Thursday, December 29, 2011

Absurdist Video Art

Via Dangerous Minds, here is a link to Absurdist Video Art, which looks to be an awesome website dedicated to "the new cinematic absurdism movement." I just discovered the site, so I haven't had time to go over it yet, but I do hope there actually is an absurdism movement out there. They're fans of Shaye Saint John, who I've posted about before (and who they designate as the "godmother of the movement"), and Ryan Trecartin, whose films I've seen via youtube, although not in their entirty -- they're a bit of an overload. I'm sure I'll be posting more about this site and these filmmakers in the future.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

9@Night #1: Noise (Rob Nilsson, 2002)

As I noted a few posts back, I've been planning on purchasing a set of Rob Nilsson's 9@Night film series and writing about each film individually. I'd been wanting to buy the set since late 2008, when I caught a couple of the films from the series at SF's Roxie. Well, I finally took the plunge, and my set arrived a few days ago. Here is a description of the series on Nilsson's website, and here is a pdf of the 2009 Film Comment article on the series.

The first film from the set, Noise, caught me completely off guard. Having previously seen both Need and Go Together, I knew that Nilsson's series contained moments of lyricism (one might even be inclined to use the term "magical realism") in addition to the rawness that characterizes his approach. But Noise is something else entirely, a film that blends those two elements until they're inseparable, resulting in a nearly backwards-told narrative related through the use of split-screen, text, and multiple audio tracks, sometimes all at once. It could all be such a mess, and indeed on some level it is, yet it's absolutely compelling. What's more impressive is that there was no traditional script to provide any kind of predetermined structure. In addition to the performances, the film's construction in the editing room was also improvised; we are informed at the beginning of each film that "the editor frees the genie from the bottle." Out of the five films of Nilsson's that I've seen so far, this is the most stylish, yet it still feels as grounded and tethered to the here-and-now of human experience as any of his others -- to not be would betray his sensibility. The style never overpowers the actors and their performances.

The film begins and ends with a spinning, box-like object which contains seemingly thousands of black-and-white images, the audio and visuals all playing against each other and creating a near white noise as a percussive beat plays on the soundtrack. Most of the time I'm at a loss to tag a meaning on this sort of thing, but about two or three ideas ran through my head: perhaps it's a visual representation of the film's title, or the world its characters inhabit (or both). Or maybe it's a visual way of representing the stories of the series as a whole, jumbled together, playing all at once, like some sort of cosmic hologram. I may be going overboard here, but knowing that the series does share characters and intertwines in various ways, it doesn't seem so much of a stretch.

Ben Malafide, the film's main character, has just been released from prison and makes his way into San Francisco via the ferry. He's introduced to the confusion and cacophony of the modern information age, and it becomes apparent that the film's style is also a reflection of his psyche's response to this new world. In addition to that, it is as though the film's narrative, which takes place out of order, is Ben's memories of these events, his attempt to make sense out of them. It's a memory haunted by the past: at various points we're shown an ethereal image of Ben with a woman, someone he presumably once knew. We know he carries guilt over someone named Julie. It makes for a more interesting film (and character) that we never learn why. The film ends with Ben seeming to have a brief epiphany -- if nowhere else, he finds meaning in a moment shared by him and a dancing panhandler.

Nilsson's work is as DIY as it gets, and yet he is so far ahead of most of the current generation of no-budget filmmakers, who would do well to take a look these films. Whereas the current generation is often accused of self-absorption and narcissism, Nilsson humanizes his characters, the types of figures that are most often marginalized, on screen and off. Noise is pretty masterful, as far as I'm concerned, and sets the bar high. I'm hoping the rest of the series is at least almost as good.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Balancing Script and Improvisation

I've recently discovered that the Filmmaker Magazine blog features a regular column called The Microbudget Conversation. I just read this piece written back in August by guest writer Nicole Elmer about the limitations of scripting micro-budget films and the avenues opened up by using improvisation:

It was a creative choice as much as a budgeting choice. Because of the specificity involved, a script would have required the costly fabrication I mentioned earlier. Instead, the writer created a very basic outline that was broken down into scenes. Locations were replaceable and everything could be moved as needed, as long as the general symbol of the moment was still expressed. A script would have also forced us to shove dialogue in the actors’ mouths. Instead, we gave the actors their goals, they developed their characters WITH the writer, and we gave them responsibility for their dialogue, a creative choice normally made by a screenwriter.

