Film

Escaping Kodachrome’s Obvious Flaws

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Stating (I think the more appropriate word is “confessing”) that I like Kodachrome (2018) is actually not the happiest thing for me. I do that with a serious, profound guilt because everything about this movie screams cliché.

It is road trip, it is about a pair of estranged parent and kid, it is a nostalgia of passing pop cultures, it is a new revelation of love and life in small town America–it even has cancer, for crying out loud. I can assure you that you’ve seen all of these from many, many movies before this one.

But I like the movie. I can’t not like it, and I don’t want to lie and pretend to do that so that people who read this (if there’s any) can validate my taste of cinema. So I’m writing this for the sake of figuring out why the supposedly tiring premise still gets me eventually.

Undeniably Predictable

Kodachrome tells a story about Ben Ryder (Ed Harris), a legendary photographer, trying to develop his last batches of Kodachrome films in the last remaining lab in the US before it is closed down. The problem is he’s dying of liver cancer, so he wants his estranged son, Matt (Jason Sudeikis), to drive him there. Ben’s nurse, Zoey (Elizabeth Olsen), has to come along on that trip because you can’t expect an estranged, brokenhearted son to suddenly take care of his dying father, right?

Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis in Kodachrome (2018).

Just by reading the paragraph above, I bet you can guess how the movie will develop. And most probably every single prediction of yours will happen. The father and son will mend their relationship, the father will be redeemed before his death (yeah, he will die), and the son will develop some sort of romance with the nurse. Just keep them coming.

Every scene, every element of the story feels too familiar as if they were borrowed from somewhere else.

Well, with so many movies made on earth–not just in Hollywood–it is not unusual to borrow some ideas from here and there. Every filmmaker does that. But the problem with this movie is that it seems like it doesn’t have enough strength to own those ideas.

Another problem is the characters’ motives. The characters are by-the-book but at least well-played, thanks to the actors and actresses. The motives, however, seem contrived.

Why does dying Ben have to drive half the country to develop his films? Because he doesn’t trust FedEx. Why does Zoey have to tag along? Because dying Ben needs a medical assistant, although she is rarely shown doing nurse things. Why should Matt and Zoey sleep together? Because they are attractive heterosexual man and woman stuck in a road trip. This is the kind of movie where the characters seem to do what they do only because the script tells them to.

The closing of the last Kodachrome lab, a real event that’s supposed to be a backstory for this movie, doesn’t create the same kind of urgency like the one Walter Mitty has when he travels half the planet in search for a film negative (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 2013). The Judge (2014) has a stronger overbearing, overshadowing father figure. At least, I can fully relate to Robert Downey, Jr’s character because his father thinks and speaks like my own. Even if Kodachrome is about a life-altering homecoming, then The Hollars (2016) has a more interesting storyline.

All the pop culture references–digital photographs replacing analog ones, electronic music replacing human-played music–felt half-heartedly pinned to the story. Although they might be the reason why this movie was made, those references along with the family and personal problems seem too many to handle in 105 minutes.

If I were the writer, I would gladly cut the part where Matt gave up his drumming-in-a-rock band career. It doesn’t give an edge to the plot, nor the character.

And as if it wasn’t enough, those pop references are sometimes delivered in snobbish lines and far-fetched dialogues. I couldn’t stop my eyes from rolling to the back of my head when watching Matt and Zoey talking about the bands they listened to when they grew up, or when Ben likened digital cameras to fake tits.

Escapism

After that much of a ranting, I should’ve been embarrassed to even say that this movie is okay. Instead, as it ended, I can still say that it gets the job done.

It is because of the look on Harris’s face as his character’s car goes past a travel trailer with a little girl waving freely from its window. His grumpy expression suddenly disappears, replaced by a genuine joy from taking a picture of that girl. It is as if his character’s only purpose in life was indeed to preserve the world through photographs. Harris successfully played up a typical character and made it his own.

His exchanges with Sudeikis are controlled yet piercing enough. Sudeikis’s natural cynical attitude made them land successfully without needless emotions. Unfortunately, this cynical quality sometimes goes overboard that makes me wonder whether he is still Matt or he has transformed into Jake from Sleeping with Other People (2015).

(Also, I can’t understand why an Aquarius like Matt has that huge difficulty to let go of his pasts. Maybe his moon is in Cancer? Well, that’s not something to be discussed here.)

As for Olsen, she has a chance to develop a three-dimensional character with her character’s assertiveness and failed marriage background story. She’s a talented actress and I love her works. But a scene when she laid down in a dark room with Sudeikis, exposing each other’s stories, is brutally cut short without satisfying result. That scene could have set a stronger basis for Matt and Zoey’s romance.

What can I say? This is that movie about a white heterosexual male’s problems. In the wake of the demand for equal roles for women and colored people in Hollywood, I’m fully aware that this movie holds no significance to that mission. Yet I have a soft, gooey spot for this kind of homecoming to small-town America movies.

There’s something strangely familiar about these movies, even though they lack the representation of people like myself: middle-class Asians living in a third-world country. I even feel much closer, more warmed up to them than to Indonesian movies. This only reminds me of how I was more exposed to Western pop culture when I grew up to the point that it created a big distance between me and my own cultural roots.

That sense of closeness somewhat makes me neglecting the technical issues I ranted about. It almost blinds me from the fact that it’s about a white heterosexual male in a first-world country. The estranged father plotline hooked me instantly because well, I don’t have a strong, loving relationship with my father.

This is where the guilt came from.

In the end, despite all the flaws that I consciously acknowledged, I cried when Matt and Ben finally got along. I craved what they finally had towards the end of Ben’s life. And whether I wanted it or not, I couldn’t not think about my own relationship with my father at the end of this movie.

As much as I know that quinoa is good for my health, I can’t eat it every day. It’s tasteless. And as much as I’m aware that caviars taste so good, consuming them every day is definitely not good for my bank account.

For me, Kodachrome is definitely not quinoa, nor caviars. It is an instant curry ramen on a rainy day. It’s not nutritious but it fed me well. It’s definitely over-flavored but it’s comforting in a way that I can’t fully describe.

Roger Ebert, while reviewing Liberal Arts (2012–one of Olsen’s early movies, also on my top list of romance movies), proposed a word for the appeal of a movie like Kodachrome to me. It was “escapism”. And just like Ebert’s hidden desire to live like Jesse in Liberal Arts, this movie awakens my long-lost desire to truly connect with my father and fall in love with a strange man in the process.

But, wait. Haven’t I gone through that phase a couple of years ago?

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