March 19, 2010

SXSW '10: Audrey the Trainwreck, Beijing Taxi

by Vadim Rizov

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Foremost among Audrey the Trainwreck's virtues: the depressive couple that unexpectedly comes together during the film, ATM parts purchaser Ron (Anthony Baker) and delivery girl Stacy (Alexi Wasser). Their jobs make them hate their lives, so even their initial conversations are surprisingly morose. Funny and imaginative in ways their jobs don't require, they've reached functional adulthood coasting on jobs they once thought would be temporary. Their conversations are sometimes playful, but often in a way that's mutually pained. Clearly they're the most adorable screen couple since Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, only way less annoying.

Writer/director/editor Frank V. Ross has worked as an editor for Bob Byington (Harmony and Me) and acted for Joe Swanberg (Alexander the Last), but those names don't begin to indicate the appropriate frame of reference. He hews closer to the jittery cameras of Assayas and Desplechin's flair for the expertly timed, completely unexpected (and often violent) punchline. That could sound hyperbolic, but the opening title—"Audrey the Trainwreck"—is repeated twice, the second time followed by the qualification "Or... These Things Come in Threes," both a comic promise the movie sets up as the ultimate delayed punchline and quite possibly a reference to Desplechin's My Sex Life... Or, How I Got Into an Argument. It's a plausible aspiration, anyway.

Audrey begins in a bar, its attention busily split all over the place. Only when Ron is hit in the neck does he become the obvious protagonist; it's an unexpectedly violent comic jolt. Most of Ron's pain is much less dramatic: his job's banality freaks him out, his blind dates go nowhere and he has nothing to look forward to. One of the blind dates brings Stacy. As in the first date we see, Ron starts moaning about something almost immediately: the first time, apparently his bilious comments about hating people who know where "the best pizza in town is" were alienating, but Stacy responds to his dour charms. She feels the same way, even if externally she's far wispier and more placid than Ron, with his angry scowl and macho facial hair.

Ross has a sensitive touch: the brashly jittery visuals, with very small tweaks in the shakiness or duration of the shot/sequence, suggest subjective states of mind with very little overt manipulation (emotional or technical). A tense sequence of Ron and friends playing volleyball suggests Ron's growing sexual frustration at being surrounded by couples with ever-so-slightly tighter, longer close-ups on women: it doesn't sound subtle like that, but the micro-changes in shots and editing are far more responsive and quicksilver than you'd expect. There are a lot of multiple conversations here, including one cafe conversation that's actually two, framed in diagonal matching lines, with it nearly impossible to know which to pay attention to. That one turns out to be the opening seeds of romance, the other about real estate practicalities, says a lot about where Ron and Stacy's heads aren't at.

It's also mostly hilarious (I like a particularly elaborate addendum to "good night": "Keep one eye open and your third eye closed"), which, from what I've read, is a new development. And the relationship, finally, is like a realistic version of Punch Drunk-Love in its portrait of two equally defective people bonded by mutual dissatisfaction. Finally, it's a blast, a realistic portrait of a couple that isn't unbearably depressing. It manages to earn the reasonably happy ending.

I should give a shout-out to Noel Paul's short Annie Goes Boating, which preceded Audrey. The plot's basically like a Williamsburg version of A Day in the Country, but it's in pretty gorgeous 3D, which I believe is some kind of first for indie film. Duly noted.

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In Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, the otherwise hopeless citizens of Shanxi province's Datong momentarily freak out and celebrate the announcement that the 2008 Olympics will be hosted in Beijing, cheering around TVs on the street. You could look at Beijing Taxi as a kind of sequel, using the careers of three Beijing cabdrivers two years before the Olympics to launch into showing a wider portrait of key parts of Beijing's infrastructure—its malls, new apartment buildings, elaborate cardboard miniature scale representations of the future sprawl and so on, the kind of important functional spaces that are rarely documented. (Worth noting: the "low-cost hospital for ordinary citizens" looks exactly like the hospital in Pleasures, which tells you a lot about how standardized that is.)

Because the dominant tone in most of the arthouse Chinese cinema seen here in the last decade owes a lot to Jia (and in general slow-paced stories about young Chinese—mostly men—floating around in anomie), Beijing Taxi's opening credits sequence can be seen as a repudiation of that aesthetic, or at least an addendum. Where other films insist on torpor, Taxi's slow, prototypically elegant and slow tracking shot of a parking lot for taxicabs suddenly speeds up then ratchets down multiple times; a video-game/advertising touch, but it gets the point across. Life is changing fast, if erratically.

Miao Wang's three subjects are a judicious if unsurprising cross-sample: the older Bai Jiwen, six years away from retirement, the younger and clumsier Zhou Yi, and Wei Caixia, by far the most ambitious of the three. Bai despairs of being able to pay for his medical expenses at one point and bitches about capitalism's expansion, but he's not going to do anything about it. Zhou cheerfully admits that Beijingers are essentially a lazy, easily contented people, and he is too. But Wei, with her decidedly untraditional haircut and absolute lack of remorse about being a single mother, is the new blood of the group. Her trajectory—from driver to ambitious clothing designer and self-taught capitalist—sums up the changing dynamics of Beijing neatly.

Some of the footage here is unapologetically functional, some strikingly gorgeous; a carwash as seen through a close-up of the prismatic water on the windshield is a stunner. Wang mostly sticks to story but allows herself the occasional associative reverie, drifting from one location to another more for mood than anything; the faux-Radiohead score can be distracting (especially a song you can hear here, "Together" by one Sound Fragment; I guess we know where the hardest-core fans are now, so I suppose even that's enlightening). Mostly Beijing Taxi is revelatory, an admirably formal presentation of the baseline texture of contemporary Beijing. It's not just valuable for the record, it's elegant in the process.



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Posted by ahillis at March 19, 2010 10:23 AM