Awkward moments: trending motif or new genre?
The Exploding Girl depicts well the 20-something age and its milieu.
The imagery is cohesive and the pacing smooth.
This film seems to be the epitome of the awkward moment motif to the point of being predictable:
Friend wanting more
Break up with distant boyfriend
Cell phone call interrupted by fire engine
Protagonist has epilepsy
Camera focuses on nuance movements of hands and faces. Nothing much happens in this slice of life. Anger is inward directed resulting in a depressing politeness. Conflict, if there is any, is suspended – the girl explodes but infrequently.
What is the purpose of the awkward moment film?
Cynically speaking, the ticket buying demographic gets to see their lives on screen and it is perfectly cohesive with the new technology low-budget filmmaking world.
The awkward moment film represents a conservative and safe form of art. It accepts things as they are. The conservativism is not that of a conservative ideal, such as Reagan’s Shining City upon a hill
which redirects, in an effort to gloss over the way things are. Awkward moment films are conservative in that they do not conceptually challenge realty or give insights into relationships. We are asked only to accept the details and associated feelings, which has the same effect as accepting an ideal: it is a questionless and answerless totality. Answers however, beg further questions. In these films, we are told there are no answers – why ask questions?
There is no question that liminality exists at certain moments of our lives. People deal with the thresholdness in different ways. Their conflict strikes outward, throwing bombs or creating art from that inner conflict. They resolve conflict by integrating their work into the world order or by forming deep personal relationships.
The awkward moment film suggests a passive world, where conflict is suspended, relationships are liminal or unrequited, and art is reduced to an ineffable feeling attached to a meaningless detail.
It is all quite safe.
The equivalent in the visual arts might be Gerhard Richter:
In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. The subject is nullified. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes, portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.
….he reduces worldly images to mere incidents of Art
So does this all apply to Henry James The Awkward Age, Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales cycle, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was and John Cassavetes Husbands, all some of the greatest examples of how the experience of an awkward moment is more powerful for a character or a viewer than some conceptual challenge, or is this just for any film made about people younger than you?
Are you referring to Mumblecore, Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg movies?
Or are you referring more to Cassavetes and Mike Leigh?
And, is Mike Leigh’s brilliant Kiss of Death" mumblecore", since it features awkward teens who have issues communicating, or is it acceptable to those who hate “mumblecore” because Leigh is old and british?
@ Mike Spence
You might be missing the point of my post. My objection is philosophical.
I think the film was extremely well done – very tightly drawn around its aboutness.
Are those showing us the way the world works or simply awkward moments?
I’m not familiar with many of those, but Chekhov’s The Three Sisters:Three Sisters is a naturalistic play about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world.
The Exploding Girl is not about a search for meaning. I think this is depicted by the bookend imagery: things wash over her. There is a scene where she expresses conflict – she explodes. It is met with an apology; one asking to be forgiven for being so bold, for being confrontational.
Confrontation can lead to insight, but we get none. We get a nullification of conflict – it is suspended, not resolved or equivalently expressed.
You’ve seen this film, right Mike? Do you think an awkward moment motif is a sustainable trend, perhaps becoming a genre?
I’m heading out the door right now but I’ll respond in full in a couple of hours, Robert.
Okay and thanks for mentioning Husbands, I just realized I’ve never seen it.
“What is the purpose of the awkward moment film?”
Firstly, trying to pigeon-hole a group of films into an ‘awkward moment’ category simplifies complexity — something that you seem determined to do. The purpose of any work of art should be to show us something about life — not to provide people with in-jokes, stylistic tricks, narrative entanglement for the sake of it, ‘literary’ dialogue, easy answers, happy endings, likeable characters, or moral tendentiousness. If a work of art can help us see ourselves and the people around us in a new light while also enhancing our perception of things that we may not have payed attention to before, that has to be a good thing.
“The awkward moment film represents a conservative and safe form of art.”
Have you watched Frowland or Yeast? They would probably fit your definition of an ‘awkward moment film’ yet are more stylistically daring, more intellectually challenging, and tell us more about life than the likes of Memento, Run, Lola, Run, and Requiem for a Dream which you consider to represent a ‘cinematic totem’.
What I can’t understand about your logic is that you seem to think that a film should have to explore ‘deep’ subjects such as drug addiction or rape or gangsters or murder to be considered radical. Is there anything really that radical about depicting these things? Your idea of profundity seems to be the shallowest idea of it. By your thinking, the average soap opera is more complex than John Cassavetes’ Faces because they deal with ‘serious’ subjects such as rape, murder and drug addiction. In Britain, there’s a popular soap named Eastenders which is currently dealing with the ‘deep’ subject of cot death. Does that make Eastenders more radical than Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game?
