The New York debut of Chicago’s Sounds of Silent Film Festival Friday night at Anthology Film Archives was close to sold out and would have been if not for the monsoon. It was sort of a Bang on a Can marathon of film music. The concept, said composer and Access Contemporary Music honcho Seth Boustead, was to introduce themselves to New York audiences with a greatest-hits package from the previous eight Windy City festivals. Eleven short films, none of them dating further back than 1967, got new scores from an eclectic mix of contemporary composers, both a showcase for their talents as well as a way of getting a captive audience to witness a program of first-rate, frequently creepy indie classical music.
Writing cinematic music is not easy: it requires a broad sonic palette and the ability to seamlessly negotiate abrupt emotional, melodic and rhythmic shifts. Conducting a live ensemble to keep pace with a film without the benefit of a click track is even more difficult, but conductor Francesco Milioto kept a tight ensemble drawing heavily on the Access Contemporary Music roster on a steady course. Christie Miller’s moody clarinet and bass clarinet often took centerstage, along with Hulya Alpakin’s insistent, often menacing piano, Nathan Bojko‘s dynamic percussion leading the group into richly noir territory. The rest of the ensemble – Lesley Swanson on flute, Alyson Berger on cello, Elizabeth Brausa and Gregory Harrington on violins and Alexandra Honigsberg on viola – played with what was often a white-knuckle intense focus.
Oboeist/composer Patricia Morehead’s scores for Steve Stein’s Must Like Magic, a wry account of a magician and his new apprentice, bounced along with a surprisingly effective undercurrent of unease. Boustead’s pulsing, smartly developed theme and variations grounded Guy Maddin’s surreal, vaudevillian, early Soviet-influenced sci-fi Heart of the World with an unexpected matter-of-factness. One of the most enjoyable films on the bill, Martin Pickles’ G.M. – a snarky but loving homage to Georges Melies – got a dynamic Randall West score that went from droll to neo-Bernard Herrmann in seconds flat.
The ensemble’s most difficult task was blending in with the original minimalist soundtrack of Steve Bilich’s haunting, accidentally 9/11-themed Native New Yorker, which won the award for best short film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Shot with a a 1924 hand-crank Kodak, it follows the trail of a shirtless American Indian as he makes his way to lower Manhattan and then gets to witness the horrors of that morning: the shots of all the ambulances racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, streaming dust and debrus behind them, are shattering. William Susman’s new score bookended an uneasy, Philip Glass-ish, circularly summery interlude with a marching theme that moved from murky to horror-stricken.
Another rarely screened gem was Martin Scorsese’s final NYU student film, The Big Shave, a brief 1967 antiwar parable wherein a draft-age guy starts shaving, and then keeps going long after he should have stopped, with expectedly gruesome results (one suspects Roger Waters ripped it for the Bob Geldof shaving scene in The Wall). Brian O’Hern’s music underscored it with a cruelly cynical faux-martial bombast. And Virgil Widrich’s delightfully creepy Copy Shop – Kafka meets Rod Serling – got a similarly noir, macabre, carnivalesque score from Eric Malmquist.
The rest of the music was a lot more interesting than the movies. Doug Johnson scored claymation inovators the Brothers Quays‘ homage to an earlier pioneer of the style, Jan Svankmajer with a lively, flinty, goodnaturedly wry sensibility. Amos Gillespie’s eclectically rhythmic score overshadowed a rather sentimental Michael Dudok de Wit short, Father and Daughter, Matt Pakulski doing much the same with Gus Van Sant’s abbreviated First Kiss. Amy Wurtz’s music for first-wave anime filmmaker Osamu Tezuka’s The Mermaid held the audience in check with its foreshadowing and drift toward darkness in a way that the film couldn’t. The night ended with Boustead’s Bizet arrangements for Alexander Payne’s Carmen, an over-the-top satire which has far more resonance for those familiar with the opera than for those who aren’t.
