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October 29, 2009

The House Of The Devil is open!


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My favorite holiday is creeping around the corner, and just in time to coincide with that, the best horror movie of this year, last year and maybe the year or two before that is opening on Friday in select cities. I don't say this in hyperbole; when I originally wrote about The House Of The Devil and compared it to Rosemary's Baby, I was in deadly earnest. This is a legitimately scary movie, and, all genre concerns aside, an impressively assured piece of filmmaking. Hats off to Magnolia for restoring Ti's original cut, and for doing so well promoting it - it's been acclaimed by everyone from Roger Ebert to Entertainment Weekly. It's available On Demand, but if you're in New York, LA or Austin this weekend, you won't find a better capper to your Halloween than seeing this film up on the silver screen, preferably with someone whose hand you don't mind squeezing for 90 minutes. This is a film that deserves to be a sensation; given the number of screens it's on, it'll probably have to settle for becoming a classic, which is in itself a very worthy fate, but still - let's see how big of a dent we can make this weekend. Go here to see where and when it's playing near you, and to watch the trailer.

Available concurrently is Ti's web series for IFC, Dead & Lonely. When he showed me the rough cuts of the first few episodes, I noted that they felt like a strange hybrid of 80s and post-millennial Michael Mann - digital minimalism with a Tangerine Dream score. The whole series will be online by the end of the week...

Posted by David Lowery at 1:42 AM

October 25, 2009

Trash Humpers (2009)

Before moving on to matters at hand, allow me to submit the following for your consideration. First up is Harmony Korine's video for Will Oldham's Workhorse:

And then his commercial for Thornton's:

Both spots use the same deceptively simple technique to similar ends. The latter clip could be seen as a refinement of the former, in that it is beautifully photographed, impressively designed, etc. Just the same, the former could be viewed as 'more pure' than the latter, in as much as a music video could be perceived as more auteurist or singularly expressionistic than a television commercial. I would propose, however, that any comparative distinction based on the artistic worth of either work is a disservice to their director. One can order them according to taste, but not according to artistic value.

It's by this token that Korine's new film, Trash Humpers, cannot be perceived as a lesser work than his three previous features. That it went from concept to world premiere in the span of four months makes it no less important a piece of his oeuvre than the long-in-gestation Mr. Lonely. Likewise, the more traditionally formal aesthetic of that film cannot empirically be considered superior to the smeary third-generation VHS that Trash Humpers was shot on. In short, this grating film about degenerate elderly sociopaths who prowl the night, molesting hapless garbage receptacles, is as worthy of serious consideration as any other film that screened at NYFF or Toronto this year.

I say this not because anyone is actually crying foul over its cinematic merits (indeed, the film seems to be slipping quietly on by) but moreso because I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it, and was engaged by it, as a cinematic experience. Korine has stated that he wanted the film to feel like found-footage, like a videotape someone found in a ditch and decided to watch; but he's also said that he'd rather the film be seen on the big screen, projected on 35mm. This dichotic set of intentions actually speaks volumes to the actual experience of watching the film: it looks, on the surface, like found-footage, but never feels like it. As Karina Longworth writes in her review, "the hand of the artist is just too visible. It’s just too good to be trash."

At times, perhaps, that hand is indeed too visible, and those intentions too obvious - there are moments that feel like Moments, designed to evoke a specific reaction, and they're sore thumbs amongst all the other randomly juxtaposed detritus that is genuinely provocative in its own right. The camera's arbitrary discovery of a corpse in the woods, for example, is a lot more chilling than an accidental murder that's clearly been staged. But by and large, Korine keeps our disbelief suspended, even as his hand is clearly evident (his penchant for tap dancing is given full thrift here). That his film is ugly, obscene and perverse is easy to take at face value, as his aesthetic choices are never in doubt; but that it's also scary, unsettling and consistently hilarious - and somehow narratively sound - is where he plays his trump card. What's that Groucho Marx quote about vulgarity?

