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Berlinale 2009: Young adults in crisis: "Slow Summer" and "Beeswax"

Above: a relaxed but aggrevated vision of young adults in 2009...

Relaxation infuses the filmmaking of both John Cook's Slow Summer and Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax; only, the first was made by the Canadian filmmaker in Austria in 1976 and the other shot in Austin, Texas last year.  When filmmakers are working on a slim budget and making movies about their friends and about what they know, a style emerges that perhaps has little allegiance to countries and eras, and instead sees a universality in the minute details of the  local slangs of speech and the rhythms of haphazard lives.

Cook's is a semi-autobiographical work shot on 8mm, a film about him and a friend watching a (semi-autobiographical) film Cook shot several years earlier, using friends as actors, trying to exorcise some meaning from his breakup with his girlfriend.  Intentionally or not, Cook exhibits a slackness in terms of characters, story, and theme which seems to derive from the hodgepodge, low-budget shoot of Slow Summer.  With just sketches of ideas and erratic access to time and funds, the resulting film has a leisure to it that seems most unlike the early 1970s languor of something like Celine and Julie Go Boating, which relishes its sense of vacation.  Slow Summer,  like Bujalski's new film (which is probably much more scripted), admits immediately to be finding itself as it goes.  Beeswax is a far more polished production, but its rather lame framing device of small-claims legal action between two partners in a vintage clothing store in Austin is about as arbitrary as Cook's distracted quest to understand women, finish his film, or simply to just do something in life.  Both conceits provide an excuse for the filmmakers to delve into their milieu of youths turning into adults and navigating the world, whether it is sexually, creatively, and existentially as in John Cook's film, or more in terms of the minute, un-stated rules governing human interaction—the kinds that lead to success in love and career—in Beeswax.

For Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation), this plot contrivance focuses the film, allowing his characters get under one another's skin.  Even if the central relationships between two twin sisters and one sister's relationship with a lawyer-in-training are fundamentally friendly, practically each scene and sequence between people exudes a passive-aggressiveness, a stress, a worry, and an anxiety which makes the cumulative effect of Beeswax unusually uncomfortable and exhausting.  This is within the atmosphere of relaxation, because despite the mannerism of Bujalski's script, the story moves at life's rather dull and sidelong pace, which makes for a particularly odd atmosphere of a film that is evocatively is casual in all things as it moves from person to person and place to place, but exudes a subtle energy of irritation throughout every minute of it.  Yet this irritation, somewhat paradoxically, is evoked through a particularly lovely example of filmmaking, Matthias Grunsky's photography a terrific example of someone who chooses to shoot in color for aesthetic reasons and not by default, and Bujalski's sense of editing and staging in Beeswax being some of the sharpest I've seen in some time.

John Cook's approach is a far less pristine, benefiting what looks like the slipshod nature of the film shoot itself.  Yet Slow Summer seems to have a similar impression of its bohemian Viennese youth as Beeswax does of its  sublimated squabbling: people playing around and butting heads as they try to figure out what is important to them in adulthood.

Above:..and a relaxed but wandering vision of young adults in 1976.

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