The Black Hole of the Camera

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Best Independent Films of 2013

spring-breakers-3

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

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

In Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013), Greta Gerwig presents a version of a character she has played before. In Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), she was an inadvertent heartbreaker, in Baumbach’s previous film, Greenberg (2010), she fell for a lunatic, while in Alison Bagnall’s The Dish & the Spoon (2012), she wound up bitter and angry after being cheated on by her husband. If there’s a consistent thread in these films, it is that, either in the role of victimizer or victim, Gerwig’s character is a self-effacing, clown-like figure. Frances Halliday is no different. She’s twenty-seven and struggling to find her place in the world. Shot in black and white and full of allusions to the French New Wave (including the soundtrack), Frances Ha is a portrait of the type of befuddled character (emblematic of her generation) that has raised Gerwig to star status, as evidenced by her Golden Globe nomination for the film.

Frances doesn’t have much money. She is stuck as an apprentice at a professional dance company, teaches classes to kids, and desperately hopes to land a part in the Christmas show, while barely able to make ends meet. At the film’s beginning, Frances refuses to move in with her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), largely because she and her roommate and best friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), have plans to renew their lease. This leads to a surprise breakup with Dan. After Sophie dumps Frances for better digs in Tribeca, Frances loses her bearings. When she meets a guy named Lev (Adam Driver) through Sophie, he texts her: “Ahoy, sexy!” Frances will adopt it as her standard greeting for the rest of the film. Frances invites Lev to go out for dinner when she gets a tax rebate, but her credit card gets turned down at the restaurant, which causes her to lumber frantically through the streets to find an ATM, during which she falls and injures herself (she may aspire to be a dancer, but she’s actually a klutz).

Nothing romantic comes of her date with Lev, especially after she flinches and makes a noise like a squeak toy when he touches her. She does, however, move in with him and his roommate, Benji (Michael Zegen), when the woman renting the small bedroom moves out unexpectedly. Once Frances becomes their roommate, the two guys act like brothers by jumping on her bed in the morning to wake her up. Lev turns out to be a Lothario, while Frances becomes “undateable,” even though Benji, who affectionately dubs her that, would clearly like to sleep with her. Frances dismisses his come-ons due to their discrepancy in height – he’s not too short, but rather she’s too tall. In this movie, however, it’s her friendship with Sophie that turns out to be much more important than any guy (she’s surprisingly career-oriented).

Frances Ha has very little plot. Like many indie films today, it is highly episodic. The film is structured around the different places that Frances lives (introduced by title cards bearing the street address): first with Sophie on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, then in Chinatown with Lev and Benji, in Sacramento when she visits her parents (played by her real parents) at Christmas, on the Vassar campus in Poughkeepsie when she returns to her alma mater, and finally a place of her own in Washington Heights. In a sense, the film seems to be suggesting that young people in New York City these days are defined by their apartments. In a tight market, real estate often trumps relationships. It’s where you live, not whom you live with that seems to matter more. Frances even suggests at one point that Sophie should date Lev, so that she could also live there.

Frances and Sophie are like an old married couple rather than roommates. In fact, Frances acknowledges that they are like a lesbian couple who no longer have sex. They share child-like dreams of a happy future and have plans for taking over the world that include career success in publishing and modern dance, co-owning an apartment in Paris, having no children, and speaking at college graduations and receiving many honorary degrees. Although both women are straight, Frances is clearly jealous that Sophie has a boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), a Wall Street guy whom Frances pokes fun at for always announcing, “I gotta take a leak” and Sophie criticizes for wearing distressed baseball hats. She adds, “He’s a nice guy, you know, for today.” Although Frances initially takes Sophie’s relationship with him in stride, after Sophie tells Frances that she loves Patch and they’re headed for the Galapagos the next morning, Frances creates a scene in a bar, causing a major rift in their relationship.

