The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Best Indpendent Films of 2011

Although the overall quality of this past year’s independent films remained strong, most still had difficulty finding an audience. Of the films on my list, Martha Marcy May Marlene grossed the highest amount, at nearly $3 million; Take Shelter and The Future made less than their budgets.

Todd Solondz claims his films don’t make money any more and is struggling to release his latest effort, Dark Horse, while Hal Hartley is looking to raise funding on Kickstarter. Even Spike Lee got tired of waiting to find financing for his latest commercial film, and wound up self-financing it. Everyone keeps talking about new distribution models, but let’s face it: the theaters are, for the most part, empty when independent films actually do have theatrical runs. DVD appears to have died as well, as we know from the fiasco involving Netflix. I believe that only 6 of the 10 films on my list played in my home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

No matter how cheap films are to make these days, filmmakers can’t continue to lose money. VOD doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Ti West literally wrote a letter to fans begging them not to pirate his latest release, The Innkeepers. He claims he hasn’t made any money from his films. Joe Swanberg seems to have found a viable model, but it appears to involve sheer quantity. Frank V. Ross, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire (Hohokam, 2007 and Audrey the Trainwreck, 2010) told me he doesn’t ever expect to realize any return on his films.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled to keep up with this blog because I’ve been consumed with completing my latest book, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012), which has taken up so much of my time. It’s due out this spring. Publishing, however, isn’t all that different from making movies these days. Unless you’re a celebrity author, you can’t expect to get rich on book sales, especially writing academic books.

I saw a number of inspiring films from outside the USA: Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Certified Copy, to name a few, but I also missed a number of important films that I hope to see shortly. Ironically, I saw some terrific American indie films this past year that I can’t include them because they didn’t have a theatrical opening: Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever, Sophia Takal’s Green, Gregory Kohn’s Northeast, and Mark Jackson’s Without. I’ve written about four of the five already. I saw Alex Ross Perry’s film at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, and intend to write about it at some point this year.

To be honest, it’s difficult to write blogs about films that many folks simply haven’t seen, but I remain committed to doing so if it can bring more attention to independent work. I have to say that no blogger has been more supportive of my efforts than Mike Everleth at Bad Lit, whose site I consider essential reading for anyone interested in alternative film.

If there was one major theme that emerged this year, it was the feeling that the end of the world is imminent. Melancholia might serve as the model, but Take Shelter, The Future, and Bellflower share the same vision of impending doom.

I saw Meek’s Cutoff twice when it played to the New York Film Festival in October of 2010. I found myself driving to the theater when it played here in town many months later. I felt under a spell like in a Miranda July film. Once the first image appeared, however, I suddenly understood why I was there. It was without a doubt my favorite film of the year. Jon Raymond, the film’s gifted screenwriter, has a new novel coming out this spring, entitled Rain Dragon. Jon (who co-wrote the screenplays for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy as well) is a terrific writer. I strongly recommend that you order his book. It’s already listed on Amazon.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2011:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  2. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  3. The Future (Miranda July)
  4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
  5. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
  6. Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield)
  7. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
  8. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)
  9. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
  10. The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal)

Two of the filmmakers on my list have been included in this year’s upcoming Whitney Biennial: Kelly Reichardt and Matthew Porterfield. I try never to miss a Whitney Biennial, if at all possible.

There were many extraordinary performances this year: Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Jacob Wysocki (Terri), Robert Longstreet (The Catechism Cataclysm), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff), and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Austin Vickers (Jess + Moss) is a natural. For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009” as well as “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

For the record, I always post my list in February.

Posted 24 February, 2012

Take Shelter

The suspense/horror genre has gained new prominence in indie cinema lately. This appears evident not only in films such as Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2012), and Calvin Reeder’s Lynchian-inspired The Oregonian (2011), but also in films that employ elements of the genre, notably Todd Rohal’s The Catechism Cataclysm (2010), Mark Jackson’s Without (2012), and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011). Horror also seems to have crept back into our daily lives with a vengeance, taxing our psyches’ ability to grapple with catastrophes – both natural and human-made – that inundate us each day. Add to that an economic recession and the fact that ordinary people’s security nets are being pulled away ruthlessly. As a result, it should hardly be surprising that Jeff Nichols’s angst-ridden Take Shelter would strike such a responsive chord.

