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Reviewing a Viewing Experience: Queen of Earth
On the Internet, anyone can seem like a big deal. Especially when all you have to go on is whether or not someone has a working email that sits on your listserv. From the perspective of a PR firm or a studio sending out invites to a film screening, it all looks the same. It’s the great truth of our age, which means one person who complains loudly enough can get their way with a company paranoid about avoiding bad press. All that can make a person stand out are time and followers. But if no one investigates how long you’ve been doing something and how many people have been reading it, everything looks impressive, or at least passable.
This is undoubtedly how I ended up with a ticket to go see a showing of Alex Ross Perry’s new film Queen of Earth. My name ended up on a list and my email checked out. No other credentials were necessary. I suppose on my end, all emails look the same as well, and nothing about them gives away how important they are. Each one sits in my inbox as a bundle of text, the offers ranging from an evening of film and critical discussion or penis pills from a Nigerian prince. I suppose that’s the Internet in a nutshell, everyone fooling everyone else and getting fooled in return.
If I lacked a critical body of work or an education in film, I did have two things that qualified me. One was the director. I liked Alex Ross Perry’s last film, Listen Up Philip. The other was my sense of dedication. I walked all the way to the screening after work, closing the distance from Washington Square Park to the Museum of Modern Art, roughly fifty blocks in all. That may not mean much to many of you, but I had to brave the grime, heat, exhaust, and humidity, as well as the crowds of what some might consider humanity to get there. If any of you have been around the Empire State Building and Time Square in August, you can picture the slow, slogging, soggy struggle. The only relief was passing by clothing stores with open door policies blasting jet-loads of artificial arctic air into the street.
I got to the theater with time to spare, and did my best to drain the excess sweat from my clothes. I made sure to dress less like a paralegal and more like a college professor with my brown sports jacket. Since I was early, I got the best place in the house, sitting in the middle of a sea of empty red seats. It also gave me a good vantage point to see who was coming to view the film as the place slowly filled up. It seemed there were three main groups. First was a young collection of cinephiles, many of them with dates they were boring with insufferable comparisons. Then there were the older patrons of the MoMa, just happy to get out and show off their still-working joints and pumping hearts. Finally, there were people like me: the “press.”
The composition of the audience came into play during the film. Certain lines of dialogue elicited loud laughter from scattered patches around the theater. It was mostly from the cinephiles. I didn’t hear any laughter from the older members of the audience. At the same time, I don’t think there was any revulsion from them either. Everyone pretty much remained seated until the end of the film. If we didn’t share any laughter together, we did share silence, which at certain moments was the result of being engrossed in the story on the screen at one moment, and bored the next.
Queen of Earth tells the story of two childhood friends, Virginia (played by Katherine Waterston) and Catherine (played Elisabeth Moss), struggling to figure out the nature of their friendship over the course of Catherine’s stay with Virginia at a lake house owned by Virginia’s parents. Catherine is fleeing two recent losses: a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, and the suicide of her father, a famous painter whose shadow has loomed over Catherine’s life and continues to do so from beyond the grave. Virginia, meanwhile, is doing her best to deal with the aimless direction her life has taken while also caring for Catherine, as Catherine slowly descends into the dark, creaking hallways of a nervous breakdown.
Queen of Earth is a captivating portrait of a woman coming undone without going into the clichéd territory of the hysterical B-film melodramas from which Perry drew, but tampered through the influence of directors such as Roman Polanski. Moss, in particular, is the savior of the film. As Catherine, she gives a strong performance, crafting a sympathetic portrayal out of a character who is judgmental towards those around her and, at times, is an outright snob. In one scene, she confronts Virginia’s new boyfriend (played by Patric Fugit), and essentially accuses people like him of ruining the world to the point her father had to kill himself. It is a credit to Moss’ ability that the audience did not recoil in disgust at her comments, or laughed at Moss’ character for making delusional claims. Instead, in the biggest response from the audience, we all were laughing with her character at the expense of the boorish boyfriend.
However, over, the film suffered from a lack of direction, feeling hastily put together with a dialogue that lacked a natural feel. In particular, the friendship between Catherine and Virginia could have been more developed, especially during the flashback scenes, where it is Virginia who is depressed and Catherine who is doing well in life. Instead, we merely see the present state of their relationship without any hint of what might have brought these two women together in the first place. Tonally, it was also confused, its comedic elements largely the result of piling so much tension onto the audience its members had to find humor somewhere, anywhere, in order to gain a sense of relief. Perhaps it was part of Perry’s vision for the film, serving as a conductor of sorts, by motivating and suppressing our laughter like instruments in an orchestra.
One detail threw me off on a tangent, though I don’t blame the director for this at all; just my own wild imagination. In one scene, a character is reading a book which probably didn’t hold much significance to anyone else in the audience beyond the title: Madness and Women. However, being the quick observer that I am, I realized this book was a reference to Listen Up Philip, because it was written by that movie’s character Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce), the cantankerous old writer who takes the main character under his poisonous wing. Since Moss also starred in Listen Up Philip, it made me wonder about the implications of these two films occurring in the same universe. Namely, did Catherine encounter her doppelganger in New York City, a photographer who also looks like Moss? Perhaps this was what ultimately sent her into a downward spiral from which she shows no sign of recovering by Queen of Earth’s end.
Meanwhile, in our universe, the film’s end brought both Perry and Moss to the stage to answer questions about the movie. It was illuminating, especially to hear Moss speak, and it made me enjoy the film in retrospect more than I would have if I had seen it without their commentary. In a sense, it tampers any ultimate opinion I’d have to give, being blinded by the glitz and glamour of celebrities and all that. Maybe in the future, this is how all independent films will be shown. No more conventional theater experiences. Instead, the director will go on tour with some of the cast and crew, fielding questions and pontificating from coast to coast. It’s what authors already do. Maybe they won’t even show the whole movie. They’ll just share a few passages from the film and tell everyone to download the rest to their devices. It’s what authors already do, too.
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