March 28, 2006
V For Vendetta
I'm having trouble organizing my thoughts for this piece on V For Vendetta. I've a whole score of notes, composed over the past day or two, and I'm thinking I may fashion them into a longer examination of the film and its cultural relevance (something I do believe it has, despite its limitations) at some point in the near future. For the time being, though, I'll limit myself to the seed of that eventual essay and focus on the conflict I found myself in the other night, after a second viewing of the film revealed that something was amiss in the revolutionary ideology that had left me so unabashedly enthused last winter.
It's not the ideology that's problematic, necessarily, but that the Wachowskis and director James McTiegue don't have the courage of their convictions. The film, so revolutionary up to a point, is ultimately unable to commit to the concept of noble anarchy espoused by Alan Moore in the original graphic novel. The film wants to support this, and it makes steps in that direction; but at the crucial point, it sidesteps the issue and reduces a legitimately challenging thesis to something of more Orwellian proportions. Granted, Moore's novel was a polemic against Thatcherian fascism that owed much to 1984, and in preserving a great deal of his solution to Big Brother, the film is quite radical. At the last minute, though, the filmmakers take what it is a very gray area and make it distinctly black and white; after aspiring for intelligent provocation, the Wachowskis settle at the end for inspiration.
Indeed, I think that my initial ecstatic reaction is implicit in the film's fault. Simply put, much of the problem lies in how good it makes me feel. It's tempting to embrace the ending because it falls so squarely into line with my own beliefs; who doesn't like to have their personal politics bolstered so bombastically every now and then? When all of English society dons that Guy Fawkes mask and marches on the government at the film's climax, I feel the strength in their numbers. In all of those faceless individuals, I find comfort.
But real revolution is not a comfortable thing, and it would be as irresponsible to let this fault slide as it was for the Wachowskis to cast aside the convictions of their source in favor of agitprop. In giving the masses a symbolic front to hide behind, they are depriving them of the very thing they themselves are advocating. Their protagonist has achieved a deposition, but it is a solution of empty, assumptive idealism. As well versed as he is, V must have neglected to read his Burke.
In the graphic novel, there is no organization of this sort, no symbolic replacement to rise in place of the crumbling fascist government. In making a hero of a terrorist, Moore was suggesting fascism can only be effectively countered by anarchy, but it's important to remember that, although V was thoroughly anarchic, his actions were , by his own admission, not. They were a carefully orchestrated means to an end that was still far off. "Anarchy means without leaders, not without order" he tells his young protege as the streets above them rage with social upheaval. "This is not anarchy. This is chaos."
This distinction, between anarchy and chaos, is what the film needs; what it lacks, in the end, is an acknowledgment of either.
The disparity between intention and execution in the film is troubling one. Indeed, I'm still wondering how much credence I should give to the fact that, in the final frames of the film, all those Guy Fawkes masks are doffed; it's another very appealing moment, especially in the way it transcends the literal reality of the film.
On the other hand, it's very easy to hold the filmmakers accountable for the scene immediately prior to the the climax, in which V is given an action-packed last stand. One could dismiss this sequence as a bone thrown to the studios, who needed some action with which to lure mainstream audiences; but upon further consideration, the scene reveals itself as a bundle of contradictions, wrapped up with some very reductive screenwriting that narrows the scope of V's titular vendetta from the societal to the merely personal.
I could delve into the manner in which this same scene was properly handled by Moore, but my intention in writing this piece was not to create a laundry list of difference between the graphic novel and the film. In fact, having just read the novel again, I'm struck by how much the Wachowskis and McTiegue got right - not only in their adherence to detail, but in their divergence from it. I'm tempted to write another few paragraphs about the many elements that did live up to my expectations, all the things I can still sincerely admire about the film (already I can feel my natural enthusiasm rising, threatening to take itself out of check!). But, as far as this post is concerned, I think it's enough to say that I do admire it, even in the face of this criticism, and that I want to see it a third time, even though I'm aware of its flaws.
March 27, 2006
The Beatific Vision Of Abel Ferrara
"Who's that hanging on the cross up there?" asks Abel Ferrara, in a very rhetorical tone, on the director's commentary for his first feature, The Driller Killer.
The film opens on a relief of Michaelangelo's Pieta, and then in a series of shots pulls back to reveal a chapel, drenched in lurid light, into which Ferrara himself walks. This scene is more or less extraneous to the narrative (which is simultaneously a document of boho New York in the late 70s and a serial killer movie by way of Polanski), but, much like the cruciform imagery featured so prominently in Scorsese's exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha, it is an auspicious entry point to a career to which a deep subcurrent of Catholicism will be integral.
In fact, Catholicism is as intrinsic to Ferrara's work as it is to Scorsese's, with whom he shares a passion for the underbelly of New York City (which, with its Irish and Italian roots, is itself a deeply religious bedrock from which to draw inspiration). Although it isn't until the early 90s that Ferrara's films become explicitly spiritual, his earliest work certainly bares the same marks of a Catholic upbringing as his later efforts; these tell-tale signs are corroborated by the images of the church in The Driller Killer and the nun's habit worn by Ms. 45 at the climax that film, but are, in and of themselves, a bit more abstract, coming into sharp focus only when considered in summation. I'm thinking primarily of the violence. In the case of Driller Killer and Ms. 45, both intended as drive-in friendly efforts, this is par for course; but when taken in concert with the seemingly incidental but undeniable ecclesiastical imagery, and the focus on redemption that later becomes essential to Ferrara's work, the bloodletting takes on new significance.
Catholicism, after all, is a religion awash in red. It shares with protestantism a focus on a symbolic representation of transcendence through pain and suffering - Christ on the cross - but takes matters further by making the literal transubstantion and sacramental consumption of flesh and blood one of the tenets of the faith. And then there are the saints. I remember sitting through Mass as a child, poring through the traditional lives of the martyrs and the images therein: Lucia, holding her eyeballs on a plate; Bartholomew, bearing the flayed skin of his own face; Sebastian and his arrows; Joan in flames. This is excellent fodder for a little boy's imagination! And, although church doctrines would refute the specifics of this claim, it also engenders a subconscious association between extreme violence and ultimate redemption. Is it any wonder, then, that Catholic filmmakers like Scorsese and Ferrara, lapsed though they may be, have a predilection not only towards violent incident, but extremely violent imagery? Ferrara's camera lingers on spilt blood and perforated corpses with a respect that borders on the ritualistic.
Of course, if this point of reference is accurate, it must be noted that the appropriaton of violence has certainly shifted. The persecutor and the martyr have merged into a muddy mix of intentions that must be overcome if redemption is to be found. In The Driller Killer, murder is a means of clarity; in Ms. 45, it is an act of charity. Neither character in these films are saints, but they are striving towards some manner of justification (and, in the case of the latter film, some perverse degree of martyrdom). Ten years on, in King Of New York, the murderer will be aspiring towards absolution. By Bad Lieutenant, he may just have achieved it.
It is by this point that Ferrara has begun to utilize that narratively empty Christian imagery of his early films. Bad Lieutenant, one of the most spiritual films ever made, is an undiluted concentration of Ferrara's religious concerns. Is this Ferrara's personal addition to the lives of the saints? I'd hesitate to go that far, but its parabolic value is nonetheless immense. The film represents a peak so pure that it's no surprise to find Ferrara retreating from it over the following decade, returning to his previous degrees of allusion (at least until his most recent film, Mary, which I have yet to see).
