Somehow this one slipped by me. Originally released in 1995, Notes from Underground is Gary Walkow’s indie production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella was released on DVD in 2004 but I only recently discovered it. Anchored by a riveting performance from Henry Czerny as Underground Man, this is not only an inspired re-staging of the original story for 21st century audiences but proof that Dostoyevsky’s writing and ideas are as relevant now as they were in 1864 when he published the story.
Underground Man – he is never identified by name – is a lowly clerk, stuck in a dead-end bureaucratic job at City Hall where he approves or rejects building permits. A mass of contradictions, he is self-deprecating yet arrogant, spiteful of others yet anxious for their approval, and unusually sensitive to his own feelings yet brutally frank and wounding to others. Every good intention is immediately sabotaged by a bad one. He’s his own worst enemy and not a person you’d want to be around in real life though you probably know someone like him. He may even remind you of yourself in your worst moments because there’s a little bit of Underground Man in everyone, which is why this film will make you cringe and squirm at times. Even if this wretched character is an exaggeration of our worst instincts, he is a mesmerizing creation and Henry Czerny brings him to life with a vividness that will polarize viewers into two groups – those who can’t turn away and those who will flee in the first five minutes.
There is something exhilarating about watching a performance where an actor disappears so completely into the character he is playing that you can no longer separate the performance from the performer. Notes from Underground puts Czerny front and center as the protagonist and narrator with an ideal framing device that is also used for visual punctuation and a cohesive thread throughout the film: a man turns on a video recorder, plops down in front of it and launches into a catalog of his failures and sins for the edification of whoever may view it one day. It’s a video diary in essence or in Underground Man’s exact words: “It’s not so much a confession as a moral tale to show how I’ve ruined my life – from spite.”
Contrasted against the lo-fi VHS look of our hero’s rants, filmed in his depressing, claustrophobic apartment, are colorful, stylized flashbacks to events that have haunted him for years. These involve his mind-numbing job, an encounter with former college classmates who he despises yet insists on joining for a disastrous farewell dinner for a colleague at a lavish French restaurant, a lonely prostitute (Sheryl Lee) whom he invites to live with him during a “weak” moment, a surly rooming house neighbor (Seth Green in a cameo) who constantly plays The Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to F*ck” at top volume, and his paraplegic office manager whom he cons into “loaning” him $160; the latter is a particularly wince-inducing scene as Underground Man eagerly holds the man’s checkbook while his boss writes the check with a pen between his teeth.
Certainly there is some painfully funny but very dark humor lurking in the crooks and nannies of Notes from Underground but mostly the movie engages in the kind of frank, soul baring honesty that makes this an unlikely Saturday night rental for those seeking escapism. But give it ten minutes and see if it doesn’t get its hooks into you.
Dostoyevsky’s novella is considered by some to be the first existentialist novel and its influence on other writers, artists and intellectuals is pervasive. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that Notes from the Underground “cried truth from the blood,” and that the author “is one of the few psychologists from whom I have learned something.” And you can see major similarities between Underground Man and Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), in which screenwriter Paul Schrader has clearly acknowledged Dostoyevsky’s novella as inspiration. There’s even touches of Underground Man in the tormented artist being driven crazy by urban living in Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979), especially in the scenes where the punk band rehearsing endlessly in his apartment building is comparable to the annoying Seth Green character in Notes from Underground.
Although director Gary Walkow shot his movie on a miniscule budget in approximately eighteen days, Notes is a stylish and often hypnotic visual experience that mixes Hi-8 video (representing the present) and film (the flashbacks) and mostly relies on a color palette of blues and browns. According to the DVD commentary by the director, film editor Peter B. Ellis and Czerny, the basement in the now demolished Ambassador Hotel (site of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination) served as a set for Underground Man’s City Hall office while much of the furniture and props were leftovers from art director Ken Adams’s sets for Boys on the Side, the 1995 Herbert Ross comedy-drama starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore.
Walkow has gone on to direct four more features since Notes from Underground, including Beat (2000), a dramatized portrait of William S. Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland) and his wife Joan (Courtney Love), but remains an under-the-radar talent.
Casting director Bonita Pietila, whose main claim to fame is casting for TV’s The Simpsons, has assembled a tiny but wonderful supporting cast here with Jon Favreau as the obnoxious Zerkov and quadriplegic actor James Troesh as Underground Man’s weary boss. As already noted, Henry Czerny is spellbinding in the lead role and it’s a shame that this Canadian actor is not better known. Some moviegoers will recognize him from such mainstream films as Clear and Present Danger (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996) and The Pink Panther (2006) but movie buffs know him for his acclaimed work as sex offender Father Peter Lavin in The Boys of St. Vincent (1992) and such art cinema treats as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) and the offbeat zombie comedy Fido (2006). More recently he appeared in the 2018 mini-series Sharp Objects.
The big surprise here is Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer from the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks) as the prostitute who offers Underground Man a chance at redemption and love. Though her dialogue is minimal, she conveys her wounded soul and spirit almost entirely through her eyes, facial expressions and body language. It’s an eloquent performance and the scene where she first comes to stay with Underground Man in his rat hole of an apartment is the most moving and painful sequence in the movie. It is also the only moment of tenderness in a story that are the reflections of a man “crippled by too much introspection.” True to his self-defeating nature, he is unable to accept her love or his own desires and ruins any chance for a real relationship, stating “Love for me means tyrannizing. A struggle for domination. It’s not a matter of reason. Reason is the disease. Look at me. I’m a worm! Ridiculous. Diseased. But other worms aren’t ashamed or embarrassed.”
As an independent feature with no major studio behind it, Notes from Underground actually managed to attract some positive high profile reviews from The New York Times, Village Voice and others. Emanuel Levy of Variety wrote: “It’s a wry, ironic and insightful portrait of the complex, often deranged workings of the human psyche….No plot synopsis can do justice to the nuanced richness of the material, drolly adapted by Walkow….Obviously, it’s the kind of picture that depends entirely on brilliant acting; miraculously, Czerny confronts the challenge with gusto and passion. In what is essentially a one-man show, he commands the screen with his intense, high-strung presence and remarkably modulated voice, which moves from irony to pathos often within the same sentence.”
Unfortunately, all of this happened in the past like the events in the life of Underground Man and only now have I discovered this brilliant little movie for the first time. Avid readers of Russian literature, adventurous film lovers and admirers of such movies as David Mamet’s House of Games and Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth should seek out Notes from Underground. It’s also probably the only feature in existence with the disclaimer: “No Russian authors were killed or injured during the making of this movie.”
Notes from Underground was released on DVD by Olive Films in May 2004 and may still be available from some online sellers. Olive Films has recently increased their production of Blu-Ray releases but I doubt this film is popular enough to justify a remastering. Only time will tell.
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