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Thread: The Station Agent: Charm But No Wisdom

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    The Station Agent: Charm But No Wisdom

    Nobody is sure what an “indie” film is. Supposedly it’s a movie that cost a pittance to make. But what’s a pittance these days, $30,000 or $15 million? Is it a movie that’s non-commercial in design and risky in content? Not necessarily: Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” ushered in a softer kind of indie film that makes a deal with the mainstream. If an indie gets a distributor, it may be Miramax, which belongs to Disney, and what’s indie about that? Maybe the only films with true indie spirit are the ones nobody sees.

    But though “indie director” may be only a transitional status, indie certainly ought to mean an American movie made with both modest means and daring ideas. Small is beautiful. It can be creative and liberating to have few complications and a small staff. With no big studio pressures to conform to, the director can take chances: working small, without thinking small.

    Sometimes indie magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t. In Raising Victor Vargas and American Splendor, it happens. In The Station Agent it doesn't. Though audiences seem pleased and the film has won awards, it’s a film that dropped the ball. Essentially it not only works small but thinks small – in more ways than one. The magic isn't there; the challenge wasn't met.

    The Station Agent is a film about a dwarf. In taking on this subject, Thomas McCarthy has given himself a tough assignment. It’s tough to be a dwarf. It’s tough to understand what it’s like to be one. McCarthy is apparently interested in taking a realistic approach. This isn’t the fantasy creature of spooky movies; it’s not David Lynch’s hieratic dwarf in Twin Peaks. It’s just a man who happens to be a dwarf. That fact dominates his life. It’s equivalent to having a major handicap.

    One of the weaknesses of indie filmmakers may be a sort of outsider fetishism; at any rate McCarthy seems to have fallen prey to such an attitude in this movie. The Station Agent never gets beyond the fact of being a dwarf; neither does it go deeply into what its main character’s experience is like. Instead, with self-congratulatory zeal, the movie embraces the dwarf’s outsider status and makes him seem accepted, having begun by telling us that he is not. The film is comforting, charming, quirky, but superficial. Certainly the denial of Lynch’s hieratic, ominous figure – a demonized outsider – is necessary to get at the character’s essential humanity, but in the process his experience is made bland and tasteless.

    Fin (Peter Dinklage) is really a rather good-looking man, but he’s a dwarf. Every time he walks down the street people stare at him, make rude remarks or run in fright. His stance in the face of this alienation is a studied indifference. He makes clear he’s had to work to achieve that response. When he was young he was very angry, he says. (“About what?” someone asks. “Being a dwarf,” he answers, with a look as if to say, “How the hell can you ask that?”) If Fin ever dreamed of acceptance by the general population, he has given up.

    But the narrative doesn’t let him stay unloved for long.

    What happens is that an elderly black man for whom Fin works in a Hoboken hobby shop repairing model trains, drops dead and leaves him a property – with a little train station on it. Fin goes to live there. It’s a remote part of New Jersey apparently replete with lonely people, four of whom immediately make friends with Fin. The rest of the film consists of their interactions with him.

    The audience's need to feel broad minded toward Fin is rewarded through the prompt arrival of these characters who can hardly wait to embrace him. He’s befriended in quick succession by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban-American running his sick father’s food stand; Olivia, a ditsy middle-class lady separated from her husband (inde queen Patricia Clarkson); and Cleo, a plump young black girl (Raven Goodwin, who’s an inde child, since she starred last year in Lovely and Amazing). Cleo’s presence is more peripheral; but she does lure Fin into her classroom to talk about trains.

    Joe, Olivia, and Cleo are outsiders too, but only provisional and temporary ones compared to Fin. Joe is innately gregarious and in fact stunningly normal. He’s mildly grating, but also rather charming. He’s at once too needy and too nice not to offer Fin his friendship. How he has ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere occupying his father’s food stand across from Fin’s train station is a puzzle. Let’s just say he needed to be there. Olivia literally bumps into Fin. She’s such a bad driver she knocks him over a couple of times with her SUV. She too wanders into Fin’s sphere out of sheer plotline necessity, but stays there out of loneliness. Cleo is a loner who haunts the area hunting for stuff in old train cars, but she’s in school like every other kid.

    By coming into Fin’s life, Joe, Olivia, and Cleo neutralize his outsider status and completely obliterate their own. There’s even a very pretty young librarian (Michelle Williams) – rebuffed, eventually – who’s really turned on by him. What has happened to the challenge of being a dwarf? It’s been neutralized. Fin comes to seem just a grumpy grinch who needed to be brought out, like Scrooge.

    To do him and the movie credit, Fin manages to remain resolutely, balefully cool -- except for a startling moment of drunkenness in a bar. He begins to smile a bit half way through, but does so with such restraint that the transformation never seems corny -- or even very noticeable. The Station Agent is low keyed to an indie fault. Fin doesn’t appeal obviously to our sentimentality or, in fact, overtly seem to “appeal” at all. He’s the most self-contained of characters. Joe, Olivia, and Cleo (if not the librarian) are crushingly needy in comparison -- and that doesn't change. There are no transformations among the secondary characters, and there is only the tiniest one in Fin.

