Sunday, August 26, 2007

All the Real Girls

When the inarticulate resort to platitudes to express themselves, it doesn't automatically render their emotions inauthentic. David Gordon Green's second film, All the Real Girls, takes the bold step of having its two romantic leads, Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zoeey Deschanel) act out their relationship almost entirely through a series of trite formulations but, unlike other films that have their characters interact through such shopworn expressions, Green's characters manage to invest the old clichés with genuine meaning. The director's sure feel for his characters, the unaffected performances of the leads and a correspondingly uncluttered visual conception grant the characters' words the force of authentic expression, delivered by two people who don't know how to articulate their emotions in any other way than through the platitudes gleaned from other romantic melodramas, but whose repetitions here register as genuine as they do false in those other films.

In one of those rural Southern towns that people worry about "getting stuck" in, twenty-something Paul, who has already slept with the town's 26 available women, meets and falls in love with Noel, the sister of a friend who had been away for years at boarding school, and remains a virgin. Not wanting to reduce his new relationship to the level of his previous conquests, Paul elects not to sleep with Noel (itself a decision as clichéd as any of the dialogue), but during a weekend getaway, Noel sleeps with another man (without really knowing why) and confesses to Paul, a move which predictably complicates their relationship.

The dialogue between Paul and Noel falls into two categories: an off-the-cuff banter which affects an improvisatory quality and the cliché-ridden interchanges that dominate the more serious moments. The first type of dialogue, designed to show the genuine affinity that unites the leads in their more light-hearted moments, may sound as scripted as the second type but, as delivered by the actors, it comes off with enough spontaneity to convince us of the authentically playful connection between the two. The second type of dialogue, since it represents the sole efforts of the characters to play out their complex emotions, deserves a closer look. The following is an excerpt from the film's final conversation between Paul and Noel:

Paul: I'm not the smartest guy in the world. I guess what I was trying to do was become a better person. You know what I think. My problem is not anything that you did. It's between me and... me.

Noel: Well, I did what I did. It felt so... wrong. And that's when I realized that I love you. You can't understand it, but that's when I found out. It's an emotional thing, too. Nobody tells you that part.

Paul: It's true.

Noel: I'll miss your face.

Although the dialogue reads like any number of inferior interchanges from the world of motion pictures, here we get the sense of two people using the only vocabulary available to them to debate the consequences of a complex equation of love and infidelity. Interestingly, Green never gives any hints that Paul and Noel acquired their means of expression from other movies, but Hollywood nonetheless seems like the obvious source. In a society where such ersatz emotions dominate, our feelings become valid only in that they resemble the feelings of fictional characters, necessarily simplified from their real-world counterparts. In Green's film, an odd mixture results. The dialogue is taken from the cliché-ridden interactions of inferior films, but the situation being acted out is granted all the complexity of a messy real-life relationship. The characters are forced to draw on this simplistic vocabulary but, strangely, they are able to bend this idiom, largely due to the genuine feeling with which they invest it, to express the full complexity of their situations.

Visually, the film is as assured as any of the director's efforts. Employing fixed camera angles and long takes, the film matches its visual aesthetic to the slow rhythms of small-town life. In two-character interactions, Green favors lengthy close-ups of the speaker, giving his characters time to articulate their deeply-felt concerns. Interspersed with these interactions are a series of lingering shots of the town, re-establishing the director's sure feeling for place and his ability to visually articulate the features of his specific milieu. His camera fixes both the rural desolation and the industrial backbone (a single factory) that fuels the town's economy. Although the town is a place of desperation, a place many characters wish to escape, it is a place for which Green feels an obvious affection. His loving shots capture both sides of the equation, the hopeless desolation of the empty terrain and the great beauty in the fields, junk heaps, lakes and smokestacks that comprise the landscape of small-town life.


Allison said...

i don't buy it. why is the decision to act out the same old love affair using trite formulations a bold one?
when i watched this film, i had no sense from the director at all. it felt completely adrift and completely (and poorly) improvised. it did not seem deliberate in any way to have the absolute cliched actions of noel and the even more cliched reaction of paul play out in the most obvious way possible. i guess i kind of saw that as a byproduct of an ultimately weak story.

having two characters who are unable to express themselves is a challenge, it is true. but it has been met before to more powerful effect by a better director, better actors, better cinematography and totally sans cliche. can you guess which movie i refer to?

i do agree with your use of the phrase "uncluttered visual conception", though i might simplify it by saying "nothing of any substance or statement happens for the length of a bible."

andrew schenker said...

The decision is not to act out the same old simplistic love affair using "trite formulations", the decision is to act out an authentically complex interaction between two characters using the only language available to them. The point is that the situation between the characters (it is not a "weak story", it is not really a "story" at all) is not presented with the emphatic simplicity we may be accustomed to, but allows the characters a genuine range of emotion (i.e. an ambivalence expressed in nearly every interaction), even if it necessarily comes couched in the same language as the romantic melodrama. Finally, does something of "substance or statement" necessarily have to happen at every second? Isn't it enough for the characters to simply live their lives, especially when set against such an evocatively photographed backdrop? I think so.

Allison said...

ambivalence in every interaction is a poor range of emotion in my opinion. it inspires ambivalence.

no, something of substance doesn't always have to happen but the overall point of a movie SHOULD be one of substance, don't you agree?

andrew schenker said...

No, I think that, in contrast to lesser films where characters are allowed only a single unconflicted reaction to a given situation, allowing the characters to feel more than one way at the same time creates a more satisfying film. The characters may be conflicted, but Green's presentation of their conflict is clearly expressed. As for range of emotion, the film gives us love, anger, sadness, resignation and a hopeless desperation.

Should the "overall point of a movie be one of substance"? That depends. First of all, I don't think a film exists to have a specific "point." Second of all, it depends on what you mean by substance. A clear presentation of its characters and a corresponding visual conception that is both interesting in its own right and well suited to the content qualifies as plenty of substance, even if it doesn't provide an easily summarizable "message". Finally, I do think Green's film has the type of "substance" you refer to. It shows us quite effectively the joys and confusions of youthful romance and small-town life.