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Director Jamie Thraves sums up his first feature, The Low Down, with one tellingly modest remark: “It’s a character study in which the characters don’t get revealed.” The film (currently at the Loews State) offers a fragmentary snapshot of London life, drifting through the day-to-day vacillations of frustrated artist Frank (Aidan Gillen). The 32-year-old Thraves, who was on honeymoon in New York last week, says he shares more than a few traits with his terminally hesitant protagonist. “I’m somewhat passive myself,” he admits. “My next film is called The Pushover. It’s more visceral, but it also explores passivity, or the inability to gain control over one’s life.”
Thraves says that The Low Down, steeped as it is in twentysomething inertia, was never intended as an angst mouthpiece. “I was writing about a character who’s deeply unhappy, but I didn’t want to make an unhappy film. He’s had all the conversations where he’s saying he’s not happy, and he’s frightened that people have gotten bored of hearing about it. The idea was to focus on a section of his life where he’s pretending everything’s fine and dandy in the hope that maybe it will be.”
After graduating from London’s Royal College of Art, Thraves made a string of shorts that evinced a knack for story and character development in quick, impressionistic strokes (most notably 1998’s I Just Want to Kiss You). He’s also had some success with music videos, including the man-lying-on-sidewalk promo for Radiohead’s “Just” (a powerfully concentrated narrative perfectly matching the song’s self-flagellating bombast). He was courted by Hollywood too, and in fact spent time developing a pre-Boys Don’t Cry Brandon Teena project, though he says his experience with the money men was colored by a bout of Frank-like indecision. “The studios want you to be batting for them 100 percent, and I come over and I’m going, Yeah, possibly. I don’t think the apprehension went down very well. I felt I had to go away and make a quiet film on my own turf.”
Thraves says he’s ready to give America another shot now; notwithstanding the nouvelle vague frills that bedeck The Low Down, his touchstones seem to be solidly American. He cites as major influences Who’s That Knocking on My Door and—”the film it was directly influenced by”—Shadows. While making The Low Down, he says he had in mind the “gentle comic tone” of Fat City and “the most paranoid film I’ve ever seen,” After Hours. Thraves admits, a little sheepishly, that the specifics of Frank’s constant unease derive largely from personal experience. “I’ve managed to bring this paranoia down to a minimum, though occasionally it comes on, a bit like Spider-Man, you know, a tingling sense.”
The Low Down received an extremely limited release in the U.K. earlier this year—partly because “exhibitors didn’t think it was commercial enough.” Mixed in with glowing reviews was one persistent criticism: “People who don’t like it say it’s all angst—there’s no real problem, just people who need a slap round the face. That seems a bit . . . ” He trails off and shrugs. “The character’s aware of the mistakes you can make at the edge, how you can topple over, and he’s so cautious that he’s pretty much immobile. This all sounds really glib but I was trying to get a sense of someone who’s aware of all that, who feels so self-conscious of being self-conscious—and that just keeps refueling itself.” Thraves stresses, however, that the portrait-of-a-generation claims made on behalf of the film by some British journalists should not be taken too seriously. “I’m wary of any sort of zeitgeisty statements. It’s nothing new really. Mick Jagger said it all in one song; whether you get over it is another thing. . . . I don’t know if Mick Jagger still gets no satisfaction.”
Dennis Lim’s review of The Low Down.