Sherlock Holmes (when Carlos learns about Doug's education, he asks if Doug wants to be a detective like on CSI, and Doug says no, he wants to be like Holmes, but without the big stupid pipe or stupid hat, those being features of the Basil Rathbone movies, not the Conan Doyle stories). Rounding out the cast of characters is Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon, who looks very appealingly like Samantha Morton's sister), visiting from Chicago. These four begin hanging out regularly, and Carlos and Rachel, with Doug's casual permission, appear to at least try to strike up something more, with Carlos inviting Rachel -- at Doug's suggestion -- to a local Star Trek convention. This leads to possibly my favorite line of the film, when Carlos, talking to the Star Trek averse Doug afterwards, says "You know Marc Alaimo, he played Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine? He was there."
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As you may have gathered from the above, Cold Weather takes it's own sweet time in getting to the mystery and detective portions of its story, though in a curious way, knowing that that's the kind of film Cold Weather is supposed to be going in, this helps build a certain suspense and discomfort: something bad is going to happen to one of these people. Who will it be? And what will it be?
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The "who" is one thing, but the "what" is, I must say, a bit underwhelming, or at least it is initially. This all comes late in the film, by the way, so I hesitate to get into particulars, but once three of these characters come together to carry on their amateur investigation -- with two of them swapping out their pairings with Doug almost at random -- Aaron Katz is perfectly happy to stick with well-worn tropes of detective stories, such as pornography and barely-seen men in hats, and briefcases that must be retrieved. In all honesty, this began to wear on me, because I wondered, quite frankly, what the fuck Katz knew about any of this stuff! A certain crime film/fiction snobbishness colored my viewing of Cold Weather, and lingers still, perhaps unfairly.
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Back in the '70s, when science fiction was a bit more of a hot genre than it is now, but still struggling for mainstream acceptance, writers like Theodore Sturgeon would complain about critics who raised up, say, Kurt Vonnegut while refusing to acknowledge the plain-as-day fact that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, and he referred to people like Aaron Katz -- a non-genre filmmaker trying his hand at the form -- as "blatant dabblers." It's easy to sympathize with Sturgeon, but it becomes hard to fault Katz when you realize that Cold Weather is a detective film that deliberately puts off its mystery element for about half of it's roughly hour and a half running time, and then, once that element has been introduced, spends maybe seven minutes on an extended gag based on Doug's thinking that while Sherlock Holmes didn't smoke a Meerschaum, he did smoke a pipe because it helped him think, and maybe a pipe would help Doug think, too. The fact that the tag to this joke is not only funny, but ultimately moves the plot along (not because the pipe helps him think, just so you know), makes it fairly clear that whatever Katz's genre ambitions are here, he's not a punk for approaching them in his own way.
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It's that "own way", in fact, that gives Cold Weather its charge. The actors playing the four lead -- and practically only -- characters have an easy naturalism, mixed, in the case of Castillo and Lankenau, with a kind of inexperience, a greater abundance of which also leant Steven Soderbergh's similarly wonky crime film Bubble an off-kilter fascination. And I stress again, Katz has a pretty wonderful eye, not only for the basics of filmmaking, but for happy accidents, the latter of which I'm tempted to assign responsibility for a fairly amazing shot of Lankenau mounting the steps of a Portland bridge at sunset. What that setting sun does for Katz and cinematographer Andrew Reed's camera is a gift. If it wasn't a gift, and was composed by them with full knowledge of the final effect, then God bless 'em.
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What I can't quite get away from is the idea that Cold Weather is, in the end, the story of a bunch of kind of sad, kind of lonely people brightening their lives by getting into an adventure. It's a light-hearted film in that way, pleasantly so, though its undercurrent of melancholy is fairly deep. But part of me is missing the "more" that some critics have claimed Katz is reaching for. At the same time, I'm not sure why I should care about that too much, because the film's ending, quite untraditional by detective story standards, feels, in relation to everything else, like not just the best possible conclusion, but the only one. Tobias Wolff once said that a short story should begin after the beginning and end before the ending. So ends Cold Weather, and the film lingers as a result.
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9 comments:

Glenn Kenny said...

"I'm an uncle too; where's my movie?"

Indeed.

Ed Howard said...

I should note that I initially took "played with his nephew" as a euphemism, which made the next sentence somewhat, um, startling.

bill r. said...

I...hm. I do not want to give that impression. I would say that I'd change it if I didn't think the problem was in your diseased mind, Ed.

Neil Sarver said...

Two things strike me.

One. I don't think literary forums songs like the place for me.

Two. Did he mean "children's literature" or something more like "intentional children's literature". I've been reading Winnie the Pooh books to the unborn, and I find it seems pretty obvious to me that A.A. Milne is telling stories that amuse him and involve anthropomorphizing stuffed animals, so they are the types of stories one associates with children, but I don't imagine him to have been limiting his own vision.

If any of that makes any sense.

And this movie sounds more interesting than I think I'd normally find the idea of a mumblecore movie called "Cold Weather", so you've succeeded in raising the odds of me seeing this somewhat over zero.

bill r. said...

What's wrong with literary forums? The Palimpsest is great!

As for the rest, I couldn't really say which of those Amis was referring to, but my guess is the intentional variety, since he talks about putting limits on yourself. Which is not a bad thing to do, but he doesn't want it, and some of the children's authors who've taken offense claim that they never restrict themselves just because they're writing for children. Which I believe is a lie, because you have to restrict yourself. You can't write ULYSSES and then say "I've written a children's book."

I'd be curious to know what other genre hounds such as yourself think about COLD WEATHER. As one of those hounds myself, I was resistent to it, but ultimately won over.

Neil Sarver said...

Oddly enough because I hate getting in these kinds of debates... but here goes...

First of all, who amongst us is going to write "Ulysses"? I don't think the reason I'm not writing "Ulysses" has anything to do with anything except I just can't imagine I ever would or could.

But I get the idea of limiting oneself in principle. I don't like limiting myself either. Frankly, I can't imagine myself ever sitting down to write "children's literature" either, and I suppose that's part of it... Frankly mine are less mature, I just can't imagine I could stop myself from having naked people and beheadings in my stories, not whatever more important literary exploration of the entirety of my imagination - Or perhaps naked people and beheadings is the end of my imagination. Who knows?

But, like I said, I'm not sure there aren't other people who write things that end up sold as "children's literature" who didn't sit down at their typewriter to create "children's literature". I'd add Roald Dahl's "children's literature" to that.

And from that perspective I can picture I could write something that someone would say, "Hey, if you put a top on that girl in that scene you could sell it to kids" and I'd shrug and go "Um, sure."

bill r. said...

I'm sure there are people like that, Neil (though I'm not sure Dahl was one of them -- I think he spoke about the difference between writing for children and not writing for children), but they're not the ones Amis is talking about. If you set out to write a children's book, you're putting restrictions on yourself. And the whole thing came up because he said people have asked him if he would ever write a children's book, which introduces intent into the matter.

Neil Sarver said...

God, I sound like a dick there!

See? That's why I don't participate in things like this. I have enough trouble not coming off like a dick in this world.

But, yeah, I basically do appreciate the point being made and don't disagree with it. Mostly I'm discussing it because it intrigues.

bill r. said...

You don't sound like a dick. Come on now! Stop that!

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