True/False Diary 2: Actress, Killing Time, Boyhood

Robert Greene's Actress Robert Greene's Actress

Full disclosure: I consider the industrious Robert Greene a friend, but that makes me no less cautious in deeming his new film Actress a big deal. This collaborative psychodrama follows and subjectively sculpts his friend/neighbor Brandy Burre’s attempt to simultaneously separate from her longtime boyfriend and return to the acting world she left for suburban motherhood. (Greene’s written for Filmmaker about deciding to premiere his fourth feature at this year’s True/False.)

Burre is introduced in a bright red dress standing before a kitchen sink, moving in ambiguously charged slow-mo. Is it true that, as she muses, “I tend to break things,” or is that just an inapt line from a past role that’s stuck to her? The stylized opening gives way to day-in-the-life verite: corralling screaming children, cleaning the kitchen, going supermarket shopping and comparing an overabundance of milk options. Jagged handheld domestic reportage slams back into dreamy self-presentation with the first of many interspersed super slow-mo shots, this one backed by effectively elegiac/non-lugubrious piano-and-cello tracks from defunct post-rockers Rachel’s as Burre’s face falls from legibly happy self-representation to something more unfixed and melancholy.

Greene presents Burre as a woman on the brink, boozily tormented and psychically struggling. On a playground a lawnmower’s sound is suffocating, and household objects drone as Burre talks. The competing noises seem to oppress her, as if the atmosphere were charged with some intangible sickness or threat (the feeling is very much along the lines of Todd Haynes’ Safe). Routine gestures or tasks are charged with the manifest desire to invest them with great portent, suppressed performative energies making their way out by any means necessary. Actress asks how it’s possible to discern between unconsciously self-presentational performance vs. guileless, unmediated self-disclosure with someone prone to routine dramatization. The is-it-real-or-not motif is hammered a bit hard, with Burre going so far as to quote her friends telling her “you’re not living in a movie” in one of her furiously despairing monologues.

It’s a film of big, unapologetically showy sequences and gambits, as boldly up for self-expression as its subject and actively risking failure: another super-slow pan drifting from Burre to Manhattan’s skyline at night drifts close to stock lyricism, a charismatic performer beatified by tantalizing proximity to familiarly glowing urban magic. Most shots hit their mark, and the ambitious willingness to execute strong gestures is heartening and thematically appropriate. There’s a show-stopping tracking shot of Burre walking around the house on a routine single mom night: soundtrack lyrics speak of the pain of love, and the intent initially seems simply to add grandeur to her aimless amble. Then there’s accidental magic as Burre’s daughter unexpectedly appears on the staircase waving a clothes hanger. Without breaking her stride, Burre collects the hanger with a dramatic swoop: the shot is a  self-presentation interrupted by a child’s entropic appearance, a staged walkthrough complicated by a truly unexpected element, recording the collision of improvisational self-presentation and reality.

Sliding from total self-presentation to ambiguously unfeigned snapshots of daily life, director and subject collude, not so much valorizing her attempts to jumpstart her career and finances (“I have to make a living to get my freedom”) as sympathetically heightening her existence — providing her, indeed, with a worthy comeback role within her confining matrix of  daily responsibilities. It’s a film of big gestures, formally mirroring Barre’s transitions from one actorly mode to another, always courting the possibility of total failure or over-the-top silliness. Ambition is filtered through good judgment in self-editing: Greene not-really-joked in a post-screening Q&A that 97% of his shots are failed experiments, and he’s culled his surviving 3% well. Actress’ judiciously selected boldness rejects tepid mediocrity, for which I loved it.

Jaap van Hoewijk’s Killing Time is in a more instantly familiar mode, though no less accomplished in synthesizing everything currently wrong with my native Texas in 55 maddening minutes; my reaction was uncharacteristically personal and unsophisticated fury. In the first, interview-based half, we hear of “The Crime”: rape and murders committed by death row defendant Elroy Chester in Port Arthur, TX. The crime is described by his victim, denied by Chester’s sisters (who claim “a lot of Mexicans” were responsible for their brother’s killing spree) and denounced by the police.

