March 31, 2008
At AFI Dallas
So I'm walking down the red carpet this evening, facing an undue barrage of flash bulbs and wondering if I still have animal cracker crumbs all over my jacket. A friendly press concierge escorts me from reporter to reporter, to each of whom I make a valiant attempt to speak in complete sentences and not undersell my own film. Then I get to one guy, whose cameraman is obviously busy changing a battery or tape something. He glances at my badge to get my name and the title of my movie, cross-checks me with his list of interviewees, and then asks me what the film's about. I tell him, and then pause, noticing that the camera guy has actually walked away. "Keep talking," he insists, holding the microphone out to me even though its glaringly obvious that it's not actually connected to any active recording instrument. I give him a look that he pretends not to notice, and then mumble some nonsense and get the hell out of there. If being in the limelight wasn't already so exceedingly awkward, it would have been hilarious.
This festival is so fancy that I feel like it's simultaneously whitening and rotting my teeth every time I walk through the crowds. That said, James and Sarah and all the folks who're putting on this show are great. My film screened with some pretty cool shorts, and it was great to finally see Ciao on the big screen with an audience. More on that at a more appropriate time, perhaps.
I haven't edited in three days. And I need to detox.
UPDATE: Oh look, here's what it all looked like. This reporter was really nice, unlike captain-couldn't-care-less down the line.
But who are those dudes standing behind me, looking so pleased with themselves? I wish I was that well dressed.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:19 AM
March 27, 2008
403 Errors Abound
On a purely technical note, I just realized that the archives of this site are for some reason completely inaccessible. Time to delve once more into the pink sinewy guts of my server and learn a few new tricks.
March 26, 2008
A Mid-Afternoon Nap
I promise that this won't become a ledger of every minutiae of every cut I make to this picture of mine, but! But: I'm working on this scene that is a little film unto itself. It's a scene in which the kids essentially have to solve a problem. We shot it with two cameras, in an unbroken take; we actually started shooting before the scene began, without the kids' knowledge, and captured a rather epic battle of sibling wills that I could never have written, never have captured if we didn't have an actual brother and sister playing the parts. It turned this very pragmatic activity into a full three act drama, complete with character arcs, hubris, catharsis and little grace notes of marvelous wit. It's an amazing scene.
Unfortunately, it's over twelve minutes long (and that's all before the scene actually begins). Coming where it does in the story, it would capsize the movie. I struggle all afternoon with finding a way to shorten it. Looking for shots from one end that might cohere with shots from the other. Trying to avoid jump cuts. I eventually get so frustrated that I have to take a nap.
Forty five minutes later I get up from the couch and reduce the entire thing to three brief, functional shots and move on.
Today's entry is brought to you by some clandestine letters and numbers and the song 'You'll Find Your Footing' by Baby Dee, which isn't online, although other good ditties by her are.
Posted by David Lowery at 3:50 PM
March 24, 2008
Writing about Eat, For This Is My Body called to mind another film I saw at Sundance that I'd been meaning to mention here. Like Quay's picture, Belgian artist Nicolas Provost's Plot Point was programmed in the New Frontiers category, which is reserved for works that occupy the gray area between fine art and cinema and which by and large constituted the most impressive work I saw at the festival. Plot Point was definitely a highlight; about fifteen minutes long, the film is set in Manhattan and is made up of beautifully photographed verite images and (seemingly) stolen moments. Through use of composition, juxtaposition and sound design, Provost orchestrates his found footage into pure narrative. It's pure in that, while nothing ostensibly happens in the film, it's constantly, urgently surging forward, building towards an inevitable climax. It's a breathtaking study on the plastic modes of cinematic storytelling.
Such studies have made up a great portion of Provost's work, which has appropriated both the language of film and prexisting film itself to examine the opposing polarities of the moving picture as art. As he puts it in an interview from Sundance:
“I’m an artist before I’m a filmmaker,” Provost said. “I’m very conscious I’m working with image and sound almost like a painter or a sculptor. Sometimes [my works] are more paintings or fine arts than they are films. Sometimes I make films like Plot Point where I’m questioning the codes of cinema that we are conditioned with. That’s always something that comes back with all the works that I do: to try to move people by playing with the codes."
