Sunday, July 27, 2008
The Rote High School Persecution of Saint Ellen
There's something definitely original about the scattershot editing collage techniques of THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS (2007), getting a belated US DVD release after a year in Canada and the broken film festival scene. Director Bruce MacDonald delves unashamedly into the trick bags of JULIEN DONKEY BOY and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, with every little fragment unreservedly depicting sext teen mental illness, teen girl in danger angst, familial breakdown with a father always one step from physical abuse and all that other groovy stuff that's been done before a dozen times... but not this way!
The divine Ellen Page looks here like she's trying to be a mix of Bree from Klute and DeWayne from the homeless kids documentary, STREETWISE (1984). We constantly cut back to a long monologue Page makes to the camera, wrapped in her shower curtain on the bus -all in dreadfully sincere and morose cutter girl poetry prose. The whole film has the feeling of a collage and poetry chapbook one's friend might make, the sort where their sick unconscious screams at your from behind the morose drawings and symbolism: "Get thee to a therapist." But one can't ever get these girls to listen to therapists, they're too downy and cuddled up in their madness. And the shrinks are all one-note passive aggressive imbeciles, as is the one here (a passive aggressive old transvestite).
The problem is TRACEY FRAGMENTS can't let go of the "abused child" cliche lexicon long enough to dwell on Tracey's perverse desire for her own illness. A much more brave and fearless breakdown can be seen in the indie horror film JOSHUA (2007), where Vera Farmiga fondly paints red boots on herself with her own blood. You don't see that sick joy in Page's performance because she's too like a young Jane Fonda, too sincere to see the true glory and godliness that lies in insincerity, the layers revealed when you pull back from your own position. Fonda couldn't pull back, but it was okay because she blazed so insanely upon her own position that layers were revealed in the sheer wattage; she made humorlessness sexy in THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY, and she made her KLUTE prostitute painfully open. Fonda was like that friend who uses their brilliance in the service of self-limiting rationalization. Page hasn't quite made the grade; she basks in indie blankness and it works because her face is so flawless and empty, in fact her face and Fonda's are a lot alike, almost too smooth, doll-like and yet ferociously intelligent to be sexy at all despite being agonizingly pretty. They both seem underage and too old at the same time, all the time, no matter what role or age they actually are in real life, be it 17 or 56.
But the editing is really the star and in its way this film is the anorexic poetess chapbook version of MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. The dialogue and monologues are terrible though - the dreams of academics slumming in the teenage squalor, jotting down ideas for wrong decisions they never had or made. Tracey's narration (her last name is Berkowitz, like the serial killer!) includes lines like: '"Tracey Berkowitz... Tracey Zero-itz... Tracey Forty Below-itz...", and then there's the cover version of Patti Smith's "Horses," wherein the singer imitates every inflection from Smith's recording to a montage of Tracey running and split screened in with real horses-- and a laughing black man in a bowler hat on the bus to signify alienation and urban hostility, TAXI DRIVER-style.. and a cracked-out dude who hangs on her all skeevy-like named Lance from Toronto. And the colored girls sing "Doo de doo de doo..."
FRAGMENTS is one of those films where the chips are stacked so much against the heroine that you suspect the contest is rigged; if we're supposed to see all this social persecution as Tracy's own twisted fantasy, then don't keep rubbing it in our faces like we're supposed to have these insane AND JUSTICE FOR ALL/CUCKOO'S NEST knee-jerks about the man keeping us down. It's unfair to ask for it both ways, and our director and writer and actress can't see the humor in the fantasizing about high school tauntings ("No tits" is the student's cry, which doesn't seem quite realistic). We see her led by a creepy crackhead who promises to find her brother, and when he gets in a barfight instead of fleeing while she has the chance she waves her agape mouth and horrified eyes around like she's waiting for the director's signal on when to exeunt, and the director's gone to the bathroom. There's some nice shots of a crane machine in the bar though, for all the crane machine fans out there!
You can tell this is directed by the Canuck who did HIGHWAY 61, because it's got the same outdated dress sense (Her heart's desire dresses like he's Desperately Seeking Susan) and aimless mood-building. There's a zero point progression of story here, which is the sort of thing that happens when a director spends the first thirty minutes working to rivet your attention, then runs out of idea and hopes you'll just coast along revisiting the same footage from different perspectives.
I usually try not to write long negative diatribes here, but Page deserves better than all the idle wankery she's been enduring since HARD CANDY, films made by geeky privileged film people who have no experience of the tawdry lives they long to depict. Just as JUNO-scribe Seniorita Diablo Cody slums her way through a year as a stripper and expects the world to applaud her bravery, the hyper-stylization at play here masks a very tragic inability to connect with the material. We only get cliches of stupid parents, abusive sleazeballs, gibbering black folks, none of the frothy depth you see today from maestros who've actually clocked time with the skate set: Spike Jonez, Guz Van Sant and Larry Clark, to name a few. We see Tracey being persecuted in high school and it feels as if MacDonald has--rather than felt the sting of it--merely seen too many high school persecution films - Tracey passes through the gauntlet of tampon-hurling cheerleaders that's been persecuting heroines of teen movies right up from CARRIE through Ringwald and Ryder and Lohan. It doesn't seem 'right.'
Maureen Medved wrote the script based on her novel, and it's perhaps not totally her fault the film is as messed up as it is, but like JUNO, it leaves a weird taste of some screenwriter-gone-slumming society newsletter. Medved's an academic (assistant professor at British Columbia University, with a long string of plays and publications) which in and of itself speaks to a lack of familiarity with the nitty gritty of street life. But I'm not trying to bash her, just the ever-dwindling indie spirit of originality and actual immersion in the worlds you long to depict as opposed to immersion in films about the life you long to depict. It's cool to me if Tarantino bases films on the reality of other films, since that's part of the appeal, but he's not passing it off as 'real' kitchen sink drama...
And then there's director MacDonald, whom I'm still mad at for all the phony quirkiness and self-awarded hipster cred in HIGHWAY 61. MacDonald longs to make a film about a confused girl, but fears getting too close to one (lest he be seen a pedophile, perhaps?) So she's naked but behind a shower curtain, yet mentally as sealed up as if loaded to the gills on Xanax and texting from her cell phone...and alone, almost all the time alone - that easiest of ways to film an actress. The whole film seems to have been shot in a week, then edited for three years, ala something by George Lucas. What's up with these crazy-deficient Canadians?
Karina Longworth writes a good bit about the release/distribution problems hitting the FRAGMENTS here.
On the plus side, FRAGMENTS offers a good score from the Broken Social Scene, and Tracey reads Ed the Happy Clown comics!
For a real, genuinely bizarre film about a fucked up chick in Canada, can I steer you towards the under appreciated and flat-out weird tale of incest and topless boxing PUNCH? (that link is to a review I wrote in 2004).
Read another of my diatribes about Page, this one on HARD CANDY, here.