Dir:- Eric Mendelsohn
Starr:- Elias Koetas, Edie Falco, Embeth Davidtz, Rachel Resheff
Some movies have willfully obscure and oblique narratives and yet their mysteriousness fascinates (Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Tarr’s Satantango, Herzog’s Heart of Glass, to name a few). 3 Backyards, despite pretensions to the contrary, is not one of those films. It is the second full-length feature from Eric Mendelssohn, brother of literary critic and Classical scholar Daniel Mendelsohn, whose previous effort Judy Berlin (also featuring Edie Falco) came out over a decade ago to great critical acclaim, but little public attention. 3 Backyards is unlikely to expand Mendelsohn’s audience base, as it treads an all-too-knowingly odd line in retro-seventies camera technique, elliptical and fractured narrative and frankly unconvincing existential crisis.
The movie appears to take place over the course of one day in the sleepy suburbia of a Long Island town (the film was mostly shot on location in Northport). It features three main narrative strands, the first of which is Elias Koetas’s businessman and husband John, who has to take a business flight out-of-town, but appears to be more concerned with the unspoken difficulties in his relationship with his wife (played as if on Valium by Kathryn Erbe). Another strand involves Edie Falco’s wannabe artist and housewife Peggy, who appears to be, along with a friend across the street, a bit of a nosy neighbor. Peggy has become fascinated with the movie star who has rented a nearby property for the summer. Having offered her assistance to the movie star (another tranquilised soul, this time played with searing internalised suffering by Embeth Davidtz) Peggy is thrilled when the actress turns up on her doorstep needing a ride to the ferry terminal. The final strand features a young girl called Christina (played with arresting precociousness by Rachel Resheff) who steals her mother’s birthday bracelet and then loses it whilst exploring the backyards of her neighbourhood on the way to school. The bracelet is lost in the backyard of a strange young man (Nick Diamantis) who is never clearly observed, but, when Christina first stumbles upon him, appears to be masturbating to pornographic material in a shed with dog leads pinned upon the wall (a reference to a minor plot development about the disappearance of a prize poodle).
There really isn’t much narrative to describe, as this is very much a character and mood piece, at times playing like a series of interconnected short fictions focused on a theme. Mendelsohn seems to be intent on revealing the ‘strangeness’ of the everyday, boring and hum-drum. Each of the characters is introduced to us through their homes, normally with a hypnotic sequence of mobile dissolves. John and his, seemingly narcoleptic, wife are shown sat at their dining table at half three in the morning, then we are taken upstairs to where John is packing his things, before seeing John look in on his daughter whilst she sleeps and then returning downstairs to where he leaves his spacious, modern and glacial house. Peggy is out in her back garden painting when the doorbell rings and she reluctantly breaks from her work to answer. Entering the house via her back door she passes through into the livingroom, answering the front door (our view of Davidtz obscured at this point), before then proceeding to run upstairs to her bedroom and ring her friend across the street. Christina is shown sneaking around in her mother’s room when she should in fact be getting ready for school. Her mother is downstairs trying to get her daughter to move before she misses the school bus. Both the kitchen and the hallway are revealed to the audience before Christina departs the house in a hurry. Thus, in the most controlled and yet subtle way Mendelsohn allows us to explore the normally unseen interiority of these character’s domestic spaces, before thrusting them out into the public space of the ‘neighbourhood’.
Mendelsohn is quite clear from the opening credits of the movie that the ‘realism’ on display is attenuated by a concern for the ‘cosmic’. Recreating some of the unsettling look, tone and atmosphere of American independent seventies cinema (particularly features like The Strawberry Statement, Minnie and Moskowitz and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane) the movie utilises numerous slow tracking shots and the aforementioned dissolves, to give a sense of breaking through the protective and isolationary shells of home and workplace. Each of the main characters appears to be discovering unknown facets of their neighbourhood, whilst coming to understand a crucial ‘truth’ about their relationship to another human being. Despite a tendency toward simple, straightforward and unadorned shots, Mendelsohn accentuates the ‘weirdness’ of his setting by employing a richly patterned colour scheme throughout (deliberately washing out the colours of manmade spaces, whilst intensifying the effects of sunlight and natural features such as trees, lawns and flowers). The soundtrack is also flooded with ambient sounds, such as: crickets, sprinklers, footfalls, static, electrical hisses and airplanes. Often what is heard has absolutely no bearing on what has been shown, creating a disjuncture between reality and perception.
