Monday, February 23, 2009

Exquisite Gem: Part Two

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (click here for part one)

Photo by David Bornfriend
"Everything about being indie is tied to not being black."
--Micah (Wyatt Cenac)

***** *****

As it turns out, Joanne left her wallet in the cab, giving Micah an excuse to contact someone who might not otherwise expect to see him again. Using his laptop, he tracks her down, only to find out she has a live-in boyfriend, a never-seen white artist who happens to have a few dollars. So, he's poor, she's not, but attraction is attraction--why does she invite him in if she doesn't share his feelings?

With her boyfriend in London, maybe Joanne is lonely, but that doesn't explain the infidelity, unless that's par for her course. Either way, there's nothing wrong in sharing a cup of coffee. After which, Micah accompanies her on an errand, which leads to bike riding and museum-going, followed by a visit to his Tenderloin pad (Joanne lives in the tonier Marina).

Jenkins shows, but he doesn't tell. The characters don't say everything that passes through their minds—it wouldn't seem naturalistic if they did—so their gestures and the way he stages scenes fills in the blanks.



Similarly, Laxton's hi-def cinematography blurs the distinction between black and white and color. Since San Francisco's African-American population hovers around 7%, the eye-catching move would seem to mark an aesthetic choice, a symbolic selection, or a calculated combination of the two. One way or the other: it looks cool. And it's worth noting that there's a difference between living in San Francisco and working there.

Since the mid-1970s, my father has lived in Daly City, San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda, so I got to know those cities when I would visit him over the years. If the City by the Bay has a small black population, the story changes once you move into the suburbs. There's a reason, after all, that the Black Panther Party--along with hiphop acts like Digital Underground, Tupac, and Paris--emerged from the East Bay.

That said, Medicine for Melancholy isn't strictly about race, infidelity, gentrification, or class differences. Instead, it touches on all of those topics from the perspective of one couple's sojourn. If Jenkins took a didactic approach, the 29-year-old wouldn't be attracting admirers like Shelton.

Nonetheless, his film won't work as well for those who don't find these characters compelling, and some won't, since Micah can be sarcastic and Joanne can be a snob, but that just adds to the realism. Too often, rom-coms revolve around the conceit that the central duo must be winning, while the third wheel that threatens their union is a total loser.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, circa 1995
In Before 
Sunrise, one
possible in-
spiration, the
main stumbling
block is geo-
graphy. The movie ends before we find out whether the two travelers will meet again, a question Richard Linklater answers in the 2004 sequel Before Sunset. Does it matter whether Micah and Joanne wind up together or is it enough to spend a day in their company? I won't say how things turn out other than that Jenkins's debut is more polished than Aaron Katz's Quiet City, but scrappier than Linklater's studio duo—and I'm quite fond of all three.

But that doesn't mean it's a black film trying to be white, any more than recording artists like Bloc Party, Dangermouse, or the Dirtbombs are black or mixed artists trying to be white--or trying not to be black (Micah specifically mentions TV on the Radio). They are, instead, products of multi-cultural cities, like London, Atlanta, and Detroit. And Medicine for Melancholy does what the best films about relationships should do: it presents so many believable specifics that it becomes universal.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

"I hate the city, but I love the city."
--Micah to Joanne

Medicine for Melancholy continues at the Northwest Film Forum through Thurs., 2/26. Director in attendance Mon.-Thurs. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Image from  The New York Times via IFC Films.

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