Dec 18, 2014

Frank: Not Just A Quirky Head

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Lately I’ve been noting how people will choose certain words in order to categorize and even dismiss things they don’t like or understand. “Quirky” is, I think, one of those words. Used as an adjective to ostensibly describe something (usually a movie) that’s odd, unusual, off the beaten path, and just plain strange, it’s also frequently used dismissively -- as in, “that’s so quirky, ick.” 

I began noticing this when, in preparing to interview Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi for a feature this past fall, I came across the word being used, over and over, with reference to his (amazing) body of work. Eagle vs Shark: quirky. Boy: quirky. What We Do In The Shadows: well… no, that’s funny, because it’s like Shaun of the Dead, but vampires! Hahaha! (The unspoken rule being, if it contains generally familiar tropes, it can’t possibly be quirky.) Like a passive-aggressive friend, use of the word “quirky” reveals more than it might initially imply.

The word came up again when I read about Frank, the Lenny Abrahamson film based on journalist Jon Ronson’s interactions with Frank Sidebottom, the onstage alter-ego of English comedian/musician Chris Sievey. A movie about an eccentric group of musicians lead by a man who constantly wears a gigantic papier-mache head is certainly a unique premise, so “quirky” might be acceptable. But Frank is so much more; the movie, which made its debut this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, is a moving examination of the nature of creativity and human relating. It’s also harrowing in its depictions of band dynamics, rising success, and mental illness. The movie isn’t just weird for the sake of it; every time you see its title character bellowing his strange, surreal poetry or interacting with confused German tourists or making out with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), there’s a small bit of truth Abrahamson is sharing with you, a tiny puzzle-piece that asks to be placed in the jigsaw of your mind. Everyone’s minds are slightly different, so everyone's going to see this movie — and its characters — in slightly different ways. Perhaps that’s the point.

The film introduces us first to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an English would-be musician working a dull office job. The opening scenes, of Jon looking at various passers-by and composing songs in his head based on what he sees in real time, are brilliant in their simplicity, rendering our hero’s struggle deeply familiar to anyone who works in and around the creative industry. Jon rushes home, inspired by the “boxes” of his suburban surroundings, only to get stuck in the muck of creation, whereby he shares his frustrations with his paltry Twitter following. Shortly thereafter, he’s offered a position in a band headed by the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender). The music the band specializes in is hardly mainstream; it’s a mix of The Birthday Party, The Civil Wars, and Einsturzende Neubaten, its leader and his booming, low voice a curious if compelling integration of Captain Beefheart, Scott Walker, and Jim Morrison. 

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At once authoritative and elusive, Frank is a fountain of inspiration for Jon. The band, called The Soronprfbs and featuring Frank, Clara (who does theremin and strange keyboard effects), French guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) and his girlfriend, drummer Nana (Carla Azar), trek to the Irish countryside with their manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to record an album, which Jon documents in a series of blog posts, tweets, and Youtube uploads. The inclusion of social media lends Frank a timeliness as well as a sense of urgency; its use isn’t forced or tacky, but rather, a natural extension of the band’s world, and especially of Jon’s ambitions and personality, and how it comes to clash with other sensibilities, namely Clara’s. The updates (narrated blogs and tweets, including hashtags) are consistently believable, and an important part of the film’s themes of ambition and varying definitions of success. When the band gets the chance to play at SXSW, one senses the widening chasm between Jon and his bandmates; the English keyboardist and songwriter is far more devoted (and determined) than the latter to getting an audience and to being, in the film’s words, “likeable.” 

This desire to “being in a band people like,” as Frank puts it at one point, reminded me of something a well-known music figure said a while ago, that people don’t form bands so that they can play in their garage; they form them in order to play for audiences who will appreciate their work. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t help but turn over in my head as the film unfolded; Frank forced to consider the notion that perhaps there are some people who come together simply because they enjoy the energy the other brings and revel in the vitality of those joined energies, expressed through a joyous cacophony that, like a labyrinth, only they (as a combined unit) know their way in and out of; such bands play for themselves, and no one else. Is that wrong? Is it strange? Is it… quirky?

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Abrahamson doesn’t seem so concerned with quirk as he does with humanity. That focus anchors the film’s tone and deepens the relationships between its characters. Frank is a fascinating portrait of not only artists and bands but its own audience. I found myself rooting for Jon, and was charmed by his interactions with Frank; I identified with his drive to be celebrated and successful. The wisdom of the screenplay (by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) is that it doesn’t judge Jon when he fucks up (which he does, more than once), but allows for moments of grace and quiet, which are expressed so powerfully in the scenes toward the film’s end. You won’t be in tears by the final credits (Frank doesn't wallow in melodramatic mawkishness, preferring strong adult drama, something in woefully short supply lately) but you will be forced to contemplate the hows and whys of success, art, and the overall validity of the phrase “mad genius.”

“Genius” is nonetheless a good word to describe the performances in Frank. Gleeson is highly moving, and frequently uses his wiry frame to express Jon’s insecurities, frustrations, and fears; Gyllenhaal is compellingly icy as the highly protective Clara, while Fassbender is truly mesmerizing, conjuring an unforced poetry that modulates between manic and mysterious. The movie’s supporting cast is strong as well, with Azar vibing a young, resolute Maureen Tucker, with her big eyes and quiet confidence, and Scoot McNair as the scatty if troubled Don. The music, by Stephen Rennicks, deserves acclaim; too it’s a wonderful amalgam of influences, with playful lyrics full of surreal imagery, underscored by pulsating bass lines, shrieking guitars, and bleepy-bloop effects, reflecting the band’s personalities, their immediate environments, their relationships, and moods. I’d wager that if Ronson and Straughan’s screenplay is the bones of the work, the music is its heartbeat, with Abrahamson’s masterful direction the skin that draws everything together. 

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So call it “quirky” if you want, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it or think Frank is just a “weird” movie about a guy in a papier-mache head. The film’s elements, while unusual, combine to form a highly watchable piece of cinema. It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s important. The music is amazing. The performances are beautiful. Embrace your quirks, or leave them at the door, but see it.

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