“Awkward moment films are conservative in that they do not conceptually challenge reality”
If by reality, you seem the status quo, I can see your point. We all want to see the independents deal with the more important questions, to deal with the more complex matters that concern all of us, and their apparent inability to move beyond their own seemingly closed-off lives is an issue, but i’m willing to give them another ten years to see whether they can mature as artists.
“… or give insights into relationships.”
I strongly disagree with you here. Have you watched The Puffy Chair, Frownland or Yeast? I can’t think of many recently released films that provide such deep insights into relationships as these works do. The insights they provide help us to understand the contradictions in our own relationships and to hopefully help us understand eachother better.
“We are asked only to accept the details and associated feelings, which has the same effect as accepting an ideal: it is a questionless and answerless totality. Answers however, beg further questions. In these films, we are told there are no answers – why ask questions?”
I think these films do ask questions about ourselves and the relationships we lead. If you have watched The Puffy Chair, how could you deny that the film asks questions about our relationships with spouses and lovers — questions that pertain to most of our lives. On the point of there being ‘no answers’, who told you that? It’s not the purpose of a work of art to give you the answers; it’s your job to try and find the answers.
I read through the screed and I think: where is this going?
Obviously, you didn’t comprehend the “ethos” of what I wrote, but we agree in the paragraph about status quo-ness specifically here:….but i’m willing to give them another ten years to see whether they can mature as artists.
Both you and Mike seem to think I am against these films. Show me where I have spoken against them on this thread: Mumblecore
Yes, I’ve seen Frownland(sic). It does walk a fine line in terms of making fun of people with cognitive or emotional disorders – my only concern with the film.
I’ve seen The Puffy Chair: such deep insights into relationships
Perhaps I missed them – is it possible you could mention a few?
On the point of there being ‘no answers’, who told you that?
Probably Frazer or Spence in regard to Carney. Of course, at the end of your screed you suggest it here:It’s not the purpose of a work of art to give you the answers;
Btw, have you seen this film?
“Yes, I’ve seen Frownland(sic). It does walk a fine line in terms of making fun of people with cognitive or emotional disorders – my only concern with the film.”
Let me start by saying that I’m speaking from a position of great ignorance since I’ve yet to watch Frownland, but I imagine the filmmaker wouldn’t attempt to categorize or stabilize his characters by simplifying their issues as nothing more than cognitive or emotional disorders. Maybe I’m wrong and this doesn’t apply to Frownland, but I’ve seen people attach the same limiting distinctions to Cassavetes’ Mable Longhetti, Mike Gibisser’s Lillian and Dan, and Nick Peterson’s characters in Field Guide to November Days. The problem with this is that to see Mable as suffering from some sort of cognitive disorder, to limit Gibisser’s characters as mousy twentysomething losers (even when you recognize there are “millions of people out there whose lives resemble theirs”), or to simplify Peterson’s characters as the Regressors, is to completely miss the point. These artists main intentions are to do away with limiting assessments such as these. To diagnose Mable with a cognitive disorder or to see the characters in the other films in such simplistic ways is to do nothing more than commit the cardinal sin. Sorry if I’ve hijacked the thread a bit, but this is a trend I see popping up far to often.
I’ll be back with more on the awkward moments topic after breakfast.
**The comments for the Finally, Lillian and Dan link show up near the bottom of the mailbag page.
Obviously you need to see the film, but your point is well taken.
What you are referring to is something I call the peanut-butter sandwich syndrome:
one sees a peanut-butter sandwich being eaten, an assumes the film is about lunch.
These character’s are dramatic devices.
The protag in Frownland is possessed with full array of humanistic qualities, where as his roommate is in opposition. The roommate is “normal”, but an asshole.
I actually found that to be somewhat didactic.
Btw, have you seen this film? I ask because it seems to represent a sort of progression in the
awkward moments motif.
Also, I don’t want this to turn into another Carney thread. There is thread for that started by an acolyte:Wacky
I saw The Exploding Girl last April or May, I believe, so my memory of it may lag a bit, but I thought it was really good. I was feeling awful that day and had to step out of the theatre at a couple different points so I may not recall every scene exactly.
