Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Change in the Weather

I sometimes go into movies blind. I used to do this all the time back when movies were my business, but I still like to be surprised. It's hard to go into movies blind in the information era, but I managed it with Cold Weather (2010, directed by Aaron Katz). I knew nothing about it, except that it was a mystery. The fact that it was a mystery wasn't readily apparent for the first forty minutes or so of the movie. It stumbles upon its plot in the course of charting the lives of four ordinary twenty-somethings in rainy Portland, Oregon.

This begins as a standard indie slice of life piece. We are introduced to Doug and his sister, Gail, at a dinner with their parents. Doug seems kind of rootless. He gave up his studies in forensic science to intern as a chef. He got bored of that, and now sleeps on his sister's couch while he looks for a job. He finds one at a factory that makes sacks of ice. Here, he meets Carlos, who moonlights as a DJ, and with whom Doug shares his love of the Sherlock Holmes books. Doug also has an ex-girlfriend, Rachel, who is in Portland for job training. Carlos becomes smitten with her and asks her out. After a couple of dates, Rachel vanishes. Perhaps inflamed by reading Doug's Holmes books, Carlos convinces Doug to investigate her disappearance. They find out that Rachel wasn't telling the whole truth about why she was in Portland. Her disappearance has sinister motives, which Doug and Carlos pursue, eventually drawing Gail into their band of Scoobies.

Have you ever gone to a music piece written by Philip Glass? The last one I went to drummed a minimalist sequence of notes into my brain so thoroughly that when it changed mid-piece, it was like being thunderstruck. It's an awesome effect. This movie tries something similar. The opening movement is indie-minimal and when it actually acquires its plot, it sets its hooks deep. It pays attention to details. In retrospect, it plants the seeds of its plot early, in plain sight, but they're such unremarkable details that they seem like background noise. It plays fair with the audience, even when it seems like Doug's insights into code breaking seem like leaps. But even when the plot kicks in, it takes detours to outline the quirks of its characters. It veers off from the story to follow Doug to a pipe shop to see if a pipe actually WOULD help him to think, a la Holmes (it doesn't), then follows him somewhere that actually does help him think. There's a bickering moment during a car chase, when Gail berates Doug for almost blowing things by being too impatient. The relationship between Doug and Gail has been carefully detailed, so their interactions under pressure are entirely consistent. Hell, the movie even spends time detailing the minutiae of ice manufacturing. This all serves to ground the film in some kind of verisimilitude.

Here's how much of a film geek I am: I knew within the first minute of the film which camera was used to shoot the movie. It has that "look" that has become all too common in indie films shot with the Red One. It's a blue-tinged movie, an effect amplified by its setting. Portland, as filmed here, has a dour, crepuscular look to it. Even when it's not overcast and raining, it seems like kind of a bleak city. Cinematographer Andrew Reed has an eye for finding interesting compositions in ordinary places, so in spite of the overall ambiance of the film, it's always an attractive film. He makes a virtue of rain from the first frame onward. That first frame, consisting of rain on glass, is like some kind of thesis statement.

There was an audible exclamation by some members of the audience with whom I saw the film at the end of Cold Weather. This is not a movie that provides tidy closure, and I'm sure that in a conventional thriller, the ending is a point where things would go from bad to worse. This isn't a film that indulges in the common "one damned thing after another" convention of plotting, but this isn't a movie about the plot, really. The plot exists to put the characters under the microscope, to see how they twitch, and by the end of the movie, we know everything to know about how they jump. Adding more to this would only punish them all, and this isn't a noir movie, really. It solves its puzzles and ends after it has no more to say. My movie-going companion for this movie didn't like it, I should add. She thought the long run-up before the plot kicked in was boring. She wasn't engaged, and she has a right to that. Hell, I found myself restless in my seat, too, but I think the payoff is worth it. I couldn't help but think that she's been conditioned by conventional thrillers. I feel that, too, sometimes. This is not a film with a mini-climax at every reel change. It's not a pile-driving narrative engine. For that matter, it isn't a particularly transcendent film. It's small of scale, with small stakes, and that's fine, because looking at ordinary, "boring" human beings is a worthwhile pursuit unto itself.

The designer in me would be remiss if she didn't gush over the design of this movie's poster. This Saul Bass-ish image would be perfect for a sixties or seventies-era crime film. I love it.

1 comment:

Bob Turnbull said...

That poster is awesome! It'd be a perfect 50-60s Bluenote album cover for someone like Duke Pearson.

I haven't seen the film yet, but have been eager to since I really enjoyed Katz's "Dance Party, USA". I chatted with him briefly after the screening of Dance Party (at an incredibly poorly attended "Mumblecore" festival in Toronto a few years ago) and he seemed extremely genuine and focused on his film's characters. Your review has bumped the film up several notches for me...