Mark Pellington’s new film Nostalgia explores our bond with objects

The music-video-pedigreed director on putting plot on the backburner and collaborating with indie film darling Alex Ross Perry.

Jon Hamm in Nostalgia

Though Mark Pellington has made some mainstream movies (The Mothman Prophecies, Arlington Road), his latest film Nostalgia probably skews closer to his work in music videos. (Most notably, he directed Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video as well U2’s U2 3D concert film.)

Though its structure may be familiar to some, Nostalgia is noticeably not plot-driven, exploring instead our bond with objects and the connections we form with them in more elliptical — and, dare I say, interesting — ways.

“Well, there you go, interesting,” Pellington says . “Characters can tell stories and scenes can tell stories, but sometimes I feel like movies are all about plot. I just wanted to make a movie that was closer to some of my more experimental work and some of the music-video stuff where structure in a scene guided it, and not the plot. Yes, there are stories and characters, but you can’t encapsulate it like ‘a guy goes here and this happens.’ I read reviews that just tell me the plot and I’m like, “Why?” I don’t want to know what the story is. But yeah — it’s a weird movie! That’s why you have to make it independently and get the money yourself.”

The film begins with John Ortiz as an insurance claims adjuster who investigates an old man (Bruce Dern) preparing for the inevitable and an elderly woman who has lost nearly all of her possessions in a house fire — except for her husband’s beloved baseball. That baseball takes her to collectibles dealer Jon Hamm, who has to deal with his own type of letting go when his sister (Catherine Keener) recruits him to help empty out their parents’ home after they move down to Florida.

Nostalgia also showcases a peculiar collaboration — that of Pellington with indie darling Alex Ross Perry, who wrote the screenplay. It’s an unusual project for both, which is exactly what brought them together.

“I had all of these ideas and notions,” says Pellington. “I’d been filing articles, character sketches, premises, thematic jottings… right? I had a big file, but they were all kind of about loss, ultimately. Nostalgia is about a desire to be in a place that’s not the present. I knew that the subject matter was kind of sentimental and I knew that I tend to get sentimental, so I thought to myself, ‘What writer is not sentimental?’ and I thought of him. He’d been an admirer of my film I Melt With You and we were Facebook acquaintances. I reached out to him and asked if he wrote movies for other people — he said he actually did. He shared a lot of the same interests and he had his own sort of history with memorabilia and collecting baseballs and different things, as everyone does growing up. He had many thoughts about the subject and thought this might be fun to write about. It’s a bit outside of his wheelhouse, it’s a bit different.

“Some people have said — and it wasn’t necessarily complimentary — ‘How could HE write something so sentimental?’” Pellington continues. “He’s known for writing these really mean, really caustic, despicable things, but his writing always has heart and truth to it. I feel his writing in this is on a different level — it’s like reading a novel. The script read like a novella!”

The characters in Nostalgia all have differing relationships to their possessions, from near obsessive possessiveness to Hamm’s character, who has an almost zen-like approach to material possessions. Pellington, as it turns out, might stray more on that side of the fence. “As Hamm’s character says, the only thing you should keep is personal family ephemera,” he says. “Everything else? Throw the bowls away, throw the shit away, throw the toys away. Keep pictures, diaries, letters… personal stuff! (…) You may have the memory of that bowl — Catherine Keener’s character remembers the provenance of every item and she wants to give them to her kid. You don’t give a kid bowls and plates from the ’50s! That’s just great writing — you give them the plastic shit! It’s the only funny scene in the whole movie!”

The film’s elliptical style is very much one that Pellington and Perry worked at, deliberately opting to line up each segment rather than intercut them. “You’ll appreciate this as a vinyl person,” says Pellington, after a largely irrelevant (to this story, anyway) aside about our respective record collections. “If you put the needle down for 30 seconds on every song on side A, you do hear each of the songs in a way, but if you don’t like one of the songs, you check out. We wanted it to unfold like an album. Literally, the first scene with the girl — it’s like that little minute-15 thing at the beginning of the album. The rest of it is like each song is by a different vocalist. John Ortiz is doing a duet, then another duet, then he moves to background vocals for Ellen Burstyn. It’s as if you have an album of duets and soloists.” ■

Nostalgia opens in theatres on Friday, March 2