Director: Alexandros Papathanasopoulus
Writer: George Zafeiropoulos
Cast: Chris Scott & Wesley Jones
Running time: 11mins
It takes a bold director to open a work with one of the lead characters uttering the word ‘fuck’ nine times in staggered intervals; it also lays down a marker that the film is going to be in the social realist tradition. So, it proves with Pathologies of Everyday Life. I have viewed two other films by Alexandros Papathanasopoulus, the elegiac, superbly edited, meditations on landscape, Balcony and Thaw, and I would guess Pathologies of Everyday Life was somewhat of a change in the director’s previous way of working. Pathologies is shot without any sleight of hand editing; the action takes place on the same set throughout and, excepting a twist at the end, is simply a conversation between two actors. The script is one that could easily be performed in a theatre: intriguingly, the stage, roles and plays are a key thread running through the actors’ dialogue.
The expletives are shouted as a rage into the night. The film opens with two men by a car, the man who has been raging is pacing up and down it in a ferocious manner whilst the other is sitting on the car roof drinking from a can. We see necklaces of electric lights way in the darkness, we are high up on a hill above a city. There are tall pines immediately behind the car. The lights of the car are on full – the whites and reds illuminating the scene. The tableau has the feel of a place where one would go on a date or get high – for our characters it turns out to be the latter. I enjoyed the fact that Papathanasopoulus does not place the piece in any specific location – the actors speak pretty much unaccented English – we could be in any part of the English-speaking world. The director is dealing with universals not particulars.
A problem in reviewing Pathologies is that the credits give only the names of the actors, Chris Scott and Wesley Jones, and do not identify the roles they play. In the dialogue, we learn that one of the characters is called ‘Robin’ but the other remains nameless throughout. The latter wears a tracksuit top with a Puma logo, so let us go with calling him Puma. Robin and Puma look to be in their late 20s. They certainly have not dressed for the occasion – they wear slightly distressed sports casuals. Early on in the dialogue, Puma tells Robin that he has ‘invested heavily in their intoxication’. As Puma is drinking from a can of Carling Black Label, a mass produced not exactly high-octane beer, one assumes that their intoxication comes from other chemical sources than alcohol. Throughout the film, Puma and Robin never show any of the slurred bonhomie of the drinker but they do exhibit the edge and mood swings associated with alternatives ways of escaping this world’s vale of tears. Scott and Jones convey Puma’s and Robin’s altered states startlingly well in fine and well-judged performances.
As the screenplay, beautifully crafted by George Zafeiropoulos, unfolds, we are given a picture of Robin and Puma as losers in the struggles to amass wealth or status in contemporary capitalist society. Not for them the eternally blue skies of a Facebook post or a hey guess what I am doing Instagram picture. They work together packing vegetables and their conversation reveals their failures in finding female sexual partners. Our protagonists are self-aware and attribute their failure to their treatment by their teachers at school and in particular the drama teacher, a Mr Brunt. Anyone in the English-speaking world whose last name ends in those three letters inevitably runs the risk of having their name rhymed with an infamous four-letter word – for example in the UK, we had an especially oleaginous long serving Conservative Health Minister who was known to a great number of the population as Jeremy Cunt. Here, Robin and Puma have great fun with the rhyme as they discuss killing Brunt as a revenge for their humiliations.
We learn that on this very same night, a school reunion is due to take place. The reunion appears to be connected to a possible attempt by our hapless duo to kill Brunt. Robin and Puma discuss which one of them should do the deed and decide the matter by the toss of a coin. The director then gives us a twist to the story which certainly provides a sense of finality.
Zafeiropoulos’ script uses the supposed rejection by Brunt of the protagonists’ pretensions to be lead-actors to great comic effect. Puma fancied himself in the role of Hamlet but was given the part of Rosencrantz. In his tirade against Brunt, Puma raves that the character even dies off stage. Robin agrees that they were cast as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which was a downer but adds that he was also given the part of Caliban to which Puma sneers that Caliban was ‘a spastic or something’. Puma who takes the intellectual lead, Socrates to Robin’s Plato in a parallel universe, claims that wanting to play Hamlet was just a metaphor. This is a delicious part of the script as we are being asked to see Robin and Puma as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – the metaphor within the metaphor.
Our perception of each of their existences depends on the existence of their other – think Sam and Dave or Laurel and Hardy. But as Puma memorably states – fuck the play, Brunt’s the villain. The rational for their sense of injustice and victimhood is that they tried to follow the rules of the play, but the playwright’s prescription is that they should fuck off and die. The evocation of the pair’s sense of alienation and self-identification as losers and outsiders reaches its height when they speculate whether anyone at the school reunion will miss them not being there. Puma notes that of course they will not be missed – people will just think they are dead or something. Puma thinks that the point of school reunions is to have the joy of comparing yourself with the worst in class and the ideal story for the reunion to feast upon would be the death and decay of the school scum.
The relationship between Puma and Robin is superbly delineated by Scott and Jones. This was an excellent casting decision by the director. The pair show how the outsiders have developed their world view and deploy an idiosyncratic use of language which gives the characters some sense of empowerment. The actors capture the ludic quality of stoned people in conversation. A memorable verbal tic of Puma’s is juxta-fucking-position. There is a wonderful debate as to the proper pronunciation of the plural of ‘asparagus.’ Perhaps, my favourite moment was when Robin claims that Puma has made a ‘Freudian slipper’. Puma, as sage, explains that it is what you think you’re thinking when you’re saying. The actor taking the role of Robin had a challenging task as Robin is cast as hyperactive. Robin is constantly pacing up and down, when seated he is frantically trying to roll a cigarette or a spliff but when he finally achieves the goal his lighter fails to ignite. Robin’s doomed attempts to conjure the lighter into life is a stand-out moment – the actor catches the physicality of the scene exactly. A nice touch of social realism from the director is that Robin is constantly fiddling with his tobacco packet which bears the somewhat redundant health warning – Smoking Kills – Quit Now.
The sense of failure pervades the movie. Robin cannot make the lighter work but the climactic fuck up moment comes when Puma, who has tried to define himself as active leader to Robin’s passive follower, tries to change the music on the car’s sound system. The machine has been playing on a loop a strange, eerie piece of electronic ambient music which had seemed to increase in volume as the film progressed. When Puma tries to change the music, he draws the viewer’s attention to how oppressive and claustrophobic it has become, we, as viewers, enter Puma’s world. Of course, Puma fails to change the music, Robin explains that it is impossible, all Puma succeeds in doing is to increase the volume – as Puma would no doubt have it – it’s a metaphor. The music continues through to the twist – before the final cut to black sees the credits roll. A subtle piece of craft work that I enjoyed was that the music stops at the twist but the cut to the black and the credits is accompanied by the sound of a car door closing and of footsteps – an extremely effective use of the soundtrack.
With Pathologies, Papathanasopoulus has conjured up a gem of a movie. First class script, excellent cast, and cinematography. I only have one slight reservation. For me, the twist was not needed. I felt that it was used to bring the piece into line with a desire to conform with a perception that the audience would want some sort of resolution – a full stop to emphasise the dynamics of what had gone before. I believe that the power of the piece was in the depiction of the protagonists’ relationship and their self-perception of failure, the Pathologies of the title – its resonance and the enchantment of the pathological should stand alone – it need not go anywhere. This aside, I look forward to seeing what the director comes up with next and indeed seeing any new work from Zafeiropoulos, Scott, and Jones.