Monday, June 29, 2009

The Singular Governor Dreyer

Yesterday, I posted a review of Ryan Andrew Balas's film, Carter. A few moments ago, Balas brought my attention to this.

At first glance, it appears to be a re-posting of my review. But once you actually start to read it, it gets a little weird. The first sentence of my review, for example, reads:
Ryan Andrew Balas's film Carter is being touted by its creator as an "experimental narrative", and so, in that spirit, we'll start our consideration of Carter with an experiment.
While the first sentence of the re-posting goes like this:
Ryan Andrew Balas’s dusting Carter is being touted during its God as an “experimental narrative”, and so, in that breath, we’ll start our baksheesh of Carter with an process.
And I said, well, that's weird, someone's gone crazy with a thesaurus and used my review to generate a bunch of gibberish. But then, as I was reading it, I found a few of the passages to be quite amusing. For example:

  • Well, all that is singular, Tom, but what does it on a anecdote on to do with the breach of Carter?
  • A later disagreeable post of Sminch in his underwear emphasizes the inborn ridiculousness of the spear imperturbability, while Carter’s exposed repayment and elongated defoliate legs are attraction incarnate.
  • This is why the singular governor Dreyer insisted on making The Passion of Joan of Arc a accurate unruffled film
  • truly Film is cadence and music is rhythm; when married, the man Friday tends to reel the other, subverting its nuances, perverting its organization, violating its decency.
  • freely and suckle along vs. undecided and backwards
  • And I would prognosticate, over-all, my strongest disparagement of Carter is that there’s so much music and that that music, to my shrewdness, again seems to farm tabulation to the visual elements on the concealment.
  • What a wonderful genesis of the cunning convention of film– how freeing and still how horrid: in the participation of a dusting with no railway station, no article, and no parable is a dusting properly without office in the participation of authorial notice on or shape.
  • She is no manic pixie harmonize.
  • her monologue that irrevocably convinces him that autobiography is merit living.
  • Let’s puke in a pussy-pop to-do and gyrate the climax credits.
  • It is fully and wonderfully eight minutes of continually and interruption, chunk and turbulence, hurl on account of milky digital be unearthed interacting with a cover shackles observable ostentation, cover shackles arms, cover shackles legs.

The topper, however, is this devastating critique of Tyler Perry.
a tonal mishap on sickly with Tyler Perry. truly lowering truly lowering truly

Sunday, June 28, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Ryan Andrew Balas's CARTER

Ryan Andrew Balas's film Carter is being touted by its creator as an "experimental narrative", and so, in that spirit, we'll start our consideration of Carter with an experiment. I'm going to sketch out the plot of the picture and then we're going to try and imagine what the film might be like using our general knowledge of "quirky indie gems" and their accompanying filmic grammar. Trust me that the reason for this little thought experiment will soon become apparent.

So, that plot: Jebediah Sminch, three days shy of twenty-five intends to carry out a suicide vow he made when he was seventeen, despite the fact that he is, in his own words, happier than he's ever been. The vow: if he's not married by twenty-three, he makes his exit at twenty-five. His lady-love, the titular Carter, is understandably concerned, as are his friends.

From the male lead's name to the vow itself, there's quirk to spare, so let's see how this would all play out if, say, Jason Reitman was directing it. We might get a scene at the start of the picture that spells out the vow. There'll be a scene where Sminch meets Carter, perhaps a Manic Pixie Girl, and begins to realize that, gee, maybe he has a reason to live after all. There's the scene where Carter discovers Sminch's vow, just in time for one of those late second act romantic crises, and the monologue (it's always a monologue) in which we finally discover the reason for the vow and then her monologue that finally convinces him that life is worth living. Let's throw in a pussy-pop song and roll the end credits.

It should provide the reader some relief to know that none of the above describes Carter. She is no manic pixie girl. They have been dating for some time when the film begins. Said beginning is, a brief prologue aside, nearly eight wordless minutes of the title character waking up and getting dressed. We don't meet Sminch until the next scene and don't learn of his vow until shortly after that. His motives are never really explained and there's no scene where "the power of love" makes everything all better, insipidly ever after, amen.

The reason for my little thought experiment, then, is to put the film's experimentation in some context, namely: this is all the ways it could have gone horribly wrong. These are all the normal, traditional, usual ways of approaching this sort of character and story. Carter approaches things sideways, reinforcing the innate unknowableness of its suicidal protagonist through a structure that keeps us at arm's length.

And it's important to note that Balas's experimentation in Carter is primarily structural in nature. Godard and Motlagh conduct experiments in form and film language; Carter is an experiment in time and the arrangement of time.

