18 September 2007

Touching the untouchables :
the films of Lodge Kerrigan

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I think I can state with certainty that no viewer will come away from any of Lodge Kerrigan’s three (so far) feature films unchanged. Focusing on protagonists that most of us would undoubtedly cross the street to avoid, he aims his camera at schizophrenics, street dwellers, prostitutes and bottom feeders – and even if we manage to remain unsympathetic to their plights, I think it would be highly unlikely that we don’t gain at least some awareness of their life experience, of their pain, and of the lack of choices they’re offered with which to chart out the paths they walk. Through his camera techniques, the framing of the stories he tells, and every filmic element down to the sound design, Kerrigan rubs the viewer’s face into his films – with relentlessness, but also with elegance and grace. If you choose to pass these by because you’re worried about being made to feel uncomfortable, you’re cheating yourself out of experiencing the work of one of the most talented, innovative directors working today.
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Clean, shaven (1994)
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The first of Kerrigan’s features, Clean, shaven was shot over a two-year period on a $60,000 budget (...and no, I didn't leave out any zeroes). It stars Peter Greene (who later appeared in Pulp fiction as the repugnant hillbilly sodomite Zed) in an incredible performance as schizophrenic Peter Winter, just released from a mental hospital and searching desperately for his daughter, who was put up for adoption when he was institutionalized. He returns to his home town to try to locate her, staying briefly with his cold, distant (and, pretty obviously, also disturbed) mother. Winter is being followed by a detective (Robert Albert), who is convinced that he is responsible for the brutal death of a child (and whose motives and methods may or may not be completely as they seem – no one in this film, as in ‘real life’, is completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’). This seemingly simple story line is fleshed out beyond its boundaries by the relentlessness with which the director places the viewer inside Peter’s head.

One major tool in accomplishing this is the sound design. Psychologists and patients who suffer from schizophrenia describe the aural experience as one of the most harrowing aspects of the disorder – they are simply unable to differentiate between the various levels of sound that reach their ears. Conversations in which they’re involved vie for focus with the background noises most of us are able to filter out by choice – consciously or subconsciously. The end effect has been likened by several reviewers I’ve read to turning the tuning dial on a radio, always managing to wind up ‘between stations’. As a result, it’s almost impossible for schizophrenics to concentrate on a conversation or a particular task for any length of time – there are simply too many sensory distractions pulling at them. This aspect of the disorder is misunderstood by many – and I’m not claiming to be knowledgeable about it, or an expert in any sense of the word – and has no doubt led to the popular misconception that they’re constantly ‘hearing voices’ in their head. While this might be true in some cases, there’s much more to their disorder than that.

Beyond the sound design, the camera places the viewer right in the middle of Peter’s experience as well – many of the shots are done in such close proximity to the actor that there is literally no escaping his confusion and pain. Before I saw the film, I had read about a couple of particularly gruesome scenes (I won’t go into them in detail here, just be aware that they’re in there) – but to my mind, one of the hardest scenes to watch, and one of the most effective from a cinematic aspect, was when Peter was sitting at the kitchen table with his mother, attempting to make a sandwich. The ‘simple’ act of slicing a tomato becomes completely visceral and verges on being panic-inducing. Peter’s hallucinations and delusions – his fear of being watched is so great that he can’t bear to see his own reflection, and he covers the windows of his car with sheets of newspaper. At one point, he sees another man, who appears to be a homeless person, ranting and raving and kicking at a fence, talking to no one in particular – it’s clear that he sees himself in this other unfortunate soul, and his fear of descending further into unreality is unmistakably written on his face.

The greatest tension in the film comes during the scenes after Peter locates his daughter, depicting his interaction with her. Despite having been practically living in his head during the film up to this point, it’s still uncertain as to how he will behave with her. There’s little doubt that the love and loss he feels are as real as such emotions can be – but the unpredictability of our protagonist leaves many possibilities open. Even after the ‘ending’, nothing is cut and dried.

Claire Dolan (1998)
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From schizophrenia, Kerrigan moved on with his second film to prostitution – but, as in Clean, shaven, it’s not a ‘simple’ story…and again, there are no ‘black and white’ aspects to the issue. Grey areas abound.

The title character – portrayed stunningly and effectively by Katrin Cartlidge (who also did a fine job as the sister-in-law in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the waves) – is an Irish immigrant to New York. She made the journey on a loan from Roland, an old ‘family friend’ (a slick but thuggish ‘businessman’, played perfectly by Colm Meaney), who, once she found herself in America, pressured her into working as a call girl in order to pay off her debt to him. She yearns for a normal life – but she knows no other way to free herself from her financial obligation, and finds out just how coldly brutal Roland can be. She gives herself to her ‘clients’ with a detachment that is palpable and chilling – when asked ‘What do you want to do…?’ in a hotel room, she replies evenly, ‘I’ll do whatever you like.’ The viewer can see her ‘go away’ simply by looking into her eyes – she does what she feels she has to do, mechanically, focusing on the day when she can pay Roland off and try to realize her dream of being a mother.

