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January 30, 2007

The New One

I've reached that delirious point where the end is suddenly visible over the horizon, so close that I can't stop working my way towards it as all the pieces fall into place of their own accord around me. I think I've finally finished shooting (or 'shooting,' in this case). The cut isn't close to being locked, but it's going to be so dependent on sound (and suddenly I'm thinking I might want music after all) that the two post-processes are going to have to proceed together from this point on. Hopefully I can get the bulk of it done this weekend. The only question that remains, really, is what the heck is it?

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Of course, I know exactly what it is. Sort of.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:33 AM | Comments (7)

January 29, 2007

Sundance Shorts

Sundance 2007 is a thing of the past, but its short films are still streaming at the official website and at iTunes. Short form content isn't hard to come by anymore - these days, it's almost too readily available, which is why it's nice to have an officially curated program to peruse.

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The best I've seen so far is Ray Tintori's Death To The Tinman, a twelve minute adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Tin Woodsman Of Oz. Shot on black and white 16mm, with practical effects and rear projection shots aplenty, Tintori's film is a blend of influences - Guy Maddin and Wes Anderson jump most immediately to mind - and pure, breathless inventiveness. This is the sort of film you go to a shorts program to see, the kind that's worth a feature and a half; at a dollar ninety-nine from iTunes, it's a steal.

Also worth a look are Aftermath On Meadowlark Lane, the new film from Austinites and Sundance favorites the Zellner Brothers (I think they've had a new film or two in the festival for at least the past three or four years), and Calvin Reeder's absurdist horror film Little Farm. The latter is a grungy, disarmingly low-fi bit of exploitation, chock full of gore and incest and really great FX work, marred only by some out-of-place ghosts that seem to have wandered over from an early David Lynch short. The Zellner Brothers, meanwhile, continue their series of dirigible epics, this time venturing unexpectedly into the realm of biography. I'm curious as to what came first - the need for closure on a particularly personal issue, or the opportunity to blow up a car.

Sadly (but understandably) unavailable is the winner of the Best Short Film award: Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be Okay. I can't wait to see it on the big screen when this year's installment of The Animation Show comes to town.

If anyone has any additional recommendations (or warnings, for that matter), let me know. Also, check out Jamie Stuart's podcast for Filmmaker Magazine, which features a brief interview with Ray Tintori and lots of terrifically edited montages of Park City in action.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:49 PM | Comments (2)

January 28, 2007

Faux Pas

After checking out Carlos Reygadas' Battle In Heaven from Netflix, their database suggested that I might also like The Five People You Meet In Heaven, based on the Mitch Albom book. The mind boggles to imagine this situation reversed!

Posted by David Lowery at 12:38 AM | Comments (2)

January 26, 2007

Inland revisited

Halfway through my second viewing Inland Empire, I stepped out into the lobby of the Paramount Theater to get another cup of David Lynch's signature coffee and overheard two girls discussing whether they should stay or leave. One said she was dying to stay; the other, with tears streaming down her face, said she couldn't sit through another minute of it, and asked her friend for money so she could take a cab home. I hope I can someday inspire such fervent pillars of polarity with one of my films!

And as for Inland Empire, this Winchester house of a film with its endless dark hallways and close-ups that turn a simple laughing face into a terrifying demonic frieze - I suppose it made more sense this time around, even though 'sense' (in the traditional sense) seems more like a constraint when applied to this movie. True, I was better able to grasp the contents of the film and the order in which they occurred; recurring motifs were more noticeable, and little strands of connective tissue revealed themselves in places I'd previously overlooked. But I'm almost loathe to call attention to those details, because I really don't think they point the way towards any master key that will lay bare the film's mysteries. I don't think there is a key, or a mystery for that matter. It's all there, in a fairly straightforward sense, and going in looking for something that's missing will only take away from this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. As I previously wrote, this isn't a piece of academic trickery that can be dissected, excavated, labeled and categorized; all the pieces are right there on the big screen - sometimes out of focus, sure, but that's more a fault of Lynch's PD150 than his storytelling.

Just before the film started, Rebecca Campbell called Lynch out on stage, introducing him as one of our national treasures. I'd be hard pressed to remember a moment when I felt more patriotic.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:10 PM | Comments (5)

January 21, 2007

Not At Sundance

Every January, I anxiously read (and perhaps live vicariously through) the press from the various films premiering at Sundance. There are three this year that I'm particularly excited about.

