It’s Kind of a Maddening Story

Published on October 28th, 2015

Alex writes about Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, a team of underrated American auteurs.

Nobody is going to read this essay. I will concede that up front. Even in my non-career as a writer of mostly-unread pieces of cultural criticism, this will set a record for utter lack of eyeballs. Nobody is going to read this essay, because nobody cares about the work of these filmmakers.

Which is the problem.

Now, I’m not entirely comfortable calling Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck tremendous filmmakers. That seems like hyperbole in order to get you to buy into my argument before we even get past this endless preamble. I do not feel Fleck and Boden are collectively the second coming of Stanley Kubrick (for reasons unrelated to the fact that culture will never give us another Kubrick). But they are very, very talented. They make the type of movies that I wish I could watch every day: movies about people dealing with real shit, and coming to realistic conclusions about the effect that shit will have on their life. Fleck and Boden are not visual virtuosos, and they don’t pen Charlie Kaufman-style mind melters. They make normal movies about people, and they do it incredibly well. This is a feat in its own right.

The pair started their feature film career with the most notable film they’ve made to date, as they helped give us a perception of Ryan Gosling as a good actor with Half Nelson. It made a bit of a cultural dent as that year’s “This performance is so good, you have to see it!” movie, but it was no cultural sensation. They followed that up with Sugar, a movie I have yet to find a single person to talk about with in the seven years since its release. When It’s Kind of a Funny Story was released in 2010, it bombed, despite the fact that it was an interesting, creative look at both depression and being a teenager, a take that seems slightly ahead of its time five years later. It was Fleck and Boden’s most accessible, comedic work, and even then nobody wanted to access it, so we had to wait five years for Mississippi Grind.

All of these films are good. Some are better than others, but they’re all much better than the average film, and they all engage a part of my brain I strongly value. They are movies about characters that seem much more like actual people than those found in the average cinematic delight.

When The Martian was released earlier this month, I enjoyed parts of it thoroughly. Watching Matt Damon fully lean into his rarely used charisma and play Mark Watney as though he were Danny Ocean’s far-flung brother was very entertaining. I have many superlatives to laud in Damie’s direction, and I also thought whoever did Jessica Chastain’s hair really earned their keep. But the rest of that that movie was fucking terrible.

Any time Damon wasn’t on screen being his overly charming self, we were left with a collection of uninteresting cardboard people. (Watney wasn’t a particularly interesting character either, but at least Damon’s performance helped build a necessary façade.) We are shown various humans huddling around and trying to save another human, and this has enraptured seemingly everybody but me. There’s much conversation about the importance of human life, many geniuses explaining plans to other geniuses by using infantilizing props, and there is a lot of bleak lighting so we’re all aware of how truly grey and inhuman the world of NASA is. There’s no room for your Red Planet, unless we can warm Jeff Daniels up a bit.

But then we do! Math gives way to feelings! More impossibly hacky disco jokes get cracked. We see Kate Mara kiss the guy from Ricki and the Flash, and we all say “Awwwww.” We cut to a giant crowd in Times Square for some reason, even though the movie has shown us absolutely no public spaces up to this point. And Mark Watney talks about Robert Downey Jr. a bit, because the kids today sure do love pop culture references (if not tonal consistency).

This all bothered me because I was being told to care about these people simply because they were humans. That’s it. I knew nothing about them. They were just boring people at work who should probably go out in the sun a bit more. Actors I thought I liked – Kristen Wiig, Jessica Chastain, Donald Glover – are boiled down to nothing but people saying words. And that is what killed the movie for me: it treated me like an idiot, as though I would care for Mark simply because he is a man with a name.

I was arguing with a friend about this, a different version of the same argument we frequently have, always boiling down to the fact that she’s a relatively normal person with relatively normal emotions, and I am not. That doesn’t mean there’s no human attachment in these bones, however. After I saw The Martian, after I had this argument with my dear friend, I went on my Fleck/Boden kick. And what I saw were movies about people I could develop an attachment to.

In Half Nelson we have a well-worn narrative of somebody needing help, but done with a grace that is rarely afforded to that narrative. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is exactly the same thing, as is Mississippi Grind. Sugar is that to the utmost; a movie that tells you it’s about one thing, then pulls the rug out from under you not unlike what happens to Sugar Santos himself. These movies all resonate with me because they depict a small number of characters, at least one of whom we learn enough about to become attached to in some capacity. They do more than simply pointing a camera at Matt Damon and saying, “You guys care about him, right?”

This is how it goes. You make a movie, and then if that film makes money, you get to make another movie. If it doesn’t, you might still get to make another movie, but you’re probably going to have to try much harder to get the money necessary to do so, especially if you’ve never made a bona fide hit. This is very evident in Fleck and Boden’s filmography: Half Nelson was successful enough to get them the moderate clout to make the truly uncommon follow-up that was Sugar. From there they got to try to make a low-budget Hollywood-ish film – likely because the right person at Focus Features really loved Sugar and/or Half Nelson – the failure of which lead to the five-year gap preceding their latest work.

In order to thrive as a director in the modern film landscape, you either need to be making big budget blockbusters or be such an obviously talented filmmaker that it’s undeniable to even a layman. (And even that doesn’t always work – Rian Johnson is one of the most talented modern directors out there, and even he had to hitch his wagon to the Millennium Falcon.) It’s difficult to exist in the space of simple but high quality filmmaking, because nobody will promote it, so nobody will see it. Even when you’re one of the few people doing it right, you will lose. I didn’t know Mississippi Grind existed until three weeks before it was released, and I might actually be Fleck and Boden’s biggest fan. The only chance you have is to get Ryan Gosling nominated for an Oscar, and even then nobody’s going to see your fucking movie. 

