Monday, December 13, 2010

Please Note

Our computer is broke. We lost most of our files and no longer have home internet access.

Posting will, of course, be quite light for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four Riveting Legislative Procedurals

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra, 1939

A fantasy and an allegory, to be sure, but that's what Capra was best at. The film ripples with the masculine, hardball atmosphere of the Senate. Control of the media equals control of the message, and thus public opinion, and thus and finally, the work of government itself. Also worth seeing, but mostly as a curiosity, is Tom Laughlin's remake, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Capra's film is, per the blog post title, simply riveting, whereas Laughlin's is rather limpidly-paced; Laughlin's Billy Jack is hardly the guiltless, guileless innocent that makes Capra's allegory work so well; Laughlin also unwisely injects a lot of real-world politics (and, as he does in seemingly every film, the ghastly spectre of sexual violence) into a story that's frankly not built to support them.

Advise and Consent, Preminger, 1962

Pretty much everyone in this scandalicious film is trying to hide a secret, and pretty much everyone is "guilty" of whatever they're accused of/blackmailed for. But I don't think the thrust of the film is that all politicians are dirty-- just that they're all human. The one-time communist isn't some insidious, unamerican threat to our democracy-- he's a man that made some mistakes. The homosexual-turned-self-righteous-family-man isn't a hypocrite or pervert, but a tortured soul that's afforded a high degree of tragic, moving sympathy. Like the next film on my little list, but in a very different way, it emphasizes that politics is a very personal business, driven and shaped by an individual's history and personality.

1776, Hunt, 1972

There's a twenty-five minute stretch in this musical where there's no music, in which the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams vigorously argues in favour of American independence. More than any other film, it really captures the drama of political debate and oratory. The film also provides an in-depth look at the necessity of compromising a principle in favour of getting something accomplished: a Declaration of Independence without any mention of slavery might be a flawed document, but it's one that's going to be signed. It puts an incredible emphasis on how personalities-- a wish to stay anonymous, a desire to be well-liked, arrogance, and a sense of honour and duty-- impact political decisions more than static talking points. (Or they did, at any rate.) It communicates a sense of real fragility and danger that's been lost by the time we get to Trumbull, and it deeply humanizes its founders with more than a little salty humour. And, yes, it does all this with some really great songs.

Amazing Grace, Apted, 2006

The odd man out in our quartet, Amazing Grace is not a great film. It's still a fairly good one, in that veddy British tradition-of-quality costume-drama kind of way: it's well-mounted but doesn't have the verve of, say, The Young Victoria; the performances are strong but nothing idiosyncratic or particularly remarkable; the story is uplifting in the most generic way possible but there's no pressing need for it to be told. It sounds like I'm slagging it, but I'm not; I have a taste for the genre and style, and you probably know if you share it. If you do, you'll find some decent, arguably riveting, if slightly castrated, parliamentary manoeuvring, culminating in a bit of underhanded legislating, albeit for a good cause.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Watch OPEN FIVE free starting October 21.

Kentucker Audley's Open Five-- which I wrote about briefly, along with Audley's breezy, delightful Team Picture and prickly, challenging Holy Land, here-- will be available online for free and for a limited time over at his website starting October 21. Like all his features, it's slender and poetic and hard-to-put-into-words and worth your time.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Memento mori.

I've always had bad teeth. I had juvenile periodontitis growing up, and as an adult my teeth have become so sensitive to cold and sweets that I simply can't have ice cream, fudge, or chocolate; I prefer to drink soda beverages and water at room temperature, because otherwise it hurts like the second coming of bejesus. For better or worse, I'm used to my mouth being in some kind of pain or discomfort, and I've changed my lifestyle to minimize that pain as much as possible.

That's why I didn't think much of the occasional pain in my right wisdom tooth. Most of it had rotted away a year or two ago. I was careful not to use it when masticating, and I grinned and bared through whatever pain it gave me.

In May of this year, it started acting up more than usual-- a constant pain that inflamed the gums surrounding it. At the same time, I developed a mind-splitting ear ache. It turned out that the two things weren't unrelated; the abscess in the tooth had become infected, and it had spread to my ear. The next day, it spread to my entire lower jaw. I was quickly put on medication, which quelled the pain and eliminated the infection.

The days that followed were pretty agonizing. The physical pain was immense, and I can neither adequately describe it nor overemphasize this point: it was the most pain I've ever been in in my life, and I never want to feel that kind of pain again, ever. Beyond that, however, the infection robbed me of "me".

I'm a talker, but it hurt too much to open my mouth to talk. I love to eat-- possibly the sense I derive the most pleasure from is taste-- but I couldn't do more than slurp apple sauce. And even that hurt so much and tasted so terrible-- the infection not only preventing me from chewing, but from tasting food properly-- that I couldn't stomach more than a few bites. Which meant that I went several days with hardly any food. I was weak and exhausted, unable to stand on my own. I just spent all that time lying on the couch in my pajamas, and while I'm not the most physically active sort, the lack of mobility really ground me down. The pain was so distracting that I couldn't read any books, watch any movies, or play any video games.

And all this made me rather cranky, ill-tempered, and difficult to deal with. So, like I said: it robbed me of my "me"-ness, prevented me from adhering to the behaviours, pleasures, and attitudes that collectively spell out "Tom". Pain, as one of the Mantle brothers so memorably put it, causes character distortion, and I was glad when I came out the other side of it. According to my dentist and my GP, if I had waited a few more days before seeing the doctor-- not that I'd have been able to handle the pain for that long, so that's a big "if"-- it would have spread to my heart. It would have killed me.

Which is a sobering thought. I've always been intensely, perhaps morbidly, definitely neurotically, concerned with the decay of my own flesh and my impending demise. It's something I contemplate daily, much to my Mary's chagrin. My father died at the age of thirty-eight, and somehow that's been built up in my brain as a number of Significance-- ingrained somehow is the feeling that I won't live to be older than thirty-eight. A big part of the reason why I'm so prolifically creative-- making movies with Mary, designing video and board games by myself, writing novels and stories, composing music, even running for political office in a weird way-- is because I frantically wanted to make what time I feel I have left count. It's not quite the same as wanting to become immortal through art; it's more that I want to do as much as I can and leave something behind. And since it's unlikely that we'll ever have children, art is about the only thing I have left to leave.

But now that I've actually been close to death-- not at its door, sure, but closer than I've ever been-- strangely, I don't feel that same fire under my ass to "make my time count". And that thirty-eight year deadline-- which I've always known, intellectually, to be silly, even as it held sway over me superstitiously-- doesn't seem to loom quite so large. I'm less concerned with leaving something behind, and more concerned with just plain enjoying myself; less concerned with making use of the time, and more concerned with using the time.

That's not to say I'm going to stop creating-- creating is one of those ways that I just plain enjoy myself-- or that I'm less prone to mood swings, suicidal depression, self-loathing, and moments of sudden unexplainable terror (yep, all that fun stuff is still present and accounted for). I'm still very much Tom, for better or worse, but my slight brush with death makes me want to be a happier Tom than I've been in the past. And I think I am, if only a little bit.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Some years ago, we were in the dollar store and we picked up a couple of those cheap-o DVDs, the sort with the ultra-thin cases with the bad center teeth that almost always result in the disc rattling around inside. Japanese monster movies, obscure action films, and fifties television seem to be what dominates the rack, and having something of an interest in all three, we have on occasion plonked down a buck. A lot of them we haven't even seen.