Also, would I write all this if this wasn't a Harmony Korine picture? Would I even watch it? I wondered this even as the film was playing, and quickly decided that it was a moot point, because it is a Harmony Korine film, and that implicit fact is one which not only gives the film its raison d'etre but also affects how we, the audience, interpret what we're being presented with. An artist, once they've accosted the public eye, can foist upon it all manner of media that would otherwise be overlooked; a great artist won't take that right for granted, but he may just play with it. Hence: had this exact same film been made by some kid in Nashville, or if some kid in Nashville had found this film on a videotape in a ditch and uploaded it to the internet, it would still contain all the same intrinsic qualities it has now, but it wouldn't be as compelling, as watchable, because it wouldn't have the context that an artist - one who's proven himself to be a great one - always gives to his work.

It's at this junction that I suggest you stop reading and watch a clip from the film, if you haven't seen it already.

And now, to further qualify what you've just seen: a recent Indiewire article noted that of those audience members who stayed through the end of a recent screening, the majority of them were male, between the ages of twenty and thirty, all of whom responded enthusiastically - and all of whom probably were watching a certain program on MTV about nine years ago. Trash Humpers, with its crappy aesthetics, wayward athletics, juvenile sexuality and not-quite-right old age makeup, is the logical extension of Jackass. The two films begat by that cherished series were cinematic works of art in their own right (I'd have been happy to see them included in the NYFF lineup in their respective years), and Trash Humpers is its natural progeny. Genetically fucked up in every which way, but beautiful all the same.

Posted by David Lowery at 5:50 PM

October 23, 2009

We Were Once A Fairytale

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I know I'm a bit late to this particular party, but I just had to mention this short film from Spike Jonze and Kanye West, which to my understanding has been appearing and disappearing online for the past week or so. I found it here. Hopefully when you read this it's still available.

I was referred to it by two friends who compared it to a few short films of my own; and indeed, it's right up my alley - partially for West's convincingly obnoxious performance in the first ten minutes, partially for the sad surrealism of the last two, but mostly because the disparate juxtaposition of the two yields something that, while somewhat obvious in the symbolic sense, is surprisingly moving for that very same reason.

And what of Jonze's other fairy tale, currently in theaters? I don't really want to write about it, because to do so, I think, would be to dilute the memory of those two precious hours. An irreplaceable mixture of film and filmgoing. I'll wait until I've seen it again.

UPDATE: Today's New York Times has a story on how the short film was leaked prior to its intentional release on iTunes this coming Tuesday...

Posted by David Lowery at 1:20 AM

October 19, 2009

St. Nick abroad!


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I was unable to accompany St. Nick to both Sidewalk and Indie Memphis over the past month, and as much as I was remiss to skip this detour into the South, I had my anticipation for November and all it has in store to tide me over. Some of those things don't have anything to do with St. Nick, but a lot of them do, and they are as follows:

First up, on November 13th, I'll be heading to the St. Louis International Film Festival, where St. Nick is one of five first features in competition. The lineup at this festival is just extraordinary, and I can't wait to spend some time there (and St. Nick has a minute Missouri connection, in that the shot of the barbed wire visible in the banner above was photographed in Springfield months before principal photography began). Meanwhile James will presenting the film that same weekend at the famed Cucalorus Film Festival in South Carolina. We screen there on November 14th (and James' short film Receive Bacon will be playing there as well).

From these respective venues, James and I will both be boarding international flights and heading to the cradle of Western Civilization, where we'll meet up with Adam on November 16th and gear up for what seems to be a pretty stellar international premiere. We've known for a little while now that St. Nick was an official selection of the 50th Thessaloniki Film Festival, but it wasn't until we read the press releases in IndieWire and Variety last week that we realized it was the lone US film in competition. We're right there in the middle of an incredibly impressive international lineup; it's quite an honor, and we're thrilled to be attending. Even more thrilling is that, at the festival's bequest, Tucker and Savanna will be at both the screenings and the awards ceremony. I couldn't be more vicariously excited - can you imagine being that age and getting flown to Europe to watch yourself on the big screen at a major international film festival? Unbelievable! I'm going to do my best to introduce them to Werner Herzog, who's attending with a career retrospective.

