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September 25, 2011

Essential Killing (2010)

In Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing, as he did in Coppola's Tetro, Vincent Gallo handily subverts his own public persona by delivering a performance so remarkably sincere and dedicated that it achieves two things: it is a moving performance in its own right, and it's all the more so because it is Vincent Gallo who is giving it. The former feat intrinsically trumps the latter; Gallo won the Best Actor award in Venice, and it's not the first time he's deserved it.

The film is an efficient, single-minded thriller predicated on the human drive for survival. Skolimowksi claims that it is not a political film, and indeed any politicization is almost entirely circumstantial to that classic trick that narratives always have up their sleeve: give us a protagonist to follow and we'll go to great lengths to sympathize with him. As Skolimowski puts it, "politics is a dirty game and I don’t want to voice my opinions. What is important is that the man who runs away is returning to the state of a wild animal, who has to kill in order to survive."

That quote give credence to an idea that struck me as I was watching the film: Essential Killing is, perhaps accidentally, an adaptation of James Dickey's To The White Sea. That novel told the tale of a WWII bomber pilot who crash-lands in Tokyo during a fire bombing raid and fights his way North to the frozen island of Hokkaido, ruthlessly killing anyone he comes across out of sheer necessity. It's a tale of man lost in the wild, much like Dickey's Deliverance, but unlike that classic, man is not fighting against but seeking to become one with the prevailing elements. What Skolimowski gives us is a captured Taliban fighter whose prison convoy crashes while traversing a nameless European tundra. He is stripped of ideology and thrown like a newborn out into the wild, where he's forced to approach the same pragmatic primacy as Dickey's hero. In both works (and in the Coen's unproduced screenplay of Dickey's novel) the protagonist is essentially silent, never uttering a word as he reverts to a more native state. Dickey, of course, might have been suggesting that this reversion is something more like an ascension.

There's a sequence in the novel where the pilot hides on a train car bearing newly hewn logs and rides it across the country, falling into a naturalistic reverie as the wind rushes against him. Gallo's character hops a similar ride, stealing away atop a logging truck laden with fresh timber. Skolimowski's filmmaking doesn't strive for the same ecstatic heights as Dickey's prose - but then that truck delivers Gallo comes to a camp of loggers decimating a forest and depriving him of what has become his home and turning his cover against him when a fallen tree pins him to the ground. There's a shade here of grand sadness that goes beyond survival. It's there in the deep earthy sound of those ancient oaks coming down, the roots ripping up from the ground, and when Gallo subsequently turns his knife on one of the loggers, he's got the faintest hint of a different ideology guiding his hand.

Posted by David Lowery at 4:09 AM

September 23, 2011

IFP Week, a Rooftop Films Grant & Heading Home

I left our cabin in Montana at 4 in the morning on Monday, was back in Texas by 12 that afternoon and sixteen hours later mailed off the draft of the script I'd been working on in that interim and headed back to the airport. I landed in New York at 10:30 that morning, with a little bit of window-seat sleep to ease the pain, and as I was waiting for a cab received a phone call from Mark at Rooftop Films informing that the same script I'd been up all night working on had just been awarded a Rooftop post-production grant. That's a good way to land.

I was here at Independent Film Week three years ago, when St. Nick was selected for the Rough Cut Labs. At the time, I remember feeling very aloof, existential, depressed, not quite sure what I was doing here. I wrote an article about the experience for Hammer To Nail, which no longer exists in their archives but which I retained a paragraph of below:

"So what exactly goes on at Independent Film Week? Let me avoid answering this question by noting that, in asking a filmmaker to cover the event, my editors here have perhaps unknowingly run the risk of entrusting their coverage to someone whose approach to the business of motion pictures might be described by some as self-sabotage; someone who might actively avoid taking meetings or even talking about his film; someone who might, on a whim and for reasons entirely unrelated, decide he needs to give up coffee one day into the week and thereby incapacitate himself with severe caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Someone who may, indeed, spend the entire first day of Independent Film Week off in Brooklyn making an independent film.

Three years certainly make a difference. James, Toby and I have this meetings thing down.

Four days later and it's back to Texas, and then to Milwaukee, and then back here to New York, where I'm taking part in the inaugural Emerging Visions program at the New York Film Festival. In between now and then I've got another draft of the script due, which means I'll inevitably be doing a lot more writing here.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:35 AM

September 21, 2011

The Joe Swanberg Box Set


I was excited to see the official press release for Joe Swanberg's new collaboration with distributor Factory 25 yesterday. The box set will be released as a subscription, with four of Joe's most recent works mailed out over the course of a year, along with special additional features designed to gradually fill up a collectible box. The set is limited to 1000, and is now on sale. Scott Macaulay has a great article about the announcement over at the Filmmaker Magazine blog.

Two notes on this. The first is that this is a fantastic and unique form of physical distribution - and by unique, I mean unique entirely to Joe, whose increasingly termitic work is not only perfectly suited for this type of release but also, increasingly, demands it. Over the past six years, his audience has grown even as his work has become less openly accessible, putting him in an extremely rare position: he doesn't have to please anyone to get everyone to pay attention.

Which brings me to my other point, which is that this subscription is worth the price solely for the double feature of Silver Bullets and Art History, which as a one-two punch are some of the most gut-wrenchingly honest looks at the artistic process and the nature of collaboration that I've ever seen. They're deeply personal and deceptively ambitious - particularly Art History, which lacks the genre conceits. wanton emotion and meta-flourishes of Silver Bullets but replaces them with a stark, almost terrifying sense of formal restraint. It's exactly the type of film that I'm excited to see Joe making, and (big screen aside) this box set is precisely the manner in which it should be released.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:15 AM

September 9, 2011

One Year In

I just spent some time sitting on the back porch of a log cabin, watching the sun set over the mountains of Northern Montana while listening to the Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid soundtrack (courtesy of Bill Ross), and saw fit to reflect on the fact that it's been exactly a year since we rolled cameras on Pioneer.

It's been quite a year. In the next four weeks we're showing at twelve festivals around the world, with more to come later in the fall. It's been seen more than any film we've made, and meant more to more people. I'm not going to try to sum it up in any way, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think we had something special after we wrapped that first day.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:53 PM

September 5, 2011

Same Mistakes

I am loving this song right now.

Jake and Shannon starred in Kentucker Audley's Open Five way back when. Jake also stars in the yet-to-be-released Open Five 2.

Another song I'm really into right now is Mickey Newbury's Ramblin' Blues, which might just be the first song I've ever not been able to find a video for on YouTube. You'll have to track that one down on your own. I'd never even heard of Newbury until I read something Bill Callahan wrote about him last week. Good stuff.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:19 PM