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.