Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Everything Put Together



US 2000
dir. Marc Forster
scr. Forster, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Adam Forgash
cin. Roberto Schaefer
stars Radha Mitchell, Justin Louis
89 minutes

Everything Put Together is a low-budget psychological drama that makes striking use of new digital technologies – its director freely admits his direct debt to Thomas Vinterberg’s masterful Festen, though this is by no means a dogme film. There’s background music, hauntingly spare and ambient, and the director employs many post-production effects in order to distort the image and sound in order to convey the chaos of its heroine’s mind. He’s also open about his other influences: Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and, to a lesser extent, Don’t Look Now and The Shining. And whilee Everything Put Together doesn’t quite match the standard of those films, it’s a bold, original debut that taking a vibrant approach to difficult, too-little-understood subject matter: the impact upon families of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

But it’s difficult to fully engage with Everything Put Together if you’ve also seen Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, which also depicts the breakdown of a young housewife in modern suburban America. There are plenty of divergences, principally stylistic – Safe is calm, objective, careful, detached: the camera steadily observes the central figure (Julianne Moore) from a distance, and it’s impossible to say whether what’s wrong with her is entirely physical – she develops the symptoms of an almost universal allergy – or entirely mental, or a mixture of both. Everything Put Together is a jagged contrast – jarring, abrupt, the hand-held camera mirroring the mental traumas suffered by Angie (an effectively restrained Mitchell), whose tragedy is not a matter of doubt or opinion. Her baby son Gabriel succumbs to SIDS while only one day old, sending Angie spiralling into an abyss she’s unable to comprehend or begin to cope with – and neither can any of her so-called friends.

But while the two films are very different in terms of their approach, and in the specifics of their protagonists’ plight, the basic arcs of the stories are very close, right down to specifics: there’s a pivotal crisis with the woman behind the wheel of a car – Julianne Moore has what appears to an allergic seizure, Radha Mitchell has a mental breakdown and ends up smashing her head into the windscreen – and both films end on very similar notes of careful ambiguity.

Forster’s film operates in Safe‘s shadow. It’s also paradoxical that one of Everything Put Together‘s most powerful effects on the viewer – the way it steadily builds up a vivid sense of foreboding and tension – is also one of the aspects that’s most questionable. This is overwhelmingly serious subject matter, and Forster’s approach runs the risk of trivialising it: the director employs the techniques of a thriller (right down to a somewhat clumsy use of heartbeats on the soundtrack) and, if you’ve read the reviews and press notes that compare it to Don’t Look Now, you may think that the film will develop some kind of supernatural angle. Personally, I watched the film in a state of unease that it was about to head off down that particular alley – and I was considerably relieved, at the end, that it never had. This is one of the very few films in recent years during which I’ve found myself hiding my eyes – testament to the spookily unnerving atmosphere Forster creates, but also, I think, an indictment that he hasn’t harmonised the subject matter, the script, and the directorial techniques needed to bring them to the screen.

The film smacks most unsatisfactorily of contrivance, for example, during a pivotal sequence dealing with the christening of one of Angie’s friends’ babies. Angie had originally been asked to be godparent, but contact was broken off following Gabriel’s death – initially as a result of genuine bewilderment, as the friends had no idea how to console Angie, and thought she would need time alone with her husband Russ (Louis, a younger version of Aidan Quinn). But, due to a series of accidents and misunderstandings, Angie turns up at the christening, only to find, when the vicar calls up the godparents, that she is no longer required – the whole movie takes a step backwards as a result of the sheer implausibility of this chain of events.

The christening scene is the most notable example of Forster stacking the deck against Angie – is it really necessary for her friends to turn out to be quite so shallow and unsupportive? And do minor characters – I’m thinking in particular of a storage clerk late on – have to be quite so threatening and sinister. The film works much better during those moments when it presents the outside world as more neutral, when Angie’s perceptions contain the clouds of doubt. There’s a very strong scene when Angie asks to see Gabriel’s body, and then, confronted with a tiny corpse on a mortuary slab, asserts “That’s not my baby,” exactly the reaction we, and the mortuary attendant, expect. But perhaps, as in Rosemary’s Baby, Angie’s paranoia may be justified after all – it turns out that the baby isn’t Gabriel after all. At this point Forster delivers another twist – Angie is equally forceful in rejecting the second child placed before her.

I’m being hard on Everything Put Together. I feel the need to qualify my enthusiasm, but it’s enthusiasm all the same. Even though it was shot on video, this is a refreshingly, excitingly cinematic piece of work, one whose evident budgetary limitations actually add to its power on screen. Everything Put Together is equally intriguing to the ear as well as the eye: many sounds are sharply magnified and metallic, to the point of grating on the nerves, and scenes often begin or end with abrupt bangs, or, during crisis points, oppressive cacophonies. The film is never less than fascinating to look at in terms of angles and lighting, even if Forster’s use of his digital camera never quite surpasses the striking directness of the moment in The Blair Witch Project when Heather Donahue thrusts hers into a plastic bag full of marshmallows.

Forster pulls off numerous visual coups with his supposedly rudimentary equipment – the image momentarily turns monochrome for the shattering moment when Angie realises her son is dead; later, the lights of a multi-storey car-park strobe slowly over the bonnet, windscreen and roof of Angie and Russ’s car as they descend to street level; and the tiny size of the camera enables shots to be made through distorting drinks glasses on a shelf, or between the struts of a bannister – the imagined perspective of the absent child?

A different kind of coup comes with the casting of Angie’s mother, for the majority of the film a distant, disembodied voice on the telephone – which, in this film, is primarily an instrument of mis-communication and alienation, crucially so during the final, supremely ambiguous fade-out. When the mother finally appears, it turns out to be Judy Geeson – best known for her appearances in low-budget 60s and 70s British psychological thrillers about women in peril. But while it’s great to see Geeson on screen again, her presence again raises questions of Forster’s choice of tone. Everything Put Together isn’t really a woman-in-peril film – or at least Angie isn’t in the sort of peril faced by the characters Geeson used to play.

Forster would no doubt defend his approach by pointing out that, for Angie, the death of Gabriel has made her life seem like a living horror film, a real-life psycho-thriller. Perhaps this is fair justification. I’m just not convinced that being thrilled – which is what happened to me during the course of this movie – is the appropriate effect such tragic, touchingly poignant events should produce. It seems an odd complaint, but Everything Put Together is just too effective.

by Neil Young

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