Got My Vans On But They Look Like Sneakers
Medicine for Melancholy, now playing at IFC.
In his debut mega-low-budget two-person romantic comedy, director Barry Jenkins presents the most delicate, far-reaching, and least muddled-headed version of the enduring hipster/indie identity question: If I can’t find community among those who like what I love and dislike what I despise, where can I ever find it?
The Beats had it easy; they just said no to everything they were taught. The hippies had it easy; anyone with long hair was an ally. The punks had it easy: anyone with really really short hair (save The Ramones) was an ally. But the post-punks have it tougher. Their aesthetic requires having an aesthetic, not one signifier, but a style that comprises many. With so many poets, bands, movies, artists, authors, architects, cuisines, cities, neighborhoods, guitars, bicycles, sneakers, jeans, and haircuts to love or hate—and so much approbation or disavowal to be gained—forging a reactive identity can be tough duty.
Living in Williamsburg underscores the first lesson of mass bohemia: be it Beat, hippie, punk, or hipster, the one thing an alternative community cannot abide is nonconformity. Thus the much-derided constancy of the ever-present, ever-slightly evolving W’burg uniform, the deeply conformist style worn by everyone between certain ages and certain avenues. I assume it was much the same in Haight-Ashbury or the East Village. I know it was exactly the same—the conformity, not the uniform—in Austin for the Cosmic Cowboys and in Seattle during Grunge.
In Medicine For Melancholy, Jenkins addresses questions of identity as no filmmaker has before. His protagonist is tortured by his constant rediscovery that the community in which he feels most at home makes no allowances for his most primal identity characteristic. Medicine’s protagonist Micah names the problem: “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black.” Hipsterdom’s founding mythology was that it generated a community that rejected the lies of the larger culture, a community based on (good) taste. But, as Micah says, he will ultimately be seen as and responded to, and therefore remains, a black man first, foremost, and always. An insurmountable barrier looms between him and the cultural community he embraces. His embrace is hollow, and no matter how much fun the indie community provides, it cannot nourish.
And if Micah turns away from it, where could he go?
White hipsters might claim to feel similarly. But for them the crisis remains only existential. They might experience alienation even in a roomful of other people who adore Bukowski, Mott the Hoople, Buck Owens, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Micah suffers from both existential alienation and from the great-great-great-granddaddy of all American identity issues: race.
Micah, played by The Daily Show reporter Wyatt Cenac, knows he’ll always be identified for whom he can’t help being. That injustice fills Micah with outrage. Outrage at America, at indie-dom, at his own taste, at the trap he’s made for himself and at himself for being unable to escape it. Micah raves on about it, even though he’s a gentle soul at heart, a real emo guy, and outrage suits him ill. Further, Micah may loathe, but he never self-loathes. His blackness he savors. This makes Micah’s in-it-but-not-of-it relationship to the white-dominated indie world all the more torturous.
Micah’s foil, for the twenty-four hours we’re with him, is Jo, a beautiful African-American woman who’s opted out of Micah’s rage-fueled self-questioning. Their pairing brings to mind the barbed attraction/antagonism between the “jigabos” and “wannabes” of Spike Lee’s School Daze. But Micah and Jo are three generations younger than Spike’s archetypes; they’ve left such other-defined, unassimilated roles behind.
Jo—with her air of privilege, sulky silences, defiant head-tossing, spoiled-brat sexuality and short-lived sentimental indulgences—evokes Jean Seberg’s Patricia in Godard’s About de souffle. She has Seberg’s haircut, too. All she needs is a striped jersey.
Jo enjoys a life free from work and a white boyfriend who keeps her in an apartment five times the size of Micah’s hipster studio (he has more bicycles than furniture). She regards Micah’s fuming as unevolved. She tells Micah that “his problem” is that he thinks only in terms of race. It’s an unfair accusation, but Jo’s character plays as underwritten. It’s difficult to tell if she’s the director’s mouthpiece at that moment, or just talking shit. Jo’s disinclination to argue race with Micah leads to another revelation. Though pigeonholed as a black film, Medicine For Melancholy’s primary concern is not race at all: it’s class.
In a recent conversation with the RAIL, director Barry Jenkins said: “Micah doesn’t realize that class is his primary hang-up. He sees it all through race-based prism. He doesn’t see that class is driving the arguments he’s having with himself. Micah’s a red herring because he’s so obsessed with race.” The story frames Micah's romantic struggles within a class struggle. This leads to a less than successful documentary sequence in which Micah and Jo stumble onto a meeting of (real-life) San Francisco community organizers. The organizers detail how gentrification has destroyed ethnic neighborhoods and how a coming deregulation of rent control will further drive the poor, black, and indie demographics across the Bay, thus surrendering decades of diversity in The City to the white upper-middle class.
The hardcore non-fiction politics, and Micah being an unreliable narrator, separate Medicine from the films it’s being compared to, like Before Sunrise. There’s little of Richard Linklater’s verbal masturbation (there’s little dialogue, period) and more of the Nouvelle Vague’s mood-building through extended silence and visual presentation. Jenkins claims his favorite director is Claire Denis (Beau travail, L’Intrus, Trouble Every Day). And there is a post-New Wave French feel to Medicine’s aimless walks, the poetic urban landcapes, and the hard-headed refusal with which Jo greets Micah’s romantic interest. Their almost-connection holds all the heartbreak that accrues when one party thinks too much and the other party—the beautiful one—hardly thinks at all.
Visually, the film is compelling all out of proportion to its tiny budget. Jenkins utilizes a singular, carefully strategized visual style, one built on intimate close-ups and voyeuristic streetscapes in varying levels of color saturation. It’s evocative, disciplined, and quite effective. Jenkins’s cinematographer, James Laxton, married older Nikon still-photo lenses to his digital Hi-Def camera. This softens the usual hard edge of Hi-Def, makes the image more cinematic and loosens that every-single-pixel-in-focus aspect of Hi-Def that can render the context much more important than the foreground. Because the visual plan shows so much cinematic and emotional intelligence, the character and plot failings loom large.
Jo’s superficial characterization unfortunately incarnates the film’s shortcomings. Medicine’s so involving, thoughtful, and intentional that the moments that clank really grate. Those moments stem from a lack of time and money, but it’s also true that many early efforts in the Nouvelle Vague suffered from grievously underwritten women. The most misguided sequence features Jo running off girlishly to leap aboard a nearby merry-go-round. Tracey Heggins either is, or successfully plays a peevish former model, and her ride feels self-conscious and narrative-fracturing, an unnecessarily cornball trope. The gorgeous close-ups of Jo grinning on her horsie could be taken as Jenkins’ homage to Denis or early Truffaut or even About de souffle if Heggins were more suited to the moment.
Equally jarring—for those of us who get around NYC only on our bikes—is Jenkins’s presentation of Micah as a fixed-gear fiend. From my time riding around SF, it’s clear some serious badassitude is required to fixed-gear those hills. Micah’s uncomfortable on his fixie and never once puts his feet in the toe clips. When Micah searches for Jo’s apartment, he walks the bike across several intersections and that’s something I’ve never seen a fixed-gear rider do. The bike is intended to give Micah urban, indie cred. Given that he can hardly ride the thing, he comes off like a poseur.
If that seems like picking nits, take it as an example of the few times Jenkins devolves to a traditional vocabulary of visual storytelling. When he does, he reduces the hypnotic hold the story and characters can produce. For the most part, they say things we have never heard before.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.