Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review

So, another year comes to a close for Tom and Mary Russell, those dynamic husband-and-wife filmmakers. Of course, since our last film was finished in 2008 and our next one will commence shooting in earnest in the next week or so (that is, 2010), the question is begged: what did we, as filmmakers, do with this year?
  1. We wrote the script for Olivia Forever!!, an extended process involving more hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, and starting-overing than either of us would have liked. That is, however, one major consequence of (a) trying to eschew traditional narrative and (b) being petrified of the "shoot a whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks" school of thought. But, hey, the script is done and where it needs to be.
  2. We got on The Twitters and The Facebooks and tried our hand at this whole social networking thing. I'm not sure how well we've done at it-- more on that in number three-- but we've made a few friends, including some people who've made our next film possible. Not that, mind you, we've managed to raise money for the film or anything. We're still operating out of pocket, which brings us to our next item...
  3. We started distributing our films directly to you, oh fans of independent cinema, in nice DVD editions with a few extras. From selling our DVDs (and Tom's books) we've raked in a grand total of $41.86. Granted, getting said books published and sending said DVDs to critics has cost us $89, putting us about $47 in the hole. (Not to mention, of course, the three-digit figures that go into making the films themselves.) Not a particularly profitable year for us, but hey, it hasn't been a particularly profitable year for anybody and, as mentioned above, we pretty much suck at this social networking/marketing thing.
We will, however, get better at it. Which brings us to our plans for 2010:
  1. Make Olivia Forever!! Naturally. Maybe another feature come the fall.
  2. Re-release our two previous DVDs, this time will a full commentary track, better bonus features (which we should have the technological capacity to do in the next week or so), and more attractive packaging. Said packaging should also be coherent with our brand identity.
  3. Create a brand identity in the first place, somewhere between "we're scrappy filmmakers" and "but our stuff is actually good".
  4. Get the films online. Which should happen in the next couple of months, actually.
  5. Sell more DVDs. As in, enough to potentially break even. This will likely be helped when we can cajole those critics who got screeners to watch 'em.
  6. Blog more regularly, including more indie film reviews, for the purely selfish reason that the more hits we get and the more goodwill we can engender, the better off we're going to be.
Those are our plans for 2010. Let's see how we do...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bluth Blogging: The Secret of NIMH

I have fond but ever-so-vague memories of the four films Don Bluth directed in the 1980s-- The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. These four films, the last three of which I saw in the theater at ages four, six, and seven, respectively-- The Secret of NIMH having come out a week after I did, I first encountered it on a television set-- formed what probably seemed like an unstoppable chain of hits that came undone with 1991's Rock-a-Doodle. I haven't seen any of these films since at least the early nineties-- or, rather, I hadn't seen them again... until now.

I decided to revisit them partially for the purely mercenary reason that, having resolved to film-blog on a more regular basis, I need to have something to film-blog about, and partially for the purely personal reason that I wonder how well these films hold up to those fond if vague memories.

In general, I remember the films being darker than other animated films, and by darker I don't necessarily mean "scary", though The Land Before Time did frighten the bejeebus out of the six-year-old who saw it, but that they weren't dominated by bright, goofy colours. They seemed in a surreal way to be more "realistic" and less reassuring. I left those movies feeling certain that the things on the screen could happen; I felt no such verisimilitude when I waddled (pigeon-toed and unsatisfied) out of Oliver and Company. The Bluth films felt more like "real" films, the sorts of films that adults watched, and being that I was a strangely solemn little boy that desperately wanted to be taken very seriously indeed, that aspect appealed to me. I liked that there was something at stake. I never worried about the characters or the outcome in the Disney films of the period.

Bluth himself was unhappy with the mollycoddling, banal nature of those late-period pre-"Renaissance" Disney films, which is why he left the House of Mouse in the first place. Before their resignation, Bluth had spearheaded several attempts to change the direction of a company that saw its films as products to exploit, made as cheaply and as quickly (and as safely) as possible. It was that old court case, Art v. Commerce, all over again. When Bluth left, taking nearly twenty percent of Disney's animators with him, a staff meeting was held that reportedly began with the words, "Now that the cancer has been removed..."

The first feature Bluth and his fellow expatriates made was about as far from safe as possible. At its heart, The Secret of NIMH is about a widow fighting desperately to save the life of her sick child. So sick, he cannot be moved, for the chill might kill him. But moving day is near; the farmer's tractor will surely crush the home and the sick child that lays within it. Those are the stakes, my friends: a meek and frightened mother-mouse moving heaven and earth to save her son.

Mortality is central to the film and is emphasized by a series of frightening set pieces, chief among them being the sequence in which Mrs. Brisby seeks the council of the Great Owl. This is a potentially dangerous individual for a mouse to seek out; her not-entirely unfounded fears of being devoured are underscored by the hostile landscape surrounding the owl's tree.

Even more daunting, however, is the prospect of entering the Great Owl's tree. Shadows stretch out from its gaping maw, cobwebs hanging like curtains. Note the dynamic contrast between the shadows and the violent orange of the sky; if it had been a dark-blue starry night sky behind Mrs. Brisby and Jeremy, it wouldn't work, the contrast wouldn't be as striking.

"Film is flow," I'm inordinately fond of saying. Too many films, and animated films especially, are too quick to cut to the chase, to the action, to the sensation; as such, there's no sense of flow (I'm looking squarely at you, Transformers: The Movie). Bluth understands flow and pacing; he's unafraid to luxuriate in this murky atmosphere, to follow Mrs. Brisby as she makes her way through the cobwebbed darkness.

When a shock is required, such as the discovery of this pile of tiny corpses--

-- it emphasizes her vulnerability, her potential as prey, and thus her fears. It's not coming at the expense of the atmosphere, or even paying it off; it's part of the atmosphere, of the tapestry, of the flow. The same can be said for the sequence of shots that follow, which introduce a predatory spider that sneaks up on Mrs. Brisby, glaring at her with its alien red eyes and drooling from its hairy, pincered mouth.

Again, this isn't just a cheap shock, but a deeper and more frightening one. That thing was going to eat Mrs. Brisby, and it just died, it was just squished, all yellow ooze and twitching legs. If that spider is vulnerable, how much more vulnerable is the mouse it was about to eat? How much more vulnerable is the tiny mouse who lies in the bed, threatened both by pneumonia and the farmer's tractor, two forces over which poor Mrs. Brisby seemingly has no power?

Each frightening set piece emphasizes Brisby's mortality/physical vulnerability, often in visual/tactile ways: for example, she's basically stripped naked before she attempts to drug the monstrous cat, Dragon; trying to escape from a cage, she cuts her arm and bleeds. And by emphasizing that mortality, Bluth and company emphasize her son's mortality, and thus her fear, her motivation, her love. If she fails, he dies.

This all comes to a head in the film's finale. As the rats of NIMH move Mrs. Brisby's home intact to a safe place, her four children, including sick Timmy, sequestered within, the ropes are cut by the dastardly Jenner, intent on squashing Nicodemus, the only obstacle to his lust for power. And, sickeningly, the plan carries off with a hitch; Nicodemus is squashed by the house, the effort to move it is thwarted. The bad guys won.

There of course follows a dynamic sword fight, the most exciting animated action sequence since Prince Phillip took on "all the powers of Hell" in Sleeping Beauty, and the badniks are punished. But Nicodemus stays dead: death is final and no one is safe. And so when the house starts to sink in the mud, and when, despite all their best efforts, Mrs. Brisby and the rats cannot stop it from doing so, there is the very real chance that her children will drown, a possibility that is ominously underscored when the home is submerged completely in the mud, and the rats pull the frantic Mrs. Brisby away from it, restraining her.

