May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 8, 2009
Chattanooga has always summed up my memories of Tennessee. The verdant rise of Lookout Mountain. Leafy suburbs dotted with staircases and sidewalks. Empty lots next to dumpy liquor stores. A few main drags of a half-heartedly preserved downtown. The remains of an industrial middle age scattered between a rich Dixie history and a cosmopolitan future. Even though this Chattanooga only appears in flashes in Jarrod Whaley’s Hell is Other People, it works well as background for this perfectly cast take on unemployment, self-awareness, and really awkward attempts at initiating human contact.
In between bong hits, Morty has been looking for a job. But he has as much luck with this as he does with all the girls he manages to flatter at exactly the wrong time. His days are taken up by therapy sessions that he can’t pay the bill for, the odd basement sweeping job, and I guess inventing ways to make women feel as awkward as possible every time he gets the chance. Somewhere in there, he manages to convince an acquaintance that he needs therapy, which Morty will happily do for a fee (in his jeep in a liquor store parking lot). But essentially, this film is a record of Morty’s failure on all levels. He can’t pay the rent, he can’t take his own advice, and eventually even has to just push his car off to the side of the road in that wide angle shot reserved for the most abject failures in cinema history. (Think: the end of Morris’ Mr. Death.)
Morty often deadpans one-liners like: “I just mean it’s my fault that you got better,” “You are beautiful when you are indignant,” or what becomes the saddest punch line of the film: “I love you.” I couldn’t help but begin to think of him as one Wes Anderson gag distilled and stretched out until it isn’t funny anymore, just sad. We never see Morty during therapy, or even in serious conversation with anyone else until the end of the film – which even then doesn’t ring of sincerity. The most intimate moment in Hell is Other People happens between an off-screen Morty and a local artist putting together a series of large format close-up photos of male private areas. “Is it too cold?” she asks.
Ever since the neo-realists, film critics have talked about the difference between films that are comfortable expressing interior psychological impulses and films that hold them at arm’s length in exteriors of formal rigor or transcendental pacing. Hell is Other People is a bit of a both/and. Whaley seems comfortable alternating between conversations that in very undisguised ways show us exactly what these characters are thinking and passages of time in which Morty just walks through Chattanooga. Or we watch his ex-girlfriend play piano, the soft notes preceding the edit to her hands playing the keys. There is some Dardennesque basement sweeping. Morty is sitting in a parking lot for a while. We get a lengthy glimpse up the Incline Railway. Conversations begin and end regardless of the timing of the actual scene.
In some cases, these kinds of intentionally disembodied voices in cinema are dislocating (as in Adams’ recent Around the Bay, or any time Godard does this), but here they only serve to reinforce Sartre’s quip that “Hell is other people.” We are defined by our connection to those around us, trapped in this basic social principle for better, or – in Morty’s case – for worse. What makes Whaley’s film hang together are the links between these people that are expressed by notes and conversations lingering past edits into other frames. All the close-ups and hand-held tracking shots distinguish and isolate Morty. But even though he can’t quite find a way to fit himself into the world via job, relationship, or whatever, he is connected whether he knows it or not.
There is a great coherence here in Whaley’s filmmaking that is able to swap interior and exterior focal points, to let us see Morty from a lot of angles at once and then connect so many shots together that would otherwise feel a bit discordant. Hell is other people, but so is cinema. Because of films like this, I haven’t ever been able to go all the way with Sartre on this point.