Up until about a month ago, I was actually planning on joining some friends up in Park City for a few days. But then I started looking at the list of things I was planning on doing over the next eight months, and thinking about the amount of money that it would cost to do them, and decided I'd better not. Maybe someday I'll actually have a film to accompany to that snowy little hamlet, but until then I'll just keep reading about it.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:28 PM | Comments (3)

January 18, 2007

Il Grande Ritorno

If you're not going to have the opportunity to see Inland Empire within, say, the next week (I'm suddenly so excited), then you should watch this fantastic Italian trailer for the film, which pretty much sums up precisely the sort of ride you'll be in for without giving away too much (not that this is the sort of movie you can actually spoil, in the narrative sense). If you are going to see it soon, then I'd suggest not watching it, so you can go in completely fresh.

Not that it'll make that much of a difference - I don't actually remember seeing a good third of the footage in this clip. I can't wait to see what I've already forgotten.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:34 AM | Comments (3)

January 17, 2007

Snow Day

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One of my rules of thumb about making films in Texas is that, if you're in production on something - or even just thinking about going into production on something - and it snows, you drop everything and go out and shoot in it. As soon as I woke up this morning and saw all that white out the window, I put the wheels in motion and within an hour or two was shooting the last scene from my new short film out in the beautifully bitter cold. The snow added quite a bit of production value. Or maybe sentimental value. I get the two mixed up now and then.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:27 PM

January 15, 2007

Martin On Malick

I don't know exactly when Adrian Martin's much-awaited book on Terrence Malick is going to be published, but until it is, this essay, printed in the new issue of Rouge, will have to suffice.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:15 PM

Coda

Yen and I spent this frozen solid day editing the short film that he directed back in August, a few weeks before Ciao started shooting. We shot it in one day, and had been hoping to edit it in about as much time and have the whole thing finished and ready for a 35mm blowup after a single weekend. If you ignore the five months between then and now and the fact that we don't have any money for a 35mm transfer at this point, we made our goal! It turned out beautifully, and hopefully Yen can piggyback it onto the final Ciao sound mix, which he's heading to LA to supervise this week.

Our intermissions in the editorial process consisted of watching all but one of Hong Sang-soo's three most recent features. I think that Woman Is The Future Of Man is better than Woman On The Beach, but I can also see that opinion flipping with a bit more thought. Yen pointed out that Hong's work is more and more resembling early Woody Allen; the films are getting funnier, and the male leads are getting increasingly neurotic. I can't wait to watch A Tale Of Cinema, the one film on our docket that we didn't get to this evening.

Tomorrow, I'm going to brave the icy freeways and visit the Apple genius bar to find out why my MacBookPro battery hates me so...

Posted by David Lowery at 3:18 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2007

The Flowers Of St. Francis

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This is the shot where, just three hours ago, I fell in love with Rossellini.

Of all the roughly consecutive vignettes in the The Flowers Of Saint Francis, the only that deals exclusively with Francis himself is the one in which his solitary prayers are interrupted by a leper passing on the road. The scene is almost exactly five minutes long, and comprised of exactly twenty five shots. The same line opens and closes the scene, and comprises practically all its dialogue: Francis, lying prostate on the ground in both instances, cries "My God. My Lord and my all!" But between those two orisons, a seismic shift occurs. Francis' prayer, vague and perfunctory in its first utterance, becomes a fervent pledge of faith, simultaneously bereaved and deeply grateful, after his encounter with the leper.

Rossellini depicts this change in conviction not simply through the physical interaction of the two characters but through the geography of their interaction. The first shot of the scene begins high up on a hill and pans down and across the landscape before cutting to Francis in closeup, whispering his prayers to the dirt. He is disturbed by the sound of the leper's bell, and rises, peering through the foliage as the solitary figure appears around a bend in the road. The scene continues, cross-cutting between Francis and the leper with a precise rhythm but a decidedly confusing sense of space. Rossellini breaks the 180 degree line several times - or, at least, I think he does. It's never clear exactly where the characters are in relation to each other - or rather, it's never clear where Francis is in relation to the leper, who has a road to delineate his progression.

This disorientation continues until Francis ovcercomes his disgust at the leper's ghastly countenance and emerges from the woods with a solidarity of intention that is immediately adopted by the camera, which to this point has remained on axis but suddenly begins to dolly with the characters as they proceed together through open and suddenly definable space. They separate again at the end of the scene, the leper ascending the hill and Francis remaining at its foot, but their relation to each other and the landscape remains simple and clear. And then the camera drifts off again towards the sky, ending the scene where it began but from a different vantage point; the opening shot drifted down from a high, ominiscnet point, and the closing moves up from the ground - from Francis - evidencing the intercession of a third, unseen but formally tangible character.

Posted by David Lowery at 4:20 AM | Comments (4)

January 13, 2007

Saturday

Today has brought too much freezing rain for the planned exterior shoot of my in-production-short film, and has conversely made staying indoors too cozy an option to weather the highways north to Tulsa, where Some Analog Lines is unspooling at an art gallery exhibition of pocket-sized films. Incidentally, Some Analog Lines is the first movie I've made that has neither withered and died of its own accord nor succumbed to my own deprecating death blows. In fact, as of this past week, it seems that 2007 is shaping up to be frought with exhibitions and occurrences.

But about that rain. Instead of shooting those exteriors, I think I'll catch up on some at-home cinema. Open City and The Flowers Of Saint Francis arrived in the mail today; they'll mark the first Rossellini works I've seen, and after reading about that retrospective in New York and seeing the Guy Maddin-Isabella spectacular, I'm pretty excited. And then it will be on to that beautiful new edition of Pabst's Pandora's Box, whose exquisite packaging has all on it own increased the appeal of my DVD collection by about 97 percent.

Actually, I probably won't get to all three of those films because I've just now remembered that there's a deceased organism (courtsey of my favorite feline) in an oversized matchbox on my shelf that I need to photograph before its state of decay becomes odorously noticeable. Ah, nature! My favorite movie star.

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I've been mulling over purchases far beyond my means lately, and dreaming of a hybrid automobile with P2 recording capability. I think self expression will win out over transportation, as it always does...

Posted by David Lowery at 4:49 PM

January 10, 2007

Neil LaBute, Practical Joker?

I normally don't miss films by directors whose work I've admired in the past, but this year, for various reasons, I did. Films by Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Christopher Nolan and others came and went, and I kept on missing them. Included among these names was Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man. I generally find LaBute brilliant, and I remember being intrigued both by his interest in remaking this cult classic and by the trailer itself, but apparently that wasn't enough to get me into the theater during it's gone-in-a-flash release last fall. Since then, I'd forgotten all about it - until last night, when I saw this and just about fell out of my chair.

I know that context means everything, but still - without this, I don't think I'd ever have added the movie to my queue.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:10 PM | Comments (4)

January 9, 2007

A Child's History Of Long Takes

Yesterday saw the onset of the Contemplative Cinema Blog-A-Thon, a month-long study of the pains and pleasures of boring art films. Below you can find the text of my own initial entry; then, perhaps as a palette cleanser, be sure to click over to the ever-evolving index of other articles, essays, criticisms and celebrations of all that is blessedly minimalist in film.

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A certain question has grown increasingly prevalent in the back of my head; I can trace it to the day I smashed with a hammer the Steadicam I'd purchased with the proceeds from my first after-school job. I merely wanted to salvage the electronic components from within its counterweight arm (no handyman I, the attempt was in vain), but the symbolic value of this destructive act, borne of the sudden uselessness of the device itself in my filmmaking efforts, has become a signpost pointing towards this query that burns even when posed in jest: why do I love boring audiences?

I'll avoid that question temporarily to note that what we've decided to call contemplative cinema has, to an extent, been defined by that which it isn't limited to: the long, unbroken shots that make up the films of directors like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, Alexander Sokurov, Apichatpong Weerasethaku, Bela Tarr and (co-opting Tarr) Gus Van Sant. A director needn't necessarily roll an entire magazine out per set-up to create a cogitative experience for his or her audience, nor is sustenance necessarily conducive to intellectual stimulation or transcendent hypnosis or whatever it is that many elapsed seconds of screentime provokes. On the one hand, consider the mile-a-minute mesmerizations of Godfrey Reggio; on the other, thrill to those unbroken sequences in Welles' Touch Of Evil, the entirety of Hitchcock's Rope, Alfonso Cuaron's recent Children Of Men and at least half a dozen different DePalma films.

