Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, May 2, 2008


       The staunch cinema enthusiast, upon walking into a movie theater (or sliding that DVD into a set-top player), is usually looking for a new experience, presented within a familiar context -- which is to say, a display of novelty, imaginativeness, and invention; but played out within the familiar framework of an established genre. Most films hailed by critics as “totally original” or “strikingly different” fall into this category -- they add a few atypical elements to some well-worn story-line, and voilá! The entire film feels fresh and new and different. Blue Velvet comes to mind here; upon first viewing, a friend of mine found it so weird that he “couldn’t follow it” -- but when you look at the film, plot-point by plot-point, it’s a pretty straightforward mystery (albeit with some peculiar and unsavory elements). So, when a movie comes along that is really different -- not just “quirky” (as, let’s say, Napoleon Dynamite is), nor simply with an “unexpected”, but more often predictable, plot-twist (The Sixth Sense anyone?) -- it often goes unnoticed; simply because critics and audiences don’t have a previously-established context into which to place it. Such I think is the case with Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake -- it’s easily one of the best and most creative films I’ve seen this year; yet for the most part, its just slipped past everyone’s notice.

       The Guatemalan Handshake is an episodic film that doesn’t easily lend itself to a brief synopsis -- but all the same, here’s a stab at it. After a major electrical blackout accidentally instigated by power plant employee and ne’er-do-well, Stool (Rich Schreiber), the lives of the residents of a small Pennsylvania town are all thrown into various degrees of disarray. Mr. Turnupseed’s beloved car goes missing; Ethel Firecracker’s dog run runs away from home; and most mysterious of all, Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham), part-time demolition derby driver and full-time misanthrope, vanishes without a trace, leaving his pregnant girlfriend Sadie without a father for her unborn child -- and prompting his best friend, 10 year-old Turkeylegs, to start her own search for his whereabouts. The film meanders through the lives of these characters as they attempt to deal with these problems -- and culminates at the yearly demolition derby, where things don’t exactly come to a head; but nonetheless some of the characters -- and myself, I have to admit -- do arrive at some sort of epiphany.

       It’s tempting to call The Guatemalan Handshake a “literary” sort of a film -- its low-key, understated narrative reminds me of some of the stories of Haruki Murakami or David Foster Wallace (a writer who I must admit I don’t much care for; he’s clearly a talented wordsmith, but his stories always seems to revolve around nothing in particular). The movie uses a variety of styles over its course; documentary-style interviews (with individuals who I strongly suspect are not actors, but just plain ol’ citizens of Dillsburg, PA -- where the film was shot); music-video style interludes; black-and-white, fable-like stories within the context of the larger story. Unlike many films taken from literary sources, The Guatemalan Handshake, doesn’t rely too heavily upon its dialogue; it’s more about what you’re seeing in front of you, and the order in which said events are presented, I think. I suppose, like some literary works, the film ultimately seems driven by neither plot nor character, but by some sort of internal scheme or view of the universe; and appreciating the film seems as much a matter of getting in tune with that agenda, as anything else.

       The Guatemalan Handshake has just become available on DVD, in a 2-disc set that includes some amusing short films and featurettes from the cast and crew. The film never received a wide theatrical release, but still makes the occasional festival appearance or special engagement. You can buy or rent the DVD through the usual sources. I recommend it as highly as any film I’ve seen this year so far -- which’ll probably cause as many of you to steer clear of it as take a look... -- oh well, your loss.

Some links:

Another trailer for The Guatemalan Handshake.

A scene from the movie -- please note that The Guatemalan Handshake was completed before the film Juno even started production.

A short film by Todd Rohal, Sweaty Salesman.

Next post -- 05/16/08


PCarino said...

Anecdote! I had heard of this movie a while back, because it was made by a friend of a coworker of mine, who had recommended it w/o any explanation. Knowing absolutely nothing about the film, I just adopted the phrase "Guatemalan Handshake" into my everyday lexicon.

"...Well, he really gave us the ol' Guatemlaan handshake, huh?! The nerve!"....and like that.

grigorss said...

That's a good anecdote -- and completely consistent with the film as well, as it gives no explanation whatsoever as to what a "Guatemalan Handshake" might be...

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