The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Memphis

 

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Tim Sutton’s brilliant and confounding sophomore feature, Memphis (2014), is neither a character study nor a city portrait. Although there’s a sliver of narrative, Memphis is more akin to a haunting visual poem – a kind of ghost story, in which the ghosts never quite become fully manifest. Yet we feel their traces in virtually every shot of this magnificent and stunning film. They are there in the rustling trees and boarded-up wooden shacks, in the distant sound of the trains, in the kinetic energy found in the black church, in the piercing reaction shots of the characters, especially the young kids, and in the tracking shots that don’t so much follow the participants as anticipate their eventual presence within a shot.

At the center of Memphis is an African American musician named Willis (Willis Earl Beal). Following a shot of a kid on a bicycle making faces and muttering as if engaged in an internal dialogue, Willis appears at a TV studio. He needs to clarify whether he’s appearing on radio or television. Once Willis is assured of the medium, he is asked by the white announcer whether he ever dreamed he would achieve such notoriety: producing an album and being in a film. Willis’s answer is completely unexpected. He claims to be a wizard and talks about imagining his success into existence through sorcery. Willis explains: “You create a reality that you envision, you use magic and then the magic comes true, but the magic doesn’t fulfill everything you thought it would fulfill.” The cameraperson looks on impassively, as Willis proclaims: “Life is artifice, man. Everything is all artifice.”

Willis’s remarks, which seem to come from left field, leave the viewer unsure how to interpret his comments. Is Willis some kind of genius or a crazy person? As the film follows him, that question becomes central. Sutton eschews the kind of exposition provided by most conventional narratives. If legibility is central to Hollywood storytelling, Sutton continually undercuts it throughout Memphis. Other characters besides Willis, such as the woman with whom he’s romantically involved or his male buddy, are never identified by name. Nor are we clear about a number of relationships. There’s not so much a story, as a series of incidents or situations involving mostly Willis, who seems to be suffering from a creative block as he wanders around Memphis while his life seems to be falling apart.

After someone gives testimony during a church service, Willis appears at the microphone, but decides not to sing, creating a very awkward moment as the minister looks on. During a visit with his girlfriend, they get into a spat when she calls him crazy. A scene where Willis walks down the street and flaps his arms like a bird and a subsequent meeting with his record producer reinforces that possibility:

WILLIS: I look at the trees. Sometimes I wish I was a tree. You ever wish you were a tree?
RECORD PRODUCER:  Willis . . .
WILLIS: What?
RECORD PRODUCER:  We need a record.
WILLIS: We need to be trees. (he laughs loudly) We need oxygen. The trees give us oxygen (more laughter).

After the producer reacts with genuine frustration, Willis apologizes.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Willis does have real talent. In the recording session that we watch, as they play “Flying So Low,” the guitar player suddenly stops the session to complain that Willis is not following the score. Very annoyed, he yells, “Why was that changed?” Willis admits that he’s probably at fault, but insists, “No, we have to be intuitive about this. I’m an intuitive singer.” He tells him: “It’s got to be amorphous. It can’t just be on the paper.” Finally someone off-screen instructs the musicians, “You just gotta follow him wherever he goes.” The guitar player glowers in response. The scene is reminiscent of what we see in Shirley Clarke’s film on Ornette Coleman, Made in America (1985), where Coleman continually frustrates the musicians with whom he is playing by defying musical conventions.

Other films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) or Kentucker Audley’s Open Five (2010), have used the more well-known aspects of Memphis as a setting, but Sutton has something very different in mind. What he gives us is a view of Memphis as a landscape haunted by its legendary past. Except for a scene on Beale Street, we don’t get a view of the city’s landmarks, but rather its impoverished underside – as it might appear to those who live there. In one scene, the camera holds for several seconds on the face of Willis’s male friend. Afterwards, as the friend plays a board game on a wobbly table, he talks about an experience in which he suddenly realized he had been knifed. Right afterwards, there is a shot of the back of a white Cadillac. The friend gets out of the passenger side and it is revealed that the man is missing a leg as he walks away from the camera on crutches.