If my thesis here is that Abel Ferrara's films are, on an intrinsic level, works of Catholic art, then I'm tempted to augment it with the following theoretical shot in the dark. Matthew Clayfield writes, in his contribution, that Ferrara's work is, on a formal and thematic level, feminist; I agree with this, to an extent, but (and I'm wildly digressing from Matt's point here, using it as a platform for my own theory), in as much as Ferrara finds in the fairer sex an equalizing factor, I wonder if he also doesn't work against feminist thought (at least in the modern sense) in his reverence for women as maternal figures - in a distinctly Marian tradition. This is a complex similar but separate from that of the Madonna-Whore: the latter half of that duality, as prevalent as it may or may not be, is overwhelmed by the former. In Dangerous Game, Harvey Keitel's character is compelled to express sincere contrition to Madlyn, his wife and the mother of his son, who as such is the one woman presented without sin (it must be noted that she is played by Ferrara's actual wife, Nancy). And in Body Snatchers, the most explicit image of evil is the stepmother - the faux-mother, the most insidious impostor imaginable. This concept is too abstract at the moment for me to formalize any further, but it's something I'll certainly be considering as I explore Ferrara's work further (I'm particularly curious as to whether Mary might undo it altogether).
I want to write about the apparently maligned Dangerous Game (nee Snake Eyes), which I admire greatly. But let me cast aside my critical hat for a moment and switch my perspective to that of a filmmaker, and note that the film contains, in bits and pieces, one of the most accurate depictions of the directorial process I've ever seen in a work of fiction: the intensity of a hot set, the crew members swarming in and out, each on their own individual missions and, in particular, the on-set dynamic between Keitel, as the director, and his actors - or, I should say, his actress. The way he darts up to Sarah (Madonna) before a take and gives her gentle, slightly rushed directions, and tells her that she needn't worry about the camera because it will follow her, gave me a distinct sense of deja-vu. Perhaps this is because, as Kent Jones suggets, this isn't necessarily a performance:
"Keitel appears and reassures her, and also encourages her ("You go where you have to go"). It is unclear whether Madonna is waiting for the crew, whether the crew is waiting for Madonna, whether or not this is scripted. An eagle-eyed viewer who gets a glimpse of the clapboard will see, "Snake Eyes, A. Ferrara, K. Kelsch." Did they just use a clapboard for the movie within the movie and forget to put Mother of Mirrors on it, or was Ferrara encouraging the ambiguity, or is this really the beginning of a shot for Snake Eyes?"
I was also fascinated by the disparate performances this Keitel/Ferrara amalgamation draws from Sarah and Frank (James Russo). Frank is, frankly, a terrible actor, or at least is being directed towards a terrible performance. Sarah's, on the other hand, is quite good. In a telling moment, Keitel runs through one of Frank's scenes himself, giving the material far better treatment than his leading man does. He is, it seems, so afraid of the autobiographical nature of the film he's making that he's undermining the performances as a defense mechanism.
Thankfully, Ferrara, in casting Keitel as his alter ego, was a bit more selfless.
Prior to this blog-a-thon, my awareness of Ferrara was limited to long-ago viewings of The Addiction, Body Snatchers and King Of New York. All were vague memories by the time this topic was proposed in January; since then, I've revisited the two of those that are available on DVD, and watched for the first time the other titles referenced in this post, as well as New Rose Hotel. Consider me a convert; I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of his films, to reading more about them and, especially, to any corrections, refutations or extrapolations those more well-versed in his body of work might be able to make to the neophyte thought processes presented above.
And special thanks to Girish for delivering the last-minute Bad Lieutenant cap for this post! Visit his entry for links to all other Blog-A-Thon participants.
March 26, 2006
If you're in Austin tonight, and you don't have anything to do, or you do but your plans can be postponed, you should go to the Alamo Drafthouse and watch the Slow Motion Video Festival. My film, Parlor Trick, plays just before the intermission. It's a single minute jam packed with gorgeous photography, a lush original score and one giant safety pin.
March 25, 2006
I'm making a mad attempt to read the entirety of The Education Of Henry Adams this weekend. Amidst all the political prescience and wry, invaluable social commentary, there's a particular quote I underlined from early in the text, which I'll post here for posterity...
Adams knew only that he would have felt himself on a more equal footing with them had he been less ignorant, and had he not thrown away ten years of early life acquiring what he might have acquired in one.
...and which I wish I didn't find so personally relevant.
Other notable accomplishments of the day:
1. I drank a cup of coffee for the first time in three months and three days. It was interesting. It's still interesting; I'd forgotten what being wired feels like!
2. I worked out more details for next week's GDMF shoot with James. We're still not completely sure what camera we're shooting on; we're weighing the value of HDV over miniDV. The latter is likely to take the cake; true 24p seems more appealng than compressed HD resolution.
3. I bought a plane ticket to Washington, DC for a screening of Deadroom at Sujewa's microcinema in late May (more details on that early next week). After the screeening, I'll take the Chinatown Express to NYC for a few days to mix the sound on The Outlaw Son with Brad (more on that, too, very soon) and hang out with a few friends. From there, instead of returning to Texas, I've booked a flight to my hometown of Milwaukee, which I haven't visited since 1995. I don't know how long I'll stay there, or how exactly I'll get back. My dad hitchhiked from Wisconsin to Texas back in the 70s; maybe I'll follow in his footsteps. Regardless, it should be a good start to what I think will be a very eventful, very transitional summer.
March 24, 2006
When I first saw V For Vendetta in December, I wrote that it was a piece of cinematic dynamite; upon watching it again tonight, I realized that that its fuse is a bit damp.
My reaction this time around was decidedly mixed. "Ideas are bulletproof" says V at one point. Indeed they are, and indeed, I still love the ideas contained in the narrative, and find them in and of themselves inspiring; but their representation here is muddled and conflicted, rather than revolutionary in the pure sense that the filmmakers were striving for.
I'll be writing a longer piece on the film over the course of the weekend. In the meantime, make no mistake: I don't wish for a moment that the film be dismissed. There's much in good in it, and a few hints at greatness; more importantly, its purpose is engagement of a very strong sort, and that's an intent that should always be honored. I'm looking forward to discussing it.
Don't forget to contribute something to AIVF. I'm broke, but still pitching in. I don't believe in karma, but I do put a lot of stock in good will, and that's something I couldn't count on it if I didn't help spread it myself.
Posted by David Lowery at 1:06 AM
March 22, 2006
Last month I wrote about Room To Dream, a free DVD from Avid about David Lynch's digital filmmaking process, including a scene from a project that may or may not be Inland Empire. It arrived while I was at SXSW, and having watched it, I'm hesitant to say it's worth your 30 minutes (even though I know that no amount of naysaying will keep Lynch fans like myself away from it). Half of the disc is an interview with Lynch, interspersed with behind the scenes footage. It's pretty underwhelming, although it is interesting to watch the man on set, especially when he genteely loses his temper at a grip: "Geez, man, finesse it!"
But then there's the scene itself. I wish I could be a Lynch apologist and posit that it's out-of-context, or unfinished, or even boundary-pushing in its form; but the fact of the matter is that the scene is pretty terrible. Yen put it best when he said that it looked like a director who's worked on film for his whole career picking up a DV camera for the first time. It's poorly shot and, even more surprisingly, considering that Mary Sweeney was involved, terribly edited. It comes across as a very unfunny self-parody.
