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Best Independent Films of 2013

spring-breakers-3

Maintaining a blog keeps getting more and more difficult. With teaching and more academic writing – books, articles, chapters, conference papers, and lectures – it’s been an even harder struggle this past year. I’m one of the four editors of a new book series on screenwriting for Palgrave. Two books – Ian Macdonald’s Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea and Eva Novrup Redvall’s Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing – were published recently. Both are highly recommended. Kathryn Millard’s Screenwriting in a Digital Era, on which I served as editor, will be out in early March, hopefully in time for the SCMS conference in Seattle.

My colleague, Kelley Conway, and I organized the annual Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) conference in Madison in late August, the first time it has been held in this country. David Bordwell wrote a detailed blog about it. I was too busy worrying that everything would go smoothly. It did. Scholars and practitioners attended from all over the world, including large contingents from Australia and New Zealand, the UK, as well as Finland. Jon Raymond, Larry Gross, and Kristin Thompson gave great keynotes, along with Jill Nelmes who conducted a keynote workshop on research possibilities within the field. Putting on the conference was well worth the effort – it was a terrific event. I look forward to attending the next one in Potsdam, Germany, October 16-18, 2014. It is being organized by Kerstin Stutterheim. The deadline for submissions has been extended until January 25.  In any event,  I hope to see you there.

I also showed my own films and lectured on the films of Andy Warhol in Seattle, Portland, and Eugene this past fall. A special shout-out goes to Vanessa Renwick, a great filmmaker, for all her help. Her short film, Britton, South Dakota (2003) is one of my favorite avant-garde films of all time. I’ve seen it at least 10 times. You owe it to yourself to buy her compilation video, which you can order through her website, The Oregon Department of Kick Ass.

I’m scheduled to be in Boulder for a Guy Maddin Symposium in early March. Maddin will also be in Madison for screenings in February, so I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to both events.

My best film list always comes out in February, but last year it came out much later than I wanted, so I’m trying to make up for it by posting it very early (at least for me) this year. I feel much more optimistic about the state of indie cinema this year. As a matter of fact I thought it was truly great year in terms of quality, even with the entire industry in transition.

A number of films that appear on my list were shown as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival in April, though it’s taken me months to write about them, mainly because I needed to have a chance to view them a second time. Joe Swanberg, Frank V. Ross, Dan Sallitt, and Andrew Bujalski all attended the festival with their films. The first three filmmakers generously had special sessions with our advanced production students.

I try very hard to see the films in theaters. There is something I still love about the big screen and seeing a film with an audience. To me, streaming has its limitations. Amazon Instant and iTunes have been screening some indie films at the same time they are released theatrically. That’s how I saw Drinking Buddies. Factory 25 has only released some of its great indie library of films that way. Call me a contrarian, but I still like owning the DVD or Blu-ray.  

I have seen many of the films that make other people’s lists. I managed to view such titles as: Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, Upstream Color, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Prince Avalanche, Stories We Tell, This is Martin Bonner, Mud, and Museum Hours, among others. My favorite documentary was Leviathan. I was grateful for a chance to see it in a theater at the Wisconsin Film Festival. By the way, I highly recommend Scott MacDonald’s new book, American Ethnographic and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn from University of California Press.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2013:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1.   Spring Breakers  (Harmony Korine)
2.   Frances Ha  (Noah Baumbach)
3.   Computer Chess  (Andrew Bujalski)
4 .  The Unspeakable Act  (Dan Sallitt)
5.   Drinking Buddies  (Joe Swanberg)
6.   Sun Don’t Shine  (Amy Seimetz)
7.   Tiger Tale in Blue  (Frank V. Ross)
8.   Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (David Lowery)
9.   I Used to Be Darker  (Matt Porterfield)
10. All the Light in the Sky  (Joe Swanberg)

Spring Breakers knocked my socks off. I love that the coeds drive all of 38 miles from Sarasota up (not down) to St. Pete. They claim to be in search of themselves and something different, yet they are already in a warm climate. Spring break turns out to be only more of the same, only on a grander scale. And James Franco, please give that man a statue. When he fixates on Selena Gomez, am I the only one who thought she cried real tears because she was having flashbacks?

