Reviewing Laggies, and asking, “Why do Seattle movies suck?”

At age 13, Kate wrote a series of letters to be read, on each subsequent birthday, by her older self. On her 23rd birthday, Kate’s obsession with these letters triggers a psychological meltdown. “We Go Way Back” begins with an out of focus traveling shot on the Ballard Bridge while an off-tune Laura Veirs caterwauls on the soundtrack. It is a fitting entrance into a film in which the leading character spends her time either sitting on a couch or rehearsing a ghastly production of “Hedda Gabbler.”  Kate also sleeps with any guy who makes a pass at her, in sex scenes so perfunctory that it is a wonder why the guys bother. In a baffling climax, Kate and the physical manifestation of her 13-year-old self cavort in a field. The irrational psychology of this split psyche might have yielded some impressive images for a short, experimental film, but first time director Lynn Shelton  breaks too many narrative laws for it to work as a feature. Aside from Robert Hamilton Wright’s performance as a fringe theater director, a wickedly insightful parody of interpretive directing, this is yet another ill-crafted mess from Seattle’s ambitious but under-trained school of amateur filmmaking. Grade:D (Bill White, Seattle Post Intelligencer, September 14, 2006)

In the 8 1/2 years since I reviewed her first film, Lynn  Shelton has directed five more features and several television episodes, and has brought national visibility to Seattle’s Indie film clique. When the lights went up after her first picture was press-screened for the Seattle International Film Festival, the critic sitting next to me seemed transfigured as she enthused, “I loved that film.  I mean, I really loved it.”  Some years later, I overheard another local critic boasting to a retinue of admirers that Shelton was a personal friend of his (which may account for his consistently  enthusiastic reviews of her pictures.)

I was never assigned to review any more of Shelton’s work, and was asked, on the occasions when I gave  bad notices to  Seattle-made films during their festival engagements, to let a less critical reviewer handle the write-up when the picture went into general distribution. Usually I acquiesced, but sometimes I felt strongly enough to fight for the right to express my opinion.  In the case of “Outsourced,” I won, and the world outside Seattle saw that at least one critic had not lost his mind:

Looking for a fairy tale from the trenches of Third World labor? Seattle director John Jeffcoat’s  first feature is a dreadfully obvious and predictable romantic comedy in which a call-center manager is relocated to India, where he falls in love with one of his employees. Todd Anderson is overwhelmed by the crowded strangeness of it all. India’s transportation system terrifies him, the local food gives him indigestion, and he is baffled by the absence of toilet paper in the stalls.

 With the first shot of Asha, his prettiest and smartest employee, romance is inevitable. The love story provides opportunities to ridicule the Indian traditions of arranged marriage in favor of the spontaneous eroticism of American courtship. Jeffcoat even manages to vulgarize the sacred sex manual, the Kama Sutra, by using the “monkey pulls the turnip” position as a running gag.

Another embarrassing moment comes after Anderson discovers his employees actually like the kitschy junk they are selling. He orders a bunch of it to be given away as reward incentives. When the box arrives, the Indians pore over it with such primitive curiosity that one might think Anderson was trying to buy Manhattan.

Annoying as the script’s cultural stereotypes are, its rusty plot mechanics, in which every detail of the first half reappears in a more significant configuration in the second, are even worse. The soundtrack offers sitar music each time Anderson is about to experience culture shock. As he succeeds in Americanizing the ramshackle outpost — he trained the local crew to pretend they are in Detroit — the musical arrangements are leavened with the addition of Western instruments.

Anderson’s cultural acclimation finally comes together during a festival that praises the changing of seasons with a celebration of color. His reticent participation in the festivities gains him acceptance by the locals. To emphasize that he is no longer an outsider, his cell phone is returned by the street urchin who stole it. It is not giving away much to say that everything ends as expected, just not soon enough. (Bill White, Seattle Post Intelligencer, September 27, 2007)

Needless to say, the paper was inundated with letters from friends of the director, who insisted the movie was a high quality affair, and proved it by announcing it had been optioned for a television series.  And so I was surprised when it was suggested I write a feature on why Seattle movies were so bad.  And I surprised them when I passed on the offer.  My feeling was that such an article would do no one any good. The badness of  the movies brought enough embarrassment to the city; I didn’t want to draw any more attention to them.

