Anxious Seattle Artists on Film

After charming audiences at Sundance and other festivals, Seattle director Lynn Shelton debuted her third feature, Humpday, to an enthusiastic throng at SIFF. There, she also picked up an award from the mayor and found time to sit down with us for a chat. (Also see her interview with our SIFF contributor Sean Axmaker.) We first met at the fest in 2001, where she screened her short documentary about miscarriage: The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies. Since then it's been features that also played SIFF: We Go Way Back (2006), My Effortless Brilliance (2008), and now her thoughtful comedy/bromance about two straight dudes who decide to do an avant-garde porno together (review). It opens Friday at the Harvard Exit.

In person, the largely self-taught filmmaker is as focused and energetic as her short, productive career would suggest. Fresh from a trip to Cannes for Humpday, coiled up in a hotel chair--Shelton seems glad to be home (where she's married and has a son) and ready to jump on the next project, again likely to deal with male artists and their insecurities. Friendly and personable, she appears to suffer from none of the creative anxieties that afflict her Humpday protagonists.

Married professional Ben (Mark Duplass) receives an unexpected visit from college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) in Humpday. Both fancied themselves artists, or at least creative types, a decade earlier. Now, I ask Shelton, who has it worse: the suburban dude who frets about his lost creative spark; or the putative artist who worries that, deep down, he has no talent?

"I feel for both of them," says Shelton. "I can personally relate to them. Because I'm both. Because I'm domesticated, with a house and a family, and I'm also an artist.

"They're each feeling something different. For Ben, it's a real fear of conformity, that he's this guy he never meant to become. For Andrew... he's realizing that he's maybe not-all-that. [He's] coming to terms that he has chosen this very solitary road in life. I think he's dealing with this underlying sense of loneliness and this deep desire to reconnect with his old friend.

"I have this vision of the two being joined at the hip in college, and having one of those deeply passionate, Platonic friendships. It's almost as if they were of one mind, had a single identity. And neither of them has experienced anything like that since. So in spite of all that silly one-upmanship and the crazy posturing that they do, they would really like to recapture that. There's a poignancy to me about people trying to connect and not quite being able to do that."

In the film, it might appear that Ben--some kind of urban planner--might be suffering more from the orthodoxies of married suburban life. But doesn't the artist's beret weigh as much on Andrew? Or more? especially as Andrew realizes that all his wandering doesn't make him Jack Kerouac.

Shelton says of Andrew, "I think the artist thing is a convenient label. It's part of that romantic mystique that he has about himself, being this adventurous, open-minded traveler in the world. It's this crazy romantic vision he has. It's more about that than art."

To an extent, both her characters are trapped by their assumed roles: You can either be a solitary artist or a suburban dude in Dockers, but not both. Or, I ask Shelton, is that a false opposition that men conjecture for themselves--unlike women, who just get on with making art?

"Maybe so," she answers, plainly unconvinced. "Not being a guy myself, I can's say for sure. I don't have anything to compare it to. I know plenty of women who have artist's block." She says that it was Duplass and Leonard who, in collaborating with her on their characters, "brought a lot of themselves and observations they've made of their friends. I can't say how much of it is because they're guys. I can just say that for those two particular [actors], it was authentic to them."

When the pair, as if on a dare, decide to make their porno, the become trapped by artist peer-pressure, Shelton explains--"the attitude of I wanna be cool, too!" She continues, "I was preying on that syndrome for my own devices. To let these guys get themselves into their own pickle."

It's an artist's dilemma she's observed close to home: "I think Seattle is definitely filled with folks like that--worried, self-conscious artists." Yet it was in Texas where she found a model for shambling, insecure Andrew, the poor guy who yearns to create but may never achieve anything.

"I was actually inspired a year ago in Austin when I was at South by Southwest," Shelton explains. "And there was this pedicab driver wheeling me someplace. I asked if he was a filmmaker, and he said that he was. And that he'd been working for 10 or 12 years and never finished a film. I asked him why. And he said there was too much pressure. He's such a perfectionist that he can't finish a work of art. It's like he's too great an artist."

Whether Andrew's a thwarted genius, egotist, or chronic procrastinator remains an open question in Humpday. Certainly, he's more than a little sad. Whatever Ben's shortcomings, he's at least married to a generous, open-minded wife (Alycia Delmore). Even if he never creates a successful art project, he's got a successful domestic project to be proud of.

Perhaps the worst of it, in Andrew's soul, is that his old buddy may view him as a failure, too. Meanwhile, Ben can project familiar anxieties onto his bohemian visitor. "You head down this road; and at a certain point, you can't turn back," says Shelton, speaking of an artist's dormant "cellular structure that could've gone in either direction. You're terrified that it's too late."

And while she rejects the false dichotomy that there are no artists in the suburbs (or married artists, or artists who drive Prius hybrid, etc.), she's familiar with the bias bohos can fling over the white picket fence.

"Absolutely. The Andrews of the world are judging the Bens of the world all the time."

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