Friday, April 26, 2013

Neglected Gem #41: Groove (2000)

Hamish Linklater (left), David Turner, and Lola Glaudini (right) in Groove

At the high school where I taught in my twenties, I chaperoned the bimonthly Friday night dances on a regular basis. That meant that I was in on them from the eager appearance of the first kids, tremulous for a memorable night, through the vestiges of the event, when the disheveled Student Council students, the managers of the school, picked up the pieces of the night and then drove off for pizza and the inevitable post-mortem. In those days I learned to spot the subtle but unmistakable structure that any dance takes – the fact that it’s a drama with highs and lows built in. You could count on the volatile moments at the door (usually when someone in an altered state was denied admittance), the aura of expectation, the bonding, the heartbreak; by one in the morning, you felt you’d lived emotionally through a whole week at least. No movie I’ve ever seen has gotten the anatomy of a big party better than Groove (2000), by the director Greg Harrison (who wrote and edited as well), which is about a rave that takes place in an abandoned warehouse in San Francisco. It’s a small picture, but a true original, and its mood – celebratory, but with flashes of melancholy – stays with you afterwards.

Steve Van Wormer plays the promoter, Ernie. He’s a Nathan Detroit who runs a floating rave rather than a crap game. But unlike Detroit, he assumes the risk of operating these illicit activities – and has to handle the cops when they show up – for basically no money. (The meager cash he takes in is quickly used up in supplies.) It’s worth it to him, though, because he lives for “the nod” – the acknowledgement he gets, at the end of every rave, that the evening has somehow changed some partier’s life. The guests at these occasions learn about them by e-mail, or from friends who are in on the e-mail chain; they’re invited to a “map point,” where Ernie’s earnest assistant hands them copies of a hand-drawn map. David (Hamish Linklater) attends at the insistence of his kid brother Colin (Denny Kirkwood) and Colin’s girl friend Harmony (Mackenzie Firgens). Colin and Harmony haven’t been going out very long – not long enough to satisfy David – before he asks her to marry him, at the rave. One of the regulars is a gorgeous black woman, Beth (Rachel True), who brings along Joe (Aaron Langridge); Joe’s conscious of being younger than the others, and his behavior suggests that he’s a little out of his depth. (Beth used to babysit him.) Leyla (Lola Glaudini) is an experienced party animal who’s moved out to the Bay Area from New York, thinking she’ll attend Berkeley if she can get in, though she’s already six or seven years out of high school. Snaz (Bing Ching) is a kid From Fresno who takes the first DJ slot and gets to meet his idol, Digweed (playing himself), an Australian transplant whose choice of music to rave by is legendary. Then there’s a gay couple (Jeff Witzke and Bradley K. Ross) who want to honor their first anniversary by hearing Digweed because his sounds brought them together in the first place. But they leave late and get lost; by the time they’ve made their way to the rave, it’s over. (Harrison sweetens their disappointment by having them conduct their own private mini-rave, dancing by the bay to a Digweed car tape.)

Mackenzie Firgens and Denny Kirkwood in Groove
The mood of the evening is supplied by a combination of the music, psychedelic lights, and dope. A chemistry grad student named Cliff (Ari Gold) sells the drugs, which his clients refer to as “vowels” – they want to buy either an “A” (acid) or an “E” (ecstasy). (And if they can tell him what LSD stands for, they get a bonus.) Cliff’s proud of his contribution to the evening, but he prefers to maintain his anonymity; when one of his customers recognizes him as the T.A. in his chemistry course, Cliff hotly denies it. To please his brother, David takes ecstasy for the first time, and it freaks him out. But Leyla calms him down, and under the magic of the moment and the music, they make a connection. Linklater and Glaudini are excellent together: she suggests qualities of both hard-bitten experience and softness, and he, intellectual and romantic and fragile all at once, isn’t quite like any other leading actor I can think of. His David is quirky and genuine in the way that the characters in Noah Baumbach’s early movies, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, are. Meanwhile Colin, lulled in to a sensual haze by the dose of ecstasy he’s ingested, winds up with Anthony (Vincent Riverside) – and Harmony walks in on them.

Harrison makes a couple of blunders. He gives Glaudini a monologue about her friendship with another young woman in the party scene; their paths diverged, and sometime later, running into her again, Leyla discovered that so much time had passed that her friend had already graduated from college, having left Leyla’s world far behind. This tale of a misspent youth has a sobering, cautionary tone that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie (though Glaudini reads it well); we don’t need to feel that Leyla is lost in order to be affected by her encounter with David. And touching as Firgens is in the scene after she discovers her fiancé in a clinch with another guy, I wish the movie didn’t treat the Colin-Harmony story so seriously. Harrison wants us to think, like David, that their engagement is premature and that his harmless dalliance with Anthony demonstrates that it would be a disaster to settle down with her. They reconcile at the end of the night, but our last glimpse of Harmony shows her crying silently in Colin’s bed. A movie like Groove should be more open to new erotic possibilities; couldn’t it treat Colin’s momentary lapse comically? Harrison’s movie, after all, is a variation on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At around four a.m. ravers whose previous venue has been closed down land on Ernie’s doorstep, the noise they make draws the cops, and Ernie’s rave is declared officially dead. (In an earlier scene an officer Ernie attempts to sweet-talk, assuring him that this building is the site of his new business, is affable enough to depart with a word of warning, even though he knows better than to fall for Ernie’s spiel.) But that’s when Digweed makes his long-looked-for appearance. Clinging to the philosophy that no rave is over until the last record spins, Ernie sees the night rise from its own ashes, building to an ecstatic finish with Digweed’s inspired choice of a last song. (All the music is on vinyl – CDs are out of favor here.) As the ravers head on home, and as they move – in low gear, of course – into the banal rhythms of the next morning (Harrison fades to a blinding white before bringing in the glow of the San Francisco morning), they look dazzled. The starlight that fell on them during the night hasn’t faded.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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