. . . My Brother's Wedding

. . .

Movie Comment: My Brother's Wedding

Forget hanging off a cliff. Even with the aid of rear projection or CGI, you can only hang so long -- and then pfffbt! to suspense.

But a decent person trying to live a decent life? Now that's suspenseful. Soon as they get 'round one obstacle, there's another. Sometimes success is the next obstacle. Even giving up doesn't necessarily stanch the adventure.

All the expensively engineered, rehearsed, and (if we're lucky) edited thrill-rides on which we accompany our movie heroes and clowns merely approximate the tension of a decades-long struggle against becoming a worthless creep. That pinball-POV story's such a surefire grabber, the only explanation I can find for its scarcity onscreen is that Hollywood writers don't want to do the research.

In life, if not in movies, the premise of Charles Burnett's second feature, My Brother's Wedding, is familiar edge-of-the-seat stuff: A young man's hard-working church-going lower-middle-class family is as well off as anyone in their neighborhood can expect to be. A lateral move -- from the family laundry business and into a garage, for example -- seems pointless to him. The only ways up -- higher education and a white-collar career, for example -- would take him out of the community1 (and apparently into atrociously robotic acting). All other roads lead downhill with exhilarating speed.

Given choices like that, he's understandably decided not to choose. As the movie starts, his life has gone stagnant, and, over two hours, we watch his further attempts to avoid an irrevocable decision slowly, discursively, drive him into an irrevocable stunning pen.

The slowness and discursiveness are necessary, I think, if one is to feel both the warmth and the claustrophobia of the over-extended homebody: the small and redundant defeats, the victories whose pettiness nags like humiliation. One sequence -- a confrontation between the protagonist's mother and two would-be thieves -- beautifully conveys by structure alone how a "miraculous escape" can also feel like a traumatic demonstration of one's own disposability. Filmic structure and rhythm are the saving graces of Burnett's movie, and they're good graces to depend on.

The post-synch-dubbed acting and sound are less gracious. For most parts, Sunday-best stiffness seems appropriate to the dignity of the occasion. For the remaining parts -- the upperly-mobile caricatures -- the best I can say is what Earl Jackson Jr. said: that Jean-Luc Godard manages to get similar performances even out of big stars.

In a way, Burnett is telling a shaggy dog story; by definition, then, some might see it as overblown and overextended. I understand that makes it not for everyone, and tomorrow I'll present evidence to that ineffect. But for those of us who fully expect the last words we hear, as blooming buzzing confusion drowns all, as we rush toward and are turned away from the light, to be, in patrician saintly tones, "When we said shaggy, we didn't mean that shaggy" -- it's probably fine for us.

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1[For more on this subject, see Social Class in America, from the collection of Mr. Rick Prelinger.]

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Movie Comments Comment

So many folks boiling over with critical insight and political acumen! And post-movie Q&A sessions provide an irresistable opportunity to lance those boils.

  1. My Brother's Wedding at Pixar, Emeryville, CA

    Lots of great Qs here, including "Does the director know Martin Scorsese? Because [long demonstration that if you've never seen a Cassavetes movie, you'll think that anything with talkative city dwellers is ripping off Scorsese]" and the always popular "How much did it cost?" (Wrong answer, guessed at by the hapless host of the evening: "I'm not sure -- one point five million?" Right answer: $80,000.)

    Best of show:

    "You always hear about how African-Americans have absent fathers and single-parent families. But that didn't seem to be a problem in this film. So I can't help wondering: Just what is the real story here?"
    Which reminded me of someone at DEC who was talking about some political dispute in the news and concluded, "How can black people expect to get anywhere? They can't even agree on a candidate!" Except that guy at least had the excuse of being from New Hampshire and I at least got the relief of answering him. At Pixar, I was the guest of a nonprofit institution hoping to impress potential donors, so decorum was called for. And was maintained by my companion hustling me the fuck out of there.

  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? at New Directors / New Films, NY, NY

    1985. Pedro Almodóvar's first movie in the States. Disgruntled director on stage, dressed to the nines and stoned to the gills. An extremely wealthy, old, and frail-looking lady in the audience, with a grandmotherly smile:

    "You wouldn't have been able to do this when General Franco was in charge, would you?"
    ... I have nothing to add to that.

  3. Prelinger Archives selections, and other movies, and songs, and books, and TV shows, and paintings, and photographs at PFA, Berkeley, CA, and other places

    A young academic male:

    "Paradoxically, though, I feel that [artifact] actually is subversive in a way, since [earnest explication of some detail of the artifact]..."
    This may be unheimlichly gauche of me to admit, but not all pleasures are, strictly speaking, subversive.

    For example, you know that warm feeling you get from someone agreeing with you? Or when you feel clever for working something out? Well, that's not actually called subversion.

    In fact, as a fellow comfortable guy, I'd say that the only context in which it makes sense for a comfortable guy to apply the word "subversive" to anything is when he's trying to have it banned.

. . .

Two paths
"Odd that they should both be uphill!"

Thirty-one years ago, C. Barsotti comments
on our reading of My Brother's Wedding


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