As far as influence, this seems to be the year of Joe Swanberg. He has connections, in one way or another, to eight of the ten films on the above list. No one has ever had two films on this list in a single year. That’s pretty impressive. For the record, Joe’s favorite film of the year was Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue.

Tim Sutton’s Pavilion and Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, which won the Director’s Award at Sundance last January, are two films that easily could be on my list. Jill is a former student, so I don’t claim to be objective, but Quentin Tarantino had her film on his list, and I totally understand why. Jill takes more risks in her debut feature that most other directors would take in a career.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2012,” “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.

Note: A special thanks to Michael Trevis, along with Peter Sengstock, for helping me to maintain this blog. I also owe a great debt to the programming of Jim Healy and Mike King at the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

Posted 10 January, 2014

Computer Chess

computer-chess

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) represents a radical departure for this indie writer/director. Bujalski has been associated with mumblecore ever since Funny Ha Ha (2002) won recognition at the SXSW Film Festival in 2005 (even though the film actually debuted three years earlier). His first two films helped to define a film movement that captured the awkward social interactions of his own generation, as his characters attempted to navigate interpersonal relationships consisting of mixed signals and crushes on friends in a time of diminished economic expectations. In 2013, technology has become the new religion, controlling virtually every aspect of our lives. While it has been amazingly transformative – there is no question we are addicted to the minicomputers we carry around in our purses and pockets – it is also largely replacing jobs formerly done by humans, which has relegated many younger people, such as the ones who populated Bujalski’s earlier films, to marginal economic status. By going back in time to the period of the early 1980s, Bujalski explores the world of nerds just as they are on the verge of taking over the culture due to their skills at computer programming.

In re-creating the early years of personal computing, Bujalski has lovingly managed to capture the look and feel of a time we easily forget – before email, texting and Skype. In discussing the future of artificial intelligence, the videographer (Kevin Bewersdorf) at one point suggests it could eventually be used for dating, an idea that causes the programmers to chuckle at the unlikely prospect. Bujalski has a knack for nailing these nerdy characters with their baggy polyester clothes, overly large eye glasses, tie clips, and retro haircuts. His eye for detail includes a professor named Tom Shoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who arrives late, along with a wife and baby who seem like strange appendages. Computer Chess could easily be described as a study in gray and white. The lack of contrast in these images suggests a world that looks surprisingly like Eastern Europe during communism, an effect that Bujalski achieves through shrewd art direction and by shooting in a documentary-like style with a Sony AVC 3260 camera. Like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010), Bujalski finds an odd beauty in the degraded image of early video, complete with breakup, lens burns, cheesy split-screen effects, negative images, awkward superimpositions, dropout, Academy aspect ratio, and various glitches.

Computer Chess is a complex ensemble piece, with so many characters and plot threads that it is initially hard to get one’s bearings. The film centers on a weekend computer chess tournament held at a budget motel. The competition is portrayed as a kind of three-ring circus overseen by its nerdy ringleader, chess whiz Pat Henderson (played by film critic and scholar Gerald Peary), who is eagerly waiting to challenge the winner. Much of the film involves the competition between various computer chess teams, but, in some ways, this is the least interesting material. It is the peripheral sideshows and characters who manage to steal the show. Mike Papageorge (played by Bujalski’s school chum Myles Paige from Funny Ha Ha), appears on a panel early on, where he’s identified as an independent programmer. He frowns during the session, and when finally called upon, he tells Pat: “I find the programming of my fellow competitors to be almost as boring as this discussion.” Despite his bravado, it turns out he cannot afford a hotel room. His efforts to find one represent some of the most humorous incidents in the film.

