I have to admit: I initially wrote off Lena Dunham after seeing the awful trailer for her second feature Tiny Furniture. Sure that I would come away from the experience with a new indie pseudo-auteur earning my scorn, I expected the appearance of Alex Karpovsky to be the film's only saving grace. To my surprise, I thought it was a wonderful film, one of the best independents of recent years. While the trailer had suggested a cloying, "quirky" indie movie about one film graduate's post-college home life, replete with obnoxious non-sequitur dialogue, the film itself was sharply observed and genuinely funny. (In retrospect, perhaps that trailer wasn't so awful.) Dunham has continued to show herself to be an artist of consistent talent with HBO's Girls, whose second season has so far been brilliant.
Her very first feature, Creative Nonfiction, lacks the stylistic sophistication of Furniture (instead of carefully composed HD widescreen shots, we get shaky academy ratio DV), and I wouldn't be surprised if people were as turned off by this film as I had been by that trailer. Creative Nonfiction is, as much as I hate to use the term, full-on mumblecore. But after a recent second viewing, I was convinced that it's a very fine debut. Dunham herself seems to possess a little more charm here, before she decided to make her surrogates a little (or a lot) less likeable.
Lena plays Ella, a creative writing major who is writing a screenplay about a girl who is kidnapped and forced to write before escaping. Ella is also determined to lose her virginity, and begins trying to seduce her friend Chris who has been sleeping in her dorm room because of mold growing under his bed. Dunham's talent is already apparent in showing the nuances of Ella's interactions between her friends and classmates, particualrly with Chris, who betrays her by sleeping with one of her friends. Her loss of virginity finally happens with someone she is far less acquainted with than Chris, and the way she awkwardly turns down her his desire for a relationship is the same sort of self-centered behavior we'll see much more of in Dunham's later characters, and eventually become more critical of (I think).
Frank V. Ross's new website just launched today, if my google alerts are to be believed. There's a page for the new film, Tiger Tail in Blue, along with a PDF that contains press/festival info.
I know I've kind of dropped off the map, for anyone reading. My internet access is not what it was a few months ago, but that's not really a valid excuse. I still plan on finishing the essays for the 9@Night series, and I have another post planned for something completely different.
Frank Ross's Hohokam is the most minimal of his four released films. Whereas Quietly on By focused on one main character and his relationship with both his family and his close knit group of friends, Hohokam focuses on about a week in one couple's relationship. Queitly didn't have a conventional plot in the Hollywood sense, but it was apparent that Ross took great attention to detail about his characters' relationships and where things were heading. Hohokam still exists in that same space, giving off a sense that, for all the apparent improvisation and lack of plot, there is a perceptive eye behind it all, making sure that what we see is important. And what we see is a week in the life of a couple, enjoying each other's company, slogging through their nine-to-fives, fighting over things real people fight over, making up, and essentially making things work.
Hohokam is Ross's shortest film to date, and so deceptively simple it seems to resist any sort of analysis. Or maybe I'm just letting myself off the hook. Whichever the case, I highly recommend it.
Also: It was Frank Ross Week on Kentucker Audley's No Budge site a couple weeks back. I would have participated, but my internet was restricted to an iPhone until a few days ago. No Budge screened his new one, Tiger Tail in Blue, and it looks like the wheels are turning and more screenings will start to pop up in the months ahead. Here's a brief interview at Filmmaker.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be offered a ride from Sam Neave himself to San Jose to see his newest, Almost in Love, which was playing as part of the local Cinequest film festival. Having been a fan of Cry Funny Happy for a number of years now, it was great to finally see a new work from Neave. His one film since Cry, First Person Singular, was not released on DVD, and I wasn't sure what the fate of the new one would be (according to Neave, both will get DVD releases, pending song clearances).
