Monday, May 21, 2007

An insurance salesman, a soapmaker and a waiter walk into a bar...

meshugge like a fox

The great philosopher Boris Grushenko once said, "There are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about." Yes, but what if you spent the evening with an insurance salesman, a soapmaker and a waiter? What's worse than that, the chicken & biscuit bowl at KFC? Actually, the insurance salesman was erratically engaging, the soap-maker was entertainingly crazy and the waiter? Let's just say he's not getting a tip.

The insurance salesman is Burkhard Wagner, a modern day Flying Dutchman. Instead of roaming the high seas, he cruises the autobahn, unable to go home until he fulfills a seemingly sisyphean sales-quota. Sporting a giggle the Riddler would find annoying, Wagner encounters one financially tenuous soul after another, offering them salvation in the form of a life"nsurance policy to be redeemed by their loved ones. In the process he has sundered his own soul from all that he holds dear; his wife and child. A mysterious woman offers him a lifeline to his own redemption, but will he accept it? Bathing the film in blues and greens, director B/olent Akinci paints a portrait of alienation worthy of Edward Hopper. Burhkard possesses a loneliness so deep, Willy Loman would cry a river for him, but he makes a superb salesman, squeezing every ounce of his remaining sanity into another sales pitch. At times the film mirrors the disassociation of its protagonist, taking us into a realm touching upon the Lynchian, but Running on Empty bears closer kinship to Gilles Marchand's uncanny Red Lights and Who Killed Bambi. This is nowhere more evident than the ending, where Burkhard comes to a resolution which may strike one as deeply unsatisfying but, which upon further reflection, proves to be both beautiful and fulfilling.
Another flavor of mischegas is on display in Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox. Anyone familiar with Dr. Bronner's pure-castile soap has spent time trying to decipher the eyestrainingly bewildering text, arranged on the bottle like some verkakte midrash, exhorting the reader with philosophic gems like:
Whatever unites mankind is better than whatever divides us! Yet, if absolute-unselfish I am not for me, I am nothing but classless, raceless, starving masses, never free nor brave! Only if constructive-selfish I work hard perfecting first me, like Mark Spitz-arctic owls-penguin-pilot-cat-swallow-beaver, bee, can I teach the MORAL ABC'S ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH, that lightning-like unites the Human race! For we're ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! "LISTEN CHILDREN ETERNAL FATHER ETERNALLY ONE!" EXCEPTIONS ETERNALLY? ABSOLUTE NONE!

The source of this enlightenment was a German refugee, Dr. Emanuel H. Bronner. Emigrating to the US in 1929, he spent a number of years as a journeyman chemist. An outspoken proponent of the 'All-One-God-Faith' and the 'Moral ABCs', Dr. Bronner had the forceful, airless deliberation of the kind of visionary typically referred to as a 'crackpot' and in person resembled Samuel Fuller doing an impersonation of Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man. For his tireless efforts, he was eventually committed by his sister, but managed to spring the bughouse and, like all enterprising men of vision, headed for California. It was there he established his soap company and flourished. Through a commitment to the Moral ABC's, nude sunbathing and a daily body rub with Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap, Dr. Bronner lived to be a ripe old alter kocker. Using a mix of archival footage and contemporary interviews, Sara Lamm gives us the whole megillah on Dr. Bronner, his family, his company and his philosophy. Indeed, one of the signal achievements of the film is that, once you've seen it, the teeny-tiny rants on the bottle make sense, Mark Spitz and all. ALL ONE! ALL ONE! ALL ONE!
For a somewhat unclean feeling, one can see The Waiter. Utilizing a premise similar to Stranger Than Fiction, but with all the warmth and humanity of Hostel, the film depicts a frustrated screenwriter mercilessly toying with and tormenting his characters until he discards them like Kleenex. Although the point of the film is what a bad writer he is, it suffers from the fact that, as an audience, we have to endure the same cruel, humorless plot as his characters. In this regard, it is reminiscent of 'Mulligan Stew', Gilbert Sorrentino's unreadably bad novel about a character trapped in an unreadably bad novel. At least Sorrentino threw in a terrifically steamy sex scene, something writer/director Alex van Warmerdam declines to do. Arguably, van Warmerdam serves himself a taste of his own medicine as, in addition to writing and directing the film, he plays Edgar, the hapless waiter of the title and the central figure of torment for the writer-within-the-film, Herman. However, unlike van Warmerdam or Edgar, you the SIFFgoer have the choice of eliding this chazarai altogether by not seeing the film.
Running on Empty
June 2, 9:30pm SIFF Cinema
June 4, 4:00pm SIFF Cinema
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox
May 26, 4:00pm SIFF Cinema
May 28, 7:00pm SIFF Cinema
May 26, 11:00am Neptune
June 3, 9:45pm Neptune

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