This is perhaps at its most apparent in the aforementioned opening scene. To say that the scene is pointless misses the point and yet is actually quite accurate, as the scene has no "point", no nugget of information to take away from the experience, no zeroed-in moment that speaks volumes about her character. It is simply and wonderfully eight minutes of time and space, body and motion, clear white digital light interacting with a human face, human arms, human legs. The "point" is the thing itself.

I tried, and failed, some months ago to write a review or at least an appreciation of Philip Groning's Into Great Silence. What I did manage to say there applies to this opening of Carter as well. Please forgive any redundancies:

Here is a film that has no narrative and indeed no "characters", no "point", no "ideas". Here is a film that just is, that merely exists as space, image, sound, and time.

What a wonderful conception of the art form of film-- how freeing and yet how frightening: for a film with no point, no theme, and no story is a film completely without room for authorial comment or style. While like all film it is a "shaped" experience-- composed of shots married together and cut short by the magic of editing-- Into Great Silence doesn't really give you a sense of that shaping. There is never the sense that our eye is being directed to this aspect of a shot or that one, or that a point is being crystallized by a telling detail.

The film simply is and, surprisingly, that is more than enough.

Groning's "documentary" (though it is quite unlike any other documentary I have ever seen) doesn't have any voice-over or, more importantly, any music. Film is rhythm and music is rhythm; when married, the second tends to overwhelm the other, subverting its nuances, perverting its structure, violating its integrity. This is why the great master Dreyer insisted on making The Passion of Joan of Arc a true silent film; music can impose a rhythm that runs counter to the visual and temporal rhythms of the film.

Well, all that is great, Tom, but what does it have to do with the opening of Carter? That opening, it should be said, has wall-to-wall music. And while that music helps the scene "move" faster (of course it does, an aural rhythm is always faster than a visual one), I think it does subtract from the essential mystery of the scene. And I would say, over-all, my strongest criticism of Carter is that there's so much music and that that music, to my mind, often seems to work counter to the visual elements on the screen.

Carter's first scene is defined by white natural light, by the gangliness of her legs/body, and the openness of the apartment. By contrast, Sminch is introduced to us in dismal office lighting, a cramped and compressed figure squeezed into a cramped and compressed space. When one of his coworkers comes in and begins describing, in graphic detail, some Bang Bros.-esque pornography (with some bestiality thrown in for good measure), Sminch quite literally has his back against the corner. He has nowhere to go, no way to extradite himself from this conversation, and so he just responds noncommittally, content to wait it out.

Indeed, it is only when his co-worker suggests that they start their own pornography website centered around breaking into houses and raping people in their sleep (he claims it'll be the "Marlon Brando of porn") that Sminch asserts himself. The co-worker is such a ghastly character and the scene such an abrasive one that it feels at first like a mistake, a tonal mishap on par with Tyler Perry.

But Balas's abrupt switch in tone is by design and has a purpose that is highlighted by its place in the film's structure. I would argue that the main character in that scene is not Sminch or any of his co-workers, but rather Carter herself, despite the fact that she doesn't actually appear within it and that she's never mentioned in any of the dialogue. To wit: that first scene, that glorious eight minutes of time and movement and nothing else, introduce us to Carter but tell us nothing substantial about her. The scene that follows is completely different in terms of framing (open if still somewhat afflicted by close-up-it is versus cramped and hedged in), the size of the room (big vs. small), the way the characters move through the space they have available to them (freely and forward vs. hesitant and backwards), the type of light (sun vs. office), and the aural elements (wordless music vs. non-stop profanity). In juxtaposing these sequences, Balas asks us to compare them and, somewhat more importantly, the people in them.

Sminch is trapped, his body language folding into itself, his face hidden by glasses and a moustache like pieces of a costume. He's almost a caricature of a nebbish, even down to his nebbishy, pinched-in name.

Obviously, yes, Carter is not a nebbish. She has a normal if masculine name and her face is unadorned. We can deduce all that with just that first sequence, no comparisons necessary. But once we do make those comparisons, qualities that are present in the first sequence but hard to "read" without some degree of manipulative authorial comment are highlighted: Carter's body language might not register her casualness, her comfortableness with her own body, her freedom of movement, without boxed-in Sminch to act as a foil. Because Sminch is dingily lit in a dingy little room, sad and ordinary, Carter is that much more idealized by the clean white light of her window. A later scene of Sminch in his underwear emphasizes the essential ridiculousness of the male figure, while Carter's naked back and long bare legs are beauty incarnate. Sminch might be inundated by pornographic profanity, but Carter is blessed with meditative music.