In an interview, Sutton explains: “Memphis is a place that is both cursed and blessed. It has the history of many kings but, at the same time, has grass growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. That’s what I wanted to ruminate on and further illustrate. To explore a place that feels like a forgotten Eden, not some tourist’s idea of blues but REAL blues, a world that is mythic and being taken back by the trees and the river and the witnesses who live there.” In depicting this forgotten Eden, about a third of the way through the film, the thin narrative begins to fracture. It’s replaced with impressionistic images: guys talking in a seemingly deserted strip mall, shots of moving clouds and the moon at night, kids riding their mountain bikes, a row of brick houses set amidst very tall trees, and a stunning red filtered image of a young girl sitting by herself in a booth at a rolling skating rink (reminiscent of a Yang Fudong photograph), Willis sitting in the front seat of a car as the windshield wiper clears the rain, or a shot of the white Cadillac from behind as it drives through the streets at night while colorful car lights create strange, diaphanous patterns.

Sutton mixes together different types of narration, continually blending narrative, documentary, and avant-garde modes of filmmaking. Willis, for instance, talks directly into the camera at times, suggesting a verité style of filmmaking. In one noteworthy scene, he espouses his views on glory: “You find glory alone, by yourself, with nobody around. Nobody can hear you. That’s where the glory is found.” Yet Willis continues his tailspin, withdrawing more and more into himself, except for his one-legged friend, while the film continues to digress from the main plotline involving Willis. In one scene, the camera stays on the one-legged man as he slowly buttons his white shirt. After he walks away from his car on crutches and leaves the frame, we see a hand smash the back window with a mallet or hammer. The man returns to his car and peers at the broken window. As he drives through the streets, he looks in the rearview mirror. We watch as shards of glass fall from the broken window. The man later sits alone in the back seat of the parked car and stares at the flame of his lighter for over half a second.

Questions of who smashed the window or why don’t matter to Sutton. In the world he’s portraying, people get stabbed and cars get vandalized. His concerns are actually much more formal, as the description of the scene indicates. Toward the film’s end, the director and his cinematographer, Chris Dapkins, resort to several long tracking shots that again are less concerned with story than with creating visually compelling imagery. Because the film was funded by a $200,000 grant from the Venice Biennale College program, Sutton needed to have a “scriptment” for it, but once he chose the eccentric artist and musician, Willis Earl Beal, for the lead role, the story was subsequently improvised and shaped around the personality of the performer. Sutton explains his open approach on set: “But within the scenes, the people in the film had control over how they acted. I work with real people as real people; I guide them and give them hints, but within the frame it becomes very much about them.”

In terms of Beal, the character in the film bears a resemblance to the musician in certain ways, which helps to collapse the divide between performer and role. Although the film is carefully constructed, especially through Seth Bomse’s masterful editing and various sound and image juxtapositions, Beal inhabits his character in such a natural way that the film feels more observational than scripted. There is a sense that we are watching real people rather than fictional characters. Sutton’s follow-up to his superb Pavilion (2013) is even more layered, formal, and complex. Memphis is a poetic, visual rendition on the blues, a dazzling meditation on a deeply troubled musician in free fall and a mythic American city that has likewise seen better days.

Memphis played at Venice, Sundance, Sarasota, and the Wisconsin Film Festival (where I saw it), and most recently at the BAMcinemaFEST in Brooklyn. The film will be distributed theatrically by Kino Lorber and will be available on VOD for a month through Vimeo.

Posted 8 July, 2014

Something, Anything

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Paul Harrill’s debut feature, Something, Anything (2014), seems like an unlikely independent film. For one thing, it is shot in a fairly conventional style. In addition, it doesn’t deal with either hip or edgy subject matter. Instead, the film is set in the American South – Knoxville, Tennessee, to be exact – and concerns a kind of spiritual journey by a straight, young middle-class protagonist, Peggy (Ashley Shelton), who transforms into a very different person (Margaret) during the course of the film. Harrill’s sensitive and engaging character study reminds me of two other indie films, Hal Hartley’s Trust (1991) and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), in how Peggy’s life seems to be going along smoothly and then suddenly falls apart in ways that prove both deeply moving and sad.

Something, Anything begins with a close-up of dark red nail polish being applied to one of Peggy’s fingernails, an image that becomes a metaphor, not so much for glamour but for a kind of artificial veneer. Harrill sets up the story with an economy of means. When her boyfriend, Mark (Bryce Johnson), pops the big question at dinner, Peggy’s response is strangely shy and reserved, but he immediately places a diamond engagement ring on her nail-polished finger. By the end of the opening credits, the two get married and she becomes pregnant. Eight minutes into the film, Peggy has a miscarriage, which radically alters her life in ways that even she does not fully understand.

Socrates’s adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living” might seem like a truism, but the unfortunate fact is that most people lead unreflective lives. In Hartley’s Trust, for instance, seventeen-year-old Maria gets pregnant by her high school boyfriend, Anthony. She fully expects Anthony to go to college on a football scholarship and then take over his father’s construction business. But when he dumps her, Maria’s life gets turned upside-down, which sets her on a spiritual quest. Peggy is a lot like Maria, but older and even more vulnerable. After her traumatic experience, she finds herself alienated from her husband and soon separates from him. Her parents think her move into a small apartment of her own is merely temporary and offer to pay for a trip to Europe. Peggy’s female friends don’t get it either, and in fact, clearly sympathize and side with Mark.

Peggy works as a realtor, but a number of experiences selling houses during an economic recession cause her to question her choice of a profession. After her boss at the realty company gets her to be complicit in something a bit shady, she abruptly quits her job. Peggy takes a low-paying position shelving books at the local library, which provides her with her own monastic retreat from the world. She cancels her cell phone, dumps all her cosmetics, sells her nice clothes and donates the money, and begins to read the Bible for inspiration.

Peggy receives a short note from the older brother of one of her high school friends, a guy named Tim (Linds Edwards), who turns out to be a monk. Peggy’s curiosity about the life of a monk mimics her own attempt to find some type of meaning in her own life. She impulsively drives three-and-a-half hours to the Abbey at Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery, in Kentucky, only to discover that Tim has recently left. Before she heads back the next day, a kind monk slips her Tim’s address. This potential romantic plotline, however, is a bit of a red herring because the film is more about Peggy trying to find herself rather than someone else. When she finally becomes reacquainted with Tim, who’s into music, she introduces herself as Margaret, suggesting her own change in identity. When Peggy eventually asks him what she should do about her situation, Tim advises her to return to her husband.

Characters in numerous films develop personal crises, but what seems especially poignant about Peggy’s plight is how ill-equipped she is to deal with the fallout. In this sense she’s a lot like Carol White in Safe, someone who has no real personal support network (other than a couple of superficial friends), and thus when she tumbles, she goes into a similar kind of free fall. Harrill proves adept at capturing what it’s like to be someone as lost as Peggy, a Southern woman who tries hard to have a conventional life – to be married and have a family – yet finds herself unfulfilled.

Like Haynes with Safe, Harrill refuses to psychologize his protagonist. Peggy might be going through a struggle of personal identity, but he doesn’t provide us with any type of backstory that would explain her character. Harrill talks about this aspect of the film in an interview with Darren Hughes on Mubi: “For me to identify the crisis she’s going through—for me to label it, or explain it in the terminology of psychology – well, at that point I’ve done three things. First, I’m telling the audience how to understand the character, which I think disrespects the audience. Second, I’ve taken away some of the character’s mystery. And finally, I’ve basically said, ‘I have all the answers, I understand all of this, everything about these characters.’ That’s a lie.”

Part of the success of Something, Anything stems from Harrill’s highly nuanced script, which he developed from improvisations with various actors during the lengthy auditioning process. Shot over the course of a year, Harrill’s film relies heavily on the subtext of the various interactions of the characters. The understated performances by the cast turn out to be a major part of the film’s strength. Ashley Shelton shines as the confused, but inner-directed protagonist, while Linds Edwards displays an utterly convincing sincerity that gives him an endearing quality.

Harrill and his cinematographer, Kunitaro Ohi, opt for conventional coverage of the action by choosing to use mostly medium and close-up shots that keep the story focused on the characters. Yet a couple of individual shots stand out. As Peggy approaches the Abbey, the composition of the shot – a small solitary figure set against an architectural-like background – will no doubt remind viewers of Antonioni’s Eclipse (1962) and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In another scene, Margaret observes the magic of synchronized fireflies at a national park. The scene, which was recorded in natural light rather than through computer generated effects, is one of the film’s wondrous highlights. Harrill’s film feels highly personal and contains an undercurrent of sadness that feels heartbreaking, even though the film ostensibly ends on a more ambiguous but hopeful note.

