October 31, 2006
Had I thought ahead, I'd have had my Guillermo Del Toro post ready today; listening to his director's commentary on Cronos the other night cemented my respect for him even more. I'd also have managed to return a bunch of Netflix movies; due to my negligence, my scary movie viewing will continue into November. Which, in fact, isn't a bad thing at all.
I feel like I should be more scared or something! Actually, I don't. I watched Hellraiser last night, which was as elegant as it was disgusting, and Takashi Miike's Imprint a few nights earlier, which was equally rife with artistically staged gore, but the film that's put me most in the spirit has been Corpse Bride, which I watched with my two younger sisters the other afternoon. I hadn't seen it since it opened last year, and had forgotten how simply wonderful it is. I think watching Tim Burton movies is one of my favorite family activities. Epecially in a house decorated with cobwebs and skeletons and such, which I find pernnially comforting.
The witching hour has passed, and I'm about to grab a nap before the sun rises. I'll leave with what I'm about to fall asleep to: Sally's Song, as covered by Fiona Apple. Happy Halloween!
P.S. My youngest sister Anna ended up going trick-or-treating as the Corpse Bride. I unfortunately wasn't around to see her costume, having snuck aboard an afternoon plane to Austin, but I'm eagerly awaiting photographs. I'm going to take them all to see Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D this weekend.
October 29, 2006
Last Wendesday night saw a handful of crestfallen fans heading home from the Dallas stop of Lavender Diamond's fall tour. Becky Stark & Co. were opening for The Decemberists, but we were only there to see them - which made it all the more heartbreaking when the venue's sound system and the gaggle of chattery Dallas hipsters were so unaccomodating to the band's subtle, ethereal qualities that it was almost impossible to hear their performance. Alas! Their record comes out next year, though, and I'm sure I'll have a chance to see them in a more appropriate venue in their hometown Los Angeles before then.
Continuing this stroke of bad Dallas-related musical luck is the fact that Regina Spektor is coming to town on November 9th, which is the very day I'll be catching a flight to the windy city. The salt in that wound is that none other than the endlessly enchanting Joanna Newsom is playing a show in Chicago on the 8th. I have no luck!
Or so I thought, until this afternoon when Curtis and Valerie called to let us know that Ms. Newsom would be playing a show in Oklahoma on December 11th. Within a minute, I had my tickets. By then, her new album will be out (November 14th is the date), and I'm sure I won't have listened to anything else for a matter of weeks. Except, maybe, for the new Tom Waits record.
Speaking of wanting to be too many places at the same time - David Lynch's Inland Empire is playing at the AFI Fest next week. Ever since it debuted at the NYFF, it's been gathering a lot of quietly stellar notices, which certainly pleases me (although not so much as the news that his self-distribution effort will begin before the year is out). This review by Moriarty at AICN is the best one I've read yet.
October 27, 2006
Yen and I began editing Ciao in earnest this week. On Monday we knocked out the first four pages of the script, which yielded nearly ten minutes of screen time - all without a single line of dialogue. I love it. Now we're closing in on the thirty minute mark, and verbiage and cross-cutting are starting to seep into the proceedings. The goal is to have the first cut done by the time Yen leaves for Hong Kong in a few weeks.
In anticipation of getting started on it, I tried to clear up a few of my own loose ends last week- but, as per usual, only ended up fraying those threads even further. I was finishing the sound work on this little short I made earlier this summer called Upheave when I realized that I didn't like the ending; what's more, I realized that this ending needed to be replaced by a second short film that would work in tandem with the first, and which materialized in my head almost completely fully formed. I usually say that Upheave is about dirt; this second part will be about boxes of matches. I might have time to give that a go next week. It would be pretty simple. So I say now.
Complicating my schedule these days is the fact that it's fall and countless good films are cominig out, and I simply have to see all of them! I haven't caught The Prestige, Deliver Us From Evil or Little Children yet, but I have seen Fur, Fast Food Nation and The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing. The latter was so good that it made me want to go righ out buy a Dixie Chicks CD. And Fur was so strange that it demands to be written about at greater length, so I've added that to my to-do list, along with my career-spanning look at the work of my favorite horror filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro (I should go ahead and mention that there's a scene in Pan's Labyrinth that scared me more than anything I've seen in years).
Over a two or three week period last summer, I inadvertently wound up watching, through various cuts, the editorial refinment of Evan Mather's Scenic Highway, as he honed it into the recently-award-winning short film that is now. And what it is now is suddenly available online. It's a big, sprawling, messy, educational, funny and deeply personal seventen minutes that, while not as concise as some of Mather's other work, might just be his masterpiece; I could explain why, but I'm lazy and I think I'll just wait for the thesis Matt Clayfield has in the works instead.
It's Halloween weekend! Once we're done with our editing session this evening, I'll be heading out to a big party tonight, after then go back home and force feed my DVD player yet more horror films. And Kiss Me Deadly, which isn't exactly horror, but who's keeping track?
October 23, 2006
A Conversation With Don Hertzfeldt
Don Hertzfeldt is one of my favorite short filmmakers. All of his films are of the hand-drawn variety, but referring to them as cartoons is a vast understatement; as he's noted, he's a filmmaker who happens to work in animation. Certainly, his films have an implicit understanding of cinematic language (the Oscar-nominated Rejected, his most well-known work, could be as easily read as an experiment in exploiting traditional comedic form as it is a satire of a crumbling commercial culture). He's one of the few filmmakers working in this medium who has carved out a singular, self-sustaining niche for himself, and who hasn't caved to the pressure of mass media (even Bill Plympton does commercials from time to time).
Don just finished up a new film, entitled Everything Will Be Okay, and is about to start work on its sequel. More presciently exciting, however, is the release of Bitter Films, Volume 1, the first official collection of his work. It's a beautiful DVD, containing every short film he's made, from L'Amour up to last year's The Meaning Of Life, all remastered in high definition from the original negatives. Even better than that are the Bitter Films Archives, an exhaustively cross-indexed catalog of notes, camera tests, discarded shorts, deleted scenes, skeletons of explorers who got lost in its depth and other odds and ends (it's so complex that the Bitter Film site has a FAQ on how best to approach it). There's also a documentary on the animation process, called Watching Grass Grow, which may cause your fingertips to spontaneously bleed.
The DVD is currently available exclusively from the Bitter Films website. As it's release date loomed late last month, I talked with Don about the DVD, his new film, new media versus traditional cinema, digital versus analog, and other thrilling topics. This interview was done for AICN, but I'm cross posting it here because, frankly, it's too good not to share.
I've been going through the DVD all morning, and it's a work of art in and of itself. How long has it been in the works? thanks, yours was some of the first feedback i'd heard about the disc. i'm happy to have confirmation the thing actually works and didn't make you go blind or something. the dvd has been in production for maybe a year and half while i worked on the new movie, though it's been in the back of my head for many years.
You're self-distributing this collection, correct? Did you have offers from other distributors to put your work out? If so, why did you choose not to go with them?
i guess when you own all ten year's worth of content and then create the dvd independently it's not much of a further leap to distribute it in-house too. online, the big retail corporations demand 40-55% of your sales and act like they're doing you a favor - so no thanks, i'm happy with our little bitter films shop. it's near impossible for an independent to survive out there without being somewhat self-sufficient like this. i've always preferred to do things my own way anyway... just like mike and i weren't happy with the state of affairs with animation festivals so we just went and created the animation show.
but i would like to see the dvd make its way onto store shelves someday. and now that it's finished i'll probably start listening to distributors in that dept. they will probably want to put 45 minutes of trailers and fbi warnings at the beginning of it though.
It's almost insanely, beautifully exhaustive. The archives are especially impressive - do you just hang on to everything from the films? Do you have all the original drawings packed away in file cabinets?
thanks, exhaustive was the goal. yeah i've hung on to all my production artwork and notes over the years, all stacked in grocery bags in giant crumpled cardboard boxes. for the dvd i went through almost every box i could find and fished out any artifact that looked interesting. i found a big bag of discarded "genre" sketches and notes from 1996 that was labeled "recycle" which i apparently never had the heart to do... it still had eraser dust stuck to its pages... vintage, near-mint eraser dust in its original packaging! mostly it's just amazing how much stuff over the years i'd forgotten... found tons of lost doodles and abandoned ideas, several old pencil tests, a dead cat, bags of deleted scene trims, even sketches from 1993 high school cartoons. all of this and more ended up amassing into those 140 pages of archives and other special features. except for the dead cat which will be on e-bay. in hindsight some of it is a little old and embarrassing to put on display but i just wanted to throw it all out there and let the viewer sort it out, as if they were going through the boxes themselves. portions of it, like many of my camera and direction notes, personally bore me to tears but maybe some of it will be interesting to animation students or the obsessed male virgins who want to rape and murder me twenty years from now. people have been asking for the dvd since 2001 so it's really been building up and the last thing i wanted to do was give them something even remotely half-assed.
