In Praise of Brevity: three films on OVID that don’t overstay their welcome

By Michael Barrett

I appreciate movies of all genres and lengths, though a special corner of my heart is reserved for features at 90 minutes or less. Perhaps this comes from a love of old B movies, short because they were the second title in a double-feature. Or perhaps, it comes from growing up with lots of great TV movies in 90-minute slots. Or perhaps, it’s boredom with the recent trend of blowing the most trivial summer throwaways to two and a half or three hours of noisy carnage. So, I derive special pleasure in searching OVID’s menu for movies in the 70 to 90-minute range, proving they know how to get in and get out, which certainly tips the scales when browsing!

Here are three previews of movies that don’t overstay their welcome and left me satisfied:

Marvin, Seth and Stanley
A film by Stephen Gurewitz

The first thing we see is a curious negotiation between two men, mostly their hands gripping something between them. It turns out to be a question of whether a driver is going to carry a man’s luggage to the door or whether the man will carry it himself. This trivial incident, blown out of proportion and then dropped, exemplifies much of the movie.

Writer-director Stephen Gurewitz plays Stanley, an aspiring actor landed in Minneapolis to visit his dad Marvin (played by real-life dad Marvin Gurewitz). We gather they’re going camping and fishing for a few days. Also visiting is Stanley’s older brother Seth (Alex Karpovsky), who dominates this family-buddy-road movie as an overbearing, fight-picking loudmouth. Even to his detriment, Seth insists on being the center of drama and inhaling all the oxygen. That’s a big job when you’re in the open air, and he still does it.

One of the first nuggets of information we pick up is that retired Marvin works a part-time job but pretends he goes golfing all day. Seth is having marital issues, which is no surprise. He’s constantly on the phone, though sometimes he’s faking. Who knows how Stanley’s Hollywood travails are going, but there’s nothing concrete to report. In short, all three men pretend to be doing better than they are. These deceptions and mild depressions lead to micro-aggressions, or even macro ones, on the hapless fishing trip.

Marvin, Seth and Stanley belongs to a long tradition in American indie cinema in which friends and family assemble to workshop a naturalistic, observational, anecdotal, minimalist comedy or drama on a shoestring. John Cassavetes was a pioneer. Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) and Robert M. Young’s Nothing But a Man (1964) are great examples.

The rise in handheld digital cameras increased the trickle to a flood. In the 21st Century, some critics applied the term “mumblecore” to a wave of such items on self-involved millennials. Gurewitz’s film fits, though I place it on a shelf with certain films of Henry Jaglom in which he plays a loud, motor-mouthed version of himself, such as Sitting Ducks (1980) and Can She Bake a Cherry Pie (1983). In movies of this nature, you wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with these people, but they’re amusing on the other side of the screen.

False Confessions
A film by Luc Bondy & Marie-Louise Bischofberger

Handsome young Dorante (Louis Garrel), of fetchingly unshaven face and unruly hair, accepts a job as private secretary to wealthy Araminte (Isabelle Huppert), a widowed actress he’s worshiped from afar. A servant, Dubois (Yves Jacques), has a scheme to encourage their unlikely marriage, and it involves trifling with the affections of another servant (Manon Combes). Too bad Araminte’s imperious mother (Bulle Ogier) wants her daughter to marry a rich count (Jean-Pierre Malo).

Garrel is possibly the busiest young French actor of the century, having made about 50 films since 2001 and directed a handful himself. Huppert has made many more than that in the same period, and she’s been a star since the 1970s. There’s a 30-year difference between them, but she’s not necessarily playing her age, and the French hardly care about that. What matters is that it’s easy to believe Dorante and Araminte should find each other sufficiently besotting to overcome all obstacles. These two dazzling players resolve all doubts.

In 18th Century France, Pierre de Marivaux was the king of romantic comedies in which servants and upper classes schemed and flirted at cross purposes. This movie’s updating of a 1737 play has enough plot for a mini-series, but it’s compressed into 80 minutes of lavish and artificial theatricality that owes not one blessed thing to realism. All conversations are fast and elevated, and almost everything said by anyone to everyone is some kind of lie. This is forgiven at the end when Araminte says all’s fair in love and that love returned deserves its reward.

Noted theatrical director Luc Bondy staged the play at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in 2014, and this film has been shot there all over the building, including the cellar. It’s almost the star of the movie as the actors movie frequently from one room to another, with a few scenes at the Luxembourg Garden. This theatrical setting emphasizes the unreal nature of the piece and holds it together.

Bondy died in 2015, so although he’s credited as the main director, it’s really his widow Marie-Louise Bischofberger who directed this 2017 production for French TV.

For the Plasma
A film by Bingham Bryant & Kyle Molzan

Charlie (Anabelle Lemieux) and Helen (Rosalie Lowe) are twenty-somethings who haven’t seen each other in a while. Charlie has answered Helen’s invitation to spend the summer at Port Clyde, Maine, and help in her job monitoring the forest for fires.

While similar in some ways, the women offer a strong contrast. The grounded Charlie resembles Jean Seberg, while Helen has a wispy, ethereal, pre-Raphaelite aura. This impression is reinforced when Helen calmly explains that while monitoring forest imagery on closed-circuit cameras, she lets her mind wander until the geometrical patterns give her insight into financial markets, although she understands little about them. The result is that she’s been making lots of money for an unknown employer and herself.

This sun-drenched movie, shot so clearly and gorgeously in 16mm, feels like a summer breeze on vacation. At the same time, the woo-woo quirks give odd forebodings and changes in tone where the friends are nervous, uncertain, or full of tension. A sudden, fragmented, senseless argument seems to be Charlie’s dream. The stable camera starts wandering as though possessed by a ghost. A lighthouse keeper recounts a grim tale with black and white flashbacks, but he might be making it up, and he delivers his elegant lines as though archly reading cue cards.

Perhaps the oddest part is a visit from two Japanese gentleman who commission Helen to study images of the heavens. One of them pronounces the title’s gibberish. Something Japanese is definitely going on, from the perky electronic score by Keiichi Suzuki to the fact that Charlie reads and describes Kobo Abe’s novel The Ark Sakura. The sense of poetic oddity just outside our grasp feels indebted to Haruki Murakami. Another influence might be Jacques Rivette, the French New Waver whose basically improvised films use suspense devices for narrative momentum.

Most of all, For the Plasma feels improvised by channeling the genius loci of Port Clyde, which attracts artists and writers. The movie was filmed in the summer of 2012 at the Russell Porter House, a summer vacation rental built in 1820 by the astronomer and Arctic explorer, and the film’s reference to the stars points to this history. Wikipedia informs us the lighthouse was the one used in Forrest Gump (1994). 

For the Plasma is a delicate, teasing retreat that isn’t going to answer your questions. I suspect it’s only going to linger in memory after many conventional realist dramas have faded.

Michael Barrett writes a monthly video column for San Antonio Express-News. Other publications include Video Watchdog, Nostalgia Digest, and Retro Cinema. To read more of his work, check him out at PopMatters.

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