Super Unleaded

Photo: Courtesy of Peace Arch Entertainment

Part travelogue, part search for the self, the road movie—like its literary cousin, the on-the-road memoir—is a distinctly American genre, and we should enjoy good new specimens while we can, before the escalating price of gas means the notion of non-rich people driving cross-country has all the verisimilitude of Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov taking a rocket ship to the planet Mongo. Martin Hynes’s first film, The Go-Getter, is an especially wonderful addition to the genre, with the right—flickering—mixture of loneliness and enchantment, and with jokes that come at you from just around the bend.

Hynes follows 19-year-old Mercer White (Lou Taylor Pucci), who steals a car in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to track down his estranged, much older half-brother and let him know their mom died: a melancholy setup. The fun part is that the owner of the car left her cell phone in it, knows who he is (how? A mystery), and keeps calling for late-night bull sessions.

Even more fun, the voice belongs to Zooey Deschanel, which means it’s among the most charming in movies (and, now, music): sardonic yet hopeful, throaty, yet with a girlish tinkle. What do they talk about? Stuff. Mercer wonders what it would be like if we could understand dogs and cats: “What if they were just as disappointing as humans and they thought about nothing?” He imagines what she looks like; he tries on different faces—white, black, Asian—as she speaks. Then he finds an I.D. in her gym bag and can picture her. In one conversation, she’s in the backseat, turning on and off a strap-on doctor’s light on her head. The simple, handmade vision fits her voice, and fits the movie, too. In his road picture Into the Wild, Sean Penn went in for fancy montage and never settled into the moment. In The Go-Getter, moments come one after another; even in motion, the movie is grounded.

Mercer’s half-brother, Arlen (Jsu Garcia), was a bounder who left a trail of pissed-off people. So Mercer keeps driving south, from the Mojave to L.A. to Mexico, and the people he meets—in the best road-movie tradition—open up to him. But there’s opening up and opening up, up, and away. A potter Arlen robbed (Nick Offerman, who has three entertaining roles) socks Mercer on the jaw, then shares his marijuana pipe. (“I’m a lapsed Buddhist. I still love everybody except that fuckass Arlen.”) An existentialist child pornographer (Julio Oscar Mechoso) credits Arlen for knowing just what he should do to give his existence meaning. A liquor salesman in a ten-gallon hat (Bill Duke) shares his thoughts on Americans’ pathetic inability to protect themselves by any means but guns. Hynes has a talent for deadpan jaw-droppers that aren’t self-consciously quirky. (In the age of Napoleon Dynamite, “quirky” lines recur in indie movies like hiccups.) The weirdness goes deep.

Happily, Mercer is not an I-am-a-camera blank slate. He’s a kid with his own morbid sense of humor (he tells people his mother is on an Australian walkabout), and Lou Taylor Pucci has loopy rhythms all his own. You don’t see him acting—only reacting, thinking, picking himself up after various batterings and shambling on. Hynes has cast him opposite some of the American indie cinema’s biggest female cuties—not just the irresistible Deschanel but Judy Greer as a hippie-dippie potter, Jena Malone as a teen sexpot with long legs and a dark underbelly, and Maura Tierney as a free-spirited pet-store owner with a terrible band that performs as a condition of parole. (As this sultry flake with a maternal streak, Tierney is a revelation. But so is Malone. And Bill Duke. Pretty much everyone is in clover.)

Hynes throws things out, and some of them clunk: the too-arty opening; an easy gay joke; a song-and-dance interlude. But most work magically well. And then there’s the serendipitous pairing of Deschanel’s voice and the soundtrack by M. Ward: The two met on the film and joined forces on one of the year’s musical delights, She & Him: Volume One. On some road movies, the director has worked everything out in advance: You can almost see the final destination before you get there. This one is alive with discoveries—of locations, characters, the actors who embody them, and even the medium. In The Go-Getter, filmmaking itself feels like Manifest Destiny.

Even more alive—and morally disorienting to the point of inducing dementia—is Nina Davenport’s stupendous documentary Operation Filmmaker, the story of a grand American liberal-humanitarian gesture gone kerflooey. Liev Schreiber, preparing to direct his first feature (in the Czech Republic), Everything Is Illuminated, watches an MTV special on “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in which, amid the devastation, Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Shiite with an infectious smile, says he dreams of being a filmmaker. What an attractive young man! Why not fly him to Prague and give him a job as a production assistant and invite Nina Davenport to chronicle the inspiring story of an Iraqi Muslim joining hands across the cultural divide with a bunch of American Jews? Altruistic and high concept!

