Tyler Taormina's Ham on Rye is showing exclusively on MUBI starting January 11, 2021 in the Debuts series.
Ham on Rye, the feature film debut of Long Island-native, Los Angeles-beached Tyler Taormina, is one of the strangest and most discomfiting “coming-of-age” films of recent memory. I put “coming-of-age” in quotes because, yes, ostensibly it follows children between the ages of 15 and 18 becoming Something Else, Something Bigger. But both Taormina and his film are notoriously reticent about what this Something Else entails. Ham on Rye doesn’t play any of the familiar beats of similar funny films in the John Hughes/Eighth Grade (2018) ilk. There’s no single teenager we’re asked to keep close track of. Taormina is not nailing the truth of endless grade-school dances, parties, and games of gossipy Telephone so much as swirling surrealistically around them, those unexplained rejections and evasive moves that are romanticized as part of the process of growing up, yet which lead to insecurities, anguish, freeze-ups: the first pangs of adulting.
So what can be said about Ham on Rye? Well, there’s a definite two-part structure. The first half details the preparation process of the teenagers of some unnamed small town (in actuality it’s the unseen and forgotten bits of Los Angeles) as they head off to some mysterious ritual set in a deli called Monty’s. Apparently, this ceremony has been the town tradition for decades. In one disquieting moment, the otherwise okey-doke father of one of the kids gives the son a bucolic “go get ’em, champ” send-off, then turns viciously violent as he waves his beer can at the kid’s face and threatens: “DON’T MESS IT UP. DON’T MESS IT UP.” What should this kid not mess up? What is this tradition? A mating ritual? A hazing? An all-night disco? An orgy? A thumbs-up-thumbs-down ingraining into kids that they should pass through life liking all the good, happy, safe things and hating anything disagreeable? Rejection by a member of the opposite sex seems to be one of the ritual’s main components, but it’s wisely never explained and is instead left to the viewers’ imaginations. The second half of the film takes place over the period of one night (or maybe a few years), as one of the girls, Haley (Haley Bodell)—disturbed by the exclusivity and not wanting to reject someone—leaves her girlfriends behind in the middle of the ritual and wanders about town. The camera leaves Haley for long stretches of time in order to observe a crew of four dazed and confused white boy dropouts who cruise around empty parking lots on creaky Segways, puttering nowhere.
Ham on Rye is good at revealing the toxic ground beneath the arbitrary games of a “normal” youth—who’ll get paired up with whom, who’s the funniest kisser or the cutest dancer or the skinniest prom date. The paradox: most Americans experience something of being left behind or rejected by the high-school doxa, yet Taormina and company never tell you what that rejection entails. His innovation is in the vein of an airy, rambling late short story by Henry James: so much psychological action is mapped out without any specific pinning-down details drawn from an obviously personal point-of-view. Taormina pushes his audience to think outside the normal conventions set up by an identifiable youth narrative, but he does it with familiar subjects that have wide appeal—love, Millennial malaise, outsider syndrome, wretched pubescence— and which are never left behind, even when the film goes most wildly off its rails in the Wandering department.
We spoke with Taormina about nostalgia, Nickelodeon, and Sophie Tatischeff on the heels of Ham on Rye’s debut on MUBI.
NOTEBOOK: I’d like to start by commenting on how strikingly you open your film: the entire screen filled with nothing but the face, nothing spoken, no obvious direction, just an assembly-line of faces, pensive or irritated or waiting for something. You prove that narrative doesn’t have to be propulsed by literal, obvious lines. Rewatching, I realized, “Wow, there's really not much dialogue in this!” I thought there was more, but it really is just people vibing with each other, face-to-face.
