Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Heaven?

Given its experimentations and underground mode of production, Frownland is a film that is ripe for either high praise or revolting rejection. However, its sporadic, fragmented, hyper-realist style countered with its incredibly assured, somehow comedic, vision of an out of control world which leads to a stunning cumulative effect makes Frownland a very complex film that is not so easy to accept or reject. The world Frownland creates is one of entrapment of the highest degree on both the characters within the film and the filmic audience. There is no way to ease through the hell that the characters inhabit and that the audience is supplanted deep within. This is the conundrum that Frownland and its director, Ronald Bronstein, create for itself. It may be an inspired vision of forced isolation, but it dwells in a space that neither the characters nor the audience want to be a part of.

Frownland features snippets from the life of Keith (Dore Mann), a door to door coupon salesman, who either has to have some form of mental illness or severe social anxiety leading to his constant stuttering and forehead scratching. His difficult life is the thread that keeps the film in tact, despite its seemingly aimless narrative attitude. Keith encounters people who he clearly has connection to, but it seems a stretch to call any of them his "friend." There is a depressed, suicidal girl named Sandy (presumably Keith's girlfriend) who Keith rushes to cheer up when he is called. Keith has such a hard time expressing his feelings to her that he forces his eyelids open so they well up with tears. This reaction and response may be a comic break from the film's relentlessness, but it displays Keith's inability to show real emotion. As much as he
may want to, forcing emotion is the only way Keith can show much of anything to a member of the opposite sex. His speech patterns tell his inner story of struggling to find the right thing to say and do, whether it be with Sandy, fighting with his starving-musician asshole roomate, or encountering his unfair boss.

All of this is anchored by Dore Mann's razor sharp, fully embodied performance as Keith. Frownland is essentially a one man show, save one completely unnecessary scene where Keith's roomate takes a test to become and LSAT tutor. These heavily scripted scenes are overwhelmingly overwritten put next to Keith's incomprehensible, seemingly improvisation, and completely convincing mutterings. This improvisational flow that Frownland builds is trampled by the moments of ineptness within the screenplay, most of which are in the long, test taking scene. These missteps are few and far between although there are enough of them to keep Frownland from being as convincing. Nevertheless, it is in Mann's portrait of Keith that gives Frownland an immediate and mesmerizing jolt. The performance signals Frownland's wish to be a monster movie. It is up for us to decide who, or what, that monster is.

Director Ronald Bronstein is a New York City projectionist who is self distributing Frownland, which has already completed its New York run. The self distribution may make Frownland a difficult film to see, but given its many positive reviews from major news sources, it would be surprising if it does not make it around the country on some limited scale. Bronstein and Mann have created a diegetic world in Frownland that few will want to enter. This is certainly a major factor in making the film a difficult, if not impossible, box office sell. Keith, and the audience, are forced into an all too real world that everyone is unwillingly cemented within. What is most impressive about Frownland that leads to its finality is Bronstein's keen cinematic mind. No matter what attempts are made, there is no escape from the cruel world Frownland displays until the end credits.

by James Hansen
Frownland [trailer]

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