Friday, August 7, 2009

Bee-ing Alive

by James Hansen

Consider, if you will, killer bees. Although they are often called “Africanized” bees by a western culture continuing to position the world's bad genes in the poorer sects of society, killer bees come from Africa but with heritage in countries across Europe. In stressful situations, killer bees, so says Wikipedia, abscond from their colonies, pulling their stingers out of the ground and buzzing along to new landscapes looking for some escape from stress and, lets assume, isolation. Unfortunately, the killer bees will never quite fit in. Poor them. With no specific lineage, home, or identity, killer bees wander the Earth welcomed by horticulturalists with excited, beekeeping glee, and by the common people with dread, precisely because...well...killer bees will fucking kill you.

I won’t speculate as to whether Andrew Bujalski was considering the life patterns of killer bees while writing the immaculate screenplay for his new feature Beeswax, but, just like killer bees, his characters are constantly searching for some fitting place in a massive world that continues to expand even amidst the boldest attempts to scale it down. When set adrift, his characters swarm together, boats against the current, and find ways to rebuild with one another – for better or worse. Beeswax is beautiful, sad, confusing, and oddly thrilling, oftentimes all at once. A remarkable new step for Bujalski, Beeswax is a film in perpetual motion, cast against the backdrop of the places we live, the assholes we deal with, and the varying adventures of life that we all face.

Revolving around a pair of twin sisters – Jeannie, a wheelchair bound co-owner of a local vintage store, and Lauren, figuring out place in the world as she meanders in between jobs and boyfriends while considering whether or not she really wants to teach English overseas. Meanwhile, Merrill, Jeannie’s ex-boyfriend, has just finished law school and reenters Jeannie’s life amid a minorly major crisis at the vintage store. Not quite ready to take the giant leap in front of him, Merrill retreats into Jeannie’s life looking for some comfort allowing his personal impasse to remain just that.

Bujalski has been given credit for the naturalness of each of his previous features, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), which both captured the inane excitement of slacker culture. Each choice by Bujalski, the actors, and the crew allows for the claim of naturalness, which is certainly something that is striven for in each of Bujalski’s features, but it is hardly the singular reason to praise the features, as some critics have done, especially if you are paying attention to the complex artistry from the hive up in Beeswax. The distinctly isolated spaces at play in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation showed Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky’s knack for developing locations and embedding the film’s own position with the cinematographic choices – something lacking in almost all films, mainstream or indie. While full frame 16mm film stock was used in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax opens up its frame to widescreen with Super 16mm as the broader frame coagulates with the spatio-temporal qualities of Jeannie and Lauren’s world. Beeswax finds larger world in play, yet, despite this, it is constantly being pared down by the characters attempting to keep grasp of everything and everyone around them. The world is getting too big, too mean, and its all certainly happening too fast.

Jeannie and Lauren are played by real life twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher who bring an incredibly controlled energy to their performances showing an enormous amount of focused restraint in building a ectstatic, nervous energy to their roles. Tilly is a real stand out in the uniquely challenging role of Jeannie. Empathetic and simultaneously commanding, Tilly builds upon the contradictions engrained in the character of Jeannie and discovers a place for her to be bewildered, composed, and totally dynamic. Alex Karpovsky, as Merrill, has a tough time competing with the great performance of Tilly Hatcher, but it is precisely the odd combination that makes their scenes together continually fascinating. They may not quite be two pees in a pod, two bees in a honeycomb, or two killer bees on an infant child, but the tension that Tilly and Karpovsky create between Jeannie, Merrill, and anyone they come in contact with is intoxicating.

With three features under his belt, each one better than the last, Bujalski already has a special place in the cinematic community for leading a younger generation of truly independent cinema. In Beeswax, Jeannie goes with Merrill to meet a man who may be able to help her out of a possible financial and business crisis. After a slightly awkward meeting, the man tells Jeannie, “I’d like to be your guy, but I don’t know if I’m your guy.” This line may very well sum up the attitude and the celebratory contradictions instilled within Beeswax, but there is no question that Bujalski is becoming the guy. With a sharp mind and a keen sense of people, place, and the fine line between comedy and self-realization, frequenting comparisons to the young days Woody Allen, Bujalski, like the not-strictly-from-Africa Africanized killer bees, may always be looking for a place to be totally comfortable and fit in. If Beeswax is any indication, however, that may be just the way he, and the rest of us, like it.


Opens at Film Forum in NYC on August 7

Opens at Nuart Theater in L.A. on August 21

National release in August / September 2009

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