[25 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Mortality is the last great mystery to man. It’s the final clue as to why we are here, the last link in an ever-present trail of questions, philosophies, and personal lies. We never really consider it until someone we know grows ill, and as we age, we purposefully play at trying to pry away as much of the enigma as possible. We talk tough, staring the fear of nothingness square in its abyss-like vista. But in the secret shivers of the darkest night, we lie awake frozen, cold sweats indicating our actual level of terror. For George Ponso, it’s not a question of how he will die, but when…and he’s not taking the ticking of Father Time lightly. In Giuseppe Andrews’ amazing new motion picture, The Check Out, George is desperate - desperate to connect with people again. Desperate to revisit his past. And desperate to leave his mark on this puny planet before the Grim Reaper makes a fateful trailer park call.
As part of his plan for passing on, George has posted fliers around town. They invite strangers to come around to his humble abode and share experiences with him. George keeps an audio journal of his dreams, said visions usually surrounding an anthropomorphized effigy of his toenails or boogers. He receives one young lady who actually engages him on a philosophical level. An old friend stops by and warns him about diving too deeply into personal history. A big shot Hollywood producer picks George’s dying brain for possible movie ideas and our hero’s supposedly dead dad shows up to give a literary reading. In the end, even George’s doctor doesn’t hold out for a cure. All he can do is swab spicy jelly on his patient’s growth, and hope that his end isn’t painful. George, however, won’t “check out” until he’s ready to…no matter what destiny has in store for him.
As he continues to grow as a filmmaker, as he moves from the certified king of trailer trash to a post-modern auteur with a true and authentic vision, Giuseppe Andrews just keeps getting better and better. The Check Out is his latest magnum opus, and to argue for its greatness is old hat by now. Andrews is the real deal, a maverick movie icon taking digital and homemade cinema into a realm unfathomable by less brave souls. With his typical cast of proto-players, and the consistent discovery of new faces (in this case, a gifted thespian named Nolan Ballin), he brings an unheard of level of authenticity and artistry to his simple, sage like stories. George is supposed to be a bit of a ham. He’s spent 35 years driving a limo in LA, his fondest memory being a meeting with Humphrey Bogart. Everything about him is old school - his façade, his view of the world, his decision to make a statement out of his demise.
But Andrews thwarts such self-indulgence by giving George an air of madness. He calls his tape recorder Davy. He has several dreams/fantasy sequences where his past and present mesh into a kind of comic disarray. As he will throughout most of the movie, our hero views such sequences with a combination of understanding and loss, trying to piece them together while also putting some perspective into the mix. Near the end, after his song and dance with a visiting busker, after the soul to soul with a con man, after the “genius test”, after the cosmic call back with an astronaut (?), George feels content about his passing. He’s done his best to comprehend his current situation, and has decided to go into it with an open mind and a clear heart.
This is a very emotional movie, a true rarity in Andrews’ oeuvre. It’s not for a previous lack of trying - it’s just that we’ve never really gotten to know a character as well as we get to know George. Ballin is brilliant in his performance, taking everything his director has in store for him (including a couple of crazed moments as an ape?!?) and delivering even the dirtiest dialogue with aplomb. He is matched well by old favorites like Vietnam Ron, Walt Patterson, and Sir George Bigfoot. But this is Ballin’s movie all the way. It’s George’s ravings we have to decipher, his pain we have to predetermine. It’s his focus that we fall in love with, and it’s his impending death that brings us closer to clarity than any other individual has in an Andrews movie.
Interpretations are tough, but one can clearly see a continuing maturation of this motion picture provocateur. He is no longer obsessed with feces and fornication. His conversations are not simply poetic performance art regarding the act of carnality (and all the naughty bits in between). Instead, George reaches out to the people he meets, calming a concerned visitor that she cannot catch “death” from him, and leading an old business buddy into a possible Oscar score with a novel revolving around a gang bang. All through The Check Out, George makes it very clear that life is about living, about grabbing opportunities and never regretting the times when you decided not to. He is as erudite as any shaman, as well versed in the ways of the world as a man whose driven around its powerful population can be. But he’s also aging and sad, someone who we see in ourselves - and hope reflects our own sane and sunny outlook.
Yet mortality is a veiled assassin. We don’t necessarily know when it’s coming, but it tends to strike at those moments when even we would sense a window of opportunity. For George, the bizarre growth on his stomach is not the period on his life sentence. Instead, it’s a motivation to evolve, to extend his consciousness and compassion before reality steps in and stops it forever. As he progresses, Giuseppe Andrews also continues to amaze. With a creative canon already overflowing with films (there are at least 20, in various guises, either released or in the vaults, waiting) and a reputation for being as authentic as he is avant-garde, something like The Check Out only secures said mantle. As with the case of his concerned hero, this is one director whose contribution to this world will definitely live on long after he’s left it. And that’s a kind of immortality, isn’t it?