Nichols’s regionally flavored first effort, Shotgun Stories (2008), was a study of bitter hatred stemming from a family feud. His new film Take Shelter focuses on a construction worker in rural Ohio named Curtis (Michael Shannon), who is desperately trying to provide for his family as he begins to suffer hallucinations and nightmares that may be apocalyptic premonitions or merely demons inside his head. The film allows us to view Curtis’s torturous plight through its impact on his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf child Hannah (Tova Stewart), as well as his best friend, a hot-headed co-worker named Dewart (Shea Whigham). The fact that his mother began suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at a similar age adds a complicating factor regarding the nature of Curtis’s shaky mental state.

Take Shelter begins with tree branches swaying in the wind. Curtis stands in his driveway and surveys a clouded sky. As lightning flickers through the overcast sky, the ensuing drops of rain contain a viscous brown substance. Nature is just as much a character in Take Shelter. The great expanse of Midwestern sky appears ominous and threatening early on, as bad weather interrupts Curtis’s construction job at a gravel pit and causes Samantha to teach Hannah how to say “storm” in sign language. As Dewart and Curtis talk in the car after work and drinks, Dewart tells his friend: “You got a good life, Curtis. Serious. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life, and say, ‘that’s good.’ That guy’s doing something right.” Curtis responds, “Well, it ain’t always so easy.”

Curtis’s remark is a gross understatement. As he stares at his sleeping daughter and Samantha appears bedside him, the parents worry over the fact that Hannah is unable to play with the other kids. Amidst more rain and lightening, Curtis has a hallucination in which the family dog attacks him. Concerned for Hannah’s safety, he puts the dog outside and later gives it away to his brother. As his own condition deteriorates, Curtis has terrible nightmares involving Hannah’s safety. In one instance, the furniture levitates and crashes in his living room. Curtis wets his bed, experiences a seizure, and spits blood. His behavior becomes more erratic. He ploughs money he doesn’t have into remodeling and expanding an old storm shelter to protect his family. In response, his brother warns him, “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.” Yet Curtis proceeds to put his pal Dewart in an awkward position and jeopardizes his job and health insurance, which is crucial to Hannah’s impending ear surgery.

Marital discord develops between Samantha and Curtis over his actions. She loves him deeply and is concerned for his well-being, but he’s clearly starting to unravel. The slow fuse in Curtis that’s been burning beneath the surface finally explodes at the local Lions Club dinner. His fury feels as if a scary Frankenstein-like monster has suddenly been unleashed, as Curtis admonishes his neighbors with a fire-and-brimstone tirade that’s downright biblical. Forced to decide whether to stay with her husband, Samantha develops her own plan to salvage their increasingly desperate situation. Take Shelter is like watching a Greek tragedy slowly unfold, but, to his credit, Nichols manages to keep us riveted right until the film’s unpredictable end.

Nichols’s Take Shelter has the ambition and grandeur of an American epic, in which the bonds of a working-class family get tested and pushed to the limits. It’s a truly remarkable second feature that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), left me utterly shaken when I first saw it opening weekend in New York City. A great deal of the power of Take Shelter derives from the film’s striking imagery, David Wingo’s haunting score, and the performances of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. Shannon, who was fantastic in Shotgun Stories, is even more mesmerizing here. Much of Curtis’s character is conveyed through gesture. His pained face somehow becomes a map of worried intensity, which is reinforced by his wooden jaw, bowed head, and a faraway look that appears when he’s talking. If there was a better acting performance last year, I didn’t see it.