I don't quite understand it; Lynch proved with his brilliant Rabbits web series and his Playstation commercial from a few years back that he could work just fine with the digital medium. I'm hoping this isn't actually a scene from Inland Empire - in fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't, even though it features Inland cast member Kristen Kerr (who is also the lead actress in Ramzi's upcoming Black Dahlia film). Why would a filmmaker who's so secretive release a first glimpse of his new feature on an infommercial? Perhaps he's just messing around with a few stray ideas on DigiDesign's dime. For that matter, I don't know if Avid will gain much crossover through this promotion; it probably won't appeal to anyone other than Lynch fans (who are likely to be disappointed), and it doesn't hold a candle to Walter Much's endorsements for Apple.
If the scene is from Inland Empire, then I really do hope it will be saved by either context or further refinement. Or complete excision.
March 20, 2006
Below, you'll find brief notes on most of the feature films I saw at SXSW, as well as a few of the more notable shorts from the various (and uniformly outstanding) shorts programs.
It's not exactly complete coverage, but at a certain point, writing short reviews for nearly seventy films began to seem like an insurmountable task. Call me lazy, and I'll gladly agree with you if it means I can take a temporary break from typing.
Old Joy (dir. Kelley Reichardt)
Of all the words I might use in writing about this film, the only one that really matters is elegaic. At first I thought it might be too definitive an adjective; but no, its implication of inevitability and acceptance perfectly encapsulates both the meaning of Reichardt's title and her film itself, which transposes the decline of Western Civilization onto the crumbling friendship of two men who are a bit closer to having mid-life crises than they might like to admit. Scarcely over an hour long, full of long shots of the West Pacific landscape and silent tensions of the sort Gus Van Sant has recently spent three films exploring, Old Joy is gorgeous and unexpectedly heartbreaking. Reichardy wisely avoids any overt incident - particularly in one tender scene that could be wildly misconstrued by audiences expecting some cataclysmic revalation in return for their attention. Anything of that sort would have sunk this delicate little construction; it is a film with a heavy heart that is simultaneously lighter than air.
The film has no distribution, but you lucky New Yorkers can catch it on March 27th at the Walter Reade and March 29th at MoMA. Visit the official site for more information.
A Prairie Home Companion (dir. Robert Altman)
I've been listening to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion since before I was old enough to even know what it was, and yet I don't think I've ever heard a complete episode. I don't know whether or not that qualifies me as a fan, but I do appreciate the show and enjoyed seeing it come to life here, in Altman's latest. That it isn't also his greatest is no disappointment; it's too damn enjoyable to discredit for being slight.
The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the radio program, but it's far from a documentary; all four walls of cinematic fiction are securely in place, and bearing most of their load is a realization of Keillor's classic private eye, Guy Noir, brought to suitably deadpan life by Kevin Kline. Noir serves as both a character in the plot and a gateway towards a few more fantastical developments that I think might polarize viewers, myself included; it took me a while to get used to the presence of Virginia Madsen as a guardian angel, but I dearly love how Altman wraps up her subplot, and am leaning towards thinking that the film is the better for its inclusion.
The backstage action of the show is joy to watch through Altman's roving lens, and (expectedly) even better to listen to; the same goes for the musical performances, of course. The pairings of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrellson are pure spun gold; and a very pregnant Maya Rudolph finally gets the big screen attention she deserves. Furthermore, amidst all the crowd pleasing, foot-stomping spectacle, there are a few momentary interludes about growing older and going out on a good note that are especially poignant, considering who they're coming from.
My Country, My Country (dir. Laura Poitras)
The turnout for the Iraq elections in January 2005 was generally regarded as one of the few triumphs of the US occupation, and indeed, there is a sense of caustic victory in the climactic sequence of this documentary: a helicopter shot depicting citizens leaving their houses in droves to head for the polls, in spite of the threat of violence. But Poitras' film isn't a celebration of democracy; rather, she turns her camera towards the citizens affected by its enforcement, using as an avatar a respected physician and family man who is running for office in his district. He involves himself in the elections not because he endorses US policy, but because he truly loves his country and wants what is best for it, and is willing to do what he can under the circumstances. The film is admirable for its refusal to become mired in political debate; Poitras focuses instead on progress, and as a result, her film is a hopeful one - cautiously so, perhaps, but hopeful all the same.
Eve And The Fire Horse (dir. Julia Kwan)
Producer Yves E. Ma was a fellow attendee of the Berlin Talent Campus last year, and it was there that I first saw footage of this film, the directorial debut of a young Canadian named Julia Kwan. The clip I saw was a beautiful melange of autobiographical magical realism, packing themes of religion, Asian tradition and childhood estrangement into a few minutes that could have been a short film all by itself. The feature length version is much the same, except that sense of the bizarre has been diluted slightly by a slightly typical - if still quite charming - narrative about a nine year old Chinese girl growing up in Canada, trying to find a balance between her two cultures.. The film is technically beautiful, and I can't really criticize it on any grounds other than that it was a little too sweet for my tastes; it is so steeped in nostalgic warmth that the magical realism I was looking forward to loses its sense of mystery, and becomes precious instead.
jumping off bridges (dir. Kat Candler)
This is one of a few films this year that it's difficult for me to be objective about; inasmuch as I'm proud of Kat and her crew for making this film (and feel strongly about its subject matter), I can't help but love it. But I understand the value of criticism, so I'll do my best.
jumping off bridges is about a son's struggle to react to his mother's suicide, and to fit that reaction into the mess of emotions already churning within him. What response he does manage is inexplicable; painting his room black, throwing all his furniture out the window, kissing his best friend's girlfriend after breaking up with his own. In my favorite scene of the film, he sits in his car and tries to imitate the position his mother was in when he found her. When his father asks him why he acts this way, he says that he doesn't know, and he means it.
Kat is very much in touch with a particular sort of teenaged sensibility. She knows the difference between sadness and the petulance it is often mistaken for, and she treats her sullen girls and boys with the sort of patience and understanding their parents (and, perhaps, some audience members) can never quite muster.
The film is at its best when it deals with these abstractions of angst. Where it falls short is in trying to achieve emotional absolution on a literal level, particularly in the scene where Zach (Bryan Chafin) and his father (Michael Emmerson) have a tearful confrontation. It's the sort of moment we've seen in everything from Ordinary People to Goodwill Hunting and countless other films, all of which fail to note that issues like these are too big to be wrapped up with tears and hugs (no matter how much those things might help). Luckily, this is merely the prelude to actual climax of Kat's film; the actual denoument gently hints at closure, but does not enforce it.
Gretchen (dir. Steve Collins)
Just as the word 'elegaic' so succinctly encapsulates Old Joy, there's no better description for Gretchen than to call it a cross between Welcome To The Dollhouse and Napoleon Dynamite. That's what I was thinking while I watched the film, and it's what I've read in just about every review of Austinite Steve Collins' feature length debut. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it's part of what keeps me from embracing the film wholeheartedly. A skewed, mannered tale of high school misfits in a world of carefully coordinated colors, Gretchen does have a few original masterstrokes up its sleeves, one of which is the perfect casting of Courtney Davis, John Merriman and other adults in their late 20s and 30s as high schoolers. It's a stunt that works perfectly, both as a satire of the WB-ish tendency to fill teenage rolls with slick twentysomethings and as an accentuation of the characters' discomfort with their own bodies.