    And thus there are, in fact, no chances taken -- beyond the initial casting.

    Dinkelage’s presence on screen has been called "strong." Well, yes: because he’s a dwarf, and also a trained actor, he knows how to use the fact that even his stillness draws attention. Dincklage understands as well as a Michael Caine the necessity of understatement in film acting. But he’s no Michael Caine. It's very difficult to warm to him. His glum voice has a depressing flatness. He does ably manage the gradual segue into those few smiles. But neither the actor nor the movie grants us true insight into Fin’s character or the ordeals he has faced. Being a dwarf is a difficult assignment and so is making a film about one. It seems to me that the director’s courage went little beyond his choice of a main character. The way Fin is accepted is too easy and the result is a bland, unchallenging picture. The little encounters of the four other characters with Fin and each other have a quiet charm, but despite its choice of an unusual protagonist the movie ends up being pale and unenlightening.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-04-2003 at 01:35 PM.

  2. #2
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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Dinkelage’s presence on screen has been called "strong." . It's impossible to warm to him.

    It's presumptuous to state that it's "impossible" for others to feel differently about a character than you do. I certainly managed the "impossible". More so because, as written and performed, the characterization avoids mawkishness.

    The Station Agent is tied with Finding Nemo and Capturing the Friedmans as the best rated films of 2003 according to the largest survey of moviegoers I could find (IMDb). The critics praised it also. I don't think it's top 10 material myself but I enjoyed it.

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    It's presumptuous to state that it's "impossible" for others to feel differently about a character than you do. I certainly managed the "impossible". More so because, as written and performed, the characterization avoids mawkishness.
    I don't go by popularity polls, even among critics. Avoiding mawkishness doesn't seem to me any guarantee of "warming to" a character.

    In writing a review, I don't like to use "I" and I am attempting to speak as an "arbiter of taste." Therefore I do not write "It is impossible for me to warm to him" for both reasons, as a matter of review-writing style (I'm not a product of the "Me" journalism) and because I'm stating what I think is a valid description of the character. The fact that some people will love any character or any film is not any kind of refutation of a critical assessment.

    My implication was that it is impossible for anybody with good judgment to warm to the character.

    Shouldn't you be outraged? Sometimes you seem too nice to everybody--here, to the dwarf, and to me. If you like him, you should be outraged by what I have written about him.

    To take any kind of decisive critical position is presumptuous. It has to be. That doesn't make it wrong. But, right or wrong, I have stated my assessment honestly.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    . I don't go by popularity polls

    Me neither. My point is that if Station Agent is tied for best film of the year according to a relatively large survey of people, some of them must have "warmed" to Finbar. People lacking good judgement, you'd say.

    In writing a review, I don't like to use "I" and I am attempting to speak as an "arbiter of taste."

    We've discussed our differences regarding critical approach so I'll be brief. My aim is to figure out why I feel/think a certain way about a film, and to attempt to put that in words. I am no "arbiter of taste". I have a personal opinion.

    Shouldn't you be outraged? Sometimes you seem too nice to everybody--

    Well, just last week Johann rightly took offense re: my comments about his post. My objection here is to a single line in which your critical approach takes you to the extreme of stating that a reaction different than yours is impossible. Or the revised version: only people lacking good judgement "warm" to Finbar. I'm glad I am not (easily) outraged by differing points of view because outrage gets in the way of learning from them.

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    My point is that if Station Agent is tied for best film of the year according to a relatively large survey of people, some of them must have "warmed" to Finbar. People lacking good judgement, you'd say.
    Yes, I would most definitely say. But who are these people? And why should they matter to me in judging the merits of the film?

    Your claim --
    . . .my aim is to figure out why I feel/think a certain way about a film, and to attempt to put that in words. I am no "arbiter of taste". I have a personal opinion. ..


    -- would mean you have really no “critical approach" at all (though you describe it as such) – but this I think is disingenuous, because in fact you are seeking to show that I am wrong, and would appear to disagree with my critical assessment and want to refute it. But what is your proof? What is there to warm to in Finbar? Can you support your claim? And what are the merits of the film that I have missed in accusing it of falling into indie weaknesses of outsider fetishism and easy, lowkeyed emotional resolutions that give a false sense of being realistic about a hard subject -- while in fact providing only the easiest and most non-committal of answers?

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    My criticism was very specific from the beginning: "It's impossible to warm to him".
    You responded: "My implication was that it is impossible for anybody with good judgement to warm to the character".
    I don't share your opinion but this IS a reasonable statement. I'm satisfied. I do agree that Raising Victor Vargas and American Splendor are better films.

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    Fine, but if your restrict yourself to this one point, it's not much of a defense of the movie. I was hoping for a debate here. Now suppose I revised my review to read "it's difficult to warm to him," what then?

    I agree further: American Splendor and Raising Victor Vargas are way better. The debate is over before it began.

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    Modificatons

    In response to feedback from Oscar and others I've edited my review, above, in a number of minor ways, including changing "impossible" to "very difficult." I don't change my evaluation of the movie, but I'm always happy to admit my case might be made more convincingly by others, or by me on a better day.

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