Despite its title, "Cool Apocalypse" contains no zombies, hip or otherwise. Dedicated to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais, it is instead a modest, sweet, effervescent little (micro-budget of $5,000, reportedly) comedy/drama about twenty-somethings in Chicago, full of well-observed touches and character work by writer/director Michael Glover Smith and a talented young cast. A local project, it is affectionate about its city and cinema itself. It’s got a heart that beats for the romance of the French New Wave, but set to Chicago rhythms, such as the lulling clack-and-sway of the El.
There is a moment at the dinner table when Smith cuts to a close-up of Tess (Chelsea David) sort of posing cinematically with a cigarette that put me in mind of Truffaut cutting in to Jeanne Moreau.
Together with Julie (Nina Ganet), Claudio (Adam Overberg) and Paul (Kevin Wehby), the four characters comprise a carefully-composed structure based on Heidegger’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is what in my day we used to refer to as "the dialectic." (Not that I thought of that analysis myself: in the Q&A after the screening, director Smith mentioned this had been his organizing principle). One couple (Claudio and Tess) is no longer an item but remains friends; the other (Julie and Paul) is freshly minted that day. The film does not play as theory, though, any more than "Ulysses" does (Paul references the Joyce epic to Julie on their first date by way of explaining his own unpublished opus, which, though I'm a bit hazy on the details, if I recall seems to involve 1,000 pages of manuscript tracing the stream-of-consciousness over the course of an hour of a young woman who gets caught up in one of Chicago's naked bicycle parades. "It's not really story-driven," he explains to her by way of explanation: you get the sense that ambition might slightly outstrip execution, here). As you watch, "Cool Apocalypse" plays as just the events of a day, unfolding with a light touch and jaunty songs by the Arrowsics on the soundtrack.
Tess curates a "describe your style" video blog for a Chicago daily, in which she buttonholes stylish Chicagoans on the street a la Bill Cunningham's NYT feature and the “What Are You Wearing” feature in the Chicago Reader, except she videotapes her interviews. We follow her on the day before she’s to leave for a (paid, even) summer internship in Rome.
As Paul, Wehby evokes Jean-Pierre Leaud in his comic earnestness. He's got some of the cadence of a Southern Woody Allen. (I spotted "Without Feathers" on the bookshelf in the apartment he shares with Claudio, but then Smith gives us time to consult the spines. I was tickled to note that my shelves groan with some of the same titles, “Naked Lunch” is the example that comes to mind).
In a deft use of parallel editing, all four converge in a dinner party that somehow evoked Rohmer's "My Night At Maud's" for me, as well as Linklater's "Before" films. This happens to be all my favorite kind of stuff.
If you've ever been in your 20s living and loving on the North Side of Chicago, as I was in the 90s, and trying to hew a path through life in some creative endeavor rather than go, say, the law school route, you'll be able to relate to much in “Cool Apocalypse.” I recognized with a lump in my stomach the rather austere vegetarian fare on offer at dinner--a "vegetarian beef stew" that put me in mind of the “tofurkey” my ex and I once choked down for Thanksgiving during my unlamented vegan days. The filmmakers also get right the way we're not always especially likable at that age: at once snarky and almost comically earnest, maybe a little pretentious, the way we haven't yet learned that relationships can't always survive what you take to be your witty, rapier-like honesty.
There's a moment when Claudio is falling asleep, drunk, on Tess' shoulder, the trace of a smile playing about the edge of his lips. The bitterness of a drunken joke gone awry at dinner has faded—an ill-advised trick played on Tess by Claudio that is also, somehow, an expression of affection, in its wrongheaded way--and the past dredged up; recriminations have given way to forgiveness. He now asks her to tell him a bedtimes tory. She tells him about a dream she had, and that is all I will say about that, except that as she tells the story in tight close-up, Chelsea David's performance was so expressive that she put me in mind, no joke, of Marcel Dalio's visage after he unveils his music box in "Rules of the Game," the way so many feelings chase each other across her face, contradictory feelings: about Claudio, about her upcoming adventure in Rome, about the past and the future. This scene shows Smith’s talent for working with actors, and suggests more than words could about the relationship between Tess and Claudio: two people who cannot be boyfriend/girlfriend, but between whom, we sense, a residual closeness and tenderness will linger. Or perhaps not: that’s part of your 20s, too, that “not” part.
Vincent Bolger's black and white photography , with a burst or two of iPhone color, is striking. We can see every freckle on Nina Ganet's sunny, hopeful face. Her song-and-dance to “My Walking Stick” by Irving Berlin is, by the way, a moment of joy, as is the scene where Tess asks Claudio to take her for one last ride down LSD before she leaves town. “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah plays on the soundtrack. A bold choice, but it doesn’t feel too on-the-nose: it feels right. Tess' hand is out the window tracing a perfect little arc through time and into the future, and it’s one of those moments when everything in the world is just right.
"Cool Apocalypse" is kind of magical.
(Full disclosure: I have recently had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of writer/director Michael Glover Smith, a consummate Chicago cinephile. I learn a lot every time I read his work. His book, "Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry," co-written with Adam Selzer, is highly recommended. See my review in the sidebar over there on the right side of this page.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)