March 29, 2007
I ♥ ORD
There may be a dearth of content here for the next ten days, as I'm heading to Europe tomorrow. Or rather, heading to Chicago for an eight hour layover, and then heading to Europe. I suppose one can never really spend too much time at O'Hare.
I'm replacing my laptop with a Moleskin (as if I'll actually manage to get any writing done) and leaving my cell phone at home. Nevertheless, I'm sure I'll find some way to check my e-mail while I'm gone, and provide a few thrilling updates here on my attempts to find vegan food in Italy.
March 27, 2007
Why I'm Not A Visual Effects Supervisor
More than just about any type of special effect, I love the fine art of compositing; it's just exciting to me, and I keep trying to get better at it. My personal benchmark so far is a shot I created for Ciao. I whipped it up a whim during some downtime on the set last fall and showed it around; no one believed that it was actually an FX shot, which was grounds enough to include it in the final cut. Hooray for me! But yesterday, I stopped by the coloring suite where the finishing touches were being placed on a few shots - including my little baby - and discovered with horror that, for about four frames, the lead actor was tragically vivisected by one of my travelling mattes. It was mortifying.
And so the original cut gets cracked open yet again...
March 23, 2007
A Catalog Of Anticipations
I held an impromptu screening of my New Short in the parking garage of the Universal lot this afternoon. Reaction was extremely positive, even though the film wasn't quite done; SXSW got a little bit in the way of finishing the score, but as it turns out it holds up pretty well without any music.
To clarify a few things, the name of this film is not A Catalog Of Anticipations. That's the title of what will hopefully be a three-channel triptych that will include this film as a centerpiece in concert with two other short works. It evolved from the piece I was working on last summer, called Upheave. Back in October, as I was putting the finishing touches on that film, I decided to lop off the last third and let it instead segue instead into a second film (I wrote at the time that it would be about matchboxes, and sure enough, it's full of them). The third piece was similarly conceived, although it hasn't been shot yet.
Ideally, I'd love to see the three exhibited together in the proper progenitorial order; but it's not entirely necessary, especially for the middle film. Regardless of how they're shown, separate or apart, they'll all share the same name. So with that in mind, here's a look at what used to be called Upheave until I removed the title sequence.
March 22, 2007
The Holy Mountain
The Alamo Drafthouse kept playing trailers last week for their double feature of those new prints of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and The Holy Mountain that have been going around, and it killed me that I wouldn't be there to catch it. But I lucked out, because the NuArt scheduled a three day run of Holy Mountain this week, and I just got back from the second-to-last screening of it; what better way to spend a Thursday afternoon than in pursuit of circa-1973 enlightenment?
Jodorowsky is one of those filmmakers I came to know before I even saw a frame of his work, through my tattered copy of Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion. The 1991 edition that I received for my 10th birthday had a review of Santa Sangre and long, fascinating and, to my mind, frightening interview with Jodorowsky. The ideas of the images of the dead brides rising from their graves, or the trapeeze artist having her arms lopped off, were planted and quickly bloomed in my mind; by the time I got around to seeing Santa Sangre when I was in high school, it wasn't the images themselves that shocked me so much as the colorful, almost ribald physicality of them. Those brides weren't the ephemeral wraiths I'd imagined, but tangible, garishly made up corpuses. This, I think, accounts for much of Jodorwosky's power; he makes the grotesque and fantastic entirely tangible.
I saw El Topo a few years ago, on the same bootleg Japanese VHS tape that I think everyone of my generation has seen it on, and loved it with qualifications. It's an unapologetically symbolic film, but for every dalliance into mythical pretension, there are at least a dozen unforgettable images. It's this same lurid profundity that would elevate Santa Sangre so far above its pulpy narrative two decades later, and it's all there in Holy Mountain, too, along with a serious case of counter-culture idealism. Certain sequences resembles a puree of Fellini and Tout Va Bien-era Godard, with some bluntly obvious satire. Others are deliriously hippy-dippy and sometimes painfully dated; there's a good portion of the film that's hard to watch with a straight face (or, at the very least, an unaltered minset). But through it all, that imagery - strung together with an ellipitically perfect rhythm - prevails. Jodorowsky is a master of the graphic. His symbols are searing, even when they're obvious.
