this Rosenbaum quote

Found here on his website (thanks Casey):

“Over the course of [Room 237’s] 104 minutes, I kept thinking that American education and its mistrust of art have a lot to answer for. The puzzle aspects of Last Year at Marienbad and Certified Copy may finally be the least interesting thing about them, but it’s probably the most interesting and important thing about a cynical piece of non-art like Memento, which is possibly what makes that film such a cherished cult item and fetish object in certain Anglo-American circles. One way of removing the threat and challenge of art is reducing it to a form of problem-solving that believes in single, Eureka-style solutions. If works of art are perceived as safes to be cracked or as locks that open only to skeleton keys, their expressive powers are virtually limited to banal pronouncements of overt or covert meanings -– the notion that art is supposed to say something as opposed to do something.”

small films, about people

What makes independent filmmaking distinct from mainstream big-budget filmmaking? Is it that independent films want to tell stories in ways rarely explored by mainstream film? That does seem to be the party line. In film school it was always “visual storytelling,” no matter the type of film in question. I remember Godard’s Breathless being accused of not having a story by a classmate one early morning in Randy Rutsky’s intro to film studies class, to the apparent objection of no one. Breathless‘s obvious plot notwithstanding, my classmate appeared oblivious that a film could be anything else other than a vehicle to tell stories. And so it often seems in the world of American independent film, even among those of us who do know that films can aspire toward other things. I still hear the variation of “new ways of cinematic storytelling” quite often. Perhaps it’s just a good way to draw in the uninitiated. Obviously, we need viewers.

Back when I was still one of the uninitiated myself, I used to think of independent films as “small films, about people.” European films and international cinema in general often fell into this category, but it was rare that an American film outside the sphere of independents ever did, and the same holds true now (it sometimes seems like a minor miracle we even have people like Lonergan, or Malick, or Reichardt making their films just outside the mainstream). I remember having the feeling of breathing fresh air again when I first began to encounter such works, American or otherwise, and the feeling of having been liberated from the constraints of plot and all the other devices a filmmaker necessarily had to work with, at least according to Syd Field books and screenwriting teachers. It wasn’t that these films subverted these devices, as say a Tarantino movie might, but that they left them behind altogether. Instead these films focused on behavior, the kind that we might see (or fail to see) in our everyday lives, and explored emotional territory deemed too marginal or too boring for Hollywood. They pulled back the veil of the mundane to reveal the extraordinary universe happening just beyond.

My progression didn’t happen overnight. It took me from seeing Mike Leigh’s Naked in the late 90s on IFC (it seemed to play twice a week back then), to the DOGME films in the early 2000s (The Celebration in particular), to IFC’s DV Theater during that same time (does anyone remember this?), to Andrew Bujalski’s first couple of movies a few years later, and then having Caveh Zahedi as a documentary film teacher and discovering his work, and finally to reading Ray Carney’s books on John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. And then came a cinematic epiphany. If I were forced to name a scene in a film that changed my life, that cemented my feelings toward independent cinema and that perhaps I thought might convert the skeptical (or at least, help them to understand my viewpoint in some small way), it would be this scene from Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut film Bleak Moments:

Leigh’s film, and this scene in particular, conveys a world of unspoken thoughts and feelings – it’s all subtext, and the subtext is all that matters. I’ve heard it said that 90 percent of all our interactions with people are subtext, and I have no doubt it’s true (even if the percentage seems high). How can we show that the unspoken truths of life are more exciting than any Marvel film? Here is an answer. I will never forget the epiphany I felt while watching this scene for the first time, and I’m still on the edge of my seat every time I have viewed it since. Contrary to its title, Leigh’s film is hardly depressing, and I am always reinvigorated at the end of one of his films, ready to dive back into life than escape it in some way.

Bleak Moments was Leigh’s first film, based on his play of the same title. It was no surprise then that, during my final two years of college, I took a minor in theater. (I even transcribed the above scene for my first acting class so I could see what it was like to be on the inside of it.) I became aware that the relationship between theater and cinema couldn’t be so easily ignored. I have always maintained since then that film, especially independent film here in America, stands a lot to learn from theater. I don’t think it has learned enough. The notion that a film must be “filmic” and never “stagey,” or it somehow doesn’t count, is a fallacy rarely questioned. The above scene proves it isn’t true.

