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November 30, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin


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We Need To Talk About Kevin confounded my expectations from the very first shot. This is appropriate, as the first shot is a useful vantage point from which to consider Lynn Ramsay's intentions: a vast overhead tableau of a sea of bodies writhing in dionysian ecstacy (soon revealed, vividly if still vaguely, to be a European art festival), the image has an otherworldly aspect to it. A divine perspective is how one traditionally might describe this sort of image, a God's-Eye view, but in this film it is more accurately extraterrestrial. In other words, this film feels like it's been made by an alien. It is curiously out of touch with the physical minutiae of life in suburban America, from the house the characters live in to the aggressiveness of the trick-or-treaters that roam the neighborhood on Halloween night, all the way down to Kevin himself, who is not a nuanced character but a representation of one. Every physical element in the film is an exaggeration, occasionally symbolic, never tethered to verisimilitude. When Tilda Swinton hides from a neighbor in the grocery store, the wall of soup cans she hides behind are not soup cans but Soup Cans (and I may be mistaken, but I believe the labels read Mrs. Ramsay's Tomato Soup).

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This is not a criticism, per se, for none of this is unintentional. Ramsay's first two films did not set any sort of precedent for this, but she establishes from that first shot the manner in which she intends to tell this story, and she honors that concept and executes it flawlessly. It is entirely unique. I went into the film with its basic plot in mind, expecting something along the lines of Van Sant's Elephant, and received instead an experience which I'd never had before, one which ran contrary to my own instincts for the material but which nevertheless provided the emotional exactitude necessary to bring this curious beast down to earth. Credit Tilda Swinton as much as Ramsay; her performance pierces straight to the core of a mother who fears her child has been born wrong - an alien concept to me, and one which I've now got an inkling of an understanding of, which means that whatever Ramsay was doing up there on the screen works, and works well. It's a sympathy I've yet to shake.

* * *

I haven't yet read Lionel Shriver's novel upon which the film was based, but it's not too far from the top of my stack. First, though: to finish Infinite Jest. I started it in August, and sometime in September realized that, entrenched at the time in one of the longer, less lively sequences, I was increasingly reticent to spend time with the book. So I decided to start reading other things at the same time, which has worked out quite well so far. I've read with great pleasure Philip Roth's Deception, Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Herzog's Conquest Of The Useless and Rober Ebert's Life Itself alongside the first half of David Foster Wallace's magnum opus. But now it's December. Time to focus on one thing and finish the last 500 pages before the year is out.

I've decided that the condition of one's copy of Infinite Jest when one finishes reading it is a good indication of their personality (or some aspect of it, at least). I base this hypothesis on my own copy, which at this point is tattered, dog-eared, warped and stained intermittently with coffee, tea and seawater; and that of one of my friends, which I noticed last month sitting on his shelf alongside Wallace's other works in what appeared to be near-mint condition. I'd never for a second think he hadn't read it - I watched him read it. I simply marvel that the massive volume itself survived.

Posted by David Lowery at 7:58 PM

November 17, 2011

Tiger Tail In Blue trailer

The new Frank V. Ross picture:

Posted by David Lowery at 1:16 PM

November 6, 2011

Obscurity: Martha Marcy May Marlene & Sleeping Beauty

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I was talking to a friend the other day about Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and discussing whether its very methodical structure and faux-subjectivity was the correct approach to the particular story. The crux of our conversation pivoted upon the same umbrage Richard Brody had with the film in The New Yorker:

It’s exactly this canny dosing of information that makes it seem as if Durkin is pushing buttons—not ineffectively, but un-affectingly ... By holding back on what Martha knows and playing it out as what he’s willing to divulge, Durkin trades the potential depth of her dark and strange experiences for cheap, if clever, thrills.

This assessment is basically correct, except that the trade-off Brody suggests Durkin made is not for a better film, but a different film altogether. What he did make is indeed a thriller, an expertly crafted one which, in that it even suggests the depths which Brody wishes it fully plumbed, has the bonus of being more than the sum of its well-calibrated parts. That its structure doesn't completely mirror the psyche of its subject doesn't bother me. I'll wait for another film to do that, and enjoy what this one does so well.

A day or two later, I watched Julia Leigh's lush debut feature Sleeping Beauty, also the story of a young woman with personality troubles and one which takes precisely the opposite approach to its subject as Martha. Just as Durkin carefully regulates information in order to wring out the suspense and mystery, Leigh openly defuses her scenario's inherent tension. Within the story of a girl who willingly allows herself to be drugged and prostituted, and who is gradually overcome by her curiosity about what transpires while she's unconscious, there is an exquisite opportunity for a mystery: a protagonist who must fill in the blanks. This is not what Leigh is after, however, just as she is not out to titillate us with explicit nudity or mortify us with unpleasant sex. From the very first time her heroine, Lucy, goes under, we are made privy to precisely what information her circumstances deny her. These circumstances are presented in a highly formal and emblematic manner (three encounters, each representing a different phylum not just of masculinity but castrated masculinity), and from this structure we can infer Leigh's intentions. Take it or leave it.

The risk of this model is that, if the viewer is not on board with the director's thesis, or if that thesis is not completely thorough, or if it is presented in a manner that is too obscure, the film potentially fails. The viewer leaves it. In so much as that this is a riskier route, perhaps Durkin was hedging his bets by not taking it, but I doubt it. I don't believe he overestimates his work. He chose the type of film he wanted to make, and hit that very particular nail on the head.

Postscript: I watched Almodovar's The Skin I Live In this evening and during the first hour or so considered working its structure into this discussion, before realizing shortly thereafter that I would be biting off more than I could chew in a few paragraphs. Here's a movie which confounds expectations concerning not simply what information to reveal, but when, and how, and through whom. It makes the famous expository sequence in Vertigo seem like an offhand line of dialogue, thrown out midsentence to keep us on track; Almodovar, conversely, takes great delight in not even letting us know we're on a train, much less that it's about to crash.

Posted by David Lowery at 7:24 PM

November 4, 2011

Pioneer on Wholphin

This weekend, Pioneer is screening at AFI Fest in Los Angeles and the 24FPS Short Film Festival in Abilene, TX, which, as of this writing, concertly represent the end of our 2011 festival run. We've got a few already lined up for next year, but for now the run is coming to a close, which means it's a fine time for this to get released:

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When it comes to short film distribution in the US, it doesn't get much better than the quarterly Wholphin anthology, and so we're thrilled to be featured front and center in the latest edition. Personally, I'm especially pleased that we're in issue 14, as that number is immediately divisible by seven, which is my favorite digit. As of now, that issue is available online either individually or in a subscription, and it'll be available at fine brick & mortar locales beginning next week. Or on Amazon, if that's your poison.

It's also quite wonderful to be showcased in the company of some of the truly outstanding short films we've had the pleasure of seeing on the festival circuit this past year. The Eagleman Stag by Mikey Please deservedly won the award for Best Animated Short alongside us at SXSW last March, and most recently played in the same block as us at the Hamptons Film Festival. I Am A Girl! is a beautiful and charming documentary about a trangender girl in the Netherlands, which was one of the highlights of our program at the LA Film Festival last summer. Amy Grappell's Quadrangle was one we saw back in 2010, and that it didn't get an Oscar nomination this year (much less a win) is shocking to me. And last but not least, the immortal Zellner Brothers are present on the disc with Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, about which not much more needs to be said.

This isn't the only vehicle through which Pioneer will be available for home viewing, but it's the first, and for the time being the very best. Thanks to everyone at Wholphin for making our best-of scenario come true.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:44 AM