Furthermore, the sheer scale of the film is so impressive, especially in the early sequences, that I was shocked to read that it only cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars (all John Lennon's) to produce. And Jodorowsky's name pops up so frequently in the credits that the film winds up feeling as distinctly handmade as it is unique.
But back to that imagery. I should note that much of it involves animals, either alive, dead or somewehre in between. I don't have too much trouble separating cruelty from craftsmanship when context and cultural standards serve as buffers - the climax of Apocalypse Now is a prime example - but there are certain scenes in here that are tough to justify (I wrote about this conundrum at greater length a few years ago). I'd never for a second discourage anyone from seeing Holy Mountain simply because of some of its more egregious content; but at the same time, that content does force me to consider my own rather muddy delineation of standards. I look down on some of the images in the film, but what about the film stock itself, which is a bi-product of those images?
Regardless; I'm excited about the imminent release of El Topo and Holy Mountain (alongside Fando Y Lis, which I've never seen) on DVD. Even better, now that they're legal again, is the possibility of tours of the very midnight movie circuit that brought Jodorowsky to fame in the first place.
March 19, 2007
The best part about SXSW was hanging out with so many friends at the films and parties and (more commonly, it seemed) on the sidewalks outside of films and parties. It looks like more of the same is in store, because roughly everybody that was in Austin last week is going to be in Florida for the 9th Annual Sarasota Film Festival in mid-April. The just-announced lineup includes Hannah Takes The Stairs, Quiet City, Silver Jew, Great World Of Sound, Kurt Cobain About A Son, and also, in the shorts programs, Some Analog Lines and The Outlaw Son.
I'm really excited - not just because I've got two films in one festival, but because they're in such amazing company. Some Analog Lines is playing in the Animated Shorts program, alongside Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be OK and Run Wrake's Rabbit, both of which are absolutely stunning. And The Outlaw Son - which I'm both tremendously excited and somewhat terrified to watch with an audience - is in the Vintage And Vanguard program, alongside Ray Tintori's Death To Tinman (a brilliant short I wrote about here, and which I saw for the fifth or sixth time at SXSW) and a new film from Jay Rosenblatt, called Afraid So. Jay's film The Phantom Limb was my second favorite film of 2005, and was a big inspiration when I was making Some Analog Lines.
The lineup is pretty impressive; I love some of the programs, which include Faith On Film (including, appropriately, Silver Jew) and The Shape Of Things To Come: Architecture, Development And Design On Film. Schedule pending, I really hope I can catch Jessica Yu's Performance, Tony Kaye's Lake Of Fire, Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes and Sophie Fienne's Pervert’s Guide To Cinema. And who could pass up any opportunity to see Tati's Playtime on the big screen? And I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again, too. It's going to be a fun week.
On a related note, I completely forgot to mention - because I completely forgot to remember - that Some Analog Lines screened with a selection of video work at The New Genre Art Festival. I've come to love the fact that, aside from SXSWClick, it's never played in any documentary category, and I hope it continues to evade any strict definition...
March 18, 2007
Best Fake Birthday Ever
I just got back from Austin, and the most perfect cap to SXSW I could ever have hoped for. After the Theater Fire show, Curtis and Valerie and Jeff and Priya and I all went to get in line for the Jandeck show at the historic Presbyterian Church where exactly a year ago we saw the Anti Records showcase. Two hours later, we got inside and made it to the very front pew - the best seats in the house. Jandek walked out (for what was, I believe, his twenty-fourth show ever), wordlessly slung his guitar over his shouder and then proceeded to deafen the audience with songs that sounded a lot like what Scott Walker might have ended up making if he'd never made that detour into pop stardom. Raw, discordant noise that somehow catches hold of just enough form every few measures to maintain a sense of progression (and escalating dread).
