Features / Festivals

Sundance London 2013 – Part Four: ‘Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes’ conforms to the worst indie stereotypes

 

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Over the years, voice-overs in trailers have largely been substituted for flashes of capitalised text and droning horns as a means of pressing the imprint of a film on one’s memory. As with most things that die out quietly with the passage of time, we probably took the sounds of Don LaFontaine’s throaty tones far too much for granted. The death of this particular trend is understandable given each blockbuster franchise’s preference to retain insular identities (while ironically mimicking each other).  In 2013, to hear a proposition such as LaFontaine’s overlaying a high-octane action teaser would surely raise viewers’ eyebrows and slouched backs.

In a World… posits the unlikely scenario of this trend’s resurrection and the whirlwind effect it has on a close-knit group of Hollywood players, each vying to be the new voice of the multiplex. Vocal coach Carol Solomon (Lake Bell, also writer and director) finds herself unexpectedly cast onto the ballot, much to the horror of father and reigning voice-over king Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), and chauvinistic delusional Gustav Warner, whose narcissistic pride won’t allow him to lose the mantle – to a female, of all things.

There are sharper shades of Anchorman to this comedy of errors, in which industry airheads fall over themselves in an attempt to figure out just how – and by whom – they’re being shafted. Formal invention is scarce, and so it falls to Bell’s razor-wit script – the snappiest of the Sundance selection, at that – to engineer events toward the absurdly comical crash at the finish line. The film is about voices, and is therefore built around them.

Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” plays at least twice over the course of the film, giving some clue as to the thematic undercurrent of the pompous power play waged from all corners. Carol’s chance bathroom encounter with a studio executive, who oversees the film she’s auditioned for, yields a nugget of down-to-earth, no-bullshit political account. This critical moment places the film firmly inside a thematic box that downplays its other, less exceptional aspects.

Chief among these are, predictably, the throwaway romantic subplots. Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and husband Moe (Rob Corddry) undergo brief marital strife that corrects itself around the midway point. And Carol herself must of course find love, but not before she’s been leered over and loved in all the wrong ways by Mr. Warner. Her ensuing relationship with dorky co-worker and all-around nice guy Louis (Demetri Martin) is just the sort of thing we don’t need, though as an egalitarian partnership it’s deemed necessary in contrast to Warner’s boorish attempts at exerting male dominance.

That’s because In a World… is a film focussed on the mechanics of control, as many films centred around the movie industry typically are. Trailers are little more than advertisements, and the voice that directs the audience through the images is thusly imbued with power of persuasion, albeit a power gifted to them by words on a script, from a hand that can snatch it away just as quickly. This consequence of power and responsibility – to borrow a phrase from Spider-man – is the potent political point that the film almost fails to capitalise upon. Had it spent a little more time probing the problematic behaviour of pie-hungry execs instead of tacking on unwarranted heaps of “heart”, In a World… might well have touched on greatness.

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A Barbara Kopple documentary produced by Oprah Winfrey and David Cassidy,Running from Crazy finds actress Mariel Hemingway reflecting on the suicide of grandfather and famous author Ernest Hemingway, and the ripple it sent through the rest of her family. Mariel talks frankly with her daughters about the implications of mental health, using the opportunity afforded by the camera to share untold stories about other, absent family members and the struggles they each faced.

Along with business partner Robert Williams, Mariel runs a lifestyle company called WillingWay that seeks to provide support for those afflicted by mental health issues. We’re shown one of their many nationwide rallies where affected guests are amassed and given neighbourly encouragement. Beaded necklaces are colour-coordinated, corresponding to separate contexts: whether somebody’s spouse has attempted suicide, whether they were successful, or even if the person has made the attempt themselves and lived to tell the tale. One necklace is one too many; some wear too many to count.

Other than acknowledging that a problem definitively exists, Mariel and company don’t achieve a firm grasp on this most slippery of subjects. Discussions largely consist of personal recollections concerning those no longer around to share their own stories, the most notable of which being Margot, Mariel’s older sister.

