Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Marvin's Movie"

Only my second post and already I feel like I'm cheating: Today's entry isn't really "forgotten" or "undiscovered." After all, it scored a great reaction at the 1993 Northeast International Film Festival and even ended up winning Best Documentary Feature at that year's Independent Spirit Awards. Still, I think a film this interesting can always stand to have a few more words written about it. So, without further ado:

Marvin's Movie (1993)
Directed by Stephanie Pilenti
Starring Marvin Atumi as Himself

In lieu of finding the theatrical poster, here is the uninspired VHS box art for "Marvin's Movie."

Marvin Atumi is the star of one the longest and most intricate movies ever made. That this movie was never filmed and doesn't technically exist is of little concern to him: "The human eyeball is the best camera that can and will ever be created. And I got two of 'em, man!" This is the opening dialogue to Marvin's Movie, Stephanie Pilenti's fascinating documentary about a man who took his love for the cinema to extreme (and eventually dangerous) levels. Shot from 1991 to 1992, the film offers both a portrait of and a definition for the "film geek," an evolving caricature that became popularized in concurrence with the rise of the Internet. 

Marvin seems to embody any number of the cliches that surround a person fitted with the moniker. He is overweight, almost swollen, and he always looks unkempt and day-old. With a scraggly beard that just can't commit and a hairline that has long ago given up the fight, Marvin slogs about the cluttered basement of a house he shares with his senile grandmother in Woodbury, Minnesota. As you can imagine, Marvin spends most of his time hunkered down in front of his "media center," as he calls it, a tiny television connected to a VHS player. There, he ingests any and all movies; Marvin is definitely not discerning in taste or preference. Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), a soulful examination of aging and the search for meaning, is quickly followed by a bootleg copy of The Amputee's Revenge (1978), a cheap, exploitation flick about a man with no arms hunting down a woman with no legs. When asked to describe the two films' similarities and differences, Marvin merely shrugs and declares, "They're both bitchin'." When not hunched over a screen, Marvin pays the bills by working at the (long out-of-business) Suncoast video store in nearby Roseville. Marvin notes that this particular Suncoast was the very first store in the chain. "That kinda makes me a part of movie history," he says with poorly aimed pride in his voice.

All of these background details, presented within the first five minutes of Marvin's Movie, are jocular and funny in that at-you-not-with-you sort of way. What makes Marvin Atumi worthy of documentation, however, is his mindset. See, Marvin doesn't just love the movies, he wants to be in one. And he doesn't just want to act in a movie or hang around on the set; no, he wants his world to be imbued with the spark of magic, the joie de vivre, that is always present in any cinema classic. It's a pretty lofty goal for a man who is shown at one point eating a melting ice cream sandwich with a knife and fork.

When Marvin performs his early morning wake-up routine, he hums his own theme song (a cacophony of "doo's," "dah's," and "dum's" that is cleverly interwoven as background music during several key moments throughout the film). On the drive to work, he randomly selects a red Chevy Caprice in front of him and bellows, "That car's trunk is full of fifty gallons of cyanide and the driver is headed to the Pentagon!" Thus, a car chase is suddenly born with Marvin careening wildly all over the street (in a later scene, he holds up a fistful of traffic tickets and dryly labels them his "negative reviews"). At work, co-workers and customers are assigned random supporting roles: One is a vampire, another is a wise-cracking best friend, yet another is a gunslinger with no name, and so on. When pressed to describe the movie he is "making," Marvin isn't sure. It doesn't seem to matter, though, just so long as his co-workers are anything but co-workers and the drives to work allow for even the briefest moments of escape. 

Marvin Atumi tries to describe "his genre" during one of the film's interview segments. 

The first half of Marvin's Movie is pure, enjoyable fluff. Although the film was made years before whimsy became its own independent genre, its first forty minutes could easily fit into that mold. As director Stephanie Pilenti states in her sparse narration she initially set out to chronicle a "creative goofball. A Walter Mitty for the nineties." The events that occur in the second half of the film, however, are what gives it its distrubing dramatic heft. One day Marvin is inhaling food at a local diner when he spies a waitress across the room. He's struck by her, but of course, real-life Marvin confesses that he is far too insecure to go over and introduce himself. Therefore, Marvin-of-the-Movies must be called upon to kick this romantic comedy into full effect. When Pilenti, off-camera, asks him to elaborate, Marvin launches into a precise breakdown of the romantic comedy genre and how events must play out so that this week's production will have a satisfying conclusion. The first step, Marvin explains, is the "meet cute," in which boy-meets-girl, usually in a humorous, over-the-top occurrence. This will be followed by a montage of meaningful confrontations. They'll probably be some roadblocks, most likely a mean and ill-suited boyfriend, but "he'll be no match for me, the hero," Marvin states. Eventually, true love will triumph and boy-will-get-girl. 

At first, this reliance on cinematic tropes seems endearing, until Marvin suddenly pours a scalding hot cup of coffee into his lap. A "meet cute" gone awry, this lands him in an emergency room lying to a nurse to explain how he wound up with second-degree burns on his legs. The waitress, meanwhile, didn't even notice. Nevertheless, Marvin is undeterred. "Take two," he mumbles to himself as he sits alone in an emergency room, crying slightly from the pain. Suddenly, the use of film lingo in everyday life stops being the charming eccentricities of a lonely dreamer and transforms into the obsessive-compulsive ramblings of a deranged psycho. Suddenly, Marvin stops being a Walter Mitty for the nineties and becomes, instead, something more akin to John Hinckley. Suddenly, the line between whimsical and creepy is revealed to be microscopically thin. 

The rest of the film details Marvin Atumi's increasingly bizarre attempts to cast an unknown waitress (who, for legal purposes I'm assuming, is never named) into the the role of his soulmate. As it does so, Marvin's Movie explores just how far one man can escape from reality before reality jerks on the choke chain and drags him back kicking and screaming. After a litany of phone calls, several pre-planned "accidental run-ins," and a handful of restraining orders, the film concludes with Marvin Atumi in handcuffs, being dragged by police officers from out of the alley behind the waitress' apartment building. The camera zooms in on Marvin's dirt-covered face. "The end," he says blankly. But, unfortunately, Marvin doesn't get to make that call.

NOTE: I thought I would add some further information that doesn't really pertain to the film but is pertinent nonetheless. Marvin's Movie ends before we ever see Marvin's court case go to trial. After a lot of hunting around the Internet (surprisingly, there is no Wikipedia page for either this film or its subject) I discovered that he was charged with criminal harassment, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in state prison. I couldn't find out how much of that time he actually served. However, I also found a website that offers a "Where Are They Now" update. Apparently, Marvin Atumi is still living in Woodbury and reportedly works as a cashier at a Frank's Nursery & Crafts in Roseville. Now, admittedly, the website I culled this from listed no sources, so take that last piece of info with a grain of salt.

In the next installment... I'll be tackling Pure Profit (1986), a dark satire that comes awwwwfully close to successfully skewering sex, religion, and the sleazy corporate world of the 1980's. 

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