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Film Review: ‘When I’m a Moth’

A movie for the handful of people who've wanted to see a young Hillary Clinton portrayed in an insufferably pretentious arthouse drama.

Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Addison Timlin, TJ Kayama, Toshiji Takeshima. (English, Japanese dialogue)

1 hour 31 minutes

Evidently shot in 2016, but premiering on the festival circuit after the filmmakers’ more recent “The Wall of Mexico” (which debuted at SXSW a month earlier), “When I’m a Moth” is a pretentious and off-putting enterprise one can well imagine sat on the shelf for a while. It does have an intriguing hook, yet that hook turns out to be the most awkward and mystifying element here, since co-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak have decided to make an obscurantist, heavily symbolic drama set in the Alaskan wilderness … with young Hillary Clinton plopped in the middle of it.

That’s not a joke — but oh, if only it were. There is, in fact, some smidgen of a real-world basis to the premise here: Clinton (then Rodham) has noted that right after graduating from college in 1969, she journeyed to Alaska with some friends, intending to work the summer at a cannery in Valdez. But she says she got fired for gutting fish too slowly.

All this happens early on in “When I’m a Moth,” leaving young Hillary (Addison Timlin) the rest of the film to kill time in the company of two young Japanese men she meets while walking along the beach. Mitsuru (Toshiji Takeshima) and younger Ryohei (TJ Kayama) are unemployed émigré fisherman who’ve stuck around for no obvious reason, save amplifying the general air of existential angst the directors have contrived here. They don’t understand much of what their reluctantly-accepted, rather abrasive new friend is saying at any point, though they do seem to harbor hopes of getting drunk and laid with her. (Only Ryohei achieves the latter.)

Cotler’s script, from which the future Secretary of State’s traveling pals have been erased, seems to regard her with a faintly repelled ambivalence entirely based on later public image perceptions. In real life, Rodham was a prominent Wellesley campus activist (though one still somewhat aligned with the GOP), student government president and commencement speaker. But here she’s a bespectacled misfit, at once pushy and self-absorbed, analyzing her own “cold” and “phony” aspects like a 2016 Bernie Bro. She wears “power red” attire in the wilderness, saying things like “It’s not important to be real” and (after sex), “That was so nice — it was like it didn’t even happen.”

Timlin bears a good-enough resemblance, and gives as much of a rounded performance as she can. But this conception provides no insight into any real HRC, past or present, and seems trite even as a fictionalized act of hostility toward whatever she represents to the filmmakers. Which is, in a word, murky.

Stylistically and tonally, “When I’m a Moth” is strikingly reminiscent of Russian auteur Aleksandr Sokurov’s dreamlike imaginings of chapters from the lives (or deaths) of Chekov, Lenin, and Hirohito, complete with visual distortion effects. There is no denying that Lyn Moncrief’s cinematography is often poetically handsome within this idiom, even if one sometimes cringes at the heavy-handed content he’s forced to prettify (like a blurry opening closeup of fish guts). Yet seldom has a “transcendental” cinematic vocabulary been so heinously misapplied to material in which clumsy literal-mindedness and ponderous abstraction are already locking horns.

The result is at least somewhat uniquely insufferable. It also has the virtue of being exactly so from the very start — the curious won’t need to wade in more than five minutes to get the full gist before fleeing. Zyzak and Cotler’s rarefied taste is further underlined by a soundtrack of preexisting music by such composers as Morton Feldman and Alban Berg. If you could surgically remove the “Hillary Clinton” figure that never grows less incongruous or unnatural than a Madame Tussaud’s wax dummy here, you’d have a film that’s still pompous and tedious — but one which looks and sounds quite fine.

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Film Review: 'When I’m a Moth'

Reviewed at SFFILM, April 12, 2019. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Winter Film Co. presentation. (Int'l sales: Paradigm, Los Angeles.) Producers: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak. Executive producers: Craig R. Johnson, Mike S. Ryan. Co-producer: Stephen L. Cotler.

Crew: Directors: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak. Screenplay: Cotler. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Lyn Moncrief. Editor: Kant Pan.

With: Addison Timlin, TJ Kayama, Toshiji Takeshima. (English, Japanese dialogue)

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