Clockwatchers (1997)

Even as a curmudgeonly thirty-something, I’m one of the youngest people working in my office.  By a lot.  Most of the staff has been haunting this building for decades, a kind of professional longevity that tends to encourage inconsequential, interpersonal resentments that have been simmering on a low flame for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  Such is the joy of bureaucracy, where someone taking the wrong parking space or forgetting to remove their coffee pod from the communal Keurig machine is equivalent to a war crime.  It’s an absurd dynamic to witness as a newcomer just trying to survive the daily shift so I can get back to Real Life, but Office Drama means the world to the poor souls ensnared by it, and I’m scared that I’ll inevitably be able to count myself among them.

While I was still just a middle school dweeb with delusions of one day becoming a Famous Writer (as you can guess, I eventually settled for Hobbyist Blogger), the Sundance sleeper Clockwatchers already perfectly captured the ugly, grey heart of those workplace resentments in a genuine, existential way.  Clockwatchers is an absurdist, subtly heartbreaking workplace satire in which Toni Colette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow play a collective of disgruntled office temps embroiled in a meaningless scandal over stolen office supplies.  It blows up petty, pointless office drama to a tragicomic extreme, wryly observing both the outsized importance of workplace resentments among the long-established people it matters to and the absurdity of it among newcomers who find it soul-crushingly inane.

In what should be a surprise to no one, it’s Toni Collette’s lead performance as a shy, lonely office clerk that affords the film most of its devastating pathos.  She starts off at her temp job’s typing pool following instructions like “Sit there until someone comes and tells you what to do” with a literal-minded obedience, failing to assert or draw attention to herself at every turn.  It’s exciting to see her meek demeanor corrupted and steeled by Posey & Kudrow’s more proudly obnoxious behavior as the film goes on, but she doesn’t fully transform into a who-gives-a-fuck office badass until it’s too late.  To survive the petty stolen office supplies conflict that drives the plot, the temps need to operate collectively, with strength in solidarity.  Watching her struggle to muster that strength is genuinely heartbreaking, especially in comparison to Posey’s loudmouth iconoclast, who has bravery to spare.

It’s probably not the most attention-grabbing achievement a movie could pull off, but Clockwatchers perfectly captures the unnatural, mind-numbing tedium of a day’s work in the life of an anonymous bureaucrat, something I can unfortunately attest to with plenty personal experience.  It would make for a great double bill with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls or Kitty Green’s The Assistant, although it’s much, much lighter in tone than either of those blood-chillers.  The context of Clockwatchers’s scandalous typing pool might be less severe than either of those pairings’, but they each touch on similar themes of meaningless, soul-destroying office labor.  Watching these all-time-great actors collect dust in the blank, white-void walls of their excruciatingly ordinary office—”trying to look busy while there’s nothing to do”—is a very familiar strain of existential crisis.  And then someone has the nerve to make their days even more pointlessly excruciating over accusations of stolen staplers & paperweights?  It’s the absolute height of human cruelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978)

One of the most difficult things to pinpoint about Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven is the question of its tone. In the 1970s, a feature-length documentary about something as quaint as a pet cemetery was met as an absurd concept (so much so that Werner Herzog ate his own shoe over it), so it would be tempting to read a humorous irony into the interviews Morris conducts for the film. There’s no narration, editorializing, or extratextual context provided for the film’s oral histories of an inter-family dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery. The most of his own personality Morris imposes on the story is in his choices in framing & editing, which have a proto-Wes Anderson flavor in their sense of symmetry & color. When an eccentric pet owner sings to their dog or recounts a long, rambling non-sequitur story about their tragically uninteresting children, it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact delivery that it’s difficult to tell if & when Morris is finding them as humorous as his audience does. This documentation of small-town disputes & niche pet-culture eccentrics later turned out to be a huge, blatant influence on the comedic sensibilities of director Christopher Guest. One of Guest’s improv-heavy mockumentaries, the 2000 comedy Best in Show, even mirrored Gates of Heaven’s documentation of eccentric pet owners & the commercial industries that surround their devotion to their animals. And since Guest’s tone is blatantly comedic, the way his own filmmaking style accentuates the quaint humor of his characters is as an excellent demonstration of just how tonally vague Morris’s own style remains.

It’s hard to believe Best in Show was released almost two whole decades ago. Its cast of Guest-regular performers (Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, etc.) look so oddly young in retrospect, after watching them age in other projects in the years since. In addition to being a time capsule, Best in Show remains an incredibly endearing comedy, something that’s difficult to achieve in a film that openly (even if gently) mocks the kind of pet-obsessed eccentrics who are more sincerely profiled in works like Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris’s influence on Best in Show is most apparent in the film’s earliest stretch, when these characters are first introduced. Before they converge for a climactic dog show competition, each contestant is individually interviewed in their home environments, which often resemble the 1970s decor of Gates of Heaven’s pet-owner homes (right down to the amateur dog portrait art in the background). Most of the individual contestants are coupled off romantically, except for Christopher Guest’s own bloodhound owner, which is a distinct departure from Errol Morris’s style, which tends to focus on one orator at a time. The bloodhound owner would fit right in with the Morris doc, though, almost recalling the quiet sweetness & tragedy of the lonesome Floyd McClure, the pet cemetery entrepreneur who kicked Gates of Heaven’s entire story into motion. The similarities between the two works becomes less apparent as the contestants coverage for the actual dog show competition, because Best in Show then resembles a traditional sports movie narrative instead of a quaint documentary. In the early, introductory stretch, however, you can detect Morris’s fingerprints all over the picture, something that’s only betrayed by the movement of Christopher Guest’s camera.

