LA Film Fest 2014 part three, by David Bax
In under two weeks, we will reach the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Cause for celebration the milestone may be, Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder than Death takes a more somber approach. It would be impossible for Jafa to translate all the facts and figures about what it is to be a black American in 2014, so he choose impressionistic tactics, attempting instead to translate how it feels. The easiest categorization for Jafa’s film would be “documentary,” but it might be more accurately described as an experimental film essay.
Jafa interviewed a number of people, many of them professors who specialize in black history but some of them from other walks of life, including those who lived their formative years before 1964. He plays the audio of the interviews over a swimming haze of striking images, some of them depicting the people we’re hearing, some of them related to what those people are saying and some of them perhaps intended as emotional companions to the words. Dreams allows us to consider to what extent things are different after five decades. And, if they are different, are they better? And, even if they are better (not a point Jafa is at all likely to concede), does that matter if black culture in our nation is an ostracized, commodified, bastardized and dwindling thing?
In 2008, those who wondered publicly if Barack Obama was “black enough” to be the first black president were mostly ridiculed. Indeed, it’s still hard to think of that as a truly important issue. But Jafa’s film reminds us that black culture was forged in part by its capital-D Difference and if success requires assimilation and the relinquishing of that uniqueness, might it be as much defeat as victory?
The idea and status of the “spoof” movie has devolved remarkably over the years. Lately, the blueprint when parodying a genre is to lift wholesale the plot of one movie and make all the events more outrageous while crowding them in with specific references to other films in the genre. If you can make the whole thing in a couple weeks (or at least make it look like it only took a couple weeks), even better. What has been largely forgotten is that the real spoofs, like standard-bearer Airplane!, are as much academic analyses of cinema as they are joke machines.
David Wain’s They Came Together may well be the best spoof in the 34 years since Airplane! If not, it’s at least the best since 2001’s underrated Not Another Teen Movie. It not only returns the form to its glory, it aggressively and self-consciously course-corrects away from the assembly line spoofs of recent years, offering an exhaustively researched and passionate critique of the romantic comedy as a respite from the numbingly facile likes of Date Movie, etc.
Even good spoofs like the aforementioned Not Another Teen Movie are generally content to limit their targets to the character and plot tropes of their chosen genre. They Came Together goes so far as to pick apart the formal and structural framework. Starting with easy targets like the aerial shots of Central Park under the opening titles, Wain goes on to skewer lazy crutches like the use of ADR in a wide shot to force in expository dialogue. Some gags are presented abstractly. The fact that Amy Poehler’s Molly, the female lead, has a black friend who has no apparent sexual or romantic desires of her own and repeatedly sacrifices her own interests for Molly’s is never specifically addressed but the type remains familiar all the same. Other bits are ferociously deconstructed without pretense. Paul Rudd’s Joel, the male lead, has a group of friends, each one of whom represents a different viewpoint on relationships from which he must assemble his own. We understand that because they literally say as much out loud.
To describe They Came Together as a startlingly vital work of observational post-modern cinema would be correct but it would also be only half the tale. Barely a minute of the film goes by without at least two jokes in it and those jokes land with a nearly perfect success rate. If you spend your time wondering what Christopher Meloni in a restrictive superhero costume has to do with the conceit of the romantic comedy, you might overlook that it’s simply hilarious. You can worry more about meaning on the many repeat viewings you’ll want.