One of ten films selected for the highly competitive 2013 IFP Narrative Lab, Something, Anything co-premiered at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival (where I saw it) and the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival. The film will have its NYC premiere as part of BAMcinemaFEST on June 26.

Posted 19 June, 2014

It Felt Like Love

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Like Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces (2014), Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love (2014) feels like a memory piece. Fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) lives with her dad (Kevin Anthony Ryan) in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, but hangs out at Rockaway Beach over the course of a summer. In the opening shot, her body is framed from behind against the waves of the ocean. When she eventually turns around, her face is covered with a thick layer of suntan lotion so that she looks like a mime or a sad clown.

Lila’s friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), a member of her dance group, is both older and more mature. She’s already had sex and has a horny new boyfriend named Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), with whom she flaunts her sexuality. Lila, on the other hand, is like Frankie from Carson McCuller’s novel, The Member of the Wedding, someone who desperately wants to be included. When she spies a handsome hunk named Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), whom Chiara describes as willing to have sex with anyone, Lila becomes obsessed with him. If this sounds like the plotline of Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), in some ways, it is. Solondz, however, creates ironic distance from his protagonist, Dawn Wienerdog, whereas Lila is so naked and vulnerable that it’s terribly painful to watch her misguided quest unfold.

Lila tries her best to mimic Chiara, whose sexual boasts she repeats as her own to her younger next door neighbor, Nate (Case Prime), with whom she would very much like to experiment. When she suggests they play a game of “Truth or Dare,” he becomes very nervous. She tells him, “Come on. Use your imagination.”  He responds, “It’s just not the kind of game you play with two people. It’s just more fun with a group, you know?” When she later sees him together with a girl his own age, Lila becomes jealous, especially when Nate confesses that they just made out. He nevertheless becomes her confidant, after she fabricates a relationship with Sammy and then doggedly pursues him.

When Lila turns up at the pool hall where he works, Sammy asks, “How do I know you again?” “The beach,” she tells him. “That’s right. You look different,” he responds. As she later meets him to retrieve her sunglasses, he flat out asks, “Can I ask you something? Do you want something from me?” Lila answers, “What would I want, anyways?” as she then leers at his muscular back after he wades into the water and removes his shirt. Sammy, who is in college, suspects what it is, but her attention only feeds his narcissism. Seeing him strut around arrogantly is enough to make most viewers hate guys in general.

Sammy’s friends are no better. As Lila hangs with them while they get high and watch porn, she offers naïve commentary. She suggests that she’s actually considering porn as a career option: “The hours are really good and so is the pay. And I like sex a lot. Like a lot a lot.” Her words are not lost on a mean guy named Devon (Nick Rosen). Meanwhile, Patrick refuses to commit to Chiara because she’s slept with more guys, and he needs to get even. At her sweet-sixteen party, Chiara introduces a new boyfriend and refuses to tell Lila what happened.

As Lila becomes more isolated, she becomes even more aggressive in her pursuit of Sammy. She convinces Chiara to accompany her to a party, where she drinks too much, vomits in the bathroom, and then makes her move when Sammy passes out after having sex with a woman in his bedroom. When Lila pretends to Chiara that she slept with Sammy, the older girl convinces her to go to the clinic (where we learn what happened to her mom). Undeterred, she shows up at Sammy’s house, as he sits around with his pals. They want to know why she’s back there, but Devon supplies the answer, which leads to a disturbing scene that rivals anything in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Hittman has created a powerful coming-of-age film about female sexual identity. She and her cinematographer, Sean Porter, use a fluid camera and narrow depth of field to isolate characters in the frame by placing one in sharp focus, while allowing the other to become more blurred. It’s an intriguing strategy for directing our attention and especially for creating Lila’s subjectivity. At the same time, Hittman and Porter frame their characters so tightly that they seem to be constantly eroticizing the young bodies that populate the film. Their strategy is an attempt to replicate the sexualized way that teenagers view each other and the world.

