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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: NOBODY WALKS

NEW YORKERS IN LOS ANGELES with Italian filmmaking on the brain: that would be director Ry Russo-Young and her co-writer Lena Dunham, with Nobody Walks, a tactile, tensile minor-key successor to Pasolini’s Teorema. Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is a 23-year-old New York photographer with an upcoming one-woman show and she’s come to stay with a Silver Lake family while finishing sound work on a film. Rosemarie DeWitt plays an old friend of Martine’s mother, and John Krasinski her husband. DeWitt’s character is a therapist and mom to a 16-year-old daughter from a first marriage and a younger son with Krasinski’s; he’s the sound designer who’ll help finish the film. A house, a home, perching comfortably on the side of a hill. Martine enters the movie as a passenger, hair pixie-short, looking left and right, big 1960s-style sunglasses, a movie star in the French film in her Brooklyn mind. Think Jane Birkin: Martine is. But there’s more afoot than admiring a Holga-toting dewy kewpie.

“It’s a small town, at least the parts that we inhabit,” a character says in one of the story’s many seeming and actual seductions, and while the characters are shown at their work, there is an air of L. A. lassitude spun with the centripetal force of the arrival of a stranger. Russo-Young and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt never strike the most apparent of notes—no golden-hour backlit bits of down on exposed skin, say—but most every member of the cast has a moment that involves touch, down to the odd moment when the small son gently touches a patch of uncovered hipbone. It’s like a series of ticklish hints of the fevers transmitted through the Eames-like home like a quiet, localized Santa Ana. And the way the characters toward each other! (DeWitt gets a number of sublime reaction shots.)

Russo-Young and Dunham’s script works by suggestion and inference, tipping in the lightest strokes of backstory. You can imagine the consternation of an elderly member of its premiere audience Sunday midday at the Eccles, worrying about “sympathetic characters” and the like, even as a big chunk of the film’s text and action insists, open your ears, open your eyes. Martine’s wardrobe changes from scene to scene, offering in each detail a new clue to her self-image, and there’s telling detail thought the exquisitely perfumed fabric, from the 16-year-old poetess perched, legs folded on a couch, with a Field Notes steno pad; in a montage demonstrating how sound design is made, a close up of Thirlby’s pooling brown eyes with the slowed sound of Coca-Cola poured into a glass; and Krasinski’s young blond sound assistant whose retro-boat Oldsmobile Starfire bears antique gold-on-black license plates. And, too, his choppy haircut and his sustained double takes: as in several other smaller roles, you can readily draw a strong picture of where he stands in this world.

The title Nobody Walks is an ominous variation on the bromide, “Nobody walks in Los Angeles,” along the lines of “no one gets out of here alive!” And fuck-freighted as the film is frrom the top, edgy with currents of want, the title plays. As do apparently straightforward lines like “are you a free set of hands,” which in retrospect, seems to punch on-the-nose on the nose. (As does the most unlikely character quoting a poet over dinner to the effect that you can understand a poem without knowing what it means.) Of course, these threads of active and possible and prehensile and hoped-for and dangerous and just plain wrong have spun out of control through the agency of Martine’s arrival. While Russo-Young gently dandles the line in a number of instants, there’s no mistaking the angry ghost of Pasolini’s Teorama nodding down at the story.

These characters are exceptionally self-aware and conscious of what’s in the wind, which sets a simmering mood, if not the expected narrative tension. There’s a slower burn: the characters deliberate before turning reckless. A few scenes erupt: an older Italian tutor’s banter with, then anger toward the 16-year-old seems like a tacit acknowledgement of the debt to Pasolini, especially in the arguments in Italian, which are also subtitled. A small stretch would suggest that Martine’s 16mm black-and-white film borrows from Buñuel in images of ants criss-crossing the landscape of a young female face as if it were limitless desert. (Russo-Young cites the early photographs of Francesca Woodman’s as an example of art she showed Thirlby as indicative of Martine’s kind of subject matter.)

But moment to moment, smile to smile—there are an uncommon number of gentle smiles, and many of them are Thirlby’s—from emphatic sound design to precise framings, Nobody Walks is decidedly a movie about variations (and variables) of feeling and sensation. It leaves a bittersweet bruise.

Below, For Sundance, Russo-Young talks process.

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CATHERINE LACEY: Do you think that your writer DNA was sort of shaped by how your family was displaced by the Nazi regime before you were born?
RENATA ADLER: It’s funny that you should mention that because I think it affects a lot else, specifically being a refugee. I wasn’t born there. I didn’t experience any of it. But they were refugees. So then I was thinking of this business of being a refugee, no matter in what sense.

Prenatal refugee.
Prenatal refugee and actually postnatal refugee. And I thought there are probably things in common between being a child and being a refugee and being an anthropologist.

It gives you a sense of curiosity.
But also a complete displacement. You’ve got to read the situation. You’re the new kid in school all the time. But I wasn’t aware of it then. I’m aware of it now because language affects you differently, or not. But I used to talk to Mike Nichols about it because he was a refugee. Do you envision an audience when you write? Do you envision a particular person? 

No.
Every once in a while I think: Now, what would Mike say to that?

There’s that idea that when you’re blocked, you can always just write as if it was a letter to one specific person.
Oh, that’s good. That’s a wonderful idea. Mine is more in terms of criticism. If someone was to say, “I know what that is. Do you really want to do that?” But anyway, about Mike and his attitude toward language, I remember him saying—it was a question of whether something written was fresh or not—and he would ask, “Why not smell it?” Which, from an English speaker’s point of view, is hysterical.

~ Renata Adler and Catherine Lacey In Conversation 

“Oh it was just hellish. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It would be stupid for me to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It has taken me five years to decide on a first film and I always held out for something like this. The lesson to be learned is that you can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. Because when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood over the money, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing movie of all time, sit down, shut up and feel lucky that you’ve got him.’ It’s another thing when you are there and you’re going ‘Trust me, this is really what I believe in,’ and they turn round and say ‘Well, who the hell is this guy?’ If I make ten shitty movies, I’ll deserve the flak and if I go on to make 10 great ones, this’ll probably be looked upon as my first bungled masterpiece.”
~ David Fincher, 1992

 

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