My biggest points of contention with your initial post are when you say “Nothing much happens in this slice of life.” and then suggest that “Awkward moment films are conservative in that they do not conceptually challenge realty or give insights into relationships.” I will, like Aflwydd, concede that these films and artists have, yet, to challenge reality in the same way Cassavetes or Leigh have. And if, when you say, “Nothing much happens”, you’re merely referring to the plot, I guess we can also agree on that. However, if you mean that nothing of substance happens in the film, I’ll have to disagree a thoroughly as I do when you say they don’t provide “insights into relationships”. The point of The Exploding Girl is to provide insight into the relationship between the two main characters. As much “happens” between these two characters as does in any vignette from Rodrigo Garcia. These movies are action films that are set on the faces and bodes of it’s characters.
The filmmaker is interested in the small* moments that are prevalent so often in our lives and cause us so much pain. I don’t recognize this as “safe”. I don’t understand how you can think the filmmaker wants us to just accept the details and not ask questions either. I think there are numerous questions being asked within this film. How do you maneuver yourself when attracted to a close friend? What happens when those feelings aren’t reciprocated?
Since it’s on Netflix I’ll try to watch it again soon (after I finish my Bresson binge), and add to the discussion more if it’s still going on.
Also, I don’t think artists have to provide all the answers. They wonder the same as us.
*And when I say small I mean the moments we’ve been trained to accept as not as important as big issues that populate news stations and Hollywood movies. The moments that everyone can relate to and everyone is affected by.
What happens when those feelings aren’t reciprocated?
Shot: she dumps on him
Reverse: It is met with an apology; one asking to be forgiven for being so bold, for being confrontational.
Confrontation can lead to insight, but we get none. We get a nullification of conflict – it is suspended, not resolved or equivalently expressed.
What does one learn from that? what is the insight there?
What interested me in the film is how her awkward moments are grounded, whereas Al’s awkward moments are an identity crisis, as you suggest.
She has an identity of sorts, she is epileptic.
There is a scene in the film where she is teaching kids. She is teaching them how to work together to build something. I believe the scene is there to show she has agency.
This is what sets the film apart from Katz’s Quiet City, and why I think it represents a progression.
Mike Spence posted an article by Bujalski. where he says in Bees Wax he is interested in pushing the medium.
So, as Aflwydd suggested, they might be maturing.
No, I haven’t seen this film. I think what I object to in your OP is the idea of this kind of film being a genre, with all the limitations that implies, the name you’ve chosen for the genre and the last line of your post. Unless you and I are using very different meanings for the word “safe,” I don’t think it applies here.
-Conflict, if there is any, is suspended – the girl explodes but infrequently.-
I think one way of looking at the film would be to look at the conflict in the film as being whether to engage (externalize) or suspend (internalize) conflict. For some reason it made me thing of the Henry James story “Beast in the Jungle,” where the protag hold himself back from life because he’s got some vague notion that something terrible awaits him, he has a woman who loves him, but he keeps himself at a distance because he doesn’t want here to be effected by the thing that’s going to happen to him. Later, he realizes that the thing that had happened to him was that he’d wasted his life waiting for the thing to happen to him.
(Just watched Todd Haynes’ Safe, so that is all I got left right now.)
“Exploding” here is both risk (seizure) and reward (emotional expression/fufillment), yes?
I think it was epileptic exploding, but she explodes emotionally at Al.(externalize) or suspend (internalize) conflict
Suspension is like a Mondrian gird where the power of a center is avoided or denied.
Al, instead of trying to express conflict at her exploding or resolving conflict through discussion, avoids conflict by apologizing. (internalizing)
At which she doesn’t respond – creating yet again, another awkward moment.
What do you make of the pigeons?
Visually, they suggest a sort of “explosion” themselves.
Also, the one shot with reflection of trees and such in the car window is superimposed over Ivy’s face:
suggests to me an interior state that isn’t much access by the narrative.
Also, what’s you read on the visual weighting in this shot?
The ordinary way to frame this would be to balance it so that the Al and Ivy are nearly centered in the frame. Instead, here they’re shifted to the left. The secondary human figures seem to me arranged in a similar way—on the right they’re all stationary and seated on benches and partially obscured by the bench backs, the tree and the trash can; on the left they’ll standing and moving.
That car image bookends the film.
Yes, it portends inaccessibility, but also suggests that things are washing over her – yet there is the scene with the kids that shows she has agency.
Yes, I’d say she definitely has agency. But her expressive potentiality is muted by the epilepsy.
You added a frame….
I remember considering that frame where they were screwing with the pizza.
Think about that in terms of conflict and it reads better cinematically than as a still.
As a still it is just bad framing, but if you know that they were in conflict, the framing reduces the conflict by its busy-ness.- conflict is diluted somewhat by not having it centered in the frame.
The purpose of the sequence was?
Probably transitional, to carry some dialog – can’t remember.
Yeah, I think it was just one of the walk-and-talks. It seems to me evocative of, too, like the birds and the reflection moving across her face, movement versus stasis—walking (movement) vs. sitting (stasis)—which in a way is the conflict of the film: whether or not and how to separate from the current situation and move on to something else.
That is definitely a repeatable motif if not THE theme of the film.
Saw this because of Robert and Matt. (It’s your fault!)
Some thoughts before I read through the thread:
The very last scene in the car dramatically changed my opinion of the film—or at least my enjoyment of it. I really liked that lost shot, although I feel it’s sort of a rip off of the first vignette in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Three Times.
Prior to the same, I sort of feel like there wasn’t enough going on; it was sort of boring. The scenes, especially the ones with Ivy alone, didn’t seem to accomplish much, although maybe I should go back and watch those scenes again. But I feel the film scenes could have been cut out, shortening the film, and it might have been tighter and less drawn out.
I know Robert suggests that the awkward moment might the central characteristic of this and other films, but for me, this film fits in with what I consider a kind of reductionist cinema. By this I mean films that take a very simple story—and often not a story per se, but a situation—and then strip away big, dramatic moments and gestures, to get to something more subtle and simple. Quiet City is sort of like this, but one of the first films that did this in the relative past was In the Mood for Love.
In this film, the break-up is sort of stripped down and then the “romance” is distilled to the small gestures of holding hands and sleeping on each others shoulder. The feelings are reduced and stilled to these small, quiet gestures, making them sweet and gentle. I really like this sort of thing.
I liked the visuals of the film, particularly the cinematography. This was one of the differences from other mumblecore films, which don’t have nearly as good cinematography. This film has a more professional look.
I liked the performance of the actor who played Al.
Re: the birds
I do think the birds visually depict an explosion as does the rays of the sun in that scene. Remember this is the scene where Ivy emotionally explodes—so these visual elements complement that emotional moment—or at least that’s my reading of it.
Matt and Robert, I liked both your readings of the reflection of the trees.
As you can probably tell, I’m on a totally different wavelength than you are with regard to perceiving this film. To me, the film’s value doesn’t lie in revealing truth or “instructing” the viewer about reality or even challenging reality. There might be truth or insight revealed about reality and human nature, but the primary value lies in its aesthetics. It’s beautiful, touching and even sublime. And I would say the beauty stems from this reductionist approach I mentioned. The film eschews big dramatic moments and depictions; the characters keep all their emotions inside, and this makes smaller gestures more dramatic and moving—like the holding of hands at the end. It’s a quiet kind of power. The film has a patience and restrain and works to build to these climatic moments—but the climatic moments are small moments, but they’re also beautiful and moving because of the restrain. (OK, I’m fumbling around to get my thoughts out there.)
Another movie that utilizes a similar approach is Wendy and Lucy. There are little, mundane gestures that are very moving and emotional partly because of the context and partly because of the approach to the filmmaking. For example, when the security guard gives Wendy five dollars. That’s like the widow donating a penny versus the rich man giving a lot of money.
So, I see this film differently from other mumblecore films. What distinguishes the film, imo, is the reductionist approach.
-feel it’s sort of a rip off of the first vignette in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Three Times.-
I’d have to look at it again, but Gray and his wife seem to draw a lot of inspiration from recent Asian cinema—that’s where I’d go if I was going to write about the film rather than the mumblecore connection.
Three Times is streaming on netflix. The rip-off I’m referring to is the ending of the first vignette in Three Times In the vignette, nothing seems to happen much, and partly because of that, the last scene/image packed a punch for me.
@Jazz the film’s value doesn’t lie in revealing truth or “instructing” the viewer about reality or even challenging reality.There might be truth or insight revealed about reality and human nature, but the primary value lies in its aesthetics
OP: The awkward moment film suggests a passive world, where conflict is suspended, relationships are liminal or unrequited, and art is reduced to an ineffable feeling attached to a meaningless detail.
Me later: The Exploding Girl is not about a search for meaning.
Sounds like we agree. Note the word reduced.