And while I do still think that that music weakens the sequence and perhaps the film as a whole, I do have to admit that it works in terms of our conception of Carter. Balas has stated that he decided to tell the story of Carter the film from the point of view of Carter the person because he thought it would be more interesting, but I'm not sure if it's completely accurate insomuch as, (a), we don't follow Carter exclusively, Travis Bickle-like, but rather divide our time in the film's first third between both protagonists, and, (b), the character of Carter, even in those scenes in which Sminch does not appear, seems to my mind to be viewed through his eyes: an angel in white light, silent and at peace, moving free and lovely with soft music-- so very different from the pinched-in Sminch.

Indeed, this process of idealization is present in the "perfect day" the two of them share. More than once, the dialogue stops and the natural sound is replaced completely with music as the two lovers walk and cavort and play. These idylls are not particular, specific, or prickly; rather, they are very much like every other "perfect day" we've seen in films (the dialogue sequences in-between them that focus on Sminch's vow being the exception).

The first two times that I saw this film, I singled these sequences out in my notes as weak spots. But, thinking about it now, they do serve a purpose in further highlighting the ways in which Sminch perhaps takes Carter for granted. That he sees her a bit less as a person and more as a Girlfriend, that she makes him happy because they hold hands and climb on cement sculptures and he twirls her around, dipping in for a smooch. (Now, whether or not Balas might have been able to get this across using the time-sculpting of the opening or through the compare and contrast of the first two scenes, is a perfectly valid question; I could have done without the twirl-dive-smooch and the music myself.)

There's only one scene in which Carter and Sminch discuss his eminent suicide, and it is likely the best scene, acting-wise, in the film-- my favourite over-all scene involves Carter giving another woman (a lover?) Sminch's clothes, presumably after his demise, a digression that tells us important things about Sminch and the dynamic of his relationship with Carter despite the fact that he is nowhere to be seen. (That sentence is, in and of itself, a digression, but, hey.)

Anyway: the confrontation. Sminch is hesitant to talk about it, and Carter bristles: "Just dismiss me." And she's right, he has been dismissing her, her love for him, her say in the relationship. "Why are you going away?" she says in perhaps the saddest, simplest line in the film. "You make me want to live longer."

His best answer is that it's like leaving the party after you've told the funniest joke-- a variation of "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse" for the nebbishly-inclined. It is an answer that disregards Carter and the pain that his death is likely to cause her. It's also an answer that he's probably not fully convinced of; before he offers it up, he tries to evade Carter's request for an explanation by saying that it is enough trying to making himself get it.

There's an essential and inherent nihilism in Sminch's apparent lack of self-worth, one that manifests itself, again foil-like, through Sminch's (and the film's) beatification of Carter. (Perhaps he feels unworthy of her.) He does seem to be acting under a compulsion, a desire not his own over which he has no control; his suicide vow is a strangely Catholic one, justified in an earlier interior monologue: "I made a vow. I made a promise. And those things are holy." The irony of a holy suicide vow is perhaps lost on Sminch but not on the film; even when we burrow deep inside his head, we find ourselves outside of him.

That is, of course, by design; Sminch is a deliberate cipher, protecting himself with his moustache and glasses. Which, come to think of it, might be how Carter sees him. It's a double-portrait, Carter-as-seen-by-Sminch and Sminch-as-seen-by-Carter, that could only be accomplished through Balas's structural experimentation. But neither protagonist really understands the other, and so our own understanding is limited.

A more straightforward narrative might have given us more insight into Sminch, might have gotten us past the glasses and the moustache, might have deepened the mystery and the irony behind his vow, might have explored his complexities in a more satisfying manner. And yet, had it gone that route, the film wouldn't have accomplished the things it does; it might have been a work of "quality" (in Truffaut's sense of the word) but not nearly as interesting or as memorable. That's the trade-off with any experiment, whether structural or formal: it can go some place extraordinary but it might not all come together as a satisfying whole.

If Carter is perhaps not completely satisfying, let it be said that it is unsatisfying in its own way and on its own terms. Certain sequences, particularly the scene with the two women and the clothes, the twenty-five or so minutes before our two lovers share the same frame, and the sudden appearance of a pussycat, mark Ryan Andrew Balas as someone worth watching even if, my structural explanation aside, the idyllic sequences aren't quite as interesting or revelatory.

I look forward to his next experiment.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


A collection of short stories, Seven Romances. "These stories of love, sex, longing, loss, bitterness, and despair unfold in first-person confessionals that are by turns direct and lyrical, shocking and sweet." Grown-ups only.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Actual Conversation I Just Had At Sears.

The place: Sears. The purchase: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the original) on DVD. The price: $7.50. The conversation with the check-out girl, reproduced verbatim:

"Are you guys going to see the new Pelham?"