Then it was time for Bill Callahan to perform - but before he did, the crew wheeled a grand piano into the aisle, right in front of our pew. We had an inkling of a premonition as to who might be playing it; and sure enough, as Callahan walked out on stage, Joanna Newsom stepped down into the aisle and sat down at the piano, about a foot away from us.
And then she started to play. I don't know how to express how amazing it was. The new Smog songs were incredibly beautiful (especially Sycamore), but Bill Callahan almost seemed more like backup to the performance that was going on right in front of us.
The set only lasted thirty minutes or so; another act was going to come on, but we were all pretty sure that the evening couldn't be improved upon, and so we left, still clinging to cloud nine. I passed Matt Dentler in the street a little while later and tried to say hi, but was in too much of a daze to really get any coherent sentence out (Dentler, in case you read this, I promise I wasn't as inebriated as I imagine I sounded).
And now I'm home, about ready to fall asleep. Another SXSW come and gone. I'll have more reviews and anecdotes (and more festival news) in the near future; in the meantime, I'm going to go to sleep and try to dream myself back to earlier this evening.
March 17, 2007
St. Patty's Day
I'm through with film and have moved on, in a minor capacity, to music; yesteday I caught Ola Padrida, Bosque Brown, O Death and the band that probably doesn't need any more of my attention. I'll probably end up seeing them again today, on the Asthmatic Kitty showcase with Peter And The Wolf, and then I'll head over to get in line early to see Jandek perform with Bill Callahan. That should be properly amazing, which is why I probably won't get in. But damn if I won't try! I can't think of a better way to celebrate my fake birthday.
St. Patrick's Day Bonus: a fellow film blogger and filmmaker was seen promoting his film on 6th Street last night. Hooray for camera phones! Always there when you need them.
March 15, 2007
A Little Bit About About A Son
I've seen a lot of really great films in the past week, and I'm not even going to try to play favorites; but I will say that nothing really hit me on a deeply personal level until this morning, when I finally saw AJ Schnak's Kurt Cobain About A Son.
I've written about AJ's film and my own feelings about Cobain and Nirvana a few times in the past, and I'm sure I will again in the future. For now, I'll just say that About A Son affected me in a way I haven't quite grasped yet. I feel like a missing part of my own life has been filled in for me. I was thirteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself; that morning was the first time I was really aware of him. His death was all I knew of him, and its impact on me continues to resound even now; but watching this film, listening to him speak, I was able to separate him from that for the first time, and in a strange way, it took me back, back to when I was twelve or even eleven. Like I was catching up with something I'd never known.
AJ's film, with its lyrical imagery of the Pacific Northwest and spectral narration, reminded me just a little bit of Robinson Devor's Zoo, another nonfiction film that didn't disappoint my high expectations. It's a gorgeous work, absolutely lovely to behold, and it's not prurient or terribly shocking in its content; and yet it doesn't go down easy - not so much because of its subject matter but because it's so perfectly considerate. The film's narration is made up almost entirely of interviews with men who would justify their zoophilic tastes; there is practically no voice of dissent to their tastes, but so great is the implicit, natural aversion to them that the film inherently takes the form of a complex dialogue.
And as for the act itself? It's glimpsed, very briefly, but more than that it's heard. And that, as it always does, turns out to be far worse than what we don't see.
A documentary about landscape development is probably the last film I'd expect to get emotional during, but I found myself blinking back a few tears here and there during Laura Dunn's The Unforseen, which contains some of the most exuberant depictions of democracy I've ever seen. Afterwards, I wondered if my emotional reaction was because of the subject matter, or because that subject matter was scored by a Sigur Ros song. Then I remembered that, oh yeah, it's a movie - it's both.
March 14, 2007
Attending a film festival is a study in contrasts - not just in terms of the pictures seen, but in the peaks and valleys that narrowly separate my reaction to them. I saw The Devil Comes On Horseback this afternoon, a documentary on the Darfur genocide that contained some of the most horrific and affecting images of human suffering I've ever seen; and then, a few hours later, I found myself chuckling along with the rest of the theater as a woman's head was beaten in with a fire extinguisher in The Signal. It's a wild rollercoaster of input; I'm alway sort of waiting for that one film that can't be filed away in favor of the next consecutive cinematic experience, that demands reflection. I haven't found it yet.
