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Will Oldham is Missing and 'Special' in <em>The Guatemalan Handshake</em>

"I set out to make a movie just a little weirder and more beautiful than maybe it ought to be," says first-time director Todd Rohal. "And really,” he adds, “I just set out to make a film I could call The Guatemalan Handshake.”
OldhamAccording to acclaimed director David Gordon Green, Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake is a movie that may be, in his words: "too good." In his essay “Outrage the Rooster! Words About this Film,” featured in the insert for the recent Benten Films DVD release, Green elaborates upon his "queer anxieties" surrounding the film: “Should I say ‘special,’ like a retarded kid who is enchanting and liberating in his or her world view [and] destined for a conflict with the traditional culture.” Green is on the side of special, obviously—as adjectives go, “special,” in Green’s loaded sense of the word, serves a pretty good introduction to Handshake, Rohal’s debut feature and a film that will, in its headstrong uniqueness, leave some viewers cold. Others, like Green, will regard it as a source of wonder and inspiration. One is unlikely to be ambivalent.


“I don’t think anybody’s wanted to punch me in the face, but yeah, there have been differences of opinion,” notes the Brooklyn-based Rohal. “But I feel like a lot of the criticism has come more from people who walk into my film with certain expectations of what a movie ought to be, expectations I just don’t agree with. Like, that a movie should end with a sense of resolution. That it should provide all kinds of backstory on the characters. That, if it’s going to be funny, it can’t also be sad.”


“And on the other hand,” Rohal continues, “There are the people who get it. They get the humor, and they get the loneliness of the movie. So there’s been positive feedback, too.”


Well, yes. Though Handshake never received a widescreen release, the film has earned special jury awards at the Slamdance and Torino Festivals and Rohal a place on Filmmaker Magazine’s 2007 list of “The 25 New Faces of Independent Film.” And the director has the respect of his peers, to boot; Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess is a fan, and Green not only contributed the essay, but also borrowed a bit of one of Rohal’s earlier shorts for a scene in his summer release The Pineapple Express. Not too shabby for a virtually impossible-to-summarize film centering—nominally—on a power outage, demolition derby driving, and a little girl named Turkeylegs. The film’s biggest star is Will Oldham, an occasional actor (Matewan, Old Joy) who is better known as an idiosyncratic indie musician whose aliases have ranged from Palace Brothers to Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. This is independent cinema at its most independent-minded.


GH“The whole thing started with the title, really,” Rohal recalls. “I came up with the phrase ‘The Guatemalan Handshake,’ and then the next step was figuring out what a movie called that would be about. I wound up weaving together four different plots for shorts that I had in my head; I felt like they all spoke to each other in some subliminal way. I’m still not totally sure how.”


A sense of loneliness, as Rohal acknowledges, helps to link the film’s wandering thoughts. A self-described geek in high school, Rohal trains his lens on the eccentric and the outcast: A daisy chain of luckless but loveable characters starts with Donald Turnipseed (Oldham), the misfit among misfits who goes missing during a mysterious blackout, and ends with Stool, the well-meaning ne’er-do-well who likely cut the power. A lot goes missing in Handshake—a dog is lost, a car is stolen—and mysteries abound, not least in the wonder of a place where people let themselves be called Turkeylegs and Stool.


“I never set out to make a straight-up realistic film,” notes Rohal. “And I never set out to make a film that’s quote-unquote ‘quirky.’ I think, if you walk into the film with either of those expectations—that you’re about to see something classically real, or you’re about to watch the sequel to Napoleon Dynamite, then the movie is going to get on your nerves. I set out to make a movie just a little weirder and more beautiful than maybe it ought to be. And really,” he adds, “I just set out to make a film I could call The Guatemalan Handshake.”


Bonus: A Rohal-directed video for Ola Podrida's (the band of Handshake composer David Wingo) "Lost and Found," featuring Ivan Dimitrov:



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