When she doesn’t get included in the Christmas show, Frances can no longer afford to pay rent and puts her belongings in storage. She visits her parents in Sacramento, and then stays temporarily with a dancer friend named Rachel (Grace Gummer), who makes it clear that crashing at her place is merely temporary. Frances completely embarrasses herself at a family dinner with Rachel’s wealthy relatives (she earlier blurted out that the only people who can afford to be artists in NYC are rich), but she also finds out that Patch has a new job in Japan and that he and Sophie are moving there. The news so upsets Frances that she impulsively decides to fly to Paris for two days. When she runs into Benji and his new girlfriend, Caroline (Maya Kazan) on the street, Frances admits that she’s paying for the trip with a new credit card. Caroline tells her, “That’s not smart. That’s what they want. They want to keep you in debt.” Frances responds, “I know that. I see documentaries.” The Paris trip turns out to be another bad decision. Yet Frances somehow remains a buoyant free spirit despite all the obstacles thrown in her path and somehow manages to triumph in the end.

In interviews, Gerwig has gone out of her way to distance her acting from improvisation. In denying that there is any improvised acting in the movie, she told the Los Angeles Times: “There were no unplanned moments, actually. I think the process of writing it was taking down spontaneous moments in conversation, shaping them and making them come to life in a way that feels spontaneous.” Since Gerwig has been associated with improvisation through her earlier films with Joe Swanberg, I can understand why she would emphasize that Frances Ha was scripted – after all she shares writing credit on the film with Baumbach. Yet whether you’re working from a script or a brief outline, there’s always some type of pre-planning involved. It strikes me that this has more to do with a particular style of acting. In Spring Breakers (2013), James Franco’s performance is built on stylistic excess, whereas Gerwig is still mining a version of naturalism.

Andy Warhol wrote in POPism: “The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.” Warhol was talking about his superstar, Edie Sedgwick, but the same might easily be said about Greta Gerwig. What makes her riveting as an actress is the uncanny way she processes material. In the early scene with her boyfriend, Dan, Frances initially reacts with surprise and excitement at his invitation to move in together, but she follows this with several conflicting responses and gestures, so by the end of the scene, the two break up. Most performances depend on a degree of predictability, which helps to define the character, whereas Gerwig never gives the expected gestural reaction. In fact, she might give multiple ones. She forces us to watch very carefully. Gerwig’s particular magic as a performer is to react to a situation or a line of dialogue in a way that totally catches us by surprise.

Although the success of Frances Ha is heavily dependent on Gerwig’s radiant performance, she is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast of gifted young actors, most notably Mickey Sumner as Sophie. We have all experienced losing our friends to lovers, going back to middle school. In Frances’s relationship with Sophie, the film explores the complex tension that often develops between friendship and romance.  Frances Ha exudes a youthful spirit that brims with energy, so that, by the end, Baumbach’s film goes beyond being merely a portrait – it feels more like a valentine.

Posted 8 January, 2014

Spring Breakers

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Harmony Korine has tried really hard to be America’s most vilified filmmaker. He wrote Kids (1995) for Larry Clark at age nineteen, which made $7 million at the box office and gave him credentials within the industry. With $1 million from Fine Line, his own debut feature, Gummo (1997), turned his hometown of Nashville (masquerading as southern Ohio) into what most people thought was a fictional freak show. Critics were not amused. Janet Maslin declared it the worst film of the year in the month of October, and even J. Hoberman had only derogatory things to say. Pitched to the youth crowd, the film grossed only slightly more than a tenth of its budget. Julian donkey-boy (1999), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2010) didn’t fare much better at the box office. Until now, Korine has been more interested in creating individual scenes, so it’s no wonder that his films garnered fans but not a wide audience. In a sense, Spring Breakers was probably do or die for Korine career-wise, so it’s truly amazing that he has managed to create a major hit with his exploitation fantasy of young college women gone bonkers.

