Friday 23 September 2022

Have a niche day: "Funny Pages"

Funny Pages
 is another example of the (sporadically fruitful) perversity that boutique studio A24 has begun to foster at the fringes of the American mainstream. Owen Kline - the son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline - has here come up with a study in youthful recalcitrance: a haphazard coming-of-ager about an artistically gifted teenager (Daniel Zolghadri) who insists on making his way in life via Robert Crumb-like pornographic cartoons and menial comic-store labour rather than the college route his exasperated parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) have in mind for him. As produced by the Safdies (Good Time, Uncut Gems) and their regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein (Frownland), a certain measure of recalcitrance has been baked into the film itself. Funny Pages is meandering when it's not outright shambling, feeling a lot longer than the 86 minutes cited; it looks like grainy, washed-out crap; and its dialogue is barely audible in places. It's a film that reminds you of one of the biggest failures of the US indie sector in recent years: the inability to develop an aesthetic in opposition to the MCU's glitzy pixelation that goes further than "half-assed student movie". (Those early Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Spike Lee ventures always had something to please the eye, and - hell - even Kevin Smith chose to shoot Clerks in black-and-white.) If this is the future of American film - as some small part of Film Twitter appears convinced - then it's no surprise audiences are fleeing cinemagoing in their droves. The film's UK distributors Curzon are currently offering Kline's movie for home viewing at a price of £14.99, and all I can say there is: good luck with that.

If my sympathies were engaged in any way, it was because the movie's an obvious underdog - or at least as underdoggy as anything written and directed by a nepo kid can be. 2003's American Splendor, the last indie project to be this engaged with comic-book culture, had a tough-sell protagonist in Paul Giamatti's whiny-grumpy Harvey Pekar, but it was made by solid pros with a run of potential crowdpleasers ahead of them: the savvy framing sold it. Here, the whole movie is Pekaresque - ugly, ungainly and uningratiating, obsessed with ephemera (the soundtrack's awash with novelty tunes, presumably easier to licence than actual hits), and full of people who would quickly be escorted from the average studio lot, being wild of hair and gaze, sweaty of brow, dubious in their motives. That's why I felt compelled to keep an eye on it; my instinct is still that the Safdies' influence on the cinema will be fleeting and minor - you cannot sell this shit to people who don't have a Letterboxd account - but they have opened the door to the possibility of a revolution in American casting. The bar is (re)set here by playwright and part-time Steve Bannon lookalike Stephen Adly Guirgis as the unkempt mentor who offers to pose naked for our boy; thereafter, the lad encounters folks whose sheer oddness demands to be recorded in some form, whether in charcoal or on celluloid. So if it looks like crap, it's sometimes funny-looking crap; and if you can barely hear it in places, what you can hear, from time to time, is something funny-sounding. American movies shamble onward in pursuit of nerdvana, but I wonder whether they're becoming so overrun with outcasts and oddballs that they've lost touch with the bulk of the audience. There's next to nothing left in them for normies; it's all niche activity, extreme marginalia. Those market-hogging MCU events are films for nerds made by the most powerful people on the planet about the most powerful people on the planet. I guess it's a step forward for Funny Pages to present as a film for nerds made by nerds about nerds. But we're talking baby steps, at a point when the vast majority have long moved beyond them.

Funny Pages is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

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