Frank [2014]

I left Frank feeling vaguely unsatisfied. It suffered a little from reminding me a lot of the absolutely storming and driven Hedwig and the Angry Inch; a movie whose apparently dissolute structure reveals itself by the end as laser-focused on its topics of interest, and where virtually every scene packed a real punch. Frank also reminded me of every underdog movie ever, from Dodgeball on up. A group of misfits band together and beat the odds. Individual scenes seemed pulled from other, better movies – there is one scene in particular that’s almost beat-for-beat lifted from The Big Lebowski, where the band fails to scatter the ashes of a fallen comrade.

What I came to realise, in thinking about the film in more detail, was that these half-references that fell flat, did so in a controlled and patterned way. They’re not imitations failing to hit the marks of the original, but a commentary and engagement with the principles of design of the narratives I’ve brought up here. Frank is unified by a delicate and subtle design principle that responds in complex ways to other storytelling, to make a big point about a big topic, and we need to go right back to the fundamentals of human connectivity to appreciate what it’s doing and how.

Spoilers from here.

Human relationships are more like Alchemy than Science. How and why they form and function is the topic of much debate. I liked the summary that Ellen posted on facebook recently of dating – I’m paraphrasing here – that women are not machines for sex, you can’t put in a rote set of behaviours and get sex out at the other end. A wonderful insight, that applies far more broadly than the context in which it was raised. Relationships are an alchemy that we’ve all experienced, and more times than we care to admit. Sometimes, you’re in the right place and doing the right thing with what appear to be the right people, and it all falls flat. Sometimes, just the opposite.

Structure can help work around Alchemical arbitrariness. My two main experiences with that are in Roleplaying Games and Ultimate Frisbee. I’ve had the experience of playing with some very good players and doing relatively poorly because there was no spark of connection, and I’ve had the experience of playing with relatively poor players and doing okay. The key word there is relatively, because it seems to me that beyond a certain level of skill, a true master can fabricate a basic level of connection, that’s “good enough”. I do sometimes find that very strong players impose their own play-styles on the group or team, isolating or even excluding players unable to adapt to a strong controlling vision – cases where no amount of skill can overcome some Alchemical imbalance in the relationships.

I think the default mode of relationship design in fiction is for the Alchemy to just work. Characters just are in love, they just are friends, and so on. In particular, American Sitcoms (and RomComs) lean heavily, very heavily, on this trope. The Big Bang Theory is my current worst/best example of this, where I believe no friendship group could survive the petty niggling and bridge the gulfs of behaviour shown on screen. RomComs usually try and obfuscate the arbitrariness of relationships by walking the characters through rote paces, exactly as if people were vending machines of affection, and they are bold enough to do so from an initial starting point of antipathy, following Much Ado About Nothing, as the basic starting point for all modern RomComs. Even when characters don’t really reconcile fully, fiction tends to wrap up antipathies in “mutual respect”, where two different and opposing characters agree to disagree, and agree that both sides are potentially right, in the right circumstances.

Genuine exploration of unreconciled characters is vanishingly rare. I think that’s because in life, when the alchemy fails, there’s not usually that much consequence. That’s almost the definition of an Alchemical failure – you mix the ingredients and they remain as they were. We meet a lot of people at work, at parties, at sports events, roleplaying game conventions or on first dates, where nothing much happens and we forget about the encounter and move on. Apparently this bias, of simply ignoring or forgetting what does nothing, is actually reflected in scientific publishing. Publishing a scientific article which says that a bunch of testing was done and nothing happened is very difficult. So, it’s something which hardly shows up at all in Drama of any kind. This nullity, this failure of Alchemy, is at the heart of Frank.

The camera’s focus is on a young aspiring musician, Jon who gets the opportunity to play with the band [placeholder]. He leaps at the chance, because it is the first opportunity he’s ever had. The band’s music is challenging, but he decides to join them for a gig in Ireland. When he learns that the gig is, in fact, a recording session of unknown length, he decides to stick with the band for as long as it takes. It is clear to the audience at once that Jon is out of place, but I think we are supposed to allow ourselves to think that this is a typical fish-out-of-water scenario, in which Jon will eventually find his place. He begins a blog chronicling the band’s efforts, and what he writes reveals his powerful insecurity – he writes about “proving” himself, and about “earning” his spot in the band. He quickly escalates from mere blogging to posting videos of the band’s rehearsal antics on YouTube. Jon believes this will be a chronicle of his acceptance into the band, and, once again, I think the audience recognises this dramatic device and expects the same.

It quickly becomes clear that Don, the band’s manager, has a kindly tolerant attitude toward him, and Frank appears to like him, but the rest of the band don’t. In particular, Clara, the Theramin player, appears to strongly dislike him, and Frank accidentally summarises the difference between them: Jon wants people to like the band, Clara doesn’t care whether people like them or not. I think again, the history of cinema teaches audiences to regard this combative relationship as a precursor to romantic entanglement. It’s an almost unbreakable convention that prickly people like Clara show affection through violence, and her rebuffs are merely the prelude to submissive devotion. Reinforced by Jon’s role as the focus character, the first half hour of the film feels like we’ve seen it all before – because we have, deliberately.

