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May 29, 2009

Music For Free

We've spent the past week working with Will on the Okkervil River documentary. Now we've emerged from our editing suite/cave/tunnel with a solid 92 minute cut in tow, and the light that's shining from just around the corner is almost bright enough to punch its way out of metaphor and into this hazy midmorning I just woke up to.

We took a break last night to go see St. Vincent play at the El Rey. She was awesome as always, as was Daniel Hart, who plays violin/guitar/piano for her and who also wrote the original music for St. Nick. Afterwards everyone hung out in the empty theater and talked for what seemed like hours and Toby finally introduced me to Jon Brion which was awesome, and then we went out to Swingers and now it's today and there's another show on the docket which we're on the list for: School Of The Seven Bells, this time. But I'm going to play it safe and go ahead and buy tickets to the Bill Callahan show in July and Fever Ray in October, at which point the best records of the year will have been covered and I can focus my attention on trying to will fate into directing me towards one of those secret shows Joanna Newsom has been playing...

Posted by David Lowery at 2:12 PM

May 25, 2009

The Moxie Documentary

Exactly two years ago, I drove to Springfield, Missouri and shot a documentary. My subject was the Moxie Cinema, a small arthouse theater built from the ground up by Dan and Nicole Chilton, two wonderful folks who were doing all they could to bring equally wonderful movies to a small town that didn't know what it was missing until they came along. My friend Brad and I spent a weekend with them, filming them in portraiture as they opened David Lynch's Inland Empire. It was a wonderful experience; I wrote about it here, and would continue to hint about the film in the ensuing months, as I relocated to Los Angeles and began to edit it.

There's a peculiar and addictive charge to the best filmmaking experiences; it's as if the work is preceding of its own accord just a little bit ahead of you, falling into place exactly as you hoped it would, doing all the work for you. Cutting this documentary was like that. The shoot had been serendipitous in every possible way; the footage was just gorgeous, and as the pieces began to fit together, I found that they contained through and through every formal and thematic interest I'd set out to explore. It was more than a documentary, more than an essay; I was pretty sure I was making my best film yet.

Early in the process, I exported a small Quicktime file of the first four minutes and e-mailed it to Dan and Nicole. It was rough (and my temporary attempt at titular grandeur still embarrasses me - I quickly changed the typeface), but not so much that I didn't want to share it. This is what I sent them:

Progress slowed towards the end of the summer. I returned to Texas. I'd just received a grant to make St. Nick, but even with those good tidings, a heavy depression that had been looming in the summer skies finally set in. Things happened, one thing lead to another, and I found myself living in my car, hanging on to whatever hooks I could to keep my head above water. One of those things was Moxie. I was working out of the public library in early October when I finished the first cut. I wrote about that here. It was a good first cut. I was really, really happy with it.

A few days after that, I was taking the hard drive to a friend's office to use their After Effects system on a few shots, and on the way I stopped off at a gallery opening to say hi to some people. I was there for fifteen maybe twenty minutes, and then I got back in my car. I noticed the smell first, this trenchant odor of sweat and filth that drew my eyes downward to see the contents of the automobile ransacked. I made a quick mental note of what had been stolen, and it wasn't until an hour or so later that I realized the pink backpack that contained the hard drive with all the documentary was missing, too. The footage consisted entirely of P2 media, and I had never backed it up. All of a sudden, that little clip that I'd e-mailed out was all that existed of my film. There it is now, two paragraphs back, the only trace that's left.

I got in my car and drove. And drove and drove. I was halfway across Oklahoma before my ex-girlfriend called and talked me down from whatever ledge I was heading towards. I slept on the side of the highway that night, and at dawn turned back.

I don't remember much of the next few weeks. My memory returns to me in early November. I was in Missouri again. I'd planned the trip earlier, with the intent of showing the documentary at the theater itself, but now I was just going to regroup. I hung out with AJ Schack while I was there, whose own documentary had been enormously inspiring to my own decision to make this one, and after hearing the sad tale he urged me to shoot the film again.

And so, four weeks later, as an ice storm fell upon the city, I returned to the Moxie and reshot the documentary. Quite a bit happened in the preceding month, all sorts of violent highs and lows, but now I had my camera out and was rolling again. I wrote about that here. That specific charge wasn't there this time; in fact, it was one of the strangest creative experiences of my life. Trying to recapture, to almost force that serendipity that happened so naturally the first time. I could make an entire film about just that, and maybe that's what I was making, what I needed to make. I don't know. While I was shooting, I bought plane tickets for Park City, and when I wrapped at the end of the week, I drove back to Texas and went straight to the auditions for St. Nick. Tucker and Savanna were some of the first kids we saw that day.

All that ice-cold footage still rests on a hard drive - backed up, this time, but as yet untouched. A year later, the Moxie moved into a new, two-screen theater, and did stellar business all throughout the winter. Things are slow right now, but so is everything, and this theater is too special to fall by the wayside for long. St. Nick is out in the world, and in it, there is one shot of a barbed wire fence I photographed that weekend in Springfield, across the street from Brad's house, which in some strange pictographic fashion sums up the entire experience.

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I was telling this story to a friend last night over drinks in East Los Angeles. Nonfiction was on our brains; he's a doc filmmaker about to begin his next project, I was hours away from finishing the first cut of the Okkervil River film, and I was talking about a nascent documentary idea that I hope will be my next feature. I traced that film's roots back to this one, and realized that enough time had passed that it might be worth putting down on paper. So there it is (in short form - rest assured, I could spin many Proustian pages over the months skimmed herein). Somewhere out in the world is a hard drive that once contained (or perhaps, somehow, still contains) a really great movie. I'm glad I had the chance to make it.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:29 PM | Comments (1)

May 20, 2009

Barrel Rider

My last state of the union address was nothing but a song. I've been looking for an equivalent to sum up my present state of mind, but have yet to find one, and striking the right balance between listmaking and actual writing has proven difficult when the topic is everything that's been happening in the past month. Yesterday I spent the day editing a video that will make its way online soon. Today I was embedded in this documentary (which we're nearing the finish mark on after a St. Nick-induced hiatus), except for the hour I spent at a meeting with an exec at Showtime who had a vintage À bout de souffle poster in her office. Awesome! Tomorrow I'm writing with Barlow, working on a collaboration all the way up until we see that big robot movie at midnight. Right now I'm diverting myself from an hour or two of work on the two of the scripts that I began after finally finishing a massive rewrite on another project last week. Last night I went to a reading of Todd Rohal's new screenplay, which needs to get made. I'm running a lot, although perhaps not enough. I'm working with my agent to orchestrate something of a career. I drink a lot of carrot juice and a lot of coffee. I stopped carrying a wallet because I keep losing it, but I'm too ghetto to get one of those fancy money clips. I ordered some new vegan boots and have taken to glancing out the window, waiting for the UPS truck to deliver them with childlike anticipation (I feel that adjective is redundant). I've been thinking about Matt's most recent post - the end of an era, except tha the era ended long ago. I saw the new Terry Gilliam movie but didn't like it. I'm loving Los Angeles. I can put my mind to sleep at night, but I think my body keeps going, because I wake with my heart beating at the same accelerated pace that I fall asleep to. Attached to all of these fragments are hundreds of pages of footnotes and inner monologues that I've chosen not to transcribe because I'm not sure how to write about it. Bear with me, if you will, and I'll figure it out.

Oddly, all of this is almost entirely peripheral to St. Nick, which is moving along on its own parallel but separate trajectory. I got an acceptance call from another festival today, and we've been looking over some contracts...


Posted by David Lowery at 1:35 AM

May 16, 2009

Dearly Departed

I've so many things to write about, so many things to tell you - but for now I'm off to stretch out across an eternal resting place or two and watch Cool Hand Luke at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I note this here for the sake of Bryan and Rebecca, who were horrified a few months ago to learn that the only pre-2002 Paul Newman film I'd ever seen was Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill And The Indians. I hope my plans for the night lay their worries to rest. As for the big chunks of film history I'm still missing - I'm not really that worried about it anymore.

