The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Best Independent Films of 2010

I’ve posted my “best film” list for the past three years now in February rather than December like other critics and bloggers. The reason is simple. Because I’m based in the Midwest, I always want to be sure I’ve seen all the major indie films that might be worthy of consideration. As I keep complaining, despite my best efforts, that’s not an easy task these days. So it takes me a bit longer to catch up with all the films I want to see. That said, as it turns out, I could have posted this earlier because none of the additional films I watched ended up making the list.

Some “best film” lists have strict rules. One blog limits indie films to budgets of under $1 million. The budgets on my list vary a great deal, but most of them (with the exception of Life During Wartime, Greenberg and Winter’s Bone) are pretty miniscule. On the other hand, there are many films made for a pittance that I wouldn’t consider independent – they’re really industry calling cards. I have little personal interest in such films. Another list insists that a film play at least three times. That might work in New York City, but here we’re often lucky if a film like Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica plays even once. It did in January at our Cinematheque, and I was grateful for an opportunity to see it. To my great surprise, Trash Humpers played for a week. The two other people at the screening I attended left after ten minutes. At least people had a chance to see the film, but that’s often not the case, which continues to be the major problem for alternative cinema.

I liked quite a number of international art films this year: Fish Tank, Everyone Else, Mother, White Material and The Strange Case of Angelica, among others. But again the focus of this blog is American indie cinema, not because of chauvinism, but because that happens to be my main research interest. There are plenty of other Web Sites out there that cover other types of films.

My list surprised even me this time around, which I guess is part of the fun of the exercise. For the record, I’ve seen every film at least twice. In fact, I never write about a film on the basis of a single viewing. No film seemed to benefit more from a second look than Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Trash Humpers, while a polarizing film for audiences, also resonated more on a second viewing. Less than half of the films on the list had brief commercial runs in town (Madison, Wisconsin). Three of them played at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw some excellent films and videos in art galleries and museums in NYC this year. Standouts include: Ryan McNamara’s dance piece, I Thought It Was You, Tommy Hartung’s stop-motion animation The Ascent of Man, and works by Kalup Linzy, Dani Leventhal (all seen at Greater New York at PS 1). I also admired Mika Rottenberg’s Squeeze at Mary Boone in conjunction with Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2010:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie)
  2. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
  3. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
  4. Face (Andy Warhol)
  5. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
  6. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle)
  7. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham)
  8. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
  9. The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)
  10. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

There were many extraordinary film performances this year: Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl) , Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Ronnie Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs).

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “Best Indie Films of 2009,” as well as the “Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 23 February, 2011

Prince of Broadway

Sean Baker has to be one of the most underrated young American indie filmmakers working today. After Four Letter Words (2000), he reinvented himself with two stellar features, namely Take Out (2004), which took years to screen theatrically, and Prince of Broadway (2010), which actually came out a couple of years ago. It played at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival, but only had its theatrical opening last September. Both Take Out and Prince of Broadway vied for the 2009 John Cassavetes Award (films made under $500,000). The double nomination probably hurt Baker’s chances of winning by splitting the votes he received.

A documentary-like look at an illegal immigrant Chinese delivery person in New York City, Take Out was shot in an actual Upper West Side restaurant during business hours, featured lots of b-roll shots, and interspersed actual orders with Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s fictional story. An added bonus was the candid responses of the various customers (solicited via Craigslist) to the home delivery person, Ming Ding (Charles Jang). Despite his desperate need to pay off pressing debts to loan sharks, Ming is much too shy and proud to play up to the customers in order to get bigger tips.

Prince of Broadway shares the same gritty realism as the previous film in telling the story of immigrants who sell counterfeit goods on the streets of New York City. One is a fast-talking West African hustler named Lucky (Prince Adu). The other is his boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), a middle-aged Armenian from Lebanon, whose bare clothing store serves as a front for a secret back room full of luxury-brand knockoffs – from Gucci to Vuitton. Levon has married an attractive young woman in order to get a green card. Although he yearns for the relationship to be much more, it’s already on the skids.

