The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Gus Van Sant and American Indies at Cannes

On some level, I’m happy that a Romanian film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After all, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was on every critic’s list of prizewinner favorites. Looking at the composition of the jury, I actually thought that it would be hard for an American filmmaker to take the top prize, despite the fact that the Coen Brothers and Gus Van Sant were also listed as frontrunners throughout the competition. So it went to the underdog, a filmmaker from a small country that recently produced the likes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest.


I secretly was rooting for Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, about a teenage skateboarder who inadvertently commits a murder, especially after reading Matt Dentler’s description of it. He had it listed as his second favorite film of those he’d seen at the festival. His first choice was Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a paralyzed writer, for which he received the prize of Best Director. Voice critic J. Hoberman credits Schnabel for giving the awards ceremony’s “most loutish performance.” He writes: “His anger barely masked behind outsized sunglasses, the bearded, heavy-set artist insisted on shaking hands with every member of the nonplussed jury.”

In her Filmmaker Blog, Erica Abeel offers a “mildly dissenting opinion” over the top prize, writing that Van Sant’s Paranoid Park was more justified in winning his special jury award. Paranoid Park was also listed on indieWIRE’s list of 10 films to watch. Hoberman calls it “superlative.” In addition, it was reported that the French company MK2, which financed Paranoid Park, sold the U.S. distribution rights to IFC First Take and the foreign rights to 72 different countries. It’s clear that Gus Van Sant has been on an incredible roll with his last three films: Elephant, Last Days, and now Paranoid Park.

In addition, a restored and re-mastered 35mm version of Van Sant’s debut feature, Mala Noche (1985), opens at the IFC Center in New York City tomorrow. Nathan Lee gave it a very positive review in the Village Voice yesterday. Since I showed the film at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) this spring, I’ve already written about it at great length in my very first blog entry of April 25. Walt, the obsessive protagonist of Mala Noche, is a character straight out of a Hubert Selby Jr. novel, and the episodic film about Walt’s fixation on a young Mexican illegal immigrant creates a stark poetic realism out of an accumulation of striking visual details. If Paranoid Park turns out to be as good as people say, it’s hard to think of another American indie director — other than perhaps David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch — who has made six films that rival the quality of Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, Last Days, and now Paranoid Park. The simultaneous success of Paranoid Park at Cannes and the theatrical re-release of Mala Noche solidify Van Sant’s status as one of the top American indie directors.

Most people seemed to consider Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely to be one of the weirdest films at Cannes. Dentler had it as his seventh favorite film and indieWIRE also had it listed as one of the 10 films to watch. Korine’s Gummo (1997) is one of the most reviled films for all the wrong reasons, as I tried to argue in my book. It’s a stunning first feature, even if Janet Maslin and other critics didn’t get its associational structure and “in your face” aesthetic. If Korine had only shot the scene in Gummo of Bunny Boy and the young redneck cowboys, in my opinion, he’d still be a great filmmaker. Who wouldn’t want to see a film with characters that include celebrity impersonators such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, the Pope, and Abe Lincoln? And don’t forget there’s also a subplot involving Werner Herzog and a bunch of flying nuns. Korine is heir to the tradition of American vaudeville. Dentler describes Mister Lonely as feeling “sort of like Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, Freaks, as made by Harmony Korine.” Much has been made in Cannes reviews of the disturbing imagery in Korine’s previous two films, but that’s been overstated as well.

My favorite quote about Mister Lonely comes from Ray Bennett, who begins his review in The Hollywood Reporter: “There are probably people who will find Harmony Korine’s ragged fable ‘Mister Lonely’ enchanting, but you wouldn’t necessarily want them as neighbors.” That alone would be enough to make me want to see the film. Meanwhile, Premiere’s film critic, Glenn Kenny, is still trying to figure out who would sink money into such a project (try French fashion designer and film patron agnès b, for one), or who on 68th Street in Manhattan would be willing to fork over ten bucks for the experience (other than me). Hey, where are those marketers from Fox Searchlight when you really need them?

