2005Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski
love Mutual Appreciation. I extol Andrew Bujalski for doing the improbable, and fashioning a masterpiece from a slight roundelay. Gleaning the dark and private from the light and quotidian, Bujalski bares his soul almost entirely by implication. I’ll go ahead and say it: this is my favorite film of the year, and with it emerges a rare master among our waning independent cinema. But the inherently earnest nature of my affection—nay, film criticism proper—is sorely inadequate to limn Bujalski’s worldview, where emotions and the words we use to express them are two wildly distinct things.
It starts with people. Friendlier than Cassavetes’ turbulent sad-sack, less elegant than Rohmer’s world-weary lover, the Bujalski hero most closely resembles a wayward Hong Sang-soo youth, fraught with ambitions of the intellect, heart and libido, but scarred by the sycophantic desperation of high school. Selectively (but not over-cautiously) he slips words like “puissance” and “crestfallen” into everyday conversation—you know, so as not to appear too verbally… crestfallen, and to radiate a certain linguistic… puissance. A moment later, he’ll crack a urophilia joke, carefully mediating a highbrow-lowbrow flux. Intellectual neutrality is the name of the game: to surpass is arrogant, to fall below a shame. The trick is moving forward when you seem to be standing still.
The hero in question is twenty-something Alan (Justin Rice), a transplanted NYC college grad with aspirations to singer-songwriter mini-stardom. His musical aesthetic is fastidiously bare-bones, perhaps to a fault; in meeting with potential drummer Dennis (Kevin Micka), Alan’s emphasis on subordinate, austere percussion more than once threatens to make him look like an obnoxious ass. But for someone so fussy about his art, Alan is the antithesis of precision in securing a recording contract, getting soused at the pad of alternately creepy and benign record exec Walter (respected avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison) and using the potential business breakthrough as the springboard for dumping winsome flirt Sara (Lee Seung-min). And you start to wonder: what is Alan trying to do?
Conveniently, he makes it pretty clear. Mid-rant, Alan declares to buds Ellie (Rachel Clift) and her adroit boyfriend Lawrence (Bujalski) that happiness ranks low on his list of priorities. It’s cold, instructive Experience that Alan seeks, presumably as a corrective to his steadily progressing listlessness. Alan’s much-needed learning experience, however, is ultimately a lack thereof. Bujalski’s achievement is in evading a single didactic epiphany, forcing Alan to choose definitively between incompatible virtues, namely sincerity and righteousness.
This thematic groundwork is laid clearly, but with so much unforced subtlety you could blink and miss the key scene— i.e. Ellie and Alan, arguably the film’s sole souls who legitimately “connect,” in a café, sipping drinks, and mutually giggling over a drop-in friend’s nascent botany. Ellie and Alan’s shared perspective on someone else’s problems unifies them, the implication being we never see our own problems the same way our friends do, but perhaps two can agree on a third. So much for mutual appreciation. Levity continues, Ellie moves to the topic of the dumpy flirt, and suggests to “be honest and take the moral high ground.” Alan throws Ellie’s words right back at her as a question, not so much out of sarcasm or incredulity as befuddlement, a veritable “but how would I go about doing that?”
Alan seeks out the answer for himself—twice. The bifurcated structure, ala the films of the aforementioned Hong, drags Alan through two terminally unhealthy relationships, the first resolved bluntly and depressively, the second dishonestly, but with an ironic tinge of hope. Unlike Hong, Bujalski doesn’t opt for blatant demarcation between these two halves, instead allowing overlap and what Bujalski acolyte Ray Carney might call “fuzzy meaning.” The closest the film comes to a centerpiece is Alan’s cozy Northsix gig. The performance is sonically coherent but psychologically unsteady, and a glory to behold. Alan’s two-man band is unmistakably the locus, not the background, but peripheral detail is still key. In the extensively elucidated space, we see people we know (Lawrence, brimming with vicarious excitement), people we’ve just met (Dennis, shy and slightly removed from Alan, but capable of forming a tentative connection), and utter strangers (specific “extras” take the initiative to get up and enthuse, just like those One or Two Guys you know). The effect is an articulation of all Alan’s pressures and confidences, while he turns a panoply of affectations—self-conscious jitters, an Irish slur of a croon—into something crisply minimal and gorgeous.
More than an effortlessly perceptive observer, Bujalski has honed deceptively stylized visuals to serve deceptively stylized drama. Isolated by their lonesome, compositions are so inert as to seem intentionally inexpressive, but altogether, a visual strategy comes to rich life. Scenes casually vacillate between shot-reverse-shot conventionality and claustrophobically dirty two-or-three-shots cluttered with occluding shoulders and tangly hair; the latter do a fine job of galvanizing the film’s amiable tone in its tracks, with a piercingly intimate, I-want-to-kiss-you-but-please-get-away-from-me feeling. Keeping with the gritty disorientation, reaction shots range from awwwkwwwardly loooonng to asplitsecond.
All this loveliness reaches its inevitable apotheosis in Mutual Appreciation’s final scene. The exact nature of which I’ll decline to reveal, except that it slyly tweaks a warm reconciliation with residual sexual tension, awkward physicality, and underlying dishonesty, and the tight framing and deeply suggestive throwaway lines typical of Bujalski transform a happy ending into something much richer. It’s simply among the most searingly, intuitively "right" moments in all of cinema, one that virtually defines the difference between by-the-fire-on-a-cold-winter-night warmth and shameless fuzzies, and it brought yours truly to tears. But reasonably stoic ones. Let’s move on.