Many of your shorts - particularly Billy's Balloon and Rejected - have had a sort of viral success online. I know that's how I first learned about them - my brother e-mailed them to me. Just the other day, I asked a friend if they'd ever seen 'Rejected,' and she said no - but as soon as I showed it to her on the DVD, she knew exactly what it was. How do you feel about this? In a way, you work gets more exposure - but the question of attribution gets tricky.
it's an interesting thing since we've never put the films online ourselves in any form. someone could probably write a good term paper about it all. as much as the crummy quality of the bootlegs will always bother me, we couldn't possibly take them all offline if we tried - - and there comes a point when you really just can't complain that millions of people are out there enjoying your work. after all, that's why you made the movies in the first place, right? i'm not interested in harrassing fans or giving people a hard time just for watching a video online. ideally if every bootleg was an unmolested perfect copy that came with a link to our website and this dvd, i'd be happy. it's when the cartoons are randomly re-edited by preteens with the credits cut out and a description tag reading, "dis shit funny"... well, yeah that's probably gonna go. but there's always going to be people saying how much they enjoyed "the flash animation" of "doug herztflop" and well, what can you do. i guess at least they enjoyed it.
at the end of the day as the artist it's your responsibility to provide the audience with better alternatives to the bootlegs and the terribly low quality file-sharing stuff - so therefore this big dvd and theatrically, the animation show where people can see these kinds of movies as originally intended. people have had thousands of chances to see "rejected" on the big screen since 2000 so its neverending popularity as an internet virus (heh) is just one more chapter in its weird undead monkey life
I was pretty impressed by how visually rich the early shorts actually were - by how much texture there is to the image beyond the figures themselves. Can you talk about the restoration process? Was there a lot of work to be done, or was it simply a matter of doing a new transfer of the original negatives?
thanks, yeah everything was shot on 16mm or 35mm over the years so i think all the people who've only seen these cartoons online or on their cell phones (shudder) will be surprised at how beautiful the film images actually are. with the exception of the "rejected" dvd single we did years ago, i've never been happy with how any of the titles looked on TV until now. shorts like "lily and jim" were previously available on out-of-print warner dvds or fly-by-night spike and mike dvds but had always been dubbed from very ugly one-light VHS sources - just like watching a video tape, so i never understood the point of why they were making dvds.
for bitter films v1 all the titles were transferred from their original camera negatives to high definition masters - with the exception of "lily and jim", which was transferred from a first generation IP (sadly, that original camera negative was destroyed years ago by a film vault). the restoration work from there was an enormous, enormous project. it's easy to forget that many of these cartoons were no-budget, 16mm student films. so you're restoring a smaller film format where damage and hairballs show up twice as large, and there's nowhere for them to hide since the movies almost universally have plain white backgrounds. it's also a grainier format which wreaks havoc with dvd compression, especially coupled with the natural paper grain found in the artwork. plus you're dealing with inexperienced, unbalanced student lighting and bad neg cutting. and finally, after ten years of film festivals, the elements show signs of regular wear-and-tear abuse. so we had our work cut out for us... much of the restoration was akin to that done on battered old silent films. we all know how problematic DVNR restoration can be on a cartoon, so the digital restoration was largely done "by hand", one frame at a time... extremely expensive, tedious stuff. i supervised a few portions of the slow cleaning process and there remain clawmarks on the doorframe from when i'd desperately try to scratch my way out of the room and had to be restrained. but compare something like "billy's balloon" coming from this final high def source to even the version that previously appeared on the animation show DVD and it's night and day - the improvements are almost embarrassing. for a number of the titles it's also the first time ever the soundtracks are coming from restored digital sources. a short like "genre" was originally mixed on 16mm magnetic tracks and this was actually the first time in ten years it's sounded this clear.
i've never heard of indie animation getting this kind of intensive high def restoration before and i'm pretty happy overall with how it all went, i think we got closer to the experience of watching the movies on film. to that end and to stay true to their grungy roots, we even left in a handful of blemishes and spots in the older 16mm titles for good measure, so they didn't appear unnaturally clean.
At what point did you fall in love with film?
i don't remember a specific moment when i said, "this is what i want to do". i think i've always wanted to make movies, even before i was aware of it. my brother and i each had piles and piles of giant drawing pads since we were very young, easily over 500 of them, filled with homemade superheroes and wars and monsters and comics and tremendously gory adventures, hundreds-of-issues-long bloated episodic sagas. and i wouldn't let my friends just read them, i'd narrate them and read aloud all the dialogue and do all the sound effects and point my finger from page to page directing where their eyes should go from this explosion to that one and orchestrate the whole thing like a movie. i even tried to build my own animated video game for friends to play when i was maybe 8 or 9 - this was back when playing a video game at the pizzeria was like a holiday - so i got the cardboard box with the screen-shaped hole in it and tried to copy the "star wars" arcade game where you shoot the polygon tie fighters. i hopelessly animated hundreds of drawings of different points of view and perspectives from the cockpit, pages that i'd somehow planned on very rapidly flipping up from inside the box's screen by hand, based on whichever direction my brother or somebody would move their imaginary joystick... that didn't quite work. but it seems like every early creative thing i did had something to do with drawing and movies. some of my earliest memories are in a movie theater. movies were this bigger-than-life religious thing, you sit inside this cathedral place where everybody's quiet and reverent and then the lights go off and these amazing things happen. it was before video tape or cable so the only time you ever saw a movie was in that moment in a theater, so all the kids would take in everything they possibly could. you'd remember the scenes months later, you'd reconstruct them in your head, you'd re-enact them with action figures, it was a lot like struggling to remember this amazing dream you'd had. it's very different now when the movie's on DVD three weeks later and you can freeze and analyze every dumb frame. it's almost hard to imagine how movies used to be these flickering intangible dream things that only temporarily came out in the dark. but sometimes i kinda like that better
Did you have any other aspirations or interests as a filmmaker before you turned to animation? Were there ever any live action Bitter Films?
yeah i did want to get into live action originally but it was too expensive when i was at film school - it was all 16mm and producing a solid short could run you $10-30k. i did a handful of little live action things in classes but nothing really substantial. then i learned they had an animation camera on campus that nobody was using - i'd already been doing video cartoons since i was 15 - and then i also learned i could pitch my own animation projects alongside the students in the regular production classes... and i was thinking, "this counts??" and very soon after came "ah l'amour".
Likewise, did your style of animation (i.e. stick figures) come about by accident, or was it a conscious decision? In other words, did the convenience of stick figures preceded any sort of stylistic choice, or was it the other way around?
yeah it's kinda just the way i draw so i don't know if i'd call that conscious or not? i think it does fit the films very well and adds a great deal to them - i can't imagine the movies designed any other way, at least. in hindsight i also like that it's always been honest - these are the characters, this is how they look, i'm not gonna lie to you or distract you with eye candy, let's just get to the story. look at the big picture, strip away the fat and get to the core of the thing. i don't even like using backgrounds.
i guess i feel like a filmmaker who just happens to animate. everyone else in this community seems to be the other way around which i guess is logical but i went to film school, not an art school. i'm approaching this like any other movie: story, editing, sound, characters, camera, writing all coming first. i'm not going to get excited about starting a new project because i've figured out a new way to render a falling leaf... i'm not gonna spend a thousand hours sweating over how to realistically sketch someone's ankle just right. draftsmanship is impressive but secondary to all the other basic ingredients in a movie. from the submissions that come in to the animation show, it seems there are countless talented animators out there but they don't know the first thing about how the isolated scenes they've worked so hard on should fit together, or how an audience might be affected by them. most of their work i wouldn't say is really "about" anything, the majority of what we see just plays like impersonal showreels. wow, the CG dirt looks really realistic. that sort of thing. i think a lot of students are still getting distracted by the newest tools or the latest politics... and it's difficult because there constantly seems to be more distracting bullshit going on in animation than in any other film medium. it's important to remember you can present a shakespeare play on an barren, empty stage with imaginary props and actors in black and still bring an audience to tears. this is what you build your film around, not the window dressing.
I'd like to talk about the actual process of making the films for a bit. The Watching Grass Grow documentary was pretty exhausting to watch. It made my hands hurt. What's the longest stretch you've ever spent animating?
i'm not sure, it's always been irregular and unpredictable. on a typical project i'll go for several hours straight but other days maybe not very much comes through at all. you can never force yourself if nothing's happening or you're just not feeling it. i don't any days off though... every weekend, every holiday, there's always going to be something to work on. if i can't shut my brain off then it's often an all-night marathon. in one of the pencil tests in "grass grow" - i think of the flying creatures - you can see sunlight glide across the time lapse image as the sun rises outside my window which i thought was kinda pretty.
