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Comments Posted 07.16.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Alexandra Lange

Cold Comforts


I am beginning to realize that I could do nothing but critique films from the point of view of the protagonists’ stuff. Summer Hours was all about stuff, but even melodrama would have less drama without a few carefully chosen chairs to break or fitted skirts to stain. The melodrama I have in mind is Revolutionary Road, the pedigreed project (directed by Sam Mendes from the Richard Yates novel, starring a reunited Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) that opened to an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm and an Oscar nomination only for Michael Shannon, playing the schizophrenic truth-telling son of a neighbor. I now share that lack of enthusiasm. Kate Winslet is great, but she seems to be acting in her own movie. There’s a palpable lack of tension, because none of the actors really connect emotionally with each other or with the audience. It felt arid, like a 1950s stage play.

One of the contributing factors to that aridity was that neither set nor costumes were doing their job. They looked great, but they weren’t giving us any extra character information. The Wheelers’ house is cute (and their realtor chatters that they were really looking for a converted barn, like all former bohemians in the ‘burbs), but not particularly big or particularly small, particularly shabby or particularly confining. How do they feel about it? How does it compare to others on the block? It didn’t look like the gilded prison I think it was meant to be.

The same could be said for their furniture. It looked like April Wheeler was trying to be a bit more modern than the average Westchester housewife. There was a butterfly chair, what I think was a Heywood Wakefield dinette set, and some nice peaky living room chairs. But she never says anything about the home, hardly touches an object. It all just sits there like a set. If the implication is meant to be that they bought the whole thing from a catalog called What You Should Do, maybe this works, but even that’s unclear.

Contrast that to the integrated relationship between people, circumstances and stuff in Frozen River, a taut, unusual and excellent thriller that unfurls almost like a silent film. There’s plenty of dialogue, but only the number of car chases and loud bangs that are absolutely necessary. Frozen River slips briefly into melodrama (child in jeapordy!), but rights itself as a contemporary drama about working-class poverty, human trafficking, and Indian policy. The trailer home of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) and her two sons is shown in all its run-down uninsulated reality, the blanket she tucks in around the window in her younger son’s bedroom, the rust-stained and unusable tub, the yellow insulation stuffed underneath to try to keep the pipes from freezing. Her dream is the double-wide in the glossy brochures at Versailles (Ver-SALES) mobile homes. The cars in those chases are a decade old, models no longer manufactured, battered and in need of more anti-freeze. Ray wears the same thing every day except for her pretty bras, meant as a sign that she still has hope, like the bath products she buys and saves for her future bathroom. Her partner in crime, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) doesn’t have the car or even a single-wide, but dreams of a brand-new crib for her son.

Having seen these films back-to-back, the reason for Revolutionary Road’s failure to engage seems even more clear. The Wheeler’s cage looks lovely to us, and if they really hated it so much, wouldn’t it show some sign of captive rage?

On a personal note, I am leaving for a two-week vacation Friday. Both culture and the internet are scarce where I am going (nature and produce are in abundance), so I will probably not be posting again until August 1.

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Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
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BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

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