I doubt that Korine has first-hand experience with the American college ritual known as “spring break.” He was instead associated with street culture and the graffiti art scene that sprang from Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City. Underneath the trippy and colorful opening credits of Spring Breakers, we hear sounds of the ocean, gulls, and squeals of young kids enjoying the surf. This is followed by a prolepsis. In slow motion, we see gyrating bodies of college students with arms raised victoriously in the air. Young women shake their asses at the camera and expose their bare boobs, doused in beer, while the young men use cans and bottles of the same liquid to simulate peeing into the open mouths of coeds beneath them. College guys grab their crotches like rappers, a group of women suck on rainbow popsicles suggestively, while a number of both men and women stick out and wiggle their tongues, or flash us the middle finger as they jump in the air ecstatically.

The film cuts to black, after which we see two college women, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson) smoking bongs with two guys, while a third woman with streaks of pink in her hair, Cotty (Rachel Korine), lies passed out on the couch. Following this, we see typical images of students on a small southern college campus. Brit and Candy sit in a darkened lecture hall, where Candy draws a pictures of a penis and simulates oral sex, while tuning out the professor’s lessons about civil rights and the black freedom struggle. Meanwhile Faith (Selena Gomez), sits cross-legged in a born-again Christian group presided over by a guy, who claims to be crazy for Jesus. A couple of believers later warn Faith to stay away from her friends, especially Brit and Candy, but Faith counters that she’s known them ever since grade school. Our four female protagonists are bored with college. In their minds – and this is a hilarious conceit – going on spring break will be a transformative event that will somehow forever change their lives. It will be, but in ways they can hardly anticipate.

The women actually don’t have enough cash to go on spring vacation, but that doesn’t stop them. Three of them – Cotty, Brit, and Candy– rob the car of one of their professors. In order to jack up their adrenaline, they scream, “Just fucking pretend you’re in a video game, act like you’re in a movie or something.” Brit and Candy rob the local Chicken Shack, while Cotty watches from the getaway car. Dressed in black ski masks and carrying a small sledgehammer and squirt guns that look like the real thing, the two women violently smash plates and terrorize the patrons (the black ones fork over their wallets, while being careful to show no visible reaction). After setting the vehicle on fire, the three return to the dorm with wads of dough. Faith is initially shocked, but seeing all the money excites the women sexually. Cut to a shot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida, and then shots of the four of them inside a bus of rabid partygoers.

Spring break is one endless party after another, as the four coeds join in the fun, which includes getting drunk and high with the anonymous throngs of college kids that fill the motel rooms, balconies, swimming pool, and sandy beach. Everyone partakes of the bongs that get passed around, snort lines of cocaine, and act generally obnoxious. Faith’s phone call to her Grandma bears no resemblance to the images we see on the screen: excessive drinking, drug taking, girl on girl smooching, and grinding flesh. Instead, Faith describes spring break as “the most spiritual place she’s ever been” – magical and beautiful, and full of new friends from all over. She wants to come back next year and even hopes her grandmother can join her. “It feels as if the world is perfect,” Faith tells her, “like it’s never going to end.”

It doesn’t take long for the four women to get arrested by the police who cart them off to jail in their skimpy bikinis. Facing a huge fine or additional jail time, the women are bailed out by a demented white rapper named Alien (James Franco), who sports silver teeth, corn-rows, tattoos all over his body, and talks like he’s a gangsta. We see him and his sidekick (Russell Curry, aka Dangeruss) perform his hit song “Hangin’ with da dopeboys!” for the spring breakers earlier, but he and his twin skinhead associates (who likewise have silver teeth) also run a huge drug operation. Alien takes to these pretty young women, especially Faith, but Alien clearly freaks her out. “This is not what I signed up for,” Faith says tearfully, once Alien makes her play pool in a smoky room with a bunch of black thugs. As she cries, she tells the others, “We don’t know these people and I don’t know this guy and I just want to go home.” Remembering her bible study lesson that Jesus provides a way out when faced with temptation, Faith abruptly abandons her spring romp, and, to our surprise, exits the movie.

