Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"Waitress" Inspires Joy and Sadness, On and Off Screen

This is not a review of “Waitress,” although if it was, I would say it is a beautiful film deserving of four stars.

As has been widely reported, the writer/director/co-star of the film, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered in November at the age of 40, leaving behind a husband and three-year-old daughter. (For more detail on the case, click here to read a Newsday article on it.) She had completed “Waitress,” and she knew the film would screen at the Sundance Film Festival, but she was denied the opportunity to see how well it would be received by the industry, critics and the public.

I often complain that I do not get to see as many films as I would like, but I pretty much dropped everything to see “Waitress” the second day it was open. Sure, it looked like the kind of film I like to see, a character-based story with drama and comedy, but there have been plenty of movies in the last year that were right up my alley and yet ended up on my Netflix list after I never found my way to a theater to catch them. So, why “Waitress”?

I generally don’t have emotional reactions to the deaths of celebrities I have never met. Sure, it’s always sad when people die, and I get a little bummed when an artist I respect passes away, especially if they are taken at a young age. I just don’t have a visceral reaction. I don’t feel down for any length of time. I can’t connect personally with someone I haven’t met. That is why I was so taken aback when I felt like I lost a close friend when I read that Shelly had been murdered.

In the early 1990s, when I became interested (immersed, really) in the new world of independent film, one of the first movies that grabbed me by the throat and made me take notice was “Trust,” the second feature by Long Island auteur Hal Hartley. I was instantly hooked into Hartley’s mannered world where the dialogue was more stylized than the sets (locations, really, since the film was made on a tiny budget), but the starkness of the visuals fit in perfectly with Hartley’s vision, as did his quirky electronic score and, more than anything, the powerful performances by the leads, Martin Donovan and Shelly.

I then sought out Hartley’s first feature, “The Unbelievable Truth,” which also starred Shelly, and was equally impressed. My discovery of Hartley and his new-to-my-eyes approach to filmmaking set me on a path, allowing me to figure out for the first time in my life what I really wanted to do. I was inspired by the indie film heyday of the 1990s and the low-budget, New York-centric, character-driven movies like Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking” and Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming,” just to name a few, that seemed to follow in Hartley’s footsteps. (In some cases, almost literally, as Hartley’s assistant director/line producer, Ted Hope, went on to produce “Walking and Talking.”)

While watching those films hit the theaters, I felt validated. Here were young artists making the kinds of movies I wanted to make, they were doing it on shoestring budgets that didn’t require the investment of the mainstream film industry (until distribution, of course), and they were finding an audience. The era soon passed as the independent distributors were bought up by the majors, and the landscape of independent film was irreparably changed. (That’s not to say that there aren’t great independent films made today, it’s just that the artistic and business models are different.) That time shaped me, and I still feel its loss.

So, it’s not surprising that I feel emotionally invested in those films and with the people who made and performed in them. With Hartley’s movies at the center of my new-found artistic world, Shelly quickly became one of my favorite actresses. While, over time, Hartley veered further and further to the fringe (even directing operas in Europe), and Donovan drifted closer to the mainstream (appearing in “bigger” movies and television shows), Shelly set out on a different path. She did not drop out of acting completely, appearing in some indie films and the occasional New York-based television program, but she started writing and directing her own films.

After cutting her teeth on some shorts and two little-seen features (the pleasant “Sudden Manhattan” and its follow up, “I’ll Take You There,” which I must confess I never heard of until after Shelly died; I added it to my Netflix queue today), “Waitress” was her coming out party. Shelly found her voice, combining the best of what she learned from Hartley with a point of view and sensibility that was uniquely her own. “Waitress” is angry but soft, feminist but romantic, bitter but optimistic, dark but hopeful. The film is every bit the perfect blend of ingredients you would find in one of the protagonist’s much-lauded pies.

I better stop, as I’m veering into movie review territory, but I will add that Shelly guided Keri Russell, Andy Griffith and Cheryl Hines to pitch-perfect performances that will change the way they are perceived by the public and the movie powers-that-be. Watching “Waitress” really makes you want to see the filmmaker’s next movie. Of course, sadly, we will never know what Shelly would have done next. There is no guarantee it would have exceeded “Waitress,” but you can be sure a stampede of performers, especially actresses, would have been beating down her door for the chance to be a part of it.

When the film was over, I felt nourished by it. It was as if I had been transported back to a place and time that I have strong feelings about. For one night, it was the mid-1990s again, and I remembered what it felt like to be excited about discovering something important to me. But, at the same time, I was sad. Seeing the lost potential, and thinking about how senseless her death was (the police have accused a 19-year-old immigrant construction worker with killing her over a dispute over construction noise and then making it look like a suicide to cover his tracks), was depressing. Shelly had demonstrated that she was ready for a bigger stage, and that despite her indie sensibilities, she had something to say that would appeal to a mass audience.

My feeling of sadness was the kind of emotional reaction I had made fun of when I saw people on television mourning the death of a celebrity. Thankfully, I did not lay flowers anywhere, cry with my fellow mourners, or generally do anything that would embarrass those close to me. I just went to see her film on the second day it was out. When I left the theater, I dealt with my sadness the way I handled disappointments when I was drawn to independent films in the 1990s: I indulged my angst, drowned myself in music (Walkman then, iPod now), and went on with my life.

“Waitress” stands on its own as a smaller, well-written, spot-on-acted, fully realized, smart and entertaining movie experience. But, the combination of Shelly’s murder and my affinity with the era that launched her career has made it something more for me and, I’m guessing, a decent amount of other people my age. It’s a legacy that Shelly can be proud of, and one, I hope, her family and friends can find some comfort in. I know I did.