Adding to that exhaustion (for me at least) are the prospect of the animation tests...which I assume are followed by revisions, and then more tests. Is this something you've always done, or did you realize at a certain point that it's better to be safe than sorry?
yeah unless it's a very simple scene or a very simple gesture, just about everything gets pencil tested on video first, shooting on film is expensive and time consuming. particularly in "meaning of life" where the photography was always such a giant chore - setting up every shot in that thing was difficult, so you don't want to reshoot unless you really have to.
Looking at all those infinitely complex charts and graphs and things you use to keep track of shots and frames - not to mention the notion of keeping track of hundreds of thousands of drawings needed for a film - reminds me of something I've often wondered while watching, say, some of Michel Gondry's more complicated videos. Do you think one needs to have a particularly logical and almost rhythmically attuned mindset to keep track of all the elements in an animated film? (does that even make any sense?) Or have you ever just confused the hell out of yourself?
the notes usually make sense to me since they're written in my own scribbly language.. this is one thing that's actually a fast process. i can time out scenes well enough in my head now that i can minimize editing by perfecting most of the beats in-camera.. most of those notes and math are just a quasi-intuitive shorthand for the timing. i think if another camera operator came onboard to shoot my work based on deciphering that stuff he'd probably hang himself. maybe occasionally i'll find an illegible bloody scrawl that throws me for a loop, like "blop out the third drawing 45 degrees" or something and i'll try and figure out what i meant by blop or possibly what blop is abbrieviated for.
compounded with everything else though, yeah all the elements can definitely get overwhelming if you let them - animating, writing, producing, shooting, mixing sound, writing music, directing, etc by yourself, you can't exactly finish one aspect of your role and dump the next step onto the next poor bastard on the crew. in a difficult production week i'm wearing the same clothes just so i don't have to make a decision on what to wear and finding myself following a very set daily zombie routine so as to not get distracted or waste brain power thinking about anything but the job at hand... not shaving, mumbling to myself like a hobo... twelve different stacks of scattered notes and papers across the floor yet their positions all make sense and i know where everything is. this is when friends helpfully point out, "you look tired". it's a weird focus. at one point in the deeper pit of "meaning of life" hell i remember dragging myself around to get groceries at 3 in the morning and the checkout girl says "hi how are you?" and i say "hello" and she says "here you go, have a nice night", and i suddenly can't remember the words for "goodbye" or "thanks" anymore and hear myself saying "hello" again as i leave.
Jim Healy, in his essay that accompanies the DVD, refers to the 'inherently cinematic' qualities of your work. So many filmmakers are looking at new mediums of exhibition - iPods, the internet, even cell phones - and yet you're still making film prints of all your work and putting it up there on the big screen. Is this important part of filmmaking to you, and are you afraid it's something that will be marginalized even more over the coming years?
there's always gonna be new gizmos and trends but they're trends created and driven by people who just want to sell you something... not by actual artists who think the new formats might better serve their work. i don't think about that stuff very much. movies don't belong on ipods or cell phones or the internet... they look terrible 99% of the time. just like internet animation looks terrible blown up on a big screen. it's like forcing a square into a circle. as long as there are theaters to project them i'll keep making movies for big screens. it's hard enough to make the movies look right on DVD.
Incidentally, one of those filmmakers who's looking to new media seems to be David Lynch. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you saw him as something of an influence in your own work, and then I gathered from your blog that you know each other. Is he a fan of your work now?
well no i think i am exponentially more a fan of his work. with his new movie he's definitely excited with shooting digitally and it doesn't sound like he's interested in shooting on film again. he was never very happy with the way "eraserhead" looked until they did the remastered DVD a few years ago. and i admire how david's using the new formats to fit his tastes and vision rather than vice versa... like steering away from high def because it looks too crisp. to paraphrase, "it doesn't leave the audience any room to dream". and there's a lot of truth to that, at least in live action. i saw an article in a science magazine about high def and next generation formats of even higher resolution and it made an interesting point... these images contain so much visual information now they approach what the eye might see in real life. the brain has to work harder just making sense of what's important and it processes all that information very differently than how we usually watch movies and tv. fundamentally it's a much different viewing experience. and as with any format it all depends on what you're going to do with it, the tools have to serve the movie. obviously, overcooked detail and seeing every actor's pores doesn't automatically mean "better".
I've really been fascinated lately by the line between the sort of 'handmade' style of filmmaking that your work represents (along with feature films like those of Andrew Bujalski, who still shoots and cuts on film). You speak very eloquently on the DVD about how you like to achieve your effects the traditional way -about how digital effects are too 'perfect' and micromanaged, and there are never any accidents, happy or otherwise. That's certainly true, and yet, at the same time, certain digital tools make the filmmaking process more efficient. Do you think there's a line between artistry and efficiency, and if so, where do you draw it? For example, do you see a difference between editing a film on a Steenbeck or on Final Cut Pro? And between editing on Final Cut and using After Effects to
aide a particularly difficult composite?
again it should be a matter of personal taste and whatever you're comfortable with. what's most important is filmmakers need to have choices. i like working with real paint and real light and like you say, the happy accidents that might come with experimenting with this camera. other people can do amazing things with computers but i find it constricting and less interesting. it's all just apples and oranges. what bothers me is how the industry stampedes one way or another based on financial incentives and next thing you know you have entire formats going extinct and fewer and fewer options for young filmmakers to choose from. the worst scenario is everyone finding themselves working from the same homogenized palette. which has been slowly happening for years, considering i've got the only operating animation camera of its kind left in existence that i know of.
i've found a happy medium with film and digital, there's no reason the two can't coexist. we've mixed sound digitally since "billy's balloon" and only started editing digitally since "the meaning of life". the only real difference i've noticed is i used to have more time to think about shots when we edited on film... but it's obviously easier to fine-tune all my microscopic timing cuts in a computer. almost all the new animated transitions on the bitter films DVD were shot digitally. and obviously the films wouldn't look their best on the DVD without these amazing digital tools. whereas i'll always prefer to capture the movies on film. you can have it both ways. i just worry that young artists ten years from now won't have any choices at all.
So much CGI looks the same - especially with all these new kiddie features and special effects blockbusters crowding the marketplace these days. But, perhaps in curating the animation show, have you seen any pieces of digital animation that's used the form in new and unexpected ways, that pushes the boundaries of what's come to be expected by CGI? Has anything ever tempted you to try it yourself?
lately i've been impressed by cg shorts that are finding new ways to blend the mediums. less of the stupid rubbery shrek characters everyone does and more of the kinds of organic effects that you'd expect from traditional animation. there's some cool hybrid painterly stuff being made out there, hand-drawn blends. the challenge for cg guys is working the flaws and organic quirks of life into such a lifeless medium... nothing on their screen is ever just left up to chance, so every little detail has to be artificially placed there. so the shorts that make you go, "wow, that was all cg?" only after you spot it in the credits are pretty impressive. really, the best use of any format is when the format is invisible. you should be so involved with the movie you don't notice or care how it was made.
You've done a magnificent job of avoiding anything that might be considered a sell-out move - doing commercial work, for example, or anything that's not entirely your own brainchild. Such solidarity seems all too rare a thing, in a world where great filmmakers do GAP commercials to pay the bills; has it been more trouble than its worth, at some times (especially in the face of those countless dollars you've mentioned passing up from time to time), or has integrity always been its own reward?
no, i've never regretted it. i like having money as much as the next guy but it's never been any motivating reason for doing this. seriously, who'd get into indie animated shorts if they were after money? if none of the films were successful and i had to work in a video store by day i'd still be trying to make them somehow in my spare time.
i can't stand commericals.. they're intrusive and insulting and antisocial. maybe i take things too personally. but we live in a dangerous corporate culture and i just don't want to contribute to any of that. i really do respect the audience too much to do something like that. i think anything i'd try to cook up for some ad would always feel like a lie and i'd lose sleep over it.
besides, it seems like a backwards way for me to approach something creatively... hey, go think of something clever to sell deodorant. it's difficult for me to create something by working backwards until i find a good idea, you know? i had an offer years ago to make an animated xmas special for tv, i could do whatever i wanted. it could have been fun but it was so out of the blue i couldn't begin to think of anything to fit that mold. i usually have the driving ideas and the specific creative impulses first and take them to completion from there. maybe one day i'll suddenly wake up with brilliant, driving idea for a toilet paper commercial but i doubt it.
Of course, sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. I think you mention on the DVD somewhere that your work has been ripped off by advertisers. It reminds me of Bill Watterson, who never licensed out his art to anyone or anything - and yet we've got all these Christian Calvin + Hobbes bumper stickers.
yeah, it's happened many times and will no doubt continue to happen. maybe one day one of the advertising trolls will go a little too far and we'll sue the blood out of them. but i guess it's just the price you pay. i hope by now that people familiar enough with my stuff know that any commercial they ever see that looks like i was involved is just a hack job. for about 5 minutes i was tempted last year to do a new animation show short with the fluffy guys. one of them is introducing the show or whatnot, while the other has this disturbed expression on his face.... gradually his expression grows pained.... he slowly squats as the other guy continues rambling... he's straining and shaking now.... we realize he's slowly crapping something on the ground.... straining very painfully.... the other guy stops talking and stares at him. he finishes pooping out this hard, square object. "what's that?" the first guy asks... and the second guy throw his arms in the air and happy exclaims, "it's a pop tart!"
