David Spaltro and I go back a long way. Ok, maybe not that far, but at least back to 2008 when he made …Around, a semi-autobiographical film about his experiences while attending the film program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City. He sent me a screener, which I watched right away, found intriguing, and promised to write up a review.
But time got away from me, and you know how it is. The more time that goes by, the worse you feel that you haven’t gotten to it yet until voila, four years have passed and he’s promoting a new film, Things I Don’t Understand (also check out the film’s blog).
So I asked for another screener and the chance to vindicate myself. We both laughed, but hey, he sent me the screener in December and we’re just into March, so at least four years haven’t passed, and here I am writing about it so it’s all good. And by the way, I loved …Around, David. The fact that it’s such a personal film for you really came through the screen.
I started watching Things I Don’t Understand, and remember texting my friend something along these lines: “Wow, this is kind of a dark film.” And then I started rattling off the film’s themes — death, suicide, terminal illness, and the after-life, for starters.
I immediately felt bad for David having to live with such heavy stuff while he was making the film. I had the same feeling about Cormac McCarthy after seeing The Road. John Hillcoat directed the movie, but I bet McCarthy spent way more time in this post-apocalyptic universe than Hillcoat. Either way, I felt sad for both of them.
But back to Things I Don’t Understand, which is nowhere near as dark as The Road. Things I Don’t Understand is not just heavy stuff. It’s also about friendship, faith and human connections, so I guess it all balances out in the end.
Sometimes you have to go through the dark to get to the light, and that’s why I found Things I Don’t Understand to be smart, funny, and compelling. It’s also a riveting story about a group of rag-tag characters trying to find meaning in the world. In other words, real-life stuff.
The story follows Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman, who also starred in …Around), a young grad student who after a failed suicide attempt, decides to write her thesis on near-death experiences and what happens to people after they die. To that end, she interviews and forms a friendship with a terminally ill girl (Grace Folsom) in hospice. At the same time, Violet and her two roommates (Hugo Dillon, Meissa Hampton) — both quirky artists — are about to be evicted from their Brooklyn loft and she finds herself drawn to a bartender (Aaron Mathias) with a mysterious past.
I asked David if he’s naturally drawn to somber stories of human relationships and the dark underbelly of life. “I think I’ve always been attracted to stories that have shades of both,” he said. “To me, there’s always this balance between light and dark for the human experience, a need to suffer and hurt but also to embrace life and joy. To know one is to be able to know the other and vice versa.”
He noted that while ...Around dealt with dark themes of homelessness and struggling to find your place in the world, it also had a lot of light and humor and energy. Things came out of an idea he had in college after working in hospice care.
“I was angry and looking for catharsis and meaning, and thought I was going to write this really dark thing, but it’s always been more about life than death,” he said. “When I was done writing, it wasn’t as bad I thought it was going to be in terms of angry/dark, and maybe I wasn’t as nihilistic as I thought. I mean, it’s a movie about what happens when we die with suicide and cancer … but there’s dancing vaginas.”
Ok, I can’t argue with dancing vaginas.
But I did have a bone to pick with him about the ending, which seemed a little too cheery when compared to the rest of the movie. I felt like he tacked on this mad-dash-for-romance type ending, the sort you’d find in a movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
“I always wanted it to sort of tie up and for Violet to find peace,” he said. “I might ‘suck at endings’ as my avatar in …Around says, but I also believe every ending is a different beginning. Some people saw the ending of …Around with him back in the train station without the girl and starting over as a downer ending, but I saw it as a bit of hope … he’s back, but he’s learned and he has to go through it again, but he’s got a chance to do it over.”
And about that happy ending in Things? “It has a much more happy-to-start-with ending, but once again, it’s more about Violet making some peace with not understanding things and trying to keep relationships and a new life afloat … but it’s still a fresh start. What she does with it after the fade out to black depends on how much she’s truly grown.”
And being a happy flower-child type of girl, I had to ask David if he ever sees a romantic comedy in his future. You know, the sort of movie that might star Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
“I’ve always been more drawn to films/stories/art that challenge and make you feel, even if it’s sometimes a bit bi-polar with being able to cry one moment, laugh the next, or be outraged or attracted by the characters,” he said. “If you feel something, it’s better than art just being numb. I don’t know if I have a strictly screwball romantic comedy in me or even a wholly dark or dramatic film in me, but if I did, they’d probably still have touches of other things in them because that’s more my creative voice.”
Ok, so maybe Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, with a bit of Cormac McCarthy thrown in.
Here’s an interview David did with Mr. Media: