Imagine if Kevin Smith made Dogma (1999) but in the flat, unaffected style of Clerks (1994). Add in a self-professedly nymphomaniacal nun who has never had sex but who has visions of the Virgin Mary telling her she’ll make a terrible convent community member. While you’re at it, throw in some amnesia, the porn industry, human trafficking, and the perfidious Dutch. Even Parker Posey and Dwight Ewell have bit parts. Fold to combine and you’ve got yourself Hal Hartley’s Amateur (1994).
Based on whatever personality test you like, this sounds like my kind of movie. And yet, it made for uninspired watching. It’s not that it’s poorly shot or that the acting is awful (how can you evaluate performances in a movie in which everyone is supposed to act like they just woke up from a lobotomy?). Some of the jokes are even funny (I’m looking at you, gunshots in the meadow). I enjoyed the movie in a cerebral way, even guffawed a couple times, but it just never came together for me.
Upon further reflection, I suspect that’s because the tone, the affects of the characters—all the je ne sais quoi that I’m je sais right now—invite a viewing experience that fails the material. This is the kind of film where a woman narrates out loud as she writes short stories for nudie mags in the middle of a New York greasy spoon. It’s the kind of movie in which, moments later, she decides to tend to a man with amnesia who can’t remember his name or if he smokes with all the energy a doctor and patient bring to a proctology exam. One bedraggled accountant (Damian Young) stays silent and wild-haired as he attacks a mother and her children, gets booked at a cop precinct, and shoots his way to a nunnery.
His experiences make him frenzied but not evil. In a way, the Edward the accountant plotline typifies the movie’s philosophy—we are not essentially anything, only a knock on the head or traumatic experience away from flipping the script. Our amnesiac, Thomas (Martin Donovan), turns out to be a human trafficker and abuser, yet halfway through his addled brain has him defending a victim of his, Sophia (Elina Löwensohn). Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) rebels by being a nun, then jets out of the convent to write hopelessly bad softcore and defend the weak and marginalized by divine fiat. Nothing here is simple and everyone can stand in light or shadow at any time.
The drama of the human condition is undermined by the flatness of the movie. Indie stoicism works in Clerks because we’re watching the profoundly tedious lives of two townies as they survive a day behind the counter. Their lives (and perhaps existence in toto) become absurd as they muse about contractors on the Death Star, gum hucksters, and the meaning of growing old in the town you were born. We begin to think we’ve learned something about everyday life in the post-industrial time warp of South Jersey. Nothing here becomes absurd because it’s all surreal from the beginning. Everyone seems bored with the realities of good and evil, not so much beyond them or through them as done with them.
R.W. Fassbinder’s first feature, Love is Colder than Death (1969), is a product of his days as a Brechtian theater director. The goal is to present an action-packed genre piece (the gangster movie) in a stilted, static way. The camera rarely moves, nor do the actors. It also doesn’t quite work, though it’s at least bold in its experimentation: what if we slowed down the violence of the supposedly thrilling American gangster movie until its artifice, its brutality became obvious? Here, action and violence are not so much glorified as made matter of fact, even listlessly criticized. The material demands melodrama, not Mumblecore. C’est la vie, I guess.