The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Best Independent Films of 2012

My best film list always appears in February, but I’m late this year, mainly because, even though I saw a streamed version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to see it again in 35 mm. It played at our Cinematheque only last Friday. Yet, that issue aside, it’s been a hard year for me to keep up with the blog. Due to time constraints, I’ve been forced to be more selective in my coverage. As a general rule, I don’t write about films unless I’m enthusiastic about them and have an opportunity to view them at least twice.

More of my attention this year went toward other pursuits. My book, The Black Hole of the Camera: the Films of Andy Warhol, was published by the University of California Press in April. As a result, I’ve been screening films and lecturing more than usual. I gave two conference papers, a couple of presentations at the Brakhage Symposium in Boulder, a keynote in Sydney, and screenings and talks in Milwaukee, Boston, and Houston in the fall. I’m also co-organizing, with my colleague Kelley Conway, an international conference on screenwriting. The 2013 SRN Screenwriting Conference will take place in Madison (August 20–22) and will feature 70 scholars from around the world.

On one level, I could complain that independent cinema seems to have fallen off a cliff. Although there are more films being made than ever before, getting them distributed has become even more difficult than in past years. Many people, especially those living outside major cities, don’t seem to want to leave their houses. People want their media when they want it, so streaming has become the preferred means of distribution, relegating DVDs to the latest casualty of the digital revolution.

The situation for indie cinema is a lot like in the 1960s. Now that there’s less prospect of there being a pot of gold out there for the grabbing, independent filmmakers, in some ways, are making the films they really want to make. I applaud that impulse. Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham are now considered mainstream. You can make fun of mumblecore all you want, but it had an undeniable impact. By all accounts, 2013 promises to be a great year for independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski, Richard Linklater, Matthew Porterfield, David Lowery, Shane Carruth, Harmony Korine, and Jeff Nichols, among others, all have new films.

Most top ten lists are based on a film having a theatrical release. Using that criterion, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue count for this year rather than last. The same goes for Tim Sutton’s Pavilion. I’m starting to feel that the line has become extremely blurry. I wrote about Bad Fever and Green ages ago. Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was listed in my 2008 poll, only recently made it out on DVD.

I’ve seen many of the films that made other more eclectic lists: Holy Motors, Amour, Cosmopolis, Tabu, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with the Bike, In Another Country, and so forth. I also saw some wonderful avant-garde films, including several programs of Phil Solomon’s work, as well as programs by Vanessa Renwick and Stacey Steers during the past year. I also saw Chris Sullivan’s terrific animated feature, Consuming Spirits, but regret that I’ve only seen this new version once, and haven’t had the opportunity to write about it. I also try to follow what’s screening in museums and galleries. By far, the most impressive piece I saw was Eve Sussman’s self-generating and ever changing whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, made in collaboration with the Rufus Corporation. I found the interplay between the computer program and what appears on the screen to be utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the work with the film’s actor, Jeff Wood, who spoke at the screening I attended in Houston.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2012:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  2. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  3. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
  4. Starlet (Sean Baker)
  5. The Dish & the Spoon (Alison Bagnall)
  6. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
  7. Bad Fever (Dustin Defa)
  8. Green (Sophia Takal)
  9. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
  10. For Ellen (So Yong Kim)

I found the sheer ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild to be totally impressive. It’s worth noting that Sean Baker has now made three strong films in a row, as has So Yong Kim. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet convinces me that she has emerged as a major American indie filmmaker. Loktev has indicated that the film was incredibly hard to shoot. To anyone who has ever made one, that’s pretty obvious. In terms of performance, I found the chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in The Dish & the Spoon and between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in Starlet to be pretty riveting.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “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.”