Such was the case with The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57). It wasn't until we were going through our DVDs three or four weeks ago that we came across it on our shelf and finally popped the sucker in our player. We were expecting something that, if not bad, at the very least hadn't aged very well. To put it mildly, we were wrong; it's an absolutely terrific piece of television, and we were so impressed with the four episodes on the fly-by-nighter that we actually purchased a box set containing the entire series. Said box will set you back fifteen dollars and two quarters, and it's well worth that paltry investment, as you get all thirty episodes (sixteen in black-and-white, fourteen in colour) in reasonably attractive packaging with some nice digital restoration work (for the most part; some of the colour elements have faded beyond the point of repair). The fly-by-nighter, which presents four episodes that had been in colour in black-and-white, with a lot of artifacts and freeze-frames, is not recommended.

The show presents a realistic yet romantic (in the classical sense) slant on Arthurian legend. It's a world without Magic-- all sea serpents, enchanted blades, and wizards (including Merlin) are thoroughly but cheekily debunked-- but with plenty of magic: strange adventures, black-hearted villains, and daring rescues of damsels in various states of distress abound. The writing is pretty damn sharp most of the time, utilizing a lot of humour that's still pretty rib-tickling over fifty years later without undercutting the sense of simple honest adventure at the heart of the program.

There's a fair amount of nuance to be found, too. The first episode, The Knight of the Red Plume, is a good example of what I mean. All but a few of Arthur's knights have been slaughtered in battle with another king's forces, many by the hand of the titular knight. Sir Gawain's brother is among those slain, and possessing a piece that was broken off of the Red Plume's sword, he swears vengeance. Lancelot (William Russell) shows up, wishing to join the Round Table. He only asks that he be judged for his actions henceforth. It's soon made clear why: Lancelot's sword and Gawain's shard are a perfect match.

First episode of a new TV series, and you have the untrusted new arrival blamed for scores of deaths. Think of the ways this could go, the ways it would go in so many other series: Lancelot didn't do it after all and he proves himself, slowly gaining their trust. Or, Lancelot did do it, but he wants to redeem himself, slowly gaining their trust. What the series gives us, instead, is: Lancelot did it, he was indeed the Knight of the Red Plume. He killed all those other knights, sure, including Gawain's brother, but it was in honourable combat. He didn't do anything wrong, so he damn well isn't going to apologize. Just because someone is on the other side of the battle doesn't mean they're evil.

Lancelot always conducts himself with honour, hewing impeccably to the code of chivalry, and is always presented as being exemplary in all things: moral, intellectual, physical. He's the sort that gets to express outrage at a wrong that needs righting and make the occasional high-minded speech about the true nature of chivalry. Which could be really insufferable if it wasn't leavened by a whole lot of charm on Russell's part. When he takes the piss out of Merlin's "magic"-- and it's something he does quite a bit-- it's always with a smile, with a sense of bemusement. His interactions with his squire and the various damsels-of-the-week have a similar playfulness that goes a long way towards preventing Lancelot from being some kind of stuffed shirt.

There's also the way Russell conducts himself in the swashbuckling scenes. Almost without exception, whenever he crosses swords with a villain, no matter how foul, and no matter how dire the consequences, he does so with the biggest, goofiest, most wonderful and infectious grin you've ever seen: a big open mouth of pure soundless-squealing joy as he hacks away at someone's shield. It gives the fight scenes an incredible energy that sustains them despite some pretty bad staging (said staging being the only part of the show that really hasn't aged very well).

Equally appealing is Lancelot's squire, Brian, played by Robert Scroggins. Scroggins excels at wringing laughs from looking slightly bewildered, put-upon, and clueless. He also gets a lot of the show's best lines, often exploring a tension between his gallantry and cowardice. Usually, a juvenile lead in this sort of show exists merely for viewers to roll eyes at; Scroggins makes Brian's appearances a surprising delight.

Also surprisingly delightful are the aforementioned damsels-of-the-week. Each is given a distinct personality, from the sniffling girl of The Ugly Duckling to the captive who doesn't much feel like being rescued thank you very much in Roman Wall. It's rare for a damsel-of-the-week to have much of a personality today; 'twas even more-so in 1956.

The show does have a few mis-steps (avoid Theft of Excalibur and Lancelot's Banishment if you can, as they turn on the characters acting like gibbering asshats all of the sudden and for so discernible reason), but on the whole it's excellent entertainment; when it's at its best-- Caledon and The Outcast on the more serious side of things, along with slyly comic concoctions like The Black Castle, Sir Crustabread, Ferocious Fathers, and The Ugly Duckling-- it's really quite exemplary stuff.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

We Were On the News.

The question is never, will the news distort the truth in pursuit of an easily-digestible narrative, but how they're going to do it. That's both a knock and not a knock at the same time; if you've got twenty-two minutes to impart to the viewer a general interest digest of local and national happenings, you're going to have to shape your footage into something with a direct thorough-line. This is something that, having been in politics, I was acutely aware of-- a nuanced statement or position reduced to something that got me into hot water, because when everything has to be timed down to the second, there's just not a whole lot of time for nuance.

I remember when the Kilpatrick scandal hit the national news, and on that level it simply became about Kwame Kilpatrick being caught sending some naughty text messages. But it was never really about that-- it was really about, on a specific level, the men he fired to prevent his sexual history from coming to light and the taxpayer money he spent to fight their unlawful termination lawsuits and, eventually, to pay them off; on a more general level, it was about a level of hubris of almost Greek proportions. Saying it was a sex scandal really missed the point of the story.

I wouldn't say that this story about us precisely "missed the point" of us, and we're not exactly offering our commentary on this news story in the above video to necessarily "take them to task" or "set the record straight". It's more about highlighting a process, to take a short glance at the methods used to shape that particular narrative.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"So, What Have You Been Doing For The Last Two Years?"

Every time I look at that sidebar and see SON OF A SEAHORSE (2008), I cringe. Not because I think it's a bad film; I think it's a great film, actually, especially now that we've shorn ten minutes off to transform it into something meaner and leaner, something that really lets the bleak despair shine through. Which is, of course, the most important feature of any comedy.

No, I cringe, because this is 2010, and soon it will be 2011, and 2008 seems awfully far away. What have we, the scrappy, keep-our-overhead-low, hand-made mom-and-pop-eration filmmakers been doing, exactly, with the last two years?

Well, we tried to make a film-- that would be Olivia Forever!!-- that we stopped making for the time being. Partially this was due to soul-sucking production delays-- everyone seemed to have something go terribly wrong in their personal life as soon as someone else had theirs in order-- and partially it was because of an inability for Tom and Mary to see eye-to-eye on things. And since we're making films together, with equal partnership being the stated goal, seeing eye-to-eye is immeasurably important, more important than just soldiering through and hoping to figure it out in the editing. Close collaboration has its advantages and its disadvantages. We are, however, much closer to seeing eye-to-eye, and after we've tidied the script up to our satisfaction, we're planning on doing the whole thing over again from scratch.

In the wake of Olivia's implosion, we announced another project, The Scottish Play, adapting the work of the bard about a certain thane. The plan is to do Shakespeare, to use his words-- why else would you do Shakespeare?-- while providing our own peculiar reading of those words, a reading that errs more on the side of comedy than tragedy (not "classically", in terms of structure, but practically, in terms of laffs) and recasts the thane-- actually without much difficulty!-- as a milquetoast neurotic. We're very early in pre-production, a term which here means that we're making sure we're seeing everything eye-to-eye before we start cramming Shakespeare down our actors' throats and trying to fill all the parts.

There's another script we're working on, one that has its origins in a nightmare. It's something that, if it sticks, we can shoot much quicker than Olivia Forever!! or The Scottish Play-- and that would, of course, go a long way towards correcting that cringe whenever I see the (2008).

