THE PIANOTUNER OF EARTHQUAKES
starring Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna, César Saracho
screenplay by Alan Passes and The Quay Brothers
directed by The Quay Brothers
starring Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee
written and directed by Andrew Bujalski
starring Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Bridget Moynahan, Joe Pantoliano
screenplay by Matthew Waynee
directed by Simon Brand
by Walter Chaw The Quay Brothers, Stephen and Timothy, are marvellous animators, having shepherded stop-motion and a disquieting biomechanical ethic into a series of notably discomfiting shorts, more than one of which pays tribute to their hero/mentor Jan Svankmajer. I met their 1995 transition to live-action features (Institute Benjamenta) with equal parts excitement, curiosity, and trepidation--I believed they'd be a little like either fellow animator-turned-director Tim Burton or those masters of a form who overreach by switching to a different medium, à la Michael Jordan. The truth is somewhere in-between, as the Quays have retained a bit of their glacial patience and a marked affection for created environments but have miscalculated the extent to which our fascination with animate clockworks translates into a commensurate fascination with people sitting around, staring at a wall. The former inspires existential thoughts on the nature of sentience; the latter generally inspires boredom. No question in my mind that something's lurking in the Quays' underneath, but it's important to mark that fine line distinguishing fascination from obtuseness for the sake of itself. Exploring the waking/dreamlife divide is interesting--but it's neither original nor terribly useful when the main tactic seems to be to conjure up pomposity-inspired sleepiness.
Piano tuner Felisberto (César Saracho) is summoned to the secluded forest manse of evil genius Droz (Gottfried John) to "tune" a series of arcane machineries (which look to have been designed by, well, the Brothers Quay) for use in an elaborate revenge plot involving the culturati and dead/reanimated/doppelgänger opera ingénue Malvina (Amira Casar). The bulk of the picture is composed of long, wordless, largely action-less shots that allow the viewer to take in immaculately-conceived environments played forwards and back. It feels like the intent is to draw relationships between our programming and the programmatic process of watching, then analyzing, film. Beyond that? Not much. The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes is an impenetrable, deep-arthouse version of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera that prizes its one timeworn conceit above all other considerations. It owes an allegiance to avant-garde in that sense as a relic more interesting to discuss than to actually experience. To that end, it's interesting to me that I'm more enraptured by the bits of string and nails the Brothers Quay animate than in the people they ossify. I don't mind films that require a lot of heavy-lifting--what I do mind are the ones that don't pay off the effort.
Going in the other direction, Andrew Bujalski's exuberant Mutual Appreciation feels like, so help me, a product of John Cassavetes's kitchen-sink aesthetic and Michael Winterbottom's dizzy brinkmanship. It hums along on improvisational energy and Larry David awkwardness as it essays the lives of new-hipster boho Brooklyn rockers putting on shows in empty warehouses, meeting over radio broadcasts at independent stations, and having endless conversations structured around puffed-up intellectual braggadocio and Bujalski's genuine observational gift. These are people drunk on quirk and the gilded cachet of saying "chin chin" as a toast in a futon-centric loft larded with coffee table books and French café posters silkscreened onto grape trays. It's the dark side of a Waldorf education. I see Mutual Appreciation as presenting the kind of brainy discomfort that Woody Allen used to do so well--this idea that too much rounded equals too little edge. Passion is at a premium in Bujalski's world, to the extent that inarticulate distress is the norm instead of the exception. "We should do cocaine!" exclaims cute girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift), and boyfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) offers a long pause before blurting an "Okay!" that dances that delicate wobble between being cool and being scared in front of someone you want to impress.
The star is promising alt-rocker Alan (Justin Rice)--he reminds of Jonny Polonsky--and it's his struggle to reconcile an affair with the sister of his drummer (Lee Seung-Min) and his attraction to his best friend's girl that leads the picture to its graceful, unexpected, perfectly-metered resolution. Mutual Appreciation isn't about their mutual appreciation, though--its title refers to a more general sense of affectedly-insincere sincerity. Everything feels like a euphemism for real emotion: a downward-spiralling nightcap party (where the guests are wearing wigs and talking about feminism) featuring Alan standing in a doorway with a frozen rictus painted on his face captures all those tongue-tied post-grad moments where you just wish someone would break out the chips and turn on the football game. Here's a deeply independent--and smart and observant and funny--picture that doesn't have much time for the people most likely to see it.
Neither opaque like The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes nor energized like Mutual Appreciation, Simon Brand's Unknown is an excruciating piece of shit making a play for mainstream credibility by being a glorified trailer reel for mainstream thriller detritus. As such, it's a sub-par facsimile of the lowest rung of soggy, self-loving, Saw-like fare. Enlisting familiar faces Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Bridget Moynahan, and Peter Stormare to go through the paces of a heist/Memento wheezer, the picture opens with five men in various states of physical disrepair waking up in a destroyed warehouse without any memory of who they are or how they got there. The only thing the film has going for it, free as it is of anything resembling suspense, intelligence, direction, or interest, is the cozy assurance that nobody's likely to try this particular gambit to reach the big-time again any time soon. (As even higher-profile cult disasters like The Boondock Saints spelled the end of careers, safe to say that Unknown looks more and more like a director's tombstone.) Suffocatingly stagy, appallingly- written and plotted, the picture is all epileptic flashbacks and a parallel exculpatory plot that does more to diffuse the tension a truly closed-room drama might have eventually manifested. It's hard work of an entirely different kind: If you stay with it, you do so by pretending you don't know how it ends and, moreover, that you care. Originally published: January 19, 2006.