The film’s catalyst occurs roughly twelve minutes into the film, when Lucky’s Latina ex-girlfriend, Linda (Kat Sanchez), dumps off a baby (Aiden Noesi), claiming that he’s the father. She tells him: “Be a man for once.” Linda indicates that it will only be temporary, but it soon becomes clear that the baby is interfering with a relationship she’s developed with a new boyfriend – a muscle-bound, jealous thug, who beats up Lucky when he chases after Linda. “I have no papers,” Lucky later pleads to her mother, “what can I do with this baby, please?”

Even though he’s an adult, Lucky is emotionally a child. When he gets the baby home, he lays down the law, telling him not to mess with his porno collection or his weed before breaking into tears. The eighteen-month-old baby, whom he eventually names Prince, is adorable, but Lucky only sees him as a burden. He complains constantly about his plight, not only to the uncomprehending toddler, but to anyone else who will listen. Most of his friends feel he’s being duped – the baby looks too light-skinned to be his kid. Prince also throws a wrench into Lucky’s relationship with his current girlfriend, Karina (Keyali Mayaga), who wants him to get an education. Like Take Out, Prince of Broadway has a ticking clock, in this case a DNA test to prove paternity, but Baker is careful not to use it in a heavy-handed way.

Not only does the film focus on the bond that slowly develops between Lucky and Prince, but it also centers on Lucky’s relationship with Levon, who serves as a father figure, even though he’s hardly the ideal role model. Levon asks him, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” He gives Lucky money and instructions on how to hold the baby properly. He puts the baby’s hat on and tells Lucky, “Hold the kid, man. You’re going to drop the kid!” When Lucky doesn’t listen, he shouts, “Are you fucking kidding me? Hold the kid!” There have been a number of recent films that deal with the issue of fatherhood: Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Life During Wartime. Prince of Broadway also has echoes of Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, which also explored the experience of new immigrants in this country.

Baker likes to confuse and blend documentary and fiction. His films have a raw power that’s makes it seem as if he’s stuck his camera into real-life situations. The script is credited to Baker and his producer Darren Dean, but, as a final credit indicates, “the characters’ dialogue was realized through improvisation and a collaborative process with all actors.” As I keep writing about, many indie filmmakers have forsaken the well-written script in favor of structured improvisation. Baker, however, points out that there is often a stigma attached to working this way. He told an interviewer: “But [with Prince of Broadway] the improvised is simply the dialogue. Every scene had a beginning middle and end. It was just the dialogue. Some people think you are not doing your work if you don’t have the full fleshed out script.”

If the use of improvisation is becoming common in micro-budget indie films lately, the cutting in Baker’s films is quite unusual. In his excellent book The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell explores the concept of “intensified continuity” in depth and why the cutting of Hollywood films keeps getting faster. Indie films, especially naturalistic ones, have generally shared with art cinema a contrarian impulse – the story often unfolds in long, leisurely takes. Yet Baker fractures the space and time of his film through the use of manic cutting. An editor by profession, Baker’s impulse is to cut continually, which gives his film an exciting kinetic energy.

As a result, Prince of Broadway never feels boring. In exploring the subculture of those engaged in the underground economy, Baker provides an exciting glimpse into the lives of largely invisible characters who live on the margins.

Posted 18 February, 2011

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia). Photograph by W.A.W. Parker.

Damien Chazelle’s impressive debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench represents an amalgam between the realist aesthetics of the New American Cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s and the free-form casualness of the French New Wave. It pays homage to American musicals and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) through its opening iris shot of an umbrella and montage sequence of Guy (Jason Palmer), an African-American trumpeter, and Madeline (Desiree Garcia), an aimless graduate student, who appear to break up on a park bench.

Following their breakup, Guy takes down and hides a photo of the two of them in his apartment. The story flashes back to one week earlier, where we see Guy giving Madeline lessons on how to play the trumpet. After she blows a horrible note, she comments, “It sounds like someone’s dying.” To Guy, whose entire life is expressed through music, that might matter more than we realize. From a jam session, where Madeline observes Guy play, the film shifts to another young woman Elena (Sandha Khin), who watches a street juggler perform and then gives him a buck and her phone number. Nothing comes of this, but it establishes her character, especially once she gives him two names – her real name and fictional one.