Craving some affection and contact that doesn’t involve the exchange of money, she picks up a man in a bar – Elton, who turns out to be a cab driver in nearby Newark (played sweetly and believably by Vincent D’Onofrio). Their relationship starts out by being completely sexual, but they come to care for each other – which has different effects for each of them. Elton wants desperately to help Claire get away from Roland’s clutches – he even goes so far as to confront him in a bar in New York, and gets beaten for his efforts. Claire is obviously touched by Elton’s love for her – but at the same time, she views it rather coldly, unsure if a relationship with anyone will really help her achieve her goals.

While the camera work in Clare Dolan takes the viewer in close during many scenes, the director draws back a bit in order to give the audience more of a feel of the detachment and isolation of the main character. During the several sex scenes, the blankness of her face and eyes is given most of the shot, but even during the wider views, I found myself being drawn more to her face than the sexual activity itself (and of course, being a film about a prostitute, there’s plenty of that). The theme of separation and division is instilled from the opening title sequence – a series of images of modern buildings, shot at unnatural angles, featuring cross-hatch patterns that give the impression of cells and cubicles, rows and rows of anonymous opaque windows, behind which anything could be happening. After the credits, we see Claire in a phone booth – her conversation seems like a normal one with a lover (“I want to see you – I can be at your hotel in 10 minutes…’), until it moves on to more graphic talk, and then she places a second call, to a different man, that goes almost exactly like the first. She lies, telling him ‘I’m at home’, and sets up a rendezvous with him also. All of this is done in a chilly, mechanical manner – the conversations with her clients (‘I don’t know how to say this – you’re not like other men…’) are just what they want to hear, but they’re completely meaningless, the verbal equivalent of repetitive assembly line actions.

Despite centering on a character who normally elicits little empathy from an audience, Katrin Cartlidge’s performance here is one that invites identification and understanding. As she deals with the death of her mother (who has been in a New York nursing home), and as her dreams for herself are revealed, the emotion she keeps at arm’s length during her work is made more apparent – and it draws us more closely to her. It’s a good lesson in compassion – and in how strong a force sheer determination can be in one’s life.

Keane (2004)
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In the newest (at this writing) of his features, Kerrigan returns to the subject of schizophrenia…but no one should think for a second that he’s merely re-making Clean, shaven. There are other similarities, but there is more than enough individuality at work here to make this its own film entirely. The in-your-face camera work returns in Keane, and with a vengeance – one reviewer described it as ‘stalker-cam’, and it follows the protagonist so closely that the viewer has no chance to escape becoming involved with him. As in his first film, the story itself is deceptively simple – and, as Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson noted, ‘…Keane seems to have simply occurred of its own accord, like a gutter sapling or a piece of street drama you happened to walk by’, rather than coming to life off a storyboard. The feeling of reality in this film is that strong.

William Keane (Damian Lewis) is looking for his daughter, who was abducted while on an outing with him (he’s divorced) at New York’s Grand Central Station. His sole purpose in life seems to be to find her – he repeatedly visits the scene of the abduction, assailing passers-by as well as Port Authority employees with enquiries about her, showing them her picture. He is again and again reduced to tears, and it’s easy to see from his actions that, like Peter Winter in Clean, shaven, he suffers from schizophrenia – his mind is constantly addled, but he has flashes of clarity during which he can appear completely normal, allowing him to function enough to go on with his search. From time to time, he is driven by his pain, desperation and confusion to seek solace in alcohol, drugs and casual pick-up sexual encounters (the one we see occurs in the bathroom at a nightclub).

At the low-rent residence hotel where he lives on his government disability checks, Keane meets a woman with a young daughter – through a series of reciprocal favors, he becomes close to them, and develops a more caring relationship than he perhaps anticipated, feeling himself drawn to the young girl, who is about the same age as his missing daughter. As he spends more time with her, the tension inexorably builds – like Peter Winter in Kerrigan’s first film, Keane is simply too unpredictable for the viewer to remain completely comfortable.
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The story unfolds as much through Keane’s eyes as is possible without actually looking out from his head – everything the audience learns about his life, his loss, and his pain, is told from his perspective, through relating it to others with whom he comes into contact. The edginess comes into play more and more as the viewer begins to realize that ‘our narrator’ may or may not be trustworthy – the story we’re given may be true, false, or made up of both facts and the imaginings of a schizophrenic mind. By about two-thirds of the way through the film, I was beginning to wonder if Keane’s daughter had ever existed – and while that’s never actually addressed or answered, it adds an additional aspect to the experience of the film. In the end, it matters less whether the events occurred as Keane relates them (directly or indirectly) than the presentation of an opportunity for the viewer to experience the life of yet another ‘untouchable’.

All three of these films are currently available on DVD (click on the titles for availability info) :

Clean, shaven comes from Criterion, and is given their usual stellar presentation – audio commentary with Kerrigan and Steven Soderbergh, a video essay by Michael Atkinson, a written essay by Dennis Lim, and the amazing soundtrack (by composer Hahn Rowe) and selections from the final audio mix, available as downloadable mp3 files.

Claire Dolan is released through New Yorker Video – the package includes an audio introduction to the film, and features in print versions both an interview with actress Katrin Cartlidge and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

Keane is available from Magnolia Entertainment – this release features an alternative cut of the entire film by Steven Soderbergh.

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