Speaking of which, when is the next installment of the Animation Show due to hit theaters?
i think we're shooting for january 07
So going back to specifics - I know you're working on post production of a new film, Everything Will Be Okay, while also animating its sequel. What
can you tell us about this one - not necessarily what it's about, but where it came from, creatively?
"ok" is actually finished now and already sneaking into a few theaters... part two is mostly written and i've animated maybe a minute of it so far. i don't know if i'd call it a proper sequel but yeah it's all going to be a three part story maybe for tv. so far it's probably the best stuff i've written. it all sprung from a comic strip i did in 1999, sort of the first primitive stumblings of the character... later his story was all going to be a book. sort of a half comic book half art book thing. i got to the point with literary agents and publishers onboard when i said to myself, "what the hell do i know about doing a book?" and so it turned into a movie and now three of them. making "ok" was the most fun i had since doing "rejected", real quick and painless and i came up with a way of presenting it that i've never really seen done before and really fits the psychology of the thing. so these will be good for me.
The preview on the DVD looks pretty technically amazing. Are you hooked on trying new animation tricks? Even though you're not going to make a new film just because you've 'figured out a new way to render a falling leaf,' does your technical acumen, at this point, inform your storytelling at all?
sure, the stories all shape themselves from every direction. i never start a project with a locked script and that improv extends to the camera and animation too... working with this camera lets me set up different shots and experiments on the run... i can suddenly decide to buy a dead octopus, animate it, and suddenly that night i have a great weird new background plate for a composite. there's an immediacy to working this way that nicely counters the millions of hours you spend at a desk drooling over the same drawings all night. being locked into a concrete thing is no fun and i always get better ideas as i go. i was still rewriting stuff with "rejected" and "ok" during the final sound mixes.. i didn't find the ending for "meaning of life" until a couple years into it. you have to let the thing shape itself to a certain extent. it keeps things interesting from a work standpoint and guarantees the best ideas will always be used. that's largely how everything since "billy's balloon" has been made.
Is this interview getting too pretentious? I love how your stuff supports both highly theoretical discussion and repeated laughter at fluffy things bleeding profusely from the ass.
yeah... well i guess it's only pretentious if everything we say is bullshit. i think maybe it's only been about 40% bullshit so far so maybe we're still in good shape. that's a good tagline actually.
I just returned from our weekend at the Austin Film Festival. The two screenings of Some Analog Lines went really well; the Animated Shorts program was really well put together, and it was wonderful to see my film preceeding them. A lot of people came up to me over the course of the weekend to ask me about it, which was a good sign. And a programmer from some big shorts festival in Japan asked me to send him a copy, which was cool.
The other highlights of the weekend included spending time with our friends Marc and Rachel (whose apartment we crashed at); enjoying the potent combination of a steadily dropping temperature and lots of free gin; hanging out briefly with Bryan Poyser and Jake Vaughan, both of whom we randomly ran into on separate occasions at the Hideout; chatting with Kelly and the rest of the awesome festival staff; reintroducing myself to James V. Hart, the screenwriter of Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, who actually remembered the details of our first meeting seven or eight years ago; leaving the festival altogether to go see Marie Antoinette, which I loved; and getting home two hours ago.
Posted by David Lowery at 4:25 AM
October 21, 2006
A Hint Of A Scent
A brief response: watching Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Perfume: A Tale Of A Murderer reminded me of - of all things - the various Harry Potter films. Whatever I might say about stolidly faithful literary adaptations, there's always some satisfaction to be had in seeing every beat played out on screen so vividly. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but would it be too damning to call this film an exuberantly sensual, wickedly funny checklist?
On that note, we actually attended a panel on adapting literary material to the screen this morning. There were some interesting people - Richard Linklater and Lawrence Kasdan, among others - and they had some interesting stories, but by far the only worthwhile piece of advice they were able to offer is that it's impossible offer advice on writing screenplays, regardless of whether they're adapted or original. As Kasdan put it, you've either got it or you don't. I think they should make that the slogan of this entire festival, which is geared almost completely towards screenwriting - a fact that, despite my reverence for and regular practice of this oddest of the literary arts, has left me feeling somewhat in a lurch. Probably because I have trouble sitting down to listen to screenwriters talking when I could actually be writing myself. Which is what I'm going to do right now.
October 18, 2006
Cormac McCarthy's The Road
At the conclusion of No Country For Old Men, the killer Anton Chigurh slips away without a trace after nearly getting killed in a car accident. The old sheriff asked a young witness what he looked like. He didn't look like anybody, the kid tells him. McCarthy's embodiment of mankind's capability for - and, indeed, his inclination towards - not just violence but primal, intrinsic evil has become amorphous, has disseminated himself; has, essentially, maintained the upper hand in the mythic equation simply by remaining out there and irresolute. It is a bleak ending, leaving the good men in the world flickering against the growing darkness.
One year later, with The Road, McCarthy has, in a sense, offered an answer to this open ending. This new novel takes place in the aftermath of Chigurh's manifestation; the evil of man has done nearly all it can, and in its wake death has claimed the land, the birds, the fish in the sea. One of the last living humans predicts that death too will shortly expire:
When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be.
In the most simplistic sense, The Road is a post-apocalyptic travelogue: a father and his young son travel across an America charred by some manmade cataclysm, heading south to escape the winter. In such a synopsis there might seem a hint of redundancy; after all, McCarthy's landscapes have always been fairly apocalyptic, his stories rife with fathers and sons, always on the precipice of some biblical reckoning. By the publisher's dust jacket account, the novel almost sounds like an indulgence in a narrative conflagration the author has always previously danced around the edge of.
The first few pages of the novel might even suggest that McCarthy has distilled his themes and style into a tone poem. The story is told in short, shallow breaths; episodes that last a paragraph, maybe two, syntax too brief and precise to flower into fully formed phrases. This is a world, it turns out, ten years after the apocalypse. Nothing is left, and the totality of this extends to McCarthy's prose, which wears one down with repetition. It was very cold on one page. It was colder a page later. The snow fell nor did it cease to fall. This is a world devoid of color and feeling, where all physical detail has been rendered gray and mute, and this vacuity extends to his dialogue. Gone by and large, confined to vague flashbacks, are the long, philosophical expostulations of his past characters; this father and little boy speak with an extreme terseness that is sometimes comical, sometimes moving, like they're talking to hear their own voices or to give each other proof that the other is still there.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
And we're still going south.
So we'll be warm.
Nothing. Just okay.
Go to sleep.
This is not simplicity for simplicity's sake, however; this is literary rationing. McCarthy is making every word count, every phrase last, so that it will pay off later. This form engenders a deep sense of satisfaction as the author's trademark descriptiveness begins to flourish amidst the ruins and the narrative begins to take a shape. It becomes a story of survival, of a family foraging, and for a while I was reminded of the pragmatic thrills I got when I was younger, reading Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe; as the man and his son find the means to go on, to protect themselves, to continue further, the story becomes something of an adventure. A bleak, unforgiving adventure, but one with its share of small pleasures writ large by circumstance.
Consistent with this is the evil that the protagonists must face. The landscape is populated with scavengers who have turned to murder and cannibalism and who reflect - but do not represent - the evil that brought this scourge down upon the world. They are dangerous, but not as dangerous as the land itself. In other words, good and evil are now in the same boat. The playing fields have been leveled, and while the odds may be staggered against the father and son, they have a chance. Death may not have expired yet, but his sister fate seems to have passed.
Still, McCarthy leaves room for plenty of unspeakable horrors. This narrative crosses paths with Outer Dark, his second novel, when the father and son come upon a campfire over which a human infant is being roasted (throughout his oveure, and extending perhaps to the Sheriff's inner monologue about abortion in No Country For Old Men, there's no greater sign of evil than the slaughter of babies, and no greater sign of evil's influence than the relative frequency with which this occurs in his work). There's another sequence which I won't describe, except to say that it takes place in a cellar, that is one of the two or three most terrifying sequences I've ever read in literature. It's one of those scenes that makes rereading the novel almost unbearable, as the weight and proximity of that terrible page grows closer.
It is after this sequence, roughly halfway through the novel, that the father reassures the boy that "we're the good guys." The boy responds with something that must have been ingrained in him:
And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire. Yes.
This subsistent mantra is repeated but never explained. Most likely it is an empty phrase, something uttered by the father to give his son hope; but it works, like a placebo, fomenting ulterior motivation and, more importantly, a sense of greater good. It is around this point that the novel ceases to become a series of episodes. Within his self-imposed constraints, McCarthy's intentions start to become clear; from the stultifying dialogue, those carefully chosen words, a dynamic begins to emerge. Something unexpected and powerful and, ultimately, deeply felt. Throughout the book, McCarthy has laid a nihilistic groundwork for his heroes: the father carries a gun with two bullets, one for each of them, and he's promised the boy (and made the boy promise back) that if one should go, the other will follow. But late in the game, on the edge of an acrid ocean, the boy falls ill, and as the father nurses him and anticipates death and keeps the gun near, his disposition changes.
