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DVD Review: Frownland

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Dore Mann, Courtesty of Factory 25

If Robert Bresson – director of austere French art classics such as Pickpocket and Au Hasard Balthasar –  had directed an Adam Sandler movie, it might look something like Ronald Bronstein's unpleasant indie-sort-of-comedy Frownland. In fact, according to the soundtrack album, the title of the cacophonous opening theme is "Au Hasard Frankenstein."  I'm not certain if this is inspired by Keith (Dore Mann – there's meaning in that somewhere), the self-proclaimed "unsufferable troll" of a protagonist, or the mysterious TV program he's watching when Frownland opens, which appears to depict Frankenstein playing the violin and, lacking the delicate digitry to ply dulcet tones out of its fragile woodwork, smashing it in frustration.

That gives you a sense of where this film is coming from, not that it follows a predictable dramatic arch. Where's it going to go? Nowhere nice, I can tell you. For while the "impossible piece of shit" protagonist Keith superficially resembles any number of sad sacks Adam Sandler has played (he also bears a passing resemblance to David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz) he doesn't win the game or get the girl or beat the devil or soar, triumphant underdog. He simply survives the dark night of his own pathology. Maybe that is a kind of heroism.

Frownland takes its title from the first song on Captain Beefheart's 1969 double-album (remember those?) Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart, ne Don Van Vliet,  made a rock record that eschewed many of the signposts of rock music: his record sounds *wrong*, from the rhythms and progressions to the recording techniques that juxtaposed spoken-word non-sequiturs recorded with no small amount of hiss. Undeneath the mask there is more than a faint glimmer of Delta blues. The unpleasantness is deliberate and in its own way entertaining, dark if a bit self-indulgent. Which is a good description of the movie Frownland. It's beautifully shot on grainy 16mm film – the photography makes it hard to look away even when any sane person would want to. Between the frequently hand-held camera-work and the protagonist's literally jaw-dropping inarticulateness, it is uncompromising to a fault.  The guy is a pain and it's painful to watch him. But if you can make it through a brutal and tedious first hour, the film gains cinematic and emotional momentum, and even has a few deadpan laughs that aren't at the expense of others. I admire the movie more than I like it, and I couldn't blame you for not watching the whole thing, but if you're at all intrigued by this review, you'll want to see it. You may also want to shower afterwards.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • The only Bresson I’ve seen is “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” and that was decades ago.
    This review, however, seems coded to someone of my sensibilities; in the first paragraph, this message jumped out at me:
    “Adam Sandler … unpleasant … cacophonous … unsufferable troll.”
    Which makes we want to see this.