Posted 28 February, 2013

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s haunting Day Night Day Night (2006) established her reputation as a rigorously formal filmmaker in the tradition of Chantal Akerman. Her portrait of a young female suicide bomber (Luisa Williams) intent on detonating a bomb in crowded Midtown Manhattan is chilling in its exacting attention to detail. As the infamous O. J. Simpson white Bronco car chase proved, it doesn’t take much to keep viewers on the edges of their seats, as long as they expect there will be a payoff. Like Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Loktev exploits this impulse to the maximum. Once the intentions of the nameless protagonist become apparent, we can only watch her actions with rapt attention. Loktev’s new film, The Loneliest Planet (2012) creates a similar sense of ominous suspense in telling the story of a young couple backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Day Night Day Night begins with a profile close-up of the protagonist on a bus, as she rationalizes her decision by detailing the various ways that people die. Like Béla Tarr or Van Sant, Loktev follows her main character from behind, so that when she turns and faces the camera, allowing us to see her intense features and piercing eyes, it comes as a shock. Our initial antipathy slowly shifts to sympathy once her vulnerability becomes evident as she’s ordered around by an anonymous male voice on the phone and then by masked men. Her high-pitched, girlish voice and overly polite compliance to their orders make her appear less like a religious martyr than a victim of mind control. This aspect is reinforced by Loktev’s palette of icy blues and greens, first in the bus station and later in a New Jersey motel room.

The bomb maker, using sign language, and his female assistant set the mechanism and place the heavy device in her backpack. Once she’s set loose in the colorful and carnival-like atmosphere of Times Square, the tension becomes palpable. When she eats two soft pretzels with mustard followed by a candy apple, her child-like innocence creates a striking contrast to the horrific deed she’s about to commit. Her efforts to find a working pay phone and the necessary coins ratchet up the tension. Her desperate phone call results in a surprising revelation. Her confusion, internal struggle, and suffering become manifest once the camera fixes on her blackened eyes and tearful face, recalling Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

The Loneliest Planet shares a similar minimalist aesthetic to Loktev’s earlier film. It contains more narrative pleasure, even if the pace is as deliberate and slow as the typical art film. The title derives from the name of a popular travel guide (taken to an extreme). The story involves a young English-speaking couple who decide to backpack in the mountains. We know little about the two characters. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) appears to be American, while her handsome bearded lover, Alex (Gael García Bernal), is Latino. In a series of quick and abrupt cuts, Nica entertains children at a party by doing handstands and transforming a banana into a comedic prop, while Nica looks on approvingly. The language barrier asserts itself when an old lady tells a long story to them. It’s clear from Alex’s reactions of embarrassment that neither he nor Nica have a clue what she’s saying.

Loktev never translates Georgian into English subtitles, so the viewer is allowed to feel the confusion regarding both language and culture that is the heart of the experience of traveling to any foreign country. After some haggling over the price, Alex and Nica hire a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), as a drunk repeatedly interrupts the negotiation. The barrier of language and culture surfaces once again when Alex and Nica have drinks at a nightclub, and one of the local men creates an awkward situation by asking Nica to dance.

Most of The Loneliest Planet involves three characters and a landscape, as the young couple treks through the mountainous terrain, accompanied by Dato. Alex and Nica appear to be very much in love with each other. Although their physical expressions of intimacy and sexual passion suggest that they are in the early stages of love, we learn that they are engaged to be married in the fall. The fact that they are from different cultures – he’s teaching her Spanish – adds an additional layer of complexity to their relationship. Not knowing one’s bearings has a tendency to exacerbate tensions between couples. In this case, their guide functions a bit like a camera. Traveling with a third person makes the couple self-conscious and begins to affect their interactions.

Based on a short story by Tom Bissell, The Loneliest Planet contains very little plot or dialogue. The film is exemplary in its reliance on visual storytelling, which forces us to pay close attention to gestures, body movements, sounds, and images. It is also a study of proxemics – the positioning of human bodies in space. Since the characters rarely talk, we are forced to watch carefully for clues in how the three of them negotiate the vast expanse of space – the shifting distance and dynamic between the three of them as they traverse what amounts to a dangerous obstacle course. Nica’s bright red hair provides a visual accent to the predominantly green canvas of the natural landscape.