Margot’s story is told extensively and acts as a fascinatingly tragic narrative on which the film hangs its threads. The most mysterious and beautiful of the three sisters, Margot struggled with fame and expectations from the offset, changing her name to Margaux – named after the Chateaux wine on which she was conceived – and growing envious of the attention given to sister Mariel, with whom she was unable to forge any sort of meaningful connection.

Mariel borrows footage from Margot’s very own 1983 documentary, a personal project that sheds a great deal of light on the cracks in the Hemingway family at that exact moment in time. Margot’s directorial role on this wealth of footage allows us to see the troubled Hemingway sister on her own terms, and beyond the present-day perception of those who professed to know her. Even then, the mask slips; Margot retraces her grandfather Ernest’s steps to a bullfighting arena in Spain, where she finds a kindred spirit in the taunted, dying bull, pierced from all angles and slowly bleeding to death in front of an audience of thousands baying for its blood.

Because the footage belongs to Margot – who eventually killed herself in 1996 – her presence becomes more engaging by default than that of, say, Mariel, who as our presenter we take at relative face value. Margot’s footage is wholly poignant even when it doesn’t even try to be; simply observing the Hemingway sister traverse alone up a grassy fell is enough to evince pangs of sympathy. Margot’s ghostly dominance over the majority of the discourse positions her as the Hemingway with the largest shadow to cast over the here and now – far more than Ernest himself.

Margot’s ubiquitous contribution puts Mariel’s own chronicling of the present in a redundant light – damage which Mariel does little to assuage. In one scene, she and Robert go rock climbing together, for whatever reason but at interminable length. The scenes in which she speaks to daughters Langley and Dree are staged casually enough to constitute a reality TV show segment.

Hemingway isn’t entirely to blame, naturally. Barbara Kopple had seen what Margot brought to the table, knew the sheer force of its possessive power and set about exposing its truths to a wider audience. Unfortunately, she failed to fully harness the thematic weight of the preceding documentary into an equally befitting contemporary document.

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The term “American independent” is scoffed at in some quarters as a catch-all term for trite, melodramatic and/or quirky slices of middle class life on film; of privileged white folk plagued with first-world existential crises. A man today winced as I mentioned the film I’d just seen, informing me that he did his utmost to avoid “US indie”.

The film’s title is Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes. Francesca Gregorini’s second feature is a nauseating trivialisation of motherhood and loss, a pretentious diversion from sincere consideration of a difficult subject matter. More a gimmick than actual art, the film confirms some of the worst stereotypes about US independent cinema by way of its jigsaw characters, the lonesome souls who must come together to conclusively heal and attain closure. Sometimes, you just have to call a spade a spade.

At the centre of all the commotion is Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), a flippant teen unresponsive to her father, stepmother and the wider world. A seismic shift occurs when she settles on babysitting for new neighbour Linda (Jessica Biel), a young woman bearing uncanny resemblance to her own deceased mother. To further confuse things, baby Chloe is not a healthy bouncing baby in any conventional sense of the term. Indeed, the precise nature of the mysterious baby hijacks the audience’s entire curiosity away from the central character of Emanuel. We are invited to dip our toes into the film’s waters, as viewpoints of characters with varying temperaments mount up to increasingly render Chloe an untellable entity, impossible to objectively define. The ambiguity holds a brief appeal.

It doesn’t stick. Once confronted head-on, bizarre screen articles are at risk of going off like a hand grenade, enveloping the scenery in a louder, looser eruption of half-baked concepts. Here, baby Chloe is the gunpowder that launches Emanuel into a nightmare of Gregorini’s choosing. The metaphor and environmental context of choice is water; gallons of the stuff, starting as a puddle and culminating in a vast ocean.

Water as leitmotif isn’t exactly new, and it’s been employed as a far subtler metaphor in superior films – Femme Fatale, for one. In Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes, its usage is principally in the service of waking up both its star and its audience at a juncture of flagging interest. Afterward, Emanuel and Linda bare their souls to one another in a flood of tears. Gregorini’s mantra is reaffirmed: when all else fails, turn on every waterwork.

Sundance London 2013 takes place at the o2, Greenwich, London from 25-28 April.

Read my original entry at PopOptiq/Sound on Sight.

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