There is nothing more special about the power of cinema than when you find a film that creeps up on you over and over again after viewing it. Sometimes you may feel disconnected from a film when you watch it, but then afterwards the impact that has been made can stick with you for days. This is especially enjoyable when the film was sprung upon you without any information about it beforehand – the latest film to work this magic on me was Jay Alvarez’s I Play With The Phrase Each Other, a film that is definitely not for everyone.
The film cuts between a number of characters constantly on the phone talking to each other about the minutiae of their lives and feelings. Every single scene begins and ends with somebody answering or hanging up a phone call and only slowly as the audience eavesdrops on these conversations does a plot begin to take shape.
Jake is a socially awkward obsessive compulsive who is moving to the big city for the first time, having lost his job at a bookshop in a small town. He is convinced by Sean (an existential poet-type who scams people off of craigslist) to move to the city with no job and no apartment. There is also Erin, Jake’s ex-girlfriend, who hates her job and despairs of the rudeness of customers; Zane, a sexually curious hipster who has a disturbingly detached obsession with Jessica; Marcus, a criminal who has “heroin aspirations and Jake’s mum who mainly communicates with Jake via his voicemail that he listens to through headphones as he dangles his phone from his finger…
The dialogue in the film is masterfully pretentious, like a Bret Easton Ellis novel directed by Jim Jarmusch. Blank conversation flows between characters with lines such as:
“The other day I woke up and found three eyelashes in my mouth. I don’t know how they got there” “That seems kind of suspicious; do you think they could have been planted there”
or the beautiful:
“Oh – I got a vibrator” “…What colour is it?
The film is produced entirely on iPhone cameras and filmed in grainy black & white, which allows the production to achieve a perverse level of voyeurism. Like in the moment where Jake’s ex-boss is listening to an off-screen answering machine that is playing survey responses from customers, one of whom spends around 5 minutes dissecting the disdain of managerial staff. This is filmed in one take fixed solely on the manager’s face as he listens with no hint of cinematic flair. If you removed the sound then this scene becomes absurd, until it reaches the point when as a viewer I became hypnotized by the growing tragedy as he realized that the customer was perfectly describing him – a character that you never meet except for behind this desk. To convey this tragic disciplinarian character without him ever setting foot on the shop floor seemed masterful to me.
The focus on technology will inevitably date the film as the characters use iPhone 4’s and Bluetooth hands-free kits, but this feels like a beautiful snapshot of an era of surface technologies. It feels like an Apple iPhone advert stripped of all of the apps and gloss and rendered as an ugly reminder that luxury smartphones only matter if you have luxurious experiences to capture with them.
Due to the structure of the film surrounding phone calls, no two speaking characters are ever in the same location. This symbolic distancing of the characters who have all moved to the city to free themselves from monotony and embrace their own lives is a devastating metaphor for modern Americas alienation from itself. In a post-recession / food stamp / welfare America, these young middle-class 20-somethings have no possession and no hope for anything but minimum wage and empty existences. If America ever manages to recover from this seemingly lost decade, then this film will stand as a reminder that things got pretty bleak for a whole generation.
I Play With The Phrase Each Other premiers next week at the Raindance Film Festival
Tickets are online here
Tickets are online here