Just as Provost uses those codes to, essentially, construct classical something out of nothing in Plot Point, he's put the rabbit right back into the hat with some of his earlier works, including Gravity, in which dozens of kisses from across cinematic history are combined into a single fluid embrace, and Papillon D'Amour (viewable below), in which he lifts a scene from Rashamon and, through the use of a simple mirroring effect, divorces it from its original intent. In the case of the latter film, the aesthetic experience trumps any sort of deconstructive commentary one might apply to it. It is, simply, a portrait of a butterfly, and what initially seems like a simple trick, something anyone with a Mac could do in five minutes, quickly blossoms into a stunning bit of impressionism.
Indeed, by the time the film is over, nothing of Kurosawa remains but the understanding that his film was the progenitor of this one; one could find a gateway, there, to a more meta reading of Papillon D'Amour, but it's on an avenue that runs at a parallel distance from the work itself; in other words, the film itself is not meta. It's not about itself, or about Kurosawa. Provost has taken the work of a great director and made of it not a pastiche, but a palimpsest. This eradication is what elevates the resulting film beyond the level of commentary and makes it a great work in its own right.
Thirty seconds shy of the thirty minute mark. I'm slacking off. I need to return to my timeline, lest I answer the urge to expend another few hundred words on the work of Brent Green.
March 23, 2008
Eat, For This Is My Body
One of the films that's stuck with me the most since seeing it at Sundance is Michelange Quay's Eat, For This Is My Body. This is the sort of film one never hears mentioned in the Park City buzz, whose relative invisibility gives way to cries that the festival has sold out. There's no way for mainstream journalists to qualify a work like this because there's no way to rate it on a scale of indie credibility; this is the sort of film that's designed to challenge and confront on a higher plane, and in doing so to frustrate audiences unwilling to meet it halfway. All of which makes it both inexcusable to ignore and, unfortunately, far too easy.
The film is a stark portrait of colonialism and race in Haiti - stark not in its harsh realism but in its broad, encompassing symbolism. It's a film populated by archetypes, where an individual can represent a people, a caste, a mode of archaic thought, a paradigm shift; Quay creates a context in which defining someone by the color of their skin is not only appropriate but necessary for narrative purposes.
That narrative is vague, conveyed through a series of studiously composed and mostly dialogue-free scenes in which those characters engage and transgress. One could technically boil down the drama herein to a traditional model of conflict-resolution - and indeed the dramatic arc of the story is quite simple - but it plays out so slowly that it's difficult to actively chart the progression; this is storytelling at its most distended, which is precisely why it fascinates me. In one of the best reviews of the film I've read, Karina Longworth notes that "Eat feels more like fine art than film." Which is very true; although she goes on to compare elements of the picture to Lynch and Bunuel, a comparison I'd more readily draw is to Matthew Barney (particularly his more recent work). Quay is less phantasmagoric in his intentions than Barney, and certainly more literal, but there's a languid appropriation of traditional cinematic language present in both directors' work, and just as Barney's films were most at home in museums, I think audiences might appreciate and understand Eat more if they go in expecting art first and film second.
Which isn't to say it's not cinematic: in fact, it contains one of the most memorable scenes I imagine I'll see on the big screen for quite some time. The scene (glimpsed briefly in the trailer) involves a big white cake and twelve black schoolboys; it begins in a close-up and slowly pulls back in a long, steady dolly shot whose assuredness contradicts the escalating chaos it's gradually revealing. It's the sort of scene that, existing so perfectly as it does in one medium, is best not described in another. So I'll simply close by noting that Eat, For This Is My Body can be seen in New York next week at the New Directors / New Films series. Suitably, the first screening is at the MoMA.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:08 AM
March 22, 2008
From e-mails sent to friends this week:
"I'm not quite sure what it is yet. It's feeling a lot more like a documentary than I thought it would, but it also has this strange, slightly unreal storybook vibe."
"I don't necessarily want to keep a massively close lid on this project, but I also don't want to let the cat out of the bag quite yet. I don't even know if it's a cat yet. It might be a puppy. Or a grizzly."