With all its nurturing institutions and peer support groups, Seattle has yet to produce a film-maker of significant merit.  I managed to keep up with Shelton, and there seemed to be a minor improvement with each picture, although the quality of her films still fell behind those of her contemporaries in other regions.  Last year’s “Touchy Feely” escaped me altogether.  Considering it grossed only $35,000, the rest of the world evidently bypassed it as well.  I have just sacrificed a morning to absorbing its challenges, and it was one of the most torturously stupid endurance tests I have ever suffered.  Shelton could not even get the pronunciation of “calzone” right, having her actors speak it with a silent e, as if it were a French, not an Italian, pastry. Every character in “Touchy Feely” comes across as a projection of one of its writers’ many personality disorders.  She does not write people; she personifies diagnoses.  And the only cure was the parole granted by the movie’s long-delayed closing  credits.

What makes a Lynn Shelton movie so bad?  For starters, the insularity of her scripts, whether authored by herself or someone else.  They do not resonate with any world outside of the film. Although set in my hometown, Seattle, this is no Seattle I have ever known, and the only time I have seen people like this has been in the VIP rooms where Shelton holds court for her admirers.  Furthermore, the movies are steaming out of their ears with sexual pre-occupation, but there is not a truly sensual moment to be found in the lot of them.  The relationships and love struggles that dominate the stories are as phony as the two heterosexual guys in “Humpday” who plan to enter a contest sponsored by a local sleaze rag by starring together in a gay porno. The dominant mood of her films is one of the sort of asexual nastiness  one might find in a primary school’s toilet.

“Laggies” is Orange County slang for girls who are lagging behind in their preparation to visit the mall, and here refers to the main  character, who needs a week in which to decide whether or not to accept her boyfriend’s marriage  proposal. Since she spends most of that week palling around with a teenage girl, she might be considered something of an emotional laggie as well.

Keira Knightley, who has been staging an all-out assault on indie films this past year, is the picture’s saving grace.  Even when badly directed, she manages to throw  about the odd tic here and there.  That Rebecca Hall was Shelton’s first choice for the role is evidence of how little the director knows about acting.  Hall turned down the role to play opposite Johnny Depp in “Transcendence.”  Had Knightley been offered that role, would she have turned down “Laggies” for it?  I don’t believe so. Knightley has been working to diversify her range, and I think she found challenges here that attracted her to the part.  She succeeds in creating a character who is suspended between generations, equally believable in the peer group of the teenage girl and the adult man.

Where Shelton goes way out of whack is in the casting of couples.   Both Sam Rockwell and Mark Webber are grotesquely ill-suited as Knightley’s love interests.  Now John Carney, the brilliant Irish director who gave us the dream couple of the last decade with musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in the runaway hit, “Once,” struck gold again  by casting Knightley against Mark Ruffalo in 2013’s “Begin Again.”  What a couple they were!  But Shelton doesn’t know the first thing about how important it is to put the right people together and to keep the wrong ones out of sight. She just doesn’t understand what attracts a man to a woman or a woman to a man.  Most patrons of serio-romantic comedies would throw up at the very idea of Knightley kissing either Rockwell or Webber.

Shelton’s abilities as a director lay just a bit South of those working in  television.  “Laggies” looks and plays like “Friends” on a bad day.  And if she has any awareness of where she stands in that grand pantheon of film directors, she should take that as a compliment.  One of the many reasons Seattle movies suck is that people like Shelton get a break and then don’t bother to learn their craft, being so high on their apparent success.  I don’t know how many conversations I have eavesdropped on while standing in lines at the Seattle International Film Festival, in which wannabe directors crowed about their incipient projects, each trying to convince everyone else that they, too, were a film-maker.  But I never heard a word out of any of them that indicated the slightest understanding of the medium.   Crowning Lynn Shelton the indie queen of Seattle is tantamount to giving the heavyweight boxing title to Seth Rogan. It kills the game .

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