As in Shotgun Stories, Nichols uses the natural landscape to full effect, especially in how weather contributes to the film’s overall mood and atmosphere. He told Scott Macaulay in Filmmaker that Take Shelter is “a movie about skies,” which necessitated shooting it on super 35 mm film. It’s against that threatening and turbulent sky and Adam Stone’s majestic cinematography that Curtis wages his battle – a human figure dwarfed by the natural world. He’s also at the mercy of an economy that can be equally brutal to those most vulnerable, such as someone like Curtis suffering from mental problems, or his daughter, Hannah, who needs expensive surgery. It is no wonder that Curtis clings to his family with such ferocity. He secretly knows that, without them, he’ll never be able to survive.

Posted 23 February, 2012

Jess + Moss

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Experimental films at Sundance are not unlike the flu bugs that run rampant through the festival’s many crowded venues: They’re inevitable but to be avoided if possible” Even though the reviewer considered Jess + Moss to be an exception, he nevertheless qualified his response: “Not that its slow rhythms and intricate sight and sound design won’t tax the patience of those who trek here for celebrity sightings and the next hot film.” Why pander to the lowest common denominator? Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss was not only one of the most imaginative films at the festival, but also of the past year.

Jeter’s poetic film has a skeletal narrative, but exults in stunningly rich visual details rather than a conventional plot. Jess + Moss tells the story of an unlikely pair: an 18-year-old female named Jess (Sarah Hagan) and her 12-year-old second cousin, Moss (Austin Vickers). The two misfits hang out together during the hot summer months on a red-dirt tobacco farm in western Kentucky. They race bicycles, shoot off fireworks, smoke cigarettes (Moss only pretends), jump on trampolines, climb on top of giant grain bins, and play games in a dilapidated abandoned farm house, reenacting scenes from their childhood.

Although Jess and Moss are incredibly close to each other, the sullen Jess sometimes gets frustrated with her younger cousin due to their age difference. Early on, Moss tries to interest Jess in getting some free school supplies without success. He tells her, “You need art supplies. Your pencil is almost gone. You have, like no paper left in that art book.” When he asks Jess what kind of job she’s going to get, she’s unsure, but Moss thinks that she should design tee shirts because of her artistic skills. When Jess in turn asks Moss about his future plans, he wants to become a farmer and drive a tractor like everyone else in his family. “You don’t have to do that,” she cautions, “You can do whatever you want to do. It’s your life.”

Both Jess and Moss remain strangely isolated from others, but share a special bond. Moss lives with his overly religious grandparents. He later satirizes them by playing a preacher, as Jess corrects his saying of “The Lord’s Prayer” before enacting her own Crucifixion scene. What happened to Moss’s parents remains an issue that the film returns to over and over again. Moss relishes having Jess repeat the story of how his parents died in a car wreck and that his pregnancy and birth were the happiest events of their shortened lives. After dinner, as Moss eats a purple Popsicle, his grandparents dance to Connie Francis’s version of “Tammy.” This is intercut with shots of Jess, wearing a brassiere and wig, as she smokes a cigarette and poses in front of a mirror that somehow conjures up David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (2001).

Jess lives with her father, who seems aloof and distant. As she eats what looks like a TV dinner and stares straight ahead, he complains: “Don’t be fucking taking cigarettes anymore. You’re old enough to get a damn job . . . buy your own smokes.” Jess spends time listening to cassette tapes left by her mother. They offer Jess advice and explain why she decided to leave the family. Jess + Moss is obsessed with old technology in a way that’s reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010). The two characters listen to cassettes, as well as old records on a hand-cranked phonograph. In an effort to remember his past, Moss plays self-help tapes about improving his memory.

Despite its unconventional form, Jess + Moss still manages to be remarkably engaging as a poignant character study. Jess is pretty and has blue eyes, but she’s also tall and gangly, while Moss is short and much too young to be her companion. Jess knows this, of course, but this knowledge doesn’t prevent a repressed sexual undercurrent between them that’s palpable. As the film goes on, Jess only becomes more restless with her situation.

