Sunday, September 22, 2013

Soft in the Head

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Soft in the Head - dir. Nathan Silver, 2013. La Di Da Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives.

An alcoholic slattern (Sheila Chavarria) is kicked out by her abusive boyfriend, goes on a bender, alienates her friends, and is saved, more or less, by a beatific old man (Ed Ryan) who runs an informal homeless shelter in his apartment.

You know I was almost in this movie? The director is a friend of a friend of my roommate. The opening scene was shot in my living room. I was cut from shooting at the last minute, though, which was a good thing. Silver's films don't need actors: they thrive on real people, the crazier and broken the better. I suppose I'm too close to the film, then, to give it a fair assessment. Silver is a talented and intelligent filmmaker, and I am enjoying watching his development. His last film, Exit Elena, was great. That one was more Fassbinder--deliberate pacing, a well-packed 4:3 frame, a heavy emphasis on class--and this one more Cassavettes--tight shots in a wide frame, an improvisatory vibe, a preoccupation with human immediacy and (in)authenticity.

Silver's films are highly personal in method rather than content. (Fuck autobiographical mumblecore bullshit.) Exit Elena starred his then-girlfriend (Kia Davis), his mother (Cindy Silver), himself, and a family friend (Jim Chiros). In that film, Cindy Silver played, with cruel comedic genius, an overbearing, meddling creep who tries to set up her son with grandma's live-in nurse. Anyone who can make his own mother look that monstrous, even if she comes off as loveable by the end, is deserving of our attention. Soft in the Head stars a number of people who are friends of the director, and I believe the lead performer actually crashed on Nathan's couch for a while during filming. (I did the same for a play once--it's actually a marvelous way to work.) But what's most exciting in Soft in the Head are the strangers: the freakshow assemblage of lost souls that populate Ed Ryan's homeless shelter. I don't know where Nathan found those guys, but he struck gold.

The drawback of the film--here I have hard time separating my knowledge of its production from my watching it in a theater--is that in its preoccupation with spontaneity and the experience of intensity, it is at times a little uncritical. At its climax, Soft in the Head somewhat manipulatively kills off an ugly, possibly retarded homeless man for no real reason than to create a cathartic experience for its young, attractive female protagonist (a flattering point of identification for the audience, even with all her faults). The ending image of the film suggests that the protagonist is 'saved' from her self-destructive lifestyle by the awakening of her maternal instincts. Contrast this with the modest criticism that Exit Elena brought towards issues of domestic labor: it was about a female domestic worker exploited along gender and economic lines by the family she serviced, and the film ended with her gaining a sense of confidence and leaving them behind.

There's more to come from Nathan--he just shot his third feature, Simian. Look out for it.

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