He held the boy and bent to hear the labored suck of air. His hand on the thin and laddered ribs. He walked out on the beach to the edge of the light and stood with his clenched fists on top of his skull and fell to his knees sobbing in rage.
The exhausted complacency he displayed earlier in the novel, the belief that death would be soon and inevitable, is gone, replaced by a deep and desperate need to go on living. Perhaps there's something to 'the fire' after all. Towards the end of his lengthy review for the New York Times, William Kennedy writes that The Road, "in addition to being a nonpareil vision of an apocalyptic landscape, is also a messianic parable," and goes on to accurately substantiate this reading. Regardless of whether one wishes to take this subtext literally (the groundwork is certainly there), there is one undeniable outcome: an overwhelming sense of hope, and of goodness - something, Kennedy points out, that is anomalous in McCarthy's literature - strong enough to match that malevolence that until now has held sway. It's not quite sentimentalism, but it's as close as McCarthy has ever gotten to tugging on the strings of his readers' hearts - particularly when, after reaching the last page of the novel, you turn back to the first and see that it is dedicated to the author's son.
McCarthy is nearing his mid-seventies, the point in an author's life when any given work might become his last. There are rumors he has more manuscripts waiting in the wings, more plays and novels; perhaps, in retrospect, The Road will be seen as a token a sidetrip down an unfamiliar thematic path, but I think it reaches heights too significant to be limited to that. For once, the dust jacket, in its simple and mandatory proclamation of a masterpiece, might be absolutely right.
Over at the forums of the Cormac McCarthy Society, someone notes that Darren Aronofsky has purchased the film rights to The Road. It's a rumor completely unsubstantiated thus far, and despite its narrative simplicity, I don't know how well this book would work on screen; it doesn't have the plot mechanics that will, I think, make No Country For Old Men a great film. But it's fun to think about.
October 17, 2006
Austin Film Festival
So, thanks to James efforts, Some Analog Lines was actually invited to play at this year's Austin Film Festival. Particularly cool is that it's been programmed in the animation category, even though it's technically a documentary. Kelly Williams, the head of the festival, told James that he felt it summed up this year's animated shorts so well that it would serve as a good introduction to that program.
The screening schedule can be viewed here. If you're in Austin for the weekend, check it out and say hi. We're going to head down this weekend and catch a few movies and panels; I'm sure there are some great undiscovered indies playing, but I have to admit that I'm most excited about seeing Tom Tykwer's Perfume. I've got to see for myself if that lukewarm German press is accurate!
P.S. For anyone who hasn't seen Some Analog Lines, just click the image on your left; it might not have won the SXSWClick competition, but they have yet to remove it from their website.
October 16, 2006
Robert Aldrich, Where Art Thou?
The first film I selected for my Halloween semi-marathon was Robert Aldrich's second and somewhat lesser known spooky old maid film, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was also going to be the subject of my entry for Dennis' Robert Aldrich Blog-A-thon.
Unfortunately, a dead car battery in Austin kept me from returning home today in time to refresh those old nightmares the film gave me when my mom showed it to me when I was an impressionable eleven years old. I've already got it in my computer and I'll be watching it later today (after an all-too-brief nap and an early screening of Pan's Labyrinth), and hopefully elaborating slightly on this post. Aldrich is one of those classic directors who, like Sam Fuller, I essentially don't know at all - is it even proper to categorize him alongside Fuller, or am I fumbling for generalizations here? Regardless, I'll be back within twenty four short little hours.
I just finished watching Charlotte; it lacks the lurid, cringe-inducing mania that makes Whatever Happened To Baby Jane so memorable, but it's a pretty delightful thriller in its own right (imagine something a bit in the vein of Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, with a touch of Tennsee Williams). Back when I was ten or eleven, of course, it was anything but enjoyable; that image of Joseph Cotten's face, just below the surface of the rippling water, with those dead eyes halfway open, kept me up for nights, even after the adrenaline shot of that scene with Bruce Dern's head in the box had worn off. Half the pleasure of watching the film this evening was refreshing all sorts of suppressed memories of things that probably would have come closer to psychologically scarring me if I hadn't so regularly sought them out.
That head scene still works, by the way. The rest of the film, in terms of shock value, is a bit more creaky, but I think Aldrich was more interested maintaining a consistent sense of mood in which to let his actors vamp it up - Bette Davis is Bette Davis, of course, but Joseph Cotten turns in a pretty sly turn and Agnes Moorehead pretty much steals the entire movie.
I wish I could abandon my usual crutch of nostalgia and speak more decisively about the director, but without the context of Aldrich's other work, I can only talk about this film on its own terms. And for that matter, I can't do much better than this deconstruction of the first fifteen minutes, which are indeed the best-directed sequence in the film. The rest of it, for all its beautiful use of noirish light and shadow, serves more as a showboat for the cast; but this almost entirely visual opening sequence is where Aldrich gets to be front and center. And what an opening! He sinks his hooks immediately with a series of Bressonian static shots, establishing the antebellum mansion in which the film will take place. These shots are the opening notes of what will become within a few minutes a full blown cinematic waltz, playfully layering measure after measure of dread until it all crescendos in blast of macabre gore and a pretty spectacular reveal:
I could have turned it off right then and been satisfied. I didn't, of course, but I did put it on pause long enough to move Kiss Me Deadly to the top of that cinematic remedy that is my Netflix queue.
October 13, 2006
Shortbus, pt. 2
I was really excited to have the opportunity to speak with John Cameron Mitchell. Unfortunately, the circumstances weren't exactly the best: I conducted the interview from the speaker on my cell phone, while sitting in the bathroom of Yen's apartment - one of the few quiet spots I could find while we were shooting Ciao. Half the questions I'd been planning to ask went unanswered, and it wasn't quite the conversation I was hoping for. Still, it was a good interview, and it can now be read in its entirety below.
A Conversation With John Cameron Mitchell
Were you at all surprised to have what is really the first breakout success from this year's Cannes festival?
Well, we really didn't know what to expect. We had a midnight screening, out of competition, which lowers expectations - it's better to be out of left field, because the French get their daggers out if you're nailed up to high. So we really didn't get going until about 1AM, and I had been doing press all day and I actually fell asleep during our screening. Maybe it was partly to escape it, because it seemed like, in a house of 2300 seats, only we were laughing - nervously, usually. I'd point to one of my actors and I'm like, "Your dick will never be bigger than on this screen," and we'd just start cracking up. But everyone else seemed to be so serious, and were like, "Oh my god, none of the jokes are going over, we're doomed..."
And I fell asleep. Narcoleptically, I guess. And then woke up to the marching band, and a ten minute standing ovation. We were like, "...wow. They liked it. They really liked it!" And the next day we suddenly had dozens of offers for distribution. We were ready to self-distribute, which is kind of like sucking your own dick, and we suddenly had twelve distributors who were offering money in the US alone. So we were shocked.
I guess we felt, since we started the film, there had been a bit of a change - and I think it's called Bush. People are just tired of being fed the same fear-based philosophy, in politics and foreign policy as well as their personal lives. There's that line in the film: "It's like the sixties, only with less hope." The thing that's like the sixties is that there's this thirst for something different. But there's also more of a feeling of powerlessness, because we're bombarded by media telling us that the highest form of empowerment is a reality show. Those things come into collision eventually, and I think by accident, Shortbus came out at the right time for people to feel a little bit of hope and a little bit of empowerment about a way of thinking that's not fear-based.
While you were making the film, there were some other films with explicit sex that hit the big screen, and it became maybe a little bit less taboo. In retrospect, yours stands out not because of its graphic content, but because of its approach to the content.
I had been inspired by a lot of European films in the last ten years that used real sex, and some of them were quite powerful. Fat Girl was really amazing. But they're always grim; usually humorless; always end badly, with some kind of mutilation; and it was like - wait a minute, this is starting to feel like a cliche! The sex film that makes you want to kill yourself! Sex has more facets than that. Sure, it's connected to sadness, but it's also connected to joy. It's also one of the funniest things I've ever seen or experienced in my life. We all, in the middle of sex, go "what am I doing in this position, where the blood is draining from my - where am I?" It's a funny thing, it's an emotional thing, and it can be treated in a lot of different ways. Ours is just a very New York way of treating it, I guess.
How do you feel about pornography?
I actually like porn. But I feel like porn is getting worse and worse, in that it's become even more formulaic than it used to be. It looks uglier. The video format makes it really alienating. And I don't believe anybody's having a good time! Porn itself is just one slice of sex. In fact, when you have too much narrative, or too many ideas, it interferes with arousal.
