It’s a challenge to explain what exactly Tyler Taormina’s movie is about, but it’s deeply fascinating.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
In Christian Petzold’s new movie Afire Paula Beer asks the hero, an author, what the name of his terrible second book is. “Club Sandwich.” “Club Sandwich!?!” Beer replies, horrified, almost stifling laughter. A title does make a fair bit of difference and I confess it’s this kind of shallow response to aesthetics that kept me from checking out Tyler Taormina’s debut feature Ham on Rye. “Ham on Rye?!” It got good reviews and I’m sure it’s got a lot going for it but I walked into Happer’s Comet (a little better…) knowing little about Taormina’s style and aims.
Thankfully he seems to have anticipated this as the first few minutes of this beguiling sophomore feature are pure place setting. An ear of corn rots in the streets, a cell phone collects the sound of the nighttime out a window, leaves blow in the street, a pair of drivers idle behind the wheel of a car. Something is about to happen, but what?
There’s little in the way of a plot here, which makes getting on the film’s wavelength easy and good fun. What we see is a collection of things happening or not happening at night in a small middle American small town. People sleep, they smoke cigarettes in their living rooms, they listen to trains going by. Each environment we enter is more or less the point of the exercise, to take stock of the kind of town where a contemporary definition of prosperity and gentrification haven’t deigned to show up. Where people have to make their own fun and their own destiny. A few minutes in it becomes clear that some people are sneaking out of their houses in the dead of this particular night to go find some kind of fun or purpose. They are, for some reason, many of them wearing roller skates.
In the same year that saw the lo-fi uncanny likes of Skinamarink become a national phenomena (as well it should) it’s perhaps more surprising that movies like Happer’s Comet aren’t being levied at audiences from distributors hoping for more of that unprecedented success. Of course Skinamarink’s aims were to unseat as well as to welcome you into its liminal space of broken childhoods and growling demons, and Happer is a much more inviting work, if perhaps not entirely a friendly one.
Indeed, the best way I can think to recommend the movie to the handful of people to whom this will sound like a dinner bell would be: Imagine a Halloween movie where Michael Myers never invades Haddonfield. The kids are still misbehaving and going out after curfew, the suburbs are still a menacing blank, and people seem disaffected without perhaps knowing why because they don’t know what they’re missing. A telling sequence finds someone typing “what do I do about my…” into a Google search and flirting with each autofilled answer. “Depression, anxiety, neighbor’s dog barks too loud?” It’s a choose-your-own-adventure for the hours when you can’t leave the house.
Skinamarink was also a more a more deliberately hemmed in work, its form carefully regimented so that deviations from the shooting and editing patterns were all the more upsetting. Taormina chooses shot length and type seemingly at random, which I expected to hurt the vibe a little more but when you’re moving from silence to silence it can’t be that disruptive. I think a more coherent structure could have helped it launch itself from a good vibes avant-garde adjacent curio to something a little more imperative, but we also mustn’t assume Taormina intended anything more than what we’ve got in front of us at any given moment. After all if you can film a scene of someone vacuuming and have it simply be exciting and beautiful and texturally pure, why strive for grander meaning beyond the excellence of texture and movement you’ve achieved?
The best of the film finds the camera prowling through corn fields or dark streets searching less for meaning than the shape of its absence. The forgotten corners of this suburb have secrets, every place does, but what do they mean? Why is it that more places with this feeling go to sleep so quietly every night? Why is it odd to be out past one’s bedtime? Why is it odd for a movie to have no dialogue, no particular direction, but rather a vague yearning for something asymmetrical? You see filmmakers reach for this in the narrative space (and it goes without same the non-narrative space) all the time, which hints that filmmakers aren’t satisfied with what a story can tell you about a time and place. When the film ends and Infinite Body’s bewitching “A Fool Persists” plays, it suddenly feels as though the movie has not been a survey but a doorway. What next? What now? Terribly exciting to be invited out.
Happer’s Comet is now streaming on MUBI.