Of course, many filmmakers from Mike Leigh to Rob Nilsson to Terrence Malick work by balancing structure and improvisation. Elmer says that it was a creative and budgetary choice, but I know if one were to ask any of the filmmakers listed above, they would reply that their choice was purely aesthetic. Nilsson even has a brief manifesto on his website ("Create a poetic cinema based not on writing but on observing. Mistrust your ideas and trust your experiences. Discover, don’t prescribe"). Personally, I think films made in such a fashion are, at their best, some of the most profound in cinema. They show life happening and us happening back, to paraphrase Nilsson's manifesto.

It all goes back to what I said about meaning in my last post. And this is not to say that I reject scriptwriting out of hand, of course. All of this is too much for a brief post, and I've been planning an essay-length post on it all sometime in the near future. And also, if that Nilsson manifesto is too brief, there's always The Path of the Artist by Ray Carney.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The "M" Word, and Meaning in Independent Film

Here's an article from the film journal Cine Action on the "mumblecore" movement of the last few years. I'm glad the author is in support of DIY cinema, but it's always frustrating to me that these types of articles always stay within the confines of what has been deemed as "mumblecore" and all but ignore the larger independent, digital, no-budget movement out there. The title of this particular article is, after all "Micro-Budgeting, Micro-Drama, and the 'Mumblecore' Movement," The "m" word being only one of those three terms. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. One can only write about so much in the space of an article, of course. I guess I just wish American independent film was a little more unified and a certain section of it not fenced off and given a funny name. And although the author does not do it here, the part is often mistaken for the whole.

Also to her credit, the author does try to fit the movement within a larger context she dubs "slow film." I'm not quite sure it works. It's much too broad a descriptor, but it touches upon what I think is central to independent film, which is how these films create meaning, and how much richer, more complex they often are in that regard than middle-minded masterpieces. In other words, termite art versus white-elephant art, to paraphrase Manny Farber. And to paraphrase Ray Carney, whom I regard as the authority par excellence on this subject, these films take away the aboutness of experience and force the viewer to undergo the experience. That's why independent film (and indeed all "art film") is important. Film should nourish the soul. Anything less is a diversion.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Trailer for Frank V. Ross's Tiger Tail in Blue

Via David Lowery and the film's own Facebook page, here's the trailer for Frank V. Ross's new film Tiger Tail in Blue. I recently purchased Frank's four previous films from him directly, and each one is an uncommonly nuanced, emotionally simple yet complex slice of daily American life the likes of which is rarely achieved in contemporary independent film. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little; all I know is that I loved them. Anyway:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Trailer for Sam Neave's Almost in Love

Here's the trailer for Sam Neave's newest, which is featured on the film's page for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cry Funny Happy (Sam Neave, 2003)

I recently rewatched Sam Neave's 2003 film Cry Funny Happy, which I first saw a few years ago. That initial viewing pretty much floored me -- I wasn't expecting the film to come anywhere close to the emotional terrain it ended up in. The film focuses on several friends, one of whom, Wes, is turning 30 and has decided to throw a party at his and his girlfriend's apartment. Several of Wes's friends have made the trip to New York City to attend his party. We are introduced to them in a series of intercutted scenes, and eventually it all converges at Wes's apartment, where the party gets underway.

Up until this point, the film is very well acted, and I would add very well written, but I learned via the DVD's commentary that it was almost totally improvised, which isn't surprising, except that it feels written with perhaps the characters given the freedom to ad lib as needed. The whole film has the feel of Cassavetes Husbands, or a Mike Leigh film, where the improvisation was done beforehand, and then "locked down" with a script. In other words, very little from the performances feels extraneous. This is due to another fact revealed in the commentary: the actors were given time to work on their characters and relationships to each other before shooting began, and as a result the film feels both spontaneous and focused.