TYLER TAORMINA: Have you ever seen the movie Earth (1930) by Dovzhenko? I caught that maybe two months ago. And I was so struck by the way the film is organized. And I'm also realizing how political these focuses of narrative can become. For example, the film—Communist—is about the arrival of new farming technology. And Dovzkenko mines deeply one emotion at a time, you know, like the whole community’s feeling this way, then this way, then another way. And it goes through all these movements of emotion, showing you tons of faces experiencing this one emotion all around this town. And it brings about such a collectivism—while you never “know” any of these people in any specific detail! And, of course, it doesn’t matter. There’s no interest or emphasis in characters. It touched on a great deal of things I’m interested in.
NOTEBOOK: Where do you find your people? Your actors? I waw aghast after reading in an interview that you had no casting director at all. Where did you marshal these hundreds of instantly memorable faces?
TAORMINA: For the past four months I’ve been making this film on Long Island. And I've just realized how bountiful the resources are in Los Angeles by comparison. I mean, you put out a casting call and you say you get an IMDB credit. It's all you have to say, and you get thousands of hits. And that was it. If the person's face was interesting, there was no street casting, there was no casting of people who reminded me of others in my life (except one or two cases). Also: They're pretty weird people, but naturally weirder; especially if they're older. I was making this children’s show, Suburban Legends, for a few years. And that was my first bout of filmmaking in my adult life in Los Angeles. And I realized that all the actors I was getting were so bad. But it was so good because they were so goofy and strange. And I found so many weirdos: people with intense acting aspirations at the age of, like, 50 or 60.
NOTEBOOK: Haley Bodell, the ostensible “lead,” is interesting to watch; she’s not much of an active narrative protagonist like one would expect. How did you meet her in particular? What's her story? Where does she come from?
TAORMINA: So this show Suburban Legends is where it began. I had a character who is the central protagonist of the show called Poll Flowerpot. She was curious and cynical and bitter and a loner and had no friends and was kind of a tomboy. And she deflected all of her emotional turmoil and curiosity to other people—mainly workers. This was the subconscious thread of the show: her interest in mundane workers, their unsung glory. And for the character—this is when I didn’t know all the tricks to casting in Los Angeles on zero money—I did the casting call and got, like, 30 hits. Woah, that’s a lot of people! I thought. (30 is nothing.) And I saw the headshots and I saw it was only 12. And I still remember her headshot: she [Haley Bodell] looked like such a profoundly depressed person. She was able to communicate such depth, pain, complexity in this. And I said, "Ah, that’s her." We worked together on Suburban Legends for a few years. And I made my first real film called Wild Flies (2016) and she was in that one. Then I called her again for Ham on Rye, and that’s her whole filmography. She’s not been in another movie.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking of something that Whit Stillman said about François Truffaut’s 400 Blows: “It seems like any filmmaker’s first film idea is something about the mawkish predicament of a 10 or 12 year old child. Quite a bit like themselves and usually themselves. And usually their careers end with this choice. Sundance and other debut-oriented film festivals are their final resting place. Whereas Truffaut took this dimmest of subjects and made it one of the most radiant films of all time in glorious black-and-white.” And I’m thinking of your film along the same lines. There’s not a central 10 or 12-year-old child with whom I’m supposed to individualistically tie myself to. I'm just wondering what you think about this tagging of your film as a “coming-of-age” film?
TAORMINA: Yeah. I don't know much about “coming-of-age.” I'm obsessed with aging. And this new film I’m writing—a Christmas film set in Long Island—is an example of showing all different people of all ages aging and being on the borderline of different chapters involved with aging. It's obsessive for me. What concerns me is the following: what am I going to become in this world? Am I going to lose something? Something good? And look around at all these older people: how did they become the way they are? And me seeing a few examples of role models for how I want to live and be. When I make a film like Ham on Rye or the Christmas film, I'm trying to figure out: where does it go wrong? Where do we make that mistake that we end up—“end up,” what a turn of phrase, it's so haunting—down a certain way? And Ham on Rye ends on a question mark: what is Haley going to become?
NOTEBOOK: I love the locations that you guys found in the city. Even though it’s not specified where we’re at, it feels like some kind of middle America-ish suburb where people like Nellie from Henry King’s Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) grew up. It is wonderful that it makes LA this alien, hazy stretch of roads and low-hanging mountains.