Navigating the landscape proves treacherous, despite the physical fitness of the couple. In one of the most exhilarating scenes in any film I’ve seen during the past year, we watch as Alex and Nica stand on their heads against the mountainous backdrop and verbally “count chimpanzees” (“twenty-one chimpanzees,” “twenty-two chimpanzees,” . . .) to mark time as they exercise. Tellingly, Alex wobbles several times, while Nica remains steady the whole time. Throughout the journey, Nica insists on her physical prowess and independence by refusing assistance from either Alex or Dato.

Being alone and isolated in the mountains with a stranger can induce paranoia. Dato exhibits an odd sense of humor. He tells Alex and Nica an elaborate off-color joke about castration that goes on interminably. He indicates he plans to buy a new car, but his comments have disturbing overtones. Nica and Alex start to react, but then choose to ignore the remarks. Dato also has them eat a plant that he then suggests might be poisonous. Is he joking? At one point the three of them listen intently to a sound in the distance that could be thunder. Dato stops unexpectedly at another point, as if danger is imminent. An unnerving incident involving three strangers does eventually occur, which serves to reveal character.

Alex’s instinctive reaction to this startling event profoundly alters his relationship with Nica, who becomes noticeably more aloof and solitary afterward. His behavior has crossed some invisible boundary that significantly alters the way she views him. From this point on, Alex and Nica grow more distant from each other, causing the dynamic between all three characters to shift as a result. With great subtlety and visual style, The Loneliest Planet manages to explore not only issues of gender roles, independence and dependence, nature and culture, but the strange and often fickle mysteries of the human heart.

Along with Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, Julia Loktev’s The Lonelist Planet is one of the most visually stunning independent films of the past year. The film finally played at the UW Cinematheque last Friday in a gorgeous 35mm print. It has just been released on DVD.

Posted 28 February, 2013

Dark Horse

Todd Solondz’s career started with such a bang that it’s pretty shocking that his latest film, Dark Horse (2012), struggled to gain a theatrical release. Solondz no doubt bears some responsibility. The difficulties can be traced back to his decision to make the controversial Happiness (1998) following the breakthrough success of his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). Solondz recently commented: “A lot of doors opened after Dollhouse, and I suppose by writing this script I knew I could close a lot of them and see who was left standing.”

The gamble profoundly affected his career. Solondz chose to make pedophilia the focus of Happiness and persisted in sticking with this subject matter. His last film, Life During Wartime (2010), returned to the same characters, Bill Maplewood and his son, Billy, so it should not come as much of a surprise that Solondz’s box office appeal might suffer as a result, even though Life During Wartime is one of his best films.

Dark Horse moves away from contentious subject matter, yet the film’s protagonist, Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber), is as self-delusional as any other Solondz character. Rather than seeing himself as a loser, Abe, overweight and in his 30s, clings to the notion that he’s merely a “dark horse,” a come-from-behind kind of guy whom everyone underestimates, but who will eventually triumph. Despite the skewed inner script he’s following, Abe secretly knows that he’s a failure. In a series of recurring dreams or fantasies, his co-worker, Marie (Donna Murphy) serves as a reality check throughout the film.

Dark Horse begins with spirited dancing at a Jewish wedding to music by Kid Sister. Dressed in a tuxedo, Abe sits next to a woman with barely a pulse, named Miranda (Selma Blair). As the dancers are reflected in the mirror behind them, Abe leans over and announces brashly, “I don’t dance. It’s not my thing.” Miranda moves closer, looks at him quizzically, but doesn’t answer. He nevertheless chases her down at the coat check room as she’s leaving in order to get her phone number, which she only gives him with great reluctance.

Abe’s yellow Hummer, blaring loud pop music, pulls into the driveway of a suburban house, where Abe still lives with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). As he enters, he ignores his mother’s greeting, as she and her husband silently watch TV in the parlor. It turns out that Abe also works in his father’s real estate development firm, where Marie perpetually covers for him, and a cousin named Justin (Zachary Booth) sucks up to his dad. Rather than doing the spreadsheets his father impatiently waits for, Abe buys action figures on the Internet.

