“Please Be Normal”
Although Haik Kocharian, the writer/director/ producer, with Anette Lewis, of a 90-minute indie, Please Be Normal, did not consciously have in mind the 1964 Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence,” its psychological resonance informs his beautifully photographed film, and could well serve as an epigraph: “Hello darkness, my old friend / I've come to talk with you again /Because a vision softly creeping /Left its seeds while I was sleeping / And the vision that was planted in my brain /Still remains / Within the sound of silence.” The film is full of silences that serve when we have nothing to say because there IS nothing to say – whether because of the paucity of words in a deeply emotional situation (“words fail”) or because silences, particularly in darkness, can invite a mystical sense of bonding, a felt “vision” of what is basic about human relationships – a sense of connectedness that the trials of ordinary life tend to obscure. Silences thus become a quiet challenge to the way we have been living, a break from convention, tradition, expectations. In Please Be Normal, the silences ironically tell more than the principals, Vic and Mary, do, or can. The minimalist “ambient” music in the film, original pieces by Stars of the Lid, that has been described as “divine, classical drone without the tedious intrusion of drums or vocals,” generates a kind of other-worldly disaffection, which is the way Vic feels. He loves Mary and looks forward to having a their baby but feels increasingly lost, at a distance from himself as a creative theatrical artist, son-in-law and father to be.
The opening shots of the film, however, feature not silence but noise. Victor (Louis Cancelmi) a young man of dark good looks is sandblasting on a construction site, a temporary job. Mary, though six months pregnant, is still working. The viewer hears only Vic’s labored breathing behind a protective mask. He’s a playwright, but when he goes to watch a couple of actors rehearse their lines, (at the downtown, off-Broadway Gene Frankel Theatre), he doesn’t say a word. Actually, the real opening shots of the film are devoid of people – stunningly composed scenes of trees in winter in the Connecticut woods. Still, silent, motionless, it’s only in the last shot that a wisp of branches moves, dendrites against a cold blue sky.
Mary (Elisabeth Waterston) is not Vic’s wife, though they’ve been together 10 years. She calls him a lot on her cell, wanting to tell him with apologetic girlish rush about her latest extravagance buying for their baby, and to let him know that her father (Sam Waterston) has volunteered to buy them a house. The actors are related in real-life —Sam and his daughter Elisabeth and Elisabeth’s husband, Louis. When Dad shows up, Mary is delighted, Vic morose. He barely wills himself to smile as she displays the baby clothes she’s just bought. What talk there is between them is uneasy. “Are we happy?” she asks. He repeats the question rather than answer it. She says she fears something will go wrong. He caresses her stomach and says he’s sure everything will be fine. The slow-pacing of the film, the minimal dialogue and the odd music create a sense of foreboding.
Then, without transition, the scene shifts: Amy (Dana Eskelson) is visiting her mother (Charlotte Kelly) in a nursing home. The superb performances of both actresses, enhanced by close ups that also suggest silence tells all, convey the deep affection between mother and daughter. How will all the characters connect, the viewer wonders. Scene shift again: Vic has rented a U-Haul – they’re moving to suburbia, thanks to Dad, but as he drives, he comes across Amy (they vaguely know one another from the neighborhood and she has said hello to him on the 110th Street subway platform as he’s going to the theatre). She asks if he can help her. She is obviously distraught but says nothing. He acquiesces, without knowing what the problem is. Her beloved mother has died and the body needs to be identified. It’s night. She wants him, someone, to go with her. Afterward, she gets in the car and he starts to drive...where? She says nothing. He says nothing. And thus begins the unusual odyssey at the center of the film. He drives and drives away from the city, away from their lives, into the wilderness. They stop, he builds a fire and they share tea and a snack in silence -- a ritual communion. Snow falls, except for the fire, the screen is dark. And silent.
Meanwhile, Mary’s father is worried about his daughter and about her anxiety – repeated calls to Vic’s cell go unanswered. She tells her father that she thinks she knows where he might be because it’s where they met – and that earlier in a rare burst of energy he suggested they drive to the woods. She reasonably said no. But reason is not propelling Vic. At the risk of being a spoiler, let it be said that there is a violent confrontation in the woods between Vic and his father-in-law, and then a brief call from Vic to Mary that he’s coming home. But what will happen when he gets back? What will he say or not say? How will he conform or not?
Please be Normal is Kocharian’s first full-length feature as a writer/ director (shorter pieces include an award-winning Reel 13 film “Charlie” and a French-US Production feature film Manhattan Romance (www.imdb.com/title/tt2989862/combined). The back-story irony is that he and Lewis managed to engage as actors a family with solid relationships to make a film about familial estrangement. The prompt to do an extended film, says Kocharian, was born out of a desire to “explore challenging questions about family and identity,” and to generate discussion about the kind of sacrifice and compromise needed to make relationships work. The ambiguous ending is certain to spark debate. Kocharian also wanted to challenge himself further as a filmmaker, to have visual images evoke emotion and mood, to have every frame contribute to an organic whole. He is, obvious, meticulous about his craft and proud of his parents and his Armenian heritage and training. He quotes his father, “Filmmaking is the art of a mature person.” It requires intellectual curiosity, a deep appreciation of those who have come before, wide reading in sciences and humanities and an abiding commitment to personal and professional discipline. They show: Please Be Normal is a wise film.#
(Now in the final phase of post-production, both executive producers hope to continue fundraising for finishing touches and note that donations would be most welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Haik Kocharian is an award-winning photographer and a singer songwriter with three albums available on itunes: itunes.apple.com/us/artist/haik-kocharian/id272898077).