Last night violinist/composer Alicia Svigals debuted her new score to the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center, accompanying a screening in tandem with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. The movie isn’t much. A screwball tragi-comedy starring nineteen-year-old future Hollywood siren Pola Negri, it casts Polish Jews as the unlikely protagonists in a family drama concerning a question of parentage. The pro-Jewish angle was undoubtedly less of a decisively progressive move than an excuse to paint the WWI enemy Russians as cruel and discriminatory (which they were, actually). The film, newly restored, has historical value for including rare footage of Warsaw’s Jewish district – and little else. But Svigals’ score is exquisite.
In practically an hour of music, the former Klezmatic and Itzhak Perlman collaborator blended somber klezmer themes with vivid, plaintive neoromantic melodies that echoed Tschaikovsky and Ravel, particularly in one of the soundtrack’s most chilling passages, piano joining the violin in adding ominous close harmonies to a variation on the steady, pensive, minor-key title theme. The score’s dynamics turned out to be pretty straightforward, other than a brief, furtive suspense interlude and a couple of shivery, overtone-generating solo violin cadenzas that only hinted at the raw firepower that Svigals can generate in concert.
Svigals’ themes unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably. A moody, apprehensive hora early on, introduced during a broad sequence where Negri’s character fends off a would-be suitor, romped back in later as a joyous freilach. The soaring blue-sky interlude illustrating Negri’s train passage to what would ostensibly be a new life as a student in St. Petersburg turned ominous and chilling in a split second, to match a jump cut. Lerner’s understatedly haunting, resonant block chords and elegant arpeggios made a poignant and intuitive backdrop for Svigals’ highly ornamented phrasing, sometimes tense and nuanced, occasionally channeling fullscale horror. Svigals has a forthcoming album of Osvaldo Golijov works recorded with clarinet powerhouse David Krakauer due out this year; this deserves to be immortalized every bit as much.
For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.
Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
How do you say sturm und drang in Arabic? Jordanian composer/pianist Zade likes a BIG sound, which takes on an even more dramatic effect given the striking setting for this outdoor evening concert recently rebroadcast on PBS: a Roman amphitheatre dating back two millennia. In fact, it seems that the massive choir joining with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Zade’s band may actually outnumber the audience. The subtext couldn’t scream any louder than the music: if we don’t get peace in the Middle East, this is just a small piece of what we stand to lose.
Zade’s lavishly orchestrated Middle Eastern-inflected, minor-key neo-romantic soundscapes have a lot more in common with the Alan Parsons Project – or Richard Wagner – than they do with pioneering Middle Eastern composers like the Iranian Abolhassan Sabeh, who, like Zade, would utilize the even tunings of the western scale. Ironically, it’s the little touches here that resonate the loudest: the brief yet viscerally haunting ney flute solo at the end of the tango that takes up the fifth track, or the wistful interplay between piano and acoustic guitar on the intro to the next one, Santiago’s Dream (inspired, Zade tells the crowd, by Paulo Coelho’s hit new-age novel from twenty years ago,The Alchemist). An electric violin solo trading off with the flute sounds like a particularly inspired mashup of ELO and Jethro Tull – and the crowd goes wild for it!
A playful, bouncy pop melody is dedicated to Jordan’s Princess Haya, an equestrian of some note and apparently a patron of Zade’s peace crusade, an encouraging revelation (peace of course being a relative term, especially in these parts). There’s also a plaintive breakup ballad sung by Jordanian chanteuse Jama; and the strongest composition, a particularly sweeping, percussive anthem titled Amman that perhaps appropriately has the most indelibly Arabic feel to it.
To say that the surroundings match the music for dramatic impact is quite the understatement: if what’s going on inside the amphitheatre is a little overwhelming, you can watch the headlights of the evening traffic peacefully going by outside at the top of the screen, completely oblivious – or maybe listening on Jordanian state radio, who knows. Casual fans may prefer the cd, since most DVD players don’t have the sonic capability to render the show in all its glorious exuberance (although the sonics of the DVD prove identical to those of the cd if run through good speakers). The cd also lacks the bonus features, including an interview with Zade, whose sincerity as an advocate for peace translates vividly in flawless English.
Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.
Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.
With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.
The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.
Thought it might be cruel to call this Woody Allen lite, that’s how this enjoyably puckish, satirical comedy comes across. Allen directs but doesn’t appear in the film, taking more than a few cues from Amoldovar as its three leading ladies vie for the affection of a goodlooking painter. Laughs are plentiful (many of them encouraged by a deadpan voiceover that serves as Greek chorus), even thought each of the main characters is straight out of Central Casting.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall – the actress, not the retro-folk siren who fronts Hungrytown) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are trendoids on vacation in Barcelona. Vicky is putting the finishing touches on her masters thesis on Catalan Identity, likes nice boys and has a stick up her ass. Cristina, who’s just spent the past year writing, directing and acting in a twelve-minute film that she now despises, is something of a restless spirit who likes her men bad. Lecherous painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) picks up the two in a bistro after considerable coaxing and takes them to Oviedo for the weekend. It takes considerably less coaxing to get Cristina to jump into bed with him, but things don’t work out so he overcomes staggering odds (go, Javier!) and hooks up with her vastly more conservative pal. Trouble is, Vicky is scheduled to be married and move to a nice house in status-grubbing Bedford Hills in Westchester Country with her materialistic yuppie fiancé Doug (played to the hilt by Tim Reedy lookalike Chris Messina).
After the weekend, Juan Antonio predictably doesn’t call Vicky back. But he does call Cristina, who ends up moving in with him. Things are going swimmingly until suddenly his ex-wife/stalker/bête noir Maria Elena (a luminous and completely over-the-top hilarious Penelope Cruz) moves in with them after a failed suicide attempt. After a few bumps in the road, the three get along marvelously, marvelously well (Doug’s reaction to news of their, um, relationship is priceless). But Vicky hasn’t forgotten her lost weekend with Juan Antonio and is having second thoughts about a comfortable life in suburbia. Then someone unexpectedly breaks character and throws a wrench in the works.
While Vicky has seemingly reached the brink of self-actualization, Cristina, encouraged boisterously by Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, finds her muse in the camera’s lens. Allen’s satire disappears for most of the second half of the film while his characters struggle to find some depth, but it returns with a vengeance in the seconds before the credits roll. Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t shoot for the lofty, philosophical heights of Allen’s peak, late 70s period, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. Put it on your Netflix list or see it when it hits the cable channels in a few weeks.
Giving away the ending to a film may be the biggest faux pas a reviewer can commit, but what if the film doesn’t have an ending? That seems to be the case with Joshua: it’s as if the producers of this low-budget indie suspense flick ran out of money three-quarters of the way through and decided to wrap it up on the spot rather than looking for new backers. So we’re supposed to believe that little Joshua did all those bad things simply because he’s gay – he’s NINE YEARS OLD, for chrissakes!?!?! – and all he wants to do is get away from his family and hang out with his swishy uncle?
It’s too bad the movie ends that way (looks like the producers ran out of money for focus groups too), because getting there is a good ride. Joshua (Jacob Kogan, marvelously deadpan and eerie in his screen debut) lives with his yuppie parents (Brad, played by Sam Rockwell and Vera, played by Laurie Metcalfe lookalike Vera Farmiga) and his newborn sister in an impossibly large apartment on New York’s upper east side. Dad is a clueless type who seems to be sleepwalking through parenthood and his job at a nameless Wall Street financial house; mom had trouble with postpartum depression after Joshua was born, and it seems to be happening again, worse than before.
Trouble follows Joshua like New Jersey cops after a carful of black people. The gerbils in his classroom have mysteriously died, his little sister cries for no reason, constantly waking screaming up in the middle of the night, and his mother does the same thing. Drawing heavily on The Bad Seed and the original When a Stranger Calls as well as the Stephen King playbook, co-writer/director George Ratliff finds dread everywhere, in the most mundane places. There’s one scene where the door to an appliance – can’t tell you which one – opens, that pushes the scare factor way into the red. Otherwise, the director gets the max out of his low-budget set (the film is shot mostly in the apartment, with a few outdoor scenes at the Brooklyn Museum and what appears to be Morningside Park), shooting into the shadows for what turns out to be usually not there.
