Archive for June, 2013

This blog entry contains spoilers.

From Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and All the Real Girls (2003) to Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), the most acclaimed American independent films of recent years have implicitly situated themselves in opposition to Hollywood filmmaking — typically by striving to be realer (Boys Don’t Cry [1999]) or quirkier (Me and You and Everyone We Know [2005]). However, in contrast with a full-blown art movie like The Brown Bunny (2003) or Inland Empire (2006), films such as Sean Baker’s Starlet (2012) are more subtle than the average Hollywood feature¹ but still accessible to a wide audience.

This is in part because, as in a classical Hollywood film, the story centers on an active, goal-oriented protagonist.² When the movie begins, Jane (Dree Hemingway) has just moved into a house with her friend, Melissa (Stella Maeve), and her goal is simply to add some colour to her sparsely decorated bedroom. However, when she asks to repaint the walls, Melissa says she can’t as her filmmaker boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone), might need to shoot a scene in there. Instead, Melissa suggests she pick up some things at a yard sale, and in the next sequence, Jane drives from house to house looking for things to buy.

At the last stop she makes, Jane purchases a thermos from an ornery old woman, Sadie (Besdeka Johnson), which she intends to use as a vase, and it’s only after taking it home that Jane discovers ten thousand dollars stashed away inside. After some wavering, she decides to return the money, but just as she’s pulling up to Sadie’s house, Jane sees her getting into a cab to go to the grocery store. And it’s at this point that Jane abandons her goal of returning the money in favor of striking up a friendship with Sadie, who doesn’t want any friends but eventually gives in as she needs someone to drive her to the grocery store and bingo.

Another convention of classical Hollywood storytelling the movie upholds is the secondary plot line which depends on the main thread at various points. Here, Melissa is fired from a film when she arrives on set stoned and can’t perform (it’s gradually revealed that both she and Jane are porn stars), causing her considerable financial difficulties. So when Jane decides to spend what’s left of the money from the thermos on a trip to Paris with Sadie, it brings about the termination of her friendship with Melissa, who’s outraged that Jane would rather spend the money on Sadie than using it to help her.

As this description indicates, the movie follows several familiar patterns of development. Through their friendship, Jane becomes less selfish and Sadie more trusting, while Melissa sinks lower and lower — both personally and professionally — just as Jane’s career begins to take off. Another pattern of development involves the substitution of one mother figure for another. After finding the money in the thermos, Jane tries to entice her mom into visiting her in California by offering to pay for her plane ticket. Similarly, when Sadie decides that she doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore, Jane lures her back with the trip to Paris.

This progression is subtly underscored by the cinematography. As Jane talks on the phone with her mom, the setting sun causes a lens flare, and the same thing happens again at the end of the movie when she picks up Sadie on the way to the airport.³ However, this point is easy to miss as it’s never directly alluded to in the dialogue.⁴ Similarly, the film’s final sequence communicates a lot of information without putting it into words. On the way to the airport, Sadie insists on stopping by her husband’s grave, but this time she asks Jane to change the flowers while she waits in the car. It’s here that Jane learns that Sadie had a daughter who died in the 1960s, and as her husband died only two years later, the movie hints at the possibility that he committed suicide without making it explicit.

However, notwithstanding the subtlety of Baker’s direction, what differentiates Starlet from a mainstream studio picture is primarily its subject matter rather than its form or style. Stories about female friendship are exceedingly rare in Hollywood, where heterosexual courtship is the basis for most plots,⁵ and in its dispassionate representation of the porn industry, the movie studiously avoids the dramatic high and lows that one finds in such films as Boogie Nights (1997). That said, the narrative is essentially straightforward — in contrast with Inland Empire, which is riddled with ambiguities — and the story moves at a fairly quick tempo. (There aren’t any lengthy shots of bugs collecting on a windshield as in The Brown Bunny.) Accordingly, one doesn’t feel insulted by the movie as one does by certain Hollywood films,⁶ but it doesn’t make any extraordinary demands on the viewer either.

1. Seth Rogen recently confirmed something I’ve long suspected about contemporary Hollywood filmmaking when he said in an interview that The Guilt Trip (2012) was shot “in the format that plays on airlines only. They were like, ‘Talk loud because the engine will be roaring. […] ‘You’ve got to talk over the engine; there’s announcements early on in the flight. You’ve got to take that into consideration.'”

2. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 8th ed., 2008, p. 94-98.

3. Another recent movie, Stark Trek Into Darkness (2013), also features a number of lens flares, but if there’s a pattern to their use, I’m unable to discern what it is.

4. By way of contrast, in Boogie Nights, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) refers to Dirk Digger (Mark Whalberg) as “My baby boy.”

5. Even Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is less about the friendship between the two heroines than their entwined romantic adventures.

6. In particular, I thought Unstoppable (2010) really overdid it in terms of redundant exposition. Often the film will show an event and then show it again as a televised news event while an offscreen reporter explains what can plainly be seen.


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