There is also the lone female contestant on the MIT team, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), who becomes a veiled object of ridicule for Henderson and the other contestants, as well as an object of desire. Mike Papageorge is the first to attempt to crash her room, but it turns out that she’s sheltering her team’s computer, which is so large that it takes up much of the floor space, providing her with an excuse for not letting him stay there. Shelly, who wears a heart pendant around her neck, is so painfully shy and nervous that she can barely speak. The same could be said for Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a program assistant from the Caltech team, who, in many ways, helps to hold the multi-strand narrative together. Peter will later get Shelly to help him run experiments when his team’s computer, Tsar 3.0, takes on a life of its own by performing poorly against other computers, but not against humans.

Meanwhile, a group of spiritual seekers are also holding their own encounter therapy sessions in another part of the same hotel. Overseen by an African guru named Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott), the couples undergo group therapy by groaning loudly, fondling loaves of bread, and becoming reborn as free people. One of them, Dave (Chris Doubek), runs into Peter outside the motel and engages him in conversation. When Peter explains the tournament, Dave muses, “Computers play chess against computers. Wow!” He’s a bit too over solicitous. Although Peter looks about sixteen, Dave asks suggestively, “Are you married?” As he leaves, he remarks, “Hey, we got the same color eyes, man,” a discovery he’s made about his own wife during the encounter session. We are not surprised when he later invites Peter to his room where he and his wife, Pauline (Cyndi Williams), are ripe for swinging. She asks Peter, “Have you ever tried LSD?” She compares Peter to Columbus, but she and Dave worry that he’s not living up to his potential. Cats also seem to have a run of the motel, which Mike Papageorge discovers as he wanders the hallways. When management finally finds him a room after he tries to sleep on the couch in the lobby, it turns out to be full of cats, causing him to have an allergic reaction. He ends up sleeping under a table in the conference, which leads to his own bizarre engagement with the encounter group.

There are other equally eccentric characters. Early on, two guys who are not in the competition, John (Jim Lewis) and Freddy (Freddy Martinez), claim to be there to watch “them get ready for the end of the world.” One of the contestants, a British chap named Les Carbray (James Curry) of the Alliance team, extols the virtues of three Scotches as the secret to coding. Soon afterwards he smokes joints in John and Freddy’s room. John raises the “military” aspect of the game of chess and talks about government interest in the programming being done by these computer geeks. This induces a sense of paranoia in the stoned Les. He asks John, “Are you trying to recruit me? Are you from the Pentagon?” His sidekick, Freddy, comments, “It’s like my uncle said: ‘War is death, hell is pain, chess is victory.’” As the movie goes on, it gets weirder and weirder, especially when Mike Papageorge returns home to get money, and the film suddenly switches to higher contrast, grainy 16mm color film. Soon after, Peter’s teammate, Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), shares some startling revelations. Computer Chess culminates in a final scene involving Peter in which we suddenly enter the realm of science fiction.  

Computer Chess has far more plot than is found in Bujalski’s previous films, even though the earlier three features were scripted. For his new one, he only used an eight-page outline. When asked about the difference in approach, Bujalski explains in Cinema Scope: “So in that sense, it was surprisingly similar, because whether you’re working from a worked-out script or just a couple of paragraphs, you still have to make sense of it with the actors; that process is still the same, of talking it through with them and finding out what works for them. In fact, really the only difference was that I had to be better prepared because there wasn’t as thorough a document to rely on if my mind went blank. So I had to have a slightly better sense of what we were doing.”

Computer Chess is wildly inventive, especially in how it cleverly connects the various plotlines that initially appear to be a series of tangents. Bujalski has always been a humorist. The early days of computing and a computer chess tournament provides him with a minefield of awkward social interactions, especially in the form of the film’s two young characters, Peter and Shelly. But, with Computer Chess, Bujalski has moved beyond naturalism into a kind of madcap surrealism that is closer in spirit to Miranda July than it is to Joe Swanberg.

Note: I saw Computer Chess at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, where the director was also in attendance, along with Gerald Peary. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Lorber, which is good because it takes a second viewing to appreciate the film’s nuances.

