Beyond the Multiplex

"Wristcutters: A Love Story" imagines hell as a place you may recall -- with Tom Waits as an angel. Plus: The man behind Mapplethorpe.

Published October 18, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Maybe once a week, when I meet somebody and tell them what I cover, the person narrows their eyes and looks at me in a knowing manner. "Independent film," they say. "What does that even mean these days?"

I'm not going to drag this column down the bottomless rabbit hole of movieland etymology and taxonomy, I swear. The point is that for that person -- generally, we're talking about someone over 35, someone whose consciousness was shaped by the 1980s or earlier -- the term "independent film" used to mean something it doesn't mean anymore.

Actually, the way the term is used within the film business today is perfectly clear and logical. You may argue that it's meaningless, if you wish, but that's another question. An independent film is one not produced or distributed by the main branch of one of the six major Hollywood studios. Under that definition, a big-budget movie made or distributed by an autonomous "mini-major" like Warner Independent or Sony Pictures Classics or Focus Features or Picturehouse is just as independent as a $200,000 experimental narrative released by New Yorker or Palm Pictures or IFC or any of the scores of teensier companies out there.

Look, I didn't say it made intuitive sense. I just said it creates some clarity. Given the magic-money-from-everywhere nature of film production these days, there's plenty of ambiguity and category-bleed to go around. I have no idea why the jesuitical minds at IndieWire have classified "The Darjeeling Limited," a Fox Searchlight release, as independent while "Eastern Promises," a Focus release, apparently isn't. But at least we're not trying to apply the late Justice Potter Stewart's famous obscenity definition ("I know it when I see it") to every single movie that comes down the pike.

Thing is, o brethren and sistren of the over-35 generation who still long for some subversive edge, some aroma of dusty coolness, to your indie films: I feel your anguish. I feel it in my bones, because I know exactly when the term entered my consciousness, and what three films were associated with it. The movies were Wayne Wang's "Chan Is Missing" in 1982, Alex Cox's "Repo Man" in 1983 and Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" in 1984.

Hell, I still view those three movies with prodigious fondness. Maybe I'll watch them all tonight. I'm not arguing that they were the first or best or ultimate independent films, and I'm pretty sure other things (John Cassavetes' movies, perhaps) were being called independent films before those guys came along. It was probably just a weird generational or historical accident that those three filmmakers seemed to capture a moment, and that their movies all seemed to combine downbeat realism, miscellaneous tributes to genre film and a dry, slightly dark current of post-punk whimsy. (Their subsequent careers could hardly be more different, although we'll leave the fascinating comparative essay for another time.)

All I'm saying is that for certain viewers (me included) the "Chan Is Repossessed in Paradise" aesthetic will always seem definitional, and that every quirky-funky film where people go noplace particular in a busted car and have odd things happen is partaking of that legacy, consciously or not. Am I dooming Goran Dukic's low-budget debut feature "Wristcutters: A Love Story" by bringing it up in this context? That's up to you, but there's nothing unconscious about this movie, an oddly clever vision of the afterlife that seems to have sprung directly from the early-'80s Jarmusch-Cox zeitgeist.

This is a movie that features an old hatchback junker with no working headlights and a black hole under the front seat. (No -- an actual black hole, like in space.) This is a movie in which Tom Waits plays an angel. This is a movie in which every major character is already dead. I found it hilarious, imaginative, sweet and generally delightful. But I suppose if you're holding your stomach and groaning, "Not another winsome espresso-depresso comedy!" you'd better see something else. This week also takes us back to the '80s with a peculiar but intriguing documentary about the ambiguous relationship between photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and curator-collector Sam Wagstaff, and a hard-edged, low-budget horror movie that's so minimal it has almost no talking.

There's an impressive list of not-quite-indie releases coming out this week with half an eye on the awards season, from Susanne Bier's English-language debut "Things We Lost in the Fire," starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, to Ben Affleck's directing debut "Gone Baby Gone" and Terry George's "Reservation Road," with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. (Stephanie Zacharek will cover most of those on Friday.) If you live in New York and your filmgoing diet still seems inadequate, well for goodness' sake get over to Film Forum for Sergei Bondarchuk's legendary seven-hour adaptation of "War & Peace," an Oscar winner in 1968. But are there aliens, angels or busted Buicks in it?