Part of Morris’ distancing tone is in how his film captures long uninterrupted oral histories of a pet cemetery dispute in a static camera, only coloring interviewees’ input through the background imagery he chose to frame them with. To establish a more distinctly comedic tone, Guest more often “interviews” two characters at the same time, allowing more improvisational play & establishing a quicker pace. There are more interviewees, more live pets, more location changes, more camera movement, more everything. Instead of framing his characters with Wes Andersonian symmetry & calm, he allows the camera to drift back & forth between speakers to accentuate a ridiculous statement or an incredulous reaction. If there is a blatant sense of humor to Gates of Heaven, it’s to be found in the film’s matter of fact documentation of mundanity. Best in Show runs with that thread, making its characters out to be incredibly boring, in that it’s genuinely incredible how boring they are. As much as anyone can assume what Morris was up to in his work, I don’t think Gates of Heaven is mocking his subjects the way a mockumentary must, by design. Similarly, Christopher Guest’s own characters are played with a kind of sweetness (give or take a high-strung yuppie couple with an unseemly J. Crew catalog addiction), even if their extreme mundanity is supposed to be read as humorous. Guest just makes their screentime quicker, broader, and more dynamic in motion than Morris does, because Guest must establish a comedic rhythm instead of allowing one to arise naturally (if at all).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how much humor or ironic detachment Errol Morris intended his audience to read into Gates of Heaven. All Best of Show can illustrate is how that movie may have looked if it were clearly tipped in that direction, fully committed to establishing a comedic tone in capturing the eccentricity of hopelessly devoted pet owners. The two films do feel oddly complementary, though, even if only because they both find an endearing sweetness in most of their subjects, no matter how distanced they remain from them. Best in Show resembles Gates of Heaven (especially in its earliest, introductory stretch) not necessarily because of its similar subject matter, but because it finds genuine fascination in the eccentric mundanity of the pet industry it depicts.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

-Brandon Ledet

Mascots (2016)

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Christopher Guest’s brilliance as a comedy director has always relied on a kind of subtlety & understatement that lends his behind-the-camera work to being overlooked. Guest’s best films, titles like Waiting for Guffman & Best in Show, are densely populated with cartoonishly over-the-top, attention-hogging characters, so the director wisely takes a back seat in a lot of his own works. He fosters an improv-loose environment & sets a distinct narrative stage for his performers in each film, but otherwise isn’t especially flashy in his own directorial style and a lot of the humor in his films is derived from that dynamic. He’s like the improv comedy version of Robert Altman. As time goes on, Guest continues to return to that tried & true formula and his work starts to feel even more understated & undervalued. The mockumentary style Guest established in his early work has since infiltrated every corner of American television. The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, the most recent version of The Muppets: Guest’s humor has almost completely replaced the traditional laugh track sitcom, so it has become even more difficult to parse out exactly what makes him special as a hand-off director with a consistently even keel. There’s no better example of what I’m describing here than Guest’s latest work, the Netflix-distributed comedy Mascots.

Mascots has been generally received with an underwhelmed shrug, largely due to the perceived career-long sameness of Christopher Guest’s catalog as a whole. In all of his films a group of hubris-oblivious weirdos in a highly specific field meet for a climactic competition where their personalities clash in both public & private forums. Instead of a dog show or bluegrass concert or an Oscars race this time, Mascots instead stages its climactic showdown at a sports mascot competition. Other than the setting, the Christopher Guest formula remains more or less the same, with the director even reprising his role as Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman (along with Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux from the same film) to drive that established tradition home. It’d be reductive to assume that because Guest continually returns to his old grooves & rhythms, though, that Mascots is worthless as a comedy. If the director has proven anything by staging all of his films in a similar fashion, it’s that the formula works. Mascots may not feel as fresh or unique as Guffman did in the early 90s, but it’s still damn funny. Its setting-specific references to “mini tramps” & “Fluffies” combine with dark, perverted tangents about furries, yeast infections, and penis-in-ear sexual intercourse to make for a bizarrely understated comedy that only doesn’t feel strange because its creator’s voice has infiltrated so much American television in the past decade that it’s started to feel normal. By the time Mascots reaches its predetermined climax it can be just as funny as any of Guest’s most well-loved films. It only feels slight due to its modern context.

If anything has shifted in Guest’s insulated world, it’s been the gradual expansion of his usual cast of weirdos. Along with Posey, the director’s regular cast of Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and whoever else fits in that specific set returns to the screen. What’s more important, though, is that Guest has picked up more weirdos along the way. Chris O’Dowd, who had worked with Guest on a short-lived HBO series, steals some spotlight from the director’s veterans as “the badboy of sports mascotery.” He’s joined by familiar character actors from shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office that have sprung up in the wake of Guest’s best-known works. He may not be an especially flashy or experimental filmmaker, but I have great respect for the consistency & the quality of laughs his films deliver, especially since he acknowledges his own influence by recruiting comedians who’ve made a name in the mockumentary television field launched in his shadow. As long as Guest wants to continue to film weirdos in highly specific fields discussing “passion” & “craft” in his tried & true mockumentary formula, I’ll continue to afford him my attention. Nothing made this so clear to me as moment during Mascots‘s climactic competition where the crowd was applauded a literal piece of shit, freshly plunged, and I felt the urge to join them. Christopher Guest has earned my laughter in any context he asks for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

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“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet