The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Robert Redford’s Sundance 608 Rides into Town

I attended the May 6 benefit at Sundance 608, the new six-screen multiplex that opened in Madison last week with great fanfare. I’m frankly excited at having Sundance in town, because it serves to increase the number of screening possibilities for non-Hollywood films. Robert Redford explained in an Isthmus interview: “We wanted to take the concept of supporting new artists into exhibition.”

I wasn’t so crazy about the film I saw at the benefit, Paris Je’Taime, which only proves how difficult the five-minute format is for even the best of filmmakers. The sound and picture, however, looked great, and each of theaters is stadium-tiered so that the sightlines are excellent. I went back this week to see the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress. Since I wrote about Hal Hartley’s Trust in one of the chapters of my book and have always been a huge fan, I don’t know how I thought I possibly could see the film without experiencing an inevitable meltdown.

In any event, I would not have imagined that a new movie theater would engender such a spirited debate on the “filmies” listserv, but the gripes have ranged from the croissants to the art on the walls to the imported birch trees that line the walkway to the various theaters. The biggest complaints, however, have to do with the scaled ticket pricing, or added surcharge, which varies according to the time and day. I paid $7.75 for a 2:30 PM matinee (my ticket receipt ironically shows $6.25) on a Monday, but I hear that it can cost $11.75 for a Friday or Saturday primetime screening, once the $3.00 surcharge is factored in. Will this business model work? I’m not really sure. At my matinee screening there were about 20 elderly people – the kind of audience you might expect to attend a movie on a weekday afternoon.


Sundance 608 is attempting to convey an upscale rather than ballpark experience for movie-goers, with a bar and bistro, lounges, cafe, free wi-fi, and a rooftop bar for warm weather. The gift shop sells mostly Sundance sweat shirts and caps or branded merchandise and crafts (but so far no books on independent cinema). I was interested in a Sundance Film Festival catalogue, but unfortunately it wasn’t for sale. The theater décor itself made me think I was in Scottsdale, Arizona rather than Madison, except for the trees rather than cacti. Despite public relations statements from Sundance that emphasize this community, I’m not convinced that Sundance completely understands the Madison market or the subtle politics and mores of the city.


Madison doesn’t have a moneyed class in the same way that many other cities do. It’s not that there aren’t wealthy people who live here – there are plenty – but snobbery has never played well. It took years before wine bars and chic restaurants became accepted. The Wisconsin Film Festival is certainly a major hit. This year there were 28,700 paid admissions for the four-day festival, but it’s not a star-studded event and ticket prices are inexpensive. The UW Cinematheque often draws packed audiences for its weekly fare of classic films and art cinema. Like the art museums, it’s free to the public. Sundance, however, is selling a brand name, a certain lifestyle to people, so it doesn’t surprise me that Madisonians might remain a bit skeptical, even though they appreciate the attention. Robert Redford was a no-show at the opening, but I’m sure he’ll turn up as promised at some point in the near future.


Numerous emails and blogs reported that having ushers introduce the films seemed pretentious. At my screening, the young female usher beamed as she escorted people to their reserved seats, while a claymation short played silently on the screen minus its sound track. When the usher publicly welcomed everyone and announced she would be checking on our viewing experience, I can’t say I felt reassured. After Waitress, I needed some time to regain my composure, but the usher was back again and her enthusiastic smile upon exiting seemed somehow inappropriate to the sadness I felt after watching Shelly’s film.


Sundance 608 is counter-intuitive in a business sense. Jim Kreul suggests that most people (other than cinephiles) don’t go to the movies anymore. He writes: “Generally speaking, it is very hard to get people out of the house for a film. This seems true of young and old, but for different reasons. Young: Income, video games, rap music, etc. Old: Home Theaters, fear of parallel parking, fear of rap music, etc.” Many friends with kids certainly no longer go to the movies. It’s too expensive to get a baby sitter. There’s television and Netflix, and let’s face it: people are working harder and longer hours than ever. How do you fit in a three-hour movie such as David Lynch’s Inland Empire (or any overly long feature film) on a work night? It’s almost as if many film directors are deliberately trying to drive off the remaining audience by extending most viewing experiences beyond endurance. It really does boil down to being able to find the time to go to the movies.