Faith is right about one thing: Alien is one crazy dude. As he tells them when they are released on bail, “Truth be told, I ain’t from this planet, y’all.” In his mansion, he brags to the women about having gobs of money, an arsenal of weapons, and a house filled to the brim with material possessions. “Look at my shit” he keeps repeating, as if it’s a mantra. He claims to be living the American Dream, and driving around town in his white sports convertible with sexy coeds clad in bikinis is, for him, its fulfillment. To Alien, life suddenly feels like a dream. At magic hour one evening, the three women, dressed in pink ski masks, demand that he play them something sweet and uplifting. He responds, “Oh, y’all want to see my sensitive side.” He sings a song by Britney Spears, whom he describes as “a little-known pop star,” and “one of the greatest singers of all time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” While the women pirouette and dance with raised assault weapons, Alien does a rendition of “Everytime” on a white piano at water’s edge.

But Alien’s blissful fantasy, like spring break, is a temporary bacchanal that can’t last. Indeed, it turns out that Alien and his gals become engaged in a drug and race war with a black criminal named Big Arch (played by rapper, Gucci Mane). We know from Chris Fuller’s Korine-inspired Loren Cass (2009) that St. Petersburg has a history of racial tension. It was the scene of race riots in 1996, when Fuller was growing up there. The narrator of Fuller’s film intones: “St. Petersburg – a dirty, dirty town, by a dirty, dirty sea because the soul of the railroad is the chain gang.” This side of St. Petersburg is not much in evidence to the spring breakers who temporarily flock there, but the town is apparently too small to accommodate both Alien and his former childhood friend and mentor, Big Arch, who tells his associates: “He’s taking food out of my baby’s mouth. My baby’s hungry. My baby needs to eat. My baby’s starving. And we’re going to do something about it.”

True to his character’s name, James Franco’s performance is out of this world. In pushing his character to such an extreme, he toys with psychodrama, in ways that recall Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant (1992) or Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss (1989). Franco’s portryal of Alien teeters on the verge on caricature, but it’s the rapper’s vulnerability that makes him such an endearing character. The four college women, especially Selena Gomez, are great as well. John Waters wrote about Spring Breakers: “The best sexploitation film of the year has Disney tween starlets hilariously undulating, snorting cocaine, and going to jail in bikinis. What more could a serious filmgoer possibly want?” Yet Korine takes an exploitation film that displays women’s bodies and inflects it with a decidedly feminist twist. Spring Breakers may be a barrage of glitz and allusions to pop culture, but it has substance, as well as a cockeyed sense of humor. It’s totally fitting that the last image of the movie is upside down.

Spring Breakers goes well beyond being a play on genre. The film’s fragmented and elliptical style eschews linearity in favor of collage. Korine’s play on time mixes future, present, and past – fantasy and memory and dream – into his own version of drug time and a subjective mental state, as shots and snippets of dialogue repeat, images destabilize and contort into amorphous swirls of grainy color, time shifts, moods change, and our sense of reality gets confused and threatens to break down. Thanks to Benoît Debie’s awesome cinematography, the film is so awash in psychedelic and fluorescent colors that watching Spring Breakers really feels as if someone slipped you a hallucinogen.

Posted 1 January, 2014

Computer Chess

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Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) represents a radical departure for this indie writer/director. Bujalski has been associated with mumblecore ever since Funny Ha Ha (2002) won recognition at the SXSW Film Festival in 2005 (even though the film actually debuted three years earlier). His first two films helped to define a film movement that captured the awkward social interactions of his own generation, as his characters attempted to navigate interpersonal relationships consisting of mixed signals and crushes on friends in a time of diminished economic expectations. In 2013, technology has become the new religion, controlling virtually every aspect of our lives. While it has been amazingly transformative – there is no question we are addicted to the minicomputers we carry around in our purses and pockets – it is also largely replacing jobs formerly done by humans, which has relegated many younger people, such as the ones who populated Bujalski’s earlier films, to marginal economic status. By going back in time to the period of the early 1980s, Bujalski explores the world of nerds just as they are on the verge of taking over the culture due to their skills at computer programming.