The second half is day-of-the-killing verite covering “The Punishment,” i.e. lethal injection in Huntsville. Van Hoewijk patiently covers the minutiae of Chester’s family waiting in a house near the jail provided by an organization that provides temporary housing to the friends and loved ones of the executed. Chester’s family takes last calls from the condemned while waiting fatalistically for a stay of execution that never comes from the Supreme Court. There’s zero reason to doubt the testimony of one of Chester’s rape victims, but it becomes increasingly hard not to notice that outside an all-white network of journalists, prison employees and relatives of one of the murder victims has come together to perpetrate (and celebrate in a group photo, no less) the execution of a black man.

It’s an inherently racialized dynamic, and there could be no clearer or more alarming example of a state systematically segregating, failing and punishing an entire group of people literally cradle to grave. The ugly implications don’t escape the family: “I don’t love the state of Texas,” one of Chester’s sisters says. “I just happen to reside in it.” The ritualized banality of state execution completes its course, complete with the routine spectacle of anti-death-penalty demonstrators bearing signs calling state governor/national disgrace Rick Perry a “serial killer.” Correct, as far as that gesture goes; this patiently infuriating chronicle of Texas at its racially polarized worst is all true.

Closing night selection Boyhood is a much more complicated slab of Texan life. The film was shot from 2002 to 2013, and Richard Linklater’s long-term production process (designed to capture main subject Ellar Coltrane’s growth from 6 to 17) means the fictional film was shot with a documentary’s long-term production schedule. That, at any rate, was festival co-director David Wilson’s reasoning when introducing the film, though any exhibition excuse will do: it’s the most staggering new movie I’ve seen in three years (since Margaret, if you were curious).

Some objections have been raised to how Mason’s early years are dominated by a slow-burning subplot about mom Patricia Arquette taking up with an increasingly terrifying alcoholic (Marco Perella). The point is not so much to try to graft some drama on a movie mostly interested (per usual, for Linklater) in hanging out, but that Mason is repeatedly subjected early on to a strain of masculine pathology that helps propel him towards growing into the dreamy, anti-authoritarian teen photographer he grows into. Not that he’s grateful: though he grows up to have a fine relationship with initially absent dad Ethan Hawke, Mason still wishes the family had stayed together to spare him that “parade of drunken assholes.”

Maybe we don’t seize the moment, someone proposes in the film’s final moments; maybe the moment seizes us. Contextually (spoiler not worth spoiling) the line got a hearty laugh; the film sprinkles casually hilarious tossed-off punchlines throughout, a sort of Dazed And Confused for the entire formative years. But that hazy speculation is also the movie’s method, beginning with young Mason contemplatively staring at the sky as Coldplay’s “Yellow” blares. It’s one of the only gestures that might be too much — “look at the stars, look how they shine for him” — but the film’s routine soundtrack shamelessness de-emphasizes curatorial song choices for of-the-moment megahits, the ambient slagheap shaping Mason’s life without him even noticing, Sheryl Crow and all.

Boyhood’s a specifically Texan film, unfolding in Houston, relative small town San Marcos, Austin and Big Bend National Park. Mason’s shaped by his dad’s motor-mouthed, oppositional liberalism even as he compliantly recites the Pledge to Texas in morning classes or discreetly holds his tongue when relatives award him his very first Bible for his 16th birthday. There’s a specificity to the narrative about learning to live in a state whose blue-red residents have to co-exist, often in the same family.

Pain is quick, introduced early, fleetingly formative and not forgotten. The usual Linklater staples — two-shot walk-and-talks, eccentric monologues about how smartphones are turning humans into cyborgs et al. — are spread out over a decade-plus, visual continuity assured by the consistent use of 35mm stock. Locations are sketched quickly and effectively: note a parking lot crane shot that does a 180 as it travels down, allowing you to see the entire external space of a new apartment complex the family moves into in a minimal amount of time, searing in an important location that’s never returned to. Time passes in a single casually jarring cut, like an especially startling edit  where a minivan pulls into a school driveway and Mason’s sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own kid) has yards more hair in a new color, the first indication an entire year’s gone by. When Mason finally leaves for college, Arquette breaks down. “This is the worst day of my life,” she cries. “I thought there would be more.” The whole movie snaps into place: 11 years have passed without their passage really registering during the swift parade of routine events, and now they’re over.