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October 31, 2008

Season's Greetings!

I finished watching all those short films just as the first wave of early trick-or-treaters started to hit. People here seem to take Halloween so much more seriously than they do in Texas! Every other front lawn is rife with gravestones and skeletons and ghosts. It's better than Christmas. Time to go turn up my collar, mail St. Nick off to Berlin, spray myself down with fake blood and head into the city for who knows what.

Posted by David Lowery at 5:16 PM | Comments (3)

Lumberjack

I'm currently serving on the jury of a film festival, a process which has involved whittling down the stack of short films that are in competition with one another. It's a tiresome process, validated by those exceptional gems that unexpectedly leap out of the lineup and declare themselves. Some of which are good, some very good, but none of which have yet caught my attention like this clip Joe showed me this evening (via Ray Pride).

How is it that the most complex and emotionally effecting film I've seen in a long time is a commercial for a bank? The appearance of that HSBC logo is almost shocking, coming as it does at the end of the spot; it's not so much reductive as it is entirely perplexing and tonally disparate from what we've just experienced. Likewise, even though the slogan that appears with it ("The more you look at the world, the more you recognize that people value things differently") attempts to brand the spot as part of a campaign, that brand is too limited to hold any sway; it fails to wrap up the narrative under the trite bow of its Madison Avenue prose.

Rather than comment on HSBC's motives, let me direct you to John Swansburg's excellent article at Slate, in which he examines the bank's position in the current economic climate and how that relates to the intentions behind this campaign. Removing from the equation that this is a piece of advertising, what astounds me about this spot is not just the quality of the filmmaking but the text to which it's been applied. In just over ninety seconds, an elegiac and even-handed portrait of civil disobedience is established, and then compounded; it's easy to read the throughline as an exchange of the political for the personal, but its the latter that makes the open conflict of the piece so effective, just as the politics lend such a profound sense of disquiet to the denouement.
There is an equal exchange occurring over the course of the piece that trumps what could be perceived as a third-act twist and a will to compromise (a reading that is perhaps more applicable in thirty-second version of the commercial that has been airing on television, unseen by me). The film sides neither with Thoreau nor with - well, with the company whose commissioning of it opens up an entirely new and even grayer can of worms.

Regardless of that, it's a beautiful piece of work, one which both validates and recapitulates Kubrick's notion that "some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material." In the decades since that quote was printed in the New York Times, that visual poetry has formed a Moebius strip with cinema; one informs the other informs the other, and now we've got this: a commercial that a. ) fails as an advertisement, b.) epitomizes the power of advertising as a narrative form and then c.) loops back and turns out to be a success after all, because here I am discussing it.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:33 AM

October 30, 2008

Three Down...

That's a wrap on this feature. Two more and it'll be Christmas!

Real content to follow after this brief respite...

Posted by David Lowery at 5:50 PM

October 26, 2008

Blue Planet Run


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I'm a little bit late on this, but: Tucker Sears, the talented young star of St. Nick, is an avid runner (we had to shoot around a few of his 10k runs during principal photography), and this month he's running 30 miles to raise money for safe drinking water in Tanzania. This puts just about everything I did when I was twelve to shame, but I'm going to grin and bear it because this is a really great cause. His goal is 300 dollars before the end of October, and he's at the halfway point - click here to help him make it the rest of the way, and to learn more about the Blue Planet Run.

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Speaking of St. NIck, I need to get back to work on it.

Posted by David Lowery at 4:27 PM

October 23, 2008

Sodium Light


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When I was shooting this scene, I was reminded of how much I've been influenced, in a purely imagistic sense, by the cinematography of the late Jean Yves Escoffier, which in turn reminded me of how far I've come since the time I tried to watch Gummo for the first time and couldn't get through it. I've made a lot of mistakes.

It's freezing outside, and raining to boot. The parking lot kiss scene we're shooting later tonight is going to be a beautiful mess of exhaled vapor and glistening concrete.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:18 PM | Comments (2)

October 19, 2008

Shooting A Trainwreck


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It's a general practice of mine to avoid talking about whatever I might be working on until someone else talks about it first, but sometimes this will towards nondisclosure swings in the opposite direction, and I get excited about something and spill the beans. What's getting my excited right now is the image above, which is from Frank Ross' new picture Audrey The Trainwreck, and it's the one that, for whatever reason, completely sums up the film to me thus far. I can't quite say why that is yet, but I'm proud of the shot, as simple as it is (also, if you can see any detail in that face, your monitor is too bright). One light, married to content that didn't need anything else.