So if I was to make a porn film, I would take a page from what I learned from Shortbus - which is pretty non-pornographic, even though it's explicit, because there's nothing particularly arousing about it - and I would remove narrative and ideas and make it much more nonlinear and mood-oriented. I would shoot on film. I would let the actors have free range and spontaneity. In porn nowadays, everyone has sex in the same order, and you know the woman is not having an orgasm! You have to project so much of your own life onto porn to actually get aroused by it that it's frustrating.
I think porn has its use, and it's place. Unfortunately, it's become way more important than it should be, because young people now learn about sex only from porn, because it's available on the internet. It's a weird way to learn about sex, as opposed to learning about it from your friends and your own experiences and maybe your family, maybe health class. When I was growing up you got a little bit from everybody, and then you synthesized something on your own. Nowadays, getting it only from porn means that sex is associated with credit cards, with consumerism. You start thinking you have to have sex in a certain order. You have to figure out who you are sexually, what you're into, what your profile is. You end up being sixteen and saying "I'm barely legal!" You fetishize yourself in a certain way, almost like an Amazon.com profile. "What are you into?" "Oh, I don't know, I'm only sixteen, I'm still experiencing life!" "Are you bi?" Give us some time! It really is a skewed way of learning about sex that I think has to be combined with other things. And nowadays, because sex is being crushed by government and religion, from top down, it just balloons out into places like porn, and sex as currency, as illustrated by Britney Spears or somebody, women thinking about it in terms of power instead of enjoyment and connection.
Did you have a healthy perspective on sex when you were growing up?
No, but at least I got it from different sources and could figure it out. Also, I grew up gay in a time when there was nobody out, nobody of interest, no role models at all - which in some ways was kind of freeing, because you could create yourself, you know? Nowadays, growing up as a sexual minority, you have all these people who are out, most of whom are pretty lame, and you grow up feeling weird and not belonging, and when you come out you spend all your time trying to belong, and you end up getting...really unimaginative bad gay disco music. Which is even more conformist than a frat party.
Let's jump back to when Hedwig first came out. Did you already have follow-up projects on the burner, or were you even planning on being a filmmaker at that point?
Yeah, you know, the filmmaking bug bit. I wasn't really interested in acting anymore. I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I'd seen a lot of these European films that had sex in them., and I thought that they were interesting but could be done differently. So back at the time of Hedwig, I was thinking about this film, but I was also thinking about a childrens' film that I was working on at the same time, and this was the one that got financed first - the childrens' film required a lot more money because there was a lot of animation and effects in it. So yeah, I lost the interest in acting, was much more interested in writing and directing. And you know, I want to write a novel some time, make an album, go back to the stage. I don't want try to limit myself by saying this is only what I want to do. I tend to be more project oriented.
The way you developed the script with your actors, in Mike Leigh's fashion, struck me as somewhat similar to the way in which you developed Hedwig on the stage over a few years. Do you gravitate more towards this organic sort of writing, rather than sticking with a set script?
Well, it really was about getting a sense of naturalism from the actors. And also being partners with them, because they come up with stuff that's so much better than you can write. In our case, the script was very tightly written, but they still had to hit every beat in the scene. A beat might be a line, or a moment, and they still had to hit all those moments, but I told them "I'll fire you if you say it as written. You have to paraphrase it every time you do it." And that would really stimulate this naturalistic aura in the scene.
And you can never over-rehearse it. Oftentimes, when you have a set script, actors don't want to rehearse too much, because it squeezes it dry, emotionally. But with this style you can really do it over and over and over and not feel like you're ever going to kill it. And often you get more and more ideas the more you do it, which is how we could actually rehearse a scene for two years - granted, every six months or something - and still have it feel fresh on the scene. We borrowed a bit of that from Cassavetes. Actually, Mike Leigh works differently in that he has a set script; the actors create the dialogue, but they settle on something. But for someone like Cassavetes, who would use his mom - who is not particularly a professional actress -doing a scene with one of the great film actresses of all time, Gena Rowlands, you can't quite tell who's the actress and who isn't. He found a way of working with non-professionals that's still structured.
I think the marks of both Cassavetes and Leigh are evident in your film, but you also mentioned European films like Breillat's Fat Girl. What are some of the other works you turn to for inspiration?
Some films influenced Shortbus more than others. There's a film called Taxi zum Klo, which is a German film from 1980 that used real sex really well. But I really love all kinds of films. Fellini's Nights Of Cabriria was very influential on Hedwig, and on the end of Shortbus. It's a sort of musical ending. I love Bergman's films, like Fanny & Alexander. I'm a huge fan of 70s American films, like Nashville, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation. My favorite Scorsese film is King Of Comedy, which is the one that he likes the least. Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, when they were good in the seventies, when they had humor and pathos in equal measure. I love good schtick, old W.C Fields and Buster Keaton. I'm interested in all kinds of stuff, and try to ram as much as I've learned into everything I've learned.
What's your opinion on the current state of gay cinema?
Well...that's a hard one to define. There's some cinema you can definitely call gay date movies, like Another Gay Movie or Trick or something, and they serve their purpose. They have a certain form to them, and they sort of assume that because you're gay you're going to like everything in it. You could say the same about certain African American films - they're like genre films. You're going to relate.. There are codes involved, because you feel more part of a community when you respond to a code.
But I would differentiate that from queer filmmakers who have maybe a queer sensibility, like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, but their characters are from all sexualities and genders. And you could say that people who are sort of crypto-gay, like Visconti and Cukor, people who were closeted, have a completely different version of that. Almodovar his own thing that he works with. Ozon has his own thing. To me, it's much healthier when gay directors work with straight characters and straight directors work with gay characters. Brokeback Mountain had its own value; it reminded me of an old fashioned Sidney Poitier movie. Or Wong Kar Wai, who did Happy Together, which I think is his best film.
So I would say that it's a healthy environment because it's cross-sexual now. There's a teenage filmmaker in high school who's the nephew of my producer, who's straight but is totally making this gay love story about the football team captain and some nerd. He loves the idea of transgression, and he's a little straight boy.
Going back to the film itself - of all the characters, the one that really interested me the most was the Mayor. Can you talk about him for a moment? It might be a case of cultural ignorance, but I wasn't sure if he was suppose to represent an actual person or not.
Well, you know, he's not based on anyone real. Some people are saying, "oh, is that based on Ed Koch, who was the mayor when AIDS broke out?" We don't really say - for obvious reasons, because we don't want to get sued. We say imagine there was a mayor, a congressman, a governor, who was closeted. And because of that, anyone who has some kind of power, imagine their position, where they, through self hatred and cultural bigotry, felt the need to stay in the closet. Imagine that impermeability, the negation of connectivity, trying to be an island and impenetrable. Imagine if that actually affected your job, which is obviously easy to imagine. And imagine that, because of a health crisis spread by sex, you were actually forced to deal with your self hatred in your policy. And you didn't want to get into it because you thought people would stigmatize you, and label you, and you wouldn't be able to be re-elected. You'd be a worse protector of the public health. Imagine that character knew it, later in life.
His scene was really interesting. I was really sheltered from that sort of thing growing up, and only recently, with stuff like Angels In America, come to realize exactly how serious the AIDS epidimic was.
Kids growing up now, especially in the gay world, are very cavalier with their health. They're coming into a place where there's less stigma, but they define themselves only by the sex they have. Things go out of bounds, people aren't safe with each other. HIV is still around, and we still don't know what's going to happen to people after twenty five years of being positive. There's still a sense of Russian roulette. And this internet age of sex is really breeding a disrespect for people and for themselves. Crystal meth is part and parcel in it; it's the perfect drug for people with low self esteem, and it's worse than heroin in many ways, I've seen a lot of people fucked up by it. And I get really disappointed by gay dudes lately because there's this lack of respect - which I see throughout all parts of American society, obviously, not just gays - but there's this weird sense of "we're all going to hell anyway, let's just treat each other like shit." Granted, that's just a generalization, and I see a lot of love too, and creativity, but there's a weird sense of powerlessness that I've never seen before. You could see in the seventies and eighties that there was a fake sense of powerlessness, fueled by coke, but at the same time there was an idealism, and I want to see that coming back. Youth by definition is idealistic, and it seems like we're raising all these weird, jaded adults.
So the film has a lot of forgiveness in it. It's a pretty soft-hearted film, despite its agressive sexuality. We're all in the same boat. We all have experienced self hatred and or a lack of permeability, and we all have to decide whether we're going to be alone or not alone. I would argue that, to be truly alone, the natural conclusion of that is death. If you take it all the way down the line, if you really want to be alone, just end it. The film argues that it's impossible to be alone - and that actually might save us.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:25 AM
Shortbus, pt. 1
The thing that strikes me the most about John Cameron Mitchell's work - and, with both Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Shortbus under his belt, I think it's safe to call it a personal trademark - is the way he manages to intertwine humor and pathos into a single, indistinguishable dramatic sensibility. Tangentially, this includes joyous anger, nihilistic hope and other precarious emotional states; watching his films, I don't have to chose between laughing and crying - I have to figure out how to do both simultaneously.
