Oct 8, 2014
Heaven Knows What: NYFF 14
This year, the New York Film Festival has shown several films about people who live on the fringe or at the brink of poverty. Each movie has a different approach to conveying economic stress and deprivation, but one thing is clear: the more filmmakers try to be realistic at the expense of telling a story, the less authentic their films. This is the paradox of dramatic writing. One would think that the more realistic the portrayal of the circumstances, the more authentic the movie; and the more stories are dramatized, the farther they drift from reality. But it is the contrary: dramatic writing with its turns, ironies, contrasts, plotted structure and fully developed, complex characters adds reality, whereas just capturing rawness by pretending to replicate the experience of poverty tends to seem ersatz. If you want to convey reality without the interference of dramatic writing, go make a documentary.
Josh and Benny Safdie's Heaven Knows What illustrates this paradox. It is based on a book by Arielle Holmes, an ex-junkie who stars in the film as Harley, a young homeless drug addict in obsessive love with an imbecile (Caleb Landry Jones). It intends to portray as realistically as possible the life of junkie kids in the streets of New York. Shot in washed out colors, a shaky camera and extreme close ups by Sean Price Williams, it is indeed harrowing, but since it denies its characters any intelligence, dignity, or emotional growth, it becomes an exercise in what I call poverty porn. Poverty porn happens when privileged auteurs go slumming with the downtrodden in the hopes of elucidating to anyone who can afford a movie ticket what it is actually like to be poor.
In Beasts of The Southern Wild, environmental poverty porn, the characters are merely mouthpieces for the politically correct pieties of the filmmakers. Slumdog Millionaire is glamorized poverty porn, wherein the filmmakers presume to imagine what the poor dream of. At least in Mumbai they dream of having money. Apparently, deep in the bayous of Louisiana, while mired in abject poverty and biblical flooding, they dream of an environmentally healthy Earth. I find this use of poor people for the filmmakers' indulgence in wishful thinking exploitative, deeply false and offensive.
Heaven Knows What is exploitative and sordid, but it harbors no wishful pieties. It aims to discomfit, to be a film maudit. The harder it tries to be authentic (using real junkies, etc) the more it is a wanton exercise in style.
I was wondering how Arielle Holmes could write a book if none of the characters, including her own, has more than five words in their vocabulary, mostly monosyllables. I would think that in order to survive in New York you have to have your wits about you. This movie does not afford its characters the most basic human skills. They bleat incessantly and are reduced to a primal state of unmitigated idiocy. A lot of smart people have fallen prey to heroin. They are not to be found in this movie. It is hard to feel any sort of empathy or compassion for characters not only so relentlessly self-destructive, but so tedious and stupid. There is only one guy, Mike, the dealer, who has entrepreneurial delusions and acts very put upon about his wheelings and dealings. The Safdies and co-writer Ronald Bronstein don't bother with giving their characters an internal life. A promising scene where Harley looks at her own Facebook page as if it came from a distant planet is the best they can do before resorting to more senseless bleating, punctuated by jarring electronic music. Taking people who live on the fringe to impose on them self-conscious stylistic flourishes seems to me the height of clueless self-absorption. What is the point of showing such stubborn emotional and intellectual squalor? This is an insufferable, pretentious film.