It's a moment of real terror, and even the somewhat hallucinogenic ending, in which Mrs. Brisby uses the magic amulet to telekinetically raise the house out of the mud, does not mitigate its power. I wouldn't call it a deus ex machina, because a deus ex machina by definition does not flow from within the story but is rather imposed on it. Because the whole film is about her fear, her feelings of powerlessness, and her love for the child, it makes perfect sense for that love to prevail in the end, in the moment when she is the most fearful, the moment where she seems to be the most powerless.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Side Saddle 2 released

Merry Christmas.

And, hey, how's about a contest?

You heard the man! Upload three game play videos-- that's a perfect "no collisions" run-through for bosses eight, nine, and ten-- and post a link in the comments field over at Second Party Games. Good luck!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of Decade Addendum: James Cameron's AVATAR

The problem with making a Best of the Decade list before the decade is over is that something really spectacular might just blow your socks off in the interim. The sock-blower in question is James Cameron's Avatar.

To be brief, it is brilliant filmmaking. Its action is coherent and exhilaratingly staged in an era where Le Cinema Du Blockbustré thrives on incoherence and meaningless stimulation. Cameron takes his time in setting up and telling his story, with each set piece coming out of that story instead of being shoehorned into it. Its computer-generated creations are not there simply to impress us, but to move us; its use of 3-D, that gimmickiest of gimmicks, is not gimmicky at all but, dare I say, artistic. It does not throw a bunch of shit at us, taking us out of the film, but rather gives the image layers of depth, bringing us deeper into it.

Glenn Kenny, in his review for the Auteurs, likened it to the work of Jack Kirby:

What I really love about Cameron’s sci-fi work is that it baldly reveals that one of his key visual influences is comics pioneer Jack Kirby, he of the galactic concepts, massive double-truck panoramas, and the craziest kineticism that was ever contained within none-moving frames, that is, comic book panels. Watching the camera pans going over the desolate planet landscape filling up with defense machinery in Aliens was like looking at a trademark Kirby two-page post splash vision come to life. It wasn’t just the composition and the larger than life humans; it was the hypertrophied design of the weapons and the air, land, and sometimes sea craft. A crazy, violent universe...[Avatar] works best as an insanely expanded Kirby-esque cinematic spectacle.

And this is a case where I agree with Glenn; I totally see (and definitely dig) the Kirby influence. The weird shapes of the flora and the fauna, the sometimes impractical craziness of, say, a trial of manhood that involves first jumping from one flying mountain to the root hanging precariously from another and shimmying up said root. I've written before about how Kirby often finds the sublime in the ridiculous, and Cameron does this in Avatar, tossing more ideas on the screen than most action directors have in their entire oeuvres. It's two-and-a-half hours jam-packed with exhilarating ideas, ideas that come together with a vengeance in the film's final act, especially with the introduction of a most unusual cavalry.

If someone tells you that the film devolves into mindless action in its last hour, they are wrong. If someone says the film has no ideas, no center, no originality, don't listen to them. Rather, feel sorry for those who have closed themselves off to spectacle, who can't appreciate or enjoy bombast at its most gorgeous and astonishing-- those people have cast off an entire and perfectly valid tradition of cinema, becoming like certain academics who can only celebrate the messy and the obscure, who are afraid to embrace something "popular" because it makes them seem less refined.

As for the putative political content, which caused quite a stir at Kenny's site a week or so back, I got to say that I don't think the film should be approached as an allegory for the most recent war in Iraq; while many of the men working for the assuredly Evil Corporation are former marines, they're no more members of the United States Armed Forces than the colonial marines in Cameron's Aliens. (And it's not like the Iraq War was waged for oil. No, no matter what your friend's protest sign says, that wasn't actually the case.) A better analogue for the Na'vi, if you must have one, would be the American Indians; the film is somewhat like Inglourious Basterds in that it provides a new (better?) ending to the whole sad saga: cinema trumping history.

But even that is a bad fit, in that, again, it's not a government but a private company that's waging this war for profit, not American soldiers but mercenaries. (Which does bring to mind the atrocities of that hated Octopus, Chiquita Brands International, nee the United Fruit Company...)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carter for free online!

Ryan Andrew Balas (who I interviewed here) has made his film Carter (which I reviewed here) available for free online until January 1, 2010. So, go ahead and give it a watch while it's still available.

In the spirit of giving for Christmas, Balas is also asking that people consider donating to the charity "Musicians on Call"; if you've got the resources to do so, why not consider shooting a few dollars their way?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Verite is a lie.

"Verite is a lie," I pronounced yesterday over twitter. It wasn't the first time I had said it, and it likely won't be the last; chances are, when I promote this piece through twitter and Facebook and all the other happy smiling social networking thingamajigs, I'll do it again.

But I said it yesterday, and yesterday, the filmmaker Jarrod Whaley responded through Facebook: "So is every other style." And this is true: any method you use to tell a story or relate an experience, even and especially cinematically, shapes that story or experience. Things are emphasized or de-emphasized, elided or changed. Whether the film is a documentary, a re-enactment, or a wholesale fiction, the simple act of telling that story, of making it into art, changes its substance, makes it "not true", makes it a lie.

And that's not something that causes me any real consternation; shaping a story is not the unfortunate side effect of art but rather the purpose of it. More than that, it's how the human brain works; when we reflect upon an experience, we impose order on it, creating a narrative of cause-and-effect, omitting unnecessary details, drawing connections, finding meaning. To be clear: I'm not saying that art should be manipulative or that an artist should lead the audience by the nose, forcing them to cry here, laugh there, draw this conclusion. The best art contains a multitude of meanings; the very best art contains meanings that we don't have words for, meanings that can't be explained but only experienced. The shaping of a story-- structuring it, ordering it, creating moments of culminative power-- is an integral part of even the messiest of art.

All styles, as Mr. Whaley said, are equally guilty of lying; thus, all styles are equally valid approaches, with some perhaps being better suited to shaping this story or that one. So why do I single out cinema verite, why am I picking on it?

It's partially for the simple, silly, and vindictive reason that we've been told-- by, I might add, some of our dearest friends-- that verite is the only valid method for digital video. That the low-lighting shaky-cam rack-focus whip-pan this-is-happening-right-now aesthetic is what video was made for. And being that our films use lights and tripods, that our style is a trifle bit (but only a trifle!) more formal, utilizing creature puppets, non-diagetic music, and stylized performances, I bristle a bit at being told that we're working against the "inherently naturalistic" medium of video because we don't use this "naturalistic" style.

And there are two fallacies in that last sentence, the first being that video itself is naturalistic. When I related this particular line of feedback to another good friend of ours, who has shot exclusively on 16mm, he said that video is a language that computers speak; what's inherently naturalistic about that? And I'm inclined to agree with him. Video is not any more naturalistic than film. In fact, some of the beautiful peculiarities of video, such as its lower contrast ratio, makes it less naturalistic, less like the human eye.

Video is only considered "naturalistic" because lightweight and affordable cameras are associated with the verite style, with birthday parties and home movies, with in-the-theater bootlegs, with gonzo porn, with capturing some freaky occurrence outside your window and putting it up on YouTube. Which brings us to fallacy number two: the idea that cinema verite is "naturalistic", that shaking a camera about makes it more "real". Let me demonstrate my point with a series of questions:

One, do you possess Superman's telescopic vision-- i.e., the ability to magnify an object several feet across a room?

