Hell is Other People

I went to college at a small liberal arts university just outside of Chattanooga, and when we were bored on weekends, which was pretty much every weekend, we would often go into the city–to catch a movie, to hang out at the mall, to kill a few hours before our late night curfew (and, yes, we had a curfew).  Perhaps for that reason, I’ve always experienced Chattanooga primarily from its freeways, seeing it mostly as simultaneously old and new, a mix of disused industrial spaces and empty lots and, on the other hand, suburban-style sprawl.  Throw in the city’s strange tourist quirks–Lookout Mountain, Rock City, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo–and like most cities, you get a mix of old and new, rich and poor.

Jarrod Whaley’s Hell is Other People uses that older, emptier Chattanooga to tell the story of Morty, an unemployed, lonely guy who seems to be drifting through life.  He wakes up in the morning, takes a quick smoke from a bong, and then embarks on a halfhearted effort to find a job.  He also makes a similar awkward attempt to reach out and find a connection with another human being, especially the women he meets through the course of his seemingly random daily activities.  Often, however, his attempts to flirt take place at the most awkward moments possible, his compliments coming across as strangely passive-aggressive ways to change the conversation.  When the administrative assistant at his therapist’s office attempts to talk about the bill, he compliments her appearance and asks her out for coffee.  When his ex-girlfriend is trying to ditch him after running into him by chance at a video store, he tells her he loves her.  After doing a friend a favor several months earlier, he tries to get her to pay him for his work.

Gradually, perhaps inspired by the therapy sessions for which he will likely never pay (and which we never see), Morty siezes upon the idea of serving as an imprpmptu therapist for an acquaintance of his, Ryan, who, coincidentally, seems to like the same girl, but who is also struggling over creative control of his band.  The two meet in random spaces throughout the city during their sessions–empty parking lots, the non-spaces next to highway exit ramps, even the city’s Incline Railroad–and Morty offers half-remembered advice he borrows from an older friend who watches movies with him sometimes and also serves as his pot dealer.   His advice for Ryan isn’t half-bad, if Ryan would act on it, and much of it probably applies to Morty as well, though Morty’s near-sightedness (suggested, perhaps, in the thick, black-rimmed glasses he wears) prevents him from seeing it.   Whaley asks in his director’s statement, “What is it about financial poverty that so often impoverishes the inner lives of those who suffer from it?”  And I think one of the answers, suggested in the film, is that Morty is unable to see any other alternatives for himself.

Whaley uses the “limitations” of Chattanooga and of a small budget extremely well in this film.  As he points out, Morty’s story is a “private” one and a large crew likely would have gotten in the way.  This is a small, intimate story, suggested in part by Whaley’s judicious use of close-ups and extreme close-ups that seek to track down the inner life of these struggling, awkward characters.

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