This is the first time I've DPd a project of this stature. I don't actually consider myself a cinematographer, but when Frank asked me five or six months ago if I'd be up for the challenge, I had just the right amount of hubris and self confidence to say "sure, I guess so" or "why not?" or maybe even a simple "yes." That confidence (or hubris - precisely which one to be determined, I suppose, not by me but by the final product) kicked into even higher gear when I read the script, which is absolutely outstanding.

Another fun about the film: it has roughly 205 speaking parts. We've had a constant cycle of actors and actresses flying in and affixing themselves to our focal points before abruptly departing in the advent of some new ingenue's arrival to our wintry clime. Last week we shot with Jess Weixler from Teeth and Amy Judd from Yeast; this week brings in a new slate of characters, all of whom I'll do my best to get a semi-decent exposure on. We're at the halfway mark now, and this month is only going to get colder (and coming from my lips, that's not the non-sequitur it might seem).

Posted by David Lowery at 8:28 PM

October 16, 2008

Ferrara on Ferrara

Over two years have elapsed between marking my initial thoughts on Abel Ferrara's Mary and the film's massively overdue release in New York this Friday at the Anthology Film Archives. Looking back at what I wrote then is a strange thing indeed (there I was, enamored by the Catholicism of Ferrara, a few months before falling sway to the atheism of Denis), and indeed, I don't think I've seen a Ferrara film since those more prolix days.

This past week, in anticipation of Mary, eyes and pens alike have been turning towards him once more, but I think my favorite bit of press thus far is in fact a film. It's a short documentary, directed by Evan Lousion, chronicling a night out on the town with Ferrara. The title of the piece is you are in heaven, you are in hell, and it's currently viewable over at Cinema Echo Chamber. It's a really beautiful portrait of this legendary madman; I especially love how old New York seems to melt back out of the ether in his presence, with all its danger and dirty light flickering in his periphery. Moreso than simply appearing in his element, he seems entirely inherent to it, and it to him. It makes me want to revisit his films once more - and maybe find another copy of Nicole Berenz's book about them, which I lost at sea before I could finish it.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:22 AM | Comments (2)

October 13, 2008

Moving Right Along

Today was the first day of the second week of this shoot, and I'm all kinds of worn out already. All I feel like doing is going into the next room and watching Robocop, but I'm putting that off until tomorrow; for now, I'm sitting on my bed, listening to Benjamin Britten and drinking wine and pretending to try to write. I'm too good at making myself moody.

Another note: I'd pretty much forgotten that bumblebees existed until I started running into them (literally) while running. They're so big and cute - I want to pet them.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:30 AM

October 11, 2008

I'm Lost in Translation

"A translator...must have a care," suggests Gregory Rabassa near the beginning of his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents, "and remember that with the addition of a slightly aspirated letter auteur becomes hauteur."

Ah, etymological puns make laugh! But as I've been tentatively lifting the curtain on the elements of style, this is one bit of particularly delicate gossamer that consistently intrigues me: the dynamics of translation, and the maddening process by which one might qualify equivalency between two separate works that represent, in different terms, precisely the same thing (I should preface this by noting that of the three languages I've studied, I've never been proficient enough in any of them to read a substantial native text, and so have no qualification to actually discuss the art of translation, or whether it is in fact an art as well as a craft, aside from those I have as a reader of translated works, and one who tends to vacillate between editions in bookstores, trying to determine which one will be the richest interpretation - a process achieved largely through intuition, forwards and critical blurbs on back covers).

