Friday, October 4, 2013

I Play with the Phrase Each Other (2013) directed by Jay Alvarez

John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island”.  Jay Alvarez thinks otherwise. In his debut film, I Play With the Phrase Each Other, a gang of interconnected characters live in a self-imposed technological solitude, communicating only through mobile phone conversations.  Alvarez says:

This is an announcement of youngness. The movie screams our modern nausea, our florescent [sic] nightmare. It speaks for the first time all of the grinding lives spent on one end of electronic data transfer."

To create a film where the characters only communicate over the phone is a brave cinematic choice; a purposeful excision of interpersonal dynamics; a reduction of humanity to a chorus of tinny voices that bounce endlessly from antenna to antenna.

Shot in high contrast black and white and taking place in a variety of run-down urban locations, I Play with... shares aesthetic inclinations of early Jim Jarmusch.  The scuzzy, impersonal and seedy atmosphere specifically reflecting Stranger Than Paradise (1984), characters slotting seamlessly into the grimy world around them, practically growing out of the mildew in the corners of the room.  This photography is the high point of the movie – an great example of Vogueish poverty-chic.

It's perverse that a film looks this good is so reliant on dialogue. I Play with… is in the rare cinematic position of having little or no distractions in the way of its wordplay.  But The problem is that this dialogue is bloody awful.  These characters speak as if they’ve been force-fed the complete works of Allen Ginsberg, reciting ridiculously mannered, painfully flowery quasi-poetry down the line to each other.  The upshot is that in a film composed entirely of conversations, the characters talk AT rather than TO each other. 

Let's give it the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe this is intentional: everybody here so self-obsessed that they’re more concerned with speaking fancily than actually communicating their desires.  But whatever the intentions, the upshot of this is that the characters are all self-involved - we don’t care about anyone.  I’m not opposed to stylised, lyrical dialogue – it’s one of the many reasons I adore Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005).   But in that film the language is an important worldbuilding element, here it feels more like a smokescreen obfuscating that the film doesn’t have that much to say. 

As you roll your eyes at yet another bit of crap writing, an unpleasantly masturbatory stench fills the room.  Alvarez, who writes and directs, has casr himself as the amoral, supercool, superintelligent poet Sean, who appears to be an idealised author insert.   While trying to excuse his past behaviour the character says; “My chemical enemies were pushing me from behind”, a clumsy bit of writing by anyone’s standards. Alvarez is so proud of this that he has an observing character interrupt, commenting on how great the dialogue is.  There’s also a ridiculously extended diatribe against the manager of a bookshop that has a whiff of the director getting back at an old boss. I suppose if you’re writing, directing and starring in a movie you may as well make yourself look good, but the film tips over into the egotistical pretty early on and never really recovers (tellingly, the film’s poster is a picture of the director looking cool).  

I find it a bit bizarre that a film composed entirely of lengthy person-to-person phone calls can claim to be “an announcement of youngness”.  Alvarez says he wants to criticise “grinding” contemporary communication, but young adults simply aren’t lying around having long one on one telephone conversations: they’re engaged in a conversational blizzard, simultaneously in conversation with tens of people at once - a text here, a picture sent across Whatsapp there, a Facebook conversation in another app, a tweet sent out to your followers, maybe a quick Skype to a friend overseas.  Ignoring all of this makes the film oddly dated – for all Alvarez’ ambitions towards capturing the zeitgeist, this film would have be much the same if it were made in the 1950s. The film’s argument ends up being the kind of tired old bollocks generally espoused by the grumpy and old: an implicit mythologising of an imaginary golden age that was better off without all these newfangled iPhone gadgets. 

The dull, luddite philosophy is a problem, but it pales in comparison to another: that the movie is really, really boring.  Long sequences are characters soliloquising to non-entities on the other end of the phone about things we don’t particularly care about.  The chief offender in this is Jake.  He’s a neurotic little lamb, an innocent lost in the big city.  He’s also dull as dishwater, having a collection of quirks instead of a personality.  These scenes are like being trapped with a very boring man in a broken down lift, forced to listen to every detail of his banal life.  There's the odd performance that hits the mark, but the script gives both cast and audience precious few reasons to invest in the various brands of apathy.

As with the visual style, Jim Jarmusch’s fingerprints are also all over the narrative structure. Jarmusch makes his loose, fractured narratives work by creating a powerful sense of place, psychologically complex characters and a real intellectual depth that more than compensates for plots that usually conclude with little resolved.  But though Alvarez creates a similarly meandering narrative – more of a slice of life than a story with a beginning, middle and end – there’s a yawning vacuum where the meat of the film should be.  This is a film of populated by self-centred characters who speak a lot but say very little – what ideas they do communicate barely rising above high-school stonerisms.

Criticising a low budget independent film feels worse than slating some mega-budget crapfest.  Everything is so much more personal: by saying it’s shit I feel like I’m kicking sand into the eyes of a struggling artist.  But in the end, the most straightforward reason for I Play with… not working is that 110 minutes of mobile phone conversation just isn’t a very good idea for a film.  Ultimately this a very boring movie for many reason and has a vastly overinflated sense of self-importance. 

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