Posted by David Lowery at 6:00 PM

May 13, 2009

The House Of The Devil

I've been told that I shouldn't officially review Ti West's The House Of The Devil, seeing as how my name shows up in the credits; but it was accidentally misspelled, so I'd wager that gives me some wiggle room to talk about how terrific this picture really is. Am I crazy to think that it's actually on par with Rosemary's Baby? That it only taps into the lonely dread of babysitting where Polanski so memorably teased out the fear of impending motherhood might make it a more modest triumph, but as far as literal horror goes, I'd argue that this film is just as terrifying journey into the occult. The last time I was this frightened by a film was last year's surprisingly strong The Strangers, but in that case I knew exactly what to be scared of, and when, whereas the escalating, self-sustaining fear in The House Of The Devil seems to well up from parts unknown.

I should note that the version I saw was the original cut, including the four minutes the producers removed for pacing reasons prior to the Tribeca premiere. This alteration, as some may recall, caused something of a stir, and while the trimmed version is still a perfectly effective film, it's frustrating to know that audiences aren't seeing it in as fine a form as they could be. The excised sequences make the film shorter, but they don't effect the pace one bit; if anything, they reduce what was once a graceful and creepy bit of spatial exposition into a mild thunk of an edit, and a single bad cut can make a film feel longer than any number of leisurely shots. What's so exciting about the film is that Ti understands formalism as well as he does genre, and the combination make for an experience that is as cinematically sound as it is genuinely frightening.

Hopefully, if the powers that be know what's right for all involved, the film will be out in theaters in time for Halloween.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:44 AM

May 11, 2009

Prioritizing


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Pictured above are myself and Sean Williams, pitting our integrity against this monstrous Boca Della Verita we found tucked away in the corridors of Baltimore's Charles Theater, which this past weekend saw a procession of wonderful cinematic offerings projected on its hallowed screens. This year's Maryland Film Festival was one of the best festival experiences I've had; perhaps last year's was just as good, but as I recall, I spent most of it sitting in the hotel room, editing St. Nick. My loss, except that it paved the path for this year, when I brought that same film back and showed it twice to two wonderful audiences, and spent the rest of the weekend celebrating in the dark. There's a strange nervous energy that can infect you at some festivals, where there's always so much to do and see that you constantly worry you're making the wrong decision, seeing the wrong film, going to the wrong party. Which is why my favorite festivals are the ones where everything you do feels just right (including but not limited to going out on the town in nothing but a complimentary bathrobe, which Adam did on Friday night, with great success).

I loved all the films I saw; in particular, Cory McAbee's Stingray Sam, his first feature film since the spectacular American Astronaut the better side of a decade ago, and Michael Langan's unbelievable short Dahlia. I was greatly moved by the the 1991 French documentary Nina Simone: La Legende, which Ian McKaye had programmed sight-unseen, although it never got as good as it did in the opening scene, which finds Nina Simone riding the back of a car, listening to her own recording of Wild Is The Wind (did the filmmakers add it in later? I don't care) and tearfully wondering how she got to where she was, and why. I laughed a lot at Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad and ducked into the beginning of Jessica Oreck's Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which I'd seen at SXSW and serves, among many other things, as a strong and beautiful explanation as to why I refuse to kill bugs. And yesterday, introducing my own film and then skipping one auditorium over to Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera just as the Alloy Orchestra were hitting the first notes of their live score - a perfect finale. I was sad to leave, which of course meant that it was the perfect time to leave and get back to business. Which is what I'm about to do right now. I'm picking up the phone.

This brings a temporary lull to St. Nick's exhibition. We'll be showing at festivals in New York and Seattle in the coming months, but excepting those events, we've nothing on the docket. It's been a great run - I'm pretty sure it ain't over - but regardless I feel that we're sitting halfway pretty.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:54 AM

May 7, 2009

Just To Reiterate

St. Nick will be playing on Friday at 12:45pm at the Maryland Film Festival; tickets and more informaiton can be found here. Come see it if you're in town, and afterward follow me Pied Piper-style out of the theater and across the street to my panel on the relationship between directors and editors, which will then be a perfect segue into seeing the film I edited, Kris Swanberg's It Was Great But I Was Ready To Come Home, at 3:00, right back where we started at the lovely Charles Theater.

