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Black Bear

Black Bear

What's she building in there? Is it plans to rule the world or
eat a cookie?

dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

2020

How lucky for us: two movies for the price of one.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Allison, a director / actor who stays in an Airbnb with a couple she doesn’t know in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York. She seems a bit anxious to be there, and the couple she’s staying with seem like they have their own problems.

Blair (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and her jerk of a boyfriend Gabe (Christopher Abbot) doesn’t seem too happy about it, and neither of them really seems like they can stand the other. Bringing Allison into the middle of this feels like dropping someone into the middle of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rehearsal. Everyone is overacting like it’s their last chance before the virus destroys the film industry.

I don’t know how much of this is “real”. I mean, it’s easy enough to suspect that it’s all bullshit, but when you have an actor being asked by another actor as to why she stopped getting jobs, and maybe it was because she was “difficult”, you have to wonder what they’re getting at. I don’t know if Aubrey Plaza has been referred to as “difficult”, which is usually the kiss of death of your career. “Difficult” can mean an actress refused to be violated by a Weinstein or didn’t put up with someone else’s predatory bullshit, or thought she should get paid as much as someone else.

You know, grave crimes like that.

Aubrey Plaza has been in a bunch of films, so hopefully it’s not coming from her personal experiences, but then she’s a woman who works in movies and teev, so, yeah, more than likely, she’s been through some shit.

But there are multiple ways to look at the stories the flick is telling. The stories themselves aren’t that complicated beyond the dramatic. I mean, if we divide the film in two halves, and we call the first half “black bear in the road” and the second half “black bear near the boat house”, we would call the first half trashy melodrama, and the second half a behind the scenes look at what awful people directors are and the shit they put actors through.

And even then that could be simplistic.

Allison in the first half is cynical, comfortable with lying about horrible things, and pretty much doesn’t give a fuck about anyone’s feelings, and is possibly looking for trashy drama in order to be inspired artistically, since she seems to be having difficulty working on a screenplay, or even coming up with ideas for her next flick.

Blair in the first part is fearful, paranoid, utterly dismissive of Gabe in every way, hanging shit on his artistic pretensions, and all his stupid ideas about music and women’s rights in the modern era. And yet she is deathly afraid that Gabe, who is a piece of work, wants to leave her, have sex with Allison, or have sex with Allison and leave her pregnant arse.

In the second half Blair is an actor playing a role in a film. Allison is an emotional wreck because her husband, the director, keeps gaslighting Allison by making her think he and Blair are getting it on, with the intention of spurring Allison on to giving a great performance in the movie they’re making with the last of their savings. The “Gabe” in the movie is a different actor (saying most of the shit Gabe said in the first half). Somehow Gabe is even more of a monster in this half.

Why is it so perplexing for me? The dedication at the end of the film is “For Sophia”, Sophia presumably being the director’s wife Sophia Takal. Who is a producer on this film, and worked on the screenplay as well.

And who is also an actor and director herself.

So, something deeply convoluted and deeply disturbing strikes me about this film, and I shudder to think what this jerk, whose on screen surrogate does awful things no matter which section of the flick we’re talking about, is really trying to tell his wife.

There are sections of the flick, second half, where Gabe the Director is screaming at Allison “This is what you wanted! You had to be in the movie!”, blaming her pretty much for all the abuse he’s putting her through. As a director? As her husband? As a co-producer on a movie?

So earlier when I referred to not knowing how much of this is about something these jerks came up with for the movie, or whether they’re incorporating stuff from their own lives into the stories, I was talking less about how Aubrey Plaza might be perceived by the movie or teev industries, and more about what these people, the ones making the movie, were saying about their lives or each other.

Seems like…they’ve got issues to work through, and who knows maybe working them out on a film set is the perfect therapy for movie-making couples? Seems like a recipe for success if I ever heard it.

After all, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton got married twice, so they must have been doing something right?

The second half is a lot of nuts and bolts behind the scenes type stuff, but I’m not convinced the people working on the crew are the actual crew necessarily who were making the flick (not the flick within the flick, I mean the movie Black Bear). The main reason is they’re all too young and attractive. And that’s just not plausible, unless they’re all film students working for free, in which case, they’re too attractive to be film students.

It all feels like a bit of a cunning showcase, but I’m not entirely sure for who. A cynical reviewer could point out that Aubrey Plaza gets to display seven more emotions than she was ever allowed to show in Parks and Rec or in most of her film roles, but I think it’s just as much of a showcase for the director, as if to say “look at what awful shit I can do to actors.”

I have this recursive image in my head that in the scenes where Gabe the Director is hurling abusive shit at Allison in order to get her to break down and deliver Acting Gold in some of the climactic scenes, that the actual director at the time was also himself hurling abusive shit at the actor playing Gabe the Director in order to get him to deliver Acting Gold…and so on and so on.

Maybe Sophia Takal was also hurling shit at director Lawrence Michael Levine telling him “you don’t amount to shit, you couldn’t direct your way out of a wet paper bag, you two pump chump, the cinematographer Gerald has a way bigger dick than you” in order to inspire his greatest work?

There’s a lot going on, but I’m not sure it amounts to that much. Aubrey Plaza is magnificent as always, and whilst I’ve always loved her deadpan delivery, no, wait, that’s what I love most about her, seeing her pushed out of comfortable acting zones is shocking, uncomfortable, but also I admire her greatly for it. Playing drunk is not easy. Being drunk is easy. She spends a lot of the movie in pain, and crashing around, and that could not have been that easy.

Everyone else is great too, though I’m getting a bit sick of seeing Christopher Abbot’s bearded Canadian face in everything. He was in a substantial amount of Possessor which I saw recently, the horrific horror flick about horribly taking over people’s bodies and then horrors ensuing.

And while that was more disturbing than Black Bear, it’s not by much.

My favourite moment in the flick is in the first half, where Blair accuses Allison of being solipsistic, and Allison pretends not to know what it means.

That’s not my favourite moment: It’s later on when she brings the moment up again, and says “Of course I know what ‘solipsistic’ means. I went to Wesley.”

That’s, well, if I could bring myself to put emojis in my reviews, I’d be inserting the one for “chef’s kiss” right about now.

Still, it all felt a bit pointless in the end.

Black Bear is probably of interest to a very narrow group of people, being those who like flicks about artistic jerks and about the more insufferable aspects of both the creative process and the film production process. Also, for fans of the kinds of filmmakers who like make self-referential, solipsistic work.

You know, like these people. It’s almost like the audience for movies like this is in this movie, or they would be reviewing this flick, or even reading this review.

Black Bear – it’s not enjoyable unless you like watching actors being tormented, but it is interesting.

7 times I know what solipsistic means and I didn’t go to Wesley out of 10

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“You’re really hard to read.”
- “Yeah, you know what, I get that all the time, but I actually think that I’m so easy to read that people just get confused and they make it harder on themselves.” – I’m glad that cleared everything up - Black Bear

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