In re-creating the early years of personal computing, Bujalski has lovingly managed to capture the look and feel of a time we easily forget – before email, texting and Skype. In discussing the future of artificial intelligence, the videographer (Kevin Bewersdorf) at one point suggests it could eventually be used for dating, an idea that causes the programmers to chuckle at the unlikely prospect. Bujalski has a knack for nailing these nerdy characters with their baggy polyester clothes, overly large eye glasses, tie clips, and retro haircuts. His eye for detail includes a professor named Tom Shoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who arrives late, along with a wife and baby who seem like strange appendages. Computer Chess could easily be described as a study in gray and white. The lack of contrast in these images suggests a world that looks surprisingly like Eastern Europe during communism, an effect that Bujalski achieves through shrewd art direction and by shooting in a documentary-like style with a Sony AVC 3260 camera. Like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010), Bujalski finds an odd beauty in the degraded image of early video, complete with breakup, lens burns, cheesy split-screen effects, negative images, awkward superimpositions, dropout, Academy aspect ratio, and various glitches.

Computer Chess is a complex ensemble piece, with so many characters and plot threads that it is initially hard to get one’s bearings. The film centers on a weekend computer chess tournament held at a budget motel. The competition is portrayed as a kind of three-ring circus overseen by its nerdy ringleader, chess whiz Pat Henderson (played by film critic and scholar Gerald Peary), who is eagerly waiting to challenge the winner. Much of the film involves the competition between various computer chess teams, but, in some ways, this is the least interesting material. It is the peripheral sideshows and characters who manage to steal the show. Mike Papageorge (played by Bujalski’s school chum Myles Paige from Funny Ha Ha), appears on a panel early on, where he’s identified as an independent programmer. He frowns during the session, and when finally called upon, he tells Pat: “I find the programming of my fellow competitors to be almost as boring as this discussion.” Despite his bravado, it turns out he cannot afford a hotel room. His efforts to find one represent some of the most humorous incidents in the film.

There is also the lone female contestant on the MIT team, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), who becomes a veiled object of ridicule for Henderson and the other contestants, as well as an object of desire. Mike Papageorge is the first to attempt to crash her room, but it turns out that she’s sheltering her team’s computer, which is so large that it takes up much of the floor space, providing her with an excuse for not letting him stay there. Shelly, who wears a heart pendant around her neck, is so painfully shy and nervous that she can barely speak. The same could be said for Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a program assistant from the Caltech team, who, in many ways, helps to hold the multi-strand narrative together. Peter will later get Shelly to help him run experiments when his team’s computer, Tsar 3.0, takes on a life of its own by performing poorly against other computers, but not against humans.

Meanwhile, a group of spiritual seekers are also holding their own encounter therapy sessions in another part of the same hotel. Overseen by an African guru named Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott), the couples undergo group therapy by groaning loudly, fondling loaves of bread, and becoming reborn as free people. One of them, Dave (Chris Doubek), runs into Peter outside the motel and engages him in conversation. When Peter explains the tournament, Dave muses, “Computers play chess against computers. Wow!” He’s a bit too over solicitous. Although Peter looks about sixteen, Dave asks suggestively, “Are you married?” As he leaves, he remarks, “Hey, we got the same color eyes, man,” a discovery he’s made about his own wife during the encounter session. We are not surprised when he later invites Peter to his room where he and his wife, Pauline (Cyndi Williams), are ripe for swinging. She asks Peter, “Have you ever tried LSD?” She compares Peter to Columbus, but she and Dave worry that he’s not living up to his potential. Cats also seem to have a run of the motel, which Mike Papageorge discovers as he wanders the hallways. When management finally finds him a room after he tries to sleep on the couch in the lobby, it turns out to be full of cats, causing him to have an allergic reaction. He ends up sleeping under a table in the conference, which leads to his own bizarre engagement with the encounter group.