Posted 31 May, 2007

Postscript: Waitress

Steve Ramos reports in indieWIRE this morning that Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress expanded to 510 theaters and took in an additional $4 million at the box office last week, bringing the four-week total to $6.5 million. It will expand to 605 theaters tomorrow. “We are at a loss to compare another film that plays so broadly and so deeply as ‘Waitress,’” says Steve Gilula, Chief Operating Officer at Fox Searchlight. “This film is attracting audiences everywhere. I suppose the best comparison is ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’”

Posted 31 May, 2007

DVD Commentary and Special Features

johncassavetes5.jpgWilliam Speruzzi at [This Savage Art] asked folks to cite examples of the best commentary or special features on a DVD. I confess that I almost never rewatch the film with the director’s commentary, and only occasionally bother to watch the special features, including interviews with the director or actors. Why? Because they are usually boring, or I don’t learn enough new information to make watching them worth my time.

Obviously a company like Criterion excels at creating interesting commentaries and special features as part of the packaging of their DVDs, and even publishes accompanying pamphlets for certain films. The added features on Shadows in their boxed set of five films by John Cassavetes, for instance, has a fascinating interview with Lelia Goldoni on what it was like to participate in this now legendary indie film as an eighteen-old acting student. She talks about Cassavetes’ method, which was to have the actors hang out with each other outside of the production in order to develop their characters and relationships. Goldoni claims that Cassavetes was busy experimenting with various improvisational techniques, but that no one (herself included) really had a sense of what he was doing at the time. She talks about one of the key scenes, the bedroom scene, and her negative reaction after making love with Tony. Goldoni talks about the scene being scripted, and suggests: “I wouldn’t have the nerve to say that line. The line being: ‘I never thought it could be so awful.’ Because it was in the ’50s and there was an entire romantic thing about – which I thought was captured brilliantly – about your first experience at sexual encounters. You know, it was supposed to be wonderful. I, as a human being, would not have dared to say anything except for the convention. And that line was not the convention, and John wrote that. And I think that was John’s brilliance.” She discusses the inspirational aspect of Cassavetes, saying he kicked people’s butts to make films their own way. Goldoni concludes, “He was always in his films, in every one of his films, he was looking for how to express the truth – the truth of this moment, and the truth of this character, and the truth of this circumstance. And, man you can’t do better than that.”

I also liked the interview included on Thumbsucker (2005), even though it ultimately goes on much too long. Mike Mills, the director, and the novelist Walter Kirn obviously have incredible admiration for each other. Mills reads a long passage from the novel about Justin’s obsession with his mother, Audrey, and his oedipal rivalry. Mills comments: “I love the grandiosity of that in little Justin – you know what I mean? – so needing to be her peer, her suitor, her everyman. And it’s so hugely ambitious for a kid, and also terribly tragic when the kid drops the kidness and tries to become the adult to the mom. That was the part I could so grab on to. Kirn responds by discussing the autobiographical elements of his book. Mills talks about the difficulties he had raising financing for the film because of the “repulsion” factor. Kirn adds that it was no different in trying to get the book published. He explains: “But this [thumb sucking] was a genuinely uncomfortable behavior. And I think it immediately brings out that side of everyone they want to hide, which is the soft , gooey, dependent, unformed self.” In trying to obtain financing, Mills indicates that once the “soft” element in the film would be raised, it became a signal to him that the meeting was over.” Mills also has some interesting things to say about improvisational techniques he used in the film, some of which obviously mirror what Goldoni describes Cassavetes as doing. For instance Mills had the main actors live together as an actual family for several days in preparation for their roles.

