When you encounter a movie titled "Love & Air Sex" (this week at Facets) the obvious question is what is air sex?
"It started in Japan," said director Bryan Poyser, who comes to town for post-show Q&A's Friday and Saturday.
"Lonely Japanese businessmen would get up in bars and do this" — "this" being air guitar's pervier cousin: fully clothed erotic mime.
Though performed with a wink, the visuals are...yeah. They're gross.
"And embarrassing to watch," Poyser said. "You can't help but laugh because otherwise you just want to scream and look away. And I felt like, for the movie, there was so much potential for uncomfortable comedy."
This exchange early in the film says it all:
"So, you're going to do that in front of hundreds of people?"
A romantic comedy about two sets of couples on the outs from one another during a turbulent weekend in Austin, Texas, the film co-stars former Chicago theater actor Michael Stahl-David. He plays a normal guy nursing a heartbreak while bunking with a group of idiots who are obsessed with l'air du orgasme.
Endeavoring to hump invisible partners ultimately plays only a small side role in the narrative, but the scenes are inspired by a real-deal competition held yearly.
Poyser: "They hit cities like Chicago, for example, and go around the country finding local champions and then bring them to New Orleans at the end of every summer for the world championship." (This year's dates have yet to be announced, but for those interested: airsexworld.com.)
Stahl-David— who starred in 2008's "Cloverfield" as well as the short-lived TV series "My Generation" and "The Black Donnellys" — is spared the worst of it, air sex-wise. Which is just as well. What the film is especially canny about is its use of smart phones and their constant presence in our relationships.
It's about time filmmakers found ways to fold it into the language of a cinema. Big studio comedies tend to avoid it altogether, but there is much potential comedy in the way romance (budding or broken) is conducted via smart phones. Example: The unsolicited photo of one's anatomy. One such pic shows up in the film, and I asked Poyser how they obtained it.
His producer scoured the Internet and emailed a few examples. Then came the awkward conversations. "We would comment on the utility of them — whether or not (the thing pictured) looked right and was big enough to get the reaction we wanted."
In the end, Poyser decided to have a friend to pose for the picture. "Probably the most uncomfortable part of the filmmaking process. It just so happened that the day we needed to take those pictures was the Super Bowl, so we were in the kitchen doing that while the rest of our friends were in the other room watching the game."
That's the crass side of smart phones, but there's also a charming side. A couple who have just met begin to text-flirt with one another. Typing on a phone isn't inherently dramatic, but Poyser found a way to make it work and feel like a virtual conversation unfolding in real time.
It's a moment filled with awkwardness and excitement and risk — sarcastic parries among strangers have a way of being misinterpreted via text.
There's no spoken dialogue in the scene, just the sound of the iPhone pings and the text itself showing up at the bottom of the screen.
"I think we wanted to show, in a way that was still cinematic, how social media and communication through these devices has really become part of every relationship," said Poyser.
"We knew we wanted to treat the texts like subtitles. That would the simplest and hopefully the funniest way to do it. We wanted the actors to have the opportunity to emote silently. They're not saying anything, but they're telling the story of that scene with their faces."
When I spoke with Stahl-David, he confirmed that he was indeed texting his actual lines during that scene. Apparently that's the trick to acting while texting: "Just do it for real."
A Lakeview native and Columbia College Chicago alum, he moved to New York shortly after college, but not before appearing in a number of theater productions at the Steppenwolf and Goodman. I reviewed one his shows, in fact — a 2003 production of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" at Eclipse. "When I did that play, funny story, my mom pulled me aside after she saw one of the previews and she was like, 'You need to relax, you're very hyper.' She was probably right."
More recently, he was cast as the lead in an NBC single-camera comedy pilot called "Two to Go" that starts shooting next week. The director is Craig Zisk, who is one of the executive producers of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."
"It's about a group of friends who are starting families, and we (he and co-star Christine Woods) are the last two who have yet to settle down. We're best friends, and we have this chemistry, and everybody jokes that we should hook up. So we party by night, but the next morning we're showing up at these birthday parties for our friends' kids."
Toggling between New York and LA, Stahl-David said has no fixed address right now. He's going to wait and see what happens with the NBC pilot. But he's a thoroughly Chicago guy at heart. When I asked him for some Chicago bona fides, the reply came quick.
"Born in Chicago at Children's Hospital and grew up right by Clark and Belmont. The Ann Sather's parking lot was, like, my back yard."
"Love & Air Sex" is at Facets through Thursday. Director Bryan Poyser will be in town for Q&A's after screenings on Friday and Saturday. Go to facets.org.
Filming in town
Actress Taryn Manning (seen most recently as the crackhead-turned-devout Christian on "Orange Is the New Black") stars in the indie comedy-drama hybrid "A Light Beneath Their Feet," which starts filming in Evanston next week. The coming-of-ager centers on a high school senior ("Noah's" Madison Davenport) and her bipolar mother (Manning). The script is from Evanston native Moira McMahon Leeper.
Robert Kramer's "Ice," a drama from 1970 that was shot to look like a gritty documentary, portrays a near-future dystopia overrun by radicals. "Now as then, the power of this creepy movie rests largely on its dead-on critique of the paranoia and internecine battles that characterized revolutionary politics during the 60s," per film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. "The mood is terrorized and often brutal, but the behavioral observations and some of the tenderness periodically call to mind early Cassavetes." It screens 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Siskel Film Center. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/ice.
A comely young exchange student from the UK (Felicity Jones) arrives stateside to live with a married couple (Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan) and disrupts their settled suburban lives in "Breathe In," which comes to Chicago in an advanced screening 7:30 p.m. Tuesday the Music Box Theatre, followed by a footage of a taped interview with the actors. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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