This fugue of feeling prevails over Shortbus's shortcomings. This new film isn't as singular a project as Hedwig, nor is it as strong, but its caustic goodwill and bohemian bombast has a genuinely magical effect. It eases the film's considerable rough points, and turns an ending that I think is, on a literal level, rather meaningless into the most emotively meaningful thing in the world. It is a blast of orgiastic gorgeousness - I would say dionysian, except that term suggests a physical predominance, and for all the sex he's crammed into it Mitchell never lets the plumbing overshadow his picture's heart.
The film has two primary storylines - that of a couples therapist who's never had an orgasm and a gay couple who hope that opening up their relationship might solve its problems - and a handful of ancillary subplots that all intersect at the titular salon on a fairly regular basis. The film is at it's best once it gets past what little exposition it has to deal with (which, nonetheless, is handled with conspicuous clunkiness) and starts operating in a more freeflowing form. This doesn't mean that there's suddenly more sex; in fact, the explicit content is mostly confined to the film's first half. Mitchell uses it as a platform and an introduction, but its not a deux ex machina. I was afraid he would present sex as a one-stop solution; thanfully, the film, thankfully, doesn't suggest that sex solves everything. It just helps. Sometimes.
I noted two interesting things about the sexual content in the film. The first is that Mitchell shows everything except male intercourse (even Brokeback Mountain was more graphic in that regard), rendering it both the one unbroken taboo in semi-mainstream cinema and suggesting that, perhaps, it's the one personal line Mitchell doesn't feel comfortable crossing. The second is that, unsurprisingly, the only staged sex scene is also the only one that's at all sensual. It is perhaps inadvertent commentary on the nature of eroticism that it takes an absence of gratutity (plus careful lighting and artful composition) to add an emotional depth to what is elsewhere in the film just a bunch of (often comical) bumping and grinding.
Mitchell has used New York not just as a setting but as an adjective in describing the film; I'm not quite sure how to explain how that makes sense - perhaps it's the Gondry-esque cityscape that serves as binding to the film's episodes - but it really does. There's a genuine post 9-11 feeling to it, as well, and not because of trite references to it in the dialogue (there are a few of those) or the subtle, effecting glimpses of ground zero in those CGI interludes; there's an anticipatory edge to the film, a feeling that the ground could drop out at any moment. The film even has its own minor disaster in it - a citywide electrical shortage serves as a sort of backbone to the story, and it culminates in a literally orgasmic blackout. A lesser film might have been content to end there, but doing so would be mistaking excess for satisfaction and neglecting the importance of the aftermath. Its a moment of oddly irreovcable loss, but also of comfort; Mitchell does his thing and spins them both together. And then he moves on.
The soundtrack of the film has yet to be released, but one of the tracks, Boys Of Harmony by the Hidden Cameras, has been in pretty constant rotation on my iTunes. It reminds me of all the best parts of the movie. It's the song that scores the film's first teaser - viewable at the official site, along with the more explicit full teaser
October 12, 2006
Matt tagged me two weeks ago. Better late than never.
1. One book that changed your life? I'm hard pressed to think of a single title of such import. My introductions to McCarthy and Woolf and Sontag are certainly literary benchmarks in my life, but I see them more as augmentative discoveries, supporting me in a direction I was already headed. If anything actually changed me, it would be those books that introduced me to reading in the first place. I remember a primer version of Pinocchio that, thanks to its illustrations, had a big impact on me, and there were the Star Wars storybooks that were dogeared even as I was still learning the alphabet, but the first novel I ever read, when I was six or seven, was The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. I usually cite that as the one that set me on this path.
2. One book that you have read more than once? I'm more prone to picking up a title and browsing through it, re-reading it in well-loved bits and pieces. The last time I did that and ended up making it through the whole thing was with Graham Greene's The End Of The Affair. But I've read a handful of the scholastic classics multiple times, and there are a lot of books on filmmaking, like Sidney Lumet's Making Movies, which through multiple readings back in the day served as my film school.
3. One book you would want on a desert island? I don't think I can make that call. I really don't. Maybe something like Siddhartha, which might help me come to terms with my fate.
4. One book that made you cry? Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex was the most recent one.
5. One book that made you laugh? I read Moby Dick again earlier this year; I completely missed the first time around how funny it is.
6. One book you wish had been written? I wish I'd written the BFI Modern Classics text on Eyes Wide Shut. Not that I'd necessarily do a better job than Michel Chion, but I'd just like to have had my chance to delve into the film in such an extensively concise format.
7. One book you wish had never been written? A lot of people are saying Mein Kampf; what about The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion?. On a more casual note, there are lots of pop novels and self-help books that annoy me, and while I don't begrudge their existence, per se, I do find myself aghast at the waste of paper.
8. One book you are reading currently? I’ll finish McCarthy's latest, The Road, tonight.
9. One book you have been meaning to read? Rosenbaum's Movie Mutations, which I've been reminded of thanks to the many other responses to this meme. I just ordered it.
10. Pass it on. I think I might be the last one! I'll invite my blogless friends to respond in the comments below, though.
Posted by David Lowery at 8:32 PM
Sound + Picture Presents
What to do on Friday night:
The most recent weight to be removed from my shoulders has been finishing my contribution to this event: an exhibition of sixteen short films inspired by songs by The Theater Fire, projected at the Lakewood Theater with the band playing along with them on stage. The show is this Friday night at 9pm, and the proceeds go entirely to a good cause. The full details can be found here.
I could write more about my video (which we shot early last month), but after spending the last three days in a mad rush of compositing and cutting, trying to get it finished on time, I really don't want to think about it again until it's up there on the silver screen.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:11 AM
October 10, 2006
Fall Viewing Day
I've had the same three films out from Netflix since the end of May. A great sense of relief accompanied the realization last night that, for a few days at least, I had no pressing editing deadlines or early morning call times and that I could sit down and watch one of them - I picked Tarr's Werkmeister Harmonies - at two in the morning.
Speaking of Tarr (and sidestepping any atempts at actually writing about Harmonies), I think I'm going to drive up to Chicago in early November to see Satantango at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Facets just released it on DVD, but this is one of those films I wouldn't, couldn't watch on a television screen, and it's exhibited theatrically so infrequently that I'm almost afraid to miss this engagement; the eight hundred miles between it and me seem pretty inconsequential.
It's October, I've sort of just this morning realized. Halloween decorations are going up, and I've frontloaded my queue with all sorts of celebratory horror films, many of which are ones I've always meant to see but somehow never got around to, like Re-Animator and The Dead Zone (pretty much the only Cronenberg film I've never seen). I'm also looking forward to Miike's Imprint and, for good measure, De Palma's Sisters, but I don't think any seasonal viewing this year wil top going to see Nightmare Before Christmas, as we always do - but this time in 3D.
October 7, 2006
On Not Getting DePalma
It's only that recently I've become aware of the passion with which many cineastes regard Brian DePalma's work. A.O. Scott summed it all up last week, but it's a fervor that been growing increasingly public over the past six or seven months, as the release of The Black Dahlia loomed large and many writers whose work I admire began to rhapsodize at length about their love for a director who, for no particular reason, I never really paid any attention to. The title of this post is something of a misnomer, in fact, since I've never actually tried to get DePalma.
Including The Black Dahlia, I've seen exactly five of DePalma's films, and am thus in no way capable of writing anything of critical value about the filmmaker and the response to his work. I can say that I enjoyed this new film to a certain extent, that it wasn't the tonal mess I was lead to believe it would be, and that, if I was put off by anything in it, it was that it wasn't actually about the Black Dahlia. Or rather, that it was about the Black Dahlia on a symbolic level, and yet tried to have its cake and eat it too by offering a solution to a real life murder whose stature has grown to mythic proportions. It's a mystery that's more satisfying without answers.
But that problem, I suppose, stems from James Ellroy's novel (unread by me) and Josh Friedman's adaptation of it, which is, at it's best, slickly passable. It's never actually effective, as either a mystery or a parable (both of which I think it's trying to be), and that the film actually works, that it clears the brambles of it's convoluted narrative, is mostly due to DePalma's lurid direction. There's a great sense of discord about the film, and signs of a consistent struggle, and I think they are the result of the filmmaker's attempt to make the film he wanted to make on the foundation of a script that wasn't up to par. It is this meta-picture that I feel Matt Zoller Seitz must have been reviewing when he so eloquently defended a film that seemed so similar - and yet so elevated from - the one I had just seen.