TV Junkie (dir. Michael Caine & Matt Radecki)
This found-footage documentary follows the sordid devolution of Rick Kirkham, a television reporter and father of two who has obsessively videotaped his entire life, including the depths of his crack addiction. Culled from three thousand hours of videotape covering about two decadres, the film borrows a page from Tarnation (which director Cain brough to his other baby, the Deep Ellum Film Festival, last year); it's far less stylized than Jonathan Caouette's picture, but also far more objective. Kirkham's endless cycle of crashing, recovering and then burning once again gets a bit redundant, but the very existence of all this footage - and the media addiction that is the root of it - validates the film.
The Cassidy Kids (dir. Jacob Vaughan)
After watching a rough cut of this film last fall, I wrote in an e-mail to Bryan that the film seemed "like something you could describe as, oh, say, William H. Macy's story in Magnolia mixed with equal parts Nancy Drew and Stand By Me, and people will wonder what the hell you're talking about, all the way up until they see it and suddenly find that it makes sense." In a way, that referential description is still accurate of the final cut of The Cassidy Kids, but the film has been refined to a point where such comparisons really don't matter.
I loved Dear Pillow, the debut feature from Bryan (who directed it) and Jake (who produced); for their follow-up, they've switched roles, and created quite a different film, one that is hard to put a finger on. It's a kids' film for grownups - something along the lines of a Boxcar Kids mystery that acknowledges and explores its own repercussions. The film tells the stories of a.) a group of children who uncover a murder mystery in the 80s and become the inspiration for a hit TV show, and b.) the same kids, year later, reuniting to recall the halcyon days of yore and coming to the grim realization that case was never quite solved. It's (intentionally) a hodge-podge of tones - deeply emotional one moment, thrilling the next - and those different moods gradually begin to reflect one another as the parallel narratives reach their apex. The structure is almost too complex for its own good, but that's what makes it engaging - at least until the ending, when the denoument slips by a bit too easily. In retrospect, the solution of the mystery isn't quite worthy of its elaborate staging, but the impressive uniquity of that structure is the film's raison d'être - it's what makes the film memorable, and/or worth looking forward to.
LOL (dir. Joe Swanberg)
As previously noted, this is my pick for best film of the festival. Enough said.
Summercamp! (dir. Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price)
And this was my favorite out of all the documentaries. Beesley (whose Fearless Freaks played here last year) and Price (of American Movie and The Yes Men fame) follow a handful of children at a summer camp in Wisconsin. That's it - no agenda, no deep secrets to unearth, no structure or style to get in the way. Why did I feel like a better person after having seen it? Because after being (willingly) impressed upon by crises of politics and relationships and identity, it was unbelievably refreshing to see all those same issues distilled to their core and handled, without a trace of cynicisim, by kids who still have that marvelous, naive ability to bounce right back.
And also because it made me miss my mom.
51 Birch Street (dir. Doug Block)
I'm always suspicious when filmmakers turn towards that most tempting of subject matters - their own families - but Doug Block's new documentary completely transcends whatever personal therapy it might have also served as and achieves a rare and intimate relevance. The film leaves the realm of home videos when Block's mother suddenly dies (an event represented by the unexpectedly affecting image of an empty doorway) and his 83 year old father even more suddenly remarries a woman who 40 years earlier served as his secretary. Block begins to investigate the history - and validity - of his parents' marriage, and almost immediately finds himself face to face with more answers than he necessarily wants to know, in the form of his mother's diaries. There's a surprising amount of suspense as he debates over whether or not to read them; by that point, the film is as personal to the audience as it is to the filmmaker. 51 Birch Street is a deconstruction of a marriage, but in examining it, Block doesn't discredit the institution; he substantiates it.
After the film, Block welcomed his father and stepmother onto the stage with him for a Q&A. They were met with a standing ovation, which seemed odd at first; they didn't do anything grand or heroic. But, I realized, what they did do was live, and love, and let example be made of themselves; and that's pretty grand in it's own right.
Darkon (dir. Luke Meyer & Andrew Neel)
Winner of this year's prize for Best Documentary, and one of the few sure bets for theatrical distribution, Darkon is named for a fictive realm in which armies of businessmen and stay-at-home-dads battle each other for dominion in full medieval regalia, armed with padded weapons. The filmmakers could easily have poked fun at these literal weekend warriors and their straight-faced dedication to what is essentially a full scale game of Dungeons & Dragons, but that would have been too easy. Instead, directors Meyer and Neel take a more honorable route and treat their subjects with a respect they do in fact deserve.
Cocaine Angel (dir. Michael Tully)
It's a rarity to see an original entry in the drug-addicts-spiralling-downward genre, and as far as plot specifics go, Cocaine Angel contains little we haven't seen before. But while there are a limited number of stories in the world, there are an unlimited numbr of characters to populate them, and what revitalizes this hangdog story is Damien Lahey, who wrote the film and stars as Scott, a coke addict hanging onto the last vestiges of a civilized life. In spite of his increasingly sickening habit (he has to shoot up down there), he possesses a grimy sort of charisma; more importantly, Lahey manages to convey a real sense of decency, and thus we find ourselves attached to this guy. Most impressive about the film is its conclusion, which hits just the right note of optimism; Scott may be doomed, but the world he's living in turns out to have a little bit of beauty in it after all.
Motorcycle (dir. Paul Gordon)
Last year, I passed over the SXSW premiere of Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation; this time around, I vowed not to skip any film shot on b/w 16mm, for fear that I might be missing the next great thing in independent film. I'm kidding, of course (I'm not that reductive in my expectations), but I'm glad I managed to catch Motorcycle; it's a terrific throwback to - well, to the days when film schools still taught students how to shoot on film, for one thing. Indeed, this film is comprised of three interconnected short stories revolving around the titular vehicle, each of which was produced under the guise of a student film while Gordon was enrolled at the University Of Texas. The first segment is a charming bit of whimsy; the second meanders off, but the third - the master thesis, as it were - is just about perfect, both as a short film unto itself and as a third act to a feature. The no-frills black and white photography is reminiscent of Stranger Than Paradise and the way the three stories are linked brings Mystery Train to mind; but while the film owes more than a little to the deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch, it doesn't come across as terribly derivative; rather, its merely antiquated, and for all the right reasons.
Pretty Kitty (dir. Gregory MacDonald)
I often find excessive screaming to be hilarious; consider my affection for PT Anderson's short film Couch, or the majority of Will Ferrell's SNL skits. Thus, Pretty Kitty earned my affection through the monotone exhortations of its star (although an accompanying smattering of unexpected gore didn't hurt). The film is completely pointless and beautifully absurd; and, as the postcards for the film state, it is "guaranteed to be over in less than four minutes." Not a bad deal.