The only downside of all this is that no one will be in the country to present St. Nick at the Denver Film Festival, where it's in also in competition. Does anyone want to represent for us in our stead? Incidentally, I'm writing this on a flight from Denver, where I had a connection between Sacramento and Austin. This time last night I was in LA, just getting out from seeing Where The Wild Things Are and getting ready to drive all night to have breakfast and a cup of the best coffee in the world with the love of my life in cold, rainy, beautiful San Francisco. Just how much I've slept since yesterday is up in the air, but I'm awake now, and can feel the plane dropping beneath me as it curves down towards Texas and an autumn that I expect to have fully bloomed in my absence...

...but I digress. We'll have more news on St. Nick soon. And, with any luck, more news on my next project, which I'll hereby go on record as saying will also have the word saint in the title.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:03 PM | Comments (3)

October 7, 2009

Progress

I was bicycling through a cold and rainy Austin evening not too long ago and it occurred to me that come February it will have been two years since I directed St. Nick. This dawning moment was accompanied by a momentary flash of panic - two year since I last directed something! What have I been doing with my time? Disaster!

Then I remembered that in that ensuing time and space, I've photographed two feature films, edited two others, co-edited a massive documentary, spent a summer making Alexander The Last with Joe (not to mention a few weeks on his follow-up project), made a movie in Costa Rica with Kris, directed all those Boy Crazy spots, made that music video with Toby, helped Kentucker Audley with his new feature and also did everything that needed to be done between the actual production of St. Nick and this very moment, when it still needs tender loving care (but of a decidedly different sort). And I've written an awful lot and might be making headway towards getting a new project off the ground on a slightly larger scale. So I guess I haven't been exactly idle. I've kept my creative instincts burning while endeavoring as a craftsman. I think about someone like Walter Murch and fancy him a kindred spirit (which reminds me that I never wrote about how much I loved Tetro). But still...two years...

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One of those films I DPd was Frank V. Ross' Audrey The Trainwreck. We began principal photography in Chicago a year ago yesterday. All my memories of that month are nothing but warm and cozy; I think of the shoot and I picture cold air and misty windows and leaves falling and all the other accouterments of autumn wrapped up in the tough gossamer of a remarkable creative experience. Working day in and out with Frank and Adam and Alexi. It was really my first film as a cinematographer, and I set out to shoot something that maintained the rough aesthetic that is Frank's trademark while simultaneously being unabashedly gorgeous, and dark, and burnished. In late February of this year, Frank sent me the first cut. He mailed it to me in Austin, but I was in Dallas at the time, doing the mix on St. Nick. I rememberr that late night drive down South, knowing it would be in the mailbox waiting for me. I remember telling him that I hadn't looked forward to seeing a movie that much since There Will Be Blood, which was true. I was excited not just because I had shot it, but because the script had meant so much to me and I'd lost sight of that over the course of the shoot. I put the DVD in as soon as I got to town, and since then I've seen each and every iteration of the film, as Frank hewed it into the auburn gem it currently is. It's an amazing film. Masterful. I'm so proud to have been a part of it. Frank is in a league of his own.

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My second film ever as cinematographer came in short order, with Bryan Poyser's Lovers Of Hate. I've been more closely tied to the post-production on this one, having seen the first 30 minutes come together over the spring and then traveling to Austin in late July to help Bryan trim the two-and-a-half hour first cut. Since then I've watched it about a dozen times - including last weekend, when I saw the now 89-minute cut for the first time with Toby's color correction, and this morning, when we screened the film (with great success) for John Pierson's class at UT. It's more difficult for me to watch this one, primarily because it was so much more challenging to make (though no less fun) and I'm commensurately much harder on my own work. But seeing it with an audience, and hearing them laugh uproariously and then fall quiet as they get caught up in the intricate emotional tightrope Bryan's constructed is consistently thrilling; hearing myself laugh and then finding myself sucked into that same piercing gray zone is even better. Better, even, than people talking about how they much they like the way it looks, because when I hear things like that I still feel like I've somehow pulled something over on them.

