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SXSW Review: Modern Love is Automatic

March 15, 2009

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Your mid-20’s can be a difficult time. Out of college and well on your way to a monotonous day job, sometimes a girl just needs a distraction. For Lorraine, in Modern Love is Automatic, that distraction is becoming a dominatrix by night while maintaining being a nurse by day.

Melodie Sisk takes on the role of Lorraine and plays up the apathy big time. Without ever losing control, Sisk keeps her character in a monotone rut of self-indulgence and boredom with all other people. Even when her boyfriend (clearly a jackass from the first moment we see him) gets caught cheating, Lorraine sips her soda out of a straw and nonchalantly watches the drama play itself out.

And I love the hell out of it. It is exactly the kind of quirky and dry wit that I love in movies. And not everyone can play it off, but director/writer/editor Zach Clark manages a near flawless production.

Modern Love is Automatic made me sit up and take notice from the first scene without ever losing my attention until the final karaoke (hell yeah) scene. What should be sexually awkward scenes are played out in dry yet unflinching shots mixed with quick snapshots of more risque images. Also edited by Clark – of which he has previously proved himself quite the editor in Aaron Katz’ Dance Party, USA – the scenes transition with death metal songs by Blasphemer. The death metal sound jars your senses and keeps the pacing of the film.

As a female there is something fabulous about watching two women take control of their lives. At least, in the first half of the movie, that is. But as often happens, things fall apart, for the characters, anyway – the film just gets better.

But really what makes the film work is the relationship between Lorraine and Adrian, her new roommate, thanks to the loser boyfriend getting the boot. Adrian is played by Maggie Ross, the lead in Clark’s first film Rock & Roll Eulogy. Adrian is the exact opposite of Lorraine – full of emotional highs and lows – but still struggling to find her place where she fits. For Adrian, dreams of being a model lead her to work at a mattress store where truly “sex sells.”

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The complication between the two women lies in the problem with Adrian’s boyfriend. His growing obsession with Lorraine continually harms Adrian, allowing the two women to grow closer, yet distances them in the end. Where Lorraine is just sort of exploring, unaware of any real growth as a human being, Adrian is constantly seeking to grow as a model. Her desperation and lack of confidence are as matter-of-course as Lorraine’s detachment. And it doesn’t change which is absolutely refreshing.

They live through a few moments and carry on. Isn’t that sort of the way it really works anyhow? There are no big fireworks at the end in real life. There is no voice over that says ok, now you have learned this lesson and you can ride into the sunset. The film ends just where it should, with Lorraine revealing a glimpse of emotion after holding it together for a very long time.

I recently chatted with director Zach Clark about the film; the random questions and answers are below:

OFF: Inspiration for the Flock of Seagulls song? I took that she is sort of on automatic pilot in her rut – which ties in…but I was wondering your reasoning?

ZC: I always loved the title of the song. When I started developing the script, it didn’t have a title, and then it occurred to me that I should use Modern Love Is Automatic as the title and it really helped shape things.  People say “I love you” and it doesn’t mean anything. They pay a dominatrix or buy a toy instead of making an actual connection with a human being. Modern love is automatic.

I also wanted to incorporate a “new wave” sort of aesthetic. And not like French New Wave, but 80s new wave music. The title spoke to that as well.

OFF: It took three years to fund – can you tell me more about the process to get this film made?

ZC: I wrote letters to my entire family asking for money. The rest I scrounged together myself. Everyone worked for free. We got all the major locations for free. We shot on weekends for six months. It was a real labor of love for everyone. Modern love!
OFF: Tying into that – when did you write the script? Where did the idea come from to have these two women who are so different and yet end up on somewhat similar crossroads in their mid-20’s? I like how, and you say this in your press info as well, that Lorraine becoming a dominatrix is jus something she does, like trying on a different color outfit for a while. Why dominatrix and why mattresses?
ZC: It took me two years to write the script (I include that in the three years.) I started by just developing the Lorraine character with an actress friend of mine. The Adrian character was originally supposed to be much more insignificant, just another character to annoy Lorraine, and I then I realized I should write that role for Maggie, and it became much more substantial. The two characters inform each other.

The very first idea I had for the movie was that it would be about a nurse who moonlights as a dominatrix. Why? I don’t exactly know. I’ve always loved OLGA’S HOUSE OF SHAME. The mattress store was taken from one of the MONDO CANE movies, maybe WOMEN OF THE WORLD? Its just this little two minute segment that always stuck with me. When I was thinking of miserable jobs an aspiring model could have, that seemed like the perfect fit.

OFF: The use of color, very fun 80’s colors have such great uses to help characterize the two women – and I love the details of when the gift wrapping matches their outfits. What went into the planning of color in this film? It is all so vibrant.

ZC: Lorraine and Adrian were assigned color palettes. And we were very careful about where those colors showed up outside of those characters. The last movie I did was in black and white, and for MODERN LOVE I wanted to make a movie that wouldn’t work in black and white. Color is so visceral, can say so much. When we could, we tried to control what colors were on screen. We also tried to avoid/eliminate patterns as much as possible.
Thanks Zack!
If you missed the film, catch Modern Love is Automatic on Mar. 19 at 8:30 p.m. at Alamo Lamar 2 or Mar. 21 at 7:15 p.m.
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