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May 26, 2010

Careerism

Without giving any semblance of preference to any of this summer's diversions (I still haven't seen Iron Man 2 or MacGruber), let me quote director Mike Newell, who stated in this NY Times story that he's "the kind of guy who’s only really happy when it’s Hungarian, in black and white, with subtitles.” Which, in the context of the article and the movie it's about, comes off almost as a sideways apology - or perhaps I'm just reading my own fears into it. The issue of subjecting my personal conviction in exchange for a good paycheck is something I haven't had to deal with yet (and from this vantage point it's a problem that doesn't seem so terrible), but it's something that I think about frequently enough. I want to make the movies I want to make, the way I want to make them, but I also want to make a living at it, and the degree of compromise that is implicit in that is something I worry about. At this moment in time, that compromise consists of me forcing myself to edit a commercial instead of rewriting the same scene for the millionth time, but I'm always eager to project.

To split the difference: I could continue scraping by on a few thousand dollars a year from odd editing jobs here and there, and making my little films on the side - but on the other hand, my concept of integrity has at this point expanded past the point of blind idealism (or, at least, the blind idealism of a 24 year-old, substituted now for that of someone moving closer to 30). But then I think about a director I had lunch with a few years ago, who wanted to pick my brain about how to make a small movie that was close to his heart. He said he knew exactly how to spend 100 million on a film (and had indeed done just that) but couldn't fathom how to make something personal for 250,000 (I'd lied and said that the film I'd just made cost 100,000 instead of 30).

There's a slipping point in there amidst all those troublesome numbers that I'm worried I'll someday overlook. And, upon realizing I've missed it, I will probably will indeed fall back on the time I flew to Chicago just to see a black and white subtitled Hungarian film in order to substantiate the notion that I'm in this for more than the money.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:57 PM | Comments (1)

May 23, 2010

New Weerasethakul

Out of all the shots in the history of cinema, very few haunt me as much as that slow dolly towards the jungle (after the soldiers have left the frame) in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady.

So, out of all the films playing at Cannes this year, I'm most looking forward to his new movie, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

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It feels like it's been ages since Syndromes And A Century.

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And, within hours of posting this, the Cannes jury awarded Uncle Boonmee the Palm D'Or! Way to go, Tim Burton.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:58 AM

May 16, 2010

Non-Influences & Drinking From The Same Lemonade Stand

I think it was James Ponsoldt who first asked me if Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was an influence on St. Nick. I told him I hadn't seen it. He then asked if I'd seen Victor Erice's The Spirit Of The Beehive, to which I also professed ignorance (in fact, I don't know if I'd ever even heard of that film at the time - one of those pictures that had inexplicably fallen through the cracks of my cinematic consumption). That was eight months or so before St. Nick premiered, after which I heard those same two titles named again and again in reference to my film. I assumed that, in tone and subject matter, they might be somewhat similar; I hoped not so similar that people thought I was a ripping them off, but nonetheless, I continued to plead sincere innocence and press forward under the belief that my vision of childhood was my own.

It was, of course, not. During a recent week in which I discovered the unheralded satisfaction of watching films immediately upon waking, I decided to give Ratcatcher its due. At first I wasn't worried. Tonally and stylistically, it occasionally dovetailed towards a pursuit similar to my own, but beyond that it was not the same film...

...at least until a certain sequence hit, about halfway through, wherein Ramsay's young hero happens upon an abandoned building. Suddenly, I felt like I was watching - well, not my own film, but a film that I might have once seen and absorbed and forgotten about and then subconsciously reconstituted into my own work. For one thing, there's the abandoned building as a symbol of a young boy's wants and desires; but beyond that there are the details, little fragments, things one might seize upon and preserve. The moment where the boy pees in the broken toilet, for example. It's a charming, offhand detail in Ramsay's film, and it shows up in St. Nick, too, but as a scene unto itself, painted in rigorous chiaroscuro - which is precisely how memories will often render the most casual of things.

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Which, I reminded myself, is the overall difference between her film and mine. "A boy's story is the best that is ever told," Charles Dickens once wrote, and Ramsay took the implicit meaning of that quote and pasted it across a broad social context, while I eschewed context entirely and burrowed inward. Hence, the same image rendered as a verite fragment and as a crystallized portrait.

But in the very next second, on the screen, the boy absconded through the window, running headlong into the outlying fields of golden wheat, and suddenly I felt like I was actually watching my own movie. Aside from issues of filmstock and focal lengths, this scene could be seamlessly intercut with an early one in St. Nick. You can even tell that they were shot in a similar fashion, with a handheld camera plunging headlong after an actor let loose to his own whims.

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Later in the film, the boy's younger sister crawls into bed with him, throwing her arm around his neck. He shrugs her off at first, but she persists. The framing and lighting is similar to the children's first night in the old house in St. Nick, and the content calls to mind the later scene when the boy doesn't want to sleep with her any longer. In both films, hints of burgeoning sexuality precede and color the interaction. There's even a cut to a nearly identical close-up of the sister, drifting off to sleep...

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I don't mean to catalog the similarities between Ratcatcher and St. Nick - for indeed, by and large the films are still distinct and different - but simply to marvel at the fact that I had not seen Ramsay's film prior to making my own. There must be something to the collective spirit of childhood that imposes certain choices upon those trying to evoke it. Certain images, certain textures, certain gestures, certain broke-down porcelain, and all those fields stretching rolling outside of every window.