"Wristcutters: A Love Story": In the land of suicide, things are a little worse. But at least there's no Starbucks!
Almost a year ago, after "Wristcutters" had played the film-festival circuit and been nominated for a couple of Spirit Awards, one well-placed distribution executive told me that Goran Dukic's debut feature might never get picked up. This was strictly a question of content, and of apparent content at that: Almost everybody who saw the film enjoyed it, but nobody wanted to run interference for a movie that might be seen as treating suicide among young people as comic material.

I'm torn between competing critical impulses here. On one level, I want to leap to the defense of Dukic's wry, lovelorn film, which presents the hereafter reserved for suicides as a gray, trashed and spiritless realm that's just "a little worse" than the world of the living. I feel like I should assure you that "Wristcutters" is life-affirming and morally responsible, that by gosh it's against suicide and doesn't make offing yourself look cool or glamorous. On the other hand, I also think: Screw life-affirming and morally responsible. Dukic is entitled to follow his perverse muse down any dark corridors he wants to, and if we don't believe that all the offensive films glorifying murder have any direct correlation to crime (and I don't), I certainly don't believe that anybody's going to kill themselves because of a low-budget comedy.

In the film's opening scene, a shaggy young fellow named Zia (Patrick Fugit) gets out of bed, cleans up his semi-demolished, post-collegiate room and then slits his wrists in the bathroom. We have no idea why, at least at first. Dukic doesn't show us the act, but he briefly shows us the aftermath, which is plenty unglamorous. Zia awakens from that spreading pool of blood to find himself essentially transported right into -- well, into the urban America of the 1980s, or to put it another way, into precisely the world that produced "Repo Man" and "Stranger Than Paradise."

Zia's postmortem life begins in a nameless city (clearly the less attractive districts of Los Angeles) that's been meticulously drained of color and vitality. Everybody is perfectly aware how they got there and what the deal is: Some people have nasty holes in their heads or disquieting pools of purple and green under their skin. (Zia of course has impressive scars on his wrists.) There are no brightly lit chain stores; it's a dream America of broken windows and hand-lettered signs. The economy of Suicideland clearly sucks, in a way that will seem strikingly familiar to Americans of the right vintage. Everyone seems distracted and bored (gas stations are constantly losing their nozzles when people drive off without removing them from their cars). No one ever smiles; it seems to be physically impossible. The night sky has no stars.

Zia argues about cottage cheese and bathroom habits with his gruff Austrian roommate. He has a job making unappetizing pies for the Pizzeria Kamikaze (get it?) and spends his leisure hours with a cheerfully sleazy, mutton-chopped Russian musician named Eugene (Shea Whigham), whose entire family has been reunited on this side of the veil. Convinced that Desiree (Leslie Bibb), the girlfriend who spurned him in life, is now somewhere in this grim country, Zia convinces Eugene to hit the road in search of her. So off they go in Eugene's rattletrap, which can't be driven after dark (the headlights) and tends to suck sunglasses, maps and cassette tapes to unknown destinations (the black hole).

So far this sounds a lot like my life at age 23 or so, and maybe like yours too. Fundamentally "Wriscutters" isn't about suicide at all; it's about how life, when you're young and aimless, can sometimes feel like a living death, a condition a "little worse" than the real world. What makes the film work despite its almost slavish devotion to its deadpan, Jarmuschian roots is its finely crafted contrasts -- between Fugit's restrained performance and Whigham's goofball pseudo-Russian, for example -- and its whimsical attention to detail. After Zia destroys a gas-station pump in the aforementioned manner, the big bruiser who owns the place comes steaming out to the car. But not to kick Zia's ass. Instead, he makes Zia fill out a faded, photocopied form that asks, among other things, what he was thinking about when he drove away with the nozzle in his tank. Such statements are important to the bureaucracy of the dead, I guess.

