Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"The Chumscrubber", the Suburbs, and the American Dream.

By now filmgoers have some reason to yawn when confronted with yet another widely released film documenting the well-known suburban malaise that plagues the heartland. Dark comic dramas centered on such material are virtually a sub-genre all on their own. Perhaps the best among the early ones was Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge (1979). It was about a group of disaffected and bored kids whose parents sought to escape the problems of the cities by constructing a planned community in the middle of nowhere. Of course the neglect of the children's interests leads to disaster and tragedy. Much of that film's strength derives from its cast of young and virtually unknown actors- which features a young Matt Dillon making his flm debut.

The low-budget Suburbia (1984-directed by Penelope Spheeris) would be the punk-rock cult classic within this typology. It's a depiction of the suburbs taken to their nihilistic extremes... the kids in this movie have no supervision at all. They band together and occupy abandoned houses, consume large amounts of drugs, and commit mayhem. Once again tragedy ensues. Perhaps the best known film in this group would be Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999). This self-conscious and clever deconstruction of the American Dream was awarded five Oscars for its cynical attack on traditional suburban values. This spawned another wave of wannabes hoping to cash in on its fashinable success. We can add other films such as Donnie Darko (2001), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and The Ice Storm (1997) to the canon.

As long as the suburbs and exurbs continue to be "viable" living arrangements within our society, they will be fertile ground for future filmmakers (who likely will have had some direct experience with them while growing up). Canadian-born Arie Posin directed his feature length debut The Chumscrubber in 2005- a film certain to take an honored place among the aforementioned examples. Starring the very talented British actor Jamie Bell (sans accent), The Chumscrubber is yet another story of a scheming group of unsupervised kids, running amok and flirting with disaster. The title refers to a videogame antihero, whose mission involves cleansing the landscape of sprawl. Several of the characters are tangentially associated with this icon- and thus "The Chumscubber" is more of an impressionistic allegory than a plot device.

If you've seen a lot of the other films I've mentioned in this post, you'll notice that Posin's film covers a lot of the familair territory. The director takes a little criminal plot, and surrounds it with all the family dysfunction, missed communication, social alienation, absentee parentism, emotional repression and trenchant commentary that you've come to expect from a movie like this. But its lack of originality does not seem to matter in this case. The camera work is compelling without being distracting, and the dialogue is well-formed enough not to seem contrived. Posin has surrounded Bell with a competent (yet not flashy) cast that includes Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, William Fichtner, Tim DeKay, and John Heard. These are actors whose names may not be instantly recognizable... but whose faces will.

The Chumscrubber proves that, with a good script and a fresh directorial approach, even material that is well-trodden can be satirically poignant, cleverly sculpted and very entertaining. It's not out-of-place among the best movies of this subgenre. Now if we can only find some American horror filmmakers who realize this...


Anonymous jefg said...

Thanks for the review. Coincidentally I just DVR'd Chumscrubber, so I'll be viewing it shortly. Oh, the wonders of modern electronics, when you can record about 15 high-def movies in your cable box with the touch of a button (after reviewing the cable guide for the next several days). Darn expensive, but then I have lots of TV time now.

I've been going throuh a 900 page book of movie reviews, writing down every movie I'd like to see eventually. Between the DVR and an X-Mas subscription to Netflix, I'll be busy.

I watched American Splendor last night. Interesting documentary mix of acting (Giamatti) and real (Rekar). Mixing in actual footage (such as the Letterman appearances), as well as using those little narration boxes used in comics (there must be a name for those things, just escapes me) worked well in telling the story. I didn't know that Crumb had done Rekar's illustrations. Could be just me, but I saw a few parallel's between his life story and that of Rekar's, though I'm certainly not comparing their works.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I think it would be interesting to read your thoughts about the film. Consider posting them here.

Your movie project sounds fun. Don't hesitate to ask me about any you think I may have seen.

If you get a chance to see Pekar's work, you might enjoy it. (By the way... it's Harvey Pekar) What parallels did you see between Crumb and Pekar?

8:11 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I posted with two "oops!"

First, How I got to Rekar after just watching the show about Harvey Pekar, can only be attributed to a very nice German beer in the afternoon.

As for Crumb and Pekar, I left out a complete sentence, which should have preceeded the last one in my post. It was to refer to Bukowski, and some parallels between his life and Pekar. There's the obvious mundane job (Vet Admin. clerk versus Post Office clerk), dismissive treatment of the women that loved them for who they were, published in little works with small distributions, some signs of depression. averageman existence yet brilliant in their own way for some). I didn't see anything similar with Crumb; but then, I don't know his life's story.