Both films will be finding wider audiences in the coming months. Both deserve nothing but the best. Festival programmers, if you read this and think my opinion is worth a damn, please take note.

I'm writing this from my little editing suite at 501 Post in Austin, where I just finished cutting a new feature directed by my friend Chris Ohlson. I measured my progress in coffee cups from the appropriately named Progress Coffee around the corner. This is what a feature film looks like:

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Posted by David Lowery at 4:35 PM | Comments (1)

October 3, 2009

Bright Star (2009)

I must admit from the outset, dear readers, that I need to see Jane Campion's Bright Star again before I come to any definite terms with it. I saw it under the sway of a celestial luminary all my own, and, through no fault of the film, my thoughts strayed from it on those occasions when it failed to find harmony with what odes coursed through my veins. In short, I was distracted. It happens.

But when that harmonization occurred - when Campion's filmmaking jumped ahead of the implicit lyricism of her subject - my slackened gaze was pulled taught. One scene in particular lingers in my head, as muscular in its execution as it is overwhelmingly delicate. One scene, broken into three shots; a single exchange conveyed through two parallel narratives. The first, a wide shot, depicts Fanny and John Keats standing together, amidst the hustle and bustle of their house. They're off to to one the side of the frame, circumstantially placed. A stolen moment, . We're invited to consider the transaction taking place between them as if we were one of the family members coming and going, in and out and up and down the stairs, scarcely noting what scarcely seems an extraordinary moment. Fanny is giving him a key. He takes it. A practicality. This is one version of the story.

But interspersed within this is a second narrative, in which the same story is told, this time in close up. The first shot: Fanny reaches behind her head and carefully lifts the chain from around her neck, pulling this little iron key up from the collar of her frock.

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The second: a corresponding close up of Keats' outstretched hand, as the key descends into his palm and his fingers clasp around it.

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This exchange is the same as the one in the wide tableaux - but there, it was a means to an end (unlocking something) whereas when relegated to the intimacy of a shorter lens, it becomes an end unto itself. What was a transaction becomes a covenant. She's giving him the key, willingly, pulling it from her breast. He takes it. There's nothing to mistake here and, in a love story as chaste as this, this gesture's mixture of selflessness and sensuality is enough to make one swoon. If one isn't swooning already.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:37 AM

October 2, 2009

Pressing

It might have been my mood, which has been particularly receptive and open to surprises and little shots of joy lately, but I was unusually moved by the positivity of this review of St. Nick from the Calgary Herald. If the movie were given a theatrical release (we're working on it) and we had one of those placards made up with a single review on it to put in the cinema lobby, this is what we'd put on it.

Moving into the Southwest: my esteemed producer James M. Johnston, whose roots run as deep in his community as mine shoot to the sky (although it's been nearly two weeks now since I've been on an airplane), has been the subject of various bits of local press concerning burgeoning the Fort Worth film scene. He was voted Best Local Filmmaker by Fort Worth Weekly, and that's his imposing mug at the top of this Movers & Shakers article, and then there's this article (which offers some details about the next business venture he and Amy are embarking upon). I haven't lived in Fort Worth in the better part of a decade, but I'm proud that we shot St. Nick there, and that it can lay its claim on my work.

About that lack of flying. It seems I'm Texan again. Everything feels just right about that.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:00 PM | Comments (1)

October 1, 2009

Birthday Suit!

And now for something completely different! Joe wrote and directed this Funny Or Die exclusive a few months ago, and then handed off all the footage to me so I could edit it (and trace motion capture dots on Kent Osborne's privates in order to build a wireframe model of said privates). They finally put it online today:

You may recognize such independent stalwarts as the aforementioned Mr. Osborne, Ti West and Matt Newton (director of Three Blind Mice), but the real exciting thing about this video was that Vinessa Shaw was in it. It was made while we were all still completely high from Two Lovers, and my first cut had about a minute of footage basically extolling that movie and our love for it.

Anyway, give it a look and then go here and click on the 'Funny' button so that Will Ferrell hires us to make more of these!

Posted by David Lowery at 5:14 PM