239737.jpgI’d say the best interview on a DVD that comes to mind, however, is by the Turkish director of Distant (2004), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who also did the more recent Climates (2006). Strongly influenced by Tarkovsky, Ceylan makes a positive case for low-budget filmmaking. He talks about the benefits of utilizing a small crew and non-professional actors. He also offers great insights into casting, dialogue, and performance. Ceylan indicates, for instance, that he chose the lead actor, even though this person gave the worst performance in the casting session. The casting session involved line readings of dialogue, but because Ceylan’s film involved very little dialogue, he decided to go with his intuition. He shot a great deal of the film in his apartment. Ceylan also discusses how he was able to utilize what was available around him: the weather (snow), the huge shipwreck in the harbor, and the city of Istanbul itself. Ceylan provides a rationale for using long takes and for a more minimal style. He says he loves to edit, and talks about getting up in the middle of the night and editing. Ceylan discusses how the actual film changed from the script, and how he came to eliminate things that he felt were not necessary to the story. Most insightful are Ceylan’s insights into the characters. He discusses the implications of key scenes, such as when Mahmut falsely accuses Yusuf of stealing, and then hides the evidence to the contrary. In terms of Mahmut’s former wife, Ceylan explains that Mahmut goes to see her before she leaves for Canada with her new husband because he’s hoping for a miracle. Ceylan talks about people doing things even when they know they’re not really viable. In other words, even if Mahmut and his wife were to reconcile, their relationship still wouldn’t work. Ceylan observes that people don’t really change, which becomes a rationale for the kind of naturalism he employs.

Posted 30 May, 2007

On the Marketing of Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress

filmmaker.jpg I had not intended to write about the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress because I personally find it impossible to separate her film from the tragedy surrounding Shelly’s senseless murder last November, following an argument with a nineteen-year-old construction worker in the building where she had an office. For one thing, it totally colors the film’s ending, giving it a poignancy that left me feeling devastated. The film has already grossed over $2.5 million in its first three weeks, and it’s even playing on two screens at Sundance 608 here in Madison. Waitress has received a 90% critical rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes and 97% from their “Cream of the Crop.” Internet ads are starting to appear involving animated pieces of pie. It’s now becoming clear that Fox Searchlight’s marketing goal is to turn Shelly’s film into this year’s Little Miss Sunshine.


The Spring issue of Filmmaker magazine has an article by Karina Longworth that provides a lot of background on the film’s production and subsequent sale at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film was handled by Shelly’s producing partner, Michael Roiff, who reportedly fell in love with the script and put up the money. According to the article, he then hooked up with sales agent Andrew Herwitz, a former acquisitions person from Miramax, who brokered the deal with Fox Searchlight. There are two disturbing quotes from Herwitz in the article. Talking about Sundance, Herwitz reportedly explained: “There’s great interest in seeing Keri [lead actress Keri Russell] – people love her. But the tragedy of Adrienne’s death has created a different kind of story. I think certainly, the amount of press the film has gotten is fueling distributor interest.” In relation to the film’s optimistic ending given the dark circumstances surrounding the production, Herwitz is later quoted as saying: “It’s excruciating on one level to see this film, and realize that the filmmaker was very happy, and to have her life taken away – it’s horrible. But that, for better or for worse, has become part of the lore of the film, and I think there’s a way to use that irony in a very real way.” Fox Searchlight’s campaign initially created a trailer that portrayed the film as a comedy at the expense of Shelly’s contribution, but, according to the article, plans are now in the works to “highlight the auteur in future promotions.”


Adrienne Shelly’s considerable reputation in indie circles rests largely on her feisty performances in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). In terms of Waitress, I also find it hard to separate Shelly’s protagonist, Jenna, from the lead character she herself played in Trust, especially because some of the line readings in Waitress mimic the idiosyncratic dialogue that has become one of stylistic features of Hartley’s work. In Trust, Shelly played a pregnant teenager knocked up by her jock boyfriend, Anthony, who promptly dumps her once he finds out. After her father refuses her request for money, she slaps and inadvertently kills him, thus setting in motion a Bressonian journey of spiritual growth and self-discovery once she encounters an angry computer guy named Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan). A romance develops between the two outcasts. They even consider marriage, but Maria eventually opts to have an abortion because it has forced Matthew to take a job he can’t stomach and because their relationship is changing him for the worse. In the end, Matthew threatens to blow up a computer factory, but the two of them achieve a more spiritual form of love before he’s whisked away in a police car. One of the ironies of Trust is that Matthew’s abusive father resents his son because his wife died while giving birth. Hartley plays up the Oedipal conflict by having Maria wear the mother’s dress throughout much of the film.