The Last Romantic (dir. Aaron Nee & Adam Nee)
The Brothers Nee play a dangerous game with this film; they cast as a protagonist a young man who is almost completely unsympathetic, and never let on that they're not rooting for him any more than the audience is. The young man (played by Adam Nee) is a would-be poet named Calvin Wizzig who moves to New York with the inflated expectation that he will be able to sell his work (a whole two poems) and become a successful artist over the course of a weekend. As long as we're taking Calvin seriously, he's insufferable, and the film is too. But then, at a certain point, something clicks. It becomes clear that he's meant to be a loser, and the film undergoes a surprising contextual shift. It becomes a critique of a youth (and, perhaps, a youth culture) who has been raised on instant gratification, and who cannot distinguish between intentions and actions. This fluctuating turning point doesn't necessarily excuse a few of the more indulgent aspects of the film (references to Jules et Jim, irresistable though they may be, are only acceptable if they're direct quotes), but in light of the neart-catastrophe of character, those are minor quibbles in a film that thankfully winds up being very good.
The most notable aspect of The Last Romantic (aside from a supporting turn from James Urbaniak) is, inevitably, its photography. It was shot on the DVX-100a 24p camera, which seemed to be the acquisition device of choice at the festival; these particular end results, though, looked entirely unique, thanks to some truly masterful color timing. On a purely technical level, the film sets a visual new benchmark for what can be accomplished visually with miniDV; check out the trailer for some examples.
Brothers Of The Head (dir. Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe)
Fulton and Pepe are the filmmakers behind two amazing documentaries about the filmmaking process, both involving Terry Gilliam: The Hamster Factor and Lost In La Mancha. Brothers Of The Head, their first fictional film, doesn't find them straying too far from their normal forte; it is a fake documentary (far too serious to be considered a mockumentary in the Christopher Guest vein) about two conjoined twins who are plucked from obscurity in the English countryside during the 70s and fashioned into punk rock stars.
The film itself isn't as bizarre as one might expect; much of it is actually a bit dull, as if the fictional documentarians weren't always in the right place at the right time. What makes it exceptional, however, is the level of realism that is achieved. For instance, there's gorgeous tungsten-hued photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, which captures the texture of a 70s film with eerie accuracy; the film literally looks as if it had been plucked from some ancient old archive, and it's hard to accept the fact that it was produced only last year. Blurring the line further is the fascinating inclusion of footage from an incompleted fictional film about the bothers, starring Jonathan Pryce and directed by Ken Russell - augmented with interviews with Russell himself. All of this has been fabricated for the film (which is based on a book by Brian Aldiss, whose Super Toys Last All Summer Long was the source for Kubrick's A.I., and who is also interviewed here), but even still, these deceptive layers do their trick; Fulton and Pepe have crafted a fascinating illusion of a film.
I Am (not) Van Gogh (dir. David Russo)
Russo's short film Pan With Us landed at the number two spot on my top ten list from last year. His latest short is animated in the same exhaustively physical manner, but its tone is more lighthearted. The soundtrack consists of Russo pitching the film to an arts festival, describing the images as they occur and breathlessly attempting to explain their meaning while keeping up with their constant permutations.
I won't attempt to surmise the film's meaning; like Pan With Us, multiple viewings are required before content can be distinguished from Russo's form. No matter how many times I see it, in however many different films, his animation never ceases to amaze me. At the climax, his voice falls into synchronization with an animated mouth, and the effect is positively mindblowing.
Other feature films I saw:
Lettes From The Other Side (dir. Heather Courtney)
The Lost (dir. Chris Silverston)
Fired! (dir. Annabelle Gurwitch)
Punk Like Me (dir. Zach Merck)
Wide Awake (dir. Alan Berliner)
Fuck (dir. Steve Anderson)
Cruel And Unusual (dir. Janet Baus, Dan Hunt & Reid Williams)
2AM (dir. Korey Coleman)
loudQUIETloud: a film about The Pixies (dir. Steven Cantor & Matthew Galkin)
S&Man (dir. J.T. Petty)
Before The Music Dies (dir. Andrew Shapter)
I had intended to take in the final screening of Slam Planet, but by the time I arrived it was sold out. I'll take everyone's word for it that the animation looks good up on the big screen.
And now, after two days off, it's time to catch up on a few films that have been released in my absence. First up is CSA: The Confederate States Of America; I also need to see V For Vendetta, to see if I still agree with my sleeplessly ecstatic assessment of it from last December.
Speaking of sleepless...
March 19, 2006
I managed to finish my philosophy paper on the drive down to Austin last week. On the drive back this afternoon, James and I hammered out the shooting schedule for GDMF, which will be lensing in less than two weeks. Everything in between has become a 90-degree motion blur. I got home an hour ago to discover that Dallas flooded over the weekend. My brother went canoeing out in the street in front of his house.
I saw three films yesterday; only one of them was good, and thus ending grace note of SXSW was musical, rather than cinematic.
Nick and Kara assured me I'd fall in love with Lavender Diamond and lead singer Becky Stark; and indeed, they know me too well. Amy bought me their EP as a birthday present, and I've been listening to it a lot - but after seeing the live show, it's actually pretty underwhelming. Stark is one of those unique old young souls, impervious to recording equipment; there's no way a CD can do justice to the simple clarity of her voice, or her stage presence. Every time she uttered the titular accusation of You Broke My Heart, she'd point a finger at a gentleman in the audience, making gentle, knowing (almost forgiving) eye contact and ensuring undivided devotion as she climbed towards the song's triumphant crescendo.
The Theater Fire made their SXSW debut this year, and their show was, of course, the one performance we had planned on seeing from the beginning. The venue was packed; halfway through the set, I heard strangers beside me whispering to each other about how amazing the performance was. We were all very, very proud. The band's new album, Everybody Has A Dark Side, will be released by the end of the month (look for the album cover pictured above in record stores everywhere); in the meantime, head over to their MySpace page to listen to a few new tunes (sadly unavailable for direct download at the moment). In particular, check out These Tears Could Rust A Train, which was going to be featured in The Outlaw Son until I decided it fit the film a little too well.
As soon as their show ended, we made our way over to a quiet, high-steepled Presbyterian Church where Anti Records were going to present a midnight hootenanny. The lineup would include Jolie Holland, Marty Stuart, Billy Bragg, Tim Fite and others, but word on the street was that Tom Waits would give a surprise performance. We arrived early, finding perfect places in the front pew. The microphones were all lined up on the altar, with an extra one placed high up in the pulpit, adorned with a purple sacramental banner (a cue for me to start fantasizing about fellow Anti-artist Nick Cave making an appearance as well).
That microphone went unused, and Mr. Waits never did step out onto the stage, but the show was so staggering that he was hardly missed. Tim Fite impressed the hell out of me: Billy Bragg sang a cover of Tupelo Honey that left Van Morrison in the dust; and the star of the evening was 75-year old Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who, after performing a handful of his own songs, was joined by the rest of the lineup in a rousing sing-along cover of Leadbelly's The Bourgeois Blues - slightly altered and updated to The Bush War Blues. Between the blue politics, devout Gospel tunes and classic folk music, I don't think I've ever spent a better three hours in a church. It was an appropriately religious experience.
I saw twenty eight feature films and forty shorts over the past nine days. In spite of whatever bias I might have (having seen the rough cut, appearing in the credits, etc), I think I can honestly say that the best picture at the festival was LOL. After the screenings, Joe and his cast/crew passed out copies of Kevin Bewersdorf's MIDI-composed soundtrack - which is also available for free on the film's website. Releasing the soundtrack is a triumph of copyright-free art, but it's also a pretty smart marketing move; I doubt there was a single audience member who, after watching the film, didn't want to go home and listen to those songs - especially the infectious My Heart Still Beats.