"I'm twenty-one minutes into the cut. So far I don't hate it."
And I don't. I also am not quite so worried that, through smart and judicious cutting, I'd end up with yet another short film. I'm letting things play a little long right now, but even so, these twenty-one minutes constitute about five and a half pages of the script, which itself was thirty pages long. And I haven't even made it to the first scene with dialogue yet. As long as the film is at least 65 minutes, I'll be happy and content that my instincts did not lead me astray.
Time for an anecdote! Yesterday, I found myself facing a quandary somewhat related to my post below. I found that, in a particular scene, if I lined up two unsuccessful takes directly prior to a successful one, the result was something close to an interminably drawn-out comic set piece. I actually cracked myself up watching it! The problem, though, is that if a.) the hallmark of successful physical comedy is sustenance (of both the subject and the camera) and b.) the manufactured humor of this sequence necessitates two edits whose sole purpose are to join three shots that ideally would be one, is the comic structure of the scene worth the poor form with which it's been assembled? Especially when it's the sort of comedy that's so deconstructed that it will put most audiences to sleep? It's like Jacques Tati in molasses, played back at a quarter speed.
Well, that's what second cuts are for. Right now it's staying in.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:36 AM
March 18, 2008
My Blueberry Nights
For Wong Kar Wai, there's nothing more lyrical than a broken heart; one might tell him to get over it already if it wasn't so obvious that he already has, long ago, and is simply foisting the shell of some worn out sentiment on his audience. Hence his new film, My Blueberry Nights, which has the emotive substance of an overlong commercial. It pretends to want to make you feel.
Which is a shame, because all the way up until 2046, with which he hit the apex of reflective themes and cinematic rhyme schemes, Wong's films did make us feel, and quite strongly. But he's reached a point, much like Godard (his most openly obvious precedent) did near the end of the 60s, when the same old tricks have begun to sour. Godard got wise and exchanged romance for politics; Wong, with this film, is like an eighteen year-old so caught up in his latest crush that he forgot to register to vote.
If I was a snarkier writer, I'd say that this is a love story to New York from someone who's still afraid of Manhattan subways. Which is true, as evidenced by some of the dialogue in the film, but Wong's foreign perspective on Americana isn't necessarily a problem; nor is it the English delivery that makes his dialogue so bad, or Norah Jones' lack of acting experience that makes her lovelorn monologues so cloying. It's just that it's all so damn trite, a problem exacerbated by a serious case of self importance.
These are problems that are cast into especially sharp contrast by the one scene that doesn't have them. It's a random encounter, completely isolated from the rest of the narrative, between Jude Law's character and an old flame played by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power. They stand outside in the snow and talk about relationships, and as they do, something magical happens: with her smoky voice and winsome humor, Marshall deflates all the trite, gossamer trappings that Wong's exchanged for the raw, quiet passion that used to fuel his work. For just a few minutes, My Blueberry Nights is not about movie stars pretending to know about love, but about a person who has loved, who can love. It's there in her face, there in her voice, and as long as she's on screen, it's there in the film too. And then she's gone, and with her goes any reason to keep watching.
I should note here that the cut of the film I saw is the one that played at Cannes last spring; I'm curious to know what effect the publicized edits the Weinsteins made might have on the picture, but I don't know if I'm curious enough to go back to see it again when they finally release it.
One mildly interesting aspect of the film, though, is that, almost from the get-go, Wong openly disregards conventional cinematic language. His camera is all over the place; his compositions jump from one side of the 180 degree line to another. This is nothing new for him, but because the film is otherwise so gilded, so precisely gorgeous, such affronts stand out more (in the same sense, his trademark use of stop-printing here feels like nothing more than a faux-rough edge). In looking for something formal to grab onto amidst all the dripping sweetness of the cinematography, I wondered if the upset in screen direction was supposed to signify disconnect between the characters. Then I recalled a NY Times article on Wong from a year or so ago in which the reported described the crew shooting the kiss between Jude Law and Norah Jones. Over and over again this one fleeting moment was photographed, from every conceivable angle. All of which goes to signify that Wong has no idea what he's after when he's shooting.