Those same fields make an appearance in The Spirit Of The Beehive, which I watched the next morning. There were no alarming moments of recognition this time; instead, I found a comforting sense of esprit de corps. This film exists on a parallel plane to mine, but there are no direct points of intersection, nothing to make me think anything other than that, should my film be thought of alongside this one in the pantheon of great films about children, I'll bear that honor proudly. The same goes for Ratcatcher, which is just as much a masterpiece, and which I'll never be able to consider with the same sense of detachment. Sometimes you watch a film and wish you made it, and I guess sometimes you watch one and realize you already did. It's a curious thing indeed.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:27 PM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2010

Walter Murch & The State Of Cinema

Up now at GreenCine Daily is a short piece about Walter Murch I wrote, spurred on both by his State Of Cinema address at the San Francisco International Film Festival a few weeks ago and my own frequent citation of him as an inspiration. By the time I had to turn it in to meet my deadline, I felt I was just starting to figure out what direction I wanted to go with it - so this might be a topic I come back to.

In the meantime: I've been editing a new feature, an independent project that I find particularly vital and exciting. I was handed a rough cut a month ago, and at first I was just content to go through that, making a tweak here and shuffling a scene there. Eventually, I realized I wasn't taking advantage of the opportunity I had in front of me, nor was I doing myself or the film's director any service by merely fiddling with his vision. So I started over from scratch, turned back to the raw footage and started working as a filmmaker instead of an editor. It makes all the difference.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:26 PM | Comments (3)

May 12, 2010

A Room Of One's Own

Today a film crew came to spend the day documenting me - the anticipation of which was occasion enough to reflect upon how I might imagine a portrait of my daily life might look. What I do is no mystery, but where I do it - that is up for grabs. In my head I see a great deal of burnished wood. It makes up the floors and the walls, the table and chairs, and the bookshelves that sculpt the space into tall corridors. These are full of books, with just enough empty spaces to suggest that they're made use of, and not for show. More volumes are stacked on the floors, and scattered here and there. On the desk is my computer, and lots of paper and mail (and more books). Off axis from the desk is another work table upon which some sort of miniature world exists; a stop-motion set, a trove of texture and detail and expression. Some film equipment is set up to capture it - a camera on a tripod, some lights burning with tungsten embers. These are in fact the only lights in the place, and their warm glow cascades outward in diminishing rays, giving body to the encroaching shadows and suggesting in the dimmest recesses a flickerless sort of candlelight.

Such a space takes time to establish, alas, and my peripatetic life of late has not allowed for it; in its place, I have a room with teak floors and white walls, and windows that let in light even after the sun has set. I have a table with a computer on it, and some hard drives, and if I dig through the trash I might find some old notes or sketches to scatter about. I have whatever book I'm reading, and nothing else. Generally speaking, it's enough, but it isn't me.

The film crew predicted my dilemma, and went to lengths to assuage it; I'm not sure when the results will be finished, but I look forward to seeing them. And as for this room I'm in now, as I write this - I'll be abandoning it for good soon, and heading back to Texas, to the girl I love and our new home, which is indeed our own and which I'll be able to fill with many things, the least of which is a lifetime's worth of literature. It'll be good to be back.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:03 AM

May 9, 2010

St. Nick was in Rochester


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Down this dark alley off East Avenue can be found the charming Little Theater annex, built upon the original cinema from 1909, which was where St. Nick unspooled on Friday afternoon. I suppose unspool is no longer the accurate terminology, but perhaps we can agree that literalism has been eclipsed by euphemism...

...even though the anachronisms of this medium were made abundantly clear to me, having just returned from from a private tour of the Eastman House and a tertiary step into the antechambers of their massive film archives. Hundreds of thousands of reels, nitrate prints in concrete sleeves, the complete collections of Scorsese and Cecil B. DeMille, the original camera negatives of The Wizard Of Oz - we saw the door beyond which all of these could be found, along with shelves of recently trafficked 35mm cannisters. Eight reels of A Woman Under The Influence sat next to Scorsese's print of The River...

...which dwarfed two auspiciously placed miniDV tapes resting alongside it. They looked clinical and pathetic, and completely outdated next to those decades-old silver cylinders. Whatever pragmatic benefits digital distribution may have, there's something impressive about making a film that is literally heavy.

But of course, the big screen is the great equalizer. My film screened off DigiBeta on Friday, and on Saturday The Red Shoes was projected from its beautifully restore celluloid print, and both formats did equivocal work in getting the heart of the matter writ upon the wall. The contexts were different: seeing the Powell & Pressburger film at the packed Dryden Theater, with an introduction by Thelma Schoonmaker and an overview of the restoration process that elicited ooohs and ahhs from an audience who might better be described as patrons rather than filmgoers, felt like a true cultural event, the sort you might put your coattails on for. My film, at the Little Theater, felt like a secret about to be discovered, something one would stumble in out of the cold from (and indeed it is cold, cold enough that it snowed last night). But shortly after the lights dimmed, context vanished and the films existed, for the extent of their running time on the same plane. You'll have to forgive my hubris here in placing my film alongside one of the great Technicolor classics - but in truth, it's the programmers' fault and not my own, and that's precisely what Iove about film festivals like this.

I'm about to go see the Laura Poitras' The Oath, and follow it up with the premiere screening of a restored print a silent adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, directed by William Desmond Taylor, whose 1922 murder scandalized Hollywood and was never solved...

Posted by David Lowery at 1:33 PM

May 6, 2010

Ephemera 3 (or 4?)

Following a wedding-cum-family reunion on the banks of Lake Michigan, I made it back to LA for two days, during which I rehearsed with Barlow Jacobs and Eddie Rouse for a project we've all been planning for way too long, made a phone call that set my next film further in motion and strolled through a den of rattlesnakes. In two hours I'm catching a red eye to Rochester, NY, where I'll be spending the weekend watching fine cinema, missing my fiancée like crazy and giving what might be the last festival Q&A ever for St. Nick.

Two notes culled from a pair of unfinished entries:

More soon, upon landing. And backing up to the subject of that new film, alluded to one entry prior - pencil in the last week of June.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:03 AM