Sean K. Cureton

Counterculture, and Other Failed Utopias

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 27, 2014 at 9:49 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Humboldt County (2008)
Directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Netflix Rating: Liked It

The drive to excel and succeed is at the heart of Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs’ film Humboldt County, a movie about the very essence of counterculture that centers around the comparatively high strung and vicariously ambitious protagonist Peter Hadley, an aspiring doctor in danger of being expelled from his medical school program by his own father. After failing to properly diagnose a “patient’s” symptoms in an examination, Peter’s world begins to unravel, his narrow worldview, previously defined by his father’s dour professionalism and constrictive practicality, opened up to failure and an existential searching of the soul for meaning outside of the established social mores and expectations of the educated, employed, and bourgeois. When Peter strikes up a conversation with the “patient” whom he fails to diagnose, a free spirited actress whose playfully christens herself Bogart, Peter enters into another world, a Wonderland of sorts where normal societal rules and expectations cease to matter, and the pursuit of earthly and animal pleasures take on a newfound profundity and spiritual necessity, destabilizing the preconditioned rigidity of Peter’s very being. Upon discovering that he has been led into a world of lethargy and sensuality, Peter becomes unhinged, stranded in a world of marijuana farming and dorm room philosophizing, the very concept of a formal education followed by professional employment an abstract and existentially ridiculous idea. Then, when Bogart abruptly leaves him without notice, Peter is forced to grapple with the abstractions of his own sense of self-worth and worldly identity, his own station in society made as malleable and unstructured as the new way of being that he will soon find a way into not only accepting, but embracing as fundamentally necessary to his own sanity and well being, the counterculture the only tether connecting him in any way to the centralizing forces of conformity and structure.

Much of Grodsky and Jacobs’ film is disorienting, the early scenes of academic examination and cross examination coldly familiar, but never intimate, hinting at an underlying sadness held between Peter and his father, a distance of mind and character that mirrors the very alienating nature of mainstream society. The only cure, then, comes in the counterculture personified in Bogart and her California coast town of hippies and stoners, more a state of mind than an actual geographical location, as the mores and values of the locale’s countercultural ideology and illicit activities prove to hold the powers of reorientation and spiritual renewal, the mainstream more prone to fostering emotionally stagnant and hopeless characters. While a lot of the film feels a little too stereotypical and dramatically convenient, with a steady supply of burn out stoners and mainstream outliers and outcasts who prove to be more genuine than their conformist counterparts, the spirit of individualism and idealistic rebellion is viscerally felt, even if that feeling elicits only a contact high, stronger bud surely available elsewhere. As Peter delves more deeply into the counterculture of Bogart’s world, he becomes more dissatisfied with the emptiness of his father’s expectations, but is left with little means with which to address this fundamental crisis of the soul. While the ethos of Humboldt County is decidedly warm and inviting, it leaves little incentive to stay, growth found outside its environs, making it a failed utopia, its enlightened inhabitants as trapped by their tacitly accepted ideology as their straight-laced counterparts in their capitulations to the self-defeating system of capitalism and its associated enticements of upward mobility.

A lot of the failure of Grodsky and Jacobs’ film comes in its lackadaisical attitude towards a more rigid and structured narrative, its characters content to hint at things only tangentially represented in the film’s script and unfocused direction. While much of Humboldt County is gripping and emotionally appealing, its hapless heroes immediately lovable in their optimism and propensity for harmless rebellion, Grodsky and Jacobs can’t seem to take their script anywhere near the coherency of its individual protagonists, lending to the sense of temporal and geographical dislocation that becomes the film’s most glaring fault. While there is in point of fact an actual Humboldt County located on the coast of California, the region factors very little into the cast of characters that make up the film’s fiction, their own individual idiosyncrasies and features making up for what is otherwise a topographically formless cinematic world. Without the focus of a tangibly defined setting for its characters to inhabit and for the plot to unfold within, Humboldt County grows unwieldy, an initially satirical romp that meanders its way into a hazy political thriller, countercultural farce encroached upon by the conformity of dramatic progression. In this way, Grodsky and Jacobs lose sight of their initial engagement with the very forces that their film haphazardly attempts to reconcile, counterculture and the mainstream sitting side by side within a pantheon of other failed utopias, fictional or otherwise.

When the film concludes, with Peter and his father tacitly sharing the space between conformity and rebellion, Peter opts to return to hedonism, with no reaction or comprehension on the part of the film’s tyrannical patriarch, which is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of all of the film’s overriding faults, as well as its occasionally poetic brilliance. While Humboldt County is at times engaging in its send up of the very notion of counterculture as an ideology worth embracing, it’s also unable to leave the world of conformity far behind, returning to it in the film’s tense climax and penultimate tragedy, leaving a ruin for which Peter returns to at film’s end, the tonal incongruity of the film’s plot marring what is otherwise an alluringly ephemeral daydream of unstructured societal bliss. What’s more, the viewer never leaves the diner in which Peter’s father sits in self-assured contentment at film’s end, thus disallowing the satisfaction of Peter’s final refusal to conform acknowledged, suggesting the ideological impenetrability of the socially conservative, counterculture rebuffed via the unengaged apathy of the mainstream. And yet, there is still some narrative promise in Peter’s final departure, lending hope to the dream of anarchic individualism, the mainstream left alone and unresponsive in the existential desolation that is the American diner. There is plenty of room for improvement in the film’s unfocused script and perhaps intentionally unstructured direction, but then much of the film’s charm would be lost, the credential virtues of cultural rebellion irretrievably lost, its fictional paradise a fading utopia, a dream recounted one too many times.

Humboldt County is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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