And since life isn't just about making films, we've been doing other things. Like, for one, working on the DVD for Seahorse. Tom's been hard at work on some game design-- both video games and tabletop-- but of course, you knew that already, having no doubt bookmarked Second Party Games a long time ago. We've started a D&D campaign, and while we're trying to get our current films jump-started, it's been a fair replacement for the social element of filmmaking that-- as homebodies and squares-- we've been missing in the interim. We've made a concerted effort to try and plow through some of the various screeners for review we've received, and to write about them-- and other films-- with some semblance of intelligence. Also, Tom almost died, but then he got better.

So, we've been keeping busy, and we'll be busier still in the months to come, and my hope is that all that busy will result in some new and shiny additions to our sidebar.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Steven Wilson's NOODLES ON MY BACK.

Invasion Creations

For me, this little film is pure joy: like watching Fred Astaire dancing on ashtray sand. It's so charming, so simple, so effortless, and so gosh-darn warm and friendly. With the exception of a flippant "what-the-hell"-- and even that isn't so bad-- it's the rare surrealist piece of web cinema that doesn't traffic in violence, sex, cruelty, and bodily functions.

Not that, mind you, I have much of a problem with any of those; it's just nice to come across something that's gently demented instead of demented demented. The non-sequiturs and bits of nonsense-- from the titular noodles, to his love of hopping and soda beverages, to the appearance of his doppelhippo-- are just delightful.

The film alternates the quick cuts and fast rhythm of each verse with long wide tracking shots that emphasize the repetitive, delightfully stupid chorus. This contrast is what really makes the film, I think, and there's something almost formally elegant about that first tracking shot, which gives us the hippo, adds the whistling ape, and then the humming, hovering bird. Each animal gets its own sound, its own layer added to the mix; in this way, the shot functions also as a foregrounding of the very process of audio mixing.

And no appreciation would be complete without mentioning Roy, the squeaky-voiced pig with the tiny legs and the giant head, and the delightful duet he sings with the hippo. Roy is not just another animal, not just back-up, but a secondary lead making his debut over halfway through this 113 second opus; note how the other animals momentarily disappear when Roy appears, only returning for the chorus, thus focusing our attention on the two leads and their relationship.

That relationship can be read, without much difficulty, as an imbalanced one. It's all there in the final exchange of dialogue, as Roy, a bit too earnestly, tells Hippo he hopes to see him again soon; Hippo starts to make a hasty-if-lumbering exit, which Roy awkwardly mimics, probably wishing he hadn't spoiled the moment.

I'm not (necessarily) implying that Roy's crush on Hippo is sexual in nature, because I think the world of Noodles On My Back is a profoundly asexual one. But if you've ever been the nervous, socially-awkward one who sometimes desperately sought the attention of someone cool (meaning, in this case, both superlative and relaxed), and, having received it, said something a little too earnest and true, you know what the rest of Roy's evening is going to feel like.

The film, then, has a twinge, if only a twinge, of sadness-- just a little drop of agony in its bright blue boundless ocean of joy. That little drop is enough, I think, to deepen its hue, to make it more than a piece of mere electronic ephemera.

(Plus, it's just lots of good, clean fun.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


(Many, many, many thanks to Tony Dayoub for the screen captures.)

I've often expressed my admiration for Sleeping Beauty, extolling it as one of the greatest animated films of all time, and certainly the greatest thing that Walt Disney's studio ever produced. This is an opinion that's often been met with befuddlement: people don't "get" my "Sleeping Beauty thing", and they wonder how on Earth could anyone champion this film above all others? Frankly, I'm about as befuddled: I can't imagine anyone not liking it. It is animation, and thus cinema, at its pinnacle.

To start with, there's the aspect ratio: 2.55:1, wider than wide. Every composition emphasizes the very horizontal-ness of the frame, whether it's tracking movement from left to right--

-- or creating moods both romantic and gloomy via the use of negative space--

-- or staging some of the most thrilling action sequences to ever be animated.

Notice how Maleficent and her flames move diagonally across the frame, pushing Prince Philip into one corner or the other. It's still very much a horizontal composition, but the injection of the vertical adds a sense of danger. Vertical movement in the film's widescreen world is upsetting and tumultuous; it's no coincidence that this frame of the post-spindle Briar Rose, intended to shock, is fundamentally vertical:

Whereas this more peaceful frame finds her horizontal:

Horizontal, but also somewhat flat. It is, to my eye, an appealing flatness, one that reoccurs through-out the film and gives it the stylized, illuminated manuscript vibe that I also find incredibly, breathtakingly, astonishingly beautiful.

And there are some who will grant me the film's formal pleasures, even go as far as to admit that it's eye-popping, but that the film lacks for "heart" or that's it is pretty but lifeless, empty. Not up to par, they say, with the True Classics. And, again, I can't really see what they're talking about; this is a film that's absolutely bursting with life.

This, after all, is the only Disney film with a charming prince who had any kind of identifiable personality. Watch the scene with Phillip and Samson again and tell me that he's just another handsome, stuffed-shirt cipher like the rest. Maleficent, for her part, is a villain with real teeth, tall and black and imperious, dripping with sadistic sarcasm and cruel menace. The climax is the liveliest that Disney's got, and also the scariest-- "Now you shall deal with me, oh prince, and all the powers of Hell!" is a line that still gives me chills down my spine.

The three fairies do their part to provide comic relief, though for me the real chuckles come from the two kings, a servant, and a bottle of wine. That scene is as loose and gangly and joyous as the hand-washing and "The Silly Song" sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (classic Disney at its best always having ample room for long digressions where nothing much actually happens). And like the best of the Disney canon, the story unfolds not in bite-sized little montages and unit-like scenes but in longer sequences that possess a real sense of flow and that allow the characters to interact with one another. The illusion of life, in this case perfected with a formal elegance and stylistic flavour that none of the other Disney films ever attempted to match. That's not to slag the other great Disney films-- count me as an ardent fan of the studio's earliest features-- but rather to point out that they all have a certain look, a certain feel, in common, yet there's nothing that looks or feels like Sleeping Beauty.

It's funny, thrilling, sad, dark, stylized, daring, slender, austere, loose, and gorgeous. A masterpiece of cinema both in terms of visual splendor and storytelling. The last truly great Disney film, the absolute peak of American hand-drawn animation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weebl's CAT FACE.

Cat Face, he's got a big cat face. He's got the face of a cat and the body of a cat. He flies through the air, because he has a cat's face, it's Cat Face.

There's a lot of random, surreal stuff on the internet, much of it interchangeable. Very little of it really lasts or is deserving of more than a brief moment of being the meme supreme. How Is Babby Formed? does not really reward repeated viewings; Badger, Badger, Badger stops being funny pretty quickly.

But Cat Face-- from the some mind that gave us Badger, Badger, Badger-- is different. Cat Face, I keep coming back to. What sets it apart, besides the precision of the title character's stilted syntax and the enormous range of its pop culture references, is that its hero is very much a cat, and acts very much like a cat. Too many cartoon animals are really people in disguise, with a human's thought processes, desires, and actions. Cat Face does not act like a cat-shaped person, but rather possesses a cat's innate selfishness, instinctual behaviours, and peculiar sense of logic. The series gets a lot of mileage out of its protagonist's very specific way of looking at and dealing with the world.

And, interestingly, he's also the straight man at the center of it all, surrounded by a cast of loonies and archetypes: Old Lady, a geriatric pensioner who he abducts off the street; Posh Tom, who is always ROOT-ing through his garbage; Face Cat, a surreal (and seriously creepy yet also kind of endearing) doppelganger; Box Cat, who embodies a very particular part of the feline experience; and, um, Mr. So-Called Gordon Ramsay. Yes, that Gordon Ramsay.