Zia's still too stuck on the maybe-dead Desiree to pay much attention to diffident and difficult Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a raven-haired tomboy who insists she needs to find the "people in charge" and convince them that she never intended to kill herself at all. But we notice her, all right. Dukic tries to cram too much plot into the last third of the film, as Zia, Eugene and Mikal end up in a mysterious desert encampment presided over by Tom Waits and then stumble upon an even-weirder apocalyptic cult whose self-styled messiah seems to have taken on Desiree as his personal assistant.

"Wristcutters" is simultaneously dark and sweet, always a difficult combination to pull off. It views its characters with both archness and affection, and even as it lovingly recalls films of another era it insists that the painful awkwardness of youth is perennial. It's a mannered movie whose vision is stark and whose emotions feel completely authentic, and for me at least that's irresistible. When two lovers in the film finally spend a tender night together, curled up on the beach (it's implied, although not definitively stated, that sex is not possible), they wake up at dawn to discover they've been sleeping on an expanse of used condoms and syringes. In the land of suicide you take love however you find it.

"Wristcutters: A Love Story" opens Oct. 19 in New York and Oct. 26 in Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

Fast forward: "Black White & Gray" uncovers the man behind Mapplethorpe; "Trigger Man" hones horror to bare essentials
You have to be almost completely steeped in the decadence of the New York art world, circa 1980, to really appreciate James Crump's documentary "Black White & Gray." Hell, I've read a lot of books about that period and I've lived in New York for a dozen years, and I still felt as if the finishing-school drawl of celeb journalist Joan Juliet Buck, who narrates the film, was draining all the oxygen from my brain. Hearing Buck intone knowledgeably (if incorrectly, for the most part) about "punk rock" is its own special kind of cognitive dissonance, something like shooting scag in the bathroom of CBGB's with an Astor heiress -- and, I know, that almost certainly happened too.

Most obviously, Crump's movie is a tribute to a nearly forgotten man, the art collector and curator Sam Wagstaff, who was Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and (according to many sources) orchestrated much of the legendary photographer's career, including his notorious shift from portraiture to pornography. It's also a highly ambiguous portrait of a hedonistic New York era that was artistically and culturally fertile, but also immeasurably narcissistic and, not incidentally, self-destructive. Finally, Crump appears to argue that Mapplethorpe's fame, and the wealth of the foundation he left behind, were built on his manipulation and betrayal of a man who loved and shaped him.

Born into a blue-blood family on Central Park South and raised into a world of power, privilege and debutante balls, Wagstaff was an intriguing character who aggressively nurtured many avant-garde artists while (in the pre-Mapplethorpe period) living as a semi-closeted gay man. Through interviews with alt-rock goddess Patti Smith, journalist Dominick Dunne and numerous art-world players, Crump gathers a lot of information about Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. But neither can speak for himself now, and while the fragmentary footage Crump has gathered of both is fascinating, "Black White & Gray" raises provocative questions but can't answer them, or even frame them with total clarity. (Opens Oct. 19 at Cinema Village in New York, with other engagements to follow.)

A few weeks ago, I praised Larry Fessenden's terrific little global-warming horror flick "The Last Winter" as the harbinger of a longed-for new wave in horror, setting us free from the grotesquerie of the "Saw" and "Hostel" series and similar ventures. OK, so viewers haven't exactly flocked to "The Last Winter" in overwhelming numbers, but I'll keep the flame burning. Fessenden is the executive producer of Ti West's lean and mean "Trigger Man," a nearly dialogue-free expedition into the woods with a trio of slacker-ish hunting buddies who become the quarry of unknown assailants.

"Trigger Man" is a tense little production whose budget probably makes "The Last Winter" look like "Waterworld," but it's undeniably effective. There are a handful of gruesome effects but no torture or sadism; most of West's film simply follows our trio of hapless hunters through the sun-dappled Delaware forest, using music and unsettling point-of-view shots to emphasize the possibility that they're not alone. Explanation, exposition and character development are at or near zero, but an atmosphere of dread is built effectively and West's technique is strong. If you're inclined to think that Kelly Reichardt's indie-world fave "Old Joy" could have been improved with some splatter and random shootings to go along with the existential uncertainty, this is your movie. (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York. Opens Oct. 19 at the Laemmle Grande in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Beyond The Multiplex Movies Robert Mapplethorpe Suicide