The film’s best scene finds Joshua onstage at a piano recital. He’s been practicing Bartok (not implausible: he’s talented, and Kogan actually learned how to play a few of the pieces that appear on camera), but what he pulls out of the woodwork has to be the most eerie musical moment to appear in any film drama since Michael Caine did his immortal, faux-badly-sung version of Roy Orbison’s It’s Over in Little Voice. Joshua keels over immediately after finishing his little jam. Yet nobody gets what’s going on (the filmmakers could have had a lot more fun satirizing pampered New York yuppie parents than they do).
After something particularly nasty happens to Joshua’s bible-thumping, proselytizing grandmother (played to the hilt by Celia Weston), Brad seems to get the picture, but he can’t stop what’s about to happen. And then the movie ends, before any hell breaks loose: Joshua could have gone on for another 15 suspenseful minutes and wound up either on a deliciously grisly or righteously just note. It screams out for a remake. David Cronenberg, people will have forgotten all about this in ten years’ time, are you listening?
I Wonder if Heaven is filled with Pie…
By Christine Lloyd
The Waitress has the mixed blessing of being actress/director and writer Adrienne Shelly’s wide-screen release directorial debut and swan song. Prior to the The Waitress, Shelly directed four small, little known films: Lois Lives a Little, Sudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and The Shadows of Bob & Zelda. The Waitress is Shelly’s first film to make it into the top ten Box Office films, and win critical recognition at Sundance.
As anyone living in New York knows by now, the media reported that Shelly was murdered in her bathroom last year by a construction worker who’d been doing some work on the floor below. According to news reports, Shelly had complained about noise below her apartment and threatened to call the authorities. Police reported that an argument ensued, the worker (a Salvadoran immigrant) allegedly killer her and tried to cover up the crime by making it appear to be a suicide. Tragic, considering the actress left behind a small child: Shelly died before her film was accepted into Sundance or was distributed to theaters. Her husband, Andrew Ostroy, set up the Adrienne Shelly Foundation (http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org) to award film scholarships and grants to women filmmakers.
Prior to directing, writing and acting in The Waitress – a story that deals with Shelly’s own experience as a struggling artist about to have an unwanted child – Shelly was best known for her work in several independent films by director Hal Hartley, notably The Unbelievable Truth.
Knowing this doesn’t affect your enjoyment or appreciation of the movie all that much, except perhaps to make it more bittersweet, particularly when you realize which character Shelly is playing – a somewhat pasty-faced, not overly attractive co-worker and friend of the lead.
The film stars Keri Russell (from the tv sitcom Felicity) as Jenna; Ms. Shelly, as Jenna’s close friend and co-worker, Dawn; Andy Griffith – of Matlock and the Andy Griffith Show fame - as Joe, owner of the diner where Jenna works; Nathan Fillion, most recently seen in the television series Drive, as well as the feature films Slither and Serenity; Jeremy Sisto, as Jenna’s husband Earl; and Cheryl Hines as Becky, Jenna’s older co-worker.
With a running time of approximately an hour and thirty minutes, The Waitress is a feel-good character piece centered around the lead, who makes pies at Joe’s Pie Diner, a small, somewhat beaten down joint in central New Jersey. Jenna lives and breathes pies and has created over 147 different types throughout her career, a new one every day. She dreams up her pies while arguing with her abusive and controlling husband, or while sitting at the bus station.
The film is shot from Jenna’s perspective: we only see the other characters when she’s present, and only see what they tell Jenna or Jenna thinks about them. Shelly, unlike other directors, never cheats or pulls back from her lead’s point of view and utilizes dream sequences where Jenna is dreaming up a new brand of pie as a means of exploring her inner turmoil in a comedic way. For example, when Jenna discovers in the first five minutes of the film that she is pregnant by her no-account husband, she dreams up Bad Baby Pie, describes the filling and how it will be cooked. The next day, we see Joe, played by Andy Griffith, asking Jenna – after he learns of her pregnancy – to bring him a piece. When she visits her obstetrician, she brings Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, which she holds like a shield against her stomach as she envisions all the pregnant women around her naked, cringing at the thought.