These stylistic flourishes can also be way off the mark with the mannered acting of Koetas, Davidtz and Danai Gurira (as the woman who John observes in the diner) being a real obstacle to any empathetic connection or understanding. Also, the histrionics of Michael Nicholas’ relentless and overbearing musical score, frequently incongruous as it is, serves to weaken much of the curious and discomfiting tension that builds up as the movie drives toward its conclusion. As much as Mendelsohn’s attempt to deal with ‘big’ ideas can be commended (the failures of modern communication exemplified by the physical disconnection of phone conversation, the unbearable weight of pure happenstance, the bizarre relationship that ordinary people have to celebrity, the inscrutable nature of evil, the numbing isolation we endure as individuals or as family units, and the wonder all around us that we take for granted every single day), 3 Backyards ultimately failed to illicit more than a grudging admiration for the director’s technical skill and craft. Although the characters are not Hollywood clichés, they do however inhabit a clichéd, almost anti-Hollywood, independent film idea of how people behave and interact. John’s section is perhaps the most frustrating in this sense, as his character seems literally incapable of explaining himself, or talking to another human being in a way that doesn’t sound like deliberately mystifying dialogue. It is in these elements that the film can feel a little like the exercises in preciousness that a film school or creative writing graduate might devise.
From the very first scene of John and his wife at their dining table, I was reminded of the work of Lawrence Kasdan, particularly The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon. Both Mendelsohn and Kasdan clearly utilise a heightened sense of realism in their portrayals of domestic spaces and traumatic experience. However, whereas Kasdan focused his studies of grief, loss and alienation on characters that you might not recognise, but you can at least understand, Mendelsohn, too often appears to be working through the thematic whilst losing focus of how to convey this organically through the characters. Perhaps the most successfully realised of the characters is Edie Falco’s Peggy whose neediness is allied with her nosiness, both of which seem to stem from a boredom and insecurity with how she spends her days. Davidtz as the tightly buttoned down celebrity, who appears to be going through the shock felt after a traumatic event, does a superb job of deflecting Falco’s anxious neurosis right back at her, making the drive to the ferry terminal an increasingly savage depiction of self-cannibalisation. At the close of the movie when Peggy’s family return home and ask her what’s wrong, her inability to self-diagnose her ‘problem’ is far more satisfying than John’s morose tour through the wrong part of town, or Christina’s sudden confrontation with an indefinable evil.
Despite its failings 3 Backyards does weave a fairly mesmerising spell, if you allow it. In much the same way as Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, in amongst the wreckage there are some sequences that linger long in the imagination and no other filmmaker would have likely developed. A sequence in which John communicates with his wife and daughter whilst, unknown to them, standing a walls width away, is remarkable just for the condensed range of emotions it manages to convey, as if seeing someone eulogising their own life to their loved ones. In a recent Hollywood rom-com called Crazy, Stupid, Love, there is a superficially similar sequence involving Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, yet the genuine depth of emotion present in Mendelsohn’s scene is almost completely absent, replaced by a treacly sentimentalism. Another moment that has persisted in my imagination, since viewing the movie, is to do with the strange young man who Christina stumbles upon. When Christina returns to find her bracelet there is a wonderfully disorienting bit of dialogue barked off camera, that allows you to realise that somewhere this young man has a father oblivious to what he is doing. The way in which Mendelsohn evokes a strong childlike perspective during Christina’s parts of the movie, so that the most mundane of things suddenly take on an element of wonder, or danger, is quite fascinating. Whilst the encounter with the imposing physical form of the young man, is made all the more unsettling and enticing, by the inability to make out his face, obscured by darkness and the dazzle of the sunlight. Never before has a bead of sweat come to so strongly define a sense of personality.