In the latter instances, the deficit of edits serves exactly the same narrative purpose as a standard cut in any other film: it connects points A to C, servicing the story with the affects of form (urgency, verisimilitude, etc). A long take in a work by any one those directors I initially cited can service the plot as well, but will generally be less democratic in its function. It is much more about itself; it is precisely the sort of "little play" David Mamet warned against in his screed against the Steadicam in On Directing Film. This take, in its single-minded minimalism, will reflect the narrative, but not necessarily further it. In fact, it will likely function as much as a microcosm of the entire film as a progression of it. The juxtaposition of two such shots, then, will reflect on the same thing differently, graduall excavating the thematic core of the film through the repetitive ebb and flow of minimalistic content.

One of my favorite examples is the almost excruciatingly prolonged final shot of Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, in which a club-footed woman cleans a movie theater after the final show of the night. It's a static take, one which lasts long enough to overcome first frustration and then anticipation, by which point the audience, gently beaten into submission by the lack of incident, may suddenly find themselves attuned to a certain reflective sensitivity. The shot functions as a sort of cinematic mantra, a visual Ohm, which through sustained repetition introduces the viewer to a meditative state in which the intentions of the shot, and of the film as a whole, can be discerned (one of Tsai's chief influences, the French master Jacques Tati, utilized similar tactics for contemplatively comic purposes).

So we have, in black and white terms, the narrative long take and the contemplative long take, and between them there are of course plenty of gray areas. I don't mean to suggest that one form is better than the other, and I certainly love it when little bubbles of introspection surface in the streams of narrative thrust - but let's ignore those instances for a moment. I want to distinguish the differences between the two forms because I noticed in them a sort of developmental link. In my early aspirations towards both cinephilia and filmmaking, I was never more inspired than when caught up in the fluid swoop of Scorsese's unbroken steadicam shots (or Paul Thomas Anderson's even more skillful homages to them). It is that same taste, evolved, that these days leaves me as captivated by the opening shot of Tarr's Satantago as I had been by that in The Player, as in love with the lack of movement as I had been by the extension of it. To get even more anecdotal, we can return to that smashed steadicam; the reason I wanted it was because I Now I'm frequently content to let the camera remain still, to observe quietly and at some distance. It's an almost perversely natural evolution of style, but I think it contains as a constant a certain pursuit of truth. A truth hinted at but ultimately betrayed by narrative, and approximated and expanded upon by contemplation.

This truth is entirely separated from reality (although it may, through elaborately staged misc-en-scene, bear reality's trappings), especially in the case of the narrative long take, which is a careful facsimile of reality but contains not an ounce of veracity. Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, this form serves exactly the same purpose as a traditional cut; and a cut, as we all know, is tantamount to the cleverest of lies. We accept it as real subconsciously, of course, because we want to know how points A and C connect; we want to be carried along. The contemplative long take hardly contains any more truth than its narrative counterpart; the important difference is that it does not require suspension of disbelief. Quite the opposite, in fact - because it isn't propulsive in nature, it allows itself to be consciously imposed upon. The audience partakes, processes and projects, and from this intercourse a rather subjective progeny is born, one which has been subtly guided en utero by the filmmaker and is now free to develop into an opinion whose roots are in the common ground of human experience.

At this point, I've expended an ungainly amount of words on what my have already been obvious, and I should note that I'm not attempting to break new ground or present empirical evidence with analysis above (which may be subject to immediate reflection, revision and repudiation). What I've tried to describe, in such fumbling and semi-coagulated terms, is what I imagine audiences go through when watching a long take such as the one I described from Goodbye Dragon Inn, and I've come up with this assumption based upon my own trepidatious tiptoeing around the edges of my own intentions as a director. I don't like to talk about my work too much, but to answer the question with which I began (avoiding in the process the stopgag response that boring art films aren't actually boring at all), I don't thrill to the idea of making an audience sit through something tedious, nor do I ever consciously set out to impart upon an audience an intellectual representation of some trope I hold true. I make formal choices in my films partially because I've learned that certain techniques will have certain favorable effects, but mostly because they feel correct in regard to what I want to express.