But I have been slowing down a lot this year. I've only seen fourteen features so far (and quite a few shorts). From those, here are two capsule reviews and a handful of lazy comparisons.
- I was really impressed with Ry Russo Young's Orphans, a lovely portrait of two sisters whose intertwined psychological scars keep dragging each other down. Ry cited Three Women, Persona and Cries And Whispers as major influences, but the film, with its desolate wintry landscapes and familial dynamics, also reminded me quite a bit of Bergman's Autumn Sonata. But Bergman, as in touch with the fairer psyche as he might have been, was still approaching his subjects from the outside, and one of the things I love about Orphans is that it's so exquisitely feminine. I also loved looking at it; the production design, full of pale, dilapidated pastels, is gorgeous, as are the costumes; Russo clad her actresses in ornate party dresses for large parts of the films, and I love the image of one of the sisters walking down a hospital corridor, the long train of her gown spilling out from under her heavy winter coat and trailing along the dirty floor.
- Ronald Bronstein's Frownland is one of the most unpleasant film experiences I've had in a long time, and as such I couldn't be happier that it won a special jury prize last night. This is a film that grates, that antagonizes, and absolutely does not flinch in its dedication to its sad sack of characters and their vague, frequently pathetic attempts to better their lives. The last twenty minutes are almost unbearably intense and disorienting, with a pulsating sonic landscape that seems designed to induce nausea; it's not fun, but what it does it does exceedingly well. I'm really glad Matt Dentler had the guts to program such a defiantly difficult work, and I hope other festivals follow suit.
- People have been saying that Ti West's Trigger Man is basically Old Joy with guns, and I don't think that's true at all. It's Gerry with guns.
- An Audience Of One is an amazing documentary that can best be described as Jesus Camp meets American Movie.
- I haven't put my finger on why Hannah Takes The Stairs reminds me so much of Antonioni's L'Eclisse, but it does.
The film festival's closing night party was last night; as always, movies will continue until Saturday, but familiar faces have started to disappear and the buzz in the air is beginning to dissipate. Now it's time to play catch-up.
Posted by David Lowery at 11:01 AM
March 12, 2007
SXSW so far...
It's raining in sheets in Austin right now, and there's something about dashing through the downpour, from screening to screening to party to screening, that's just exhilarating. I've never had this much fun at SXSW before; I've sort of thrown away my schedule and am pretty much seeing whatever's buzzing during those inevitable congregations of friends and friendly strangers outside the theater after each film. That, and split second decisions, like ducking into the Zellner Vs. Duplass showdown; I'd already seen all of the fraternal duos' shorts, but sometimes context is everything. It was pretty amazing.
And then, of course, there was the premiere of Hannah Takes The Stairs at the Paramount. It was just the best thing ever (and poorly commemorated here, for the time being, by this snapshot from my cell phone).
More to come, of course...
Posted by David Lowery at 2:47 AM
March 9, 2007
A Train Bound For Texas
I've been so busy lately that I almost considered skipping the first day of SXSW; then I decided to just not sleep instead. I'll be hitting the road in about two hours, and I'm still pretty much in the dark as far as what I'm going to see and when I'm going to see it (so keep those recommendations coming). Tonight, I'll probably watch Laura Dunn's The Unforseen, and prior to that I think I might catch the remake of DePalma's Sisters, starring Chloe Sevigny. And there's a short playing before that called Day 73 With Sarah that I'm interested in because the director is a mutual friend, and because the Theater Fire did the score.
Speaking of The Theater Fire, they're going to be all over the music festival this coming week. Starting Tuesday, they're playing several shows a day, and I'll be at a handful of them. Their official SXSW show is on Wednesday at 11pm, at Room 710. The rest of their schedule is up at their site.