And, I'm sure I'll post some things about the movies I watch, or intend to watch.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yes... I can see some ties between Bukowski and Pekar. But I would have to take exception with your comparison of the way they treated women. Pekar seemed to genuinely appreciate Joyce- almost to the point where he couldn't function without her. Pekar was never as misogynistic as Buk.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Point certainly taken re the difference in treatment of women. In retrospect, I took one incident from the movie where he seemed somewhat dismissive of her wanting to pursue something, and generalized from the specific.

Re Bukowski, that's the one part of his behavior that does not permit me to have as much respect for him as I otherwise would. Then again, that raises a potentially larger question...should my feelings about an artist's (inluding writers as artists) personal beliefs alter my judgement of produced works...should an artist's personal life come into play whatsover in judging his talent, and respect for same? That is, other than possibly to delve into and attempt to understand motivations for the work itself. Perhaps some artists have become famous than they otherwise might have for their personal behaviors moreso than the intinsic quality of the art. Perhaps their lives have come to be viewed as performance art melded with the actual material works they produce. I can think of a few offhand that might fit this category, but I don't feel sufficiently qualified to defend my picks.

I think that topic would make an interesting essay or book, but would likely open up and subject its author to alot of criticism.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous jefg said...

Watched Chumscrubber yesterday. I have never done movie reviews, other than such as "Yes, I think your kids would like it" or "Probably a little too quirky for you", so I'll just throw out some random comments. (Hmmm..can they still be random if numbered?)

1. I thought the opening scenes showing the drug distribution lines from the hospital to individuals in the high school courtyard were a bit overdone, far too obvious. Pass offs were too quick, too open, and looked more like something in a comedy or broadway play. Just threw me off a bit in that I was expecting a serious dramatic movie. On the other hand, that's probably what was intended, to let the viewer know he was in for something over-the-top.

2. How on earth did they get Glenn Close and Ralph Fiennes, two of the most respected actors of the day, to do this film? Not that there's anything wrong with that.

3. Was it just me, or was Crystal extremely cute, period!

4. I noticed the Chumscrubber poster on Charlie B's wall. Seemed out of place with his conservative character. Well, at first. Later we see there is something inside of him that belies the behavior people see from the outside. I wondered if this was a key element, this poster. No kid is as inherently bad as they seem on the outside (if listened to), and no kid is as innocent as they seem (i.e., the dark side).

5. Crystal has all the good lines, such as "Don't act like something you're not". While she was addressing a peer, it applied to most everyone in the film, young and old. Heck, I'd listen to her.

6. The kids are being more like kids, and the parents are acting more like crazy kids than the kids. One hopes the former will grow out of it, but senses it may be too late for the latter. Obviously the kids need help and the parents don't recognize or provide it. Perhaps more obviously, the parents need help and they can't recognize it either.

7. The word "dismissive" kept floating through my head. Kids of their parents, parents of theirt kids.

8. I especiually liked the line about "synchronicity through random accidents of our lives". There have been a number of movies done about random incidents connecting people which in retrospect may be part of a larger plan..or not. Thgis one was well constructed.

9. "I didn't even know him (my own son)"...the movie, in one line. Hypothetically speaking, of course, I'm pretty sure that applies to me as well.

9. Dean and Crystal, the two most "normal" and "honest" characters, ending up with each other...surprise? I think not.

10. Use of the Chumbscrubber video in the end...certainly a unique blend into the movie, but to me came across a bit overdone and silly. Then again, I don't do video games.

10. Sure, in some ways the movie appears to be lecturing though it's satire. That may be the reason why I'd suggest it as required viewing for all kids as they enter their teens, with parents sitting in the mezzinine.
The message.."Now pay atention, and I mean everyone"!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I think it's probably inevitable that one takes into consideration all that he/she knows about a creator. I consider that information "context", and thus perfectly valid in assessing and analyzing an artist's work.

I think that Warhol was an illustrative example.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Regarding your notes on "Chumscrubber".

1. I agree. It was definitely used to establish a mood.. One that was disrupted upon Troy's demise. It's also a bit ironic that they presented that condiion as representative of the carefree innocence of the community.

2. They probably scored one well respected actor, and used his/her name to recruit the next... repeating the process with each success. The cast was filled with "actors' actors".

3. M. despised Crystal quite early on.

9a. Really?

9b. Depends on your definition of "normal", I guess.

3:53 PM  

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