Reviews

xx/xy (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Austin Chick's first feature, takes Coles' perspective -- as much as Coles has a perspective.


XX/XY

Director: Austin Chick
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Maya Stange, Kathleen Robertson, Petra Wright
Distributor: MGM
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-07-29

"I'm a poultry expert, in the new Agriculture Department." This is what passes for a pass, for aspiring animator Coles Burroughs (Mark Ruffalo), approaching a hot chick at a Sarah Lawrence party, circa 1993. Standing by the refrigerator in whoever's apartment they're in, he ducks his head and shuffles his feet, but he's not so cute as he thinks. Sam (Maya Stange) looks him up and down and calls in reinforcements, namely, her roommate Thea (Kathleen Robertson). They flirt, the camera inspects their faces, they eat Popsicles and chat.

Such lack of connection is the fretful focus of xx/xy, Austin Chick's first feature, which takes Coles' perspective -- as much as Coles has a perspective. Recently released on an extras-less DVD by MGM, the film shows how his self-interest tragically stymies his ability to be intimate with anyone else, that even over years, he never grows beyond the callow kid he appears to be in this first kitchen scene. When he and the girls agree to go back to his place, they engage in (pose for) arty body-parts shots, blended with animation. These are Coles' images, to be drawn later but imagined now, and the first hint that he tends to see the world two-dimensionally. His view isn't quite Sam's, however, and it's not long before she discovers that the three-way isn't so pleasurable as she thought and she's scrunched up on the bathroom floor, in tears.

The next day, despite this meltdown -- or maybe because of it -- Sam phones Coles. On her end of the conversation, Sam's fidgety in the frame, she splutters and smiles; Thea sits coolly across the room, walkman on, nodding encouragement. She's "sorry," Sam says, for all the fuss, but she "had fun." Coles is taken aback, but intrigued. What's up with this girl, so stirring and nervy, so headstrong and vulnerable, so darn unpredictable? He "had fun" too, he says. And so they meet again, agreeing that they "don't want to play any games." It's most important, they say, "to be honest with each other."

This conversation is the faux foundation of xx/xy, which tracks this three-way relationship in two parts, the first leading to a nasty breakup, the next set "10 years later," when, incredibly, all three meet by chance in NYC. No one here manages to be "honest with each other."

The 1993 college-days part focuses on Coles testing limits of meanness and fidelity. In another movie, he'd also be interested in "finding" himself, but Chick's film smartly rejects that familiar route. It's unclear, though, if there's another direction offered. Like many feckless boy protagonists, he acts like he has little to lose, the handheld camera reflecting his floppy sensibility. Also like his predecessors, Coles ostensibly rejects faithfulness, but might be longing for commitment. He and Sam spend time in montages -- playing with fireworks, kissing in hallways, doing drugs -- mostly to show how lovely she is and to provide images that might come back to him, later, when he's lost her.

When Coles is young and wearing knit caps, he sees a distinction between boys and girls: he can handle attachment-less sex, and girls like Sam can't. He walks out, churlish, when she expects him to go to a rave with him rather than stay home like they might have planned. To get her back, he beds some other faceless girl while his phone rings: Sam calling to apologize. You know this is will be hurtful, but neither Sam nor Coles knows, yet.

Though this moment suggests that xx/xy offers multiple perspectives, in fact, it sticks pretty closely with Coles, as you don't have access to Sam except in relation to him. In itself, this is a provocative notion, to ask viewers to ride along with a character who so resolutely resists self-understanding, let alone feeling responsibility for anyone else. His cruelty to Sam isn't awful as much as it's negligent; he doesn't put energy into anything, not his relationships, his work, or his partying. Instead, he takes what comes his way, say, Thea.

On one level, Thea appears to be the exception to Coles' concept of xx-ness: she'll sleep with whoever, for instance, her haplessly adoring next roommate, Sid (Kel O'Neill), then drop him immediately ("Don't cry," she sighs, leaving him despondent). Thea's stereotypical guy-ness throws Sam's girly desires into some relief, but the differences here are, well, two-dimensional. Coles wants to feel like he can fuck Thea and walk away, but maybe he really does want to love Sam. He can't decide.

What's most striking about Chick's film is that it never backs down from this position on Coles. It doesn't redeem him, doesn't teach him a lesson, doesn't allow him a step forward. This makes xx/xy difficult to watch, perhaps especially in the intimate space afforded by DVD, but all your squirming doesn't lead anywhere -- you know Coles when he first comes on to Sam and Thea. What makes it compelling, almost in spite of itself, is Ruffalo's resourceful performance, which makes you wonder whether Coles is really so willfully insensitive and self-involved as he seems.

The 2003 part of xx/xy, the young professionals part, is also about testing limits of meanness and fidelity, and again, the stakes for Coles remain unclear. He's an independent filmmaker now working for a Manhattan advertising firm, drawing animated tacos and hating on his boss every chance he gets. He's also living in a SoHo loft with exquisite Claire (Petra Wright). At first, she looks like she'll be the girl who must be dumped, so he can re-find true love with Sam, but the film is less simple than that. For one thing, Claire is cool enough that she'll special order a Clair Denis box set from Kim's. For another, she's riding it out with Coles, just as the film has asked you to do -- and so, her pain and frustration starts to feel like yours.

Seeing Sam again makes Coles excited; he doubts that what he feels for Claire is "real." But he's never had much truck with what's "real," and so it's hard for him to tell. The newly reconfigured group decides to spend an evening together -- Coles and Claire, the recently un-affianced Sam and a boy with whom she's flinging, the recently settled Thea and her earnest restaurateur husband Miles (David Thornton). Suddenly, Sam looks to Coles like the girl he can cheat with, not on. And suddenly, he thinks he's in love.

You know better. The trouble is that your knowledge doesn't cost you anything. It's easy to feel smarter than Coles. And it's dreadful to feel smarter than the film, which tends to underline its points: a door closes in cringing slow motion, sad music on the soundtrack; that handheld camera circles round Coles as he tries, face falling, to join in a group conversation, after his own secret-but-obvious plan for a weekend with Sam has fallen through in a devastating way. Coles isn't so much a boy as he is his idea of a boy. And the movie isn't so much an investigation of that experience as it is an idea of one.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image