In an interview, the director explains: “I wanted to make a film that represented how people feel when pressured to function and behave as though they are satisfied, happy and romantic. When I was in high school girls actually pinpointed when they were going to lose their virginity and to whom. It was a very aggressive approach, sometimes degrading. Girls are eager to get ‘it’ out of the way and don’t often even know what ‘it’ is.”

In her debut feature, Hittman manages to get outstanding performances from her cast of non-professionals (mostly dancers and rappers), especially Piersanti. But it’s Hittman’s assured command of visual storytelling that makes It Felt Like Love such an impressive feat, even if, in depicting the dark side of a hyper-masculinized adolescent world to which young women easily fall prey, the result is clearly not a pretty picture.

It Felt Like Love screened at Sundance and numerous other major festivals and opened theatrically at the IFC Center in New York City in March. The film will have its Madison premiere at the UW Cinematheque on Friday, May 9 at 7 PM.

Posted 29 April, 2014

Hide Your Smiling Faces

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The specter of death casts a mysterious spell over Daniel Patrick Carbone’s mesmerizing debut feature, Hide Your Smiling Faces (2014). Set in rural northwestern New Jersey, the film deals with young kids trying to come to terms with the kinds of heavy issues for which they lack either the experience or vocabulary. In its emphasis on visual storytelling and focus on the natural world, critics have compared the film to the work of Terrence Malick. Yet Malick’s vision has a more epic and cosmic sweep, whereas Carbone’s episodic film is rooted in the mundane details of events that occur over the course of a single summer. In this respect, Carbone’s film shares a greater affinity with Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss (2012), or Tim Sutton’s rapturous Pavilion (2013).

Hide Your Smiling Faces begins with a metaphor: an extended shot of a snake leisurely feasting on a fish. The film cuts to a shot of the film’s two protagonists – fourteen-year-old Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his nine-year-old brother, Tommy (Ryan Jones), framed by the inside of an abandoned building that overlooks a picturesque lake while it rains. Carbone creates an insular world of young kids – an all-male world, in which girls are decidedly absent. A female classmate is later heard as a disembodied voice. Two of the kids’ moms also appear, but they play only limited roles in the story. The boys go boating, swim in the lake, bike down empty roads, and explore nature. For these young boys, wrestling and other physical activities serve as forms of sublimation. A large group of them routinely stage wrestling matches, in which Eric is pitted against a longer-haired friend of the same age named Tristan (Thomas Cruz).

Early on, Tommy and his two friends find a dead crow to which they decide to improvise a song. One of them, Ian (Ivan Tomic), proves adept at creating sound effects. Godard said that “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” There aren’t any girls in Carbone’s world, but there is at least a gun. It is introduced by Ian, who brings out his father’s pistol and shows it to Tommy and another pal, Blake (Andrew M. Chamberlain). Ian’s father (Colm O’Leary) catches them with it and banishes Ian: “Get lost. Go cry in the woods,” he snarls, before harshly ordering the other two boys to “get the fuck out of here.” Sometime later, after Eric and Tristan steal hamburgers and then throw the trash from a massive stone train bridge, they spot Ian’s body sprawled down below.

Did Ian jump or did he accidentally fall to his death? The film is ambiguous on this note. And the reactions of the kids are equally confused about what has happened. A man at the wake (Clark Middleton) tries to give it a religious spin by insisting that “the Lord has a plan for Ian,” which leads to an awkward exchange with Eric. Eric and Tommy’s parents also try to get them to talk about their feelings, but the two brothers instead wind up grinning inappropriately (hence, the title of the film).

The boys are, in fact, deeply disturbed by Ian’s death, even if they don’t know how to express it properly. It comes out in other forms, some of which are self-destructive. While boating, Tristan raises the issue of death to Eric in dialogue that is spare and laconic:

TRISTAN: Do you ever think about dying?
ERIC: What?
TRISTAN: Like Dying. Someone killing you, or you killing yourself.
ERIC: No, not really.
TRISTAN (after a long pause): I do.
ERIC: Why?
TRISTAN: I don’t know. I just do.
ERIC: Are you sad?
TRISTAN: Yeah, I guess, a little.
ERIC: You want to die because you’re sad?