The story’s central arc addresses Jenna’s struggles to come to terms with her pregnancy and having a baby, how it will change her life, how it will effect her relationships and her dreams. At first, she hates the child within her belly. She sees it as an inconvenience and a parasite that will take away everything she has worked so hard to accomplish, notably her chance to leave her husband and start a new life. As her co-workers make clear at the beginning, while Jenna is prettier than they are, has an attractive husband and a talent for piemaking, they wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. We find out why when we meet him. In the first ten minutes of the film, we see Jenna retreating into herself out of fear and loathing. We never see Earl outside of Jenna’s perspective, so he remains the film’s only two – dimensional character.
Yet, as testament to the director’s talent, there’s never a black-and-white villain. We come to know why Jenna got involved with him: there are glimpses of vulnerablity and insecurity beneath the sneers and abuse. Earl objectivizes Jenna, treating her as a possession without regard for her emotional wellbeing. Without falling into cliché, Shelly depicts a marriage gone bad.
The other male lead, a doctor portrayed by Nathan Fillion, is perhaps more complex and three-dimensional. He’s nebulous, yet empathetic, comical with a charm and restraint evocative of Cary Grant or a young Tom Hanks. At once bemused and taken aback by Jenna’s attraction to him, he seems more perplexed than manipulative, the happily married man who can’t help but find himself falling in love with the waitress who reminds him a bit too much of his childhood crush. Their relationship is both funny and bittersweet, but also manages to avoid cliche.
Outside of Earl and the Doctor, whose name escapes me – she rarely calls him by his first name – the other two characters portrayed in the film are Dawn and Becky, an older waitress, who has a little secret that Jenna discovers mid-way through. All three are fully developed characters, yet we never see them outside of Jenna. Unlike most romantic comedies, The Waitress does not employ stock characters in supporting roles: no “quirky best friend and confidant,” “wiser older friend,” or “wise old man.” At first glance, each of these characters may appear to fit those models, but their lives are their own, and it’s clear that they don’t simply revolve around Jenna. For example, there is a short and sweet little romantic subplot involving Dawn and a blind date, who stalks her with spontaneous poetry until she eventually accedes, much to her friends’ alarm. Shelly’s characters, unlike the typical blockbuster movie personage, have great verisimilitude: they actually resemble the kind of people you could meet and befriend in a small New Jersey diner, if only for a little while.
The film’s only weakness may well be its surreal ending, which in jarring contrast to the rest of the picture is filmed in bright cheery colors and flashes. Is it a dream or is it real? We’re not sure. Upon first viewing, I assumed it was meant to be real, but after discussing it with a friend, I am no longer certain. Without giving too much away, it is shown as a montage and does not quite fit with the overall tone, style, and color scheme of the rest of the picture. It is a slight difference, but enough of one to make you ponder its intent. If it is meant as a dream, then the film is an artistic achievement for reasons you will understand when you see it. If not, the fact that there is a question mark about it gives it a resonance it may have lacked otherwise.
The Waitress, albeit a small film in an action-packed summer of bigger, shinier fare, is that rare piece that resonates with you long after it is over, much like Little Miss Sunshine last year. It is a testament to Shelly’s craft and in a way a fitting memorial to her life, however tragic and shortlived.
- avant garde music
- blues music
- classical music
- experimental music
- folk music
- funk music
- gospel music
- gypsy music
- irish music
- latin music
- Lists – Best of 2008 etc.
- Live Events
- middle eastern music
- music, concert
- New York City
- NYC Live Music Calendar
- organ music
- Public Health
- rap music
- reggae music
- rock music
- ska music
- small beast
- soul music
- The Blahgues
- world music