In Waitress, a film set in the rural South, Jenna (Keri Russell) is also the victim of an unwanted pregnancy, but abortion doesn’t seem to be a viable option this time. Her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a wife abuser, who’s jealous that the baby will replace him. Jenna consequently resents the baby and displaces her emotional feelings onto the pies she bakes. Utterly lacking in self-confidence except for her baking skills, she schemes to win a pie-baking contest as her only hope of getting out of the relationship. Jenna meanwhile falls for her handsome gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). The only complication preventing their running off together, which takes up most of the middle act, is the fact that he’s also married. According to the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, these two people are clearly meant for each other. In a final twist, however, Jenna chooses to leave both husband and lover, through a redemptive revelation following child birth, and a plot device involving the pie shop’s grumpy owner, Old Joe (played by Andy Griffith).


Throughout the movie, I kept wondering who the target audience was for this movie, but by the time it was over, that part had become abundantly clear. It’s no wonder that the theater reportedly was packed on Mother’s Day. Fox Searchlight made sure of that by creating a special gift-bag promotion for Mother’s Day, which included (among various items) a Sara Lee Simple Sweets six-inch pre-baked pie, at 100 theaters nationwide. The film’s politics are not my own to be sure, but, let’s face it, there are many parents in the world who love their children a great deal more than their partners. The film is now being sold with the marketing tag line: “If only life were as easy as pie.” Yes, that’s the irony of the movie all right, and no doubt what Mr. Herwitz seems to have had in mind. Despite its portrayal of thwarted ambition, loveless and compromised relationships, and casual extra-marital affairs, Waitress ultimately provides a kind of light-hearted fairy tale with an upbeat ending, much like Little Miss Sunshine and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That grim reality has had the final say is what makes Waitress feel so heartbreaking. But that’s now part of the marketing strategy, which will no doubt succeed in taking Shelly’s small, personal, and somewhat whimsical film and turning it into dollars at the box office. Because I’ve always been a big fan and consider Adrienne Shelly to be a somewhat iconic figure in the history of independent cinema, I guess part of me finds that to be very sad as well.

Posted 26 May, 2007

Postscript: Sundance 608 Revisited

The added surcharge on tickets at Sundance 608 made the front page of The Capital Times last Friday afternoon with the $11.75 ticket price prominently featured in the headline. The article by Samara Kalk Derby indicates that there have been many complaints from customers, who are frankly baffled by the policy, as well as the rationale: Why am I being charged for reserved seats when they are all reserved? Derby suggests that “management was tight-lipped about the policy until the last minute.” She also states: “Conflicting ticket price information is given out by the box office, a telephone message, the Web Site, a screen outside the theater, and kiosks in front of the theater.” While several patrons interviewed for the article took the surcharge in stride, one person called it “sneaky.”


I was back for the third time on Friday to see the Danish melodrama After the Wedding. I deliberately went at 12:15 PM, because I thought there wasn’t a surcharge for the first show, but quickly found out that the policy is only in effect Monday through Thursday. My ticket cost an extra dollar ($7.25), even though there was only one other patron at the screening and no need for a reserved seat.


Some people have suggested that the added surcharge is a brilliant business strategy, but I now disagree, as evidenced by the negative publicity the policy is generating within the community. Everyone has heard about it, including people who haven’t been to the theater yet. I could see Sundance 608 charging higher ticket prices or a surcharge for choosing reserved seats, especially for crowded shows, but why this convoluted policy? Don’t you want to bring folks into the theater with quality movies, so that you can then have them stick around for food and drinks, and so forth? Isn’t that why Sundance 608 has a café, bistro, gift shop and two bars?

Posted 22 May, 2007

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