David Fenster's Trona opens with a great little tightrope walk of a scene, involving a sexually frustrated business traveller and a hotel room with very thin walls, that any in-depth description of threatens to ruin. It's almost laugh-out-loud funny, yet unbearably tense, and in balancing honest pathos and introspection, and an interrogation of the kind of indie-film isolation that we're often asked to interpret as "meaningful", it sets a high standard for everything to follow. Luckily, the rest of the film is more than capable of keeping up.
Trona is Fenster's CalArts thesis film, and it screened in Vienna, Las Vegas and Argentina before showing in Narrative Competiton last month at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It's an incandescent debut, and it proceeds with a confidence of tone and sense of timing that would seem impossible for a young filmmaker to fake. Slightly too-short at 63 minutes yet expansive in scale and complex in content, it's an almost-silent film full of gorgeous, tightly composed set pieces, and buttered with an seemingly endless supply of great visual jokes.
David Nordstrom, in a great, almost solo, often silent performance, plays The Man with the Mustache, a youngish business man with a baby face obscured by a honking crowbar of facial hair. Flying back from the aforementioned business trip, drunk on whiskey smuggled via Coke can and clearly dreading a return to workaday tedium and matrimonial nagging, he, in the space of five boldly illogical cuts, finds himself, briefcase in hand, stranded in the desert. The transition is abstract to the point of absurdity, but it works. From that point on, Trona is essentially the anti-Wizard of Oz; it's not about a lost protagonist and the adventures they hopscotch whilst trying to make it back home. It's about a lost protagonist and the adventures they hopscotch whilst negotiating and eventually revelling in sheer lostness.
There's a sense of paradise just-lost to these proceedings. Fenster is interested in having his cake and eating it too, allowing his camera to languish on ravishing images - abandoned 70s muscles cars stacked like pancakes, grown men made small by the vastness of natural space, the woozy blurriness of the heat-baked elderly - but never letting a moment of pure beauty slip by unexamined. For every excursion into romantic machismo, Fenster takes a mirror detour into anti-decadence. There are parties where stringy-haired hipsters swig from bottles of Pastis, and a makeout scene is little more than a drunken disaster, most of it occuring not around a desert campfire, but around a toilet.
What kind of hedonism woud you get involved in if your life was suddenly stripped of its usual boundaries? If, after you'd gotten into any conceivable kind of trouble/pleasure that you could stir up out in the desert on your own, would you, as is the usual philosophical party line, really be able to delve inward and unlock the mysteries of your soul? Or would you get bored and drive into town for a steak dinner and maybe try to get laid? The fact that Fenster even poses that opposition is a sign that he's doing something new: he's making a serious, personal film with the good sense to laugh at itself.
Trona talks about the utopianism so easily associated with the American desert, but by turning that discussion on its head whenever possible, totally avoids slipping into nostalgic fetishism or kitsch. Essentially, we get indulge in the guilty pleasures of Kerouackian existentialism, without ever having to feel guilty about it. It's something of a happy miracle that Fenster gets away with it.