Capsule reviews coming tomorrow.
March 17, 2006
Another Rough Draft Of A Post I'm Too Tired To Finish
We didn't make it into the not-so-secret screening of an unfinished cut of A Scanner Darkly yesterday; the line wrapped around the block, and while we were pretty close to the front of it, our position was trumped by the 400 or so VIP guests who were admitted first. Oh well. It'll come out eventually and probably won't be as good as the book. In its stead, we caught Heather Courtney's wonderful documentary Letters From The Other Side. The film is about the wives who are left behind in Mexico when their husbands cross the border; it was a new perspective on a familiar problem, and it would make an excellent companion piece to Tommy Davis' Mojados: Through The Night, which played here last year.
As usual, there have been an overwhelming number of great documentaries. Out of all the polticial turmoil and transgendered tragedy and wayward medievalism, though, my favorite nonfiction film was the one I saw this morning: Summercamp, directed by Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price. It may lack the so-called 'importance' of most docs, but it's as relevant and moving as anything else I've seen.
Another (fake) birthday has rolled around; I'm never officially my legal age until March 17th.
March 14, 2006
We're at the halfway point now; all the films have played at least once, and the awards are being announced as I write this (I'm rooting for a film that made it onto my top ten list last year). We'll be heading out to the closing night party in a a few minutes, and then getting up bright and early to continue on for another five days. Old Joy is no longer the best film I've seen - but ranks seem arbitrary at this point, when there are so many pictures of such wildly divergent qualities. I've only caught one bad apple thus far, and it was so innocuous that I can't muster much ill will about it (oh wait - now that I'm thinking about it, maybe I can).
Cut to several hours later. None of the films I was rooting won any awards (although Slam Planet, the documentary I did titles and animation for, and which I haven't managed to catch a screening of yet, was the runner-up in its category).
The closing night party was huge; what was last year crammed into a single bar now pushed the confines of an entire downtown warehouse, inside and out. We managed to find all our friends in the crowd, some of whom wondered if the days of SXSW being an underground-friendly film festival might be coming to an end. I don't think the programming this year necessarily supports that case, but there's no denying that the festival is expanding at an exponential rate; at one of his introductions, Matt Dentler noted that attendance was up by over 50 percent, a number corroborated by the crowds for just about every screening we've been to.
Case in point: Kat had to turn away a few hundred people from the premier of jumping off bridges this weekend. We were among them (luckily, it's playing again on Thursday, and in a bigger theater).
I promise that at some point soon, I'll start writing about the films themselves. Until then, I've got four hours of sleep to grab and a particularly exciting lineup to look forward to tomorrow.
Posted by David Lowery at 8:59 PM
March 12, 2006
We drove straight from Dallas to the Alamo Drafthouse, making it into the theater just as the lights were dimming for the screening of Kelley Reichardt's Old Joy, which, five films later, remains the high point of the first two days of SXSW. Reichardt's film goes in one ear and out the other, but it leaves in one's brain a self-sustaining memory that seems to expand with time. I hesitate to compare it to Gerry - the parallels are both too obvious and not exactly accurate - but as a sensitive examination of the male mythos, it certainly could be categorized alongside Van Sant's film.
Whereas a mere three years ago Gerry could play at Sundance and snag a distributor, Old Joy, despite the acclaim it received there and at Rotterdam, has thus far been left high and dry. It joins the ranks of Mutual Appreciation and all the other amazing films that just "don't quite fit" with most distributors. Later in the evening, Yen and I were talking about how the gap between a film's quality and its chances of distribution is growing ever wider - and how perhaps that's not such a bad thing. For a certain type of film, like this one, it could actually be a badge of honor.
Ah, If only idealism and finances weren't at such odds with each other!
Posted by David Lowery at 2:28 AM
March 10, 2006
I just realized it's been three weeks since I've been to the theater to see a movie. What's wrong with me?
I'm justifying this with the fact that for the next ten days, I'll be seeing between two and five films a day at SXSW. We should be hitting the road in four or five hours, with the first screening (Old Joy) at 6:30 this evening. I've got my iPod loaded up with the schedule (that clickguide is going to be a life saver) and a rough idea of what films I want to see. I'm completely open to improvisation, though, so if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know; the only things that I have set in stone are all of my friends' premieres (two of those friends are featured in the cover story of this week's Austin Chronicle, which is almost as good as the cover itself).
My intake of cinema this year won't be mitigated by the need to promote a film of my own, to schmooze, to make connections. It'll be nice to experience the festival as a filmgoer, rather than a filmmaker.
And when I say that, I am completely and 100% lying.
But it should still be a blast.
March 8, 2006
"Sometimes we shot in places that were specific to Kurt - places he lived or worked - and sometimes we shot in places that didn't exist until a year or so ago. We didn't want to create something that was completely stuck in the early 90s, not just a nostalgia piece...At various places in our film, we're mirroring events or moments in Kurt's life by finding real people who are doing the same thing in 2005. For me, the audio and the video are in some ways very separate ideas, conveying different thoughts and emotions, but hopefully together they will make something great."
I'm really quite excited about this documentary, especially because its focus is on Cobain himself, rather than his band. It looks to be a more of a personal portrait than anything else, and that's something I've always wanted to see. Cobain, both the icon and the man, remains an enduring point of fascination for me (I wrote about this a bit in my review of Last Days). He's symbolic of many things I've dealt with in my own work, and thus I feel some vague connection to him, some desire to deconstruct that symbolism (which, incidentally, I did my part to perpetuate in my first attempt at a feature film).
It was because my interest in this personal, non-mythic element that I loved Van Sant's film, as imperfect as it was, and that I'm looking forward to AJ's documentary. I've always entertained the idea of dealing with the same subject again myself, in some indirect way, but until I have a project worthy of the topic, I'll be happy to see it handled by these filmmakers.
Speaking of my first film: it always surfaces in my mind around this time of year, since it was around this time that we shot it, and that it had its one public screening. I don't remember exactly what it's like anymore. I feel like watching it again, but I'm pretty sure I'm better off living with the memory, rather than the real thing.
Hmmm. I was hoping to have this paper I'm working on (linking Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex all the way back to Plato's Republic) at least halfway done by now, and instead I'm two sentences in. What other quality distractions might I come upon tonight? I've a feeling the whole student-by-day, filmmaker-by-day-and-night thing is going to reach a sustained boiling point in about three weeks. I'll enjoy this procrastination while I still can.
March 6, 2006
A huge congratulations to Cammi Heath; her costar from 48 Ribs was born this evening. I don't have all that information like birth weight or height, but I do know that Cammi and Steffin picked the perfect name for him. In honor of two of everyone's favorite musicians, he'll be going by the name of Curtis Elliot.
The film's title directly to your left, under the 'Current Projects' category, will soon become an active link; I'll be making both versions available online later this month. I still think it's my best narrative work (at least until I've finished editing The Outlaw Son), and I'm looking forward to finally sharing it with people.
March 5, 2006
A Robert Altman Weekend, pt. 3
Even the truly unfortunate Best Picture upset couldn't diminish the afterglow of Robert Altman's Oscar speech this evening; he validated the entire ceremony, and then some.
I sincerely hope he - and we - get those those additional four decades he's counting on.