They'll have a new EP to hand out, and also a DVD, produced by yours truly. I've been up all night putting the finishing touches on it, and I just handed over the finished product an hour ago. It features five songs culled from three live performances. For your viewing and listening pleasure, here are the first two cuts: Beatrice and Coyote. I've also made iPod versions, which can be downloaded here and here (right click to download).
I might upload more later in the week; and if you see me at a show, I might have copies of the DVD on hand. As for now, I'm off for a last minute shoot for another project, after which I'll be heading south for a nonstop week of watching movies. And editing. And parties. And writing. But mostly movies.
UPDATE: And I already missed the first one - I didn't end up getting my badge until seven. Now I'm sitting at the convention center, waiting for The Unforeseen. It's packed.
March 6, 2007
Instead of working on my Creative Capital application the other night, I decided to be characteristically irresponsible and (uncharacteristically) go see Zodiac again. It's not often that a film can sustain its hold on me over two consecutive viewings - generally, when I watch something a second time, especially in such short order, it's to zero in on particular sequences or details; whatever sense of chronological surprise the film might have had is gone. But James Vanderbilt's script is so rich with information, and so beautifully constructed around that information, that I literally forgot where it was going, forgot that, of all the facts in the film's neverending stream of them, the most important one would remain missing.
Larry Gross hones in on this structural phenomenon in his appreciation of the film at Movie City News:
...knowledge has become pure form, stretched out precariously as an abstract “story” across the abyss of the lives that have been swallowed up in the failure to become its content. The haunting final scene exquisitely utilizing characters we barely know and can identify, “completes” the abstract search for truth.
Gross pinpoints just about everything that makes this such an extraordinary thriller, including my own favorite element: the fluid role of the protagonist. Each character essentially serves as a host for the transient obsession that, in the constantly shifting flow of time and personae, is the film's singular, haunting constant.
Gross also points out that "the fact that it was shot on video and exists immaterially as digital information is thus not a merely decorative issue but crucial to its meaning." I think that it's definitely ancillary, but I don't know that it's crucial, partially because it's so formally invisible as a creative choice (unlike another film Gross cites, Inland Empire). The first time I saw the film, it scarcely crossed my mind that I was seeing a digital image transferred to 35mm. Of course, prior to Zodiac's release, the fact that it was being shot digitally, and immaterially, was the most interesting thing about it. The tapeless workflow was outlined in this article in Millimeter Magazine last year.
There's a telling paragraph in which Fincher "laments" that we "live in a world where we still have to exhibit on film, at least for now." My second viewing of the film, though was via a Christie digital projector, which every now and then, in the more brightly lit scenes, betrayed the film's true medium. The most interesting thing about looking at the HD image was that I recognized it. Sure, the color sampling is a bit higher and the 1080 resolution less compressed than what my own camera can produce, but it still looked familiar, approachable - an affect which made the film more realistic and immediate, and also slightly less surreal. It was slightly disconcerting, actually; I'm a proponent of digital exhibition, but at this point, I still sort of prefer the alchemical aesthetics of the 35mm transfer, where those sharp lines decay a bit, and the blacks are just a little bit more crushed.
I went back and looked at some of Fincher's earlier work last week, including his first film, Alien 3. I'd seen the film years ago and didn't think it was quite the disaster so many think it is, but it didn't really make too much of an impression. What I watched this time, though, was the extended cut, culled from various workprints and editing logs, that was included on the DVD released a few years back. This restored cut is shockingly good - great, even - and it makes an absolute travesty of the original theatrical version (and fools of the studio executives who released it when such a wonderful film was already shot). Fincher's direction is restrained and mature, and ripe with terrible, beautiful imagery that predicates the grungy religiosity that would follow a few years later in Seven. And the script actually (shockingly) turns out to be pretty well-written; the scene with the alien birth, as it was originally conceived, is brilliant.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Edward Norton had this to say about his Fight Club director:
Probably pound for pound, he's the most comprehensively talented film-maker I've worked with. He is a better photographer than the DP, a better writer than the screenwriter, a better actor than you are - he's just an amazing renaissance technician of film. And he could be your shrink and he's got a great grasp of it all. I can't explain it, he's really got a facility with the medium, it's like film becomes more fluid in his hands. I don't think he sees it as literally as other people, and his sense of how to juxtapose imagery is really wild.
