Monday, March 17, 2014

Love Object: They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

Cinematic conventions come and go. Sometimes the changes are due to new technology, sometimes they're due to new generations of filmmakers taking some things from their predecessors and discarding others, sometimes they're due to audiences responding more to one way of telling a story than another. Why these changes happen is probably more of a question for film historians than for people like me, but the end result is that to one degree or another, films reflect the times in which they're made, and as times change, some ways of making movies fall out of favor. If a particular approach is brought back, it's usually brought back to evoke a particular time and place through the way movies were made back then - consider the unwinking top-to-bottom 1980s homage The House of the Devil, or the more stylized but no less evocative 1970s grindhouse aesthetic of The Devil's Rejects or Rovdyr (which has the added benefit of not having the word "devil" in its title).

Love Object is a clever, tense, well-constructed film that evokes a singular and bygone approach to filmmaking without feeling deliberately or self-consciously retro. If you've ever wondered to yourself "why don't movies like Body Double or Dressed To Kill get made anymore?", well, wonder no longer and watch this. If you've never wondered this, and aren't familiar with the aforementioned films? Settle in, because you're in for a ride.

Meet Kenneth. Kenneth is a technical writer at a company that makes instruction manuals. Kenneth takes his work very seriously. He's the first one to the office in the morning, and he's the company's star writer. He's just finished a project and is raring to go, asking his boss for more work. His boss proposes a tough one - a government agency needs a 3-volume technical manual written for a complicated database program, and they need it in three weeks. It's a high-risk, high-reward project - if they can deliver it, it'll put the company in line for all kinds of sweet government contracts, but it's a shitload of work in a very small time frame. Kenneth gets the job, as well as a temp word processor/layout person to help him. Her name is Lisa, she's new, and she's pretty. Needless to say, Kenneth...well, actually, Kenneth freaks out a little.

See, Kenneth, as we discover pretty quickly, is wrapped a little too tightly. In an office full of writers in shirts and ties, Kenneth wears a suit. Kenneth's apartment might as well be his work cubicle with a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen attached. Nothing personal anywhere, and dominated by a home office and project bulletin boards. So it's hard to know who Kenneth actually is, and what glimpses we get aren't encouraging - he has a tendency to spy on his neighbors through his apartment door peephole, and he listens to them having sex. There are furtive trips to adult bookstores. Whatever's going on underneath the surface is kept very, very well in check, but it ain't good.

So in very short order, a bunch of things are happening to Kenneth - he's given a high-pressure assignment, he's not working alone on it (he prefers to work alone), he's working with an attractive woman. It's a powder keg of a situation, and then an oafish coworker lights the fuse by showing Kenneth the website for a company that makes custom sex dolls. Lifelike, made to order, whatever you want them to look like.

Kenneth orders one that looks just like his new co-worker, Lisa.

What follows is, on its face, pretty much what you'd expect. It's a film very much about the lines between the real and unreal blurring, but it's not as simplistic as all that. Love Object has a lot to say about the difference between living life and commodifying life experiences. It starts with Kenneth's doll, but it extends to Kenneth's neighbor, who leafs through swinger's magazines like he's shopping for the (actual) women he brings home for sex. Another neighbor - a police detective - carries a real sidearm and likes to play shooter videogames in his spare time. Kenneth's very job is an excellent example of this as well - he writes instructions for discrete slices of everyday life - programming VCRs, using first-aid kits, operating DVD players. He turns doing things into a product. Lisa isn't immune, either - even though she's very much the odd person out at the company, she does a personal 'zine, the story of her life as she sees it, which include diagrams of waltz steps (instructions on how to dance) and her list of the steps to finding Mister Right (instructions on how to love). Life is kept at arms' length, turned into something to be consumed, rather than organically experienced. And, at least in Kenneth's case, the more actual life begins to intrude on his approximated, packaged life, the more his stunted, unhealthy ideas about love and intimacy bubble to the surface in increasingly creepy ways.

The story itself is told in a manner as artificial as the experiences it depicts - everything is highly stylized, from the dialogue to the lighting and cinematography - when Kenneth walks into his new office, for a moment everything is washed out in total white, the adult bookstore is shot in glaring, lurid reds, time spent with Lisa is shot in soft-focus, and time spent at home with his doll is stark and grainy. It's all done very dramatically in the plainest sense of the word, evoking the singular vision of 80s-era Brian DePalma without feeling like a deliberate homage. Were it not for the occasional anachronism - the idea of Real Dolls, email and the Internet, body piercing - this would feel very much like something that had been recently rediscovered or pulled out of a storage vault somewhere. That it doesn't come off like a self-conscious examination of a particular style is a big strength. All of this is further sharpened by a tightly-plotted story that shares, interestingly enough, a lot of the same beats as a screwball comedy, balancing the creepiness and tension with black absurdity. Misunderstandings and misconceptions abound, and they're just as likely to evoke nervous laughter as undercut things in such a way that the laughter dies in your throat. It's all faintly ridiculous, but again, playing it completely straight sells it. It's silly the first time something happens, and dark as hell the second.

Its lack of realism doesn't mean that it sacrifices feeling, though - this is not a case of style over substance. It's pretty obvious from go that Kenneth is wrapped a little too tight and is not completely healthy, but even so his interactions with Lisa feel sincere and sort of endearing. It doesn't seem like he's deliberately trying to maintain a mask of sanity or anything, which makes his descent all the worse. He's not pretending to be a good guy - he really is a good guy, but he's socially and emotionally stunted, and has some really unhealthy interests. The tension between these two parts of him (who he is with Lisa, who he is at home) is making him come unglued (an apt expression in a movie about a doll). When the other shoe finally drops and things go bad for him it isn't a huge surprise, but it is really upsetting and sort of sad when it's not oh-holy-shit tense. He's trying to be a better person, and he's failing. Kenneth has the opportunity to trade manufactured experience for authentic life, and his decision is devastating.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix (available on DVD) 

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