TAORMINA: I have such fond, fond memories—now I’m feeling a kind of pregnant nostalgia—of listening to Kelly Reichardt Q&A’s and driving around the [San Fernando] Valley. That’s all I did for days and nights and nights and days. And I was just looking for the most expensive and depressing, overlit parking lots I could find. They’re like little glimpses of home that you can find just about anywhere in the U.S.
Populated throughout the country, I feel, is so much of the same shit: the same strip malls, the same residential avenues and their sidewalks, even the same types of sandwich and pizza shops. And this took up about seven expensive months of pre-production: just driving around, location-scouting. Yet we found the perfect locations in L.A., so many options. Finding those lost-in-time businesses that make me feel like I’m back in my youth in Long Island.
NOTEBOOK: Did certain memories stay with you from your Long Island youth, memories that filtered their way into Ham on Rye?
TAORMINA: There’s not much in the film in terms of specific memories, barring one high-school memory. It’s really not anything I’ve personally experienced. But I will say that I have this crazy, crazy yearning, living away from Long Island, of remembering what it feels like to be in a store with my mom. Doing errands. Hearing the old songs on the radio. Remembering exactly, the design and the layout of these places that are still around in Long Island. Yearning to get back to that kind of mundane in-betweenness. I want to reanimate that.
NOTEBOOK: On that note: I’m curious how you feel about someone like, say, Hal Hartley; I imagine you must have some thoughts on this world or his take on that kind of milieu.
TAORMINA: I think his world is so beautiful, I love it. The Long Island Trilogy (The Unbelievable Truth , Trust , and Simple Men ) is so spectacular. But it doesn’t speak to my own voice. I don’t necessarily identify with his…fingerprints, let’s say.
NOTEBOOK: Who does speak to you, then? Who are the omnipresences as you work?
TAORMINA: Oh, a little bit of so many people. A Swedish Love Story (1970) by Roy Andersson was one of the germinating images for Ham on Rye. As a film, it was almost giving me permission to make this movie. So fantastic. That movie was there for me when I first came up with the idea of people doing this kind of ritualistic thing in a sandwich shop. There's a scene where they're in some restaurant of some sort, and all these kids glancing at one another and the casting in it is unbelievable. And this was a big push into Ham on Rye. So were all the Robert Altman ensemble pieces. And the way that Slacker (1991, dir. Richard Linklater) shows you that all throughout this place, there's life to be found in every nook and cranny. I love that. Apitchatpong [Weerasethakul]. L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni). Fanny and Alexander (1982, dir. Ingmar Bergman). All of them make their way into me somehow.
When I started to get deep into cinema, one of the things I noticed I was responding to was what I call an ecosystem film. A film that has a very specific kind of aural relationship to all the life contained in an environment, obviously within certain time parameters. This kind of camera consciousness—exploring a space, finding all the different energies in life and the varieties of them—became highly exciting to me in films like Slacker, Elephant (2003, dir. Gus Van Sant), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953, dir. Jacques Tati), Mystery Train (1989, dir. Jim Jarmusch), Voices Through Time (1996, dir. Franco Piavoli). Say you’re at a restaurant, suddenly we go to the back of the house and we realize that people are there, too, cooking and preparing and so on. There’s a short film I watched by Sophie Tatischeff, the daughter of Jacques Tati, called Dégustation Maison (House Specialty, 1978). One of my favorite films. You go in and you’re hanging out with these patrons. And you’re looking at a day in the life of them playing games and eating and drinking. And we’re watching the chef making the food. And then we leave. And that’s the end. And it blew my mind! I said, “What compelled her to show this to us?” I thought, Wow! This is incredible. She just wanted us to see this. It’s the most poetic and beautiful and affirming thing to do: just point the camera and bear witness. Of course, it took me a while to realize that there’s a joke embedded in all of it: the old-man patrons are getting drunk off these pastries filled with rum. But if you were to remove that part of it, it still is a profound act to devote your time to something so pointless. And beautiful.
