Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In The Heart of The Heart of My Bookshelf, Volume 3

Good evening, my Puddlers.  After a week's hiatus, Mr. Alex Ramsdell returns to the fold in order to deliver his weekly Tuesday post, In The Heart of the Heart of My Bookshelf.  So, please sit back and let Alex's intellect take you on a well deserved ride into aspects of culture and human emotion that I am perhaps to ignorant and sports-minded to articulate.

I will be back tomorrow to hammer you over the head with some kind of log or blunt object and to also make some Puddles of Myself related announcements.

Here is Alex.

Imparting the Frown: Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland

Alex Ramsdell

Ronald Bronstein’s 2007 film Frownland is intuitive and engrossing.  It finds a way to engage us with its pathological and stuttering subject without exploiting his difference or endowing him with false problems.   On its surface, it bears likeness to the works of Andrew Bujalski in its portrayal of the mundane, and to those of Jim Jarmusch in its surface grain and moody dirges:  the plot emerges through the acts of living, working, and socializing; the setting is rendered subjectively, with music that sometimes comes from within the film and other times is sound-tracked; panorama and scene-setting are largely absent.  Our characters dwell in kitchens, sidewalks, convenient stores, cars and bedrooms.  We get no more introduction to their urban locale than necessary.  Yet Frownland doesn’t dwell in nostalgia for the world of Jarmusch and friends.  It is an inescapably sharp work consumed by the life of its central character, a story that manages to be at once frighteningly real and yet speaks to the heart of marginality and the social-ideological mechanisms of social exclusion.   At the fore is the structure of domination and competing values of human life, a historical problem we have inherited but would rather ignore.  Such a scope and depth is rarely found in a film on such a tight budget.

Frownland tells the story of Keith, a pathological, neurotic canvaser for multiple sclerosis, whose crippling inability to get a sentence out, much less with any confidence, repels all with whom he comes in contact.  The first scene finds him desperately failing to console a suicidal friend whose self-loathing pains him to such a degree that he forces his eyes open until it looks like he is crying.  Later, the friend’s agitation reaches a pitch when she has a mild allergic reaction to Keith's pillows.  She stabs him in the arm with a tack from the wall and then takes off in her car.  Keith frowns and pulls his hair.

The next day he confronts his roommate about his neglect of the electric bill.  When his roommate objects, Keith attempts to explain his neurosis but his roommate cuts him off: "Has it ever occurred to you," says his roommate, "that your ridiculous, disjointed splutterings might inspire me to want to malign you?  That I might deliberately not pay the bill just to punish you for torturing me with your pathologies?"  He, too, storms off without giving Keith an ounce of respect.  A trend begins to emerge.  The losses which Keith suffers are largely rhetorical.  He cannot speak forcefully or clearly, and so he cannot defend or represent himself.  Keith acquires an unusual sense of limitation through the rejection of his peers which distills itself in a dark and recurring grimace.

After the roommate bluntly reveals his disgust for Keith’s frank weakness, the soundtrack overtakes the film and it becomes clear that we are in for a trip into personal hell.  As the anguish emerges in Keith, the film's title begins to come to mind and guide us.  The frown, a physical symptom of Keith's pathological inability to understand himself in the context of others, becomes the thing which is concealed from him and that which stages his painful life.  Before each new attempt to make contact his face stiffens, he straightens his hair and the frown comes out.  The frown is the physical mark of the film’s mind, generating everywhere the conditions of his expansive failures.  

Keith's signature line is to ask for just a couple of seconds of someone’s time, a couple minutes at the most—a plea phrased in the language of a society which has no time for someone like him.  It is this demarcation of the smallest amount of time available for proper socialization which speaks so directly to the American social reality.  "Let me use your bathroom?" he asks a co-worker whom he has manipulated under a false pretense into letting him into his apartment. "It'll just take a couple of seconds."  This focus on “pace,” the appearance of constantly moving, is central to the exclusion going on in the structure of Keith’s society, and only such a structure could make a sane but troubled man ask in all seriousness for a couple seconds to use the bathroom.  This request—an absurd one—speaks to Keith's fundamental weakness: he seeks compassion through the language of the social order that condemns him to worthlessness.  In using this language, in adopting the minimum of time that a person could possibly spend with another, Keith has already assumed defeat.  Each interaction proceeds in the same way, with Keith going to greater lengths to manipulate people into spending time with him.  All of them fail.  If they spend time with him, they give him nothing.  If they kick him out, they kick him out violently. 

The film's scope comes in part from its ethical account of ideology, in what it offers as an alternative to merely a critique of self-serving social thought.  In an interaction between Keith's roommate and a fellow GRE examinee, Keith's roommate is exposed in all of his ego-centric laziness.   Deciding that the fellow examinee at their GRE testing center looks cool enough to talk to, he attempts to ingratiate himself by criticizing the ludicrous demands of the test.  The stranger rebukes him for criticizing the test and not the system which has produced the test.  On his way out he steals Keith’s roommate’s Discman.  What are we to take from this?  The self-aware pawn exposes the naive pawn for his naivet√©, and then steals his Discman.  Here Bronstein brings ideology to the forefront to make the point that the mere intellectual realization of ideology easily becomes ideological itself, and that what the intellect must serve is not just a critique, but a practical system of ethics.  The roommate is a true dunce, but the fellow examinee is an enlightened thief.  Neither know how to live wholly.

I return to the frown because it’s the phenomenal center of the film.  The frown becomes more and more integral to Keith and because he becomes more integral to the viewer, the frown then extends to us.  We physically adopt it in bearing the repeated sight of his rejection and the oversight of his virtues.  This is the essential mode of good film and Bronstein has made us aware of it specifically in Frownland.  We are the only ones who know the story of Keith's past, the very origin of the frown, because we have been there with him through all of this.  Though Keith is rejected by everyone—beaten up, wholly disabused—we receive him.


  1. Nice blog! I like your writing way. I'm doing practice GRE here: masteryourgre.com . I hope it's useful for GRE test takers.

  2. yo Gmat, you're ridiculous, man. See you at the potluck on sunday! Don't forget the book!