There are other equally eccentric characters. Early on, two guys who are not in the competition, John (Jim Lewis) and Freddy (Freddy Martinez), claim to be there to watch “them get ready for the end of the world.” One of the contestants, a British chap named Les Carbray (James Curry) of the Alliance team, extols the virtues of three Scotches as the secret to coding. Soon afterwards he smokes joints in John and Freddy’s room. John raises the “military” aspect of the game of chess and talks about government interest in the programming being done by these computer geeks. This induces a sense of paranoia in the stoned Les. He asks John, “Are you trying to recruit me? Are you from the Pentagon?” His sidekick, Freddy, comments, “It’s like my uncle said: ‘War is death, hell is pain, chess is victory.’” As the movie goes on, it gets weirder and weirder, especially when Mike Papageorge returns home to get money, and the film suddenly switches to higher contrast, grainy 16mm color film. Soon after, Peter’s teammate, Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), shares some startling revelations. Computer Chess culminates in a final scene involving Peter in which we suddenly enter the realm of science fiction.  

Computer Chess has far more plot than is found in Bujalski’s previous films, even though the earlier three features were scripted. For his new one, he only used an eight-page outline. When asked about the difference in approach, Bujalski explains in Cinema Scope: “So in that sense, it was surprisingly similar, because whether you’re working from a worked-out script or just a couple of paragraphs, you still have to make sense of it with the actors; that process is still the same, of talking it through with them and finding out what works for them. In fact, really the only difference was that I had to be better prepared because there wasn’t as thorough a document to rely on if my mind went blank. So I had to have a slightly better sense of what we were doing.”

Computer Chess is wildly inventive, especially in how it cleverly connects the various plotlines that initially appear to be a series of tangents. Bujalski has always been a humorist. The early days of computing and a computer chess tournament provides him with a minefield of awkward social interactions, especially in the form of the film’s two young characters, Peter and Shelly. But, with Computer Chess, Bujalski has moved beyond naturalism into a kind of madcap surrealism that is closer in spirit to Miranda July than it is to Joe Swanberg.

Note: I saw Computer Chess at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, where the director was also in attendance, along with Gerald Peary. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Lorber, which is good because it takes a second viewing to appreciate the film’s nuances.

Posted 29 December, 2013

All the Light in the Sky

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Considering how many feature films Joe Swanberg has made at this point in his career, All the Light in the Sky (2013) might be easy to overlook, especially following the recent success of his commercial breakthrough, Drinking Buddies (2013). Inspired by and starring Jane Adams, who will forever be identified with Joy, the inveterate family loser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), All the Light in the Sky tells the story of a middle-aged actress, Marie, who finds herself moderately successful but also very much alone. The visit of her twenty-five-year-old niece from New York, Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress, causes Marie to experience a minor mid-life crisis when she suddenly realizes that her life is on a downward slope.

Marie’s small Malibu house perched atop the rocks above the Pacific Ocean serves as a kind of metaphor for the precariousness of her situation. As often happens to female actors when they hit a certain age, Marie is starting to get passed over for parts in major studio films, and has to settle for appearing in low-budget indies that have start dates but sketchy financing. The film opens with a shot of Marie waking up to a self-help video. Without a partner to assist her, she struggles to get into a rubber wetsuit in order to paddle out into the ocean on a surfboard for morning exercise. We soon see that neither exercise nor a steady diet of blended health drinks can fully stave off the inevitable passage of time.

Marie is thrilled to see her niece. When she asks Faye about her boyfriend, the younger woman indicates that things are “the best” and the two are planning to get married. Although Marie doesn’t appear to react, this revelation invariably causes her to ruminate on her own life choices. After taking a dip in the ocean, the two women have intimate discussions about female bodies and sexuality. As they change out of their wetsuits, Marie laments that her breasts already sag and suggests that Faye should enjoy her firm ones as long as she can. Marie later confesses that she has always been used to being the object of male desire – “the image that starts the ball rolling” – a point that has been underscored when Faye’s boyfriend (Lawrence Michael Levine) gets her to expose her breasts while talking to him on Skype the night before.

