Heaven Knows What – Ben and Joshua Safdie (2015)

There is a school of art that celebrates the “poetry of the streets,” a mode which seeks to portray life lived at its most bare, contingent, and unmediated level. A lot of actual poetry falls into this genre, including much work by the Beats, who found inspiration in the low and, melding the lives and language of the down and out with the improvisatory ways of jazz, did indeed transform seeming dross into gold. Hubert Selby Jr. did similarly with his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, a masterpiece of point of view and compassion that at the same time pulls no punches (and indeed still has the power to shock). Yes, there are many high points in this mostly 20th century school of art, but, I would aver, fewer cinematic than literary ones. The key here is transformation, and cinema can be very lazy in this department. Further, capturing the grit, grime, and vérité reality of life on the bum can become an end in itself, as if a lack of filter equals truth, and truth equals poetics. As the ability to make movies has increased, due to the video revolution, this genre has multiplied. The godfather of the contemporary arm of this subject is one Harmony Korine, whose Gummo almost single-handedly melded trailer trash stylings with pretentious wanna-be fine art. His films since then, for better or worse, have trafficked in meaningful meaninglessness (and suffered in proportion to their intended “beauty.” That is, Julien Donkey-Boy is awful, while Trash Humpers is actually pretty interesting). From his root stock, we can trace a line to Troma’s Giuseppe Andrews, whose massive filmography, including titles such as Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town, in which he also stars, documents the denizens of a trailer park in which Andrews also lives. Like the films of John Waters, who similarly celebrated “trash” living, such works bend the line between acting and life, and the films often make use of “real people” as actors, stock companies who live the art they create together. Whereas the films of Waters, although verging into camp (I would actually call them parodies of camp), create a full and verdant universe of expression by way of parody and appropriation, these newer films take up his mantle of outrageousness but wear it with “high art” style. Their master is actually Cassavetes, who tried to create a mirror of reality through improvisation and hand-held camerawork (itself drawing from the direct cinema documentary and avant-garde traditions of the earlier 1960s), and their approach to actors and acting is influenced by Herzog. Which is to say that, somewhere in the space, vast or small though it may be (as you judge it), between Harmony Korine and Troma, lies the film before us.

The story, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. The main character is Harley (Arielle Holmes), a pretty young homeless woman who happens to be in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a freckled seeming-psychotic asshole her own age. Both are drug addicts, and it appears Harley sometimes prostitutes herself to obtain her fix. As the film begins, Harley and Ilya have just had a falling out over something – most likely her having recently sold herself, but it’s hard to tell, as we never get a firm sense if Ilya has a right to his outrageous attitude, or if he’s just mental. At any rate, Harley, to prove her love, offers to slit her wrists and kill herself. Ilya eggs her on, calling her bluff again and again, until she finally does it. “Thankfully,” she lives, and after getting out of the hospital, takes up with a friend (and nemesis of Ilya?) Mike (Buddy Duress), he of the glazed, dead eyes, slack expression, and limited vocabulary. Most of the film consists of them bumming around, trying to get a fix, meeting this or that person, screaming and yelling profanities, falling in and out of favor with each other, and so forth. Eventually Harley mends fences with Ilya, they have a brief rekindling of the mad loving, and decide to head to Florida together (why we never learn). Ilya bugs out on the bus, and demands to disembark in the middle of nowhere while Harley is sleeping. He returns to his freak cave, builds a fire, fixes, passes out, and then burns alive (his face melting, intentionally or not, like Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Harley, after waking up on the bus, also throws a fit and is let off, only to return to Mike and his cohort in the night cafe, at which point our story closes.

Does anything set this film apart? Its most obvious distinctive aspect is the score. The movie “features” music by space music pioneer Isao Tomita, and has an original score composed by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink (who also has a bit part mixing it up at the band shell). The music purposefully overpowers the image, and is very heavy and intense when used. In fact, the best part of the film in my regard is the credit sequence. It takes place in the psychiatric ward, after Harley has attempted suicide, and contains no dialogue; the lengthy sequence plays out as a dumb show with thundering electronics, and shows how the filmmakers, if they truly wanted to provoke and innovate, could have constructed something like a grunge electro-opera. Dialogue is unnecessary in this film anyway. The title sequence shows we can fully understand what is happening without it, and the mostly angry shouted profanities kill whatever interest and mood the casting and photography create. (Note that I am not against profanity; if you want to see the baroque masterpiece of this little genre, check out Steve Ballot’s insane The Bride of Frank, from 1996. The profanity in that film is very creative, and transports the viewer). The second distinctive aspect of the film is the cinematography by Sean Price Williams, the inventive force that made Listen Up Philip more than half of what it was (he has shot all of Alex Ross Perry’s features, as well as the early mumblecore Frownland). The photography is lovely – unfortunately, what this film needs is not loveliness, but style and a point of view. While one may dislike the filmic sensibilities of a Giuseppe Andrews, one must also admit that his weakness is also his strength, and that, no matter how aesthetically yucky or off-putting the results, the director has a style and vision that make the films memorable, and what they are. The Safdie’s, though, don’t have a style – aside from a muted, wintry saturation level that gives the film a cold, brittle feel, and the aforementioned electronic portensions. They simply want to make a serious low budget film that recalls the ’70s. While one may find Korine pretentious, and infuriating, he at least provokes a reaction; Heaven Knows What merely provokes boredom. Scene after scene of junkies yelling at each other, acting shitty, looking truculent, or nodding off, with nothing to express beyond the angry ur-screams of their profanity. The script is adapted from a novel written by Holmes, titled Mad Love in New York City (or something similar). Darling, if this is a portrait of mad love, then A&E and LMN have produced more surrealism than the 1930s ever did. Mad love demands enough intelligence, brute though it may be, to understand the conventions that one is discarding. The main characters of this film exhibit almost no self-awareness. The approach feels juvenile, and the overall impression is one of true pretension; it is art because it is “tough,” “real,” or “raw.” In truth, it is unformed, and the reality portrayed is not transformed by a vision that can elevate us, or transport us, to a more profound understanding. Much sound and fury, signifying… that it’s time to yell further improvised swears before nodding off.

One and a half stars out of five


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