Two, does your vision go blurry at indiscriminate times, only to snap back to crystal clarity?

Three, is your head constantly wobbling back and forth and jutting to and fro?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should probably seek medical attention. (Well, maybe not the first one. The first one is cool.) But I think you get my point: these touchstones of cinema verite (frequent zooming, rack focusing, and shaky-cam, respectively) in no way reflect the normal operations of the human eye. For that matter, neither do the touchstones of the classic Hollywood style: images typically don't dissolve into one another, we don't glide along sideways in lateral tracking shots, and humans don't, at this point in time, have the ability to pull back and up from something like a crane shot.

They're all artificial ways to add emphasis, beauty, and meaning to a cinematic experience. No one disputes that; no one argues that a crane shot is naturalistic. But verite is just as artificial, just as virtuosic. And, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. It's not a style I prefer to shoot in, and it's not my favourite style as a viewer, but like any style the question isn't what it is but what you do with it. And there's been some great films made in that style, no question about it.

My problem isn't that the verite style is a lie-- because, once again, just as Mr. Whaley said, so is every other style-- but that the verite style has pretensions of Truth. I've actually heard directors say that going handheld makes it more "real" or "raw" or "gritty" or "honest". And it's horseshit, plain and simple.

My other problem with verite, as I've stated above, is the monopoly it seems to have formed around the video medium, wherein directors, such as ourselves, working in a different idiom are criticized not for how well or how poorly we work within that idiom, but for not conforming to the dominant style, a style that is not only visually codified but also seemingly codified in other ways as well: our dialogue is too sharp and should be dulled with a plethora of verbal placeholders; our characters are too well defined and should blend together like a bunch of passive-aggressive post-collegiate articulate inarticulates; our performers are too bold, taking too many chances, and should stick to naturalistic, improvised mumbles; our sequences unfold with too much verve and should eschew directorial comment, energy, or artifice.

I don't think I'm being self-defensive here, or trying to invalidate any criticism of the films. Lord knows they have their problems; we've made mistakes and are still in the process of learning from them. And I'm not saying, like some filmmakers on the internet, that every style is equally right for a given story, or that there's no such thing as a wrong choice. Boy oh boy, are there wrong choices! And maybe we made the wrong choice in making our films the way we did, and maybe we didn't.

But the choices aren't wrong because our style is the "wrong" style for video. Video is a medium. Video is a means; it allows us to make films, instead of wasting years of our lives trying to work our way up through a studio system, instead of compromising what we want to do, instead of making films just like everybody else's films. And so, when verite and (let us speak its name plainly instead of dancing around it) mumblecore become dangerously close to being enshrined as the dominant styles of no-budget independent filmmaking, when people start to expect us to make films just like everybody else's films, it gets my dander up. If video is freedom, than the conformity of verite is inherently anti-video.

Verite is a perfectly valid form of artifice, but it is neither any more truthful than other forms, nor is it any more valid. I'm only hard on it because some others deem it to be both.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tom's Favourite Films of the Last Ten Years

It's been an exemplary decade for cinema, and the occasion has been commemorated with various "best of the decade" lists all over the internet. I'm even contributing to one at Hammer To Nail; said list is dedicated to films made under a certain budgetary threshold, in keeping with the site's mission to promote ambitious independent filmmaking.

I'm not going to limit this list, my own personal list, by budget-- it's been a great ten years for both scrappy indies and big-budget studio films. What follows are my favourite films of the last ten years, unranked but divided into categories of my own choosing. These aren't the only worthy or even great films that came out in that period; just my absolute favourites, the films to which I am addicted.

I tend to be more awed by mastery than ambition (though of course it is impossible to have the first without the other), so a number of wonderful, imperfect, experimental films that I loved didn't make it on the list. I loved WALL-E's opening act but found the last half wanting; films like Ryan Balas's Carter and Amir Motlagh's whale do interesting and compelling things, with certain sequences that I would classify as brilliant, but for me they fell just short of the sort of cinematic nirvana induced by the titles that follow.

Films which I own on DVD are indicated with an asterisk; those who know me and are feeling generous this Christmas can help fill those gaps, if you like.

The Andersons
*Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson. My favourite kind of rom-com: one that says that no matter how screwed up you are, there's someone out there to love you. Giddy and nerve-wracking: a film that feels like falling in love.

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson. Tough, dark, surreally entertaining. Like his Boogie Nights, it's funny and sad and terrifying all at once; when Plainview snarls that his son is just a "bastard in a basket", you can see the heart breaking underneath all the anger and hate.

*The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson. A film teeming with beauty and surprises, from the gorgeous Henry Sellick fish to the pirate attack. The deadpanniest of his six deadpan masterpieces, and one of the warmest and most spontaneous as well.
The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson. Heart-on-sleeve: the most emotionally direct and earnest of Anderson's dialogue can be found here, along with the chanciest sequence he's attempted since Richie Tenenbaum's beard-trim and suicide attempt. Part of the fun of auteurism is tuning into a director's frequency so that you might better appreciate the nuances of one work or another; this one requires a great deal more tuning, and thus contains bountiful pleasures for the director's fans, yet is more likely to alienate his detractors. This is probably the film that made me a full-blown Anderson apologist (in the "defender-of", not "sorry-for", meaning of the word).

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson. A sad children's film-- something there should be more of-- with a clear sense of real danger. The stylish framing and dry humour treats children, and their entertainments, as the equal of adults, never talking down to them; the colour, zip-and-zest storytelling, and "just-so" tactile qualities appeal to the wee ones and old arty-farts alike and in equal measure.


*Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese. Perfect enough for me, even with Cameron Diaz gumming up the works. Daniel Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park, Leonardo DiCaprio remains a compelling screen presence, and Scorsese & Schoonmaker pull off an impressive trick: the pacing and ordering of the film follows what is important to the characters, which is why the historical Draft Riots, so often derided by the film's critics as coming out of nowhere, indeed come out of nowhere. Coming out of nowhere is the point; these characters and their melodrama are squashed by history.
The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan. This is, frankly, what Batman should be: dark, serious, compelling, heroic, morally ambiguous, complex. A thrilling entertainment, with strong performances all around. A thinking man's action picture, which is so very rare these days. Or at all, really. A popcorn movie for the ages.

Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi. And this is what Spider-Man should be: funny, serious, stressed-out, a colourful villain, acrobatic fight scenes, the struggle to do the right thing. The Subway Train Jesus sequence is vastly superior to the first film's "You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us!", and the mastery of various tones and threads is pitch-perfect here where the third film is famously shoddy. One of the better superhero spectacles.

*Munich, Steven Spielberg. This is Spielberg at the top of his game; this is the director who gave us Jaws and Close Encounters, not the schmaltz machine that inflicted us with E.T., Hook, or The Terminal. He's been slowly working his way back with tough-minded but occasionally creaky films like A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. Munich is the pinnacle of this late-career progression, and it has me more excited about the director and his work than I've been in years.
Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino used to make films about pop culture (cf. the various riffs in his first three films) and now he makes films that are pop culture; he's no longer talking about the influence of Leone and others, but showing it. After the film, I was euphoric for hours, and I said to my Mary: "This must be what it's like to be high." I don't remember the last time I came out of a theater that satisfied, and that sure that the film I saw was a balls-out, no-bones-about-it masterpiece.

*Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro. A fantasy film with a real sense of menace that's too often missing from the "dark" films of, say, Tim Burton. Inventive, stylish, and terrifying. Like the director's The Devil's Backbone, the scary part is what the people do to each other, not the ghosts and goblins and creepy-crawlies.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee. An elegant kung-fu epic. Perhaps too elegant-- I like my wuxia to have a pulse-- but there's something beautiful about those slow, sad, treetop-swaying combatants.

Hero, Zhang Yimou. Like Crouching Tiger, it's an elegant, beautiful kung-fu film, and like Crouching Tiger, it works. It is a collection of stories, overlapping and contradicting but never confusing; taken together, it's as stunning an examination of the power and plurality of myth as any other.

*Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir. What I remember about this film, and what brings me back to it time and again, more-so than the sweep of its action, is the chemistry between its two principles. Bettany and Crowe play off each other beautifully, bringing the characterizations and the relationships from O'Brien's novels to glorious life. My only regret is that this wasn't the first of many adaptations, but the first and only.

*The Illusionist, Neil Burger. For my money, better than The Prestige, or any of the twisty "everything-you-knew-was-wrong" films that have come out through the years. And it's better because Giamatti isn't terrified or shocked by the big surprise, but rather delighted. I'd much rather be delighted than have the rug pulled out from underneath me. Burger is a great talent, and his first film, the Kennedy assassination mockumentary Interview with the Assassin, is worth checking out. And as someone who hates mockumentaries and the perpetuation of the Kennedy conspiracy myth, that should tell you something.

Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Still a very fine bauble.


*The Company, Robert Altman. I'd rank this with The Red Shoes as one of the best films about not just ballet but about the artistic process. Probably the master's last great film, working with a perfectly blended ensemble that doesn't devolve into the Overacting Olympics you sometimes get with his "quirkier" films.

Zodiac, David Fincher. I never thought Fincher would top Fight Club (especially after the merely-okay Panic Room), but he did, and how. The often quoted line is that it's like being stuck in a filing cabinet, and for a details nut like me, it was nirvana. Steeped in minutiae, thick with atmosphere.
Into Great Silence, Philip Groning. "Two and half hours of monks, doing monk stuff." Nothing more, nothing less. Probably the boldest, and most successful, experiment in film form and especially time. Tarkovsky wished he had directed a film like this. (And, if you know the high esteem in which I hold Tarkovsky, you know that this is not an insult to the late master but merely praise of the new one.)

*Bamboozled, Spike Lee. An examination of where we've been and where we're going, and of the subjectivity of history. It's a film that looks both at the awfulness of minstrel shows and at the real technical skill and talent required of its performers; it grapples with the legacy of black actors working in old Hollywood instead of dismissing or apologizing for them outright.

Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood. A look at the truth behind the Iwo Jima photo's mythology, a look at the necessity of that mythology, and a study in what that dichotomy can do to those being lionized. His most multifaceted and complex film, on par with Ford's Liberty Valence.

*The Queen, Stephen Frears. A stunning behind-the-scenes look at how a public image is constructed, complemented by a great Helen Mirren performance.

Shattered Glass, Billy Ray. A compelling, fact-based story, thrillingly told. When we got out of the theater, a little old lady who had been in the show with us approached us to ask if we remembered the director's name, because she wanted to keep an eye on him. Anyone who can get that performance out of Hayden Christensen is worth keeping an eye on.

*Ratatouille, Brad Bird. Likely the best and most stylish animated film since Sleeping Beauty. Gorgeous, sumptuous, full of small and wondrous details; a surprisingly literate script bursting with verve and surprises. At its heart, an examination of a self-centered, difficult genius-artist who never learns any life lessons or sees the error of his ways. Refreshingly free of moralism.

Existential Comedies
*I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell. No relation. Ebert once said of this film that it "may be the first movie that can exist without an audience between the projector and the screen. It falls in its own forest, and hears itself." And I have to say, I have no idea what he's talking about: the film is absolutely hilarious, full of lines that my wife and I repeat in our daily lives.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman. One of the most tactile meditations on death and decay I've ever seen. Psychologically complex, incredibly funny, defiantly surreal, formally audacious-- and still it touches the heart. When that old man and that old woman have at last got each other, and they go to sleep in that burning house, it is beyond touching, beyond romantic. And the blow that comes next is truly, deeply, crushing.

*Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess. Oh, I'm just a big populist softy at heart, randomly asking people to give me their tots and bragging about my many skills. On the arty-farty side of things, I greatly enjoy the film's complete lack of traditional plot or narrative momentum.

Jesus Camp, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. Seriously, the scariest movie I've ever seen. And I'm not talking in an intellectual, religious, or political way. This film is viscerally frightening, and those poor screwed-up kids crying their eyes out and confessing their sins are scarier than any homicidal orphans or Japanese girls with hair in their eyes.

Scrappy Lil' Indies, Distributed Division
Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski. (Disclosure: I consider Andrew a friend.) A film that gets deeper and funnier with every viewing. The long "parties" digression is not really a digression at all but the heart of the film. I could have easily categorized this one under "image-making", concerned as it is with gender, self-identity, and the way we present ourselves to others.

*LOL, Joe Swanberg. (Disclosure: I am credited in this film, though my footage didn't make the cut. I also consider Joe a friend, and he was kind enough to be in one of my own films, Son of a Seahorse-- thus ensuring the rest of the cast is only four degrees away in the Kevin Bacon game.) Less a study of technology than of male psychology. Strong performances from all the leads and interesting stylistic choices (look at the silent film style intertitles for e-mails, or Greta Gerwig's completely-through-sound-and-still-photo performance) abound. It's a film that I can watch compulsively, sometimes consuming just a few minutes at a time. It doesn't quite hit the emotional depth of the better scenes in Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, but I think for sheer cohesive mastery, LOL is a stronger film.

*Scrapple, Jay and Mark Duplass. This short film, included on the DVD of the Duplass Brothers feature The Puffy Chair, is one of the most bracing shorts I've ever seen. Too many short films are cute or clever, or play like severely truncated and poorly-paced features; this one has the emotional depth of a feature while remaining a well-structured short.

Scrappy Lil' Indies, Self-Distro Division
*The Lionshare, Josh Bernhard. A multifaceted examination of how culture is created and disseminated and notions of ownership, all packed into a tight and sprightly sixty-five minutes. Entertaining, maturely stylish, ambitious without ever overreaching. The filmmaker has made the film available for free. It's worth your time*Press Start, Ed Glaser. A spoof film? Yes, a spoof film, one that targets a particular audience-- people who grew up with video games and are well-versed in the culture and tropes thereof-- with gusto, authority, and sincerity. Probably of no interest to the uninitiated, but it inspires my devotion all the more for that. A funny film, presented on a DVD packed with extras. Glaser has also released the remakesploitation classic Turkish Rambo under the title Rampage. Show your support for this funny, self-financed guy by ordering both.*Son of a Seahorse, Mary and Tom Russell. Of course I'm putting my own film on my list. First of all, no one else is going to. Secondly, it is one of my favourite films. Of the six features I've made in the last decade, it's the one that's going to last-- mark my words. Or, better yet, buy a copy. Every $15 copy we sell on Amazon nets us $3.34, so you'll be directly supporting independent film.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Olivia Forever!: Second Shoot.

Spent several hours today getting the precious thirty-odd seconds of stop-motion animation required to bring to life Mike the Headless Chicken, who is (or, rather, was) indeed very, very real.

