Monday 11 January 2021

Potential: "Ham on Rye"

Tyler Taormina's mysterioso Ham on Rye begins as many other teen movies have over the past forty years, with scenes from a recognisably American suburbia. Nice, anonymous houses on quiet, leafy backstreets. A late-summer sunlight that makes the whites of the image - and this neighbourhood is whiter than most - a little misty, as unreal as a dream, or the opening of Blue Velvet. Behind those closed doors, the kids are dressing up, applying Lynx, painting their nails, making an effort we sense they wouldn't otherwise. From their chatter, and the buzz of excitement that mounts as they emerge from their bedrooms, take to those streets and form coteries, we know this is a special day; they all have something big ahead of them. And yet, despite their dickybows and corsages, their destination isn't prom or graduation, as we might expect. No, these kids are heading to Monty's Deli, a nondescript sandwich joint apparently located several miles from their homes, in one of those middle-of-nowhere stripmalls our American friends are so bizarrely fond of. Is this a representative generational safe space, like the diner in Diner - a place these kids can talk, pair off to old hits, make memories? Given the brief shot of an NDA being signed on entrance, and that this class of '21 initially sit munching in subdued silence, the answer appears to be a big fat no. Are they themselves destined to become chopped liver, chewed up and spat out, if not swallowed whole? What in the hell kind of scene is this, exactly?

Those seeking literal answers will likely emerge from Ham on Rye frustrated. Taormina's going for metaphysical abstraction; his film's wispy elusiveness is sorta-kinda the point. A clue is offered, however, in the very first sequence, a deftly cut mosaic of a Fourth of July-like celebration, complete with a fireworks display undermined when the cigarette lighter involved fails to spark as the organisers were hoping. Another follows when one parent waves his son off at the kerb with an incongruously frantic and overbearing "Don't mess this up! Don't mess this up!" A contrast is thus established: great expectations versus drab, dull, disappointing adult reality. Early on, one of Taormina's debutantes proffers a postcard from an older sister living further afield that inspires the gushy comment "Being older is, like, really good". I write this as a fully grown adult: I mean, sure, it has its moments, but there's also a reason we have a show called Curb Your Enthusiasm. These guys will eventually dial it back a bit, and Taormina, who's nearing thirty, seems to understand this as well as anyone. The grown-ups he shows us - particularly Monty himself, portrayed in passing by Dan Jablons as the most put-upon of pork-pullers - are almost universally worn-down, beat-up or otherwise fatigued, people whose best days are behind them.

Against that sorry backdrop, the youthful promise of the next generation becomes more striking still: the bloom of fresh-faced boys and girls floating down streets on scooters and Segways (one difference between children and adults: the former still possess the energy to launch themselves into the world), their anticipation that tonight will be a good night, the best of all possible nights, the first of many such nights to come. Why, then, do they wind up somewhere as mundane as Monty's, very much a place of the adult world, with its clogged meatgrinder and two-dollar fruit cups? You may as well ask why kids gravitate towards your nearest Subway outlet, which strikes me as scarcely less mundane, but I prefer to think that Taormina failed in his efforts to land a more spaciously cinematic venue - too expensive - and wound up here himself. Beyond the deli, his film attains plentiful scope - there are a couple of gorgeous Selznick skies, and his shots of abandoned parking lots and other civic centres have some of the photographer Gregory Crewdson's potent portent - but everybody comes to Monty's for a reuben and a reality check. It also surely helped him corral his cast of largely unfamiliar players, Nickelodeon regulars (where Taormina previously worked) and former TV child stars who keep straight faces around this strange premise and help foster a disconcerting, pregnant mood. People drift apart and disappear, we wonder where they went, and life goes on somehow. Taormina drops us into the middle of this existential Kodak moment knowing from experience that it cannot last - but also that this is all the more reason to try and get some of it on camera.

Ham on Rye is now streaming via MUBI.

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