My viewing schedule this weeekend has come to an unexpected end, thanks to Netflix delays. Buffalo Bill And The Indians will be arriving on Tuesday, preceeded by Popeye, and then followed at some point by Dr. T And The Women. I may have time to watch and write about them over the course of the week, but I have my doubts. I've got midterms, a script to rewrite and some editing to do; and then on Thursday it's time to head down to Austin for SXSW...where, of course, the first film I'll see is the North American Premiere of A Prairie Home Companion. I doubt Altman will be there, but if he is, I'll...well, I don't know what I'll do. Take a picture?
One way or another, I'll definitely be writing about that.
A word on Popeye, the one film I'd selected for the weekend that I'd already seen. It was, in fact, the first Altman film I ever saw. I was five, maybe six, and I watched it one day in my kindergarten class room, on one of those rare afternoons when we got to watch a movie instead of learning to read or whatever it was we did (I remember all the recesses, but none of the classes, and I already knew how to read by then anyway - but I digress).
I don't know that I knew quite what to make of it (I remember being confused by the live action Popeye's aversion to spinach, which wasn't the case in the cartoons) but I'm pretty sure I loved it; and even if I didn't, it certainly made an impression on me, specifically the climax with the octopus and the final musical number with the singing skeleton. Ten years or so down the line found me going over to my friend Ben's house after school and watching it again. It was one of those infrequent experiences, frequently provoked by films, where time bends and you find yourself occupying two spots in your life at the same moment. Every frame was just as I remembered; and this time, I knew I loved it.
March 4, 2006
A Robert Altman Weekend, pt. 2
When I was in high school, I'd only seen two or three of Altman's pictures; of those, my favorite was Short Cuts, primarily because it had introduced me to the work Raymond Carver. Hearsay indicated to me that he was an important filmmaker, but it would be another few years before I realized why (when I finally caught up with Nashville at home).
I have, though, a very strong impression of Robert Altman himself, formed during that period and thanks to these ads for the Sundance Channel at the time (or perhaps it was IFC) that ran before the features at Landmark Theaters. They consisted of various directors relating amusing anecdotes; among others, there was Altman, talking about some fan who'd come up to him and asked him about some extenuating parallel between the color of the money in one of his films and the shade of grass in other. It was a ridiculous comparison, and Altman laughed as he recalled it, but he didn't dismiss it; instead, he introduced to me what is now a permanent piece of my vocabulary when he explained that, "in fact, everything is legitimately readable-into-ish."
3. California Split (1974)
Here's a picture that immediately qualifies as 'vintage' Altman. It's a loose, rambling tale of two gamblers casually looking for the next a big score; it stars Elliot Gould; it actually marked Altman's first use of 8-track dialogue recording to capture those overlapping conversations; and, like all of Altman's masterpieces, it arrives at its thematic conclusions by defiantly refusing to make any. When, at the climax of the film, Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Gould) take their winnings and good luck and compulsively feed them back into the crap tables, we expect them to lose everything; that's just what happens in stories like these, when the characters become victims of their own addictions. But no, the luck keeps running, and the stack of cash keeps growing, and when they finally throw in the towel, they're significantly richer. There's no need for a dramatic reversal of fortune here, because Altman's spent the whole film demonstrating that they're already losers.
The roving cameras, the ensemble casts, the multiple tracks of dialogue and the seemingly haphazard narratives are all factors in Altman's specific form of découpage. In fact, he generally ignores narrative altogether, assembling his films out of overlapping interactions, building them up layer by random layer until a deep understanding of context and character is created. In the case of California Split, this sense of character is a substitute for plot; in other films, such as The Long Goodbye, it both substantiates and takes precedence to the plot (and in the case of O.C. And Stiggs, it underscores the inanity of the film itself and Altman's contempt for its genre).
I mentioned that one of the 'classic Altman' earmarks is the presence of Elliot Gould; indeed, I equate his loveably irrascible presence so strongly with Altman's early work - almost as much as Shelly Duvall - that I was somewhat shocked to realize they only made four pictures together (and in the last, Nashville, Gould merely cameoed as himself). I suppose, at this point, it's a bit of a pipe dream to hope that they might collaborate one more time; it would certainly be the bee's knees if they did.
They did collaborate, in a manner of speaking, on the California Split DVD. "I'm having such a good time watching this," says Gould on the commentary track, which I'm having a good time listening to as I write. The track also features Altman, Segal and screenwriter Joe Walsh, and much of it consists of the four men just watching the film, pointing out all their friends, reminiscing. Altman lets the other men do the talking, which is a rarity for him; unlike other directors of his generation, he's recorded commentary tracks for the majority of his films, and he generally has quite a bit to say about them.
I could go on and on about how wonderful these recordings are, how invaluable Altman's perspective is, how well he explains exactly why the films work, how sincerely and moderately he seems to appreciate and even love every picture he's made, every person who's helped him do it; but instead, I'll just sum them all up with a quote from the Three Women commentary, in which he says that "Sissy Spacek is the greatest thing since...since hash."
Vincent & Theo (1990)
This film preceeded The Players and thus marked the advent of Altman's so-called-return (fans know, of course, that he never actually went away). It's a fairly strong, stridently somber work, admirable for almost entirely escaping the shoehorn of the biopic. This isn't a life study but a psychological portrait, much in the same way that Bennet Miller's Capote is.
On Friday, Peter Nellhaus wrote a fine critique of the picture, but I think he missed a vital point when he wrote that
"an assumption is made that the film viewer is familiar with at least the outlines of van Gogh's life, and that the viewer understands already what makes van Gogh significant as an artist...Vincent and Theo reinforces the idea that the film was made simply because the artist was famous, leaving why he is famous unanswered."
It's true that a familiarity with van Gogh is helpful, but it's certainly not necessary; the film doesn't explain his fame because that's not what it's about. Indeed, his specific paintings are scarcely remarked upon (the rather extraordinary scene in the sunflower field, which manages to visually depict the mental process of impressionism, notwithstanding). For Altman's purposes, it's enough that he is, simply, a painter.
And, I suppose, that he's a talented and unsuccessful one, because those traits are important in defining van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo; as the title infers, this is the true subject of the film. The world of difference established between them in the first scene is, through that fragmented découpage, torn down over the course of the picture. The last fifteen minutes, which find Theo succumbing to the same fate as his brother with shocking rapidity, are unexpectedly devastating.
Peter points out that, in dealing with van Gogh's financial failings, Altman may have been accentuating his own struggles over the past fifteen years. I too noticed these similarities, especially when van Gogh tells a naysayer that "I do work. I'm a painter." One of the things I love about Altman's aforementioned director's commentaries is he understands that filmmaking is work (albeit with the possibility for transcendent results). He would never attempt to dispell the magic of cinema, but he has no room for that magic when discussing the logic and methodology of the craft itself.
March 3, 2006
A Robert Altman Weekend, pt. 1
Earlier today, I was thinking about how I might begin my entry to the Robert Altman Blog-A-Thon. I was in the process of deciding to avoid any specific parallels to my life and my development as a filmmaker and just focus on the work when suddenly I realized: one of my earliest precognitive memories is - not just of film, but of anything - is vaguely Altman-related. This memory consists of a single face: that of Radar O'Reilly, played by Gary Burghoff, the one cast member from Altman's M*A*S*H who carried over to the television show. My parents were addicted to that show. It was in its final seasons when I was born, and (so they tell me) had long since ceased being any good; but they watched it to the end, and I was awake for enough of it to have that image of a bespectacled, befuddled face, framed in closeup, forever burned into the retinas of my infant eyes.