This is upsetting to me, and will only continue to be. I’ll probably write this exact same essay about Derek Cianfrance in a few years. I care very much about cinema, because I spend pretty much all of my time consuming it. Its highest moments are mine, its problems burn into my brain as if I were the person burdened with solving them. As always, it comes back to me, and I love Fleck and Boden’s films precisely because they look like a life I understand. I do not partake in crack, but I understand the desire to change your life. I am not an immigrant, but I enjoy seeing somebody find themselves through the loss of a dream. I love movies that treat the topic of depression with grace and humour. I am (probably) not an alcoholic, but I love consuming Woodford Reserve.

Perhaps the reason I’m not comfortable calling Fleck and Boden tremendous filmmakers is because their films do not reflect what we cineastes collectively deem as tremendous things. I see none of the Fincherian dolly moves, no Tarantino-esque dialogue, not even a David Robert Mitchell-style dedication to overlong pans. They generally just frame up nice shots and make a movie. They use zooms really well in Mississippi Grind, but other than that their visual toolbox is pretty utilitarian. Fleck and Boden’s films are not about anything spectacular in subject matter, and they don’t draw attention to themselves visually, so how can one find their work spectacular?

Like the films themselves, there’s an underlying confidence bubbling through the surface, a confidence the pair simply might not have enough money to show off. Their highest budget film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, cost a mere $8 million, and even with that the pair still made the movie look like it cost $20 million. It’s entirely possible that they have beautiful camera moves planned, just no way to pull them off without sacrificing the integrity of another aspect of the film. They’re probably tremendous filmmakers who just need the right person to believe in them. Their dedication to shooting on 35mm is also impressive, and no small feat given the seemingly miniscule budget of Mississippi Grind. Digital is the easy way, but Fleck and Boden have no time for that. They see their films as worth the struggle of film, even if almost nobody else does.

As a human who exists in a capitalist society, I frequently have a fantasy where I become independently wealthy out of nowhere. Wealthy beyond belief. Like, buying a competing NBA team in order to trade all their good players to the Raptors sort of wealthy. But this fantasy is always built around one simple construct: I want to be able to throw money at filmmakers with no worries about getting it back. I’m not a big charity guy, but this is a charity I care about. I understand how to live a frugal life, and if I were to become rich enough that money didn’t matter, I would immediately give my money to filmmakers I believe in. Paul Thomas Anderson would never have to worry about scrounging together money for The Master again. I would give Spike Lee $30 million and see what sort of gorgeous mess he made with it. And I would make sure the world didn’t have to wait five years in between Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden films. I believe in these people, and I want them to succeed, the problem is the only way I can help them is giving up my $13 every time somebody else lets them give me the opportunity to.

If there is one consistent thread throughout Fleck and Boden’s work, it’s that of the American Dream. All of their films touch on the dream of the better life in some way, but all of the characters pursuing that have to learn how to accomplish things the hard way. There is no American Dream in these films, just characters learning about the reality of America. Even when you have a successful run at the craps table, your ex-wife still hates you. You’re playing baseball in New York, but not on the field you anticipated. Your life isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough and you can make the necessary adjustments to get closer.

Each of their films ends with a question about how the characters are going to tackle their life from there on out. Have they learned enough to know the folly of their dreams? Are they aware that they can make a good life for themselves in spite of this? Fleck and Boden tend to lean toward optimism, but sometimes I have trouble buying in.

In Peter Biskind’s seminal book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he gives a detailed look at the 1970s filmmaking environment that allowed some of America’s greatest films to be made. Executives were giving money to smart film directors, because it was the de rigueur thing to do. Toward the end of the book, Biskind begins to sprinkle in interviews from these auteurs – Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, etc. – about the modern state of movies, and they all complain about comic book movies and big budget bonanzas taking over the world they thought they loved. These interviews were conducted in the mid-1990s; I can only imagine what an already-pessimistic Robert Altman would think today if he were still alive.

But the crux of the book’s conclusion is that these filmmakers destroyed it for themselves; they were given a world to do whatever they wanted within, and many of them ended up ruining their own lives. Peter Bogdanovich’s career crumbles because he was given total belief in his talent. Bob Rafelson fell similarly. Coppola’s ideas for Apocalypse Now were bafflingly grandiose, and caused him unfathomable levels of stress. Scorsese had to almost die to make Raging Bull. These filmmakers were given the keys to the kingdom, and they went too far. A world without limits will always bring you crashing back to earth, probably at a higher velocity than you expect. Even if I had an unlimited amount of money to give to filmmakers I adore, I might just be creating a new problem. I might turn Fleck and Boden into Bogdanovich.

All of Fleck and Boden’s movies are about a world I recognize, a world where characters need to make do within a world of constraints. Ben Mendlesohn can’t just up and leave his gambling problems behind; it’s a process. There are rules to this. They might not always be pleasant, but the existence of these rules allows people to make interesting pieces of art about – and within – them.

There is a strong belief in people running throughout Fleck and Boden’s films, and an underlying feeling of the inherent unpredictability of life. You can do everything right, and you still might fail. You can do everything wrong, but there’s still hope. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden do pretty much everything right within a cinematic landscape that does much wrong. The simple fact that they exist means there’s still hope.

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