Published on May 24th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant1
Mistaken for Strangers
Mistaken for Strangers begins as a tour diary of The National, but jumps to sweet, strange, funny ruminations on sibling affection and the creative mind.
Brooklyn via Cincinnati indie band The National are one of the best-known modern purveyors of sad bastard music, led by moping baritone singer Matt Berninger. The film Mistaken for Strangers takes its title from a National song; the movie is an effort on the part of Matt’s younger brother Tom Berninger to document his time touring with The National as a roadie. However, that description fades quickly and the whole thing morphs into a sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating meta-documentary about fame, siblings, and storytelling. At a brisk 74 minutes, Mistaken for Strangers is a goofier, more childlike version of Sarah Polley’s excellent film Stories We Tell. But don’t take this as condescension on my part; the film taps into wells of emotion as it delves into how fame affects someone and their relationships, as well as brotherly admiration that veers into puppy dog obsession at points.
Tom Berninger, as he’s presented, could best be described as a dreamer; a laid-back, likeable fuck up of sorts. Growing up, brother Matt was the more serious one, and eventually the one that had the drive to put The National on the map. Tom’s work ethic quickly comes into question as he starts to drive the tour manager to distraction, even angering his brother once or twice. He follows everyone around with the camera, sometimes having fun, sometimes pestering them, and often displaying an odd obsession with Matt, whether trying to compare to him, or trying to gain his approval. The obsession goes so far at points that one of the band members being interviewed, already weary of being asked about the frontman by the press, makes the comment, “I thought this interview was about me, not Matt?”
A lot of the film’s humour comes from these moments and his untrained approach to not only filmmaking, but life in general. He innocently asks some bizarre questions, not out of the need to be weird, but mostly out of a lack of any kind of preparation. He stammers out a question at one band member, “Where will The National be in 40 years?”
“Uh. I think we’ll be dead,” comes the deadpan reply from a band member that’s clearly humoring him.
While the movie is far from an actual tour document in the typical sense, there are some good concert scenes of the band, and the younger Berninger captures Matt pouring his soul into his performances and making undeniable, visceral connections with his audience. He also gets telling moments, like Matt’s terrible mood after what he considers to be a bad gig. Some of these things come to us in scattered pieces. Snippets. Tree of Life-style impressionist moments in time.
I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that this was all brilliantly intentional though. The film feels somewhat cobbled together and sometimes the blueprint shows through too much. It was co-edited by Matt’s wife Carin Besser (who seems like a very sweet and supportive person in the film), who was at one time fiction editor of The New Yorker; I would have to guess that she brought a lot of coherence to the mess of sticky notes that comprised the map of Tom’s footage. All that being said, there is a fuzzy, shambling charm to the movie, and (whether there is some fictional construction of some of the ‘characters’ or not) one gets the sense that this movie really is like living with Tom, climbing up inside his mind. His approach is creative and off the wall, and he gets some sweet, funny, and strange moments form his subject by way of his unorthodox methods.
Without giving away too much, there is a really genuine moment of brotherly love and mutual understanding the creative process, as Matt laughs at Tom for admitting that he cried on camera the previous night. It’s a nice moment, and all the more humourous if you consider the irony that one of the most depressive modern songwriters is laughing at his brother for being a crybaby.
Cut to Tom the night before: “I just wanna make something good,” he says sobbing softly to the camera.
You did, Tom.