Sunday, September 04, 2011

Glitch in the Grid

Glitch in the Grid is the latest film from Eric Leiser. Like its predecessor Imagination, it combines live action and stop-frame animation to create a what Leiser calls a "personal, magical realist film."

The magical realism isn't as strong in Glitch in the Grid as it was in Imagination -- as a matter of fact, despite the director's assertion, the overall tone of Glitch in the Grid is more "home movie realism" with scattered bits of Christian symbolism.

Leiser describes his film as being "between documentary and fiction." I don't know how fictitious the fictional parts are, or even which parts are fictional, but since Eric, Jeff, and Jay -- the three main characters in the film -- are played by Eric Leiser, his brother and composer/sound editor/sound mixer Jeffrey Leiser, and their cousin Jay Masonek, the film does have a documentary feel. Unfortunately, as I already hinted at, the film sometimes crosses the border between documentary and home movie. And if you're not sure where that border is, when things start to seem a little bit too self-indulgent, it probably means you're in home movie territory.

However, I liked the idea of Eric, Jeff, and Jay acting as (possibly fictionalized versions of) themselves, since it gave a sense of honesty and truth to the film. It didn't feel like anyone was acting. (In my opinion, the biggest flaw of Imagination was that a lot of the acting was amateurish to the point of being distracting. That is not a problem with Glitch in the Grid.)

From a cinematic standpoint, Glitch in the Grid is a well-made film. The animation was creative and inventive and a pleasure to watch, the music was engaging and well-suited to the film, and the cinematography seemed fluid and effortless, making the overall experience of watching Glitch in the Grid a positive one.

But watching a film is one thing, understanding it is another.

Before I continue with my review, I'm going to cheat a little and quote in its entirety the synopsis included in the press materials:

    Jay Masonek is feeling down and out. Although he is a talented artist, Jay has seldom left his small town in Northern California. One day, Jay's cousins Jeff and Eric (who are also artists) visit from LA. They offer Jay the opportunity to come live with them for a period of time in Hollywood. Hoping to cheer him up, the brothers show Jay the city and take him to film castings, even though it's during the economic recession and jobs are scarce. Jay soon begins to feel the oppression of what he describes as "the grid", heightening his spiritual crises. In his desperation, Jay reaches out to God, who in the form of a dove directs and leads him toward hope and renewal. Eventually, Jay returns to his small town, where he find a “green job” in the California redwood forest. Meanwhile, Eric and Jeff pursue relationships in New York and England. At Eric’s wedding, the three come together again. Although he still feels alone, Jay, through a powerful moment, makes the biggest decision of his life.

Now that we know what the film is about, the question is, how successful is Leiser in conveying it to the viewer?

I don't believe it was a great success. The narrative is much less enigmatic than in Imagination, but unless you know in advance what the movie was about, or unless your mind works in the same way as Leiser's -- it's a challenge trying to extract all the meaning that Leiser imbued it with. I don't like things spelled out for me, but for a movie that strives to deliver a message, a little bit of spelling would have been helpful.

The main story arc centers on Jay, who as a young adult has yet to find himself. He spends a lot of time skateboarding and making more sophisticated versions of the sort of drawings high school kids doodle in their notebooks when the class gets too boring. He wants to be an artist but it's tough finding work and Jay doesn't really seem willing to leave his childhood behind.

A lot of the movie consists of Jay talking about his life, and in his discussions with Eric and Jeff, we find that no one really has anything insightful to say. That's not to imply they don't have anything important to say -- it's just that everything said or implied in their conversations has already been said by millions of other people as they realize they've entered adulthood without any real understanding yet of what it means to be an adult.

I suppose my biggest problem with the film is that it requires too much interpretation. Maybe this was deliberate and maybe it wasn't, but as a result I got the feeling that there was a message buried in there somewhere but I didn't know how to dig it out.

For example, to cite a part of the film that's briefly mentioned in the synopsis, at one point we see Jay in a redwood forest as part of a group learning how to make trails and uproot iceplant and other invasive species, learning about the native wildlife, and in general learning about the ecology of the forest. He seems content with this work, but I don't know why this scene is in the film. It's not a bad scene -- I just can't figure out its relevance to the story arc.

My guess (and it really is just a guess) is that it's supposed to signify that Jay is happy now that he's found something meaningful to do, something that gives his life purpose, something that grounds him. But if that's the message, it was all but lost on me. All I saw was someone drifting through life who came to land upon a job working with the Ecology Youth Corps. There's no indication that this is anything more than a temporary job for Jay, that it's more than something to just keep him occupied for a while. He doesn't seem excited or even particularly interested in it, and if he had drifted to another job a day or two later, it wouldn't have surprised me. At the scene's end, we do see him looking up toward the sky, and we soon see the animated dove flying through the forest, so the symbolism isn't lost on us. But if his job has any meaning or importance to Jay, it's not at all clear what that meaning is.

For that matter, nothing about Jay's character is particularly revealing. I saw nothing that looked even remotely like despair or suffering through a spiritual crisis in Jay's behavior, and the only sense I had that he felt oppressed in any way came from the fact that he couldn't find work as an artist. But even if he had come right out and said, "I'm suffering from a profound sense of oppression and despair, and I'm having a spiritual crisis that's made me so confused that I don't even know who I am anymore," I probably wouldn't have believed him, because there's never any expression in his voice. The words sometimes come out, but his feelings and emotions always remain inside him.

To be fair, Jay does tell us that he's not the type of person who vocalizes a lot of the thoughts he has, that he does a lot of quiet soul-searching and has always had an off-and-on struggle to reconcile what the material world offers with what his spiritual purpose is on earth is. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with that -- the only problem is that people who think a lot but don't often express themselves don't always make the best movie characters or documentary subjects.

Some of the other scenes didn't add much to the movie either -- it just seemed like Leiser thought they'd be interesting for the audience to watch. For example, there's a scene of Jay and a friend painting colorful images on a car, and making small talk that eventually leads into Jay improvising a song. They eventually drive off in the car, but the scene goes nowhere. In most films I would call a scene like this "filler" -- in a documentary I would call it self-indulgence.

Ultimately, the film is not mysterious enough to be enigmatic and it's not obvious enough to be straightforward. If it were more enigmatic, it might have been more engaging to the viewer (like Imagination was), and if it were more straightforward, it might have been less frustrating to watch. Instead, it relies on the viewer to interpret things the way the writer intended, which is not always easy. A good example is in one of the final scenes: Does it show Jay reconnecting with his family and finding the comfort and strength that a family can bring, or is he merely helping someone walk downstairs? I'd like to believe it's the former, but there was nothing other than my imagination to suggest this, and since the scene looked so much like home movie footage, I didn't feel compelled to look for any deeper meanings.

Glitch in the Grid is a very personal movie, and personal movies can sometimes be emotionally powerful, but like the pages of a journal, they can sometimes be a lot more interesting to the writer than to anyone else.