Obviously Sundance is counting on people to have a drink and dinner and catch a movie, but that’s where the ticket surcharge could backfire. It could easily be seen as unnecessary gouging. The success of Sundance will also depend very heavily on the quality of its programming. I think people want to see the alternative movies they are reading about nationally in the New York Times and the New Yorker, or hearing about on National Public Radio. That’s why there was a big audience for Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep at a 5 PM Thursday screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival. That’s where Sundance will be able to pick up an audience for certain films. It’s possible that Sundance 608 could become a place for people to go for one-stop entertainment, which is why the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) also has a restaurant and bar and a Rooftop Film Series in the summer.


I looked at the movies that are playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan: Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the beautifully restored 35mm print of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Day Night Day Night, Private Fears in Public Places, Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Zoo. I’ll promise not to kvetch if Sundance 608 delivers this type of programming. In addition, the Madison newspapers better bolster their staff of movie reviewers because that’s also an important part of the equation. And audiences really need to attend screenings of great films when they play here. Kreul writes to his fellow film colleagues: “All you can do is support what you want to maintain in your community, and see what happens. You’re the target audience for these films, so you’re essentially telling the distributors not to market the films in Madison if you don’t go to see them in the theaters.” He’s right!

Posted 18 May, 2007

The State of American Indies

I talked about the identity crisis facing American independent cinema in my recent book on indie screenwriting. It’s been a topic of discussion almost from the start, as evidenced by Jonas Mekas’s criticism of the second “scripted” version of John Cassavetes’ Shadows as “just another Hollywood film.” Jon Jost’s premature declaration of the indie movement’s death in an article in Film Comment in 1989 would serve as another important historical marker, as would Ted Hope’s similar conclusions in a 1995 issue of Filmmaker. Sparked by the lack of emerging talent at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sight & Sound’s April cover story also decries the cooption of a truly alternative practice.

There is, of course, much truth in Michael Atkinson’s largely cultural analysis of the phenomenon facing American independent filmmakers, in which he sees a shift from social interaction to self-absorption as a result of a preoccupation with new technologies. He writes: “Today, we are consumers first, citizens second, and the castle of distraction we’ve built around ourselves is itself little more than a series of revenue streams devised to exploit us.” In terms of a truly independent practice, Atkinson asks what is there to make films about when “everyone’s too comfortably busy being entertained, intoxicated, distracted and market-researched.” Yet he finds some glimmer of hope in the self-distributed work of David Lynch and Andrew Bujalski, along with filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Solondz, Lodge Kerrigan, and Kelly Reichardt.

Despite her acknowledgement of some strong isolated features over the past several years, Amy Taubin contends that “only two US filmmakers – Richard Kelly and Andrew Bujalski – made me think they had a shot at having careers as significant as Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch.” Her email quote from Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation) seems a bit odd within the context of the Atkinson’s critique. Bujalski writes of his intention to shoot another small low budget project, suggesting that “as the unsustainability of this endeavor becomes more & more pressing it seems like I’ve got to make a small film now or never, certainly it would be harder to go ‘back’ if the studio project I’ve been hired onto comes to fruition.”

The mainstream film industry has the ability to co-opt independence, including Bujalski’s desire to make another small low-budget feature. Yet what’s not mentioned in Sight & Sound article is that there’s another alternative out there, namely the art world. One only has to go to a major gallery, art fair, museum, or biennial to realize that half of the work shown involves film or video in some form or another. While the big galleries have their own issues (which I shouldn’t minimize), the art world is at least a lot more willing to allow artists the freedom to realize their vision than executives of film companies. Artists such Matthew Barney, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Yang Fudong, Diana Thater, and Jane and Louise Wilson are striking examples. If Bill Viola, Pierre Huyghe, and Jesper Just can have galleries and museums commission large-budget projects, I easily could see David Lynch and Gus Van Sant receiving the same type of financing and by-passing the studios as well. Art magazines today are also writing about film in ways they haven’t before, so I’m not at all surprised to find David Lynch on the cover of the March issue of the highly influential Art Review with the heading: “David Lynch Takes on the Art World.” The article discusses his current show “The Air Is on Fire” at Foundation Cartier in Paris, which features work in a variety of media: painting, drawing, photography, installation, sound, and film.

Posted 16 May, 2007

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