This cozy and familiar story begins to come apart once Jon finally has some inspiration for a song, and shares it with Frank and Clara. They immediately workshop it into something unrecognisably better, and he storms out. His departure is completely unnoticed, and as he leaves, he tweets his bitterness at the band using his funding, but not his compositions. It was at that moment that I recognised the elemental truth that Ellen had recently posted about – the band were not simply going to accept him if he followed a rote process of participating and supplying money. In fact, if anything these things formed a sense of entitlement on his part that is inimical to any kind of genuine relationship. Jon, in other words, is the ironically named “nice guy” of the film – in fact, anything but genuinely nice.

This second act, of the album recording, ends with the band’s manager committing suicide; shortly afterward, some of Jon’s followers on Twitter invite the band to play at SXSW, a music festival to help small acts break out into the wider scene. Jon has been construed as the band manager, and seeing his opportunity, he goes along with this misunderstanding of his role. In fact, he persuades himself that since he has this opportunity, it’s his duty to make that pretence and then sell the decision to the band. He shows the band the videos he’s been making of them, and they are all furious – aside from Frank. Frank is merely pleased that 27500 people have seen Jon’s feed. In his mind, that translates to more fans than the band had ever even aspired to have. It appears to weigh things in Jon’s favour, in the difference of view between him and Clara.

The trip to SXSW begins the disintegration of the band. Jon, desperate for the success that the festival promises, suppresses his knowledge of Frank’s unhappiness, and even the entire band quitting does not dampen his ardour for fame. Coming onto stage alone with Frank, he begins by saying that “the band” has had a tough time, but have kept it together to appear. It’s a totally fantastic statement, without connection to the reality “the band” has experienced. He begins to sing his own composition, the utterly worthless ditty completely reconfigured earlier, and Frank collapses. Jon’s dream of proving himself has led to a catastrophic collapse of the band. When he was unable to conform to the band’s weirdness, he tried to reconfigure it to match his own aesthetic, and it broke instead.

The big question for me at this point in the film is: So What? This isn’t a high tragedy, it isn’t cathartic in that sense. It isn’t without humour, but if laughter was the object then the entire construction could be easily refined to get more laughs. It appears to operating as a kind of meditation on the theme of emotional obliviousness, and once I start to engage with it on that level, both character and story begin to attenuate to a vanishing point. Consider Clara.

We meet Clara at Jon’s first gig with the band. When her Theramin breaks down, she absolutely loses her cool, before marching Frank offstage. She is overtly hostile to Jon, but clearly has a strong connection with Frank, expressed by their musical collaboration. She thus figures centrally in Jon’s identity, in the mechanics of the story of the film. We are shown almost nothing else about her, and that’s deliberate. After a crucial conflict, she has sex with Jon – we, and especially Jon, believe this is the culmination of the typical “romance” plotline of initial adversarial head-butting followed by capitulation. Not so, for Clara, fucking Jon was just another exchange in that conflict. What that move accomplishes is unclear – is it just that she’s lonely? Is it a deliberate power play? Is it what Jon at first thinks it is, but with instant remorse? The film’s slavish focus on Jon’s perspective means we never see more than glimpses of an answer to any facet of Clara.

This is the very essence of Jon’s failed alchemy, unfiltered for the audience. Jon’s inability to connect with the others in the band inhibits the audience’s ability to connect with the others in the band. Moments that should begin to explain them to us become instead moments whose reflection is revelatory of Jon’s character. The crucial scene for this is when Don comes to commisserate with Jon over their mutual lack of talent. To prove his unmusciality, he plays Jon a short song that he’d writtern – it is beyond quirky, but it expresses orders of magntitude more musicality and depth than anything Jon has produced. Jon, of course, sees Don’s talent and accepts the offered parity. The audience sees in this scene how Jon sees himself, but it offers minimal insight into how Don sees himself. When Don warns Jon that sooner or later everyone believes they can be Frank, and is subsequently found hanged while wearing Frank’s spare mask, it hints at a deeper scenario, but it only hints.

Adding this all up, I think Frank is a very controlled exploration of its central idea, of why and how some people simply don’t connect with others. In another light, Jon is a minor sociopath, bent on his own needs at the exclusion of the others around him. I think that Frank is intended as a cautionary tale about wanting others’ approval, and the dangers it brings not only to you, but to them. However…

… this directly me back to the question, “So What?”. Why should I care or be interested in someone as worthless as Jon? For all the charm and the quirky amusement and the drama… the charisma and empathy vacuum that exists around the central character means I can’t love this film. Even abstracting this to another level of meta-commentary, as an attack on the problem of the cult of celebrity that is inculcated by reality television… just isn’t that complex or deep an insight. The only facet of interest here is that it conveys this message through the negative case, of someone not being loved for themselves, instead of the Hollywood norm of expressing this notion only in positivistic terms, that if you are yourself, the “right” people will come to appreciate your inner value. Frank is the demonstration of the null hypothesis, and deserves credit for taking a new look at an old topic.

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