So, it's that sort of show. The quality can sometimes get a bit uneven-- I couldn't stop cringing through the makeover episode, for one-- but at its prime, it's head-and-shoulders above pretty much every other Flash-animated series on the internet. I think it's very much worth your time, especially if you've any affection for felis catus.

Watch it here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


(Disclosure: I became a "Facebook Friend" of Mr. Mauck's shortly after seeing his picture.)

Straight To the Bone is one of the most satisfying pictures, indie or studio, American or foreign, that I've seen this year. It bears some formal similarities to the casual shaky-cam oh-my-god-look-how-real-it-is school that's started to metastasize in American independent films, but it's more patient with its characters and their moment-to-moment interactions without getting lazy or dull, because it is also more attentive. The dialogue and plot, while very much improvised, is at the same time tremendously focused and direct: people don't waste a lot of time talking around things in Straight To the Bone, but rather discuss them frankly, openly, honestly, articulately, perhaps even didactically, but always in an adult way, cutting-- well, straight to the bone.

If the great thematic burden of many independent films is post-collegiate apprehension about the future, Straight To the Bone registers the profound disappoint that sets in when you realize you haven't made the life you wanted for yourself. In this way, the film-- despite some amusing moments-- is not a comedy. It's not a bauble or a trifle; it does not indulge the antics of the arrestedly-developed and well-intentioned but rather insists that actions (and inactions) have consequences. It's a heavy film, weighty, serious-minded, as thick and densely-packed as other American indies are light and loose.

It is a major work, and I suggest you see it as soon as you are able.

Monday, July 26, 2010

In Case There Was Any Doubt...

I, Tom Russell, the sole author and copyright holder of the stories collected in Seven Romances, on this 26th day of July, 2010, hereby reiterate and for all time bequeath and declare that certain specific rights to these works to the public domain, these being the non-exclusive rights for any individual anywhere to adapt any or all of those works into the cinematic medium, taking any form their adapters desire-- feature or short, video or film, silent or sound, faithful or loose, for profit or not, asking only in return that the credit "adapted from Seven Romances by Tom Russell" appear in the onscreen credits (opening or closing).

Friday, July 23, 2010


As filmmakers and film bloggers, we tend to shy away from rambling on about what's going on in our lives; first of all, who really cares?, and secondly, isn't that what twitter is for? That said, I hope you'll forgive me a few paragraphs while I talk about my grandfather. He died this past Sunday, at the age of seventy-two.

He was a difficult man. He was stubborn and ornery, and for a good many years, he subsided on a diet of cigarettes, beer, and ice cream. I'm not exaggerating very much; sometimes, sure, he'd ask my grandmother to make him something or run to the store. Let's say, for example, that he asked for some fish from Arthur Treacher's. She'd buy him the fish, he would take two or three bites, and then throw the rest out-- much to her chagrin. Other than that, he wouldn't eat, save for a bowl of ice cream.

He smoked a carton of cigarettes on most days; the dark wooden ashtray he kept next to his blue-cushioned rocking chair would be stacked with butts. The very sight of it would make me nauseous. And as for the beer, he'd go through three or four cases a week. While I have memories of my grandfather, while I don't have a shortage for personal anecdotes-- some remembered, some that I've forgotten but that have since become one of those family myths that get retold precisely when it's the most embarrassing time to do so-- the thing I remember most is the continuity of his regimen. The visual image that comes to mind when I think of my grandfather is always of him sitting in his stained blue chair, wearing two or three heavy flannel shirts even in the summer, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another, the ashtray heaping full, watching the Travel Channel. Always, always, always watching the Travel Channel.

As he drank more heavily, he gave my grandmother more hell, and to make a long story shorter, they made the Lockhorns look like Romeo and his Juliet. Not that my grandfather was ever physically violent. He was intractable in his opinions, even and especially if they had no basis in fact; he would crank up the heat in the middle of the summer, complaining of phantom chills; he would insult her, call her names, yell at her; he seldom bathed; he was seldom sober and thus very seldom was he lucid.

And then, one day, he stopped drinking (and smoking). It wasn't too long after Mary and I got married that he was admitted to the hospital and the doctors told him, if you don't stop now, you're going to die and soon. And so he stopped. That old wooden ashtray was removed and he got a nicotine inhaler, which he gnawed on almost constantly. The lack of beer made him more talkative, more aware, more lucid, but only slightly: he was stone-cold sober when he told us how he and his brother escaped Nazi Germany by hiding in caves and outrunning a tornado, this despite the fact that he was born in 1938 in Michigan.

I had hoped, when he had stopped drinking, that he would soften; somewhere in my brain, I had the idea that those qualities that made him hard to get along with weren't really his qualities, that they were the fault of the bottle. I think part of it is the romantic notion that there was no way my grandmother would have fallen for such an ornery son-of-a-gun. So, I was slightly dismayed when all those unpleasant traits and behaviours become much worse in those last few years of his life: he became more stubborn, neglected his hygiene more drastically, was prone to more outbursts of temper. And his poor health and dietary habits made him at once more helpless and more demanding, and thus more exasperating.

As I said before, a difficult man. Never very easy to get along with. And I'd love to tell you about the time he cut a leech off of my foot with his pocket-knife, to show you those moments of tender kindness that might redeem him in your eyes, that might convince you to love him as we loved him. But I'm not going to do that. We loved him, but it wasn't in spite of him; it wasn't all due to some tiny moment or memory of a time when he was acting out-of-character.

This reminds me of a teacher I had in high school who said his wife often asked him why he loved her, and he always replied that he couldn't give her a reason. For if his love was contingent on some quality she possessed, what would happen to his love when she possessed it no longer? If he loved her for her beauty, what happens when it fades? If he loved her for her intellect, what happens when she slid into senility. For it to really be love, he said, it couldn't be love for a reason. (A year or two after my graduation, I heard that she divorced him; it absolutely wrecked him.)

I don't know about that, exactly, as it makes love sound kind of mystical and far-away. I think we choose to love people; I think we invest ourselves in them emotionally, that we choose to forgive or exaggerate their faults or their assets. At the same time, I can't tell you the reason I chose to love my grandfather; I can't tell you why, as he got more difficult to get along with, I did not allow his place in my heart to be overcome with the sort of vicious apathy that resides where my love for my mother once did. I can't say why I loved my grandfather, only that the same qualities that made me so angry with him must also, perversely, be the same qualities that inspired my affection and, as of late, my grieving.

The way he died inspired the same mixture of feelings. His nose began bleeding and would not stop. My grandmother told him to go to the hospital, to get it cauterized. He refused. No matter how many times she asked, no matter how stringently she insisted, he remained as stubborn as ever, and he continued bleeding for the next twenty-four hours. At any time, he could have went to the hospital to get it taken care of. By the time he finally came around and allowed himself to be admitted for treatment, he had lost over four pints of blood. It was too late to save him.

My grandfather, who had somehow survived enough lung and kidney damage to fill an entire cancer ward, bled to death out of sheer stubbornness. That was the kind of man he was.

I miss him.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Tom's book Seven Romances-- a collection of less than eight but more than six love stories-- is going out-of-print August 1. It is not likely to go back in print any time soon-- if at all. If you want a copy, now's the time to buy it. It's $10 for 99 pages of bitterness, despair, and kinky Amish lesbian sex.

Filmmakers might be interested to know that they can adapt any or all of the seven romances into any film, short or feature, without paying a single cent. Well, that is, a single cent in royalties or adaptation rights. You would, after all, have to have a copy of the book, and the only way to get your hands on that is to buy one before August 1.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rantasmo's NEEDS MORE GAY.

