Beeswax (2009)

I recently had the great privilege to attend a public screening of Beeswax followed by a Q&A with director Andrew Bujalski. For several years I’ve been an admirer of Bujalski’s work, and for the better part of the last year I’ve been anxious to take in his latest effort. What a surprise then when the film finally screened in Dallas this week (after a five-month delay from its originally publicized release date here) that Bujalski would attend a couple of screenings.

First the film: it certainly sits well within the tradition of Bujalski’s first two films. All three of his features involve characters struggling to grow up, to find a direction, and to figure out who they are. And while the twin-sister leads in Beeswax seem a bit further down that road than the characters in either Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation, that’s actually a good thing. As a result, Beeswax feels more accomplished and mature than its predecessors. It’s my favorite of his films to date.

Beeswax retains a sense of aimlessness typical of his first two features as the twins try to figure out what’s next for them. Lauren is unemployed and considering a teaching job overseas while Jeanie faces struggles with her ownership partner in a local clothing boutique. However, Bujalski often and wisely underplays the struggle for direction in the lives of these women. When Lauren goes on a job interview, Bujalski only shows us the lead up to it, rather than the actual questions from a potential boss. When Jeanie goes with her friend Merrill to drum up financial support for the business, Merrill does virtually all the talking, leaving Jeanie virtually silent in the expression of her uncertainty about the future. These choices encourage viewers to pay close attention to the faces of the women and to those “unrelated” snippets of dialogue they share with one another, in the hope of finding the clues that help us understand what makes them tick.

But in underplaying their indecision and uncertainty, Bujalski weaves another theme throughout the film: the complex, uplifting, and even painful existence of the family bond. And it’s this element in particular that gives the film a more mature feeling. Where Bujalski’s previous characters were pretty much all single (a few were dating) and separate from their families, the centerpieces of Beeswax are related to one another. The film explores this connection quietly, but it’s ultimately what’s in view in Bujalski’s most affecting ending yet.

In the Q&A that followed the screening, the relatively small crowd energetically peppered Bujalski with questions about the film, his process, and the larger world of commercial movies. He answered in a thoughtful and reflective way, treating each question as if he hadn’t already heard it numerous times and in the process endearing himself to the crowd. A few highlights:

  • In answer to a question about what dictated his move to shoot his first three films in three different cities, Bujalski talked about the lead actors in each film as being his inspiration for writing, rather than any of the cities. None of the leads in his three films are professional actors, meaning that the films developed from personal relationships with people and the charisma that each of those actors carries naturally in life. That said, Bujalski noted that the character of each city (Boston, New York, and Austin) contributed to offer the final film a distinctive feel.
  • When asked about the meaning of his film’s title, Beeswax, he offered a witty rejoinder about the many different ways that Quentin Tarantino has dodged the question about his latest film, Inglorious Basterds. If Bujalski could have remembered any of those, he said, he would have used it then.
  • I asked what attracted him to nonprofessional actors, and he responded that often, professional actors have been trained to clarify when they perform. But Bujalski’s movies are about people who aren’t clear of their motives, their futures, or even their identities, so using a professional actor would be counter-intuitive in such a film. He also added that because the faces of nonprofessionals aren’t recognizable, there’s a bit more of a rooting interest on the part of the audience—one regular person connecting with another. The mask of celebrity is pulled out of the equation, thus allowing people to negotiate with the film itself, rather than with certain preconceived ideas about this actor or that.
  • When one woman commented on the abrupt ending, Bujalski offered a knowing smile. Clearly he had heard the question many times (I suspect for every one of his films). But he offered his thoughts on what he’s trying to do with those endings, not taking the film into some kind of resolution that’s unnecessary, but to end it when he senses it’s complete. [And let me just say, I am so glad he works this way.]

I’m thrilled that the people at the Angelika Theater in Dallas were able to organize the Q&A and get the film on the screen. I hope that they continue to make commitments to showing the films of significant contemporary filmmakers like Bujalski, Denis, Jia, and the Dardenne brothers. And thanks to Andrew Bujalski, who gave of his time to come out and talk to a group of strangers about something he’s put his heart and soul into. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do, but he did it beautifully. I really love this film, and encourage you to track it down theatrically if you can. If not, look for it on DVD. It’s definitely worth your while.

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Watching Andrew Bujalski’s most recent work, Mutual Appreciation, one almost gets the feeling they are watching home videos of some great friends. There’s a familiarity to the characters, borne out of a dedicated realism evident in Bujalski’s style. The writer/actor/director has little use for effects shots, impassioned diatribes, intricate sets, and big actorly moments. Instead, the film is built on the quiet, often mundane moments in the lives of its characters – people hanging out, going to a concert, having a beer, or baking cookies. Mutual Appreciation is shot in a soft black and white, always in a natural setting; in apartments it looks like these actors might actually be living in themselves.

