Ham on Rye Review – Thumbs Up in a Sandwich Shop

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Image by Frank Okay (@frankokay).

Roar Culture Editor Alex Blank reviews Tyler Taormina’s 2019 film, Ham on Rye.

In Bukowski’s 1982 novel, Ham on Rye, the protagonist Henry Chinaski watches his peers dancing at their prom, and he is amazed. How do they do it? How do they talk to each other, dance with each other? Like every outsider looking in, he is both fascinated and terrified, ashamed and elevated. Yet he knows it’s not all there is: “I knew that what I saw wasn’t as simple and good as it appeared. There was a price to be paid for it all, a general falsity, that could be easily believed, and could be the first step down a dead-end street.”

That general falsity is what may first catch one’s eye when watching Tyler Taormina’s 2019 film of the same name. Ham on Rye begins as a set of somewhat random but tense events, conversations, gestures, nothings. People doing things; mostly teenagers, mostly on the streets, in bedrooms, in cars.

In one of the initial scenes, three girls in dresses are sitting in a forest, looking at a postcard from one of their sisters, in awe of how repeatedly “so good” her life is. The moment is both perfectly normal and dizzyingly surreal. But in their own pastel-dimmed California, something is about to happen to all of them.

And when something happens – that something being a modest and humiliating play on an event that half-resembles prom, though taking place in a sandwich shop – the film takes a subtle turn. It becomes more silent, darker, yet just as slow and seemingly directionless. There is no linear plot, no Henry Chinaski, and no conclusion.

It is a confusing film, the confusion being that you can really never tell if the reality you see is the reality being presented. All of it is a bit too real, too close-up, too intentional and offhand at the same time. Every gesture and word seem inconsequential yet larger-than-life, like moving through water.

If the film really is meant to portray the chasm between those who fit in and those who do not, it does so through locking the latter up within the frame the viewer sees until the end. As the mating ritual (i.e. the “prom”) commences, those who manage to find a couple move on to the dance floor, observed by someone on the outside looking in, someone like you or me. Those who are left without a pair, however, end up strolling aimlessly all over the town – it reminded me of the town in The Stepford Wives film with Nicole Kidman, where all women are robots and the reality seems too real to be believed – acting like the loneliness hadn’t been there before they had no one to bear it with, like their family hadn’t been as sad as it seemed that night.

What Haley, a girl left behind (or one who left behind) does not realise is that, as opposed to those dancing and laughing under the disco-ball sun, she is still in the film, in the frame, in the world. The rest of them disappear, not knowing the sun is not to be looked at. Those who gaze at it, then literally walking off into the sunset, may never really get anywhere, they might disappear before they reach the destination. And those who remain, those whom the camera does not abandon, may be the most dazed and confused of all; but at least they’re here.

This might seem like a depressing ending, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. We, to a large extent, create our own world. Sometimes everything we see is an echo of who we are, and all it takes is to give a thumbs up, like the girls in the sandwich shop courteously do, to escape to another world. But there’s always a risk that the other world does not exist – and if we echo that which is not really there, it seems like a scary thought.

Ham on Rye is available on Mubi from 11th January 2021. Mubi is free for all students if you make an account using your King’s email address.

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