I don't normally write about films on here until I've seen them twice (being a critic is surely a tougher job than it seems), but I thought a few words were in order, especially since the film was so good. Almost in Love is a film about a love triangle of sorts between three friends. I say "of sorts" because the girl never really seems to be in love with either of the male characters, although she may have been once. The film consists of two 40-minute continuous takes. In the first, Sasha (Alex Karpovsky, the best I've seen him yet) is throwing a barbecue on his balcony on Staten Island, and has invited his old flame Mia (Marjan Neshat). Shasha's sometimes friend Kyle (Gary Wilmes) is mistakenly invited, and having briefly dated Mia after her breakup with Sasha, creates an awkward scene and nearly ruins the barbecue. At this point I was reminded of Cry Funny Happy's party-ruining breakdown scene, but Neave isn't intent on repeating himself; this one ends on a much different note. The second part takes place during a party on Long Island, roughly a year and a half later. It is Sasha's wedding night, but he's not married to Mia. All his friends are there, including some new ones, and the party has gone on through the night and is approaching dawn. Without revealing or summarizing too much, I will say that Sasha comes to terms with his heart's unmet desire, while we hope Kyle, who is shown to be a kinder person than we may have initially assumed, can do so with the same sort of grace.
The film is extremely well acted, and recalls Altman's 70's films using multiple mics and overlapping dialogue. The second part is particularly impressive, given the choreography involved. There is never a dead or false moment during this scene, and DP Daniel McKeown makes it all look so easy with his agile camerawork. I'm forgetting a lot of nuance that would make this a better piece, but I'm hoping I've at least aroused some interest from any readers I might have, and maybe after a second viewing I'll post a better piece.
I had been meaning to see Frank V. Ross's movies for years -- I had heard of Quietly on By and Hohokam as far back as 2006, and I knew him as one of Joe Swanberg's regular actors -- when I finally shot him an email asking if I could buy any of his work on DVD. I ended up buying all four of his releases, although his website for the films seems to have disappeared since then. I'm glad I got through to him during that window. The films are wonderful. Like a lot of the "mumblecore" (a term I resent, by the way) from mid-last decade, they're shot on DV, and often feature twenty-somethings during aimless or stagnant periods in their lives. And yet, Ross's films lack neither purpose nor meaning. Refraining from the urban anomie that is often associated with this type of filmmaking, Ross focuses on small town suburbanites, the kind that are rarely represented in films of any type. An intense interest in the behavior and interactions between the characters shines through in each film.
Quirtly on By focuses on Aaron, who lives at home with his younger sister Erin and their mother. A recent breakup with a long-term girlfriend and subsequent breakdown has left him in limbo, unsure of where to go or what to do next. He's neurotic, somewhat paranoid (he suspects a white SUV is following him around, but it's probably all in his head), and his behavior is often erratic and born out of desperation. But he does have friends, and his family is always there as a tether. His mom provides him with some advice ("It's what you do everyday"), and when Aaron repeats it to a friend at a party, it shows that he takes it seriously, cliched though it may be, and that he is trying.
Though Ross's films may be largely improvised, they feel focused and nuanced. His scenes are a balance of looseness and structure. He's also not afraid to break with the realism that digital video conveys and put in an effects shot, for instance, where Aaron imagines a past moment with his ex-girlfriend while talking to her on the phone in the present. It's a really nice touch (especially how it "fades out" of the current scene) in a film full of them, establishing Ross's idiosyncratic yet subtle style. The aforementioned white SUV is another such touch, something I didn't even notice as a thread in the film until my second viewing.
In addition to being a good stylist, Ross proves himself to have a great eye for behavior, and his superb cast of non-actors (I'm assuming) always feel natural. In the film's best scene, or at least its funniest, Aaron is nearly caught spying on a girl he likes, and after running back to his car he calls another girl whose number he'd gotten days before. The ensuing conversation is both pathetic and hilarious. But for all of Aaron's awkward moments, Ross is not making fun of him or looking down on him. Aaron ultimately proves to be likable; the film ends with a touching moment between him and his sister. I took it to be optimistic about his future without being sentimental.
Frank Ross is doing something that is not too far off from Mike Leigh's 1970s BBC work. Perhaps not as brilliant or insightful, but damn near close. It's always refreshing for me to see these types of down-to-Earth films. This isn't simply a slice of life; there's nuance and insight here.
I'll have a piece up soon on his next film, Hohokam.