Elena later succeeds in picking up Guy on a crowded subway. The scene is conveyed through a remarkable series of wordless shots – their feet and hands brush ever so lightly against each other; oblique glances turn into knowing eye contact, before she boldly slips her two fingers into his pants pocket. As Madeline studies alone, the film circles back on itself as we glimpse Elena in Guy’s apartment, where Guy again stashes the photo of him and Madeline.

Guy attends a party that turns into a musical as the camera pans back and forth between energetic singing and tap-dancing in one room and Guy playing trumpet in another. The exuberance of the scene provides a telling contrast to the staid grad student gathering that Madeline splits out of boredom. After documentary shots of her walking through Boston, the camera frames Madeline, who breaks into a song about her relationship with Guy as she strolls through the park: “It happened at dawn; it happened in this park . . .” The scene ends as she sits down on a fountain, so that half of her is covered by a sheet of falling water.

The film uses a parallel structure to follow the lives of the three characters in what becomes a romantic triangle. Madeline hooks up with another guy, who insists on waiting for her while she gets her hair cut at a beauty shop, but she abruptly ditches him afterward. Meanwhile, as Guy and Elena shower together, she asks him about his plans for the day. Guy tells her that his family is visiting, but doesn’t attempt to include her. Her hurt reaction registers clearly in a profile shot of her face, as she splashes water on it.

The family’s visit exemplifies the film’s elliptical style. In a wide shot, four family members carry their luggage down the street and into Guy’s apartment. We expect to be introduced to them, but Chazelle resorts to synecdoche instead. As Guy teaches his mother how to play the piano, the camera ends up focusing on their fingers hitting keys. The film then cuts to Elena lying pensively in bed. Guy plays the trumpet loudly the next morning. When she complains, he claims that he’s working on a piece for her. As she stews in the bedroom, Guy comes in and blows his trumpet again, indicating the growing tension between them.

Madeline departs to New York City, where she meets an older guy (played by the filmmaker’s father, Bernard Chazelle) in the park. He sings in French while cooking for her in his apartment. After trying on a hat at an outdoor stand, Elena also ends up going home with a middle-aged stranger, Frank (Frank Garvin), but his twelve-year-old daughter (Alma Prelec) is unexpectedly there, and the three of them awkwardly play a game of “twenty questions.”

When Guy plays a tape of the earlier jam session, it causes a flashback to the actual event. The film cuts from Guy’s expression to his pounding on the door of Madeline’s apartment, but her landlords indicate that she’s in New York. Madeline returns to her job at the Summer Shack, where she learns about Guy. As she cleans the nearly deserted restaurant, she sings and dances an elaborate musical number about “kissing the boy in the park,” which ends with her sitting on the park bench before the two ex-lovers finally meet up once again

Some reviewers have struggled with the legibility of the film. Chazelle employs an episodic and elliptical style of filmmaking that’s less concerned with narrative coherence and dramatic arcs. Even after two viewings, I’m not sure I completely grasp the circularity of its structure or the time frame of Guy’s relationships with either woman. Yet the film’s concern for spontaneous and impressionistic 16mm black-and-white camerawork, musical interludes and choreographed dance numbers more than compensate for the film choosing to ignore certain rules of classical narration.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is much more of a mood piece. Chazelle is able to get wonderfully naturalistic performances from his nonprofessional cast. Sandha Khin’s outgoing manner provides a striking contrast to Desiree Garcia, whose introverted character, other than when she sings and dances, is conveyed mainly through her silence and piercingly sad eyes.

Jason Palmer doesn’t play a jazz musician – he is one. His body language and musical talent convey his character better than any dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. That was a deliberate strategy on the part of the director and the film’s gifted music composer, Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle explains in Interview: “I think we both really wanted the music to be a character in its own right, and the key storytelling device in the movie – the thing that was really going to tie it together, convey emotion, and say what the characters couldn’t say. The movie is really about shy, inarticulate people.”

Madeline on a Park Bench might be about a generation of shy, inarticulate young people, but the film has such an invigorating style that Chazelle’s tale of broken Beantown hearts feels strangely uplifting.

Posted 7 February, 2011