I was excited to see that the lineup also includes Michelange Quay's Eat, For This Is My Body, which has sat heavily on my consciousness since I saw it last year at Sundance (I wrote about it here). It's definitely a big screen experience, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. Also very much worth watching is Zack Clark's Modern Love Is Automatic, which, for all its stylistic affectations, deadpan humor and punk rock interstitials, achieves a really haunting sense of alienation that is difficult to shake; I laughed a lot during it, but those laughs all dissipate by the distended and awkward final scene, which turns an easy joke on its head and closes the film on a note of quiet desperation. And Invisible Girlfriend, the latest documentary from David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, is a surreal and vibrant odyssey that is up there with the works of Lodge Kerrigan as a window into paranoid schizophrenia.

But most importantly, I think, is that this festival will play host to Room Service French Fry Party, vol. 2. An unforgettable event for those lucky enough to attend!

Posted by David Lowery at 3:08 AM

May 6, 2009

The Limits Of Control

I saw The Limits Of Control the day after reading Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull - a notable corollary purely because both set flying all the red flags that Eastern-pop philosophy always sends up in my critical process. But what I enjoyed about the film is how Jarmusch's formal patterns provided a rigid affront to the Zen espousings (or lack thereof) of his characters even as it simultaneously adheres to the subjectivity which Alex Descas (whose presence reminded me of how excited I am about finally catching Claire Denis' 35 Rhums at the LA Film Festival next month) warns Isaach De Bankole's assassin of in the opening scenes. When Bankole engages in his routine, when he stares at a single painting on each visit to the museum and the camera pushes in on that painting as the sound design and score swell so as to further focus our vision and convey import not in the work of art but the movement towards it, I found the film as thrilling as the thriller it is masquerading as isn't. My favorite special effects are syntactical - when two disparate shots, for example, function as a traditional exchange in a shot-reverse shot structure - and this film works best when that syntax is hewn the bone, to the point that the only way to appreciate the film is objectively. The film exists solely within the sequence of what we perceive; one cannot make the logical assumption that Bankole's character eats when the camera is not trained on him, or sleeps in the space in between shots. As Karina Longworth notes in her review, Banokole "literally feeds on encryption" - and, as far as Jarmusch feels we should be concerned, encryption alone.

This motif goes a long way towards explaining the film a whole, in so much as that it is almost entirely self-contained. That's one of the biggest of many differences between this and Dead Man, to which some critics have made allusions, and while such limitations prevents The Limits Of Control from hitting the same high poetic highs as what is still Jarmusch's masterpiece, it's a period-appropriate constraint. Dead Man took place in an America upon which industry was only just beginning to encroach; The Limits Of Control, what with its archetypal billionaire making a pathetic and vain effort to bunker down in the wilds of Europe, is decidedly post-industrial.

One other thing: Tilda Swinton quotes herself in the film, when she speak of film and dreams, and it reminded me that I've been meaning to revisit her source material: the State Of Cinema address she gave at the San Francisco Film Festival two years ago. Let's all go read it again together; I promise we'll be better for it.

Posted by David Lowery at 6:29 PM

May 2, 2009

Seventeen


seventeen.jpg

A few weeks ago, a handful of filmmakers were having breakfast in a dingy back room off Sunset and talking about documentaries. One of them mentioned an unheralded classic from 1982 called Seventeen; eyes lit up around the table, and another director exclaimed, "oh, I happen to have a few copies of that in my backpack! Who hasn't seen it yet?"

I hadn't, and apparently I'd been missing out. In the ensuing days, I'd mention to people that I had procured a copy and they'd respond with enthusiastic references to keggers and church mice. What I discovered prior to watching it: the film, directed by Jeff Krienes and Joel DeMott, was commissioned by PBS and subsequently squelched by their corporate sponsor, who didn't want their name anywhere close to the final product. It has survived in the ensuing decades through VHS bootlegs and the rare cinemateque screening, and has developed a rather fervent fanbase.

But as it turns out, what's particularly fascinating (and wonderful) about the film's near-cult status is that isn't due to any sensationalism, but rather an intrinsic quality level. The film is simply really, really good.
Krienes and DeMott embedded themselves with a group of high school seniors in Muncie, Indiana and spent a year filming them. These are not the coiffed media darlings of American Teen; these are kids with limited prospects and equivocal ambition, with very little to look forward to but no shortage of off-kilter charisma and good humor. The cameras follow them as they date, break up, mouth off to their teachers, drink, get high and negotiate the racial tensions that run high in the town. The lines between outright racism and tolerance are shockingly gray, and this, more than the scenes of parents and teenagers drinking themselves into oblivion together, seems the likely cause of the film's suppression. It was bad enough for middle America to have to watch their kids smoking and swearing and sleeping around, but to see them cast aside racial boundaries was apparently too much to take. 1982, after all, was a lot closer to 1968 than it is to 2009.