At first, our sympathies go out to Muthana: How could he be expected to know that if you’re lucky enough to get a p.a. job, you should, as producer Christine Vachon put it in a book I co-wrote with her, “Throw yourself into it body and soul … and impress the people who matter (like me) with your incredible initiative”? Cut the guy some slack—his country’s under siege! No one told him one of his jobs would be shaking a snack cup of nuts so they’d be evenly distributed. Peter Saraf, the producer who supervises Muthana, comes off like a Hollywood dickhead who one minute boasts about his liberalism and the next expects a young guy who has never before been out of his benighted country to apply himself like Gunga Din and kiss people’s asses in gratitude. Then, very gradually, we begin to think Saraf isn’t so insensitive. Maybe he’s even a good guy in a hopeless situation. Maybe Muthana—no no no, mustn’t think that. No. Okay, maybe. Maybe Muthana is a lazy and not very bright or talented liar given to exploiting his country’s tragedy. No! Stop! Maybe it’s Davenport who’s exploiting him. No, that’s not right. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’re terrible, terrible American pigs to presume to pass judgment.

The only certain response is “Oy.”

Operation Filmmaker doesn’t quite shake out as a microcosm of the American-Iraq relationship, although Davenport cheekily toys with the conceit. But the movie is endlessly resonant. Davenport sends Muthana’s friends in Iraq a camera and their footage is chilling. (They seem like the real filmmakers.) Meanwhile, Muthana watches the carnage in his country on TV and—extending his visa on the grounds that he thinks he’d be killed in Iraq for collaborating with American Jews—goes to work on a zombie picture in which The Rock plays the big American hero with major artillery. More and more, Davenport herself becomes a character, and you can feel her idealism crumble as Muthana rages at her and hits her up for money. In the end, she all but throws up the camera and wails, “Help!”—and damned if that’s not, under the circumstances, the clarion call of a real American artist-hero.

Oh, that Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), still trying to be outrageous: In Stuck, he puts his credit smack over the prodigiously soiled underpants of a senile old man, and what follows is not an anticlimax. It’s a grueling little noirish thriller with slasher-worthy gore about a convalescent-home nurse (Mena Suvari) who, drunk and stoned, plows her car into a down-on-his-luck man (Stephen Rea) and leaves him embedded in her windshield—bleeding, shattered, barely alive. As she goes from wanting to help him to wishing he’d fucking die already, the film becomes an aria of agony—but with a rousingly yucko finish!

An even more pedigreed goremeister, Dario Argento, is back with a sequel to his deliriously surreal masterpiece, Suspiria, called The Mother of Tears. It opens with a woman being strangled with her own intestines, and that’s before it gets ugly. His daughter Asia plays—with breathless conviction—the young woman with psychic powers who’s all that stands between humanity and the “second age of witches.” Her odyssey has a little Harry Potter, a little Da Vinci Code, and enough splatter to make the late Lucio Fulci dash his brains against the inside of his coffin for the chance to come back and top it. The first two thirds are gangbusters, with marauding bands of tarted-up young witches who look only slightly less scary than Lindsay Lohan and her pals on an average night. But toward the end the killings of women border on pornography, and the climax, in which Asia yanks off the title witch’s sacred shmatte, is a bad joke made worse by having a Mother of Tears who looks like the Mother of Silicone.

With his film-exec father and Brazilian-photographer mother, Dario Argento was born into the movie business and still treats filmmaking as a family affair: both his onetime partner Daria Nicolodi and their daughter, Asia, have starred in his gorefests. For some critics, these family ties only make Argento’s misogyny more perverse, charges he rejects in the book Nightmare Movies: “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man … I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.”

The Go-Getter
Directed by Martin Hynes.
Et Cetera Films. R.

Operation Filmmaker
Directed by Nina Davenport.
Icarus Films. NR.

Directed by Stuart Gordon.
Weinstein Company. R.

The Mother of Tears
Directed by Dario Argento.
Thinkfilm. NR.


Super Unleaded