Monkeys & Madmen

Two nights ago it was The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was praised in many quarters for getting the summer blockbuster thing right. And it is indeed okay, mostly thanks to the inestimable Andy Serkis, who makes every step of the lead chimp’s transition into a simian Michael Corleone believable. (The most interesting drama in the picture occurs not between any of the humans, but between Caesar and an alpha chimp—let’s call him Johnny Lovo—who gets taken down a definitive notch after Caesar’s arrival.) The movie is light on its feet, but the action scenes slather so many CGI effects into single shots that the images become impossible to process and accept as reality on any level; when things become this unstable, they stop being narrative and turn into art design. I’d consider my complete inability to suspend disbelief related to the Uncanny Valley except that, instead of revulsion, a frame overrun by too many figments of some animator’s imagination just throws me into diabetic shock.

That’s okay—I got the goodies I needed last night from Evan Glodell’s Bellflower. Using the possessive case is tricky here because even though Glodell wrote, starred, directed, and led the movie’s editing team, he partnered with his co-star Tyler Dawson and a handful of other friends on many of the critical production functions. A genuine DIY project costing $17,000 and employing a jimmy-rigged camera, the film was saved from oblivion when it caught the eye of a Sundance bigwig. It was a good catch.

I wish I’d seen Bellflower before I wrote this post—it would’ve made for an extremely pertinent addition. The story looks at what happens when a rudely interrupted love affair throws a young man (Glodell) back on his ass, leaving him in the clutches of the mythology of his youth—in this case, the dynamic, violent world of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max movies. The film it really builds on, though, is Taxi Driver, with its anger, its unsparing scrutiny of American masculinity, and its sense of a boy-man’s flailing in the face of all things sexual. Any of these things is a worthy subject, but I was really taken by Bellflower’s focus on people living the kind of provisional small-time existences of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and River’s Edge. (The movie’s meet-cute occurs when the hero and heroine are pitted against each other in a barroom’s cricket-eating contest.) Bellflower’s reviewers have played up its “apocalyptic” violence, but that’s just laziness on their part: the physical violence, when it finally comes, falls far short of a million gore-circuses that are out there, and we’re never forced to wallow in the outbursts of elemental rage we do see. Bellflower radiates intelligence and discrimination, which is to say it’s a serious movie in the best possible way, and if people are sensing something radical in it, that may be the reason why.

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