In his essay On Linguistic Aspects Of Translation, Roman Jakobson wrote that "All cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any existing language...no lack of grammatical device in the language translated into makes impossible a literal translation of the entire conceptual information contained in the original." They keyword there is conceptual - and then, on the other hand, I just came upon this witticism from the philosopher Giles Ménage, who wrote that a translation is like a woman: it can either be faithful or it can be beautiful, but it cannot be both. Yikes, but you get the point. It's that precarious tightrope between aesthetics and precision which interests me - that, and what seems to be an inherent potential for improvement. With the understanding that, without deferring to mere substitution, the basic signifiers in one language can be amply approximated by another, one then turns to form; which is where, it seems to me, one would find the notion that if a given text is broken down into its mophemes and sememes and other little semiotic bits and pieces, and then reconstituted out of the same linguistic building blocks in pursuit of the same meaning, the translator can, without straying into adaptation, refine their arrangement. Which brings me back to Rabassa, whose translation of 100 Years Of Solitude was cited by Marquez himself as an improvement on his original Spanish version.

Even more strange and tempestuous is the idea of translating poetry, the formalist constraints of which constrict the interpretation in an entirely prohibitive fashion. To quote Jacobson once more:

...whether its rule is absolute or limited, poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible: either intralingual transposition - from one poetic shape into another, or interlingual transposition - from one language into another, or finally intersemiotic transposition - from one system of signs into another, e.g., from verbal art into music, dance, cinema, or painting.

There's something of a bombshell in there at the end that I'll ignore for now. Suffice to say, even a poem written in Middle English (which, unlike Old English, is relatively closed to what we use today) plays on the semantics of words which, when rendered to their modern equivalents, deprive the piece of its formal affect. So when one reads a translation of Rilke or Dante (or Shakespeare) is the best one can hope to find the essence of what makes those works great crammed into an obtuse diagram of conjugations and tenses? I'd say yes. But, then, is Pope's take on Homer all that different from Fitzgerald's? This is where things, to my mind, get even more tricky: if translation is, indeed, an art, and if art cannot be selfless, what happens when ego overtakes translation? This is all very basic supposition - I'm jumping around in the dark here and very likely knocking my head against quite a few walls - but this topic has me excited enough that it has starting to worm its way into the screenplay I'm currently writing. It's slipping in there subtly, enough so that it might slip right back out again - but at the very least, the idea of making the actor for whom I'm writing this speak in Old English makes me laugh.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:53 PM

October 8, 2008

Back Soon

We've made it to day three of Frank's shoot - this, in spite of the fact that we still don't have a camera to shoot the movie on. Long story, that one. Somehow, through sheer force of independent spirit, the footage is being inscribed to something. Possibly the skin on the back of Frank's neck.

Today is Frank's birthday. We're headed to the set in a few minutes, but to kick the day off in style, we're listening to Rihanna as we drink our Americanos. Coincidentally, it's raining outside!

The same limousine company that's picking up our actors from the airport has donated a Prius to the production for the duration of the shoot. The only problem is that whoever had been driving it smoked in it. A lot. To get rid of the smell, we left the windows open overnight and sprayed it down with air freshener. When I climbed in the next morning, its musty fragrance shot straight to the back of my head, loosening up all sorts of memories of spending a lot of time with two different girls in two different years and driving around in cars that smelled like cigarettes and roses.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:28 AM

October 5, 2008

Whiskey Samples

You know how grocery stores will, on busy afternoons and weekends, offer free samples? They usually consist of fruit or baked goods or something benign and relatively snackable that can be served on toothpicks - but today, while at the supermarket, we came across a little display table at which free samples of hard liquor were being offered. Wow! Is this a regional thing? Standing behind this table beladen with bottles of scotch and whiskey was a diminutive woman named Carol. She offered us shots of an autumnal strain of honey bourbon; I declined, because I don't eat honey - which set off a thirty minute discussion that ranged from veganism to filmmaking to the links between the two. I normally tend to shy away from discussing both my dietary and career choices, but shucks if her genuine Midwestern curiosity didn't turn me into a faucet of personal information and other fun facts (like, for example, how most wines are distilled with fish intestines). If we made the good impression we think we did, she'll be talking about us for at least the next week. Word of mouth, folks.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:33 AM | Comments (2)

October 4, 2008

The Pleasure is almost all mine, apparently

I'm a little surprised by how Josh Safdie's The Pleasure Of Being Robbed, which opened in New York last night, is being slaughtered in the press. Nick Schager's slam in Slant is particularly vicious, but also rather hilarious - on the one hand, he mistakes the gorgeous 16mm cinematography for DV, but on the other he suggests that the lead actress needs to be shot, which elevates any pan into the realm of extremely memorable invective. I can only hope I someday inspire such a response.