Posted 29 December, 2013

Best Independent Films of 2009

Most people do their “best films” lists at the end of December. That makes sense, but, in my case, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have too many other projects in the works, so that even maintaining the blog is a pretty challenging endeavor. But beyond that, because I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin rather than in either New York City or Los Angeles, it now takes considerable effort on my part to view the important independent feature films that surface within a given year.

Most of them aren’t playing at my local cinemas. They play at film festivals, or on VOD, or I have to wait to see them when they are finally released on DVD, or sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch them when I’m in NYC to visit museums and art galleries, where an alternate universe of film and video is also on display (such as Cyprien Gaillard’s mesmerizing Desniansky Raion, which I saw on separate occasions at the New Museum and White Columns this past year).

Three of the indie films on the list below – Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, and The New Year Parade – played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last spring. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me is scheduled to screen at this year’s upcoming festival in April. Only two of the films – Goodbye Solo and The Girlfriend Experience – had commercial runs locally. But that’s also true of many of the best international art films as well.

I’m certainly a huge fan of global cinema, and indeed found great pleasure in viewing such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, Three Monkeys, Hunger, The Headless WomanGomorrah, Tony Manero, Tokyo Sonata, Somers Town, and Police, Adjective, among others. And from the studios, I was impressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Yet, due to the main focus of this blog, my list remains confined to American indie films.

If there’s one trend among the best indie films of the year, it is once again naturalism and some flexibility toward the script. The second appears to be a move toward globalism and a renewed interest in regionalism. While So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo were shot in Korea and Rwanda respectively, the other films were set in Austin (two of them), Winston-Salem, Vermont, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida. That alone seems pretty remarkable, especially when Hollywood has tried to make it appear as if Los Angeles somehow reflects everyone’s reality.

This is a rough time to be an independent filmmaker. Three films on the list – Severed Ways: the Norse Discovery of America, Munyurangabo, and Loren Cass – took a couple of years after being finished to have a theatrical release. Now that digital technology has made it so much easier and cheaper to make feature films, the biggest challenge continues to be how to connect them with an audience. Most commentators lament the lack of commercial support. The fact that the studios and their subsidiaries virtually have abandoned indie cinema may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but only provided that some new and better digital exhibition and distribution model can emerge from the ashes.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2009:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
3. Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
4. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
5. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
6. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
7. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
8. The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
9. Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
10. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

If the new list seems more obscure than last year’s, I think this partially has to do with the fact that indie films are opening in more alternative venues such as Film Forum (Treeless Mountain and Beeswax), Anthology Film Archives (Munyurangabo,) or even The Museum of Modern Art (Harmony and Me). As a result, these films haven’t received nearly the level of publicity they deserve.

Posted 8 February, 2010

Beeswax

Andrew Bujalski’s much-anticipated third feature, Beeswax (2009), might appear to be about almost nothing at all, which is one of the risks of naturalism. I must confess that it took a second viewing for me to appreciate fully just how subtle and complex his new film really is. Beeswax explores the relationship between a pair of attractive twin sisters in Austin, Texas. Bujalski’s characters are older than in Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Mutual Appreciation (2006), and their problems are more substantive, but his focus still remains on the confounding mysteries of human communication.

Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) runs a hip vintage shop called Storyville, while her roommate sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is more of a free spirit, who perpetually seems to be searching for a job. As the film begins, Jeannie is embroiled in a conflict with her business partner, Amanda (Anne Dodge), while Maggie breaks up with her boyfriend for no apparent reason. The sisters are distinctly different. Perhaps because Jeannie is in a wheelchair, she protects her independence. This quality, combined with other traits of her personality, makes her something of control freak. Having a partner – romantic or business – presents a challenge for her (and the other party), despite her seemingly casual demeanor. Lauren is the opposite. She parties all night and then still seems to be up for an early morning game of soccer. But Lauren has her own demons, which are merely harder to detect. She’s flaky to a fault – losing her phone, forgetting to relay important messages, and not really being there for her sister or anyone else.