The "Mike" section of Olivia Forever! comes early in the film, and it is the first of many digressions from the story proper. If it falls flat, chances are the rest of the film will as well. (No pressure or anything.)

The Mike puppet was constructed by our good friend Steampunk Legend Jacob Hildebrandt, who also brought to life the Robot Lady in Son of a Seahorse and The Man Who Loved in The Man Who Loved. He likes building things, is pretty good at it, and likes money, so if you need something built, want it to turn out pretty good, and like to give people money, he just might be your guy.

The Mike footage/sequence is getting more tinkering in post than is per usual for us, and that's because we're looking to replicate a very particular and peculiar look. We're utilizing a lot of the grammar of silent cinema (albeit in widescreen) and purposefully putting in jumps, spatial jitters, and mucking around with the contrast to "degrade" the footage.

It's the kind of thing we want to be careful about-- we don't want to look like arty-farty homage-happy dinguses. We don't want the form this sequence takes to distract from the experience but rather enhance it. We'll have to wait and see how well we do with that.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

PURE JAZZ: an interview with filmmaker Ryan Andrew Balas

I reviewed Ryan Andrew Balas's second film, Carter, back in June; on November 24th, it will be playing at New York's Anthology Film Archives. In anticipation of his film's premiere, Ryan and I had a short discussion via e-mail, about Carter, dividing audiences, the biblical Jephthah, and improvisation. (Spoilers below, though knowing what happens in the film spoils none of the magic of how.)

TOM: Sminch. The name itself is a little odd, Jeb Sminch, and he has these big glasses and moustache, he has this very particular body language, this very peculiar way of looking at things, his vow-- every aspect of his character seems to otherize him, to keep us at a distance, on the outside. We never really get to "know" him. Was this something that was planned from the outset? Was the question of "why" he does it ever intended to be resolved, even obliquely, or was it always a MacGuffin, a way to get the story going, to get us into this world and these characters?

RYAN: Jebadiah Sminch, as a character, is designed to have some moral ambiguity. I feel like it's important that he asks more questions than he answers, not just on an intellectual level but to serve as a defense mechanism to the aspects of life and himself, that he doesn't really understand. From the story point of view, the concept is certainly an entrance into a life that has a lot of layers but nothing about Jeb Sminch was created to merely push plot. I just wanted to spend time exploring someone who found this life to be so absurd that they felt they deserved the last laugh.

TOM: To be clear, I didn't mean to imply that anything about him was created mechanically for plot purposes-- he's a very organic and I think well-drawn character-- it's just that the film operates so much outside of him, that it is, as the title implies, really from Carter's point-of-view, and that, even after he "explains" why he's doing it, the audience, like Carter, still doesn't have a full understanding. I think-- and I could be wrong about this, as I certainly haven't sat down and measured it out minute-by-minute-- but I'm pretty sure Carter actually has more screen-time than he does, and other than the short prologue, she's given the first and the final scenes, the first and the last word, if you will. What prompted the decision to focus on Carter or to approach Sminch mostly through her eyes?

RYAN: Everything returns to Carter. As we shot the film, I found this to be true, over and over, the world seemed to revolve around Carter. For Jeb, it's not so much about whether or not he is ready to go through with his vow, but if he can truly leave her. We made the decision, after shooting the first bedroom scene with Julia (Carter), that we needed to see Jeb Sminch's life through the reflection in her eyes. I think, at some level, Carter represents the part of Jeb, that doesn't really understand this life. She is the question, he's asking.

TOM: So would you say that the greater emphasis on Carter evolved during the production? I know that the film's dialogue at least was largely improvised-- how improvised would you say the film was structurally/stylistically? Did you always have the same ending in mind? Or how about the scene with the two women going through his clothes?

RYAN: Yes. Absolutely. I felt that even when we were shooting stuff with Jebadiah alone, the scene was still screaming Carter. In the end, when he is looking in the bathroom mirror, I just hear him repeating her name over and over in his head.

The film's concept is based off of a one act stage play that I wrote in 2006. The play is about 15 pages, and takes place on Jeb's 25th birthday. We shot that script and it was going to be our "daring" 15 minute, no cutting, opening to the film. It simply didn't work. And was the first to hit the cutting room floor. However, some of it has made it back into the directors cuts. As we began to see that the story was going to be stronger told as Carter reflects on the past few days---structurally the film became wide open with possibility. For the majority of the film, I had an outline, with locations and conversation topics to work off of. We shot a majority of the film in order, basically applying the information we gained in one scene and using it at the next location, ultimately have a solid emotional direction for the climactic arc that takes place at the park. I knew what I was looking for, but I had to work to find it. The film was improvised, like jazz is improvised, we had a foundation to work off of.

Conceptually, the ending has always been the same. However, the film's ending is far more open than the stage plays ending. The stage play "A life in rewind" is the sort of answer to all the questions. It will be on the directors cut dvd, in one form or another. And like I said---aspects of it, have been cut into the final directors cut of the film. As a side note, I remember work shopping the original stage play in class, in LA, and trying to justify it as a dark comedy by saying that it's funny like an old lady falling out of a window could be funny. That concept still needed a little work.

The scene with the two women dressing up in Jeb's clothes, was shot a few weeks after the rest of the movie, and after had already done a rough assembly of the film. I felt it was important to explore Carter's life, after Jeb. I think there is something oddly sexual, and equally maternal about that scene and that is pure jazz.

TOM: It's my favourite scene in your whole picture, and the two women play off each other very well.

RYAN: Thanks. It's probably my favorite as well.

TOM: How much did Sminch change, as a character, from the play to the film? And Carter? A lot of improvisational filmmaker depends on a person's natural charisma or draws on their personality/experience. Was Carter based in some ways on Julia Porter-Howe? Her performance certainly seems more naturalistic than Mark Robert Ryan's. (And, as I'm sure you're aware from watching the acting in my own film, I don't mean that as a knock against Ryan; was that performance more "constructed" in any way?)

RYAN: Jebadiah, as character, has remained fairly consistent. In the stage play, I played the role, so there were aspects of my personality, and physical tics, and so when Mark was given the role, he brought his interpretation of those qualities along with a whole new set of ideas, and quirks. Jeb is still Jeb. Stubborn, absurd and sincere.

I think the character development for Mark, and Julia has to be understood in the context in which they each related to the material.

Jebadiah Sminch views life as being absurd, and so I think Mark approached the character as an absurdist. This doesn't mean that he didn't personalize the experience, but the performance had to come from some place darker and more mysterious. On the opposite end of that spectrum, Julia connected with the suicide aspect of the material on a more personal level. She has experiences in her own life, that allowed her to connect more naturally with the way Carter approached Jeb.

As the director, I'm always searching for the real moments, the aspects of my actors personal character that can be used in the context of the story that we build. I think this kind of improvisational approach to work, allows there to be more naturalistic performance and creates a deeper personal collaboration with the people I'm working with. So in short, yes, Carter is based entirely on Julia Porter Howe and Mark Ryan, as they experience extraordinary circumstances.

TOM: I like how you describe Sminch as being stubborn and sincere. There's a certain religious aspect to his character-- the way he says that his suicide vow is sacred and holy because it is a promise to God. There's a certain similarity to the biblical Jephthah and his vow, the way he backs himself into a corner, perhaps rashly. And of course the names Jephthah and Jebadiah sound quite a bit alike; was this an intentional link for you? And: would you consider yourself at all to be a religious person?

RYAN: That's a really interesting connection, that I wish I could say is intentional. It's not.

