Friday, April 26, 2013

Brazzaville Teen-ager is a triumph.

I just watched Michael Cera's new short film, Brazzaville Teen-ager, and I found it resonant and powerful. Here is a link to the film: This to me is a film about exploring the bargaining stage of grief. It's a bargaining fantasy. Gunther comes to some intuitive understanding that if he makes some self-sacrifice, that he will be rewarded with the continued existence of his aloof father, played in a nice, understated way by Charles Grodin. The idea of bargaining a self sacrifice as a stage of grief is all too common--the deal with God. "I'll be a better person and more like you want me to be if I get to keep my pop." But the bargain is usually a noble self sacrifice. Here Gunther imagines that his self sacrifice must be ignoble. It must be debasing and humiliating. It has to involve the breaking of unwritten rules of social living. It involves crossing a generational barrier--the one separating him from his father. It involves not only his own humiliation and discomfort, but also a humiliating request that a member of that older generation must cross that same generational barrier and enter into a scenario that is as much a fish-out-of-water scene as the one he must endure just to make the request. So the film opens with scenes of the hospital where Gunther's dad is dying, but the sound track is of a conversation Gunther is having with someone of his own generation. Gunther is open and honest about his feelings. He is scared of being alone. He wants answers from his dad before his dad moves on. And hidden in these questions is his own fear of inadequacy. He seeks to define himself and measure himself against his pop. He wants to know philosophy. He wants to know about his father's sexuality and finances--the stuff that is often off limits in cross-generational relationships. He wants to know about his father's fear. "Are you scared?" "Is Death a breeze?" As the film switches to Gunther and his dad in the room together, his questions are answered with less than overt comparisons between his son and the doctors that are treating him. He tells his son that they are good guys that don't think twice about treating a guy so much older. Gunther is told that they laugh, that they get the humor. Gunther does not. He also wants his dad to "drop his life-long cool." Gunther feels small and weak, and this is compounded by the threat of losing his dad. The bargaining fantasy comes to him. He must get over his crippling fear of crossing that generational barrier. He sees his boss humiliate a guy so badly that the co-worker seems physically ill. When Gunther is called into the office, he asks the boss to come with him to where a R&B recording session is going to be happening and sing back-up on some song. He is soundly rejected. The viewer is made to believe that this was not enough. He has to debase and humiliate himself even further. He has to go to the man's house. He has to interrupt his sophisticated, grownup party and insist. When the boss's wife comes to his aid and makes this happen, Gunther weeps. Gunther takes this man to a setting that is as uncomfortable for him as the party was for Gunther. And after it is over, the boss is humiliated and shown that in this world where he is the outsider and the underdog, he is inadequate. He is not good enough. The once dominant boss looks small and weak. On the ride back, they seem to have connected. Miraculously, Gunther's dad is healed. And when they are reunited, the audience expects that things will be different. They are not. With a lilting musical backing track, we see scenes of awkwardness between father and son. Their body language clearly suggests that they are as estranged as ever. Gunther screams his rage at his dad--his impotent rage at the top of his lungs by himself at the bottom of an elevator shaft, still unable to make a connection to his dad. It is as if it is not about the fact that he is unafraid to put himself out there. It is just that his dad is a dick. It is dreamlike and nonsensical and yet really resonant. I love this film. Although a couple of the bit parts--the friend at the bar and the guests at the grownup party seem to deliver their lines in ways that are not quite right, the rest of the film really works. The sound is especially effective as is the pacing. The lingering shots of catatonic thinking really work. The silent resolution is also very nice.


m said...

My somewhat alternate analysis:

The Boss and the Father are obvious parallels, but one thing I think most people missed is the Boss's WIFE CONVINCED THE BOSS to do the singing.

Charles Grodin doesn't have that wife like the boss does. The mother is obviously dead and not in the picture. She's spoken of in past tense at the very start of the film.

Brazzaville Teenager - the word teenager implies there's missing youth in Cera, as he had to grow up, probably caring for his father and taking the mother's role, but that drained him of youth.

The need for Cera to embarrass himself is at first confusing and in a way nonsense. But it actually shows an underlying problem, the lack of a mother. The act of embarrassment implies vulnerability, and the need to be mothered, and something the father is incapable of providing, shown as Grodin's arms are casted in a hug with broken hands. The Boss's wife mothered both Cera and the Boss for a brief moment, which is WHY CERA HUGGED HER. She also brought the Boss to reality and to eventually realize that he missed his youth as well and had a moment of self realization in the studio and car. Grodin doesn't have this figure in his life so Cera was in a sense "fired" from being a son and a child.

"Do you even know what I had to go through" at the very end is not just about asking the boss, but Cera's entire life without either parent. 

Chap said...

How delightful that you responded to this review! I had not looked at any of the mother issues at all. Your comments are totally insightful. Much of what you refer to is in the original story--song title, boss's wife does the convincing--the hug. Your comments have made me rethink the whole thing and with fresh eyes. How did you land on my weird little blog?

m said...

Hey Chap,

I was confused by the film and looked up analysis stuff on google and came across the page. At the end of the film, I remember asking "wheres mom". A lot of people compared boss/dad and that was one glaring thing different between the two men, one was a wife so I thought about that for a moment.

Chap said...

Well, I loved your analysis and the fact that you saw so many things that I had overlooked. So very nice to meet you.

m said...

Thanks, you too.

Some other examples I noticed re-watching....

1. Grodin doesn't seem to be at death's door and young people are generally not thinking about death in their 20s. The prior death of the mother explains the extra concern, especially considering how distant they are.

2. MAJOR giveaway - films are supposed to be tight - no excess fat. Notice Cera asks the boss TWICE, when you'd normally think once would be enough. A writer of film editor would normally say "the part where the boss agrees is enough and the first time Cera asked is not necessary". So there's a reason the film includes both instances. This is to further emphasize the mother IMO. He asked once at work, WITHOUT the wife/mother present, then AGAIN AT HOME...I think that's the reason Cera went to his house, because the wife would be there, a mother figure. This further drives home the point that Cera's mother is dead and also emphasizes the importance of a wife/mother figure.

3. The wife is eaves dropping at the house...and Cera later says "every now and then you'd hope for someone to come from the CLEAR BLUE SKY to help out or intervene". The phrase CLEAR BLUE SKY kind of alludes to heaven. This act Cera is doing is a prayer to the mother. The boss's wife eavesdropping, when you compare it to Grodin's wife, would be the equivalent of the mother looking over him from Heaven.

4. At the party, that jerk refers to Cera as a "lost sheep" looking for Bo Peep, which is a feminine, motherly character. And this would be further proof of what inspired Cera to go to the house after being rejected the first time.

5. Grodin remarks how the nurses are younger than him and it's ironic, further hitting home the notion of a missing mother figure. When he leaves the hospital, he remarks on the free health care and asks "how do they get paid" line, again, another instance of mothering and Grodin missing the point.

Sorry for the excess ranting but yeah, I'd say the act of embarrassment is actually just a prayer to his mom.

Chap said...