Jeannie’s problems with Amanda cause her to reconnect with an old flame named Merrill (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, who’s really quite a good actor), but it largely has to do with the fact that he’s a law student, who is about to take his bar exam. Jeannie doesn’t mean to exploit Merrill. Like all people who use others, she just happens to get re-involved with him when she needs him the most, even though she refuses to acknowledge him as her boyfriend. Merrill is well-aware of Jeannie’s motives, but he accepts the dynamic of the relationship because it also suits his own needs. Jeannie’s legal problems at the boutique are a welcome distraction from his bar exam, and Merrill has a tendency to function better in “crisis mode.” Not much actually happens in the film, but Beeswax nevertheless has a deceptively intricate plot. Lauren applies for a job, but the interviewer turns out to be the brother of the guy she’s just dumped. Of course, she doesn’t get the position – at least not initially. But when someone else backs out of teaching in Nairobi, it gets offered to her. Whether or not she’ll go is another matter altogether.

At the center of the film is the dispute between Jeannie and Amanda over the business, along with the threat of a messy lawsuit. As the film opens, a new employee Corinne (Katy O’Connor) turns up at the store. She’s been hired by Amanda, who hasn’t bothered to tell Jeannie. That alone is revealing of the strained relationship between Jeannie and Amanda. Like Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe, Corinne has the annoying habit of turning every statement into a question. You can tell that she grates on Jeannie’s nerves, almost from the moment she first opens her mouth. At one point, she asks whether it’s okay to put up fliers in the store about a political demonstration. Jeannie is concerned that if something happens at the demonstration – and Corinne gets busted – she won’t be able to open the store the next morning. Corinne rightly suggests she also could get hit by a car, but their conversation reveals that the two of them, for all practical purposes, inhabit alternate universes. Corinne actually doesn’t get hit by a car or get busted at the political rally, but she does end up having an unexplained meltdown.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that Lauren chooses to withhold crucial financial information from Jeannie, namely, that her mother’s friend Sally (SXSW film festival producer Janet Pierson) really wants to help out. Maybe it has to do with the need of twins to keep secrets from each other just to maintain their own separate identities. It actually works both ways. Jeannie initially doesn’t want Lauren to know that Merrill has slept over. He gets caught and lies to Lauren that he was merely retrieving his cell phone, but Lauren makes it obvious that she doesn’t quite believe him. Lauren asks Merrill to go with her to play a game of soccer. He almost does, but then changes his mind at the last minute. In a sense, virtually every scene begins to feel like an open question.

We never know why Lauren won’t tell Jeannie about something so important, especially when they take a trip to talk to a potential investor, played by film director Bob Byington, whose disheveled appearance makes him look like he’s just crawled out from under a rock. His eyes keep darting between Merrill and Jeannie in the scene before he simply tells Jeannie once Merrill is dispatched to get beverages, “I’d like to be your guy, but I don’t know if I’m your guy.” Both Karpovsky and Byington appear in Byington’s Austin-based indie Harmony and Me. The two are actually much funnier in that film, which is a comedy that relies on very brief scenes, precise comic timing, and a wider range of emotional peaks and valleys.

Bujalski’s scenes in Beeswax, on the other hand, are much longer. They have a very methodical quality, as if guided by some inner metronome that controls the carefully-modulated pace and tempo that has become something of a stylistic trait of Bujalski’s work. As in the earlier Bujalski films, conversations don’t follow the usual structure and conventions of movie dialogue, but appear to meander in ways that often appear to confuse even the participants themselves. Bujalski has become the master of circumlocution and indirection. His characters get so lost in the labyrinths of their own words and language itself that they often say the opposite of what they mean or intend. Their unconscious slippages turn out to be funny as well as embarrassing. The actual behavior of Bujalski’s characters is equally unpredictable, suggesting that, deep-down, human beings are an utter maze of baffling contradictions.