In one scene Jess questions Moss about his sexual experience – how far he’s gone with girls. He tells her he’s kissed one before, but when she mocks him for being in love with a younger girl named Haley, he adamantly denies it. As Moss takes a pee with his back to her, in voiceover he asks her what a dildo is. Jess insists that he’s much too young to know about such things, but when she explains that it’s a “substitute penis,” the two of them crack up. Moss and Jess have strange and intimate conversations, about such issues as longevity and the quality of life, including how long people should have to wipe your butt after you grow old. When they later dance together to an old record, Jess asks matter-of-factly, “Aren’t we supposed to dance closer?”

In another pivotal scene that takes place inside an old pickup truck in a barn while it’s raining, Jess takes off her wet blouse and suggests that they sit closer together for body warmth. She discusses the meaning of “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” which she describes to Moss as when a boy and girl go in a closed room and kiss or do whatever they want to do. Jess claims she’s done it before, but it’s clear that she’d also like to do it with him. Jess also remarks, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? I know the difference between right and wrong,” as a worried look crosses Moss’s face. Nothing happens, but she later kisses him with intense affection when he falls asleep.

Despite her fondness for Moss, Jess is mean to him on several occasions. She locks him in the barn with Haley and shoots at one of his jars of moss and swamp water, the contents of which he continually investigates under a microscope. And when Moss storms into the room while she’s listening to her Mom’s tape on a huge boom box, their subsequent spat inevitably alters their relationship

Jeter reportedly began the film with a location, two performers, and over 30 different outdated film stocks. He then proceeded to develop the semblance of a story. He told an interviewer: “I had the outline for the story and often wrote on the day of shooting. There was never a full screenplay but just these pages of ideas.” Once production began, however, Jeter more or less discarded them in favor of a more improvisational approach. Much of the strength of the film derives from how the two performers, Sarah Hagen and the young novice Austin Vickers, inhabit their characters. The cinematography by Will Basanta is exceptional, while Isaac Hagy’s editing is impressive for the way he’s able to create a sense of fluidity between disparate scenes.

Mark Jackson’s Without, which I wrote about previously, is about digital memory. Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss is another memory piece about the ache of loss and abandonment, but the analog version. The two main characters’ nostalgia for old technology is their desperate attempt to hold on to the past. Yet neither Jess nor Moss fully understands the ways in which the past can often haunt the future.

Jess + Moss will have a week-long theatrical run at the reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn starting February 17. The film is currently available on VOD, while the DVD will be released in late March.

Posted 11 February, 2012

Without

Mark Jackson’s debut feature Without is the latest independent film to leave me excited by the work that young indie filmmakers are able to accomplish on very low budgets these days.

Without tells the story of a 19-year-old young woman, Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), who takes a temporary job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly man named Frank (Ron Carrier). He appears to have suffered a major stroke and is now wheelchair bound. The film begins with a close-up of the young protagonist’s face, which the camera holds on for over 30 seconds. Her head is tilted slightly down and her eyes quiver ever so slightly. Following the opening credit, we see that Joslyn is actually looking at her Smartphone while on a ferry boat to her new job. Without is a film that deals with technology’s impact on the young, who depend on it to communicate with peers and validate their own existence. Finding herself isolated on an island off the coast of Washington State without either the Internet or a strong cell signal, Joslyn gradually becomes unglued.

A hulking taxi driver, Darren (Darren Lenz), initially picks her up at the ferry. He comes on to her right away and turns out to be a persistent suitor. She cleverly fends him off by pretending to be going to a different house. Through pictures on her Smartphone, we discover that Joslyn appears to be infatuated with a young Asian woman, suggesting that she’s already in love, which provides an explanation for her indifference to Darren. Things, however, turn out to be far more complicated than we imagine. Left without a means of communication with the outside world, Joslyn’s situation begins to parallel that of Frank.