Our real-life friend Jamie Maurer, alias Rantasmo, is doing a very entertaining yet characteristically thoughtful series of media and pop-cultural analysis video essays, Needs More Gay, at After Elton. They are, as the kids say, NSFW.

The most recent episode is about Gregg Araki's Teenage Apocalypse trilogy:

Previous episodes have covered drag queen movies and Japanese culture.

There's a new video every Wednesday. Check 'em out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A while back, I mentioned that Lucas McNelly is seeking crowd-funding for his new film Up Country.

Now, again, as I've said before, I've always been kind of wary of crowd-funding, but (as I also said before) if ever I had the moolah to give, I'd want to give it to McNelly: a passionate, smart, effective filmmaker who doesn't just talk about the independent film community, but has done his damnedest to make it happen. This is the bloke who programmed the Indies-For-Indies screening series, an ultimately quixotic but none-the-less heroic effort to bring truly independent films to Pittsburgh, with the filmmakers in question getting a cut of the ticket sales.

A real gentleman, this McNelly, and he's eight hundred dollars short of his fund-raising goal with fifty hours left to go. The way this Kickstarter thing works is, if they don't hit their goal, they don't get a single cent. So, if you have some spare change, and you want to help this very interesting filmmaker make his second feature, here's the link.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

THE SCOTTISH PLAY: Getting Ready To Boogie.

Those of you who know us/have been following our filmmaking misadventures for a while know that we've spent most of the last two years trying to make a film called Olivia Forever!!, a film that, for a number of reasons, never quite came together and that we finally decided to abandon for the time being (we plan to return to it down the road). That decision left us (not to mention our rather peevish actors) in a bit of lurch as we cast about for a new project.

And, to make a long story short, we've found it: a very Russellian take on William Shakespeare's play concerning a certain thane of Scotland. We won't reveal too much about said take at this stage in the game, except to say that, no, it won't be one of those stupid "Ooh, look, there's a motorcycle in this Shakespeare adaption" bull-crap-a-thons, nor will we be setting certain monologues in a video store. It's a film version that will not abide disrespecting Shakespeare, even if we have no qualms about adding a few sight gags and pratfalls into what is already conventionally regarded as the bard's most knee-slappingly hilarious play.

We're very early in pre-production-- still haven't cast a single role, though we have some inklings-- but we're very excited and hoping to shoot in the autumn.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Three Galvanic Films.

There are films you like, films you love obsessively, films that you come back to again and again-- and then there are the films that make you feel like John Keats when he took that first look at Chapman's Homer. These galvanic films are immeasurably important on a deeply personal level, and I wrote a bit about one of those films, Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, yesterday.

In that spirit, I thought it might be nice to tell you about three other films, of the select and elite few, that resonated with Tom deeply as both a viewer and an artist. Here, then, in roughly the order I discovered them, is a personal look at my galvanic films.
As I wrote over at Hammer To Nail last year, Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack was, for better or worse, the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. More than that, it was the first film in which I was intensely aware of the director, of cinema being a potentially personal and idiosyncratic art form. This awareness didn't come out of any profound appreciation of his style, but of the sheer messiness of the film, the way, as I said in that Hammer To Nail piece, you can almost see the slightly-smudged tape holding the film strip together. There was something appealing and charming about its hand-made-ness, about its lack of polish, and it's that same vibe we try to capture with the deliberately "doubled-up" noisy sound of Son of a Seahorse, and that same film's hand-made animatronics (by Steampunk Legend Jake Hildebrandt).

Before I saw Olivier's Henry V, I had little use for pageantry in films. I was one of those twits who went into a film looking for the "meaning"-- that is, a neatly-encapsulate theme or thesis-- and disdained any digression therefrom. There was no film, I was convinced, that couldn't be twenty minutes shorter. What an idiot I was!

After Henry V held me in its spell, I was able to appreciate aesthetic beauty in its own right, art for its own sake, able to enjoy films moment-to-moment as an experience rather than hovering over it like it was some kind of exercise. While this aesthetic sense-- so vital to appreciating film as an art, and art, period!-- is one that was developed more exquisitely by other films, particularly those of Powell & Pressburger, this is the film that first showed me what I had been missing in all the intervening years.

I feel so much pity for those poor souls (several of them film critics) who never had a film that did to them what Henry V did to me.
Ivan Passer's Born To Win, with its whiplash tonal shifts, loose clothesline of a plot, and unique structure (more on that in just a moment) feels like it's just barely being held together by George Segal's dynamo of a performance. But that's just the point: Segal's world is coming apart at the seams, and his scheming hairdresser junkie is acutely aware that he's living on borrowed time.

Structurally, the film unfolds in movements-- ten or twenty minute blocks of scenes dealing with this aspect, than that one, rather than the intercut-all-the-various-characters-and-threads school that's long been the norm. It's something that I like a lot about Passer's film, something that we've very consciously done in our own work.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've seen Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West about, oh, a dozen times now, most recently two days before my birthday in the company of nine friends who had never seen it before. Of those nine, five liked it and four were, well, not quite so enamored, likely turned off by its eccentric structure and length.

Anyone who's seen Son of a Seahorse can no doubt attest to that's picture peculiar structure and sense of time, and I'm not being pretentious when I say that our little character comedy was deeply influenced by Leone's film. Indeed, it's one of those films that changed my entire perspective on cinema, changed my conception of what films are and can be. Understand, I'm not saying that it was merely a good or even great film, but that I'm talking about something more galvanic: it fundamentally changed me as a human being, and I can only think of about a dozen or so films that have done that.

And because it's such an important film for me, and because its treatment of time, space, and story structure is something I find consistently astonishing, I sometimes forget that one of the other things that sets it apart from Leone's other westerns is that it is in many ways a feminist film.

This will surprise those who argue that spaghetti westerns are inherently misogynistic: But wait, they say, what about, oh, the aborted half-rape scene with Charles Bronson? What about the skeezy sex scene with Henry Fonda? What about the way she's forced into selling her home, the way in which she's completely dependent on and victimized by these men of violence? Cardinale's character is in many ways a pawn, bandied about and caught in the middle.

The film depicts a world in which women had few options and no power; isn't that, then, the very thing feminism seeks to correct? It registers with great empathy her desperation to stay alive; it shares in her frustrated impotence. The film, through her eyes, shows us what is terrible and frightening about violence. Compare this to Leone's earlier westerns. They might not make the always-named man-with-no-name a hero, but because he is, by dint of his sheer awesome bad-assery, the character to which our sympathies are most aligned, his violence isn't particularly scary.

Compare this with Bronson-- the closest thing to an Eastwood character the film has. The character has two moments of absolute brutality: the aforementioned stripping and almost-rape of Cardinale and the savage torture-- much tsk-tsk'd by Alex Cox in his, er, idiosyncratic spaghetti western book 1,000 Ways To Die-- of the dude in suspenders.

If the Eastwood characters of the Dollars trilogy had committed actions like these, it would have killed our sympathies for the character. He would cease to be a bad-ass and start to be a truly reprehensible monster (a slippery slope that I'm finding to be explored quite interestingly, by-the-by, in the PS3 game God of War III). And that would have killed those films. Not that, to be clear, I need or prefer the lollipop of likability in my protagonists, but because the Dollars films in particular (unlike the more meditative Once Upon a Time) are entertainments, dealing in delightful and exquisite surface pleasures first and substance second.

If Once Upon a Time in the West is more substantial, it's because our sympathies, our point-of-view, are most closely aligned with Cardinale. It's really her film, and we regard the men in it, from Fonda to Bronson, through her eyes; we view their violence through her eyes. Just as the male gaze is often present in films even when there isn't a male present to do the gazing, this female gaze-- terrified, trapped, bristling against her place in life and wanting better-- is present even in scenes, like the family massacre or the torture of the man in suspenders, when Cardinale is nowhere to be seen.