 Eric’s response is to use Tristan’s prone body as a springboard for a dive into the lake. Right after this, Eric and Tommy’s family dog, Daisy, makes a startling discovery – the carcasses of dead pets – hidden in the forest. This serves as one plot thread, especially when Daisy later disappears.

While cavorting in the woods, Tristan points a rifle at Eric’s head. He wonders, “Do you think you’ll die if I shoot you?” When Eric claims not to know, he responds, “What if I held it to your head?” Tristan later calls Eric on the phone with an even more overt threat, the subtext of which is all too apparent, except to them.

TRISTAN: I just don’t want to be here anymore, you know. No one likes me here.
ERIC: I do.
TRISTAN: What?
ERIC: I do.
TRISTAN: You do what?
ERIC: I like you. You’re my friend.
There is the sound of a gun click.
ERIC: What’s that?
Another sound of a gun click.
TRISTAN: What is what?
ERIC: That sound.
TRISTAN: Don’t you ever wish you were someplace else?
ERIC: I don’t know. I don’t think so. Tristan, this is so dumb. . .
TRISTAN: I hate it here.
ERIC: You’re my friend.
TRISTAN: I don’t know. I got to go, Eric. Bye, Eric.

Eric tries hard to express affection for Tristan, but the boys’ feelings for each other are too deeply repressed by the male adolescent culture they inhabit. Expressions of emotion can only be discussed cryptically and indirectly, as the above scene so clearly indicates. On a similar note, the younger kids, Tommy and Blake, experiment with kissing each other through a sheet of clear plastic. Later on, Eric and Tristan wrestle each other. Eric punches Tristan, who then deliberately hurts Eric’s already wounded hand. Eric chases him down and holds a gun to his friend’s head. With some irony, Tristan calls Eric a “psycho,” before running off.

Given the repressed feelings of these kids, their true reactions are often displaced. Eric, for instance, bullies Tommy physically, by tossing him into deep water to teach him how to swim or “jokingly” pretending to throw his younger brother off the bridge. The terror these situations cause Tommy gives Eric a charge, just as Tristan taunts Eric about suicide in order to elicit even the slightest hint of affection from him. At the dinner table one night, when Eric appears to have hurt his hand and his father questions him, Eric suddenly blurts out, “I hate it here. I do. You don’t care.” His parents’ expressions of concern lead to the exact opposite response. Hide Your Smiling Faces is richly observant in capturing these contradictions. It brilliantly manages to capture the utterly irrational dynamic of what it feels like to be a kid.

Hide Your Smiling Faces belongs to what appears to be a new genre of post-mumblecore films. These films – Pavilion, Jess + Moss, Putty Hill (2011), It Felt Like Love (2013),  and Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2014), among others – use naturalism, but in a different way. They are primarily visual rather than verbal. They are not about post-collegiate angst and the interpersonal relationships of characters in their twenties, but explore the texture and experience of childhood and adolescence. The films deal with either death or some other traumatic event for which the characters struggle to make sense of something that’s beyond their comprehension. These new films don’t harken back to Cassavetes, Rogosin, and Mailer, but rather to Terrence Malick and early David Gordon Green, or perhaps to Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive (1953).

Hide Your Smiling Faces was a surprise hit at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It opened at Cinema Village in New York City in late March and is currently screening theatrically in select cities. It’s also available on VOD from Amazon and iTunes. I first saw the film last year and welcomed a chance to revisit it now that it is more widely available. Beautifully shot by Nick Bentgen, Carbone’s film transports viewers back to that world of both confusion and wonder, that early period in our lives that somehow still manages to haunt our memories.

Posted 25 April, 2014

Best Independent Films of 2013

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Maintaining a blog keeps getting more and more difficult. With teaching and more academic writing – books, articles, chapters, conference papers, and lectures – it’s been an even harder struggle this past year. I’m one of the four editors of a new book series on screenwriting for Palgrave. Two books – Ian Macdonald’s Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea and Eva Novrup Redvall’s Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing – were published recently. Both are highly recommended. Kathryn Millard’s Screenwriting in a Digital Era, on which I served as editor, will be out in early March, hopefully in time for the SCMS conference in Seattle.

