NEXTFEST 2015: Day 1 @ Ace Hotel - MISTRESS AMERICA, or: Always Carry Your Side Piece / by Samuel B. Prime

Samuel B. Prime awoke on the morning of August, 7th, 2015 to discover that behind his ear there was something grotesque. It was the right. One might even say it was an 'ungeheures Ungeziefer.' Even the very gentlest touch caused immobilizing waves of pain to radiate through his body from the ear down his spine, and all the way back up again. There was something just below the surface, something that did not want to be found, but that cruelly wanted to make itself known. It could only be one thing. It was only one thing. It was me: a mind control worm.

You might ask yourself, "Why Samuel?" Us worms are obvious chubby chasers, so there's that, but ultimately I had heard from reading this very site and its associated Twitter account via SquirmNet (the internet provider exclusively for annelids) that he was going to see the new Noah Baumbach movie MISTRESS AMERICA and provide some level of press coverage. I'm an avowed Baumbach fan, though let's please not talk about WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (lest we become old!), so I wasn't going to miss this. So, when Samuel was sleeping, I used my always handy mandibles to burrow inside and start taking over, if only for long enough to be among the first in Los Angeles to see Mr. Baumbach's newest film. I was mostly passive throughout the day leading up to the screening, except when I made Samuel buy some Slim Jims (R.I.P. Macho Man) for me, well, us to snack on. I'd like to think of myself as a relatively benevolent mind control worm. In that same spirit, I am going to turn things over to Samuel to offer some actual insights and a review of the movie and, really, the entire evening. I won't chime in and interrupt while he's writing - would not want to disturb "the creative process" or whatever - but know that I'll be here, in the background, behind Samuel's right ear, reading along as he types every word.

When I regained consciousness, the work day was over, I was outside, and an Uber driver was saying my name over and over again. I realized he was trying to confirm whether I was his pick-up - like in the movies when a character snaps out of a deep thought based on some aural cue. It was like that - only real! "Yes, I'm Samuel," I said to the driver and climbed inside the vehicle. Little did I know at that time that nearly two hours later, I'd still be in the same car with the same driver on the same route to the same theater that we had embarked on shortly after 6:00 PM. Without any doubt, this was the worst Uber / Lyft / taxi cab experience I've ever had. Here was a driver who nervously, feverishly allowed himself to be guided by his GPS. Our situations weren't so different, I would later find out, except that mine did not result in screeching to a halt to make sudden right turns, stopping on the side of the road to recalculate a route, or seemingly zero self-awareness while operating a motor vehicle.

That experience aside, we pulled up to the Theatre at Ace Hotel at 7:55 PM. People were still milling about outside the theater, jauntily traipsing down and around the red carpet, so thankfully I wasn't technically late for the proceedings. Less than a minute later, I was inside. A man at a vendor table asked me if I heard of some new streaming service exclusively for horror movies. I asked him, "Is this some sort of Internet thing?" He said, "Yes." Then, I said, "Oh, but I've never used the Internet before!" He said, "Really?" I said, "Yes, really. I've never had an e-mail address, never searched or browsed for anything, I'm completely disconnected from that world." He tried to hand me a flyer, anyway. I gave him a look that meant "but what good would it do?" We parted ways with him admitting, "You know what, I actually admire that." I had told my first lie of the night. It would be the last.

Eventually, I found an aisle seat in the back house left of the theater next to a woman who almost dropped her Whoppers (not a euphemism) shortly after I took my seat next to her. I couldn't bring myself to introduce myself by making the horrible, cringe-worthy joke that if she had dropped them, they'd be Droppers. The decision to remain mum was in everyone's best interest as, soon after that thought dissipated into the awful ether, the lights dimmed and Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth stepped onstage. They thanked the sponsors, Trevor adorably misspoke and called Baumbach's film MISTRESS IN AMERICA, but before all the festivities truly began, the audience was treated to the world premiere (?) of a new music video for the song "Anxious in Venice" by Superhumanoids. The video appears to have been shot over the course of an afternoon on the Venice boardwalk, features bobbing, rubbery cinematography that is in some way resultant from a camera attached to the band's lead singer (who is the only one that appears in the video), and while the song just might be a cool highway tune or fitting for a lazy, stoned-out Sunday, the inclusion of a literal street sign that reads "END" at the finale of the video confirms that the persons responsible were either plum out of ideas, working with an extremely limited turnaround, or some combination of the two. Not a particularly strong start.