However, the name Jebadiah is meant to sound entirely biblical, and the "Jeb" is Israeli for "Beloved Friend". I'm really fascinated by this link between our Jeb and the biblical Jephthah. The idea of making a rash vow to God, and the connection with a sole female character. Jephthah is forced, by a vow to God, to kill his only daughter. And in many ways, our Jeb is doing something horrible to the only woman in his life. Good find, Sir! That's the beauty of interpreting art (Can I call it that?!), we can find connections outside of intention, based on our own personal experiences with the work.

I'm interested in being a human being. Does that make me religious? I don't know. I think it's very interesting how much culture factors into one's religious experience. I'm a Midwestern transplant, so I'm certainly deeply impacted by an average religious upbringing. However, the question of God was never really posed until I moved away from that influence and I began to really deconstruct my existence. I can say this, I'm curious what happens when we die. There are times when I think we become dirt and other days I imagine something larger, more profound. Even more, I find something really profound about dying and becoming the soil that the tree's growing their roots into my body. Ultimately, we find purpose and that's why we go on. I feel that, at some level, I make very spiritual films. I don't think that means I'm professing answers, but really, I'm asking questions, and to me, that's a far more spiritual experience.

TOM: I'd agree that Carter has a spiritual aspect; that opening waking-up sequence especially is very striking, the attention it pays to movement and light, to time itself-- it begs introspection without being at all verbal. And then, to contrast that, you have the scene in the office, which is frankly very profane, and also very verbal, where you have Sminch's coworker talking about men have sex with horses and suggesting that they rape people while they sleep. It's a very vulgar character, and while he serves as a foil for Sminch and the scene itself as a foil for Carter and her first scene, do you think it might be a little bit too much? Or is a "little bit too much" entirely the point?

RYAN: In a way, I hope these sort of "spiritual" questions I'm attempting to ask, can act as the through line that connects all the work, as a whole piece. And someday, I can look back at my films, and have a bolder, more articulate understanding of where I'm going.

The question "is it too much?" is reason alone, for that scene to be in the movie.

Yes, Jeb's friend is extremely vulgar. He talks about sex in a perverse, disgusting manner. The idea of "sleep fucking" is horrible. But, as I watch him, I'm reminded that he's human. And more so, I hope to be reminded that I'm human. As for the experience Jeb is having, it's far bigger than that. Jebadiah is faced with the ugly side of being a human, and it's perverse and all a "little bit too much". He is mentally preparing to end his experience as a human being and the only bit of solace he has left, is humanity, and it's currently suggesting they make a porn website and rape sleeping people. In a dark way, they are both searching for a "real" experience.

I chose to juxtapose the morning introspective scene with Carter and the darkly profane office scene with Jeb and his friend because I don't want to make safe films, I want films that reflect my own humanity. The beautiful, the curious and even the darkly perverse.

TOM: Do you think these darker aspects of humanity have anything to do with Sminch's decision? Do you think the ugliness in the world is part of what compels him, part of what he finds absurd about it?

RYAN: I think its certainly an aspect of what he finds absurd, but I don't know if I would necessarily say that it's what compels him.

Jebadiah wants to be in control of his life. His vow is a self fulfilling prophecy. He could have chosen to save himself and get married to someone, anyone, before the deadline. In a way, he gave fate the opportunity to deliver, and was let down. So he committed to his own path. Mark Ryan once described the character as "wanting to be his own God".

I think the ugliness in the world certainly effects Jeb, but he accepts it as truth, just the same as he accepts the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with soda.

TOM: Let me come back to the idea of not making safe films, which is something that I admire and an ambition that I share. Did you ever worry about turning off a chunk of your audience with that scene that might have really appreciated the rest of the film? John Grisham once said that a lot of people didn't get past the first few pages of his first book because of how graphically he described the crime, even though the rest of the book was nowhere near that graphic. Do you worry about something like that happening with "Carter"? Or is that part of not being "safe"?

Honestly, I can't say that I've lost sleep over it. This isn't any disrespect to my audience, in fact, it's because I think they are viewing the movie with an higher intelligence level than me. I feel that I've set up the first scene to establish what the film is going to feel like, as far as tone and time go, so the first thing I wanted to do was shake it up a bit. We open on this beautiful image of Carter waking up, and we see, without knowing it yet, what Jebadiah is going to lose. This is juxtaposed with the uglier side of Jeb's life, the shallow surface level aspect. I feel it let's know what it's truly at stake. I also wanted to give Donald, Jeb's friend, the opportunity to be judged and redeemed within a two scene character arc. First we despise him, then we learn to respect him for his deep concern about the grave vow his friend has made. He seems shallow, but within two interactions, the layers unfold. This opportunity to have a second impression, is hopefully another reminder of our own humanity.

I think some people will be thrown off by this, and some critics have certainly slung mud at the concept, but there is a part of me that's excited about this. I've heard it said, that love and hate are almost the same thing. I could lose half an audience by doing something that the other half loves. I've got to stay true to my instincts. I think as time goes on, they will become sharper and I'm going to have a better sense of the best ways to communicate a specific idea to an audience. Ultimately, the only loyalty I have, is to my vision.

I feel no responsibility to follow traditional structure. I think it's safe, and commercially responsible at times, but it's not contributing to the art form. More so, it's not helpful to me, as a filmmaker, to set guidelines in which to work. I want to learn as much as I can from experimenting with time, image and sound and how they can be used to connect with the inner workings of other human beings.

TOM: Would you say that working at a lower budgetary level allows you to experiment? If you were to be given oodles of money-- assuming, of course, you're interested in taking it-- would you feel a need to be less experimental and more "commercially responsible"?

RYAN: I'd say, in the case of Carter, and my first film Sandcastles, spending my own money gave me a lot of freedom to mess up.

My new film "Mother Sister" is crowd funded, and so the major responsibility I feel, is to make a great film. This doesn't meant that I'm being less experimental, I'm just working harder to learn from my mistakes and communicate my idea's the better than before. I would like the generous supporters of my new work, to have a film that they really enjoy and connect with. That's my hope. I'm still trying to be as experimental as ever when it comes to production structure and the way I shoot films, I'm just a little more intentional about it now.

Now If I were working within a system that had financial investors and their was an obligation to make money back in order to continue making "bigger" stories, I would simply bring the right kind of story to the table. I approach each film, looking at what resources will be available to me, then create my story around those circumstance. I'm not writing $75, 000 movies and making them for $5,000. So financial support or not, It's really about the story and what I can say with what I have. I'd like to see my work as being somewhat of a good investment, the production cost is low because the crew is minimal, I shoot everything digital and I have an amazing, talented group of supportive collaborators that care about the work. My web series "The Really Cool Show" is the most "commercial" thing that I make, and it cost's me the least to do. It's got over 9 million views, and with the right business structure, it has potential to be a fiscal success. And we've always just experimented and did whatever we wanted. I don't think there is a true model for financial success, but to make films that you really care about.

TOM: How well would you say Carter communicated the ideas you wanted to communicate? What would you have differently, look at it in hindsight? What do you think you learned from the experience as a filmmaker?

RYAN: I started with a character, and that character was Jebadiah Sminch. I had no idea how much he loved Carter, until we began shooting, and after that, the film wrote itself.

If I would have made the film in any other window of time, maybe it would have been edgier, and pushed the relationship further. I don't know. These films are made during a really special window of time, in which our reality completely shifts and we give in to these beautiful creative monsters that live inside of us. I don't judge them, I learn from them. On that note, The only technical regret I have, is that the sound isn't perfect. I learned not to trust home made xlr to stereo mic jack converters.

