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Sundance 2024: Between the Temples, Seeking Mavis Beacon

A man sleeps opposite an older woman on a mattress, both their heads facing in opposite directions.Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane in Between the Temples

It’s rare to see a comedy immediately get going in its first shot as Between the Temples does—no credits, throat-clearing establishing shots or slow unveiling of protagonists, instead a slow zoom out introducing cantor Ben (Jason Schwartzman) being cornered at the dinner table by his moms Meira (Caroline Aaron) and Judith (Dolly De Leon). The two mothers lovingly hector him (this movie operates at dizzying levels of Jewishness), saying it’s time to seek out a doctor for his problem: following the death of his alcoholic novelist wife, Ben is a cantor who can’t sing. This gives Temples a surprisingly normal throughline to structure itself around—Ben must re-find his voice, a metaphor requiring zero time to explicate, with help from an Unlikely Friendship of the kind axiomatic to a certain stamp of indie film. In this case, Ben’s unexpectedly reunited at a bar with his elementary school music teacher Carla (Carol Kane), who never got to have a bat mitzvah. Now she wants one; Ben will prepare her for it, in the process learning as much from his student as she does from him, etc. Simple enough, but director Nathan Silver and co-writer C. Mason Wells quickly start scribbling disparate thematic and comic elements over this familiar arc. 

Formally, Between The Temples displays what can non-reductively be labeled “a fondness for ‘70s films.” The grain-heavy 16mm look is established DP Sean Price Williams, who has no fear of rapid zooms in or out. Since the soundtrack lacks the budget for recognizable English-language classic rock hits, instead we get Hebrew-language psych, Arik Einstein songs audibly in the period pocket. That “throwback but different” approach extends to the comedy’s generously relaxed rhythms, which let its talented performers comfortably stretch out rather than slipping into the frenetic cringe improv and trickledown Duplass-isms that are the current default for indie comedies. His face slightly puffier than usual, Schwartzman (Letterboxd’s most watched actor of 2023!) approaches middle-age sadsack territory while retaining his nervous poise and slightly quavering voice. He’s a performer I  automatically/reflexively find funny and who plays wonderfully opposite Kane as a retirement-age chaos agent.

This is a quasi-elegant aesthetic compared with the VHS inferno of Silver’s earlier films like Exit Elena and Stinking Heaven, but that background in marshaling ensemble casts to plausibly simulate all hell breaking loose is still in use here. There are tons of throwaway lines, many blissfully untethered from a need to drive the plot forward, and The Mend writer-director John Magary aggressively cuts the performances together, stacking lines on top of each other or jumping forward seconds mid-conversation at disconcerting moments.  (Many of these below-the-line names will be familiar to fans of a certain provenance of NYC indie film—there’s even a Keith Poulson cameo. Here’s where I note that while I have so many conflicts of interest reviewing American Indies that I often don’t bother noting them anymore, Temples is high up for sheer number of people I know involved.)

Two scenes attempt a riskier register—the first an erotic encounter in a car, incongruously occurring in a graveyard, and the other a long dinner sequence in which an unexpected confession is made. The latter gesture seems to spring more from a desire for climactic surprise rather than emerging plausibly from the psychology and actions of what we’ve seen previously, which is a minor quibble. I find the first scene more successful, its sudden unabashed sexuality definitely not what I was expecting, forging a specific connection between being sad, horny and morbidly minded at the same time. Like I said, dizzying levels of Jewishness.

The challenge for a nostalgically-prompted exegesis of a pop culture totem is producing a work whose implications are denser than the average “Only ‘90s kids remember” post, a task attempted by Jazmin Jones in her feature directorial debut. Seeking Mavis Beacon follows self-described “e-girl investigators” Jones and her “digital doula” friend Olivia McKayla Ross during a multi-year search for Renée L’Espérance. The otherwise unknown Haitian model was photographed for the first edition of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, her image subsequently traced over for a woodcut illustration on an updated version, then she disappeared from public sight. Jones grew up with the program and loved the image of Beacon as a rare image of a black woman in a position of authority; now she’d like to meet the person who embodied her for one photo session.

By occasionally presenting itself as a desktop documentary, Beacon allows for each clip to open in the correct aspect ratio within its own, neatly labeled window; at moments, the movie appears to be a reasonably expensive simulation of operating a c. 1995 Apple desktop’s QuickTime player. Clips range from TikTok to The Color of Pomegranates, with supplemental doses of Doha Debates, texts uploaded to Cargo Collective and a snippet of How to With John Wilson used to explain the Mandela Effect—i.e., the overall sensibility is unabashedly Extremely Online, and the according presentational frills clearly worked on extensively. But counter to that aesthetic, L’Espérance has zero digital footprint, so locating her takes time; in the meanwhile, the duo succeed in contacting and interviewing Joe Abrams and Walt Bitofsky, two of the main men behind the program. The two are certainly aware of the present moment, with Bitofsky gamely acknowledging that while he would “love to claim that back in 1987 we were woke,” that simply wasn’t the case. After leaving, Jazmin and Olivia are suspicious of how little the software duo profess to know about L’Espérance’s subsequent life and keep digging; later, they find a Facebook post from Bitfosky saying that the interview “relieved me of residual cultural exploitation guilt.”

The obvious generational gap between two young woman who’ve latched onto an image of a black woman and the white men responsible for imagining the fictional character she embodied is echoed after Jones and Ross manage to track down L’Espérance (through means kept off-screen, presumably for legal and privacy concerns) but she simply doesn’t want to talk to them. Jones is simultaneously chasing two irreconcilable things: to be respectful of the heroine she’s never met, but also for L’Espérance to desire a conversation she clearly wants no part of. Or, as Jones tells L’Espérance’s son, “I respect her wishes ultimately but […] I also want to give her flowers.” For L’Espérance, the idea of getting her flowers is clearly irrelevant; for her ardent admirers, that’s nearly inconceivable. 

I found these generational gaps to be the most compelling thread of this thematically overstuffed film. Jones and Ross both register well on camera, with a confidence and buoyancy justifying the former’s statement that “we’re both delightful.” While eliding the mechanics by which financing was obtained (I wish they’d gone full Christo/Jeanne-Claude and made their paperwork part of the overall project, though that’s probably not a practical proposition), their investigation is otherwise conducted with the simulation of 360 transparency, as the two fret about both the ethics of trying to track down a potentially unwilling subject and the narrative ramifications for their final product if they don’t find her, a problem nonfiction filmmakers will surely find nervewrackingly of interest. Granted, the investigation leads the pair on a enjoyably potted tour of LA including (a sequence almost out of another movie) an interview with Robert Blake’s ex-wife Sondra, who’s what they used to call “a hoot.” But the ultimate absence of their longed-for main interviewee requires solutions, and Jones and Ross’s weapon of choice here is excessive theorizing to offer multiple reframings of what just happened; I’m not convinced that in not reaching their desired resolution, they are in fact proactively “resisting the colonial impulse to impose a victor” (!). I work and live online like anyone else, but to the minimal extent necessary, and my interests are borderline antiquarian, so this is not, precisely speaking, my thing, but I recognize the specific impulses this is coming from and appreciate the effort put forth in illustrating them. 

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