NOTEBOOK: I want to talk now about music. The sounds in this film are all over the place—in the best way. Like you have this kind of new age musical song—Chaitanya Hari Deuter’s “Pierrot”—that makes you sound like you’ve just entered into the Orc and Dwarf Inn. And then you get like these crate-digger Motown or girl-group adjacent songs with the jangle and the three women in harmony and so on. How does music inform your filming practice?
TAORMINA: That tune you’re speaking of—the girl-group vintage track—was originally a song from Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)by Kenneth Anger. And it’s “Dream Lover” by the Paris Sisters. Bobby Darin sings it originally, but the Paris Sisters have a version that’s so much better. And Anger is a huge inspiration for me, especially Scorpio Rising (1963), which is the backbone to my next film. Jon Davies—our music supervisor and producer and the director of the film I’ve just produced, The Topology of Sirens (which is something of a Rivette descendent, Jacques Rivette’s one of his patron saints)—Jon found the track. My editor always yells at me because I pick out the most expensive songs; we had Led Zeppelin at one point. [laughs]
I’m starting to realize how much of my life is based around displaced energy. You know: “He’s too much energy. What’s he gonna do with all of it? Okay. Make a movie.” In the case of music: All throughout my life, I had headphones on almost relentlessly. I’m always listening to music. Always needed to find a channel for all this energy. I need music like most people need medication.
NOTEBOOK: What are some future projects that you’re working on?
Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, as I mentioned, is the blueprint to my Christmas film; I want to use three tracks from Scorpio Rising, which will probably cost like $50,000 at least right off the bat. We’ll see if it happens! It’s a Christmas film, an ensemble piece. A marriage between Amarcord (1974, dir. Federico Fellini), American Graffiti (1973, dir. George Lucas), and Scorpio Rising. And there was a medium-length film I shot in Long Island during COVID, The Holy Dance. And it was a 2-person crew—me and a DP—and we rented lights and everything. All things considered, I think it came out looking pretty good. No dialogue. It’s a goofy, funny, strange film. You slowly gather what it is throughout the entirety of the movie. And ultimately, I think it’s going to be a great time capsule about COVID without being directly about COVID. There are no masks, no dialogue, it’s just middle-of-the-night vibes. It really puts the finger on the pulse on what I’ve been feeling all year: yearning, solitude, touch, and the lack thereof.
NOTEBOOK: On that note: How has COVID affected the reception of Ham on Rye? What’s it been like for you releasing a film “regularly” during this obviously terrible time?
TAORMINA: Oddly enough, it really worked out for us. It really was an advantage, and we had no idea that would be the case. We were looking at an actual theatrical run in the theaters that we played in. It was supposed to be in May 2020, and then it was pushed back indefinitely. We weren't sure what to do. And then after a while, maybe in midsummer, the word was it might not be until next fall that we could play in a theater. And I just thought The film is going to be way too old for that. I don't want to lose any momentum. I just felt like this might be the time to do it.
And I think we made the right decision in a way because I think that a lot of the journals and the critics had more time to watch a movie like this when it could have very easily gotten lost in the shuffle. We were picking between press and audience because, as much as the film was made in a critical way, I would imagine it wasn't terribly widely seen. I think this year has shown that people’s viewing habits are not at all for virtual cinemas. I mean it. And I think that makes sense. I watched 500, 600 movies this year, and I've only rented, like, one or two from the [virtual] theater. I want to go see new movies in [physical] theaters and talk about them later. It's a very social activity. To see first-run movies on virtual-theatrical is not a means I've been attracted to. We’re really trying not to show Jon’s film Topology of Sirens in festivals unless they’re physical.