Cardinale's presence in the film is what allows the violence to hit us harder and deeper, and what allows us to experience a kind of emotional journey that Leone's earlier epic cartoons-- no matter how pleasurable and iconic those assured masterpieces are-- just weren't capable of.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Three Films By Kentucker Audley

I find it difficult to write about Kentucker Audley's films,
not because I have nothing to say,
but because I don't have words for it.

These slender sixty-minute features
feel strangely timeless,
languid and elliptical in the same breath,
making no points, but simply observing,
simply observing.

These three films are distinct:
Team Picture, a comedy,
Open Five, thick with Memphis,
Holy Land, as prickly as its "hero",
experimental and profane and smoking too much
and yet and yes, holy.

But all three also blend together.
But all three also are Audley's.

They remind me of the only poet worth a damn,
they remind me of William Carlos Williams
and his wheelbarrow of rain water
and his so sweet and so cold plums.

Concrete, brief, bold, naive, fresh, true:
image and sound, voice and body,
time and moment,
without addition
without imposition
yet also not without author:
the films are very much his,
the films are very much him.

For a filmmaker like myself
who analyzes and argues,
(and overanalyzes and overargues)
it's a magic trick I can't untangle
one I can't break down into wires and handkerchiefs
one I regard with burning envy.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

McNelly and Motlagh and Bears, Oh My!

Well, no bears, actually. Sorry.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly, whose first feature Blanc De Blanc I found so impressive, is trying to raise funding for his second, Up Country, via Kickstarter. I've always been kinda dubious when it comes to filmmakers asking strangers to donate money, but if ever I was going to chip in on one of these things, it'd be for McNelly's film: his first one is that good, and for an all-too-brief stretch of time he programmed an ambitious but poorly-attended series of independent films, Indies For Indies. This is a guy who's actually given back to the independent community that is so often so callously invoked by people trying to guilt you into funding their film. He's the real deal, and if you've got a few bucks to spare, you might want to consider chipping in.

Amir Motlagh, whose film whale was the subject of one of my early reviews, recently announced via twitter that his film is going to be available via IndieFlix starting June 22, on YouTube Rentals starting July 6, and then on Netflix later in the year. It's really exciting that his film, which is undeniably personal, idiosyncratic, and experimental, is going to be readily available to a wider audience. I highly recommend seeing it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


A.A. Dowd, a critic we respect as much for his biting prose as his discerning taste, wrote a review of Son of a Seahorse. And, to be sure, it ain't a rave; the notice is mixed with a definite lean towards the negative. And while of course we have a different opinion about the film's success or worth, we still really dug the review because he gets us, he understands where we're coming from, and it does give a prospective viewer a pretty good idea of what the film is like and whether or not they think they're going to dig it.

The Russells are [not] cut from any shape or variety of traditional Hollywood cloth. These two are loud and proud indie guerillas. They favor marathon takes and lengthy digressions, long shots and longer conversations. It's tempting to lump them into the mumblecore camp, except their sense of humor is somehow both drier and broader, with an affinity for garish caricatures and bizarro non-sequitors.


If Son of a Seahorse often seems like a different movie scene to scene, its saving grace is its uniting principle: that marriage is the most rewarding pain in the ass you'll ever willfully subject yourself to. It's hard not to have a certain affection for any film that deals with married life in a way that's neither cloying nor rigorously cynical. The Russells, husband and wife filmmakers with a word or two to share on the subject, invest their hit-or-miss comic enterprise with an endearing breadth of genuine feeling.

Read more here.

The new DVD will be coming soonish, double-pinkie-swear promise.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Murdering is funnier than killing.

A good low-budget director is above all able to adapt (and aptly) to whichever circumstances should arise. For example: in The Man Who Loved, there was a scene that featured pretty much every member of the cast, and it took us a lot of hoop-jumping to find a day that worked for everyone. And so imagine our dismay when almost everyone showed up-- that is, everyone but one, who was to be something of a major focus in the scene. There was no way we could reschedule the scene, and so we redistributed her dialogue to other characters and lamp-shaded her absence. And doing so actually helped us focus on what the scene was actually about.

Similarly, we're more than happy to rewrite lines for an actor, to make it flow more naturally for them, to let them put their own spin (and thus their own selves) into it. At the same time, our writing aims to be flavourful and precise, and thus somewhat immutable: you might be able to preserve the meaning of the words and the underlying emotion, but changing the words changes the feel of the words, the rhythm, the timbre, and-- when writing comedy-- the funny.

There's a line in Olivia Forever!! in which Olivia refers to her Halloween costume from "the two years previous"; Adrienne often flipped the word order to "the two previous years". Now, both versions mean the same thing, but "the two years previous" has a slightly dry or academic feel that communicates something about the character and her personal style. "The two previous years" communicates nothing but the facts; all the flavour is lost. And, this being a film about the hazards of idiosyncrasy, and Olivia being a character who derives a great deal of pleasure from verbiage, it was important that we preserve that flavour, and so this was one case in which we couldn't let it be rephrased. The punchline to all this? We ended up cutting the entire scene-- including the line-- anyway.

Not that, again, our scripts are considered holy and untouchable. We're constantly cutting and revising, looking for ways to punch it up, to be more precise, more flavourful. Recently, we were going over the following dialogue in rehearsal:

RODNEY: And you weren't planning on killing me?
OLIVIA: It hadn't occurred to me.
RODNEY (mishearing): It had?
OLIVIA (louder, clearer): Hadn't.

And it occurred to us that the word "killing" got the meaning across, but didn't have much flavour.

"Let's change that to murdering," we said: "'murdering' is a funnier word than 'killing'."

We crossed it out and they read it over again: it did, indeed, seem funnier. The word was more precise, communicating more of a sense of deliberate violence, which will hopefully stand in stronger and more comedic contrast to the polite, friendly tenor of the conversation. And it's a more flavourful word: "killing" starts strong but quickly becomes a slippery mush of l-sounds that mumble their way into "ing"; "murdering", by contrast, consists of three distinct syllables, the first two of which rhyme and are expelled forcefully outward: nothing soft, lilting, or indistinct about it.

It is, in our estimating, just the right word.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Best Sentence Ever.

John Adams finished off his inaugural address with a truly epic sentence. It can be summed up as "If all these things are qualifications for the job, then I'll be President and I'll do my best." But, as in most things, summing it up takes the beauty out of it. Take your time, don't skim, and enjoy the ride:

"On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the State governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect."

Saturday, May 01, 2010

TURTLENECK # 1: THE MAN WHO LOVED (2007, the Russells)

There's something wrong with Sarah. Something inside her that she doesn't quite understand. Her husband, George, hopes it'll just go away on its own. But his passivity only seems to make things worse.

A tense yet delicate portrait of a marriage in crisis, The Man Who Loved is directed by wife-and-husband filmmakers Mary and Tom Russell with verve, humour, honesty, and an eye for everyday beauty.

+ Directors' commentary.
+ Trailers for future Turtleneck releases Son of a Seahorse (# 2) and Olivia Forever!!
+ Cinema du Kitteh: a collection of three 2006 shorts (Cat Singles, Cat-astrophe, and The Invaders From Above) created by the Russells and starring the feline thespians of The Man Who Loved.

You can purchase this film either through CreateSpace or Amazon. The cost to you is the same either way, $15, but CreateSpace gives us a significantly larger royalty-- $7.80 per disc, as opposed to Amazon's $3.30.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


This film is a period piece, taking place in 2004, and we've been pretty stringent about avoiding anachronisms, with one exception. That exception is the presence of Immortal Defense, Paul Eres's astonishing 2007 tower defense game (it's definitely worth the $9.99, but if you're unsure, download the free demo-- it's over thirty levels). With Paul's kind permission, we wrote his game into our script. Today we shot that scene.