As for the film's form itself - the 'pure cinema' that many have said DePalma consistently provides - I don't quite see what makes him stronger than, say, Scorsese or even Tarantino (it's too easy to draw an uneven parallel to the way both Tarantino and DePalam recycle the work of directors they admire - which, in Tarantino's case, includes DePalma, since Blow Out is one of his favorite films). I'm venturing into pure speculation here, based upon the few films I've seen and the other I've read about, but I wonder if what makes DePalma such a contentious filmmaker is the fact that his work doesn't go down easy - that it rarely seems the product of a graceful union between the writing and the filmmaking. This disparity, it seems, might amplify the virtues of a director's style and render a film more of an exercise in cinematic form (and cinematic obsession) - if the audience can separate the cinema from the script.
I don't know. I'm shooting in the dark here, at least until I see some more of DePalma's work, but for the time being, I think this reading is applicable to The Black Dahlia. An anecdote about my viewing experience: I saw the film at a somewhat dilapidated theater where the center channel of audio - containing all the dialogue and narration - was almost completely inaudible. I decided not to complain, because I wanted to see if the film worked without words - if there was, indeed, any pure cinema to be found in it. Unfortunately, the one other person in the theater went to report the problem. The remaining two hours were a frustrating, fascinating struggle; they weren't easy to swallow, but they certainly managed to stick.
October 6, 2006
We finished principal photography on Ciao this afternoon, closing out the shoot with a love scene - which was followed by everyone piling onto and around the bed for a crew photograph.
We shot exactly one hundred 'rolls,' which I now have to set my sights on paring down into a film. I stopped doing any actual cutting on set once I realized that, before I begin putting the film together, I'm going to have to sync up all the DAT audio to the footage (for a total of eight separate channels). Oh, the joy of being your own editing assistant.
Congratulations, Yen, on sticking with the film all the way to this point. And congratulations to Jim, too, for pulling this whole thing together. It's too bad you're retiring from producing, because you're pretty good at it.
And now, on to the wrap party! If only I knew where it was at.
October 5, 2006
The Science Of Sleep
The chronology of my attempt to write about The Science Of Sleep begins over a month ago, as I become hooked on the trailer at around the same time I receive the notice for the first press screening later that week. Then I see it, and fully plan to write about it that very night; but somewhere between being awkwardly awestruck by the relation of the closing shot to the film that had come before it and stirring up some dreams of my own, my critical plans are sidetracked. Then I wake up and get a flat tire and run down the highway and go to LA to take care of some business. Shortly after returning, I decide I had better watch Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind again before fully organizing my thoughts. I do so, and manage to write about that, and then go off to shoot a music video before providentially receiving an invitation to another screening of the film, which I decide to wait until before expanding any further on the few sentences I've by this point managed to jot down.
And so, predictably, I end up here, faced with what has in my mind expanded into not simply an unwritten review of Michel Gondry's new film but an examination of the relation of dreams to cinema, in terms of both narrative device and the medium's psychological makeup, the collision of silver hallide and the cerebral cortex. I'm excited by the challenge I've set for myself - excited, and also prematurely exhausted by the mere thought of all that typing and thinking and explicating; I think I'll take a nap first. Why do I want to not write about this movie?
Because I do, of course (if on a slightly less extensive level); I'm just plying my part time trade as a self styled defeatist. Much like Stephane in this film, I have a tendency fabricate my own foregone conclusions.
The Science Of Sleep is a deceptive bit of whimsy; it often feels light as a feather, but has undercurrents which run deeper and darker than the romantic melancholy which made Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind so affecting. This is Gondry's first attempt at working off his own script, and while the result isn't as well written a film as his collaboration with Charlie Kaufman, it is hardly the lesser for it.
Unlike Eternal Sunshine or Gondry's more famous music videos, which can be mind boggling in their visual and narrative complexity, Science is exceedingly simple. It is a romance relayed partially through the dreams of its protagonist, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) which might initially suggest that Gondry, talented visualist that he is, is taking the easy way out; that he's creating a cushion of surreality and stitching a narrative together out of dream sequences.
The cinematic dream sequence in general is, more often than not, an empty device; it's rarely used for much more than visually indulgent exposition - or for visual indulgence, plain and simple. More rewarding, when done correctly, is dream logic. There are theorists who posit (correctly, I think) that cinema is a medium which in its very essence approximates the nature of dreams; but on a less inclusive level are films like Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Altman's Three Women, many of Bergman pictures and most of Bunuel's, which all have as their narrative engine an innate trust of subconscious process. Eternal Sunshine, although it was about memories, had a similar chemical sensibility.
As it turns out, however, The Science Of Sleep is neither a dream of a movie nor a movie about dreams. It's a romantic comedy, almost as straightforward as it is idiosyncratic, and if it has an innate sense of anything, it is of the neurotic ups and downs of that grey area between a crush and a relationship. This terrain is extruded by Gondry's dream sequences, but not superseded by them. While there are a few traditionally delineated trips to slumberland, just as frequent are the instances where the gloves are off, where fantasy and reality infringe upon each other. It would be easy (and, certainly, not at all off the mark) to assign to the film the affliction of its hero: the structure of the script reflects Stephane's mindset; both confuse dreams with reality. But what such a semiotic reading fails to encompass, and what makes the film so unique, is the haphazard subjectivity of this malady - or, in other words, the sloppiness of Gondry's script, which rescues the film from the strict constraints of a pychoanalytic portrait and turns it something sweet and simple. From Gondry's perspective, nothing is more romantic than a boy and a girl who can share a moment of mutual surreality. But there's something dangerous about it, too, and what's fascinating about the film is the way Gondry undermines his genre to such an extent that, by the ostensibly happy ending, Stephane cannot get the girl; and in doing so, he incriminates himself.
(At this point in the review, I feel like I should mention that it's been several days since I started writing this thing; the paragraph above has gone through about ten different permutations, most written intermittently while loading footage; the sun is currently coming up; it's the first time on the set we've shot for more than thirteen hours; and once again, I really feel like going to sleep.)
The turning point for Stephane, and for the film, occurs after he has set a coffee date with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his next door neighbor and the longstanding object of his affection. He's walking down the street, and, slightly nervous, begins to consider the possibility that she might stand him up. Perfectly understandable - except that Stephane cannot distinguish between subconscious suggestion and actual realization, and thus manages to convince himself that she is, in fact, not there, that she has stood him up, that she does not care one whit for him. He turns, hurt and rejected, and stomps back down the cold Parisian streets while, around the corner at the cafe, Stephanie finishes her coffee and checks the time and checks the time again.
Narratively, Gondry lets this function as a traditional end-of-the-third-act romantic setback, but the actual implications of it are impossible to ignore. In his review of the film, Jim Emerson writes that there is "definitely something unheathly, even pathological, behind Stephane's notion of this asexual/heterosexual "'relationship.' The boy is charming, but not quite as charming as Gondry thinks he is." I don't think that's the case, and I think Emerson is missing an important point even after caling attention to it: Stephane is a little bit sick in the head. In the real world, he might be categorized as a schizophrenic. Gondry doesn't make a point of this, but neither does he ignore the real world repercussions of Stephane's delusions, and as the film progresses and the fantasy sequences begin to lose their lightweight sense of whimsy, one can begin to discern a distinctly autobiographical tint to the proceedings.
(Another shooting day down. Fourteen hours this time. We're scraping the bottom of the barrel - there are only two days until we wrap for good, and we've had to stop pushing shots to pick up later. For some reason, though, I'm wired. I passed up a chance to see this film for a third time the other day because I wanted to get some work done on this music video I'm working on - it's supposed to be due on Sunday and I've only just now finished the first effects shot. Something's gotta give.)
Gondry has always borrowed wholesale from his own subconscious. Anyone who has read some of his recent interviews - his recent New York Times Magazine profile, for example, or Sean Axmaker's interview at Green Cine - or watched the documentary, I've Been Twelve Forever, on Gondry's Director's Label DVD, will be able to connect many of the Freudian dots in The Science Of Sleep, some of which are motifs developed in his music videos (the giant nightmare hands that have haunted him since his childhood, for example), others being more literally biographical and more exclusive in their intimacy; there's something of an ode to a lost love here, and while the film is not apologetic in tone, there's the sense that Gondry intends it to serve, at least in part, as a private apologia.
Regardless of whether Gondry, like Stephane, really is too engaged with his own imagination to function in a relationship, he certainly his a maturity and perspective his protagonist lacks. The final twenty minutes of the film are stripped of just about every trace of visual trickery, relying instead on what in this case might be the most unexpected special effect of all - some really brilliant writing. Over the course of the last reel, Stephane and Stephanie hash out their feelings, she tearing down his pretenses as fast as he can build them up until they both wind up in bed, emotionally exhausted, far past the point of recovering any semblance of a romantic relationship. Stephanie ends the film at her side, but there's something very maternal about the manner in which she avails herself to him. Considering the fact that Stephane, at the beginning of the film, moves back home to his childhood home in his mother's apartment, only to find that his mother isn't there, that he winds up in Stephanie's arms not as a lover but as a lost little boy.
(I've had to change the authored-on date of this entry more times than I can remember. Only one day of shooting left!)