October Film Reviews: ‘Brief Interviews With Hideous Men’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’
The late David Foster Wallace was a true writer’s writer, a protean stylist whose appetite for experimental narratives and high-flown diction doesn’t exactly scream, “Film me!” As such, the idea of adapting anything by the Infinite Jest scribe to the big screen seems vaguely perverse. But credit first-time writer-director John Krasinski with seeing the potential. His adaptation of Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a rather free-form collection of short stories published in 1999, is something of a stunner, if only because it works as a coherent film at all.
Krasinski, known chiefly as the affable Jim Halpert on NBC’s The Office, has mercifully spared this material the usual Hollywood whitewashing. Rather, he’s crafted a sincere—and sincerely challenging—work that most Wallace fans will find true, at least in spirit, to the book. It’s difficult to recall a recent American picture that was so deliberately and refreshingly elliptical. It’s even bold enough to withhold crucial information until the last few frames, a strategy that will surely annoy and delight equal parts of its highbrow audience.
The markedly nonlinear plot follows a lovelorn graduate student, Sara (Julianne Nicholson), as she passes through various stations of university life: office hours with students, drab faculty functions and the eponymous interviews she’s conducting as part of some unnamed research project. There is nothing in her life but men (the only other female characters are faceless extras), and they’re all crass, particularly her interviewees. Although the audience isn’t privy to Sara’s questions, we hear her subjects confess to crude pickup methods, weird bedroom tics and a host of megalomaniacal fantasies. It’s not far from In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute’s grim portrait of the male psyche, and there’s a dash of the odious Tucker Max in there, too. “Men,” several characters remind us, “are shit.”
It’s a drag experiencing the world this way, and Sara has become fatalistic in the wake of a messy breakup. Chauvinism is everywhere. It’s oppressive enough that she can’t think straight: a mess of flashbacks, flash-forwards and even a fourth-wall–breaking chorus of opinionated waiters underscores the chaos of her mindset. Such loose, ping-ponging structure also lends the film a distinctly essayistic quality that’s almost Godardesque. Brief Interviews is far from perfect—at times it’s stagy, visually flat and overly clever—but it’s nevertheless a work of searching intelligence, an all too rare commodity in domestic cinema these days. If Brief Interviews plays fast and loose with structure, Jonathan Caouette’s documentary All Tomorrow’s Parties plays dirty (Caouette’s autobiographical debut Tarnation was similarly no holds barred). A riot of diverse footage (film, video, cell-phone, stock) culled from the past 10 years of the popular U.K. music festival, the film operates much like many of its featured bands: loud, impatient and thoroughly kinetic.
Caouette doesn’t waste time on exposition. That ATP was started by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch at an off-season holiday camp is all the background one gets before the picture takes off on its freewheeling musical survey. Conventional structure is eschewed in favor of a sustained audio-visual kaleidoscope effect. Multi-panel screens, rhythmic cutting and poetic digressions—it’s shot through with all manner of visual hooks. There hasn’t been a documentary, music-themed or otherwise, this rigorously edited in ages. So much information is crammed in that only a few performers rate more than a sound-bite.
Still, there’s some great live footage here: Nick Cave’s side-project Grinderman is a standout, as are Gossip, Lightning Bolt, Portishead and Battles. In each case, Caouette lets the bands’ music speak for itself, sometimes even neglecting to identify who’s who. He’s far more interested in crafting a mood than a showcase, biography or standard documentary. Some will be disoriented by All Tomorrow’s Parties’ freeform excursion, but most will be seduced.