Sometimes, the appearance of one work of art nestled within another makes perfect sense. Look at, for example, Reign Over Me; Shadow of the Colossus, and its motifs/imagery of collapsing giants, fits perfectly within the context of Sandler's 9/11 trauma.

Olivia Forever!! and Immortal Defense don't quite fit in that way; thematically, our little bauble and Paul's philosophical/metaphysical science fiction are miles apart. But in the scene itself, a comparison is made between Olivia and the game. It's not a particularly deep comparison-- it doesn't reveal anything new about the character-- but it carries tremendous significance for the character making the comparison, becomes a cherished memory, a part of their story, a token of love.

There's been some fresh hullabaloo about whether or not games are art. And while that's never been a question for me, while I've always come down squarely on the Art side of the argument, I can say that one characteristic of art is that it is potentially transformative: it can transform us, or be transformed by us, given a significance in our lives that even its creators might not have intended. Mary and Tom first met, first spoke, first bonded over a mutual appreciation of Taxi Driver-- hardly a romantic film, but one that is forever tied to our story and our lives, just as Immortal Defense will always be part of Tedward's and Olivia's, a totem to a time and a feeling, lush and sensuous, bursting with colour and light and possibility.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

OLIVIA FOREVER!!: The Halloween Party.

On Friday, we got another twenty seconds in the can. If that doesn't sound particularly promising, well, it is and it isn't.

The shoot in question was for a cut-away gag. The movie's going along, a scene's in progress, someone mentions something that gets us into this scene, scene does it's thing (ha!), and we're back to the original scene. We have a couple of these sorts of gags planned, one of which involves a Sasquatch we're still in the process of trying to acquire without spending too much money.

That's a tricky thing, actually: part of how we can justify making films of perhaps limited commercial appeal is that we make it out of our own pocket, and part of how we can justify making films out of our own pocket when we don't have that much in our pocket to begin with is that we make our films cheaply and quickly. We pride ourselves on being the scrappy low-budget filmmakers. Our most expensive film to date cost under five hundred dollars. And so we can't in good conscience justify spending almost as much for a Sasquatch costume that's going to have at most thirty seconds of screen-time, even if perhaps those thirty seconds would be worth it.

The shoot we had on Friday, this cut-away gag Halloween Party shoot, hardly cost us anything in terms of dough (which, of course, we like) but did take a lot of preparation and planning and coordinating of schedules. Our actors aren't getting paid for their work and have day jobs; finding a day that two actors have in common for a rehearsal and shoot is sometimes a chore. Finding a day when a third can join them can be nearly impossible. Having learned this lesson in the past, we like to write around "guest stars"-- limiting most actors to one really good scene. See, for example, Son of a Seahorse, where we did this extensively.

But this film, and this scene, aren't really amenable to that approach. For the Halloween Party to be convincing, we needed it to look like a party. And so, in addition to our two leads, we had planned on seven background characters. I'm not going to call them "extras", because it's vaguely dehumanizing. And, having worked on a few horror sets as an extra, I can vouch that most directors treated me and my fellow extras like cattle, flesh-and-blood cogs in place to realize their vision. And if I ever treat a fellow human being like that, I hope someone punches me in the God-damn face.

So: background characters. Seven of them. We even had a bio in mind for each, what their relationships were with one another, et cetera. Not because the viewer would pick any of that up-- it is, again, only a twenty second shot, with the focus squarely on the two leads-- but because it would give the actors something to do rather than stand there bored out of their wits.

I confirmed the day before the shoot with some of them and the day of the shoot with the others. One I saw in person less than two hours before the shoot. You can probably see where this is going: of the seven, only two showed up. We were so disheartened that we didn't give our two background actors their bios, as it's a little hard to explain a web of relationships between just two people.

We, of course, made due, as that's what you have to do when you're the scrappy low-budget filmmaker. We even put Tom in the shot, his face obscured by a Virtual Boy, so that we'd have a third background character. Because we're a two person crew, this necessitated balancing the boom mike rather precariously on a light-stand. We shot about a dozen takes in about as many minutes, turned out the shop-lights and watched one of those aforementioned horror movies in which the lowly extras were treated so poorly. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and when we were done, we had twenty seconds of footage.

And over the weekend, we were faced with that fact-- we had expended a lot of time and energy for twenty seconds of footage. We have a shoot coming up on Wednesday that might net us another thirty, maybe forty. We're lucky if we get a shoot a week-- usually something comes up with one actor or another and we have a week or two with nothing. And so getting these tiny little fragments for a feature-length film, well, it's a little maddening, no doubt about it. It's a long ways from Seahorse, where we'd typically shoot ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

At the same time, we're kinda consciously trying to shoot all this small stuff now so that it makes it into the film. We've been working on this film for so long that we just want to be done with it; if we shot all the major (i.e., long) scenes, we might just declare the film done before we've shot the little piecemeal stuff. We'll say, "Well, we don't really need it", and maybe we really don't. I mean, you don't really need anything-- there's always a way to make it work, and one should always be flexible.

We don't need a Halloween party cut-away gag, and we don't need a Sasquatch, but at the same time they add something to the film, and they're things that we want. By shooting them now, with all these other, bigger, more necessary scenes still ahead of us, we ensure that they don't get lost in our eventual frustration and apathy.

At the same time, we want to cut down on that frustration and apathy, and so we're aiming to alternate some of these little shoots with some bigger ones. And maybe even doing two shoots a week, if we can.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Four Things I Noticed About HATARI!

Somehow, Tom had gone his entire life without ever seeing Hatari!, the 1962 Howard Hawks film, something which his Mary, who had seen the film several times, remedied this evening. It's a remarkable film, one that I look forward to seeing many, many times in the future. But four things stuck out during this first viewing, those being:

-- How episodic the film is. While each scene and sequence definitely exists in the context of the others, you don't get the sense of some arbitrary over-arching thing or some sort of threat; there's no headlong rush towards some kind of final confrontation. The film ends when the hunting season ends. There's a lot of attention to process, and I wonder how many procedurals, police and otherwise, would benefit from a more episodic structure.

-- Also, how languid the film is. It's two-and-a-half hours, takes its time, is unhurried. It reminds me of something Capra once said about It Happened One Night, which had opened as a flop both critically and commercially before slowly building word-of-mouth: "People found the film longer than usual and, surprise, funnier, much funnier than usual. But, biggest surprise of all, they could remember in detail a good deal of what went on in the film and they found that everybody else did and that it was great fun talking about this and that scene. And let's go see it again and take the Johnsons." I think films that are longer than usual are funnier, more exciting, and more memorable than usual because they are long. The extra time gives you more of a sense of the characters, of the setting, gives you a greater feel for the work.

-- That said, there are some characters that I'd like to have a little less time with. After the first ninety minutes or so, Red Buttons start to wear awfully thin.

-- And somewhere around the ninety minute mark, the film transforms from lots-of-manly-action plus comedy to lots-of-comedy plus manly action, and, the gratingness of Red Buttons aside, I had no problem with this shift. In fact, it felt right, and part of that I think has to do with qualities number one and two-- how episodic and long the film is. Those qualities give the film the freedom to shift gears, to build in another direction. It's not merely a matter of "mixing" genres, of shoehorning one into another, but of shifting them smoothly, of creating enough room for something else.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Stumbling Towards "Brand".

Like a lot of filmmakers who got into this crazy, quixotic enterprise with art, as opposed to commerce, in mind, we've struggled with the m-word. No, not that m-word. The other m-word. Marketing.