The interviewer responds by saying that Fincher is "the closest we have to Stanley Kubrick." I see where he's coming from, but I think it's a somewhat limiting comparison. They're amazing directors, both of them, and yeah, they both are (or were, in Kubrick's case) exacting and demanding and quick to do dozens if not hundreds of takes to get a shot right. But while they're means are the same, their ends are separated by generations. I think Kubrick was shooting for - and achieved- high art, but Fincher's after something different. He said in an interview around the time of Panic Room that "I think the movies I make are trifles. They're footnote movies." Maybe these trifles aren't art in and of themselves, but they are, undoubtedly, utter exemplifications of artistry. And with Zodiac, I think he may in fact have overshot his own workmanlike goals and come up with something classic.
March 4, 2007
While Curtis lays down tracks, I'm sitting on the couch, working on the third draft of yet another script, this being one of the ones I'm planning on shooting this year. I found a great resource online for some of its more technical content: dissection videos!
March 2, 2007
Friday Screen Test
Adam Ross at DVD Panache has been publishing a weekly series of profiles of film bloggers and online critics; the latest subject of the Friday Screen Test is yours truly. Thank you, Adam, for satiating my deep seated need for attention! I'm looking forward to seeng similar questions leveled at some of my fellow
cineastes cinephiles film buffs insatiables in the coming weeks and months.
March 1, 2007
Three Inspired By Kiarostami
This afternoon, as the MoMA begins its career-spanning retrospective of Abbas Kiarostami with his 1997 film Taste Of Cherry, I watched that same picture for the first time (the timing was a coincidence - I didn't know about the retrospective until immediately afterward). The film's provocative ending left me with three stairstepping thoughts:
- How many directors in the past have broken the fourth wall in the manner that Kiarostami does at the end of this film? I'm sure there have been a few (such as Godard in general and Le Mépris in particular) but the one which pops most immediately to mind is Fellini, who brought And The Ship Sails On to a close with a similar meta-reveal, and with similar intentions. By confronting the viewer head-on with the implicit falsehood of cinema, they underscore the fact that their films are about something bigger than their ostensible plots (for instance, both films have serious political strains running throughout them which are put into a greatder degree of perspective by their denouments). Both endings are, of course, open to interpretation; Kiarostami's could be a representation of the afterlife, or a return to reality after a long dream (inasmuch as cinema is inherently 'dreamlike').
- I already knew about this ending (and its history) from Jonathan Rosenbaum's chapter on it in Movie Mutations, and yet I didn't feel it was spoiled for me because Rosenbaum offered no interpretation. The same goes for his review of the film at the time of its release, where he instead offers a quote from Kiarostami on his intentions: "I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to its viewer--a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer, so that all of a sudden we have a hundred films." I was well on my way to taking up that collaborative invitation by the time the film came to a close, but as I watched the credits and reflected on my own interpretations and whether or not I would write about them here, I also remember how late I was to the game. Had all the good thoughts already been thunk?
- A quick Google search certainly did lay out all my own ideas before me, already formulated and put into words alongside others I hadn't even considered (of particular note, at least regarding the ending, is this article by Michael Price in Sense Of Cinema). The fun thing about writing about films online is that there's no temporal guidelines (or no real need for them, in any case); we're free to traipse across the chronology of cinema, watching and writing about whatever we please. But sometimes, I feel daunted when approaching a classic (particularly a relatively recent classic) - it's like writing your first collegiate paper on Plato or Aristotle and realizing that there's no possible way to say anything original. The best one can hope to offer, initially, is novel reiteration and thorough footnotes.
On the other hand, given the vehicle in question, I think that's okay. I believe that blogs are an entirely legitimate critical medium, but they also afford the writer the luxury of public development in a way that the more empirical printed word cannot.
My sole footnote here, lazily left uncoded as such, is Zach Campbell's thoughts on his first viewing of Taste Of Cherry, prompted by missing tonight's screening at MoMA.