Saturday, January 22, 2011

We buy from the children of dead people

One reason why I love the films of Nicole Holofcener is that they always star Catherine Keener as the main character. Keener is one of my favourite actresses, ever since I saw her as prickly, angry Terri in Your Friends and Neighbours. She's great when she's playing sweet (as in The Forty Year Old Virgin), and great when she's playing a bitch (as in Being John Malcovich), but in Holofcener's films she tends to play more complex, nuanced roles which are more difficult to define. She appears more real somehow. Holofcener's quartet of films, Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends With Money (2006) and Please Give (2010), made roughly five years apart, are like having glimpses of Holofcener's obsessions, as well as showing snapshots of Keener as she grows older (and gets better).

Holofcener's films are not blockbusters. There are no explosions or kidnappings. If people experience amazing moments of self-revelation, it often happens quietly, and is achieved by a slight alteration of a facial expression. Storylines are often not completley resolved. In Please Give, Kate (Keener) has a husband who has an affair. At one brief point we are led to suspect that she might suspect that something is going on, but she never pursues it. The affair ends. There is no loud confrontation. No break-up. Life continues and the film ends. As in real life, what is not said and what does not happen is often much more important, although can be harder to portray cinematically. These are not films you should watch while updating your Facebook profile.

The people in Holofcener's films are completely ordinary, American and frequently well-off. They have neuroses that often appear credible, particularly to educated middle-class people who think/worry too much. Middle-class guilt is a recurrent theme. In Friends With Money, Christine (Keener) and her husband are getting an extra level added to their home, although when Christine discovers that this is going to ruin the view of her neighbours, making her the local social pariah, she tells the Latino workers to down tools, incurring the fury of her husband. Guilt is explored more fully in Please Give, where Kate and her husband run a retro furniture shop, buying up recently inherited kitsch furniture from the children of dead people and then selling it on to hipsters in their trendy New York store at a fantastic mark-up. Meanwhile, the couple have purchased the next door apartment from a 91 year old cranky neighbour (played with delicious spite by Ann Morgan Guilbert), and are now waiting for her to die so they can knock through and extend. All of this gradually overwhelms Kate, and she spends her time over-compensating by giving large amounts of money and food to the "45 homeless people who live on my street", including, in one embarrassing scene, a black man who she mistakenly thinks is homeless, but is just waiting to get into a restaurant. She also attempts to do volunteer work, first at an elderly centre, then at a school for children with special needs, but she gets overcome with pity for the children and starts crying in front of them.

The other emotion which is prelevant in Holofcener's films is (repressed) anger. Often, quite ordinary scenes involving service encounters or friends can turn nasty in seconds, resulting in polite characters trading increasingly shocking insults in public spaces. In Friends With Money, Jane (Frances McDormand), has a particularly unpleasant incident involving queue-jumpers in an Old Navy store, which ends up with her breaking her nose, while in Lovely and Amazing Michelle (Keener again) finds difficulty selling her bizarre home-made knick-knacks in various chi-chi shops "I'm TRYING to sell my art!", and ends up having an escalating encounter when one shop-owner tries to reject her.

It's easy to compare Holofcener's films to Sex in The City, and indeed, she directed a few of the early episodes, but her films are like a version of Sex in The City which doesn't insult your intelligence and isn't obsessed with shoes and labels. With this winter dragging on and on, her films are a great way to pass away a few hours (and bars of chocolate).

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