medicine for melancholy

Some months ago, I came across a blog post on a forthcoming film called Medicine for Melancholy. At first glance, it looked to be a hipster romance set in San Francisco. There was also some mention of race politics and that the two lead characters are black. Time passed and I forgot about it until I saw that it was playing at IFC so I went last week. And yikes! I mean it has its faults, but it’s also earnest, surprisingly modest, and completely outstanding.

If I have to guess, this is going to be the (ahem) minority position as MfM is being discredited among my filmmaker friends. To be sure, it has a few cringeworthy moments and some of the gratuitous romance scenes are shortcomings. However, dissenters cite the requisite hipster nods – skinny jeans, fixed-gear bikes, dive bar photobooths, indie pop soundtrack – as a major fault, the complaint being they are too blatantly placed, too obvious, too The Killers, et cetera. However, what I think is being missed here is that the film’s intentions hint at processes that point beyond its categorical placement; I’ll gladly look past its lesser moments because MfM is so much more than just indie movie flourish.

Initially, I thought it would be set amongst the twenty-something denizens of the Mission, an area of San Francisco somewhat congruent to my neighborhood here in Brooklyn. Instead Jo, the girlfriend of an arts curator, lives with her boyfriend in the Marina, a particularly moneyed district. Micah (the “oops” hook-up) lives in the historically rough-around-the-edges Tenderloin, an area that while undergoing processes of gentrification, is still blighted by crack and prostitution. The romance, then, is beset by a class anxiety intimately predicated on place. So what’s lovely about this aspect is that, in addition to all these great shots of the city, the film’s movement between places plays on both amorous as well as geographical tensions.

To whittle it down, we learn that Micah is exceptionally conscious of race and ethnicity, constantly citing the African American plight in San Francisco, while Jo takes a decidedly post-race worldview (much to Micah’s dismay, her boyfriend is white). These bifurcated opinions are notable in that they are frequently repeated in discussions of race in the US. But rather than clutch some hard-nosed dogmatism, MfM deftly balances the concerns of location, race, and class in a loose, ambling sort of way – by walking around the city, stealing glances at people, listening in to conversations, and in the small words that are exchanged between lovers. And this is great, MfM doesn’t jump headfirst into a furrow of identity politics. Rather, it takes a more contemplative position, treading water, trying to stay afloat, trying to reconcile a city and culture that takes liberalism as platitude, but whose deliverance is not quite as evident.

But it isn’t ambling without purpose, the film clears its throat and states its concerns, even if there are no immediate answers. The issue of race and ethnicity – wedded of course to class, sexuality, cultural dispositions – is a constant source of anxiety throughout the film. This anxiety, I think, is firmly entrenched among urban, liberal, creative class hipsters. Finally we’ve got a film that deals with this shit! Because behind all the blasé hipster posturing is, I think, a deep seated class anxiety and white liberal guilt just stewing away. Amongst the bookstores and cafes of the Missions, Capitol Hills, and Williamsburgs is this implicit liberalism vaguely championing guilt-free cultural enlightenment, a worldview that never once interrogates, for example, the whiteness endemic to the burgeoning creative class. Oh, no, we’d sooner knit, listen to records, and eat vegan food at the occasional cost of an anxious, unfinished sentence or two on race politics. And then we’ll eat cupcakes and ride bikes after! Aw, so hip!

But I don’t mean to be facetious and nor does the film. In fact, MfM itself is every bit as hip as its demographic. Everything that is cool in this film is earnestly presented as such, but the film’s aim is to question “the cool” without irony. It acknowledges that the material and cultural practices of these characters and this culture are insular. For example, there is this terrific scene towards the end where Micah, drunk and frustrated, rails to Jo about the lack of black hipsters (with requisite mention of one exception; Micah: “except, like, TV on the Radio”). In essence, everything that comes to constitute his interests (“punk, indie, whatever!”) is predicated on some form of whiteness. What I think his frustration vividly expresses is that independent cultural production en masse (its constituency, appendages, cultural practices) is short form for parochial, white, liberal elitism.

I think I can say without jealousy that MfM is a film I’ve always wanted to make. It’s a culmination (admittedly, intentionally incomplete) of spontaneous ideas, shots, bits of dialogue, songs that have been floating around my filmic daydreams for years. Aesthetically gratuitous, imperfect, obsessed with San Francisco, youth, and romance, but conscious of class, race, ethnicity, and left honestly unresolved. Because they don’t know and we don’t know what it means to practice a culture of egalitarianism, but we can and indeed should try.

(Here’s a still. Seattleites: go see it now at NW Film Forum!)




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3 responses to “medicine for melancholy

  1. carmel

    on point alan. the film was beautiful. san francisco looked great in b&w, shot with a digital camera, the graininess of the night scenes. beautiful.

    i don’t really have much else to say, although i was kind of disappointed at jo’s less developed character.

    i’d watch this film again and looking forward to jenkin’s next film.

  2. Carmel mentioned your review to me and wow, you really hit it. I guess this is everything I felt about the film but made no effort to put into words. I also know considerably less about San Francisco, so this gave added perspective.

    I felt like the romance itself was almost unnecessary. The love scene in particular seemed thrown in merely for the sake of having a love scene. All in all I liked the film though and I would probably watch it again to catch more of the little nuances you mentioned.

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