Self-actualization in Small Town Oregon: Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s does David Seraris in C.O.G.

in 39th Seattle International Film Festival

by Home

The first scenes of C.O.G. find young David (Jonathan Groff) enduring a long bus ride. He gives the distinct impression that he’d like to be left to read his volumes of Darwin and Thoreau in peace, but people talk to David — they just can’t seem to help themselves. He plays unwilling surrogate to an irate pregnant woman abandoned by the father of her unborn child. He sits trapped beside an old lady who compulsively reads aloud the words written on every sign they pass. He’s accosted by a religious zealot and promptly makes his utter contempt for religious belief known — a sign of things to come.

When David arrives at his destination, a small town somewhere in Oregon, he phones his mother — from whom he seems all but estranged — and leaves a rather chilly message on her voice mail, explaining that he’s “going off the radar”. He assumes a new name — Samuel — and takes a job picking apples for a grizzled foreman (Dean Stockwell), his colleagues mostly impoverished Mexican migrant workers. It’s comically obvious that this Samuel, with his college sweaters, snobby opinions and hifalutin language, is hardly in need of such poorly paid, backbreaking labour. He is, to put it bluntly, a smug little bastard, half-drawn to that self-loathing unique to the privileged, slumming amongst the proletariat presumably to earn some elusive sort of credibility, to make himself more a more “well-rounded individual”. (A friend who was supposed to join him on his journey explains that the idea of doing fieldwork for a summer came from reading The Grapes of Wrath.) Over the course of C.O.G. David/Samuel will become something of an errant factotum, taking what work he can get, first by choice, and later, after his funds go missing and shame prevents him from asking his family for assistance, out of necessity. And while it’s easy to peg our protagonist as an arrogant fool awaiting his comeuppance, by the film’s end David/Samuel will in fact get precisely what he wished for: a transformative experience of personal growth.

Writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s second feature, the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, is based on an autobiographical essay by U.S. author and humorist David Sedaris, and many aspects of the film exude precisely that idiosyncratic balance of sophistication and crudity that forms an integral part of Sedaris’ creative signature. When our protagonist is first approached by Jon (Denis O’Hare), an older man handing out religious leaflets on the street, Jon asks him if he knows what “C.O.G.” stands for. Without missing a beat, David/Samuel suggests, “Capable of genocide?” Jon initially seems something of an incidental supporting character, but after David/Samuel is robbed, abandoned and nearly sexually assaulted, he winds up turning to Jon for help — and by extension, to the Lord. Jon is a recovering alcoholic and self-described artist — he makes clocks in the shape of Oregon from slabs of jade, items he plans to sell at inflated prices at a local farmer’s market/arts & crafts fair. Jon becomes David/Samuel’s mentor, both as a sculptor and Christian, though Jon’s Jesus talk quickly proves to be a convenient shield for an inner rage that’s always on the cusp of boiling over. Among the film’s finest traits is the delicacy with which is handles its protagonist’s attitude toward both faith and class. Deep down, David/Samuel may not have any more genuine religious conviction at the end of C.O.G. than he did at the beginning, but what has changed is his capacity for empathy. Even after he sees Jon at his most pathetic, David/Samuel seems to feel compassion for him, rather than sheer contempt.

C.O.G. likewise takes an elegantly ambiguous approach to identity politics. David/Samuel makes friends with a bald guy named Curly (Corey Stoll, who provided Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris with its memorable Hemingway caricature) who clearly takes an interest in him that’s more than strictly platonic, and he’s driven to panic when directly confronted with Curly’s erotic intentions. Layered throughout C.O.G. are hints that this story is, among other things, a tale of complicated sexual self-actualization, though David/Samuel’s process of discovering his sexual self has barely began when the film closes — C.O.G. is too smart about human nature to ask us to believe that the protagonist is going to completely mature in every way within the story’s limited chronology.

Also in keeping with the tendencies of the Sedaris source material, there are moments when the C.O.G.’s humour becomes too outsized for its largely deadpan tone: the moment when David/Samuel tries to feed beef to cows; a scene in which an amorous coworker responds to David/Samuel’s announcement that he has crabs with an offer to lovingly pluck each and every one from his genitals — it feels like a moment from a much broader comedy. But these tonal slippages strike me as forgivable, risks worth taking, and hardly in danger of spoiling the film’s overall effect or philosophy. Especially admirable is Alvarez’s narrative economy, the use of brisk, abbreviated scenes, accumulating so as to create a clipped rhythm — which is perfectly accentuated by the incorporation of Steve Reich’s percussive music as the film’s found score. Also deftly formed are the tight close-ups in scenes of dialogue, showing characters in isolation, even while in close proximity and ostensibly connecting, thus emphasizing the misunderstandings that develop while people talk past each other. And the films sense of place is transporting, most evident in cinematographer Jas Shelton’s harnessing of that overcast light particular to the Pacific Northwest, or the way the film presents us with a panorama of demographical extremes: the labourers and immigrants, the neo-hippy types, the religious conservatives, whether petty and self-righteous or truly good Samaritans. C.O.G. is a rare comedy that finds its humour in a complex view of human nature, rather than one that mines cheap laughs from regarding its characters as mere types.

José Teodoro