News  ·  09 | 08 | 2023

Lousy Carter

A classic question: what would you do if you only had six months left to live? What if you just didn't change anything?

© Carmen Hilbert

A classic question: what would you do if you only had six months left to live? The classic answers: tick off the items on your bucket list, patch things up with the people you hold dear, dedicate yourself to a worthy cause… But what if, asks Bob Byington in Lousy Carter, you didn’t do any of those things and instead kept living exactly the same life, making exactly the same mistakes, and taking no advantage whatsoever of the little time you have left on Earth?

That more or less sums up how the film’s titular protagonist goes about it. Although, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. After receiving a terminal diagnosis from possibly the most compassionless doctor ever to practice medicine, he does set out to achieve two things. First, to finally complete a long-shelved animated adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (a title that could easily belong to Byington’s pitch-black comedy). Second, to sleep with one of his students. Lousy is not a sobriquet earned through misbehaviour, it’s the name he was given at birth, and maybe it’s this aspect of predestination that makes him a likeable character despite everything. Besides, the complete lack of effort he puts into both endeavours never leaves any doubt about his chances of success. Fate, hubris… in a way he’s a tragic hero.

 It’s not incidental that Lousy’s professorship, which he landed back when he was a young and promising filmmaker, exclusively involves teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, i.e., the paradigmatic treatise on the American Dream (and a book more habitually taught in high school than university). In the century that has passed since the publication of the novel, Fitzgerald’s famous last line – “so we beat on, boats against the current” – has lost all relevance. If we want to apply the boat metaphor to the Americans who populate the contemporary Austin of Lousy Carter (though one involving the Ubers that they ride everywhere might be more appropriate), then these characters have long thrown the oars overboard, content to be taken along wherever the current decides to take them – even if it’s straight into a maelstrom. As far as ideology goes, the best anybody can come up with is: “Maybe things will get better.”

Lousy Carter marks Byington’s return to the Locarno competition after Somebody Up There Likes Me, which won the Special Jury Prize in 2012. Again, doubling as the film’s scriptwriter, Byington writes characters and dialogues that are pure catnip for his terrific cast. These brazen narcissists might say and do some horrible things, but the film is not an exercise in finger-pointing. Buoyed by an undercurrent of compassion that registers as a belief that we can all do better, it’s an existentialist satire at once incisive and humane.

 

Giovanni Marchini Camia

 

Trivia

The only American in Concorso internazionale at Locarno76, in 2012 Bob Byington won the Special Jury Prize for Somebody Up There Likes Me. He wrote the screenplay in the early months of confinement for COVID-19.

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