Bujalski makes us acutely aware of the fact that attempts at humor often carry the greatest personal risks. A wonderful example of this occurs in a scene where Lauren strolls in and tells Jeannie and Merrill that, among other things, she’s just learned that a high-school boyfriend has died:

LAUREN: I’ve gotta pee and go to bed. I do have some stories to tell you, the saddest and quickest of which is that A.C. told me that Daniel had died. Some heart thing, I don’t know, some kind of unexpected heart failure, or maybe drug-related, maybe not.
JEANNIE (softly): Jesus . . .
LAUREN: So . . .  (To MERRILL) This is my first boyfriend from high school.
MERRILL: Oh, I’m sorry.
JEANNIE: I’ve never . . . I’ve never kissed a dead guy.
MERRILL: Maybe if you were a better girlfriend in high school, he’d still be alive today.
Jeannie, lying on the couch, winces, then laughs.
LAUREN: Maybe so.
MERRILL: That sounded horrible. That came out totally wrong. I’m sorry.
LAUREN: I don’t know . . .
MERRILL: Why would I say that? That’s terrible.
Lauren excuses herself.
LAUREN: I’m gonna head to bed.
MERRILL: Goodnight, Lauren . . .  (To JEANNIE) In my mind, it sounded so different than the way it came out. It sounded hilarious. It came out so not hilarious.
JEANNIE: Yeah, I guess not. No.
MERRILL: No, maybe not. That was terrible.
JEANNIE: You didn’t know Daniel.
MERRILL: I didn’t know Daniel. That’s really no excuse.

Lauren, however, does know Daniel, yet she appears to have no emotional response either, which says a lot about her character.

What distinguishes Bujalski from the cohort of filmmakers with whom he’s often associated is his strength as a screenwriter. In an  interview with Livia Bloom in cinema scope, Bujalski explains, “I did realize that I think I’m an auditory sort of writer. For me, writing starts from hearing voices in my head. My films are quite dialogue-heavy, and I think maybe that’s partially because I hear them first.” This is hardly surprising. Bujalski has always been considered a character-based director rather than a visual storyteller. Or as he later puts it, “I feel like I’m running toward the images, and the way I’m getting there is by listening to the words.”

Yet Beeswax does represent a significant advance in terms of visual style. The film opens with vintage dinner plates of numbers being removed from the frame, which is a clever way of suggesting the countdown leader on a film. The cluttered compositions of Storyville create a striking contrast to the more spare framings inside Jeannie and Lauren’s place. Jeannie uses her wheelchair to traverse the space of the vintage store, making the viewer self-consciously aware of the camera’s tracking shots to follow her, with wooden artist mannequins suggesting the human anatomy amidst the lime and peach color-scheme and golden light. But the tranquility of this image will soon be shattered by a loud knock at the door, which will introduce the ensuing turmoil.

In discussing the fact that his characters bring such radically different perspectives to events in Beeswax, Bujalski relates it to his own situation in making independent rather than mainstream films. He told the interviewer on the auteurs: “I think it’s probably deeply ingrained in all of the work I’ve done. Certainly the Jeannie and Amanda conflict in Beeswax is a question of two people who look at the world differently and get torn apart by that. They can’t figure out how the other one could possibly see the world. My career is about that. Why aren’t as many people going to see Beeswax as are going to see Avatar? Of course it doesn’t make sense to me: I don’t share the worldview that would produce that mass opinion. I’m up against that every day.”

Posted 5 February, 2010

Mutual Appreciation + Old Joy

Last September, Scott Tobias on the A.V. Club Blog pleaded for audiences to support the theatrical runs of Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006). He wrote: “If you care at all about American independent films, you’re required to see these movies.” Tobias concluded his post: “So vote with your dollars, people: If you want to see more movies like Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy, you have to create a viable market for them. Otherwise you’ll be left to hold out for Little Miss Sunshine 2.”