But let's jump back to the kids and parents drinking together, and the extended party that kicks off the last third of the movie. It drags on all night, as everyone - including the chaperones and a 12-year-old sibling, gets completely hammered. It's an unforgettable sequence. Emotions run high, tears are shed, and it's here that the immortal line "it just ain't a kegger without church mouse" is uttered, in reference to a dear friend who recently died in a car accident. Such instantly quotable bon mots - and the film is full of them - have gone a long way towards affixing the film's cult status. This subcultural appropriation isn't in jest; this is no sideshow. One cites lines like "he looks like he’s got titties on his arms because he’s got muscles so big" out of shock and awe, and also love. It's impossible not to care for these kids. As Kreines and DeMott state, "We respected the kids’ complexity, celebrated their liveliness, despaired of their future. And we loved them dearly. "

That quote came from a PDF file available on the filmmakers' website, kinetta.com, which is otherwise devoted to developing digital technology for film preservation (along with an early 4k digital camera). Another good read can be found at SF360, which published an article entitled 'Seventeen reasons why Seventeen might be the greatest movie about teenagers ever made.' Amen to that.

* * *

Also worth mentioning is the fact that the DVD we watched was clearly pulled from a VHS tape of dubious generational integrity. The image jogged, the bars rolled, and all those tape-based artifacts added a layer of underground nostalgia to the viewing experience. It reminded me of when Adam and I would stay up late on school nights watching some rare film we'd picked up on eBay. Eraserhead with Japanese subtitles, or Lynch's short films on dubs so degraded that they were practically unwatchable. These low-fi viewing experiences weren't technically the best way to experience those films, but because we wanted to see them so badly, we were willing to look past those imperfections. Such duress begets sentimentaly, which in turn engenders aesthiticization; and so it is that an entire generation of filmgoers now waxes nostalgic about shitty VHS dubs. Those were the days.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:19 PM | Comments (4)

May 1, 2009

GFE

The Girlfriend Experience is a functional piece of cinema, given a bit of meta-oomph by its spot in the careers of its director and star. It's a Steven Soderbergh film starring Sasha Grey; beyond that, it's worth is fleeting. Soderbergh vacillates, on an almost picture-to-picture basis, between employing genuinely evocative structures to tell his stories and simply lining up a series of cool shots. This is a clear cut case of the latter, but when those cool shots are occupied by someone with Grey's notoriety, they're invested with bit more novelty than they'd otherwise have.

What's really interesting about the film, however, is the time period to which Soderbergh's tethered it. The film is set so squarely within a few weeks of October, 2008 that the casual dialogue is at times almost cringe-worthy - its references are too fresh, too specific. I think, though, that ten years from now, it'll be uniquely fascinating for precisely the same reason. A work of art can be contemporary in two ways: it can find a way to make its issues forwards compatible, or it can batten those hatches and proudly post date itself. By that token, this film could just as aptly have been titled Bubble as Soderbergh's last HDNet experiment - which is directly referenced here (as seen below).

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This inside joke is mildly annoying on the one hand, but on the other it's a nice reminder of what Soderbergh is doing with this series of films - and in spite of my lukewarm reaction to his installment, I fully support his experimentation, and look forward to seeing one which begets the same precise focus which I think he found in Bubbble. That film worked beautifully on the big screen; The Girlfriend Experience, fittingly, doesn't require the same commitment, and perhaps works best on a computer screen, streaming over the internet, which is precisely how I watched it (never fear - I paid for it).

There is exactly one scene in the film in which the themes of sex and commerce and human connectivity transcend simple didacticism and become something complex and, indeed, cinematic. Grey disappears and Soderbergh's method does too; this scene accomplishes in a few minutes everything the movie as a whole sets out to do, and does so beautifully. And then it ends, and so does the movie, because Soderbergh knows what he's doing, and he's wisely saved the best for last.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:42 PM | Comments (6)