My initial impression was that Neave was simply going to show us some interesting characters, give them a party to attend during which some skeletons might be revealed, and then send them on their way. Instead, almost on a dime, Wes has a breakdown and the party derails. It is here that the focus I mentioned above becomes more apparent (especially during a second viewing). Wes's character is harboring some sort of pain that up until this point is hinted at through his humor and his passive-aggressive arguments with his girlfriend. We are never given a concrete reason as to why he feels this way or why he loses it during his party. Neave says in the commentary that there were some deleted scenes having to do with Wes gambling, perhaps losing some money or something. I think it was wise to leave these scenes out. Not being able to pin Wes's behavior on any specific event forces us to not only observe Wes more acutely, but perhaps realize that these feelings and behaviors aren't quite so foreign to our own lives, either. When all is said and done, it's pretty much a tour de force of independent filmmaking. I've seen very little in the no-budget movement from the last decade that matches its sharp observations and intensity.

Neave's new film, Almost in Love, is just beginning to be shown at film festivals, and I'll being seeing it for sure when it makes its way to the Bay Area.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Box Sets: Swanberg's Collected Films 2011 and Nilsson's 9@Night series

So, Joe Swanberg is releasing his last four films as a box set, via Factory 25 and employing a unique distribution plan by releasing each film quarterly along with extras. I have to admit, I haven't seen a Swanberg film since Hannah Takes the Stairs, but not because I didn't like his films. I thought his film before that, LOL, was very good. I saw it in a packed theater in San Francisco's Mission district, and the crowd loved it. Since then he's seemed to garner a lot of critical derision. I can recall an audience member being quoted after attending of his more recent films as saying something like, "These films are the product of a culture with nothing left to say." (I can't find the article that contained the quote.)

I find I'm often attracted to polarizing artists. Sometimes, they're misunderstood or unfairly maligned, and sometimes, well, the work just happens to suck. I'd like to take a look at these films, and I am intrigued by the distribution method. But at one hundred dollars, the price is a bit steep, especially if I end up not liking the films. Here's a post at cinemaspragus that makes one of the films in the set, Silver Bullets, look interesting -- certainly a departure from anything I've seen by Swanberg in the past.

On a somewhat related note, there is a box set I've been meaning to buy for a long time now -- Rob Nilsson's 9@Night series, and before I even consider buying Swanberg's set, I'm definitely getting Nilsson's first. I saw two of the films in the series when they played at the San Francisco Roxie in 2008, and was pretty blown away by how good they were. A filmmaker friend once told me Nilsson's movie's were sloppy, and I could see what he meant by that; Rob didn't seem to care much for aesthetics, at least not in a superficial sense. I got the feeling he didn't sweat the details because he was reaching for something higher. Most of the time, he got there. I thought it was everything independent film should be. I plan on getting the set soon, and writing about each film in length.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Here's a recent article about microcinemas in New York City, and here's another, better article about microcinemas across the country that appeared in Cineaste a couple years ago. I attended an open screening at SF's own ATA once. I liked some of the films -- I remember an abstract, computer generated one in particular that was pretty great -- but the volume was turned up so high during every film that it hurt my ears (remember: these are small, DIY films and don't have the best sound mixes to begin with), and they played a Hendrix live album loudly during the intermissions which made it hard to socialize. It was such an alienating experience that I never went back. I suppose I'll suck it up one day and attend another screening, or maybe check out Craig Baldwin's Other Cinema, mentioned in the Cineaste article. I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining; I love the idea of microcinemas, of course. I just hope they don't all need to have the atmosphere of a dive bar to bring in an audience.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Squaw Hootnanny

"In 1987, my sis and her best friend Brandy formed a two-girl rock band in our backyard. It lasted about a week and spawned one album. 'Squaw Hootnanny' was the title track and my brother was recruited to provide pot-and-pan percussion."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shaye Saint John

Shaye Saint John was a character/art project created by Eric Fournier, who posted videos of himself as his creation on Youtube and his own website about four or five years ago. I missed them the first time around, and Fournier is now unfortunately deceased, but his videos are still up on Youtube, and a DVD compilation he released is still for sale on Amazon. It's difficult to explain this sort of humor to anyone that doesn't immediately get it, and I don't even really laugh at the video above -- it elicits more a silent admiration. Note the music and how it changes back and forth from shot to shot -- the video wouldn't work quite as well without it. For an example of something that does make me laugh until I cry: "Stumpwater Salad" and "TWENTY4SEVEN REDUX." I'm actually a little envious that someone could come up with something so weird and original and implement it in such a simple way (i.e., using a DV camera with an on-board mic). Inspired and inspiring stuff.