Frank is unable to speak, but, according to his family, he still remains very willful. They insist on a regimen that they refer to as the “Bible” – he only watches the fishing channel, the sound on the TV has to be set at a certain prescribed level, knives can’t go in the dishwasher, and Frank won’t share his whiskey. While the family’s own relationship with Frank is shown to be perfunctory at best, they act condescendingly toward Joslyn, especially by inundating her with all their house rules, which they’ve written down for her. At one point later in the film, she performs a very funny skit for the helpless Frank that satirizes their ridiculous restrictions regarding the use of the television.

As Joslyn cares for Frank, she seems oddly remote. She quickly becomes bored with her daily routine: the strenuous work of caring for Frank (spoon feeding him meals and lifting him into bed), the occasional trips to get a chai with skim milk at a nearby coffee stand, physical fitness exercise, and yoga. Cut off from the world except for photos and videos stored on her cellphone, Joslyn sets up an old computer with a Skype camera. Questions begin to arise for the viewer, but Mark Jackson, the film’s writer and director, is very careful to parcel out the pertinent details of the story very slowly, so that the viewer is forced to connect the ambiguous dots.

The silence between the two characters and their inability to communicate becomes a major source of friction in the film and a catalyst for what follows. Joslyn begins to suffer her own torments in the isolated environment, so that her feelings toward Frank begin to shift. When she first changes his soiled undergarments, she discreetly looks away. Given what we discern to be her sexual orientation, it’s understandable. Yet a strange sexual undercurrent eventually develops between her and Frank, especially as her loneliness causes her own sexuality and pent-up anger and remorse to surface in shocking ways. Before long, Joslyn finds herself in conflict with nearly all the other characters in the film.

The film plays with a number of different genres. As one might expect, the situation of a woman alone on an island contains elements of suspense and horror. What exactly is that skin rash that mysteriously appears on her back? Frank’s groans start to sound like a howling wolf. Her incapacitated client may or may not be as helpless as he seems. And the spurned Darren may actually pose a threat. Jackson is adept at making us wonder what’s real, given Joslyn’s growing instability, and what’s merely inside her head. The film’s strength is how Jackson is able to use a simple story and few elements to create such riveting dramatic tension.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Joslyn Jensen, who gives a brilliant, uninhibited performance as the film’s lead character. If there’s one thing certain these days, it’s that there are a bunch of terrific young performers out there. Jensen is so good, however, that it’s hard not to concentrate solely on the subtleties of her rendering of the character, especially in how she is able to portray steamy eroticism. Much of her performance is communicated nonverbally – through facial expressions, bodily movement, abrupt mood swings, and a song she sings while playing the ukulele that expresses the pain and grief of her character with such depth it will haunt you long after the film is over. Ron Carrier is excellent as well. He portrays Frank with a slight sense of menace, so that we’re never quite sure how to read his character.

Without was shot with a Canon 5D camera. This relatively inexpensive HD camera is notorious for giving shallow depth of field to an image. The film’s cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, utilize this defect to great advantage. In an early scene, the camera is placed behind Joslyn, so that we move in with her toward the blurry shore as the ferry docks. The muted background of the shots often seems to suggest her own tenuous psychological state.

It’s hard to imagine the film being passed over for the Sundance Film Festival last year, especially given some of the other films that were programmed. Without played at Slamdance instead. It has also screened at Locarno and other film festivals and been nominated for a number of prestigious independent film awards. I’m told by Mike King, one of the programmers, that Without has been selected to play at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, along with Sophia Takal’s Green, which I have written about previously. Both films are not to be missed.

Mark Jackson’s Without represents a remarkable debut feature. An impressive character study, the film addresses issues of human communication and technology, as well as memory and loss. In exploring a young female character’s fragile psyche with an economy of means, Jackson uses the inability to communicate as a means to evoke what’s percolating under the surface. At the film’s opening, we view Joslyn’s seemingly innocent face, unaware of how much it hides. And the Smartphone she stares at so intently, little do we realize how much of her past life is contained in such a small handheld device.

 

Posted 1 February, 2012