"No, probably not."

"Why, do you like the first one too much?"

"Not exactly."

"Do you not like the first one?"

"I like it a lot, I just haven't heard any good things about the new one."

"But it has John Travolta."

"That's part of the problem."

(overlap) "And Denzel. I don't know what you're talking about. It looks to be the summer movie of the year."

I swear to God, this actually happened.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Billy Jack

An appreciation of Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack that Tom did for Hammer To Nail. Comments are welcome here or there.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Weekend of Finishings

I finished my Billy Jack appreciation. I finished my second column in the Stripping With Tom Russell series. Links to both will be posted when they're available. Also finished David Schonscheck's wedding video. On this weekend's list:

  • Watch Ryan Balas's Carter.
  • Finish formatting/proofreading Seven Romances book.
  • Pimp Jolt City book.
  • Finish Sacred 2 review for Monitor Duty.
  • Finish That Top Secret Top 100 List.
I think I might actually be able to accomplish everything this weekend. Cool.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"The mask is everything, so make it a good one."

My novel Jolt City is now available for $25.00. Expect it to pop up on within the next two weeks or so.

From the back cover:

When it was originally published on the legendary USENET newsgroup rec.arts.comics.creative, Tom Russell's superhero serial JOLT CITY was awarded the coveted Favorite Acra Series RACCie (for a serial aimed at a mature audience) two years in a row. The following year, the readers of RACC voted it their Favorite Series over-all and Tom one of their two Favorite Authors. Now, the best superhero fiction on the internet has become the best superhero novel on your bookshelf.

When Jolt City's sworn protector the Green Knight falls ill with cancer, his former sidekick Martin Rock embarks on an incredible journey: from self-reliance to friendship, from pain to peace, from anger to joy.

Along the way, he'll fight a jousting match atop a unicycle, team up with a super-speedster, visit an alternate earth populated by talking snails, and thwart an invasion.

Unabashedly in love with its genre but unafraid to take it deadly seriously, JOLT CITY is free of camp, laced with literary wit and heightened with stark poetical beauty. So turn off your bleeper, snuggle up in bed, pull the covers over your head, flick on your electric torch, and get ready for 358 pages of unrelenting two-fisted awesomeness.

"... a rollicking story of a hero taking on the task to fill the shoes of his mentor-- with a little luck but mostly with hard work, determination, and a willingness to think laterally in the occasionally bizarre world of four-colour superheroes."-- Saxon Brenton, author of Limp-Asparagus Lad

So buy the darn thing already.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ecco Jr. > Ecco 1 & 2-- Don't argue, you know I'm right.

Or, Weekend To-Do List Update.

  • Still working on Billy Jack appreciation, should be done by end of night/early morning. Depends on how big I want to go with it-- I might have to rewatch Trial of Billy Jack and Born Losers so I can discuss the film in the context of Laughlin's oeuvre. Not looking forward to revisiting Trial, as its nearly three hours long and at once the weakest and the most ambitious of the four.
  • Organized my notes on Sacred 2 into an outline-- still have to finish writing the review, however. Should be getting the new Terminator game soon and I don't want to fall behind.
  • Did nothing in the garden this weekend. Too humid out.
  • Should be doing the last bit of voice-over for that wedding video this Thursday (hi Marshall!).
  • Did a little bit more work on the script but not enough.
  • Did a substantial amount of work on Side Saddle 2 and am about to restart it from scratch. This is I do at least two or three times for every game I make and I accept it as a natural if sometimes frustrating part of the process.
  • And finally, what I spent most of my weekend doing: working on that Super-Secret Top 100 List for a Super-Secret Popular Culture and Gaming Website. Or, rather, I spent the weekend doing, ahem, "research". Said research is what led me to make the obviously contrarian conclusion that gives this post its title. While I have actual game-design reasons and artsy-fartsy mumbo-jumbo I can cite in support of my determination, let me be a bit pithier and simply say that Ecco Jr. is the only game in the series that I can get beat.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

To Do List

  • Finish appreciation of Billy Jack for Hammer to Nail;
  • Finish Super-Secret List for Super-Secret Gaming Website;
  • Finish Sacred 2 review for Monitor Duty;
  • Finish planting the vegetable garden;
  • Finish a wedding video, assuming we'll get a hold of the best man for some dubbing;
  • Get back to work on the script for our next film;
  • and work on Side Saddle 2.

The latter's progress is being charted in a development blog over at Game Jolt. I'm doing it there in case some of our readers have zero interest in game design; those of you who are interested in my adventures in the Eighth Art are encouraged to click this link.