And though one of us recently affixed his name to what some could term an anti-marketing screed, it must be said that we've never really been against marketing. It's an important tool, a means to an end, that end being, butts in the seats or, more accurately, DVDs in players.

Last year, we released two of our films on DVD. The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment of 2009 was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. We weren't expecting to turn a profit, or even frankly to break even-- at a three dollar royalty per disc, we'd have to have sold a lot of discs to even come close. For us, success was designated as, getting the films out there to people instead of continuing to create in a vacuum. Creating in a vacuum is the most frustrating, most alienating thing, and we wanted to break out of that. Having sold less than a dozen discs between two films in the space of a year, I would say that we're still in that vacuum.

A big part of this, I think, was a failure of marketing. There are a lot of indie filmmakers out there, like us, toiling away in obscurity, like us, pestering critics and bloggers to watch their films, like us, having nothing to show for it, like us. And they're using Createspace, just like we are, and sending everyone the more "legitimate" Amazon link, just like we did, and hoping that they'll plop down "X" number of dollars on an unknown entity.

And, being on twitter and frequenting various indie blogs, I've been on the other side of this-- I've followed the link to that Amazon page, read the description, glanced at the cover, and said, "Maybe" instead of "Yes." And to be honest with ourselves, if we had no knowledge of our films, if we were just following a link and looking at the cover, we would have "maybe'd" ourselves.

And so, the first goal of The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment, 2010 Edition, is to correct that. We want to remove "maybe" from the equation. We might not get "yes"-- after all, this isn't exactly a booming economy we're living in-- but we'll settle for "I'm adding this to my list".

Part of this involves getting some reviewers to pay attention to our stuff-- something we're getting slightly (if only slightly!) better at. Part involves making sure the marketing materials are eye-catching, distinctive, attractive, and memorable-- something which, as you're about to see, I think we have gotten better at. And part of it involves creating/defining our "brand"-- and, yes, I did throw up in my mouth a little just typing that, and, yes, we feel queasy talking about ourselves as some kind of commodity someone's about to synergize through an aggressive new media paradigm. But if we're going to be successful at all this time around-- not necessarily financially successful, as even at our most optimistic I don't see us turning a profit from filmmaking in the near future, but in terms of introducing eyeballs to films-- it's going to be through promoting not individual films but a body of work by two idiosyncratic but capable artisans.

We hope/feel that our new approach will encompass all of these aspects, and, acting according to the theory that seeing all the wires makes the trick charming and true instead of irritating and false, we'd like to explain point-by-point how we're trying to address these goals through our DVD cover design for the new editions of The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse, which should be releasing in May and June, respectively.

A. The Front Cover Image. Our biggest mistake the first time around was that our front cover images were not particularly compelling.

Look at the front cover for the old Man Who Loved DVD: it's just a close-up of Adrienne Patterson's face. And, don't get us wrong, it's a nice face (hi Adrienne!), even when contorted into such an awful expression, but it doesn't really catch your eye.

Generally speaking, close-ups of faces are a mistake in DVD cover and poster design. It works for studios because studios don't have faces, they have stars. Take a picture of Johnny Depp wearing a hat and you can guarantee "x" number of butts-in-seats, because people will come out to see Johnny Depp (brand loyalty). Johnny Depp is a marketable commodity. Adrienne Patterson and David Schonscheck are, at this time, not. Putting their face and only their face on a DVD isn't going to interest anyone, and we know this because last year we put their faces and only their faces on our DVDs. It makes the whole thing look cheap and kinda fly-by-night: not the sort of vibe you want a potential viewer to have. So if there's one thing we want our fellow indie filmmakers to take away from this piece, it's that.

Our new front covers, on the other hand, are dominated by a strong visual element. One that, hopefully, gives you some feeling for the film and makes you want to see it. Said visual element also doubles as a typographical element, with the hand and the seahorse each bearing the title of the film. Without the title, the image falls apart, becomes less striking, less dynamic.

B. The Name. Turtleneck Films, right in the upper right hand corner. We considered putting the full website address on the front cover, but it definitely detracted, looked too messy. And I think just "Turtleneck Films" does the trick about as well-- the first thing you're going to find if you google those two words next to each other is this website. So, if A is intended to catch the eye and stop you from dismissing us, B is intended to give you somewhere to go to learn more.

Now, if someone is browsing Amazon or Createspace or wherever, this is all they're going to see before deciding whether or not they want to buy it. All they give you is the front cover. So, if the front cover is intended to persuade would-be buyers, while the rest is intended to make you repeat customers, to keep checking out our stuff.

C. The Spine Number. Probably the smartest thing Criterion ever did, marketing-wise, was putting a number on a spine. The best boutique labels, from Benten to Dragon Dynasty, all employ the spine number to lend a certain amount of prestige-- which, being us, we're careful to undercut with our cute little cartoon turtle.

You'll notice that said turtle's neck wraps around to the front cover. This is to intended to emphasize the spine number. You've just bought the DVD, you look at the front cover, see the neck, follow it to the spine, see the number. This is also why we moved the spine number from its traditional location-- the bottom-- to the top. We want you to see that spine, to see that # 2 so that you look into # 1 and look forward to # 3. More than a mark of prestige, a spine number is a canny form of advertising.

D. The Personal Touch. In many ways, we need this to try and balance out the pretension and impersonality inherent in utilizing a spine number. We are two people, and only two people, bereft even of interns to abuse, shooting these films in our home, using the computer in our rather drafty back-room to design the cover art, create the menus, beg and plead with the software when it decides inexplicably to stop working. We do pretty much everything ourselves, and we're well aware that emphasizing this fact-- the mom-and-pop, cottage-industry, folk-art and craft-show vibe-- will endear us to some.

E. Added Value. If you ask someone to spend $15-20 on a bare-bones DVD of a low-budget self-distributed film that they haven't heard much of anything about, let's face it, they're not going to bite. But if you give them some bonus materials, they might be more willing. Commentary tracks and shorts indicate that you've taken time, and thus helps to combat that nasty "thrown-together fly-by-night" image some people get of independent filmmakers. This might be the little something extra that makes the decision for a potential viewer-- movie + commentary track + shorts is definitely worth $15-20-- which is why we're going to list all the extra features as part of the summary on that Amazon page, and why we're going to emphasize them every chance we get on our own website (which our Potential Viewer found thanks to item B). And if you have more than a few Criterions or Bentens, you're well aware of how supplements can both deepen your appreciation of the film and make you a repeat customer.

A feature you don't find in boutique label releases are trailers, as they detract rather crassly from the whole film-as-art-object vibe. We use them on our DVDs though because (1), it's the best way to get that repeat customer to repeat, and (2) it's not a DVD Company pushing its wares but Tom and Mary, Husband and Wife Filmmakers pointing you in the direction of their other work-- which means that we can get away with it. Apropos (1), I suppose the ideal solution would be Criterion's canny catalogue liner insert/list of titles in numerical order, but our current distribution model doesn't allow for inserts of any kind-- not even a chapter list.

To wrap this up: as filmmakers working outside the festival system, dependent on critics' reviews that, for the most part, haven't been forthcoming, we realized we needed to step up our game. It'd be great if we could just make these films and then send them to a distributor who falls in love with the films and gives us oodles of money so that their boy geniuses can take care of the rest. Graphic design and DVD authoring are time-consuming, not entirely satisfying forms of expression, forms that definitely lack compared to the filmmaking which they exist to support. They're not a necessary "evil"-- they're just necessary.

Hopefully, some of the above will resonate with and be of assistance to other filmmakers who find themselves better-suited to making films than promoting them.