Abe interrupts a game of backgammon with his mom to make a date with Miranda, who hangs up before he can arrange the time. When he arrives at her house with a bouquet of flowers, she’s not there, of course, so he is forced to sit with her skeptical parents before Miranda eventually arrives. As she smokes a cigarette on the back porch later on, Abe demonstrates his lack of social skills by discussing a friend’s testicular cancer. He also brags about having a high sperm count and insists on the importance of numerology. “Dates and Numbers have to be right,” he tells Miranda, before he impulsively asks her to marry him.

Defeat is manifest in Abe’s downtrodden gait when he returns home and again ignores his mom. He mopes at work the next day, fails to provide the needed spreadsheets, and quits his job in a loud argument with his dad. Later that night, as his mother tries to console him, Abe threatens to move out and demands that she pay her backgammon debt. When she suggests that he see a psychiatrist, Abe launches into a tirade about people needing to face the truth. “We’re all horrible people,” he tells his mom, “humanity is a fucking cesspool.”

When he shows up at work the next day, his father counsels Abe to go back and finish college. He wants Abe to be more like his older brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), who is now a successful doctor. Abe, however, harbors deep-rooted resentment toward Richard as a result of the fact that his parents obviously play favorites. Richard calls his younger brother, but Abe only spews venom before hanging up.

Abe, however, gets a surprise phone call from Miranda, who feels terrible about what happened and invites him over. When Abe arrives, she’s sprawled on the bed. Once awake, Miranda confronts Abe: “Please tell me something, and I need you to be honest. Are you for real? And you’re not being ironic . . . like performance art or something?” If you don’t think those are hilarious lines, this film might not be for you.

While giving Miranda a tour of his room, Abe suggests that his family’s house would be a great place for them to live once his parents move to Florida. Miranda is taken aback that he doesn’t want them to get their own place, but she makes a tearful confession and manipulates Abe by asking, “Is this going to affect things, make you change your mind?” Marie certainly thinks so. “I guess that takes care of that,” she counsels him, but Abe is not one to heed anyone’s advice.

From this point on, the trajectory of Dark Horse becomes even more complicated. Although many of today’s independent filmmakers appear to be moving away from scripts and heavy plotting, Solondz’s strength as a filmmaker has always involved his considerable writing skills and trenchant wit. Dark Horse mixes fantasy and reality throughout, but as the film progresses, the divide between the two becomes even more complex and intricate, and various revelations are made about several of the characters (though many of them occur in Abe’s tortured mind). The film’s final shot cleverly makes us rethink what’s gone before.

If Dark Horse seems like a romantic comedy, Solondz deliberately undercuts audience expectations about genre. As he puts it: “I think the only tradition I’m interested in pursuing is a tradition of upending traditions, and finding new meaning in the way in which these conventions and old stories are tackled. It’s good to not always give people what they expect, but I don’t think anyone would mistake this for a Wes Anderson movie.” I think it’s safe to say that no viewer will make this error.

Solondz uses pop songs, clashing color schemes, clever flights of fancy, and a series of repetitions to convey abrupt tonal changes in Abe’s mood and character. Abe’s yellow Hummer pulling into his parents’ driveway becomes a barometer of his fluctuation between depression and naive optimism. Irony is a recurrent theme. Dark Horse aspires to end with a wedding, but, as most of us know, it’s always a risky proposition to bet on a long shot.

Posted 21 February, 2013

Starlet

Starlet, Sean Baker’s fourth feature, is his most successful to date. Baker’s last two films, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), took an ethnographic approach toward their subjects. Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) delves into the world of Asian illegal immigrants by focusing on a home delivery person indebted to loan sharks, while Prince of Broadway is a portrait of a West African street peddler who sells knock-off merchandise and gets a baby dumped on him unexpectedly. Starlet again deals with characters living on the margins. The film tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a young woman in her early twenties and a gruff woman in her mid-eighties, following the purchase of an item at a yard sale. Baker’s new film also contains an ethnographic element, but that is not readily apparent at first.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) lives with two roommates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) in the San Fernando Valley, along with her male Chihuahua incongruously named Starlet. Melissa is an airhead and basket case who likes to get high all the time. Mikey apparently deals drugs, but also has other sidelines. Neither of them is terribly likeable. It is especially hard to care much for Melissa after she tries to get Starlet high by blowing smoke in the poor dog’s face. If we take a liking to Jane, much of it has to do with her genuine affection for her small companion.

