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Blind date
Greg Harrisís November is worth remembering
BY PETER KEOUGH
Ambiguity calling

Harrison explains . . . sort of

You might be surprised to learn that November has not been marketed as a film whose ending you mustnít give away. And director Greg Harrison sees no harm in revealing that ending. "I usually donít speak of the movie in terms of a puzzle movie or a big twist-ending movie. And though some people feel the ending is conclusive, others feel it isnít and they come back to me with a lot of interesting explanations. There is that puzzle element, but I think it was one of the least interesting aspects of directing the movie."

But didnít he try shape the film in that direction, what with the chapter headings "Denial," "Despair," and "Acceptance"?

"That was something that came after Sundance, and it was a way to give an emotional or psychological context to the movement of the film. It nudged people toward the idea of the movie being organized in some kind of emotional way. It was an experiment for me as a director to play with ambiguity, and thatís a real art. I admire David Lynch, whoís a master of using abstract or unconscious imagery and feeling."

Harrison, who works as an editor and also makes trailers for such films as Flubber, knows the perceived limitations of the average audience and the ways studios try to exploit them. "Ambiguity, I think, is seen as very negative in popular cinema. I think you do have to look more into smaller indie movies to see people working that way. I think the one heartening thing was seeing Mulholland Drive do as well as it did. But Lynch is the master of that."

Nonetheless, he was drawn to Benjamin Brandís script for November both as an aesthetic experiment and as an exploration of emotion. "It was never about being a big movie. It was about being a movie that had some meaning artistically. I chose visually to evoke the sense of a traumatized mind, and that is the emotional reason why the story is presented in so fractured a way. Memory is fluid and malleable and incomplete, and that seemed a jumping-off point. And blocking memories with abstraction: when each of these three narratives reached the breaking point when she had to face the truth, the narrative would stop making sense, become abstract, and she would have to re-create the narrative."

If given the chance, though, Harrison would, like his heroine, try to revise his movie. "It would have been interesting not to have just an intellectual conceit to the movie but have greater character development. In the end, I feel like itís an expression of trauma, but maybe not through a detailed character rendering. I would have liked to have explored the script and the narrative through a much longer form, but we hit a wall because we were making a movie for $150,000 in 15 days."

Even though November doesnít have much to do with the world outside, Harrison insists that navel gazing is not his nature. "I had developed a political satire called Return to Morality, a satire of the religious right, but after September 11 the project fell through because studios werenít going to touch a political movie. But now Iím writing/directing The Radioactive Boy Scout. Itís a true story that takes place in Michigan about a Boy Scout, a 16-year-old, who in the process of getting his Eagle Scout badge makes a nuclear reactor thatís shut down by the government. Iím making it for Warner Independent Pictures."

That sounds better than editing trailers for Flubber.

"Trailers have been great for me. Itís incredibly fast cash, a flexible schedule, and it funds my ability to be a director and be choosy. If I didnít have editing, Iíd have to go make Flubber 2 to survive. I donít want to direct Flubber 2, but Iíll cut the trailer and write Radioactive Boy Scout."

_PK

RELATED LINK

November's official Web site

Film offers the ideal medium for mirroring mental processes, an activity thatís guaranteed to alienate anyone looking for entertainment. Greg Harrisonís second film (like his first, Groove, it was a favorite at Sundance) tries to have it both ways. November intends to demonstrate how truth lurks in the spaces outside the frame and between each cut, how editing and composition reflect the psychology of discovery and repression. But this is just what someone paying $10 to be diverted is trying to forget. So Harrison compromises, welding his formalist exercise to the more accessible structure of The Sixth Sense, Groundhog Day and Memento. The flawed result underscores the potential of film and the limits of commercial filmmaking.

Maybe his first concession to popular taste is casting Friends alumna Courteney Cox as Sophie. Sporting an unflattering haircut (an " underachieverís, " mom Anne Archer tells her, in one of the few instances of character development), shapeless clothes, and no make-up to soften her hard edges, she does efface memories of Monica. En route home after dinner with her boyfriend, Hugh (James Le Gros), she asks him to stop at a convenience store to buy her some chocolate. Anyone who watches movies knows that an unscheduled stop at a convenience store means ironic disaster. Here the inevitable trigger-happy robber pops in and Hugh ends up dead on the floor.

Or does he? Traumatized, Sophie checks in with a psychiatrist, where she confesses that she had been cheating on Hugh just prior to his death. In the photography class she teaches, a slide in a studentís presentation shows the convenience store around the time of the crime. Sophie notifies the police and does some investigating of her own, taking a lead from Michelangelo Antonioniís Blow-Up and expanding the image in her darkroom. (References to the existentially distraught protagonists in Roman Polanskiís The Tenant and Francis Coppolaís The Conversation follow, more distracting advertisements of the filmmakerís cleverness). Throw in the unsettling digital photography and the jangling, pixilated computer interludes ó blood, broken glass, other abrupt, suggestive images ó by Lew Baldwin separating the filmís three sections and itís clear that something more ó or less ó is going on than meets the eye.

Sophie, you realize, is inventing stories to avoid a devastating revelation. Although Harrison hasnít created enough of a character to allow you to form a strong emotional bond with her, the filmís imagery, editing, and disorienting rhythms draw you into Sophieís distress and at the same time alert you to how her struggle parallels the form of the film itself. But Harrison canít resist exploiting our desire to uncover what Sophie is trying to hide. He stirs the generic expectation of resolution, and he more or less fulfills it, but at the cost of subverting Novemberís ambiguity.

His biggest miscalculation might be his labeling of each section with a stage from Elisabeth Kübler-Rossís pop psychology text On Death and Dying. That assuaging of our terror at the inescapable and the unknowable almost kills off what is terrifying and unknowable about the film. November is the cruelest kind of movie, promising brilliance and originality and then backtracking with the standard excuse that these are things no one wants to see.


Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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