[3 February 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“I feel this was made by a ghost, mine perhaps. I don’t see it as a film but as a piece of space that formed…that’s the best I can describe it, “a piece of space that formed.”
In the early part of 2009, avant-artist and auteur of the trailer park, Giuseppe Andrews, decided to retire from making movies. With The Fast, an eclectic look at one man’s surreal journey into self-help, he seemed to be suggesting a new approach to life. There were plans to focus solely on music, a newfound spirituality, an unusual mention of vegetarianism and an accompanying “raw” diet. And then recently, the man mostly known for his sunny SoCal explorations of the fringe, married and moved to Austin, Texas. Now, as part of his West Coast swansong, we get Diary, a 90 minute focus on how humans fetishize technology and our need to feel like part of each other’s media. Revolving around a family that becomes way too familiar with their daily camcorder journal, we get a more mature, more reactionary Andrews, and the results are amazing.
Dad (Andrews stalwart Ed), Son (Giuseppe), and Wife (longtime gal pal Marybeth) have decided to use their video camera as a way of keeping a diary. The old man just wants to discuss his successful wig creations and record his efforts to enter his favorite dachshund in a local talent competition. Son sees the regular sessions as a means of pontificating on life, the universe, and the possibility of werewolves in the trailer park. Finally, Wife is fixated on making the perfect hard boiled eggs - including her unusual way of peeling them.
When all three go on their annual vacation, they take diary along with them. It does not turn out well. We then visit a Spanish speaking family that adopts a lost sock from the laundry. Dad rescues a stray hamster (naming it Lambour-guinea) and Son prepares for his first art show. Then the chronicle takes on a life of its own, overwhelmed by the intimate details it must record every day. Finally, Wife takes diary out to meditate and it has an epiphany. Eventually, everyone learns to live with, not for, such interpersonal insights.
No doubt, Diary is an instant classic. It reminds you why Andrews has always been considered the Godard of the goofballs. While other filmmakers are busy with straight forward story, complicated camerawork, and uninspired mainstream mediocrity, this remarkable creator simply grabs his camera and shoots. Giving his cast clear instruction as well as free room to improvise and add their own touches, he takes the results and filters them through an aesthetic mindset that mixes ADHD with voodoo, double wide wisdom with clear communicative aims. Andrews always has something to say about the medium he chooses to experiment in and Diary is no different. Here, the message becomes the meaning…and then the media itself takes on a life of its own.
Indeed, for the first half of the film, Andrews appears to be going kitchen sink on us. Dad has his obsessions (Ed’s park side playtime with his dog is delightfully anarchic) while Wife can’t seem to get past the well boiled egg. Naturally, it’s up to Son to set the tone and there is a terrific scene, early on, where the character comments on life in a trailer, remarking that the large bed seems like an island oasis just begging to be relaxed upon. Stripped to his skivvies and applying the solid acting ability that lands him the occasional “straight” job, Andrews becomes a kind of Zen hobo, a scraggly rapscallion who loses himself into fantasy that many have, but few can fulfill…but he does.
But it’s the moment when the diary itself achieves a sort of consciousness that this movie really takes off. Andrews has always used his art as a means of showcasing his many skills, and the minute this being closes its eyes (with the screen going black) and finds its enlightenment (through a small image and a terrific mantra/song by the filmmaker), a new level of development is achieved. Since the earliest days of his directing, Andrews has been more about the words - sometimes four lettered - than the images…and he’s been even more focused on the look than on the interpretations of same. Here, the tiny vision and the tune combine to bring a greater level of accomplishment to the man’s vision.
Of course, we miss many of the regulars, though Walt Patterson makes an appearance, along with such one off luminaries as Nolan Ballin and Odella. Still, the days when Vietnam Ron would chew out Walt Dongo over something Bill Nowlin said to Tyree seem long, long gone. In fact, one could easily argue that Andrews has purposefully divided up his casting, using certain individuals at certain points in his career as part of a planned aesthetic arc. Of course, the explanation might be illogical and the reality less premeditated, but the truth remains that no one can make gold out of the down, the out, and the forgotten like this amazing filmmaker.
It will be interesting to see whether this marks the true end of Andrews work behind the lens. After all, he’s announced other intentions throughout his career and either saw them fall by the wayside or get pushed over for something more pressing. Of course, with the notion that he might quit comes the complement that everything we do get has meaning and is meant to be cherished. In the past, Giuseppe Andrews was guided by a muse that turned the residents of an unknown California trailer park into the pieces of a new post modern no wave cinema. Today, he is working more ethereally, but not more effectively. As with his other films, Diary is a delight. It reminds us of why we fell in love with Andrews in the first place.