film reviews | movies | features | BRWC On Don Swaynos’ PICTURES OF SUPERHEROES

Now, as a writer on cinema, it has never been my practice to begin a piece this way—to set aside the overall film for a moment to indulge in effusively throwing praise onto a single aspect or performer in the thing—but in the case of Kerri Lendo in Don Swaynos’ Pictures Of Superheroes, I cannot seem to avoid it. Lendo (in the starring role of Marie) is absolutely wonderful, an unmitigated delight and the performance is perfect on levels it would take a separate piece to explicate properly. ‘Mesmeric,’ even ‘addictive,’ are words that seem appropriate to float out in describing her work—and her performance is no flash-bang, over-the-top thing; no, in all her subtle, muted down, quietly realized nuance in expression, in vocalization, in everything, she holds-fast the attention of this cinema lover. Perfect. I single her out, as I do here, because, frankly (as much as I dig the overall film, which I will get to in a moment) I could have simply watched her character, in isolation, on screen for twice the running time and not felt short-changed (…or still felt short-changed, whichever sounds like I’m giving the higher praise). Yes, if (a la Garfield Without Garfield) the film were to remove the presence and dialogue of all other parties and display, in the same context, only Lendo’s performance, the film would not suffer for it. One of those truly laudable and rare performances, complete, its own little whole.

That out of the way, let me move on the rest.

I struggled for awhile to find  a comparison—or even an appropriate description—of the film, but other than “absurdist…but not Beckett absurdist” or “deadpan…but not Anderson deadpan” I kind of just fumbled. Until it struck me, exactly (bear with the fatuousness of this) that the only way I could properly explain and praise the writing, performance, and overall verve of the thing is as follows: think as if someone took the almost surrealistic and frenetic comedic tilt of Monty Python sketches such as “The Cheese Shop”, “The Bookshop” or “The Travel Agency”, did not change a word of the scripts or an ounce of the atmosphere or pace, just delivered the lines straight-faced and subdued—imagine that and you would be imagining Pictures of Superheroes (or imagine the John Cleese film The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization As We Know It, maybe, but without the Sherlock Holmes send-up aspect, just the tone of the comedy). Because certainly “absurdist” is a way to look at the writing: absurdist and committed to, almost insisting on, the reality of its own absurdity—its absurdity so needing to be seen as “status quo” that it is a risk in and of itself.

What do I mean by that?

Let’s do a quick case study: Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite works in sustaining its conceit particularly because it does not set its “oddballs” against a backdrop of “normals”—there is no straight-man on hand, just bizarros, and so the nuance of that film’s world reaches a homeostasis that works. The same director’s Gentleman Broncos does not work, for the very fact that it sets its hero as an “ordinary, sensible person encountering a bunch of oddballs” thus undermining the humor, limiting the thing to a kind of wry “tour through the freak-show” and thus making any progression or reaction seemed forced, inserted, completely inorganic—it’s hard to find the humor in a thing when the humanity of the “funny characters” is overtly removed, made instant caricature/zany-for-the-sake-of-zany through making a fictive main-character so vanilla an observer as Benjamin is in that piece.

Swaynos’ film works as the former of Hess’ films works because it treats the “weird” as the baseline and, frankly, were anyone (even Marie…in a just deliriously, adoration inducing performance by Kerrie Lendo, in case you missed the opening paragraph of this piece) in the film to “find things peculiar without themselves being as peculiar” it would all fall flat.

Pictures Of Superheroes (here’s a decent comparison) is a film kin to Taika Waititi’s Eagle Versus Shark (even more than the films of Hess I just mentioned) in that for all of its oddness (and for its marvelous central female performance—Lendo in this, Loren Horsley in Eagle) it does not step from being an actual exploration of central personalities—it is not proposition comedy, it is not situation comedy, no, it is in-front character comedy, but it at the same time does not ignore proposition or situation, just finds a brilliance in keeping all these tracks running synchronic.  That is—can one imagine any of these characters existing outside of the very calibrated world-display they inhabit? No, I wouldn’t think so. But, is there ever a conscious feeling on the part of the viewer (at least this viewer) that a “hobby farm,” an “unreal world” is being presented—no, there’s not. A tough trick to maintain.

And—to single out another performance—nowhere is this trickiness more admirably navigated than by Shannon McCormick (in the role of Eric). Frankly, on first viewing, the introduction of this character made me a little bit uneasy—in the sense of “oh dear, is this film going to lose the good thing it had going?” McCormick’s performance combined with the kind left-field nature of the establishing narrative put me on guard that a “different kind of comedy” was being spliced in—a more “stage comedy” delivery that often does not mix well with “cinematic/bizzaro deadpan”.  My trepidation not only did not last, it inverted, completely. Because the quality of the McCormick performance—especially directly off of  Lendo’s—is not only necessary to the film, but the pairing of these leads is irresistible to watch.  McCormick’s Eric at all times runs the risk of both going over-the-top and suddenly toning-it-down too much, but the fella does not take a single misstep, just stays the line right in the fray of things (an actual–and pleasant–kind of suspense in its own right being created). Think the difference between the iconic portrayal of Gareth Keenan by Mackenzie Crook in Gervais’ UK The Office versus the more hammy, for the groundlings, portrayal of Dwight Schrute by Rainn Wilson in the US adaptation of the program. (Just to be clear, here: McCormick is Gareth, in that example: the performance stays vivid, human, challenging, and funnier each time it watched.)

In fact, everything in the film—down to the slightest, single scene supporting role—is so in its element that I put the whole thing in that category of films not meant to be watched, but films specifically built to be re-watched and re-watched and re-watched.  The glory of the balance-act, the pleasant squirm of “is this gonna go bad” is a delight, to be sure, on a single viewing, but in all honesty I do not think I even got to watch the film until I’d watched it once and started again (I’ve now watched it half dozen times).  Pictures of Superheroes is one of those films that only appreciates with time and viewings (and is ridiculously quotable, I might add—I avoided inserting dialogue bits throughout this review just because I would have never stopped) and one that shows the lashing, vibrant, aliveness of contemporary, independent American comedic cinema—the film is of a current expression of the filmic zeitgeist, to be sure, but is restlessly (that word is used purposefully) earnest, not for a moment derivative, not for a moment shying from the taking the risks that lead not only to laughter, but to a genuine delight at all that cinema can evoke.

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