Wisconsin Film Festival: ‘Played Out’
The year is 1973. In the dead of night, a sluggish Philip Marlowe descends from his stucco apartment tucked snugly into a California hillside. Despite the thick blanket of humidity, the private eye is on the hunt — not for a murderer or jewel-encrusted statue, but a particular brand of cat food. Just two years later, a beloved country singer is shot beneath the shadow of the Nashville Parthenon; as she’s whisked away, drenched in blood, echoes of a jubilant crowd ring from the stage, “It don’t worry me.”
If Robert Altman is to be remembered for one thing, it’s his abandonment of the talkative formulas left behind by Classical Hollywood’s decaying relevance. From his hard-boiled adaptation of Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye” (1973) to his ambitious country epic “Nashville” (1975), his directorial flair is replicated, at best, through homage.
Much in the same way we look at “King Kong” (1933) now as being a ridiculous but genius paradigm for special effects, traces of Altman can be seen as bits and pieces, one at a time, of social commentary that hadn’t existed before — perhaps never again — were it not for him. With a keen eye for the American dream’s illusory tactics, Altman was especially gifted in connecting an ethos of nonchalant nationalism to a geographic location: its people, its vibe, its essence, really. Something Altmanesque was seen in Madison last weekend at the premiere of James Runde’s “Played Out” (2019).
Since 2015, Runde and a handful of colleagues have been shooting, developing and nurturing “Played Out” into the state it is today. Following the lives of various Madisonians — an unemployed mother (Leslie), an aspiring hip-hop artist (Booda) and an aimless man (James) — the film compresses external stressors into an obstacle for the psyche, pitting these characters against demands of validation and social normativity to pursue their inner desires. Through my own involvement in the Communications Department and Runde’s generosity, I was able to view a cut of the film in early March and again at its packed WIFF premiere.
The desire for direction pervades throughout “Played Out,” and I was mostly struck by its success in creating an organic drift of this theme across the characters’ various points in life. James, portrayed by Runde himself, seems to float around a baseless existence that is comprised of nothing more than work, hobbies and family. These are all great aspects in their own right, but Runde’s character seems to merely participate in these aspects rather than engage with them.
The product of this lifestyle is ambivalent and aptly mirrors the overwhelming wave of reality that looms over each newly branded adult as they enter the “real world.” To this extent, James isn’t a pitiful character nor an unlikeable one. Behind Runde’s facial pensivity, we see someone who is full of subdued anxieties toward the future, all without explicitly acknowledging their presence.
Leslie, on the other hand, faces an abrupt shattering of stability as opposed to fearing its impending throes. As she attempts to balance unemployment, motherhood and perfecting bass lines on a gorgeous Rickenbacker, we see a more salient externalization of these anxieties in comparison to James. Her character certainly stands out as a conduit for Altman’s counterculturalism; I mean, how often, really, do you hear of suburban mothers laying bass for punk-rock bands? There’s an air of grace about Leslie that embraces the challenge of adaptation, marking an increment of progress that’s so strongly coveted by the cast.
However, I found Booda to be an astonishing fusion of the two other characters. He seemed to be the most dynamic and focal character of the three, which is hardly a complaint. Instead of seeing James and Leslie as afterthoughts in the script, they seemed to have an almost ethereal force on Booda, pushing and pulling his choices toward their respective qualities of subdued anxieties or movement to change.
“Played Out” remains consistent in both its tone and visual style. The latter is a pretty muddy mixture of beige, gray and white. Low contrast gave a look and feel to the world that can only be described as two slices of white bread placed together — that is, flat and mild. With the occasional flair of colorful lighting, though, this proved an excellent metaphor for suburban distillation that, to some degree, seemed to be an argument Runde was after. In fact, the only astonishingly colorful scene I can recall was at some downtown bar; it seems that the only flavors of life to be found beyond the all-too-familiar benders of youth are a decent plate of spaghetti and a good punk-rock jam session.
Cinematography follows suit, with your average, hand-held cinéma vérité: while the composition, lighting and stage blocking all mesh cozily into the narrative, they don’t seem to push any boundaries or match someone’s high expectations. You’ve got the shot-reverse-shot, the close-up, the scene shot and so on. It’s all there, and while the camera work isn’t some revelation of übercinema, it doesn’t try to be. It knows what it is and owns that identity in a superbly fitting fashion.
Speaking of fitting, that’s certainly the most outright theme of the movie. While in one regard, James tries to satiate his hunger for sociality and simultaneously find time to attend his sister’s birthday, Leslie yearns to connect and inspire her son towards loftier academic goals. Meanwhile, Booda tries to launch a new LP while upholding the loving patriarchal position he’s proven to excel at. The film is wrought with an ambition to grow, if not for one’s self, then for others. According to Runde in the Q&A, the title has many meanings, from fleeting moments to utter exhaustion. Without appreciating these truths in life, no one can expect to grow into what they desire.
And so, we return to identifying what makes Runde’s featurette so Altmanesque. The characters of this demographic drama aren’t out searching for total nirvana, and they’re not seeking out some lost treasure or stopping a cackling villain. They’re people like you and me. This was even a driving force for Runde’s approach to multiple narrators, regarding the actors as not only friends but persons with unique stories that deserved to be told. If life is the pie, “Played Out” is the single slice you never want to end. It’s an independent film designed by the ultimate philosophical naturalist, sacrificing bells and whistles for real elements that transport us to the same place at the same time. For all I know, we could have been in that theater as the events unfolded in real time.
Altman had a knack for placing a camera in front of any American identity and extracting the crucial comings and goings of their time: When’s the next war? Which politician should I yell at? When’s lunch? Although Runde’s work is less satirical, it proudly bears the same badge of social commentary that turns a lens toward a post-consumerist society that’s more concerned with well-being than what’s normative or cool or “in.”
Somewhere out there, beneath the shaded treeline of a Dane County warehouse studio, punk-rockers and hip-hoppers are singing into the evening. One of them missed a car payment, and the other got fired just last week. But with a certain ear, and the utmost attention, you can make out the faint voices that hoot and holler from their hearts all the way down to Nashville: “It don’t worry me.”