*** 1-Night Only Thursday November 7th. Followed by Live Director Q&A ***
During the last act of Joanna Arnow's tumultuously watchable "i hate myself :)," I began to feel a now familiar pang of unease as Arnow sat her parents, and later her boyfriend(ish) subject, James, down to watch a cut of the film, on camera...The comparisons were immediate and unavoidable: hadn't I just seen the same technique used to irrevocably chilling effect in Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing?" In both cases, the showing of the film to its subjects provokes sincere and revelatory reactions, and in the case of this film, provides plenty of proof of Arnow's sophistication and cunning as a filmmaker...
A documentary camerawoman by profession, Arnow is obviously acutely aware of cinema verite technique, and her (slightly nefarious) genius is how she manages to subvert the power of documentary as a tool of discussion to reconnect with her initially disapproving mother and open a dialogue with her boyfriend.
Oh, lord, the boyfriend. The premise of the film ("Premise or promise?" Joanna's mother interrogates warily in the film's opening) is the filmmaker evaluating her current relationship. James is her first boyfriend, and when we first see them we seem to have jumped on at the tail end of a hideously one-sided and potentially masochistic relationship. James is a boisterous showman of a drunk whose life seems steeped in a million kinds of forced irony. A white boy living in a rundown Harlem apartment, his favorite pastime is spouting radical poetry and post-racial, n-word laden rants at a local open mic club, much to the chagrin of its regular patrons. While Joanna seems to be ashamed of this behavior, as well as of his blase attitude towards her basic dignity, she can't seem to shake her admiration of his wildly unhinged demeanor.
He is a character, I'll give him that.
In fact, part of the reason "i hate myself" is so watchable is that, in spite of the insular morosity the title might suggest, the film is alive with compellingly absurd characters that Joanna seems to attract. The documentary's editor, for one, appears multiple times, dispensing words of harsh wisdom like Alex Karpovsky on "Girls." Oh, and he also happens to be utterly nude in every shot; his lavalier mic wrapped haphazardly around his neck. He suggests she refer to him as the "Naked Editor." Fair enough.
Rather than indulge in self-pity, the film makes the bold statement - whether accidental or not - that Joanna's dependent relationship with James is actually causing her to grow as a person. Meek, rational, and polite by nature, Joanna's decision to show the film to her parents -- which, by the way, features a very explicit sex scene -- and the aftermath it causes is the exact kind of rebellious fervor that James exhibits.
The film-within-a-film technique results in some surprisingly effective stylistic touches, as when the audio of said sex scene, left running on the TV in another room, underscores a harrowing conversation with Arnow's agitated mother. Arnow -- and, of course, credit to the Naked Editor as well -- has constructed a seamless and elliptical narrative with the care, attention, and self-imposed brevity of a Maysles film. Surprisingly, "i hate myself :)" never overstays its welcome and leaves a lasting impact on the power of viewership.