As far as brief blog posts go, this is about as good as I can do to explain why I think independent film is important. At its best, theater conveys a sense of life rarely felt in films of any kind. Talking about that is another blog post in itself, one I can’t so easily toss off like this one. But that sense of life can be felt in Cassavetes, in Leigh, and in our best independent films. I’ve even felt it watching Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. (Which is essentially a filmed play inspired by Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; blog post on that forthcoming.) I realize I’m probably starting to sound overly lofty and quasi-mystical, especially when I’m describing type of film that so often distinguishes itself by being grounded and concrete. But that je nais se quoi is what I am after. 

whatever happened to…?

The Gotham Awards were announced a few days ago. Whatever happened to their Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You category, the award given to one of the year’s best independent films without distribution? I first heard about the award in 2005, when Caveh Zahedi won for his film I am a Sex Addict after showing it at various festivals (he was my documentary film teacher that summer, and he seemed to be gone at festivals half the time). After failure to gain a distributor from any of those showings, he planned to self distribute the film – even going so far as to write a “self-distribution manifesto” in the pages of Filmmaker – until the win made IFC take notice and offer him a deal. In general I’m indifferent to awards, but this one seemed different – a win could have significant material results for small filmmakers.

I was particularly excited when Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue was nominated in 2012. (I interviewed him by phone the day before he was leaving for NYC to screen the film at MoMA along with the other nominees.) Ross was and is one of my very favorite filmmakers working in American independent film, and I thought winning the award would finally give him some recognition and perhaps a break of sorts, after having been largely ignored during the peak mumblecore years (I had always thought Ross’s films might convince the detractors that there was some worth to that unfortunately named microgenre, but that’s another story).

Disappointingly, Ross did not win, and the next year the category was gone. Although MoMA and IFP still select five films every December for a series of screenings under the same name, I’m pretty sure the reason the award was discontinued due to the changing landscape of independent film. Zahedi’s film wouldn’t be shown in theaters if it won today; it would go straight to VOD, no need for a middleman. Or perhaps IFP, wanting to rid the indie film world of unneeded competition and resentment, chose to simply show five great undistributed films at MoMA and leave it at that, no single film overshadowing the rest (okay, probably not). I suppose their Independent Film Audience Award still exists, but each year’s undistributed gems still need as much visibility as they can get.

drowning in a sea of seriousness

Over at The Talkhouse, Jim Hosking makes the case for that which no case needs to be made, that films need not be overly serious, that silliness and fun can be expressions of something genuine, and that there is nothing wrong with enjoyment for its own sake. He begins by speaking personally, charting his progression as a cinephile that began in his preteens when his mother took him to all the foreign language art films, making him a film snob very early on, a stance he inevitably came to reject. But then he starts to make generalizations about how the heaviness of art films is allegedly somehow always bearing down on us, as though film culture is drowning in a sea of seriousness and all we need is some fun movies once in a while:

“I came to see that serious films are not necessarily more profound than silly films. I also realized that some of the stupidest, wonkiest work comes from a place of desperation, of feeling like you don’t fit in and can’t accept the status quo and like you have been miscast to live amongst regular people…The point is, I think people undervalue fun films. Films that aren’t trying to peddle a message. Films that dare to fuck around a bit. I don’t see why films that are irreverent or absurd are deemed less important than films that are really, really, really, really heavy.”

It reminds me of that article about “cultural vegetables” in the New York Times a few years ago. Like that article, he exaggerates how heavy most arthouse films actually are (the idea that we attend these films to wallow in existential despair is as cliche as his idea of what constitutes a serious filmgoer). And also like that article, it comes off as an attempt to exorcise his own guilt. But that’s not the part that bothers me. Few things get my gears grinding more than an argument made in favor of the status quo as though it were the slightest bit revelatory. Who undervalues fun films? The Pauline Kaels of the world are much more common than the Stanley Kauffmanns.

Contrary to what Hosking seems to believe, I think our culture, film and otherwise, is in fact awash with triviality (so much so that to expand upon the argument in this space feels like a waste of time). But that doesn’t mean absurd, irreverent films can’t have serious aims. It doesn’t mean they can’t be playful or fun. It also doesn’t necessarily mean heavy topical films are higher up on the imaginary totem pole than a work of absurdist comedy, because the absurdist work often reveals truths in exciting ways that the other kind doesn’t. I think this is the gist of what Hosking is arguing, and so I partly agree. But there isn’t a need to create a dichotomy where serious films and irreverent films can’t coexist. It reminds me of something Ray Carney says in his Mike Leigh book: his films are deadly serious, but that doesn’t preclude them from being delightfully hilarious at the same time. I mean, has Hosking ever read or seen Waiting for Godot?