This is not at all meant to be a turn off though. It’s just the opposite, in fact. For it’s in these simple moments that Bujalski is able to show us something about life and what it means to be human. The moments then take on a new meaning, pointing us toward thoughts about friendship, guilt, love, fear, and loyalty. Yet, it all just feels, well, so normal, which appears to be exactly what Bujalski is aiming for. He has a knack for getting these “normal” performances out of his actors. Scenes are filled with ums, misspoken words, goofy jokes, and awkward pauses. For many, these could be the kind of elements that add up to boredom. But for the attentive viewer, there is much to be revealed.

A scene later in the film helps to see this more clearly. Ellie (Rachel Clift) heads over to Alan’s (Justin Rice) apartment to get a CD, or so she says. Clearly she has schemed a way to drive him home. Inside, Ellie asks Alan what he thinks of Buddhism, just to get some kind of conversation started. The cramped room, so indicative of where a guy like Alan might live, is the perfect setting for such a moment. Ellie presses on, doing most of the talking, introducing the subject of her boyfriend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski), and then quickly retreating, when she feels Alan not responding appropriately. Eventually, she gets down to it, and confesses her affection for Alan.

During the conversation, Bujalski often keeps both players in the shot – even his close-ups tend to keep the other person in the extreme foreground. But the edits aren’t typical of a scene like this. Normally, when someone speaks, the camera is on them. Bujalski is not so interested in this “rule”, instead leaving the camera mostly on Ellie, with shots of Alan interspersed that tend to be pretty short overall. This is Ellie’s scene. She initiates this conversation; she does most of the talking. But even at times when she is waiting for a response, Bujalski doesn’t shy away from shooting her face. We see her question herself, try to take back what she says, offer an openness and vulnerability to Alan, and she even reveals a kind of aggressiveness or determination (or maybe foolishness?) to get her feelings out in the open. All of this is available to us only because the camera sticks with Ellie so much – just by seeing her, paying close attention to her, we begin to get a sense of where she’s at in all this. But Bujalski is smart enough to trust the viewer, letting us make the connections instead of driving them home with perfunctory editing.

I like Bujalski’s films for a lot of reasons – the dialogue, his sense of humor, his taste in music, and the actors – but the trust in me as the viewer is maybe the biggest attraction. It’s inherent to his style, and as such, I look forward to Mutual Appreciation actually getting distributed in theaters, and/or released on DVD. I was able to see it only because Bujalski makes it available to us through his website, and because of the good graces of my wife, who got it for my birthday. How fortunate am I.

Funny Ha Ha (2003)

Language is a funny thing. Take that word “funny”. No doubt when most people read the title, they will think “comedy”. But the film also includes elements which are funny as in strange, or funny as in uncomfortable. The language here is no doubt purposefully chosen, in part to show that this film denies genre conventions. It aims instead for something more organic, and in doing so, hopefully more truthful. Having said all that, writer/director/co-star Andrew Bujalski has crafted one of the more interesting films to cross my way in some time. In its opening moments, 23 year-old college graduate Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) is looking to get a tattoo. The scene is a perfect beginning to the film. It sets the tone, as Marnie has no idea what she wants, and when she does finally make a decision through a drunken haze, it turns out to be a poor one. The film repeats these rhythms, as Marnie stumbles through life, without a clue of what to do, and making bad decisions right and left. Some of those decisions are comical, some are uncomfortable, and still others are off the wall.

Maybe that description doesn’t sound endearing, but the reason the film works is that Dollenmayer and Bujalski combine to make Marnie a person who earns our empathy. Sure, some of her actions induce anger, but we never lose sight of a delicacy or fragility she carries with her. Her poor decisions, usually with men, leave scars. And it’s not just that we feel sorry for her. Marnie takes the time to help people out, whether it be hanging out with lonely Mitchell, or giving Liz a place to crash for the night.

All of this is done with such a light touch, in such an endearing way, that it’s hard not to admire the film. Bujalski also seems committed to a healthy realism that marks the film off stylistically from most of what’s out at the megaplex. Several times, and especially after the film’s final scene, I was reminded of the Dardennes, with their own penchant for realism and the unique rhythm to their storytelling. Except Bujalski’s film is funny. In Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski offers something that’s becoming increasingly rare at the cinema these days – a film that defies simple classification and provides a unique film watching experience. I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here.