I'll now skip ahead a number of years, past many other peripheral anecdotes, all the way up to the other day, when I realized that I had misread the release date for the DVD of the film I was planning on writing about (Quintet), and that it wouldn't be available for another two months (in a box set with three other previously unavailable films that I've been dying to see, including A Wedding).
So instead, and in keeping with the idea that this blog-a-thon is more a celebration than a specific collected critical focus, I decided that I'd just watch as many of Altman's films over the course of the weekend as as I possibly could, and write about them all. Thus, this will be the first of several entries dedicated not just to individual works but to Altman himself - the greatest American filmmaker alive and working today.
It's going to be a good weekend.
1. O.C. And Stiggs (1987)
I figured I'd kick things off with one of Altman's more maligned films. O.C. And Stiggs was based on a landmark story from an issue of National Lampoon (which can be read in its entirety here). Here's what he has to say about it, in an interview included on the DVD:
"I said, 'This isn't my kind of film, I don't know how to do this kind of film.' That was a time when these teenage films were kind of in mode, and I hated them. I just hated them. And I thought, you know, here's a chance to do satire on something that I feel strongly about. So I said yeah, I'll do this. And I went after it in that manner. Well, of course that isn't what the studio wanted, or what anyone wanted."
As a satire, O.C. And Stiggs is far from sharp; this is the work of a hired gun trying to make do. It's an awkward mix. The script seems structured around big adolescent gags that never quite arrive, and instead, Altman can frequently be found plying his own brand of contextual comedy: the punchlines that are buried within his trademark overlapping conversations, often dropped casually at random points throughout a given scene. There are some good laughs, and there's a terrific running gag involving Jane Curtin's alcoholic tendencies, although by the time the conclusion rolls around (and at 110 minutes, its a bit prolapsed), both the joke and the film itself are getting old.
The film's stylistic pedigree is immediately recognizable, but so too is the fact that Altman is working against the grain as far as content goes, looking with that zoom lens of his for something, anything, with which to qualify this comedy about the misadventures of two high school charlatans. During the action-packed climax, the camera keeps getting distracted by a political pontificate on a television; here's something interesting, he seems to be saying - while also perhaps predicating his next film, Tanner '88 (and reading this appraisal of the film by David Sanjek, I now realize it's also a nod back to Nashville).
2. Images (1972)
Back to the beginning, now, to Altman's fourth feature film. It's easy to mention Images, along with the superior Three Women that would follow five years later, in conjunction with David Lynch. A more accurate point of comparison, however, would be to Bergman's Persona; it's an easy correlation to draw, since Altman openly admits to influence on both of his pictures. They're all deep nightmares of identity, but while I think Three Women is on the same level as Persona (in the same way that Woody Allen's equally Bergman-esque Interiors is every bit the equal of the work that inspired it), Images is a little bit less striking, and seems surprisingly mimetic; this is the rare Altman picture that isn't immediately recognizable as his.
It's very well made, of course; it's also very deliberate, very reserved, very careful. Carefully orchestrated to elicit the appropriate responses, carefully structured to support a specific conclusion.
Altman knew what he was doing every step of the way with this film, and I think that's actually part of the problem. The symbolism is all quite literal; the cameras, the mirror images, the apparitions - it's very clear that we're exploring a schizophrenic psyche. Resultingly, Cathryn (Susannah York) is defined from the beginning by this affliction and becomes a type, rather than a character.
On the other hand, there's Vilmos Szigmond's typically gorgeous photography (especially in the monochromatic interiors) and an early score from John Williams, augmented by what the opening credits refer to as 'Sounds' by Stomu Yamash'ta. There's the terrific scene where Cathryn invites a little girl in for tea and we're left in a dreadful state of suspense over whether what we've already seen on the living room floor will still be there. In fact, there's a delectable level of tension spread taught across the entire film, originating from an early scene where Cathryn embraces her husband and suddenly realizes, with a scream, that she's kissing a stranger.
It's a terrifying moment, and it puts us on edge even as it sets the film on its one track course. This moment, it turns out, was the seed for the entire film; the idea occurred to Altman, and he eventually took it to York, who turned it into a screenplay. This is similar to the conception of Three Women, which was inspired by a dream Altman had one night - except in that case, he would write the script himself.
Transcribed from an interview on the Images DVD, here's Robert Altman on directing actors:
"If an actor comes up to me during or before a film and says, 'listen, tell me how exactly you want me to play this scene,' I will do anything not to answer that question. Normally what I'll do is I'll look and say, 'oh, are you gonna wear those shoes? Listen, get the wardrobe girl down here. I think you should have brown shoes,' and that sort of thing. Anything to distract from that question."
Posted by David Lowery at 8:41 PM
March 2, 2006
I had written in this space one of those rare long posts where I actually discuss in some detail a project I'm working on - a screenplay in this case; two of them, in fact. But my secretive side has won out, as it always does, and thus it's been deleted. I'll write about this project when it's actually done, at which point it will seem to appear out of thin air, without any of the the blood, sweat and tears a more disclosive writer might have chronicled.
I just learned that my thirteen year old brother Thomas (who many years ago starred in my early short film Ghostboy) has completed his first novel. Which is terrific, of course - but it's 160 pages long, single-spaced, whereas the novel I wrote when I was thirteen was 130 pages, double spaced! And a glance at his first page indicates a superiority not just in quantity but in content. I've been bested! Such, I suppose, is the nature of being the oldest of nine children.
I'll pause here to note that, prior to a certain age, the difference between a novel and a novella is vague at best, and word counts are not nearly as important as the number of pages, especially when those pages are printed out and stacked on the desk in front of some mightily impressed relative.
March 1, 2006
My philosophy professor passed on to me The Man On The Train, Walker Percy's essay on alienation; I had enquired about it after reading thje following short synopsis in Lewis A. Lawson's The Cinema As Cave:
Since the present is the locus of alienation, then one anticipates a radically better future or attempts to identify that point in the past at which one became alienated (Lewis 85).
That sounded so similar to the thematic content of Patrice Leconte's wonderful film of almost the same name, L'homme du train (2002), that I wondered if Percy's essay might have been the basis for a sort of idealogical adaptation. Reading the essay itself didn't really dispel this, but it also suggested the possibility that these similarities may be a coincidence rooted in a developing iconography. Which is a fancy way of saying: the very idea of the Man On A Train is a cliche. It is an archetype not of character but of context, and one that both filmmaker and author might turn to as a means of succinct and immediate expression of a certain concept.
Thus, a man on a train is conceptual shorthand for existential alienation vis a vis transience; the sight of a woman standing alone on a train platform will telegraph stoic heartbreak; put a man and a woman together in a train car, and - well, you get Hitchcock.
Matt Zoller Seitz's feature film Home opens in NYC this week at the Pioneer Theater. I can, rather shamefully, only vouch for the first two thirds of it; it was the one film I didn't finish watching at the Dallas Video Festival last summer. Physical health be damned, I wish I'd stayed; that first hour has stuck with me since then, and I'm envious of all you New Yorkers who have the chance to see it - in its entirety - this week.
Posted by David Lowery at 1:29 AM