Tobias’s impassioned call-to-arms was met with equally spirited resistance. One lengthy comment from a suburban exhibitor responded that Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation simply weren’t very good. He wrote: “On personal level, it depresses me how much critical attention these two films are receiving considering their level of mediocrity.” The Reeler chimed in on Old Joy: “In her readings of landscape and faces, Reichardt captures spatial and structural dynamics that her story just cannot support; even at 76 minutes, the film exhausts its premise and tension less than halfway through.” Despite such harsh criticism of Bujalski and Reichardt’s work, Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy wound up on many Top Ten film lists for 2006. In the indieWIRE national critics’ poll, Old Joy placed number 7, while Mutual Appreciation came in at number 20. Unfortunately, though, neither film did very well at the box office. According to boxofficemojo.com, Mutual Appreciation took in $103,509 domestically and $121,292 worldwide. Old Joy faired a bit better. It made $255,923 in its U.S. release, and a total of $301,047 worldwide.

One reason for being interested in Bujalski has to do with a resurgence of realism in recent American independent films. Realism often has been conceived of as an alternative to the staged contrivance of Hollywood film. One just has to go back to read Jonas Mekas’s early writings in Film Culture and the Village Voice to see that he championed the first version of Cassavetes’ Shadows, Frank and Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), and even the work of Andy Warhol precisely on these grounds. In my book, I cite numerous examples of the realist impulse providing an alternative strategy of narration in indie films, such as Jarmusch’s eschewal of plot, Haynes’s fractured dialogue in Safe mirroring real-life speech patterns, Van Sant’s use of real time and non-professional actors in Elephant, Slacker’s collapse of the relationship between performer and role, and Harmony Korine’s associational structure in Gummo. The rationale for realism always seems to be that it more closely mimics real life.

At the end of his Village Voice review of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, Hoberman writes: “Coming in the same year as Andrew Bujalski’s similarly understated and character-driven Mutual Appreciation, it attests to a new strain in Amerindie production – literate but not literary, crafted without ostentation, rooted in a specific place and devoted to small sensations.” Given Hoberman’s remarks, it might be interesting to compare Kelly Reichardt’s film about thirtysomethings with Mutual Appreciation, especially in terms of their use of realism. Like Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985), Old Joy is largely an accumulation of artfully composed visual images and sounds held together by a slight narrative. The film, for instance, begins with shots of nature. After the sounds of a meditation bell, a bird on a gutter flies off. We see Mark (Daniel London) meditating outside his house, followed by a shot of swarming ants.

The tranquility to which Mark aspires is punctured by the loud grinding of an electric blender and the sound of music indoors, as his pregnant wife, Tanya, makes some type of green smoothie. The phone rings. The film cuts to Mark still meditating with the sounds of neighborhood kids in the background. The answering machine plays a message from his old friend Kurt, who announces he’s in town. Tanya comes into the room and stares at the answering machine. A pan over telephone lines to a bird creates a transition to Mark’s conversation. As Mark talks with Kurt, Tanya paces back and forth in the background. When she sits down, there’s obvious tension between them. Tanya resents Mark seeking her permission to go camping with Kurt, and the two of them argue briefly, suggesting either they have marital problems, which have become exacerbated by their impending baby, or that it’s directly connected to the message from Kurt. In general, Old Joy is all subtext. Everything that occurs in the film happens underneath the surface, which provides the narrative tension.

Although Old Joy is imbued with subtext, it’s not a film that’s strictly about personal relationships in the same sense that Bujalski’s films are. As Mark drives to meet Kurt, we hear Air America on the radio, which situates what transpires within a political and cultural context. Old Joy provides us with a sense of nature and physical place, not only as indicated by the opening scene but through long tracking shots of neighborhood and later extended shots of the natural landscape that convey the texture of the Pacific Northwest. As Mark reads the newspaper on the porch, Kurt yells: “Hey, man!” We see a wide shot in which Kurt (Will Oldham) pulls a red wagon holding a TV, as he walks toward him. Old Joy is at heart a portrait of two former buddies who represent a striking contrast in character. Oldham communicates through the awkwardness of his herky-jerky bodily movements, whereas we register Mark’s feelings largely through the anguish on London’s expressive face – he’s virtually a walking reaction shot. There’s not very much plot in Old Joy. The two friends go camping, get lost, spend the night camping in a garbage-strewn site, and eventually wind up in the hot springs in the Cascade Mountains. While Mark lies blissfully in the hot spring, Kurt gently massages his shoulders, the meaning of which (sexual or fraternal) is left open to interpretation.