TOM: Was Jeb not going through with it ever a possibility? The whole structure kind of hinges on it, and it totally works, but I'm just wondering if there was ever a point where you and Mark Robert Ryan said, "maybe..."?

RYAN: On the morning of Jebadiah Sminch's 25th birthday, Carter wakes up early, she is careful not to disturb a sleeping Jeb. She walks into the bathroom, as per her normal routine, except today is different, today she is going to switch Jeb's sleeping pills with placebo's. The deed is done. She has left two sleeping pills in the bottle, so that Jeb will fall asleep believing he succeeded but awake to find Donald, Maggie and Carter having what was supposed to be his last laugh. Carter exits the apartment en route to get a cake, and breakfast for the birthday boy.

Jebadiah, opens one eye and listens carefully, making sure Carter is gone. He gets out of bed, walks into the bathroom, reaches into the bottom cabinet, and reveals a second bottle of real sleeping pills, he pockets them and exits the bathroom...

CARTER Festival Trailer from Ryan Balas on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

She Moved The Pillow: A Tale of Tom & Mary.

Tom had known Mary for a couple of years-- not well, but casually, and well enough to have a little crush-- when he invited her to tag along on one of the shoots for his new film. The film itself isn't all that important: it was, in the end, a manifestly terrible piece of work, a cynical and completely misanthropic film that had nothing but contempt for its characters. The person who made that film scarcely resembles the person writing these words today. And yet, somehow, miraculously, Mary saw the latter in the former and fell in love with him. And I'm so very glad that she did.

And while I think our love was built slowly, bit-by-bit over the years, evolving into a fast friendship and then, wonderfully, something more, I can pin-point the very moment that my infatuation, my attraction, my crush on her exploded madly with passion and desire.

It was on that shoot. I had set up my actors on a couch-- in those days, all my scenes took place on couches, so much so that the joke going around the set was that next time, the couch would move-- and my camera was at one end on the couch, glaring at them in profile. Or, at least, it was supposed to; situated at each end there sat a pillow. Not a big pillow, just the sort of ordinary square pillow that adorns any couch worth its cushions. But it was big enough to obscure my camera's view of the actors as I tried to frame my close-up.

And so, I started cranking up my tripod-- an old photographers tripod, really intended for sitting photographs, another reason for my commitment at the time to cinema du sofa-- to try and peer over the pillow. When that seemed to not be working, I tried tilting the camera upwards. No dice. I adjusted the tripod again. I got my dolly-- by which I mean, of course, a block of wood with some casters on the bottom-- and placed the tripod on it to gain some extra height. Still wasn't quite what I wanted.

This went on for a few minutes, constantly making adjustments, continually getting frustrated. And then, Mary got up off her chair, walked to the couch, grabbed the pillow, and, without saying a word, sat back down with the pillow on her lap. The shot was very quickly framed and, as they say, in the can.

Mary moved the pillow, and my heart skipped the beat.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Olivia Forever: First Shoot.

Adrienne Patterson as Olivia.

We've (by which I mean, Mary and Tom Russell, the filmmakers behind Son of a Seahorse and The Man Who Loved) been ready to shoot Olivia Forever! (by which I mean, our next feature film, a comedy/period piece) for about a month now (by which I mean, a period of four to five weeks). The only thing that's been prevented us from leaping right in is that we've been waiting on a new shotgun mic, which was supposed to ship, well, almost a month ago, and which has yet to arrive.

But: be it known that our film takes place in the autumn, and this being November and Michigan, autumn is a commodity that will soon be in short supply. But, you say, couldn't you just rewrite it so that it takes place in the winter or the spring, you scrappy and adaptable no-budget filmmakers you? Unfortunately, no, because the film takes place during a very particular autumn-- to wit, the autumn of 2004. You can't really "fudge" or move an election season.

And so, knowing that we needed to shoot some exterior autumnal scenes while said exteriors still looked autumnal and scenic, and fully aware that the all-important microphone might not arrive for some time yet, we reworked said exterior autumnal scenes and removed the dialogue. (We are, after all and as noted above, scrappy and adaptable.) And then, today, we shot two of them: scenes eleven and twenty-four are in the can. Or, more accurately, on a hard drive.

Production: 1.16 % complete.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Siren Programs TCM.

We're generally not "click on this link" bloggers, but, um: click on this link. This is seriously cool stuff, and if you're not following The Siren's blog you're definitely missing out.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Former Dearborn Mayoral Candidate Endorses Jack O'Reilly for Re-Election, Claims He Did Not Pick His Nose.

Photo by Press and Guide.

There's been a picture printed on the front page of the Dearborn Press and Guide a couple of times in the last month or so from the last election, featuring Mayor Jack O'Reilly, challenger Michael Prus, and some doofus on the end who looks like he might be picking his nose. I am that doofus. (No, I'm not picking my nose. Just thinking.)

A number of people have recognized me from the photo, and asked if I was running again. No, I'm not, but I think more people have asked me about my candidacy in the last month than ever asked me when I was actually running. And part of that is because I really ran as a lark, with full knowledge that my chances of winning were next to nil. I just tried to have fun with it, which is why I did a video comparing municipal financing to the arcade game BurgerTime, and why I campaigned wearing a fuzzy yellow bathrobe.

A bigger reason why I didn't get much attention, however, was that there were so many of us running. If anyone was going to beat Mayor Pro Tem O'Reilly, it would be because so many of us fractured and split the vote. Looking back at it now, with the knowledge that O'Reilly won in a landslide, such concerns seem a little silly. But back then, I was worried.

Because even if my candidacy was a deliberately Quixotic act, I still did and do care deeply about my hometown. Some of the other candidates were even more unqualified than I was, or, if they had educational credentials, their ideas were nonsensical or dangerous. One candidate said he was going to create new revenues by cutting taxes. Another thought he could change the shape of U. S. foreign policy from Dearborn's City Hall. These are not people you want running our city during a difficult and tumultuous time.

There were other ideas that were well-meaning, but ultimately of little utility. Sure, having a "Ford Dream Cruise" might be nice, but it wouldn't do much to support Dearborn's biggest tax payer in real world terms. And I'm not sure if a city-wide lottery would really shore up any of our budgetary problems.

When I was running for mayor, I actually said, if you don't vote for me, than vote for O'Reilly. Because the thought of anyone else in City Hall (which, in all honesty, would include myself) was terrifying. That still holds true today. For what it's worth, this doofus is giving his endorsement to Mayor O'Reilly.

That's not to say he's done a perfect job. Progress has been slower than many of us would like, especially regarding development in the west end. There have been disappointments and setbacks. And he is not quite the communicator that his predecessor was.

But he is a good and honest man. He has investigated charges of corruption with integrity and has always been candid with the people of Dearborn. He has the skills, knowledge, and experience that we need at this crucial time. Progress is being made, but like all real progress, it takes time, especially given the state of things across our great nation. I am completely certain that patience will be rewarded, and that Dearborn will really flourish in the years it is under O'Reilly's stewardship.

In the last election, I was immensely proud of winning 82 votes, many of them, I gather, from strangers. That's 15,978 votes less than Mayor O'Reilly, and 19 votes more than his challenger, Mr. Prus. If those eighty-two are listening, this doofus asks you to give your vote on Tuesday to Jack O'Reilly.