My colleague, Kelley Conway, and I organized the annual Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) conference in Madison in late August, the first time it has been held in this country. David Bordwell wrote a detailed blog about it. I was too busy worrying that everything would go smoothly. It did. Scholars and practitioners attended from all over the world, including large contingents from Australia and New Zealand, the UK, as well as Finland. Jon Raymond, Larry Gross, and Kristin Thompson gave great keynotes, along with Jill Nelmes who conducted a keynote workshop on research possibilities within the field. Putting on the conference was well worth the effort – it was a terrific event. I look forward to attending the next one in Potsdam, Germany, October 16-18, 2014. It is being organized by Kerstin Stutterheim. The deadline for submissions has been extended until January 25.  In any event,  I hope to see you there.

I also showed my own films and lectured on the films of Andy Warhol in Seattle, Portland, and Eugene this past fall. A special shout-out goes to Vanessa Renwick, a great filmmaker, for all her help. Her short film, Britton, South Dakota (2003) is one of my favorite avant-garde films of all time. I’ve seen it at least 10 times. You owe it to yourself to buy her compilation video, which you can order through her website, The Oregon Department of Kick Ass.

I’m scheduled to be in Boulder for a Guy Maddin Symposium in early March. Maddin will also be in Madison for screenings in February, so I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to both events.

My best film list always comes out in February, but last year it came out much later than I wanted, so I’m trying to make up for it by posting it very early (at least for me) this year. I feel much more optimistic about the state of indie cinema this year. As a matter of fact I thought it was truly great year in terms of quality, even with the entire industry in transition.

A number of films that appear on my list were shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April, though it’s taken me months to write about them, mainly because I needed to have a chance to view them a second time. Joe Swanberg, Frank V. Ross, Dan Sallitt, and Andrew Bujalski all attended the festival with their films. The first three filmmakers generously had special sessions with our advanced production students.

I try very hard to see the films in theaters. There is something I still love about the big screen and seeing a film with an audience. To me, streaming has its limitations. Amazon Instant and iTunes have been screening some indie films at the same time they are released theatrically. That’s how I saw Drinking Buddies. Factory 25 has only released some of its great indie library of films that way. Call me a contrarian, but I still like owning the DVD or Blu-ray.  

I have seen many of the films that make other people’s lists. I managed to view such titles as: Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Prince Avalanche, Stories We Tell, This is Martin Bonner, Mud, and Museum Hours, among others. My favorite documentary was Leviathan. I was grateful for a chance to see it in a theater at the Wisconsin Film Festival. By the way, I highly recommend Scott MacDonald’s new book, American Ethnographic and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn from University of California Press.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2013:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1.   Spring Breakers  (Harmony Korine)
2.   Frances Ha  (Noah Baumbach)
3.   Computer Chess  (Andrew Bujalski)
4 .  The Unspeakable Act  (Dan Sallitt)
5.   Drinking Buddies  (Joe Swanberg)
6.   Sun Don’t Shine  (Amy Seimetz)
7.   Tiger Tale in Blue  (Frank V. Ross)
8.   Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (David Lowery)
9.   I Used to Be Darker  (Matt Porterfield)
10. All the Light in the Sky  (Joe Swanberg)

Spring Breakers knocked my socks off. I love that the coeds drive all of 38 miles from Sarasota up (not down) to St. Pete. They claim to be in search of themselves and something different, yet they are already in a warm climate. Spring break turns out to be only more of the same, only on a grander scale. And James Franco, please give that man a statue. When he fixates on Selena Gomez, am I the only one who thought she cried real tears because she was having flashbacks?

As far as influence, this seems to be the year of Joe Swanberg. He has connections, in one way or another, to eight of the ten films on the above list. No one has ever had two films on this list in a single year. That’s pretty impressive. For the record, Joe’s favorite film of the year was Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue.

Tim Sutton’s Pavilion and Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, which won the Director’s Award at Sundance last January, are two films that easily could be on my list. Jill is a former student, so I don’t claim to be objective, but Quentin Tarantino had her film on his list, and I totally understand why. Jill takes more risks in her debut feature that most other directors would take in a career.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2012,” “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

Note: A special thanks to Michael Trevis, along with Peter Sengstock, for helping me to maintain this blog. I also owe a great debt to the programming of Jim Healy and Mike King at the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

Posted 10 January, 2014

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