And let me say too that ain't easy being boring! It's not a matter of simply plopping the camera down on a tripod and letting it roll; it's a tremendous strain! Incident is a warm, comforting safety net. My most recent film contains a single static shot that is held for nearly four minutes, during which nothing overt occurs and no dialogue is uttered. It was all I could to resist moving the camera just a little bit, to overtly impose my own opinion onto what I knew in my heart the audience should be left to their own devices with. I even had a makeshift dolly there on set, in case I broke down and fall back on a subtle push-in, or pull-out, or anything that would satisfy the more impatient side of my stylistic ego. But such an imposition is not mine to make; as the director, I have the luxury of knowing what is, on a certain technical level, the whole truth of a given scene (or a given film). But I'm in no position to foist that upon the audiences. Even if they want it. Alas, their disbelief is not mine to suspend.

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Of ancillary interest, and left over from last year: behind the scenes of that very long take.

Posted by David Lowery at 4:28 AM | Comments (15)

January 4, 2007

On The Eve Of Thinking About Beginning...

I'd promised Jim a whole two weeks ago that I would overnight to him a few DVDs of the final cut of Ciao, but as of today those discs only just now seeing the inside of the mail bins that will bear them and their brethren to Los Angeles. I've pointed my finger in various directions regarding this tardiness; both to technical matters and to other efforts, to personal projects and personal duress; but the fact is that the fault is all mine, and hardly as dramatic as I might like.

I've grown increasingly disturbed by what seems to be an innate laziness growing within my bones. I've always fancied myself a laborer in the Joycean strain, one whose low output is inversely related to the strain of creation, those gut wrenching birth pains of the imagination, that exacting, taxing duress of perfection. I've recently managed to acquit myself of these delusions, at least somewhat - writing the right sentence or making the right cut can still be like pulling barbed wire from my bowels, but once the first length is freed from that bloody pit, the rest, in truth, uncoils pretty smoothly. It's making that extraction in the first place that gets me every time. I just hate getting started! I have trouble finishing things, too, but that's a problem borne of too much enthusiasm and overcooked curiosity, whereas my proclivity to prolong beginnings is a matter of pure and simple indolence. I do look forward to the onset of each new project, picturing in my mind's eye a miniature diorama of creative brilliance so florid that its own proscenium cannot contain it. I spend so much time imagining getting started that by the time it's actually time to begin, I'm about ready to go to bed.

And now that same ennui of spirit has hit a new low; I've realized that I've attached a certain physical strain to tasks that bear no effect on my person. Merely opening up a file on my computer that occupies more than its fair share of bytes - a feature film in uncompressed high definition, for example - wears me out before I've even made the single mouse stroke required to execute the job. And when I've gone ahead and clicked that button, I hear my computer's dual processors wheezing under the strain of the combined weight of all those millions of pixels and the contractile tissue of my own muscles strain and tear in symbiotic empathy, burning my shoulders with their acidic output before reforming, stronger than before, perhaps, but too exhausted to re-link lost render files or generate timecode. The file's been opened, after all; burning the DVDs can wait until tomorrow, can't it?

But it can't, nor will those parties anticipating the second draft of this screenplay wait forever, nor can the quality of the film I'm working on continuously justify the length of time it's taking me to finish it. I need a psychological shock collar, reminding me to get started, or maybe some Ritalin (god forbid I resort to old fashioned self discipline). The internet will still be here when I'm finished, after all.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:51 PM | Comments (11)

January 2, 2007

David Lynch In Texas

I can't imagine a better place to watch Inland Empire than at the historic Paramount Theater in Austin, which is where it will be screening on January 24th, with David Lynch in attendance. You can put money on my presence there. Tickets go on sale to Austin Film Society members this Friday, so if you haven't joined already, now might be a good time (your membership fee will go towards outstanding services such various screening series, filmmaking workshops, the new Director of Artist Services's salary and, of course, the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund).

On a related note, my old friend Adam gave me a copy of Lynch's new book, Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, And Creativity for Christmas. Anyone who's read an interview with Lynch over the past year will be familiar with much of the material in this volume, which is all about the link between creativity and the subconscious, and the use of transcendental meditation to bridge whatever gap might exist between the two. I remember being surprised and a bit disconcerted when, a few years ago, Lynch suddenly began to evangelize his faith in transcendental meditation, but here he eases into the concept a bit more smoothly, and intertwines his work and his spiritual beliefs into one big membranous process. With his distinctively charming vernacular, his writing straddles the gray area between Eastern philosophy and Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts; still, his straightforward sincerity really sells his ideas - as do passages like this one, about the inception of Eraserhead:

"Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn't know what it meant. I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn't know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sequence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.

I don't think I'll ever say what that sentence was."

Posted by David Lowery at 2:57 PM | Comments (8)