Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber and Hope Davis in The Daytrippers
Love and Death off Long Island
By Richard Armstrong
Leafing through some of Irene Dobson’s papers recently, I came across a 1998 review of The Daytrippers (1995), an American independent feature which, like so many of those little movies, seldom gets shown on British television these days and even more rarely written about. It was a lackluster review. It was not that Dobson didn’t like it; she did and wrote in glowing terms of the acting and the richly observed conceit which propels its day-long tapestry of familial dynamics and lovers’ betrayals. It was lackluster because, as she leant over and confessed to me that afternoon, she hadn’t actually seen the film before she reviewed it. As she recalled, the press screening was on the same Tuesday afternoon that she had to pick her cat up from the vet, as he had just been neutered and she wanted to be at home when he awoke from the anesthetic.
This rather eccentric history strikes me as characteristic of a writer who so loved the act of writing about films that, very occasionally, the writing came before the actual witnessing of the event meant to prompt the writing. Reading the review, however, you would not guess that its author had not seen the film. Like all of Dobson’s writing, it was accurate, literate, allusive, compassionate, and brooked no bullshit. What she admired about The Daytrippers was what she admired about so many of the films she advocated: its artistic integrity, its consummate grace, its left-field provenance. Reading Dobson’s review now, I could never mistake it for another writer’s work.
Thinking back, I can’t help reflecting on the irony that, in a summer when Paramount ban American critics from attending screenings of Michael Bay’s The Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) for fear that they may see it for the shallow blandishment that it probably is, I come across a review which, whilst far from its author’s best work, is nevertheless brimming with curiosity and affection for a moment when America once more had a native cinema of tact and vivacity. And whilst the critic had deliberately not seen the film, she had written a review which made me want to see it again.
So this evening I watched Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers. It has grown with the passing years. Like the best American independents, it glows with unconventional exchanges. There is surely a book to be written about acting in the ‘indie’ movies, for what made that rebellion against corporate filmmaking so vivid was its attention to interaction, interpersonal dynamics, the schizophrenia of speaking… in short, everything which makes people so fascinating. In the post-Jaws era of effects-driven franchise popcorn doused in the predictable taint of consensus, the work of 1990s filmmakers such as Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener, Tom DeCillo, Allison Anders, Greg Mottola and others now seems to represent a return to the grubby, subversive and beautiful, a metaphysics of the unexpected. Writing in Sight and Sound in August 1998, Liese Spencer found The Daytrippers seeming to resurrect the very origins of the independent spirit. Produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh: “(executive producer and director, respectively, of sex, lies and videotape), this assured debut…is a bit like ‘sex, lies and family slide show’”.
The Daytrippers trailer
True to the indie aspiration to do different at whatever cost, The Daytrippers is an unpredictable ride. The transient mood is established from the very beginning as the credits segue into a car journey in which Eliza D’Amico (Hope Davis) and her husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) drive home from a Thanksgiving family reunion, passing through Long Island strip malls and parking lots, the very locus of a corporately sponsored ennui which the film criticizes both as diegesis and in its very form. Like the middle class mediocrity which the endearingly pompous Carl Petrovich (Liev Schreiber) will later rail against, The Daytrippers champions human spontaneity amid a smiley badge civilization.
The film’s conceit rests upon Eliza’s discovery of a note, apparently sexual in nature, which falls out of Louis’ pocket in their bedroom. This contingency becomes the motor which drives her and her parents, her sister Jo (Parker Posey) and Jo’s boyfriend Carl back into the city on an impromptu investigation of Louis’ private life. Everything that follows has the feel of the improvised and unplanned, an off-balance tenor punctuated with peppery turns from the alimony outlaw Ronnie (Andy Brown), plastic publishing PA Cassandra (Stephanie Venditto), the jilted neurotic Libby (Marcia Gay Harden), and a couple of spinster sisters fretfully dividing the contents of their dead mother’s medicine cabinet. Indeed, in this latter scene, in which Eliza’s mission is briefly diverted by an offer to help them move some boxes, the film takes on a distinct change of tone. While the acid-tongued Molly (Marcia Haufrecht) kvetches in the background, Doris (Carol Locatell) comes over to Eliza and runs her fingers through the younger woman’s hair, her face sinisterly back lit. The moment is another in which The Daytrippers bears the suggestive patina of films far from the historical or aesthetic contexts out of which it appeared.
Obviously batty, possibly a visionary, Doris reminds us of Heather, the medium in the British supernatural horror film Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973), another visionary habitué of some forgotten lace curtain hinterland. The comparison is not as eccentric as it sounds. Both Doris and Heather seek to console those who are either bereft or verging on the brink of bereavement. The Daytrippers may not be about death in the insistent way in which Don’t Look Now was, but the ‘petit morts’, so to speak, of ending relationships hang over it. Were his film set on the outskirts of London and its familial dynamics confined to the suburban living room, Mottola would have past muster as an American Mike Leigh. And as in Leigh, in this atmosphere, events could go either way. Primed by a book launch to listen to an author’s life-hype, we are distracted by the prospect of Carl, inadvertently positioning himself behind her and her publisher and smiling foolishly at the author’s audience. We are reminded of that moment in Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) when the misfit is spotted amongst the ranks of Hitler’s henchmen distracting the great man as he makes another joke about Poland. This comparison too is not that far-fetched. Allen’s oeuvre also represented a literate oasis amid an industry committed to multiplex values. Zelig dramatized the predicament of the intelligent individual torn between conflicting perceptions of himself amid a clamor of competing egos and temperaments. The Daytrippers focuses on characters simulating and dissembling according to the crowd they happen to be with.