(Tom Russell is a life-long resident who makes films with his wife, Mary. Their latest, SON OF A SEAHORSE, is available on DVD from His opinions are his and his alone and do not reflect in any way, shape, or form the opinions of his employer.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009


When someone tells me that deadpan comedies leave them cold-- that, for example, Jim Jarmusch is only concerned with being "hip" or Wes Anderson only with how he arranges objects in the frame-- I wonder if they're watching the same films that I am. Deadpan comedies are not about suppressing emotions but about accessing them; the anguish on the screen for me has always been palpable, and the characters are usually larger-than-life, completely consumed and defined by their depression, their alienation, or their inability to connect with others.

What those people who don't "get" deadpan are really saying is not that the films lack warmth, affection, and emotion, but rather that the emotions on display make them uncomfortable, and they certainly didn't come to a comedy to, you know, go through an actual emotional experience, to actually think and feel. Comedy equals autopilot, while deadpan demands attention. And I feel sorry for them, because they're really missing out on experiences that will make them not only better cinephiles but also better people.

Almost every great deadpan comedy is an act of sympathy for the putatively unsympathetic, and this holds true for Azazel Jacobs's* The GoodTimesKid. Consider, for example, the character that Jacobs himself plays: a wiry, surly mass of pointless, directionless rage, angry at everything and nothing. This character, one Rodolfo Cano, starts fights (clad in boxing gloves and a cape made from an American flag) for no obvious reason, screams and scowls at and rushes out on his girlfriend, Diaz (Diaz), and enlists in the army, also seemingly unmotivated.

His call-to-service letter ends up being sent to another Rodolfo Cano (Gerardo Naranjo); this Rodolfo has an expression that is so self-depreciating that Diaz dubs him, not unfittingly, "Depresso". He is most assuredly a passive figure, the exact opposite of a self-starter. He spends most of the film following others: he follows the other Rodolfo to the latter's home, follows Diaz on her way to the bar where her Rodolfo is getting the snot beat out of him, follows the other Rodolfo for what appears to be an entire evening as he walks around aimlessly. There's a great gag in the first following sequence when the angry Rodolfo comes to a stand-still, and Rodolfo the Follower does the same, stopping next to a tree. A sudden cut takes us from brisk daylight to black evening, and there's Rodolfo, still next to the tree, still waiting for Rodolfo to make a move.

There's a scene in the house where Depresso-Rodolfo watches Diaz beat up a chocolate birthday cake in anguish, then start pounding on the refrigerator, smearing it and her dress with cake before plopping down in front of it. Diaz looks up at him, and demands, "Who the fuck are you?" In answer, he punches and kicks the refrigerator, than slides down next to Diaz. It's a moment of bonding, almost a ritual of initiation, but there's a delicious irony in that, even in this moment, he is still following somebody else's lead. (The film's ending, which will remain unspoilt here, gives this running gag its most logical, apt, sad, noble, and generous punchline.)

By naming both his male leads Rodolfo, Jacobs of course asks us to compare and contrast them. We might align our sympathies more readily with Depresso-Rodolfo than his angrier counterpart, but they're not really so different. Consider the scene in which Depresso-Rodolfo and Diaz hide from the former's girlfriend, as said girlfriend pleads for him to open up and let her in. Isn't that really what Diaz herself asks of her Rodolfo in the film's opening scene? Diaz knows what it's like to be that person on the other side, beating on the door. And maybe this new Rodolfo might not be the perfect replacement he at first seems.

What's interesting about this moment, this parallel, is that it's almost tossed away; while they hide from Rodolfo's unseen girl, our intrepid duo play with a flash-light, comically shushing each other and making faces. Because of this, the parallels are still allowed to register, but they never call attention to themselves, never metastasize into Big Obvious Points.

This is what I like about deadpan comedies: themes are still dealt with, emotions still explored, but in a sideways kind of way that helps to make the often heavy material more bearable. Anger, depression, longing, loneliness, and the mysteries of why we hurt the people we love and why we do the things that we do: these are all important and potent ingredients in Jacobs's concoction, but they never overpower his comic sensibility and the deep compassion he feels for his characters.

This compassion is most evident, I think, in the remarkable monologue Jacobs gives to the Rodolfo he himself plays. Temporarily stripped of his rage and vulnerable, seemingly willing to relinquish Diaz to the new Rodolfo (another parallel: he's just as capable of being passive, and perhaps his anger is tied up in that), he talks about Diaz, about how special and how rare she is.

This is the guy who began the film by storming out of the house; this is the guy who returned home just long enough to yell at Diaz before running out to start a fight at a bar; this is the guy who comes home with another woman and crashes on the couch; this is the guy who, in his next scene, will suddenly start to attack Rodolfo. This guy-- who my wife dubbed Rage-O in homage to Diaz's own coinage of Depresso-- is the guy who gets the most poetic expression of emotion. If we don't-- I don’t want to say "identify", as that's not quite the word-- but if we're still completely outside this guy, still completely rooting for Depresso-and-Diaz, then I dare say this scene, and perhaps the film itself, would cease to work. Quite a gamble, that.

But for this viewer, at least, it did work; this sudden yet oh-so-quiet explosion of feeling hooked me completely, and when the film had come to its end-- when Depresso-Rodolfo does something that is at once completely within his character but also an uncommon act of, dare I say it, nobility-- it is completely satisfying and makes complete sense because of this scene.

It is, then, the pivotal scene, the one that sets the film's final act (and final actions) into motion. And this scene depends on a guy who is almost defined by his unfocused anger. It's a testament to Jacobs's abilities as an actor and director, as a creator of tone and of flow, that the scene works. The little parallels between the two Rodolfos, and between Diaz and her doubles, register obliquely; the deep wells of emotion and turmoil that gush within all of these fucked-up and angry people (the Rodolfos and Diaz are all a little defensive, all attacking or being attacked, all wary of others) seep through the long quiet moments, the surreal-yet-underplayed gags, the droll-but-at-times-pointed dialogue. Our sympathies for and understanding of the Angry Rodolfo are created almost by osmosis, seeping in undetected, until they surprise us in that monologue, in that moment.

This sort of surprise, this culminative effect, this is, for me, the promise of deadpan comedy. In this case, it is a promise that is fulfilled.

The GoodTimesKid came out on DVD this summer, the sixth release from Benten Films. I own all but one of their titles, and can recommend them wholeheartedly: (1) Joe Swanberg's LOL (which, full disclosure, I'm sort of but not really in-- long story); (2) Aaron Katz's Quiet City and Dance Party, USA (packaged together); (3) Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake; and (5) Kentucker Audley's Team Picture. I haven't seen Benten number four, Matthias Glasner's The Free Will, which is two and a half hours long, in German, and about a sexual predator-- not exactly the sort of thing I'm personally clammering to see-- but, what the hey, I'm going to recommend it anyway because Benten's track record is impeccable: good films, great packaging, perfect transfers, loads of extras. Everything you could want from a DVD, really.

*-- "Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant."-- Strunk & White, mofos.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

So I Guess I'm Really a Critic Now

Holy crap, I'm a pull-quote in a trailer!

CARTER Festival Trailer from Ryan Balas on Vimeo.

That quote, of course, comes from this review of Carter. Balas's film will be playing Nov. 24 at New York's Anthology Film Archive.

If anyone else out there has a film they'd like me to review, please don't hesitate to contact me via e-mail (that's milos_parker at yahoo dot com) about sending a screener my way. It should be noted that if I don't like the film in question, I'll give you the option of not having me review it-- but if you ask me to go ahead, I ain't going to pull any punches.