Again, this is nothing new. Wong's more recent shoots are famous for stretching on for years, as he constantly refines whatever it might be that he wants (a mode of work which is actually incredibly appealing and inspiring to me, albeit in a more limited capacity). But watching My Blueberry Nights, I felt the distinct difference between two types of cinematographic intention - that conceived beforehand and achieved through the production, and that borne of juxtaposition - and, resultingly, the potential limitations one has over the other. I don't think Wong went into his production looking to create a sense of emotional disorientation by breaking the 180 degree line; if that was indeed his intention, he came up with it in the editing process. But the danger of making such a bold choice after the fact is that, if the rest of the film doesn't support it, it runs the risk of sending a mixed message: it can be just as legitimately read as a mistake as it can be a choice.
My Blueberry Nights feels like it's full of mistakes. But I wonder if it's time we stopped looking at a disregard of traditional cinematic language as a statement (as per my initial reaction) or as an error, which historically (to the extent of my knowledge) are the only two responses afforded to it. I'm not sure (and I'd wager that any filmmaker actively pursuing a third alternative would essentially be playing catch-up to Brakhage). My Blueberry Nights is too trifling a film to make a decisive statement, but its certainly bound more by the whims of decorative aesthetic than the rigors of traditional form (not that the two should be disparate, but they certainly aren't uniform here). In the end, I think Wong might have picked his shots based on prettiness more than anything else; but maybe there's some cohesion there that's worth paying more attention to.
I don't think any of the above ideas are quite worth the amount of words I just spent on them, but whatever. I'm procrastinating!
Posted by David Lowery at 12:10 AM
March 17, 2008
...but other festivals are right around the corner.
A Catalog Of Anticipations will next be seen at...
- AFI Dallas on March 30th and 31st.
- The Sarasota Film Festival on April 6th and 8th. They're playing the full triptych!
- The Independent Film Festival of Boston, sometime between April 23rd and 29th.
I'm going to try to go to all of these. Attending festivals with short films isn't necessarily a vital career move, but I'm a sucker for traveling. Even when I have all of eight dollars in my bank account.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:10 PM
March 15, 2008
SXSW Is Over...
Another SXSW has come to a close, and not a moment too soon. For some reason, it's really worn me out this year. I've been restless and exhausted throughout the whole festival; sleeping until eleven every day and feeling the tug of some phantom pillow everywhere I go. I can possibly chock it up to all the work waiting for me at home: I brought one of the St. Nick hard drives with me, but somehow managed to leave the power cable behind and thus haven't done a lick of editing. It's probably a good thing, because if I'd been able to work on it I'd have probably never left my room (a very comfortable room, graciously provided by my friend Stacy). But it's all I've been thinking about. Getting excited about it and worrying about it in equal measure.
Nevertheless, it was still a terrific time; lots of long walks and conversations with friends, lots of great films (although I saw a discouragingly scant amount compared to years past). There's a convergence between those two points, and I feel somewhat conflicted when I state that all of my favorite films were made by my friends, but what can I say: I've got some really, really talented friends. They're all at the very top of their game, and there are moments in all of their films that will stick in my head forever, haunting me or making me laugh, or both.
My own screenings went really exceptionally well, too. It was an honor to be programmed amongst some of the best American short films I've ever seen, including this one, which I felt necessitated its own review over at Spout. It was the last film of the program, and mine was placed directly before it. A fortuitous spot indeed! Everyone seemed to dig it, and the Q&As were good, and I think it might have set the stage for some good opportunities. And since all of the above is really all you can ask for at a film festival, I suppose I should ignore my ennui and focus on the positive.
And now to hit the highway and get down to brass tacks. I've got a film to cut. And more shooting to do?
Posted by David Lowery at 1:44 AM
March 14, 2008
Do you ever feel like you've been cheated on when music you love shows up in movies that you feel doesn't deserve it? Call me selfish, but I do, quite frequently, and 'tis a bitter pain indeed. Regardless, I don't quite know what to make of this trailer, which I watched on an entirely random whim. The song actually sort of works, but it still seems wrong somehow.