When friends come over, Marie and an older stoner named Dan (Kent Osborne) seem to hit it off, especially when he plays the role of handyman by fixing her wobbly toilet seat and putting up a coat rack. Meanwhile, when they all use a friend’s hot tub, a young director (Ti West) comes on to Faye, but when she indicates that she has a boyfriend, he immediately loses interest, and she later watches him make out with another young woman (Lindsay Burdge). The socially awkward interaction between Marie and Dan seems promising at first, but it results in a one-night stand, as Marie skips out while Dan is still asleep, only to forget her car keys.

All the Light in the Sky is more episodic than plot-driven. It consists of a series of incidents that have thematic links. The intimate conversations between Marie and her niece, however, turn out to be the film’s most compelling material. To Marie, Faye has everything – her youth represents her power – but the younger woman already worries what will happen when she loses that weapon. Marie, on the contrary, knows only too well what it’s like to walk into a room and seem invisible. Marie insists that it’s different for guys. She attributes it to biology that her neighbor friend, Rusty (Larry Fessenden), is drawn to young women who are Faye’s age. Marie confesses to Faye that she always assumed that she would have kids, but concedes that she never met a reliable man whom she thought would make a good father.

At one point, Rusty and Faye sit on the beach watching the sun set at magic hour. He reflects on the fact that the surrounding houses overlooking the ocean are sheer folly – he predicts they’ll be gone in ten years due to global warming. Yet he’s content to live in the moment and enjoy it while he can. If this makes the film sound overly didactic, it actually feels quite the opposite – like we’re simply eavesdropping on two people conversing. Once Faye leaves to return home, Marie and Rusty have dinner together. Afterwards, the two of them lie together on the sofa, and he amuses her by doing Jack Nicholson imitations. When Marie takes umbrage at a number of his actions and comments, he accuses her of being on a “pity-party tear.” She rejects his attempt to turn their friendship into something more.

There’s something so casual about All the Light in the Sky that it feels invented on the spot. Much of the film’s strength derives from the performance of Jane Adams, who, though her character tries hard to remain upbeat, allows occasional flickers of sadness to appear in her eyes. Adams, who shares writing credit, describes the process of making the film in an interview in Entertainment Weekly: “We sent emails back and forth for a long time with ideas – and text messages even. Joe wrote an outline and sent it to me and we made a few adjustments and then he showed up with two actresses, Lindsay and Sophia, and we just started improvising and shooting. It was an exciting process.”

All the Light in the Sky is easily Swanberg’s most thematically integrated film, yet it might also be his most effortless. The flow of conversations seems as natural as the tide we watch going in and out, or the subtle changes in the bright California sunlight that illuminates so many scenes. Swanberg’s film seems to go beyond simple naturalism by confusing the boundaries between the artifice of performance and real life. It involves a delicate sleight of hand that Swanberg has managed to pull off masterfully. Swanberg shot the film himself, which no doubt contributed to the intimate dynamics of the production.

Swanberg has cleverly added an additional element. In researching a role for a film (this one?), Marie interviews a solar engineer (David Siskind), who measures sunlight with a pyrometer.  He later describes the sun as a “middle-aged star,” which, like all things, ultimately goes away. Her conversations with him contextualize Marie’s own situation within the broader context of flux and change in the natural world. The film’s spectacular final image encapsulates the entire film. In wide shot, Marie is rendered as a tiny figure against the ocean and vast expanse of sky, as she paddles out on her surfboard, while birds periodically fly through the frame.

I first saw All the Light in the Sky when it played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It was recently picked up by boutique distributor, Factory 25, and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York City. Joe Swanberg has been on a roll this year. He has a new film, Happy Christmas (2014), which is scheduled to play in competition at Sundance in January. And, judging by the success of Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-), Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013), and even the new film by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I think it’s fair to say that Swanberg’s influence as a filmmaker has never seemed greater.

Posted 22 December, 2013

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