I don't know if filmmaker Mark Thiedeman is familiar with Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings," but his new 29-minute film Alex in the Morning put me in mind of that remarkable no-fault breakup song from 1964. Maybe it has something do with lead actor Harrison Trigg's woolly aimlessness, or the fact that the song and the film are about departure.
Set in Little Rock in the present day, you can squint and see the Boho hipsters of '60s Greenwich Village in Alex, which underlines the persistence of the human condition. To paraphrase one of Thiedeman's characters, some people just want to be and might be warped or crushed by the pressure to become something more. Alex (Trigg) has the name of the girl he just broke up with tattooed on his skin -- she thinks that only means he's impulsive and drinks too much.
The Arkansas Cinema Society is presenting Alex in the Morning along with Gus Van Sant's 2007 feature Paranoid Park as part of its ongoing Arkansas Filmmaker Spotlight series at 6:30 p.m. Friday the Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock. Tickets are $12 and can be bought by visiting arkansascinemasociety.org.
It's a good pairing, and not just because both films together will run about an hour and 50 minutes. Paranoid Park, while based on Blake Nelson's young adult novel of the same name, features a skateboarding protagonist named Alex (Gabe Nevins) and takes a similarly subjective yet naturalistic approach we might describe as stylized realism. (Both films could be mistaken for documentaries, effectively mixing professional and inexperienced actors.)
The young adults of Alex in the Morning, most of whom cram into the crash pad Alex shares with Mira (Tiffany Stewart), seem hardly more purposeful than the adolescents who frequent the skate park in Van Sant's film; they're all resisting being co-opted into a system where, as a Paranoid Park character explains, no one does anything but "for money." The difference may be that Thiedeman's characters understand how much they need money, which leads Alex to borrow $40 from pizza restaurant co-worker Benji (intriguing singer-songwriter Benji Schlack, who also contributes to the soundtrack).
In gratitude, Alex invites Benji to that night's party at his house (we get the feeling that every night is a party at Alex's house), to consume music and liquor and other intoxicants and hold at bay the stalking reality that will eventually get them all. And maybe in the morning, Alex has an epiphany.
Thiedeman displays a sure hand with this material, and as with 2014's short Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls and 2013's feature Last Summer, there's no need to qualify his work by reminding people he's an Arkansas filmmaker. He's simply a stylish artist who has great taste in collaborators (the Alex in the Morning soundtrack features local "darkwave" artist Jimmy Spice, who records as Liquid Skulls, Phillip Rex Huddleston's Silver Anchors, Everett Hagen and Jack Lloyd, as well as Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter Danny Malone) and cinematographers (Donavon Thompson, yet another talented product of the University of Central Arkansas film program). While other filmmakers might suffer from comparison to the consistently interesting Van Sant, Thiedeman's Alex holds its own.
Van Sant's projects can sometimes test one's patience -- take, for example, his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998) and tedious experiment Gerry (2002) -- but Paranoid Park probably belongs in the top half of his filmography; it's a companion piece to 2003's Elephant (a beautiful and compassionate movie based on potentially exploitative material -- the Columbine school massacre).
Paranoid Park reprises some of the same themes of teenage alienation and isolation (Alex is party to an awful accident and as a result must deal with a philosophical dilemma straight out of Camus) and relies heavily on nonprofessional teenage actors to carry the film. Nevins had never acted before, and some of the film's high school students were found via auditions announced through the old MySpace social media network.
Van Sant employs legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle and his frequent collaborator Kathy Li (best known for their work with Wong Kar-wai) to create a fluid and visually arresting film stitched together from video, Super-8 and 35mm mediums, with lots of slow-motion sequences. At times the movie approaches a purely cinematic form as the simple narrative hitches and winds around itself as the soundtrack -- a work of elegant recombination by sound designer Leslie Shatz -- hums along, here and there punching through the naturalistic mumblecore dialogue with strains of Nina Rota and Beethoven.
Though less than 90 minutes long, Paranoid Park has an epic feel. No doubt some moviegoers will find it repetitious and portentous, but it eventually finds its languid rhythm -- and an unsettling, beautiful confusion.
MovieStyle on 03/16/2018
Print Headline: Thiedeman's short Alex to be shown with Park