More on SXSW soon. My last screening is in about twelve hours.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:59 AM
March 9, 2008
Last night I walked out of a movie after its first thirty minutes and wondered what the hell I was doing wasting my time with movies like this, with movies in general, with this very art form.
Tonight I saw Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely. It made my heart swell up. Every image set off bursts of ideas and emotions and wordless hyperboles blooming across my brain; grandstanding thoughts and deep feelings and one very clear resolution: I was right all along. This is what I need to be doing.
What else to say about it now? The film is a masterpiece of iconographic narrative. It is a sublimely simple story wrapped around a mantra that slipped from the screen with the grace of some artisinal knife, delivering Korine's point so sharply and with such profound precision that when it was withdrawn I almost instantly forgot the words used to convey it. They were delivered by a faux-Queen, speaking from the heart, and perhaps I'll recall them in the morning. It's been a long day.
March 5, 2008
Catalog At SXSW
In lieu of postcards, posters, word of mouth, MySpace updates or any other promotional effort on my part, I figure I should at least post the times my film is playing at SXSW. They are Sunday, March 9 at 12:00pm; Tuesday, March 11 at 12:00pm; and Friday, Mach 14 at 2:30pm.
All of the screenings will be at the Alamo South Lamar. This is all included on the official SXSW page for the film. And if anyone reading this hasn't actually seen it yet, the first minute or so are included there for your viewing pleasure, although I'd recommend holding out for the whole thing.
I, meanwhile, will be attending SXSW in an additional capacity: I'm covering the festival for Spout.com. Let's see how high I can keep my film-to-review ration before I burn out!
In Support Of Good Friends
Links to things:
- James has posted the entirety of his short film GDMF online. Dirty! Confrontational! Improvised! Incomplete? It feels like it's been ten years since we made this. And by ten I mean two.
- Clay Liford, who photographed St. Nick, has with finely tuned wit posted his myriad and sundry remembrances from the shoot.
- Adam Donaghey would be doing more of the same, but for a suddenly broken spine. And by spine I mean collarbone.
Oh, and last but not least: Frownland opens this week at the IFC Center, with the accompaniment of a rave from The New Yorker. Meanwhile, Ronnie will be at SXSW in support of his wife Mary's new feature, Yeast. Exciting times for exceptional cinema.
Incidentally, Ronnie's also the one who, intentionally or not, lead me down my current literary path: Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. All seven volumes. That's the goal, at least.
March 3, 2008
James chimed in with his thoughts on finishing the film, as well as a charming, meandering behind-the-scenes look at the production.
How do people ever know what I'm saying? My speech patterns are even worse than my handwriting.
Posted by David Lowery at 5:42 PM
Wrapping For The Second Of Three Times
We had two days of pickups over the weekend, shooting a few things that we didn't get earlier, a few new iterations and amalgamations of earlier scenes, and a lot of material made up on the spot, including two scenes that might just be my favorites out of everything we've shot yet.
And then we wrapped out of the house that's been our main location for the past three weeks. Ellen and Jonathan quickly restored it to its original condition. All of the props and set dressing were taken out, including the beloved wood burning stove. Remodeling on the home is going to begin this week, and within a month or two I'm sure it'll look beautiful and brand new. Some happy couple will probably move in. And I'll probably try to work all of that into the movie somehow.
Postcript: on Saturday, it was almost ninety degrees. We had to pause in between takes to let the kids take their jackets off and cool off. Today, it's wet and freezing. Tomorrow it's supposed to snow. Why did this weather have to take so long to get here? This is what I needed for this movie!
Posted by David Lowery at 2:27 PM
March 2, 2008
I was driving around early yesterday morning, getting ready for the day's shooting and listening to a lovely interview with Van Cliburn on NPR. Towards the end of the conversation, he quoted Rachmaninov: "Music is enough for a lifetime, but lifetime is not enough for music."
For whatever reason, at that point, hearing that right then meant a lot to me, and I decided that everything I shot that day was going to be about that. Whatever the hell a goal like that might mean. I don't know.