[21 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Money is much more than the root of all evil. It’s the great social destabilizer, a stigma that makes the haves seem better and the have-nots hang their heads in shame. It causes people to do things, reprehensible things, just to keep from drowning in debt, and it offers the slightest glimmer of hope for those who really haven’t a chance in Hell of ever seeing a substantial payday. The crass class distinctions created, the undeniable stress of being without and the immoral drive of having too much, sets the stage for some of our most complex and compelling stories. Giuseppe Andrews clearly agrees. His amazing masterpiece, Air Conditioning, takes a neo-realistic look at how far certain citizens will go to enjoy the simple comforts of civilization - said acts including, lying, cheating, and most horrifically, murder.
Latuga is a desperate woman living a desperate life. Divorced from fancy suit store owner Classe, she is forced to live in a small studio apartment and care for the couple’s ex-heroin addict son Puzo. The boy, obsessed with a toy barbeque pit, is always on the verge of some horrific act. In order to earn money, Latuga services her ex-husband’s needs. Most of the time, that means picking up a rifle and killing the homeless bums that hang out in front of his shop. At other instances, it’s something far more perverted. Meanwhile, Frisco and his deformed brother Defetto avoid Latuga’s gunfire while coming up with a plan to get off the street. The solution? Marry someone of means and get a free pass to a place with the ultimate in live-in luxury…air conditioning. Naturally, Frisco winds up wooing Latuga, and they are quickly wed. When Classe finds out about the situation, he’s livid. Such anger sparks Puzo into an act of violence. Fate, however, has a different plan for all of them.
Proving that he can work within a conventional storyline and with a normal, albeit slightly askew set of characters, Air Conditioning instantly becomes Giuseppe Andrews’ mainstream masterwork, and creative calling card for the future. It’s the kind of whacked out wonder that the Coen Brothers on peyote might dream up - that is, if they weren’t so busy reinventing old school Hollywood to find their own unique voice. It’s quirk without the self-conscious nod to same, idiosyncrasy with its abnormality cemented solidly within the confines of a recognizable world. Granted, Andrews is obviously channeling the Italian filmmakers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, his constant flights of Mediterranean tinged magic (language, names) proving that he knows from whence his artform muse derived, but he’s also avoiding most of said source’s trappings. Instead of playing it straight, he deviates from the norm to give us a unique and thoughtful perspective.
Again, this is a film firmly founded in character. Latuga and Puzo wouldn’t be out of place in Pasolini’s Momma Roma, their poverty row passions easily seen as both everyday and wholly individual. The links this woman will go to care for her son resonates with any familiar family dramatization. Similarly, the villainous Classe (a brilliant Walt Dongo) is like every silent screen bad guy ever conceived. All he needs is a waxed moustache, a mortgage, and the threat of foreclosure to seal the clichéd deal. But Andrews understands our knowledge of cinema’s past, and plays with the archetype to the point where this version of personified greed actually comes across as more pathetic than vile. In fact, the worst character here may be Frisco. Keeping his genetically mutated brother in a garbage can is one thing. Using the excuse of love as a means of moving up in the financial food chain is horrifying in its self-serving cruelty.
It’s eye-opening to watch Andrews work without his standard scatology safety net. Characters don’t break out into rude rhymes or rummage through their own feces. Romance is substituted for sex, and even when Classe humiliates Latuga with her own urine, it’s part of an interpersonal struggle that we can clearly understand. Indeed, if you took out all the inferred weirdness, if you removed the recognizable bows to planned peculiarity, Air Conditioning would be a downbeat, depressing experience. We would see how Latuga cares for her sons, strains for her living, and sacrifices for her small comforts, and wonder how anyone could survive. With a setting far removed from his typical trailer park mystique, the results are revelatory.
The acting here is once again of the highest level. Andrews is not an inventive director. He is a visionary, but not necessarily when it comes to set-ups, framing, and compositions. Instead, he relies on the expressive faces of his cast to carry the day, close-ups revealing personal experiences washed across every wrinkle, every bit of beard stubble, every spot of adolescent acne. Dongo is delightful, as is straight standby Miles Dougal. As Latuga, Andrews introduces us to a wonderful young woman who uses her comforting size and shape as a means of making the maternal vividly real. She carries the film through many of its narrative hurdles, and finds a way of delivering even the most outrageous dialogue in a down to earth and homespun manner. As with all in Andrews’ outsider theatrical troupe, she adds the perfectly complement to the auteur’s own skewed perspective.
And yet some will look at Air Conditioning and wonder where all the crudeness went. There are those who revel in the kind of adolescent pants-wetting that made Andrews the savior of cinema since the Trailer Town days. Those who favor his more foul-mouthed methodology will definitely find the lack of lewdness disconcerting. But if you recognize that Andrews’ main modus is to take the underserved, the fringe fighting along the edges of the standard social norm, and place them in a position of prominence and personal dignity, the missing miscreance is understandable. Not every story has to be about stool samples. There are things more disgusting than old people running around naked. Money is such a foul, filthy thing that when you have such a soiled sentiment at the center of your storyline, there’s no need for more nastiness. Air Conditioning may be a way to beat the heat, but in the hands of a pure maestro like Giuseppe Andrews, it’s also a salve for, and the scourge of, the human soul.