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Cold Feet 

Coping with uncertainty in Scandinavia and Hollywood

Thursday, Feb 19 2004
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Photo by Erik Aavatsmark

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.

—Werner Heisenberg

The principle, and the comedy, of the wry Norwegian import Kitchen Stories is indeed that of uncertainty. Written and directed by one Bent Hamer (whose name gives apt indication as to the shape of his antic sensibility), the movie is a gentle, at times disarming pantomime about our hopeless inability to view an object moving through space without disturbing it, particularly when said object is another human being. In short, it’s Heisenberg by way of Jacques Tati. Yet the movie that Hamer’s may immediately recall for most viewers isn’t another live-action comedy, but rather Sylvain Chomet’s recent animated frolic The Triplets of Belleville. Both films premiered at Cannes in 2003, both are consciously made under the sign of Tati, and both are infatuated with all things 1950s to the point that what’s onscreen resembles less an accurate period re-creation than a nostalgic dreamscape of Decca records and art-deco automobiles. And in a way, Hamer’s achievement is the more remarkable in that he has figured out how to “animate” his absurdities using real flesh and bone.

Set at an unspecified time during the post–World War II industrial boom, as the winds of efficiency and modernization blow around the world with gale-force intensity, Kitchen Stories tells of a team of observers from Sweden’s Home Research Institute who travel, in a caravan of tiny auto trailers, to the rural farming village of Landstad, Norway, in order to commence a top-secret bit of R&D. As an HRI corporate film explains early on, the institute’s observers have previously studied and documented the kitchen behaviors of the average Swedish housewife, conceptualizing improvements in kitchen design that have eliminated countless overexpenditures of wifely energies. (“Instead of having to walk the equivalent of Sweden to the Congo during a year of cooking, she now only needs to walk to Northern Italy in order to get food on the table,” the narrator dryly informs.) Emboldened by its success at home, the institute now seeks to conduct a similar study of the kitchen habits of single men. Landstad, it just so happens, is a hotbed of lonely bachelors.

In the buildup to one of Hamer’s most sublime gags, each observer is paired off with a volunteer research subject and given strict instructions not to interfere, in any way, with his daily activities. Rather, the observer is merely to take his designated place in the corner of the kitchen, seated in a ridiculously oversized highchair, and map the subject’s every move. The ensuing image, of mild-mannered Folke (Tomas Norström) glaring down on dyspeptic Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), recalls the primitive form of reality television from Albert Brooks’ Real Life, with Folke less fly-on-the-wall than giant spider tangled up in his own unwieldy web. It is also, for Isak, the source of considerable annoyance, and much of Kitchen Stories is devoted to the middle-aged farmer’s wily efforts to make Folke’s job as difficult as possible. He begins taking meals in his bedroom rather than the kitchen, regularly leaves Folke sitting alone in the dark, and even proceeds to turn the tables, spying on Folke through a peephole in the kitchen ceiling — the observed taking a private thrill in becoming the observer. Meanwhile, Folke finds himself consumed by temptation all around, devilishly possessed to do the very thing he has been warned not to do — break bread with Isak.

Heisenberg aside, Kitchen Stories isn’t saying anything particularly deep, but it does hum along nicely for its first hour or so, powered by this unspoken comic tension. Then, Hamer’s characters begin to speak — Folke and Isak electing to relax their frosty standoff — and the film becomes an altogether more conventional, even sentimental affair. Not unenjoyable, mind you, but a warm meditation on unlikely friendships and the virtues of nonconformity that never quite approaches the grandeur of Patrice Leconte’s similar-themed Man on the Train, and deviates sharply in tone from the bustling lunacy that has preceded it. Perhaps such a shift is inevitable; without it, Kitchen Stories might have just floated off — as Tati occasionally risked doing — into the ether. But even given that, one still senses that Hamer, like an observer from some Film Research Institute perched high above his own movie, seems much more comfortable dealing with people in the abstract than the specific; as soon as he finds himself confronted with actual characters (as opposed to archetypes), he’s at something of a loss about what to do with them. That’s a fault, to be sure, but not one critical enough to take away from the fact that, in the landscape of contemporary movie comedies, Kitchen Stories is like a rejuvenating blast of crisp Nordic air.

 

Originally, I’d intended to use the rest of this space to talk about a couple of other movies opening in theaters this weekend, Highwaymen and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen — my interest in the former having been piqued by the participation of director Robert Harmon, who set the high bar for onscreen vehicular terror with his 1986 thriller The Hitcher, and who here climbs back behind the wheel to tell the story of a widower (The Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel) tracking a serial killer who hunts down his female victims in a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado. Alas, the distributor of Highwaymen, New Line Cinema, has elected to release the film only in Texas and New Mexico, and not to screen the picture at all in L.A. for the time being. A most puzzling decision, I might add, given that the trailer for Highwaymen (which has appeared on the movie’s Web site for months now) affords more visceral scare-pleasure than anything in New Line’s recent Freddy vs. Jason or its Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

In the case of Confessions, how can one resist the prospect of a new film starring that rangy young actress Lindsay Lohan, who played daughter to Jamie Lee Curtis’ mom (and then vice versa) in last year’s sparkling Freaky Friday remake — and who was every bit as dazzling as her much-praised co-star, counterbalancing Curtis’ soaring comic arpeggios with an effortlessly parental gravitas? This time out, judging from the posters and TV spots, Lohan has the whole movie to herself. And while she’s unquestionably worth a thousand Hilary Duffs, to find out more about the movie you’ll have to turn to the capsule reviews in the Calendar section at the back of the paper. That’s because Disney didn’t see fit to screen Confessions for critics until the Monday night before its opening, much too late for feature coverage in this paper. Disney’s explanation? That a finished print of the film wouldn’t be ready before then — an increasingly common story where the major studio releases are concerned, and the primary reason why such films are frequently addressed only as capsule reviews in this publication (and other weeklies with similar deadlines).

In some cases, it’s the truth: With release dates now being chosen for most studio pictures before they’ve even begun production, the ensuing rush to completion often means that certain tweaks and trims (particularly with regard to special-effects-heavy movies) are performed right up until the last possible minute. But just as often, it points to the studios’ calamitous fear of what critics — the very ones they claim have no impact on a movie’s success — will say. Hold a film back until 72 hours or so before opening day and you limit the amount of “play” it will receive in nondaily publications — a fine strategy when you’ve got a Gigli-sized turkey on your hands, but a suspect one, to say the least, when the movie in question is actually good. Genre films of almost any kind are particularly susceptible: Two years ago, Miramax barely bothered to even release David Twohy’s excellent submarine thriller Below, let alone make it available to reviewers; a couple of weeks back, Disney kept its hockey drama Miracle under lock and key until just days before opening it — and Miracle is one of the best movies of this young year.

This all speaks to the fact that studios today, and their publicity and distribution departments, are ever more being run by business-school bureaucrats who view movies strictly as marketable commodities; they don’t really know what’s good or bad, only what they think will sell, and sell to 18- to 25-year-olds at that. So, as I look down the calendar of movies scheduled for release in the next few months, I have to wonder whether I’ll be able to write at length in these pages about such titles as Universal’s Van Helsing (directed by that fine upholder of comic-horror swashbuckling, Stephen Sommers) and Paramount/ DreamWorks’ Collateral (the latest from Michael Mann), or whether they too will be relegated to the capsule page. Judging by the way things have been going lately, I’d say it’ll be a downright miracle if they’re not.

KITCHEN STORIES | Produced and directed by BENT HAMER Written by HAMER in cooperation with JÖRGEN BERGMARK Released by IFC Films | At the Nuart

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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