Simple Men

Simple Men

Between the sparse, jarring yet ethereal soundtrack and the small-town-with-something-to-hide setting, this film turns out to be a pretty great episode of Twin Peaks, complete with non sequitur musical sequences and stilted dialogue that skims the surface of philosophical and social meaning while still being somehow endearing. If it had an ounce of supernatural element to it, I'd say Hal Hartley had just made his own pilot to an alternate Twin Peaks series. Instead, it's just an independent film indebted to Lynch's weird amalgam television masterpiece that happens to capture the zeitgeist of its era--or at least, the appearance of it--deftly.

I had seen the "I CAN'T STAND THE QUIET" musical sequence before, posted to Facebook by a friend discussing favorite dance sequences. In context, however, it is even more bizarre and delightful, with Martin Donovan clearly eyeing his crush dancing with his rival, Elina obliviously leading these men who are inexplicably dancing with her, and the neon lighting that suffuses the film atmospherically. It has little build up, ill fits the narrative, and barely works as a segue into a night of drunken discussions, but it is visibly and tonally Lynchian-meets-grunge, a perfectly segmented music video at the zenith of MTV, and, like any good dance sequence, sexual and synchronized. As a moment of cinema, it is perfect, and without it, the film would not be nearly as fun as it is.

Not that it's supposed to be fun! I think another reason this seems to be such a distinctly 1990s picture is that it has embraced the detached, cool sensibilities sought by so many during that time. It is "alternative," even if the characters are still dressing like slightly updated Miami Vice cast offs. The media narrative on the 1980s is neon, cocaine, Republican decay, and these characters are actively shedding that and other baggage from the past. The 1960s are notably called out, but that's just outside context. We have womanizers becoming more enlightened (if not actually reaching enlightenment), criminal capitalists finding their human sides, and intelligent if pretentious debates on sexual exploitation in the music industry (followed by a listing of 1970s rock bands in an almost poetic outcry), all thematically fitting of the media narrative on the 1990s: grunge's doomed feminist bent and the riot grrl movement, the approaching Clintonian Democrats' at least claiming to espouse a less laissez faire approach (ha!), and the detritus of the past two decades' musical culture being dissected and stitched back together.

Despite the detached personas these characters seem to cling to, their seething emotions are at the forefront of their dialogue. Warren is angry, Kate is afraid, Bill is hurt, Dennis is lost, and Elina is longing. Each of these things are discussed bluntly in a way that is... almost disdainful. They are clearly afraid of their own emotions, which is an interesting depiction of the grunge era irony, made all the more pathetic by the new sincerity of the next decade. And yet, despite that, it's clear that their broken approach to emotion is a product of their time and environment. Warren tried once to express himself and got rejected. Kate is haunted by the threat of her ex-husband. Bill and Dennis have never had a father to guide them, to show them how to be men who can feel and think. When they finally come face to face with him, he's exactly as the movie suggested he would be: an old radical more in love with his doctrines than the people around him (hello future self!). Dennis, too weak to stand up for himself, ends up dragged into the criminal world of his father and his brother, while Bill finds it in himself not to abandon the woman he has come to love nor the brother who needs him.

So they are detached figures living very intense, melodramatic lives, and despite the disdain they have for their emotional states, there is a real moment or two of growth and connection. If that isn't exactly what the alternative music of the early 1990s secretly wanted, I don't know what is. This is more about the Smashing Pumpkins than Nirvana, of course. Kurt Cobain was a deep well of sincere emotion ensnared by the capitalist machine and caught between the need to reject the plastic world around him and the desperate need to be accepted. He was ahead of his time and behind it, and only opened the gates for Billy Corgan's ironic sneer, art school sensibilities, and petulant lyricism. Simple Men exists like the independent bands on the edge of those titans' arenas, the K-Records and lesser known Subpop groups, the half-punk, half-college rock groups that truly spawned the alternative scene. They took as much from (or gave as much to for those that came before) Nirvana as from the Pumpkins. They birthed the zeitgeist that Simple Men embodied, and in a few years after the release of the film, they, too, would be sucked into the corporate hegemony. Bravo for trying, though!

I have begun to ramble, but that's what happens when a film makes me think. Simple Men reminded me of my formative years in that it captured all of the atmosphere I was soaking up through music videos and CDs of bands I was too young to really understand and just the right age to connect with. It's raw and snappy and funny and well composed and cold and consciously hip and awkwardly offbeat and just so angry and pretentious and stupid and insightful and more about emotions than emotional. It feels less like a cash in on the trends of its day than a result of them, which makes all the difference, even in its most calculated moments. A gas station attendant speaking French and playing "Greensleeves" on the guitar is so blatantly constructed to be weird and different and a subversion of a trope that it should feel insulting, but instead, I'm just happy I have "Greensleeves" stuck in my head now (albeit with the wrong lyrics, because I don't remember the lyrics). I am open to what this is selling, I suppose I could say.

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