But that some critics are likening Safdie's picture to mumblecore movies makes me think that they're missing the point; that others only notice the twee surface makes me think they're missing a whole lot more. Andrew O'Hehir, one of the few who does get it, highlights in his review for Salon just how divisive getting it got back when the film played Directors' Fortnight:

Let's be honest: Pleasure of Being Robbed drove a lot of people crazy at Cannes, including people whose tastes I respect. I could flatter myself by claiming that they didn't get it and I did, but things are never entirely that simple. What I saw as a challenging, open-ended emotional and psychological journey with an exasperating but irresistible character -- something like a slacker-era blend of Bresson's "Pickpocket" and Godard's "Breathless" -- struck other viewers as self-indulgent pseudo-rebellion.

That psychological aspect he notes was one of the things that really made the film for me. As I wrote in my review (which Spout re-printed yesterday to coincide with the release), "the entire film feels happened-upon, which is why it’s almost a surprise that it ends up feeling so moody and repressed. There’s something seriously wrong with Eleonore, and while, in the narrative sense, the film exalts in her behavior, its very form acknowledges otherwise."

Whatever the case: if you're in New York, go see the film. If you're not, you can watch it via IFC On Demand. And if you don't have IFC On Demand, you can at the very least head over to the Red Bucket Films website and, in short order, watch a few of the short films that preceded this first feature length effort.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:58 AM

October 1, 2008

Incomplete Androgyny: Let The Right One In

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I'll happily defend just about every aspect of Tomas Alfredson's Låt Den Rätte Komma In - even the cat scene, even the punchline of the climactic shot that could technically be deemed in bad taste - and I'm just as pleased to declare it a quite nearly perfect bit of genre filmmaking. Furthermore, it's a masterpiece of misdirection; it seems a lot more Fanny & Alexander than Nosferatu, all the way up until it dawns on you that it's actually more Vertigo than either of those. And while it's not flawless, its most singular misstep is of the complex and confounding sort that leaves the film even more worthy of consideration, which in turn makes me admire the film even more, even as I'm critical of it.

That flaw is confined to a single shot, one which slips by in the space of twelve frames. Twelve frames - just enough to leave us perplexed about their their intention and implications and googling 'vampire genitalia' on our iPhones. The shot occurs when young Oskar sneaks a glimpse at Eli, his twelve year old muse, while she's changing (into his mother's clothes, neatly enough). Earlier in the film, when she tells Oskar that she's "not a girl," one naturally assumes that she means she's not human; but now, for a split second, he - and we - catch a glimpse of the undeveloped, indeterminate, possibly scarred pubis below her waist. This shot is just long enough to make one reconsider that earlier assumption, but too fleeting to allow a new conclusion. I assumed that, in a film whose first-act details enable third-act set payoffs with such clockwork precision, complete recontextualization wouldn't - couldn't - hinge on a such a barely-there moment. But indeed, a quick bout of research revealed that in John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel upon which the film is based, Eli's gender history is more explicitly detailed; indeed, she was once a boy who, through a combination of violent duress and sustained duration, became a girl.

So, in essence, Eli is a child variant of Woolf's Orlando, existing through the centuries on a precipice of sexual ambiguity. Amorphous sexuality is a strong and powerful theme, but it's one which this film, for better or worse, hasn't been designed to support. Although Oskar is himself an effeminate child, his character arc is not predicated upon sexual identity; nor does his romance with Eli neutralize gender, as in The Crying Game (which this film, ultimately, is sort of a pitch black reflection of). Both throughlines are, to put it simply, more innocent than that. It's this very innocence which so magnificently compounds the supposedly happy ending of the film. The more one reflects on the implications of that final shot, the more the true narrative arc of the film emerges into clear relief; we realize then that we've been viciously, deliciously had - a reaction towards which those twelve frames ultimately serve as nothing more than a muddy gray footnote to a film that is quite satisfyingly black and white.

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Just in time for this witching month, the trailer for the US release of the film is now online:

Posted by David Lowery at 3:44 PM | Comments (7)