The Cinema of Narcolepsy: Certified Copy and Uncle Kent

There are films about slumber such as Andy Warhol's Sleep  (currently screening at MoMA). And there are movies focusing on sleep's byproduct, dreams: confusingly manipulated ones such as in Inception or brutally fatal ones as in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Then there are the features that you wished you had slept through such as You, Me and Dupree, the second half of Kaboom, and every work ever directed by Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

But the Cinema of Narcolepsy, an ever-growing genre that knocks the viewer out, is seldom about slumber or dreams subject-wise, although it can be. Take the Washington Post's Hal Hinson's reaction to Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990): "It's dreamy only in one respect: It's a snooze."

Tangled had the same effect on movie.com's David White: "Smooth, silky, shiny, sleep-inducing..." ReelViews.net's James Berardinelli opined similarly about Sofia Coppola's latest: "Inert and sleep-inducing, Somewhere goes nowhere." The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu reserved his s.i. condemnation for that series depicting vampires in lust. He labeled the pallid-Robert-Pattinson starrers, that "woozy, gauzy, sleep-inducing Twilight brand."

But any film can put one viewer to sleep. To be a genuine "narco" flick, its effect has to be more mass oriented. I knew Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy fit the bill when a fellow critic came up to me after a screening, requesting some plot particulars. I instantly realized we had conked out at the same time. Why?

Possibly because Certified Copy is a nonstop talkathon, though on a rather fascinating topic: can an imitation of a work of art elicit the same emotions as the genuine article? "All art is but imitation of nature," Seneca noted, making the argument mute, but that won't stop the two bickerers here.

James Miller, a British author (William Shimell), is in Tuscany promoting his latest book on art and its effect on society. Elle (Juliette Binoche), formerly of France, owns a gallery nearby. She attends Miller's lecture with her son, but since the boy is rather ill-behaved, she leaves early after purchasing six copies of the book, which she admits she doesn't like.

A short while later the pair (Miller and Elle) hook up and travel to a small Italian town where they are mistaken for husband and wife by a woman working in a tavern. Elle plays along, as does Miller for the rest of the film.

So you ask, "Can a couple posing as a couple who's been married 15 years wind up feeling like an actual couple that's been married 15 years? And are fake memories capable of becoming real memories or eliciting genuine emotions?"

Of course, there's even an even more complex interpretation possible, which certain critics have deemed it impolite to give away, so I'll follow suit.

Let's just refer to a recent New York Times article in which a painting thought to be painted by a minor artist was verified to be created by a famous one. Why has our reaction to the work changed? Why are we now in awe? As Elle notes, "What matters is not the work, but how we look at the work."

Certified Copy is, in the end, basically a two-character contretemps with the bonus of a lush Italian travelogue. As usual Binoche is quite wonderful. Whether just reapplying her lipstick or testing out various sets of earrings, she always comes off as genuine. In one lovely scene, she enters a local church. We think to pray, but she later states she entered for freedom, freedom of restriction. Then she displays the bra she has discretely removed at a pew.

As for Shimell, an opera singer who makes his film debut here, he's a frequently annoying presence. Why Elle is attracted to him is never quite apparent? Why he got the role is even less so.

Clearly, Certified Copy is meant to be a stimulating philosophical experience. It succeeds sporadically.

My sleep time: I'd guess 5-7 minutes.

As for Uncle Kent, it's the latest feature from Joe Swanberg, one of the leading figures of the "Mumblecore" movement. This offering, which will wisely sidestep actual theaters, will be screened at Sundance and then be "simultaneously on demand on most major cable systems."

Since this is my first exposure to Swanberg's oeuvre, he seems to be making films that can be mistaken for reality TV shows, except his characters are the type that would never be considered for such programming because they are, if I may be overly judgmental, a bit too uncolorful, almost but not quite milquetoast-y.

For example, the antihero here is the fortyish Kent (Kent Osborne), a talented caroonist/children's show writer who lives with his cat in Los Angeles. (Mr. Osborne has, by the way, in real life been a writer for such shows as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.)

Anyway, much of his social activity takes place over his computer, including his recent connection to Kate (Jennifer Prediger), an environmental journalist. One weekend, this attractive young woman crashes at his house to attend a local conference. Kent has expected sexual benefits, but Kate refuses because she already has a boyfriend.

She does eventually kiss a frustrated Kent but to arouse a guy who's jerking off while they're watching him and he's watching them over the Internet. Then this odd pair scurries off to a party where Kent is talked into doing his infamous cock tricks. We get to see the one where his balls become buns and his penis a hotdog.

Later on, there is a threesome with girl named Josephine, an online swinger. I totally slept through this segment, but I did wake up before Kent and Kate fight, after which she drives off. Instead of saying, Goodbye!" our hero states, "Write on my wall."

Although exceedingly contemporary, the problem with Uncle Kent is that it seems so shapeless as to not be a film at all. It's as if someone picked a name out of the phonebook and then brought his film crew to that house, set up his cameras, left, and then picked up his equipment three days later, and called the developed footage a movie.

On the plus side, there is a bit of humor and the cat is quite wonderful, but a dash of Snooki would have worked wonders.

Sleep time: Maybe ten minutes? - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).