The director, Gary Alan Walkow, translates Dostoevsky’s first-person narration into direct-to-camera, video confessional intended for an unseen audience. The direct-to camera, video confessional in Notes From Underground exposes the narrator’s (Henry Czerny) interior life to public scrutiny: his isolation, alienation, self-destructiveness, his misanthropy, rationalizations and justifications (including lies, exaggerations, and other distortions), rationalizations and justifications often contradicted by an inchoate self-awareness. The direct-to-camera confessional (faithful to Dostoevsky's source material) is interwoven with a series of flashbacks to a period twelve years before the narrator has chosen to describe them. The flashbacks describe the narrator’s last, disastrous attempts at human interaction before his retreat into self-willed isolation. The flashbacks cover two pivotal events in the narrator’s life: his last meeting with several, more successful ex-classmates, and his relationship with the prostitute, Liza, whom he meets at a local brothel.
For contradictory reasons (the desire for companionship and self-flagellation), the narrator invites himself to a going-away celebration for one of his former, more successful, classmates, Zerkov (Jon Favreau), whose financial and personal success is an obvious contrast to the narrator’s multiple, self-induced failures. His former classmates, so-called “Masters of the Universe,” Wall Street traders and financiers defined by their desire for material success, regardless of the moral costs involved, treat him with utter contempt and ridicule. During the course of the celebration at an expensive restaurant, the narrator proceeds to insult, ridicule, and otherwise alienate Zerkov and his other classmates. Abandoned at the restaurant in abject humiliation, the narrator abruptly decides to follow them to a brothel, ostensibly to confront Zerkov and his other ex-classmates, and salvage his personal honor and self-esteem. At the brothel, however, he discovers that his ex-classmates have been otherwise occupied; the madam offers the narrator a prostitute, Liza.
After rough, desperate, yet dispassionate sexual intercourse with Liza, the narrator projects his self-loathing and recent humiliation at Liza, whose silence and distance the narrator considers an insult and a challenge. The narrator’s goal is simple: to humiliate her as he himself has been humiliated, and bring her to a rush of emotion, tears, and a despair to match his own. In the narrator’s world, relationships aren’t, and can't be, defined by equality and mutual respect, but by power, power expressed through words and physical domination. Power unexercised is power squandered (and the narrator is incapable of refraining from using that power, limited as it may be). But the narrator, overcome with remorse at his own actions, invites Liza to visit (and stay) with him.
Complications arise, of course, when Liza appears at his doorstep, suitcase in hand. The narrator now has a stark choice, a new, possibly idyllic life with Liza, or a return to a corrosive, enervating isolation. The narrator’s decision, however, is already pre-determined (or pre-programmed), both by the confessional/flashback structure employed by the film, and by the narrator’s rigid, inflexible nature. In Dostoevsky’s bleak worldview, at least the one presented in Notes From Underground, nature determines character, and character determines choice, regardless of the circumstances or even the willingness of the narrator to change. For the audience, the choice is between resisting the inevitable, based on narrative structure and the narrator’s choices, and an underlying (if unwarranted) hope for a positive resolution.
The strengths in Notes From Underground are evident in the source material, the dramatic structure, and the central performance by Henry Czerny (The Boys of St. Vincent’s), and to a lesser extent, the supporting performance by Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) as Liza. Czerny, in particular, gives a sympathetic, complex performance as the unnamed narrator. Czerny’s idiosyncratic line readings, punctuated by self-conscious pauses and involuntary, non-verbal sounds, are all the more memorable given the material at hand. Given Czerny’s performance, Notes From Underground could have been equally, if not more, successful without the use of flashbacks. The direct-to-camera video confessional would have served as the basis for the film (similar to the filmed monologues written and performed by the late Spalding Gray).
The flaws in Notes From Underground can be traced to the other supporting performances and the awkward staging. The early scenes, especially with the unnamed narrator’s ex-classmates, suffer from both problems. None of the other performances, including Jon Favreau’s (Swingers), rise to the level of Czerny’s, pointing either to a significant difference in talent level employed by Walkow in the film, a lack of rehearsal time, or, more likely, both. The mis-en-scéne (the placement of the actors and objects within the frame) and the editing seem to indicate that the problem was more likely a budgetary one (and thus minimal rehearsal time). When the film leaves the ex-classmate subplot behind, and turns into a two-character drama between the narrator and Liza, the staging noticeably improves. In fact, Walkow and his cinematographer, Dan Gillham, stage the scenes inside the narrator’s small, cramped apartment as a series of static, unobtrusive, tableaux, using light, shadow, and color to underscore the evolving (and later disintegrating) relationship between the two characters.
© Mel Valentin, 21st September, 2004
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