This was a special week, because even though ShortMaster Emeritus Phong Nguyen had only been out of town a few months, he returned to join us, with an impeccably-chosen short in hand as well.
Phong regaled us with a Czech short called The Club of the Laid Off, a 1989 short directed by Jirí Barta, who has already treated Cinema 1544 with The Last Theft and The Vanished World of Gloves. The Club of the Laid Off is a stop-motion film about retired mannequins.
These mannequins, locked up in a multi-story warehouse, go about their daily business…cooking, bathing, trying to get the radio to tune something in, going to sit at a desk on the floor below, as if working. There’s even a peeping tom mannequin who spends his time ogling an undressed female through a hole in some canvas. Their existence is fairly mundane (you know, outside of the fact that they’re animate) until one day some human workers arrive with a box full of newer retired mannequins. Our old friends earn a one-way trip to the dumpster, but naturally they make their way back into the warehouse once the real people are gone. And those punk-ass youngsters are just making a mess of the place. They’re partying, listening to loud music, spilling beer all over, having indiscreet mannequin sex in the corner.
The original residents were going to have none of that. So there’s a big mash-up fight. Did you ever make your G.I Joes or Barbies fight by smashing them into each other and making oofing noises? Well, it was kind of like that, except in stop motion. In the end, a bunch of mannequins got to’ up, arms going this way and legs going that way, and what finally remained was an amalgamation of the old and the new, some piecemeal mannequins once again going about their day, although now with obvious influence from the newer, assimilated punks.
Kinda cool. And totally apropos for the movie.
But before the film I also presented a short, in the form of a music video by artist Josh Ritter, directed by Liam Hurley, for the song called “The Curse”. Rather than describe its short plot involving a Mummy and an archaeologist, I’ll just put up a link. Give it a listen/watch.
And then finally we got to the feature film, Lars and the Real Girl, a 2007 beauty directed by Craig Gillespie – his first feature presentation. It’s a film whose plot (man falls in love with doll) has a whole lot of potential to crash and burn. I was hesitant to (and ultimately did not) see it in the theater largely because despite a promising trailer I just couldn’t conceive how one could pull that movie off. Well, I ended up catching it on cable, and I’ll try to answer that question for you here.
This is Lars Lindstrom. Lars is a terribly introverted and socially awkward, though obviously quite nice, young man who lives in an unnamed far northern town, probably in Minnesota. Lars lives in his brother’s garage and seems to get no voluntary social contact outside of church – he even steadfastly refuses his sister-in-law’s requests to join them for meals all the way over at the main house.
This is Margo. Margo is the strangely hot ugly girl who works at the same office as Lars and sings in the choir in his church. Here she is checking him out in the pews. Margo is also somewhat socially awkward, but at least it’s in an extroverted rather than introverted fashion. Margo is kind of going hard after Lars, and he’s just shutting her down. As a side note, the actress who plays Margo (Kelli Garner) is actually quite beautiful. Normally a movie will just take a pretty girl, throw some glasses and a pony tail on her and pretend she’s ugly – and it doesn’t work. With Margo, I think the effect is purely due to acting. She holds unattractive facial gestures and somewhat stiff and contorted body movement throughout the film. I spent the first half of the movie thinking that they found a pretty homely actress to play her until she started to grow on me, and purely based on perceived personality. I was pretty shocked when I saw Garner’s “regular” photos.
This is Lars’ older brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin. Karin is pregnant, and Lars is having a bit of difficulty with the whole thing, largely because his own mother died in his childbirth. But you might not think that he’s having as much difficulty as they are having in this scene. Why?
Because after building up their hopes that he has finally broken out of his shell, Lars has just introduced them to his new girlfriend Bianca that he “met” on the internet. As far as Lars is concerned, she’s an orphan, she’s a missionary, she’s from Brazil, she’s a paraplegic…
…and she’s apparently anatomically correct. (A feature that Lars never takes advantage of, thankfully.)
Lars treats her as if she’s real – he listens to her, acts as if everybody else can hear her, and does things like move her around and eat her food while ascribing the actions to her. Gus and Karin convince Lars that they should have the local doctor check Bianca out – she’s just come a long way from Brazil and she’s very fatigued, the climate is different…being delusional he completely takes that bait and runs with it.
Dr. Dagmar Berman recommends a weekly course of treatments for Bianca, during which Bianca needs a lot of rest and she passes the time talking to Lars. Sneaky. And aside from his delusion that Bianca is real and his otherwise minor social awkwardness, Lars is completely normal. Dagmar recommends just going with it, which would normally be a tough task, but the family decides to keep Lars (and Bianca) out and about in the community while trying to figure out how to cure him. With the prior blessing of the Reverend, Lars and Bianca attend church the next week.
Margo takes it about as well as Gus and Karin did.
But there’s nothing else for it, and as Gus, Karin and Lars treat Bianca as one of the family, so gradually does the rest of the community.
They take interest in her.
They bathe her.
They give her haircuts. Eventually she gets a gig down at the mall modeling clothes. Via a tape-recorder, she reads to the schoolchildren at story time. She even gets “elected” to school board.
But after Lars rescues Margo’s teddy bear from another co-worker’s improvised noose, she asks if he and Bianca would like to go bowling on Friday. Only problem is that Bianca has a school board meeting, so it ends up being just Margo and Lars. The date goes kind of well, outside of the fact that Lars takes care to point out that he would never cheat on Bianca. But soon after, Lars begins to opine that Bianca’s treatments don’t seem to be working. He’s asked her to marry him and she has said no. And finally, he finds her unconscious. Bianca is rushed to the hospital by ambulance and Lars pronounces that her disease is terminal.
One day during Bianca’s hospice they head out to the nearby lake and Lars, for the first time, kisses her. And there, at the lake, off camera, Bianca dies.
If you’ve ever doubted that the cinematic death of a mannequin could be touching and emotionally charged, watch the memorial scene. Seriously.
And then, of course, there’s a funeral.
When Margo suggests that they should remove from the gravesite to catch up to everybody else, Lars suggests they might take a walk. Margo nearly matches Molly Bloom’s “yes I said yes I will yes”. Hunh. Well there you go. Lars and the Real Girl and Ulysses share the same final word.
The remarkable thing about the film is that it’s completely believable due to being set in a small, close-knit town, and it’s emotionally resonant not because it’s about a mannequin, but because it’s about how a community came together to support one of their own through extraordinary times.
What I can say is that I would have no hope for Lars and the Real Girl II. You gotta figure things are going to be awkward all around for Lars and Margo. Does she resent his former love for a mannequin? Does the entire town feel the need to carry on their pretense forever if he doesn’t drop the delusion? Or, even worse, what if he just comes to realize one day that Bianca was a sex doll all along? What happens to his psyche then? No, I’m happy to leave off the film on the somber yet hopeful note it was left on.