NOTEBOOK: Children's television, like Nickelodeon, seems to serve as a spiritual home for the film, too, as you’ve cast two 90s Nickelodeon stars (Lori Beth Denberg and Danny Tamberelli), as well as a kind of humor that occasionally brings to mind, shows like All That or The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
TAORMINA: Yes! For me, television in the nineties had so much personality, so much energy. It was truly surreal. It had this levity to it that, I have to imagine, is different for newer generation kids. It’s actually a specific branding they employed that gave it the edge. A naïve kind of surreality. I find it very beautiful, very colorful, and magical. That aesthetic informed so much of Suburban Legends.
And then there came a point in my mid-to-early twenties when my heart started to break for the first time. I had realized that I lost a lot of the things that I liked about myself. I was working a job that wasn’t fitting me for a little too long. And I just thought like, Who am I anymore? It was a confrontation of adulthood. And then years later, during a rehearsal for Ham on Rye, we posted a cast-and-crew picture on our Instagram. And I looked at Haley and I realized, “Oh my God, that’s Poll Flowerpot right there. And she’s older now. And her curiosity is not cute anymore.” This is that point in time when our childlike self becomes not only self-aware but also that our adult self becomes repelled by the child. You have an allergic reaction to the child within you. And that’s what the spirit of kid’s television is in this film. Embodying all this naïve beauty, then realizing (in embarrassed-teenager-style): “That’s not good, get it away from me.” It’s a very sad leaving of the shell. I personally left the shell at that point in my life with music [as frontman for the band Cloud], which is something I did for a long time. And it's not something I do anymore. And that was a shell that I had to leave, and I had to abandon it and move on and do another thing, which was film. A heartbreaking period.
But that’s where the kid’s TV comes in: Attraction to a kind of ontological surrealism, rooted in real environments. The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1991-96) is a perfect example. And, actually, now that I think about it, maybe I was wrong to say that Hal Hartley is not involved, because that show has his crew.
NOTEBOOK: Oh, really?!
TAORMINA: Yeah, DP and everything. There’s a beautifully unified aesthetic in Pete and Pete and Hal Hartley’s ambiance that is part of feeling like I’m back in that restaurant from my mom.
NOTEBOOK: Well, okay, so what is your relationship to nostalgia? Because nostalgia seems to power a lot of the style and the particular kinds of shots or scenes being built. What is its pull to you?
TAORMINA: I mean, nostalgia is bittersweet, obviously, but I think the way in which I have learned it to be bittersweet is maybe not so obvious. First of all, my memory is very bad. I have a very hard time remembering details from the past. It's very blotchy, but what I do remember quite well is certain unnamable emotional associations with things. And this gap in memory brought me to cinema. Because I feel like the experience of cinema is where I could compensate for this memory loss.
Nostalgia, also, is so multifaceted. I think it’s important to distinguish a nostalgia seeped in romance. For instance, the Christmas movie I’ve been writing is a very romantic remembrance of a dead-and-gone tradition in my family. For the past few years, we had our last Christmas Eve celebration of this era in this house. And I realized, “Oh, my romantic view of it is so much better than the real thing.” Romantic nostalgia is not necessarily better than life, but it makes life better; it’s a way to celebrate the emotional truths in life, without getting into the…
With Ham on Rye, where nostalgia really comes into play is how nostalgia can be used to manipulate us into, for lack of a better term, conservatism. When people express longing for “80’s nostalgia,” they have to talk about Reagan nostalgia, but also nostalgia in and of itself. Especially nostalgia for times we didn’t live. It makes us feel like we have to be acting in certain prescribed ways. It really butters us up to traditions that may be really shitty, really toxic. And nostalgia can keep us continuing the cycle. And I think we should be very skeptical of that. And the film shows you the roses and the thorns of nostalgia. We can put on these costumes (and the first half of the film is poignantly meant to evoke a number of decades in post-World War II America) and we wear clothes that don’t fit us to do things that don’t fit us, that are oppressive, tools that keep us doing things that we don’t want to do. And which we’d realize we don’t want to do, upon any serious consideration.