I don’t want to come off as too harsh, but look, the truth is that we live in a 24/7 entertainment culture, and the aforementioned fake seriousness is so pervasive that real seriousness mostly remains along the margins. Often, the fake kind is found in the topical films Hosking jokingly derides. Sometimes, it is tempered with sentimentality, and that’s how we get stuff like Short Term 12. When it’s hardened with cynicism, we get Game of Thrones. It’s not that the truth is in the middle, because truth is never easy. So when I come across an article like Hosking’s urging for easiness in films, I can’t help but push back in support of difficulty (which I am in support of anyway, of course).

I understand the importance of weirdness, absurdism, and playfulness in film (see my previous post on The Eyesclicer). Maybe Hosking and I are closer to being on the same page than it seems. Sure, serious films aren’t necessarily more profound than silly ones. But when I see what looks like a parody of what constitutes seriousness used to bolster an argument in favor of what sounds to me like kitsch, well, this post is the result. I’ve seen many a thinkpiece with the same tired argument for surrendering guilt-free to the status quo, and Hosking’s is another to add to the pile. Perhaps it’s time for me to write one where I purge my own guilt for being the overly serious killjoy I apparently am.

rewatching blue ruin

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I’d been thinking about Blue Ruin lately, and how it felt like one of those films whose every shot is burned permanently into my consciousness, even after a single viewing. Upon my recent second viewing, it turned out my memory was much more selective than I had thought – only a few specific (and bloody) moments had remained. But I hadn’t forgotten Jeremy Saulnier’s patient and assured direction, on which I focused more this time around. His slowly paced, elliptical approach increases both the tension and sense of mystery (the way backstory details unfold is particularly masterful), making the quiet moments as riveting as any violent confrontations.

I used to think that genre films didn’t have a place in independent film and should be left to Hollywood. It’s a pretentious view to hold, I know, and probably a bit reactionary. But Blue Ruin changed my mind. Hollywood doesn’t often turn out genre pictures of any type this idiosyncratic and intelligent, and revenge thrillers rarely explore this sort of emotional territory. The violence is not pretty, and the revenge is not sweet. At its core, Blue Ruin has a sadness to it, as its protagonist, wanting to end the cycle of violence, inevitably brings it to its fulfillment.

the eyeslicer

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In my collective: unconscious post a couple weeks ago, I wrote that I could imagine a series of continuing anthology films in the same format. It looks like that film’s producers Dan Shoenbrun and Vanessa McDonnell had the same idea kicking around, except instead of finding five other filmmakers to contribute to one film, he’s making a ten-episode web series titled The Eyeslicer. Here is the link to the Kickstarter page. I’ll definitely contribute enough to get an invite, and I hope it turns out to be as weird and unhinged as it sounds.

the new arthouse

David Lynch says that cable television is the new art-house cinema. I’m not so sure. While television is certainly the place where good genre film has gone, where is the actual equivalent of good art cinema? I am certainly a fan of the fact that television has gotten more serialized over the last decade and a half, but I don’t think we’ve seen what can really be done with the format yet. Right now, the majority of shows are plot based, many densely so. Often, as in the case with a show like Netflix’s Bloodline, there is rarely ever a breather from the ongoing, tightly constructed plot, so as viewers we’re always anticipating what will happen next (especially at the end of each episode), and never really  “in the present,” so to speak, with the characters. I realize Bloodline is a thriller, and so this sort of thing is intrinsic to the genre, but I think television of this type is the norm, thriller or not. The equivalent of arthouse cinema that isn’t Lynchian dream puzzles or Nolan-esque mind benders (i.e., stuff that doesn’t lend itself to binge-watching) is not easy to find on today’s television. And I like many current shows, including Bloodline. But I think the explosion in creativity that has happened in micro-budget filmmaking in the last decade, and especially the last five years or so, has resulted in what can be conceivably called a new arthouse. And due to the accessibility of many of these films over VOD, they’re no longer difficult to seek out. All that is required is the interest of the viewer.

a morning light

Via The Playlist, this trailer for Ian Clark’s A Morning Light is intriguing. I’m basically making this post as a reminder to see it ASAP (right now it seems to making the festival rounds). Anything that can be described as “a cinematic approximation of the metaphysical,” as the Film Pulse pullquote says in the trailer, is going to gain my interest automatically.