Then, some commercials appeared onscreen from the festival's major sponsors, Acura and Adobe. People in the audience cheered for these advertisements with wild abandon. Had some audience members actually come specifically to see the commercials? I think a woman even fainted! It might have been my imagination, though.

MISTRESS AMERICA began and I noticed someone down in or near the front row take out their phone and snap a screenshot of the Fox Searchlight logo. I understand the motive behind this even less than I do an ovation for a commercial. I love Fox Searchlight, I appreciate the sorts of films they put out into the world, but everything about this just baffles me. I've seen people do this with a scene in a movie or a title card, for some kind of digital waste bin version of scrap-booking, and even though I don't support it, I understand the impetus. This was without reason. I won't be able to forget that I saw it happen and, if I am honest, It will haunt me for the rest of my days.

I have a feeling that all of his life Noah Baumbach's wanted to execute the perfect drawing room comedy. He tried once before, at the end of the nineties, with HIGHBALL (1997) - a film ostensibly shot in six days, with minimal professionalism, but an impressive cast wielding a script that begs for a less amateurish execution. But with MISTRESS AMERICA, Baumbach finally approaches something like a Neil Simon stage play. In fact, the film feels as if it is leading itself up to a moment of transformation for its characters, its actress, and its filmmaker when it arrives at the second-to-third act bridge. Most of the film's characters are in a house together, tensions are high, characters are running in and out of rooms, wisecracking to their strengths, and then something happens to change the direction of all their energy. Even if it moves a little too fast and pushes ahead in spite of a lapse in logic, the result is still the somewhat charming notion that 'even complete assholes still have feelings.'

Even though college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) is the film's occasional narrator, the movie belongs to older, though not wiser, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). The camera follows her and the movie follows her dreams through long, beautiful monologues designed to illustrate the subterranean awfulness of being single and thirty-ish. A scene reveals the origin of the film's title, where Brook self-proclaims her brand as 'Mistress America.' Snidely, Tracy responds with something like, "It sounds like you're America's girl on the side." The truth of the statement makes Brooke uncomfortable. Her face shows how it hurts her, but her words try to sweep the pain under the rug. Side piece or otherwise, the journey of this film is of two utterly unalike women learning to care for one another, to carry one another, despite their differences and roles forced upon them by their disparate age and experience.

Hanging out with and being a role model to younger people is, as the film says, "a lonely business." Also a selfless and dangerous business, I would add. Its currency is the self. To give of one's self and not offer money, security, or maturity is a kind of loveless doom. Make no mistake: the end to Brooke and Tracy's story is not happy. It is one of burdensome acceptance. Even Tracy's mom takes off to the Caribbean to leave Tracy alone on Thanksgiving. But these two women - far from best friends - choose to carry each other through the hardship.

After the movie and a fifteen-minute intermission, Sky "Cousin Itt" Ferreira performed beneath a video projection of an undulating, vaginal orange and pink triangle. She giggled a lot. It was okay, I guess, but definitely not erotic.

(Side note: I tried to reach Greta Gerwig to conduct an interview in time for this piece, but failed. I could have tried harder. Also, I briefly thought of interviewing her imaginary doppelganger Gerta Girlwig, but worried that the good fun I would have with it would unfortunately translate as mean-spirited snubbing. Finally, I wanted to compile a fake audio interview between myself and Gerwig sourced from her MISTRESS AMERICA lines, but regrettably there was not time enough between then and now to wrangle such clips and edit them together). 

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon