Sometimes film scholars make for the most audacious filmmakers. Their knowledge of cinematic history, filmic styles, and yes, even the tricks of the moviemaking trade, lead them to create works of art that go far beyond basic onscreen narrative. Francois Truffaut was one such scholar who, when he started making movies of his own, toyed with audiences and their awareness of how film techniques are used to manipulate. DAY FOR NIGHT (1973) is a story about the production of a movie, but the film is as much a self-conscious exercise in how the medium uses various visual and aural tropes to blatantly steer an audience.
Many of the films by Peter Bogdanovich, another film critic and historian turned filmmaker, did the same. From 1971-1976, most of the movies he made were as much about movies and our awareness of them, as they were yarns about fictitious characters. There was little in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON or WHAT’S UP, DOC? that wasn’t commenting or riffing about the world of movies. AT LONG LAST LOVE and NICKELODEON were almost straight-up parodies of all that audiences knew of Hollywood and their well-known clichés, tropes, and sensibilities.
Michael Glover Smith is also a scholar and teacher of cinema, not to mention a working movie critic, and that's why his latest film MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is dually driven as well. His film may seem like a straightforward story about three couples vacationing together at a cabin in the Michigan woods, and it can be read as such, but the filmmaker uses techniques and tropes he's studied to enrich his character story with dimensions that most such films simply don't have. At times, it feels similar to a rich novel where what's being said between the lines resonates the loudest. Only here, it is often what his camera or framing is showcasing that adds so much more meaning to the mere words being volleyed about by the six main characters.
As the film starts, Smith introduces us to the three pairs in his story. Each is at a different stage in a couple’s relationship. Jack and Golda (Jack C. Newell and Alana Arenas) have been together for over a decade and are at the age where if they’re going to have a baby, they need to get pregnant pronto. Richard and Isabelle (Kevin Wehby and Roxane Mesquida) are at the point in their relationship where the topic of marriage starts becoming a regular one, and sometimes a hostile one at that. Only Wyatt and Peggy (Shane Simmons and Najarra Townsend) still have a newbie sensibility to their coupling, as they seem flush with the discovery of what makes the other one tick.
The three men are friends, and they’ve orchestrated the weekend as a means of hanging out, eating “some good food and good wine” as Jack so plainly puts it, and exploring some male bonding time through Frisbee Golf and their book club. That’s the simple narrative set-up for this three-day holiday in Michigan, but what’s really going on is a whole hell of a lot more. Everyone harbors secrets and hidden agendas, and as the story progresses, you start to wonder whether any of these couples have a genuine sense of security.
For starters, Smith introduces all of them by having his Director of Photography Jason Chiu swirl his camera around them as they sit outside the cabin and listen to Peggy read everyone’s horoscope. (One is omitted, but more on that omission later.) The drifting camera cues us into the restlessness of these couples, who despite their shorts, sandals and beer bottles, are hardly relaxed. In a shrewdly choreographed scene, Chiu manages to capture enough side eyes, stilted hesitations, and awkward glances between everyone to suggest that this will not be a chillaxing weekend. Instead, it will often be an exceedingly chilly one.
Smith also employs an even more stylistic flourish in the opening pages of his screenplay as those horoscopes foreshadow what will happen to the characters throughout the weekend. Peggy points out that Mercury is in retrograde with each sampling, and while the scientific definition of such an occurrence refers to that planet moving in the opposite direction to Earth, what it means in the world of astrology is that people should proceed with caution. Just as the planets move in difficult ways so too do the paths for these players. Indeed, the very title of this film is a harbinger of the pessimistic movements that will mar each of these couples over the getaway weekend.
The men don’t help things by announcing that the women must stay out of their little boys’ club for the core of Saturday. They decree that their ladies cannot partake in Frisbee Golf, nor the discussion of their book club selection “The Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett. The dismissal of their significant others has a vaguely bullying feel to it as if they’re Hal Roach’s “Little Rascals” forbidding Darla and Mary Ann from climbing up to their treehouse. Not that the women are missing much in such a ludicrous sport. The dried up and patchy Frisbee golf course looks less inviting than the Spahn Ranch did in 1969. But the men feel the need to claim the silly game as their own, and in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that sort of selfishness couldn’t come off as any more sexist. Smith stings with his steady and timely aim here, ridiculing such male buffoonery.
But then, there is much to dislike in these men. Jack is a bit too blithe about everything, particularly his wife’s need to still feel attractive in the bedroom. Richard’s misplaced machismo gets the film’s biggest laughs as he prepares for the absurd version of golf like it’s the Olympic games. And Wyatt comes off as callow or clueless in most of his interactions. He not only didn’t read the assigned book, but he tries to bluff his way through the discussion of it. Even while the two others ride him mercilessly about his laziness in failing to finish “The Glass Key,” Wyatt continues to keep the con going.
Smith uses their dialogue in the book club discussion to tell us much about these three man-children, but he uses his filmmaking arsenal to paint an even more scathing portrait. During their conversation, the three men puff so much cigar smoke it’s almost cartoonish in its excess. At first, it seems the actors might have overplayed the scene, but then it becomes apparent that Smith had them overdo it to show their need to out-alpha each other. They also drink way too much, and Chiu’s camera notes every pour, gulp, and guzzle. A bit too blatantly, his camera starts to weave up and down and around the three, as if it’s drunk also, but at least Smith is making a clear point. What could've been a deepening of their friendship has turned into a frat house binge.
Instead of talking about how they feel about their relationships with each other or their women, they wax romantic about wanting to be the main character of Ned Beaumont from Hammett’s pulp. Wyatt, attempting to seem equal to the men who completed the book, even gets up periodically to do push-ups. It may be his attempt to appear manly, but it makes him look like an insecure boy. Incidentally, Wyatt is the one who’s horoscope Peggy doesn’t read in that opening scene, suggesting that his girlfriend just isn't that into him. Smith is also suggesting that Wyatt is not that worthy of our investment either in how his camera catches all of his foolishness during the book club discussion.
The women fare much better throughout, suggesting that Smith is a feminist. He sympathizes greatly with their sides, even pitying the strident French minx Isabelle, arguably the villain of the piece. She may be portrayed as conniving, selfish, and willing to cheat, but Smith makes sure to linger over her angst in an affecting close-up after her joyless round of sex with Richard. And in Golda and Peggy, he’s written two strong female characters who are precisely that due to their willingness to appear vulnerable. During an extended conversation between the two at a local bar, both women confess their innermost fears. It is the best 10 minutes in the movie, and here, Smith mostly lets the camera rest on their faces.
For good measure, however, the director bathes his actresses' impassioned deliveries in rich, red lighting from the bar to ensure the symbolism of the scene comes through. Perhaps it gilds the lily some, but a filmmaker who misses the chance to use the color of sex to accent a confession of lurid carnality, let alone another character's fear of not being able to conceive, is a filmmaker who just hasn't learned enough from the likes of Truffaut and Bogdanovich.
This film was shot on a shoe-string, and at times it struggles to overcome some of its financial limits. There is a distinct lacking in what is called coverage (close-ups shot of each individual character to give the editor more options in cutting a scene together), and occasionally the natural lighting loses characters’ faces in the dark. Still, it's almost a miracle that Smith was able to shoot all of it on location in just under two weeks. Films with months of production look like a whole lot less.
MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is an independent film with profound and vivid opinions about the sexes and the journey of self-discovery. It is also a moviegoing experience chock full of filmic cleverness due to Smith's shrewd use of cinematic techniques and symbolism. There’s something special about filmmakers who come from the scholarly world of film and share it with an audience. Be it Truffaut, Bogdanovich or Michael Glover Smith, they adore cinema, and their love becomes infectious to all of us.
(MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Monday and Wednesday evenings at 7:45.)