In its odyssey structure, The Daytrippers is as much a sequence of adventures in conversation as it is a series of incidents in the big city. Just as we were primed for a delicate tale of suburban manners, we are whisked into lower Manhattan for a boho dance. Just as we were expecting this to be the story of Eliza and her straying husband, it comes to turn upon a fractious and painful split between Carl and the flighty Jo. It is always tempting to reach for comparisons with other films when dealing with a debut feature, but it is perhaps especially symptomatic of this film’s volatile temperament that it seems to emerge from widely differing traditions all at once. Following the Malones’ battered station wagon on their idiosyncratic voyage into Manhattan, Richard Martinez’ score recalls those watery ‘60s tunes that adorned Hollywood comedies such as Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman (1968). Constructed after a tragic contingency, and accompanying its bickering protagonists on a metropolitan odyssey peopled by an assortment of eccentrics, the two films have a surprising amount in common. Consonant with the indie rebellion against conformity, generic expectation and mainstream palliatives, The Daytrippers keeps this journey from going off the boil by throwing curve balls at its suburban voyagers, and issuing ultimatums to its audience. The sense of disequilibrium is stitched into the very film as a performance. During the heated exchange with Louis after he is discovered with his gay lover, the actors stand around dumbly, as if unsure of what to do next. “Will you stop staring at me, please!”, Louis yells at Jo and Carl. He could be speaking to the spectator, poised between incidents, bystander before an unruly public fracas. As Jo and Carl row following her call to the rakish publisher Edward Mazzler (Campbell Scott), the mood is inscribed on the film in wavering uncertain camerawork. For Spencer, the film’s eventual denouement will find all at sea: “Swapping to handheld camera, [Mottola] follows his characters as they erupt from the confines of the car and spill out on to the pavement. Shouting at each other on empty street corners, they are suddenly lonely, isolated figures, back-lit by the window displays of closed shops, their words drowned by the roar of city traffic.”
Hope Davis in The Daytrippers
The uncertainty is part of the poignancy. Mottola sets up protagonist and spectator to be let down. Trailing Louis to a basement party full of media types, Eliza spots her husband in the crowd in a murky upstairs room. The atmosphere is deliberately soporific, a slo-mo intensity dictated by an elusive bossa nova beat. Eliza watches as Louis gyrates and shimmies. Seen through her eyes, he is like a kid, the little boy she fell in love with. We cut from this laden emotive image to close-ups of her watching and back again. Enthralled by this handsome man, she appears like a spectator at a film. Then she witnesses him shimmy up to a man and kiss him… Suddenly this blissful memory of classical spectatorial idolatry grows dark as the camera studies Eliza’s hurt and bereft face. If it began with the adoring woman in the audience gazing desirously at the star, this scene will generate an emotional freight redolent of one of Hollywood’s most resilient genres. Eliza’s disappointment briefly turns The Daytrippers into a modern ‘woman’s picture.’ This seems consonant with the film’s gender sympathies. If its male portraits evince deep suspicion of the masculine libido — the vacillating Louis, the smooth Mazzler, the ineffectual Carl — The Daytrippers reserves its strongest affections for female characters like Libby, the bickering sisters, and Jo and Eliza as they finally loose themselves from the compromises of patriarchy in the New York crowds. Notice how the film’s frequent literary references are borne by these questionable males. Andrew Marvell’s poem The Definition of Love is explicated by Mazzler, while Carl’s lecturing discourse is full of allusions to Marvell and a comparison between his own allegorical effort and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Whilst such allusiveness could be read on one level as an entreaty to the female grad school literature major in the audience, it suggests that men may be good at making with the ‘literary’ footwork, but, as when Louis is cornered at the party by Eliza, they fumble at the goal line.
For all its singularity, The Daytrippers bears a venerable heritage. At the climax in which a sympathetic female protagonist must contemplate her own sexual betrayal, Eliza’s close-ups evoke in modest form nothing less than film-history’s play with the inscription of subjective perception from Lillian Gish’s expectant look as she hears her long-lost sister in the street in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), to Nicole Kidman’s face as her desire for a boy cascades within her in the opera scene in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004). Life is built, The Daytrippers suggests, out of the tension between expectation and disappointment. In Hal Hartley’s Simple Men (1992) a character says: “there is no such thing as adventure and romance, there is only trouble and desire.” The last time I spoke to Irene Dobson she told me that she had bought a copy of The Daytrippers and was tempted to write a piece advocating Eliza d’Amico is its true author.
The Daytrippers Written and directed by Greg Mattola. Edited by Anne McCabe. Cinematography by John Inwood. Original music by Richard Martinez. Starring Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Pat McNamara, Anne Meara, Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber, Campbell Scott. 87 minutes, released in 1996. Buy from Amazon.