The plot initially centers on a thermos that Jane buys from an elderly woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson). After initially mistaking it for an urn and deciding it would make a great flower vase, Jane discovers that it contains rolls of cash that amount to roughly $10,000. This causes a personal dilemma, along with myriad questions: Should Jane return the loot to the old lady? Where did Sadie get the money? How did it get in the thermos? The discovery creates an alluring mystery, but, as Starlet slowly unfolds, more mysteries abound.

Jane tries to solve the initial one by getting to know Sadie, who rebuffs her awkward attempts at friendship. The fiercely independent old lady is suspicious of Jane, and only wants to be left alone. In her obsession to find answers, Jane begins to stalk Sadie. She disperses Sadie’s cab outside the grocery store, so that she can give her a lift home. Once inside her house, Jane tries to strike up a conversation by asking the perplexed woman what she does for fun. When Sadie indicates that she likes to play bingo at a local church, Jane turns up there as well. After Sadie’s cab disappears once again, Jane gives her another ride home, but this time the elderly woman retaliates.

The rift between them is short-lived when Sadie calls Jane and apologizes. As the two resume their tentative relationship, Sadie gradually reveals aspects of her life to the inquisitive young woman, including details about her deceased husband, who was a gambler, and her love of Paris. It’s more than the mystery of the money, however, that Jane seeks. She seems to be a lost soul, who has little else going for her. One afternoon, while they are together, Jane gets a phone call from Melissa, who is experiencing a meltdown, which brings the two plotlines together.

Not only is Melissa in the porn film business, but it turns out that Jane is new to the trade as well. This explains the shot of Jane getting a blood test in the doctor’s office earlier and the slight sway in her thin hips when she walks, as well as a couple of other well-placed clues. Shortly after the incident with Melisssa, we watch a porn shoot involving hard-core sex between Jane and a male performer, which Baker shoots in a documentary-like style.

There is a later scene at an adult entertainment expo, where Jane appears with a stack of her sex videos and has pictures taken with fans. Her boss, Arash (Karren Karagulian), talks about breast implants being the next step for her, but Melissa (who’s been “frozen” for a month for bad behavior) and Mikey crash the event, causing a major ruckus. After banishing them, Arash tells Jane, “That girl is bad news. I don’t want to see you with her.” Jane responds quizzically, “I live with her.” Arash snaps, “So don’t live with her anymore.”

Given the impersonal world that Jane inhabits, it’s no wonder that Sadie seems a welcome respite, even if Sadie can be remote and easily irritated. Baker manages to get arresting performances from the entire cast, but especially from the chemistry between Dree Hemingway and first-time performer, Besedka Johnson. Hemingway, with her lanky frame, seems to regress in the old lady’s presence, so that she appears to revert to a confused teen rather than young adult, while fissures appear in Sadie’s armor, before the mystery behind her character eventually is revealed.

Baker shot Starlet in actual locations connected to the adult film industry. The setting, however, provides more than just an intriguing backdrop to the story. It actually provides a crucial context for establishing the relationships between Jane, Melissa, Mikey, and Arash,as well as the motivation behind why Jane might be drawn to someone like Sadie. The film is, at heart, a fascinating character study, even if the screenplay (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch) contains more plot than is usually found in a Sean Baker film.

Starlet has a somewhat languorous pace compared to his previous films, but Baker has an innate feel for when to cut scenes. The cinematography by Radium Cheung captures the muted tones of the Valley, so that the colors, like the characters, appear to be washed out by the perpetual sun. In exposing the less glamorous underside of this social milieu, Baker shows how it affects young women, who get trapped emotionally in what he describes as a kind of dependent “pre-adolescent environment.” We come to see that, like her dog, Starlet, Sadie represents a kind of desperate lifeline for Jane.

Posted 11 February, 2013