And take a look at the beautiful poster:

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collective: unconscious (2016)

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Last week I watched collective: unconscious, an omnibus film featuring the work of five of the most talented independent filmmakers working today (and free to watch on Vimeo), where each filmmaker adapts another’s dream. I had read a lot of positive press back when it was making the festival rounds, and I’m glad I checked it out, because the quality is consistent throughout each segment of the film, a distillation of each director’s sensibility.

Daniel Patrick Carbone’s “Black Soil, Green Grass” starts things off strong, featuring a narrative that has a dream logic that feels as if an explanation is just beyond reach, like a word on the tip of the tongue. Shot in black and white, and featuring Frank Mosley in the lead, Carbone keeps us leaning forward in curiosity on the strength of his composition, pacing, and sound design.

By contrast, Josephine Decker’s “First Day Out” features a restless steadycam and off screen audio of convicts describing their first day out from prison. I want to say it feels like Terrence Malick gone surreal, but please don’t take that as an insultthis one got my antennas up like Malick’s best sequences do.

Lauren Wolkstein’s “Beemus, It’ll End in Tears” adapts a dream many of us have had and will continue to have the rest of our lives, that of the terrors of high school, in particular gym class. Will Blomker plays a terrifying P.E. coach who domineers like a tyrant as Wolkstein slowly zooms in and out like Kubrick and a volcano blazes outside.

Frances Bodomo’s “Everbody Dies!” is the most devastating (and disturbing) short of the bunch, seemingly shot on VHS and similar in feel to something that would air on Adult Swim (I mean that as a compliment), but whose social commentary on the current state of race relations in America cuts down to the bone.

Finally, Lily Baldwin’s “Swallowed,” featuring herself in the lead, starts off familiarly Freudian, the fears of child rearing manifesting as grotesque physical breakdown, then evolves into something much more surreal and disturbing involving a dance sequence and an ending that has that same dream logic quality as Carbone’s film (although with an altogether different tone).

The film as a whole really brings home the fact that American independent film is overflowing with fresh, singular voices at the moment. That four of the five filmmakers are women, and at least one of color, is a display of the diversity that exists in filmmaking outside Hollywood. I could imagine a second volume, even a third (and so on) that featured five different current filmmakers that could be just as consistent quality-wise. But right now, this one film will suffice.

plot doesn’t matter

I recently spotted a book on my girlfriend’s bookshelf, How to Write by Richard Rhodes, and thought maybe, just maybe it might carry a few nuggets of inspiration. It’s possible. Some writers do, after all, tell the truth, which is where real inspiration is found. And hey, it even says Rhodes won a Pulitzer! But I’m on the first couple pages, and already he’s telling me things that sound nice and vaguely inspirational, but that ring hollow to my ears: “We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarge the circle.” (That’s from the very first paragraph in the book.)

I’ve never understood this sentimental view of story. Doesn’t the best cinema, literature, music, go beyond story? Aren’t the important parts of the those forms of art, indeed, the important parts of life itself, to be found beyond simple narrative? When I was in film school, the vast majority of film students seemed to believe that film’s only function was “storytelling.” I got sick of that word, let me tell you. When people talk of story, they usually mean plot; many plotless films still have a narrative, after all. One time in a film theory class we were asked to give examples of our own personal aesthetics, and when I was called on I said “plot doesn’t matter,” which immediately turned heads as though I had spoken the worst kind of blasphemy. I may have been trying to provoke back then, but I still believe it. That doesn’t mean I believe any film with a plot is automatically not good, but that there are far more important things going on in even the most heavily plotted films. Plot is structure. Who thinks structure is the most important thing to a work of art, besides hacks and screenwriting teachers? Well, they don’t believe in art anyway. Structure may be important to craft, but many great filmmakers are terrible at craft, or ignore it altogether. Craft often gets in the way of truth. It all reminds me of a quote from Rob Nilsson’s review of A Separation, almost written as though it were a direct refutation of Rhodes:

“Art which stops at ‘story’ has stopped too soon. There are no stories out in the world. As adults we don’t live in stories. We live in circumstances which change and evolve, and are ourselves, changing, changeable creatures, wanting one thing one day and another thing another. When we were children stories were read to us. But now the opportunity for a truly poetic immersion in the ebb and flow of things beckons us. Unfortunately most of us don’t heed the call.”

I’ll return to this subject again, soon I hope. I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece on it for years now. I think now’s the time.