Old Joy is ultimately about small moments. For Kurt and Mark, their camping trip represents a last-ditch attempt for these two old friends to try to reconnect before the trajectory of their lives sends them off in separate and irreconcilable directions. It’s about how people change (or don’t change) over time. Mark, for better or worse, has settled down into conventional responsibilities – job, marriage, and a family – whereas Kurt has chosen to remain a pot-smoking free spirit with no job or relationship or much in the way of a future. He represents stasis in a world that’s rapidly changing, as represented by the fact that Sid’s record store has closed and migrated to Ebay, countercultural values have been replaced by careerism, and even nature itself has become transformed into a cultural construct. Kurt is rapidly becoming an anachronism. Old Joy can be read as a look at this cultural transformation. It depicts a world view that’s being replaced by technological changes and by a new generation of young people, who are represented in Bujalski’s films.

Mutual Appreciation also has very little plot. Like the shared intimate moment between Mark and Kurt, Ellie (Rachel Clift), however, verbalizes her fantasy to kiss Alan (Justin Rice), the Beatle-haired, band-member protagonist of the film, despite the fact that she’s in a relationship with Lawrence (Bujalski), a nerdy graduate teaching assistant. The film begins with Alan lying on the bed with Ellie after arriving in town to make it in the music scene. Alan goes on a radio show with an Asian-American DJ named Sara to promote his music. Sara aggressively puts the moves on him afterwards, but he politely resists, especially when her brother becomes a possible drummer for his band. After his band plays at a local club, Alan lets Sara know that he’s not romantically interested in her during an awkward scene in the kitchen. It seems that he’s still hung up on a previous girlfriend. Very drunk, Alan later allows three women to dress him in drag. Otherwise Alan has conversations with his father about his need for money, while his father worries that Alan’s not trying hard enough to find some type of real job that will enable him to pay his credit-card bills.

Even though Alan is the film’s protagonist, it is actually Ellie who has the dramatic conflict. She flirts with Alan throughout, often playing the role of interrogator in their conversations, largely because Alan is often too busy flashing a huge grin to initiate very much conversation on his own. Together they discuss creating a cool people club, and Alan even asks Ellie to be his band manager at one point. Ellie also counsels Alan to be less of a rock star and to be straight with Sara about his lack of interest in her. Ellie later decides to stay at her own place rather than Lawrence’s one night under the guise that she has to get up early for work the next morning. After driving Alan home, Ellie maneuvers her way inside to get a CD of his music, and then, as they sit on his bed, tells him her fantasy about wanting to kiss other guys, including him.

Nothing happens, but Ellie deliberately skips attending the wedding of Lawrence’s old girlfriend. Alan shows up at her work place. As they drive together, she confides that she feels excluded from the special bond that exists between Alan and Lawrence. The two share some type of intimacy afterwards. Ellie tells Lawrence what happened when he returns. Lawrence wonders why Ellie couldn’t have left it as an unspoken fantasy rather than bringing it out into the open. It also disturbs Lawrence because he saw it coming, but he instantly forgives her. Lawrence later brings up the incident with Alan, who insists that nothing really happened between him and Ellie other than the fact that they experienced a shared moment together. The three of them eventually have a group hug and collapse on the bed before the film abruptly ends.

Whereas Old Joy’s realism is both visual and poetic and concerned with landscape and place, Mutual Appreciation focuses almost exclusively on verbal interactions of its young characters. Although he has an interesting and varied way of staging scenes, Bujalski is not a visual stylist like Reichardt. Despite Hoberman’s suggestion that both Old Joy and Mutual Appreciation are rooted in a specific place, I don’t find that to be true of Bujalski’s film. New York is talked about, but the film could have been shot anywhere. Most of it takes place indoors. There are very few exterior shots, and the ones we see don’t evoke New York in any specific way. Like Old Joy, Bujalski’s film also operates through subtext. It takes awhile to figure out that Ellie has an infatuation with Alan, even though the clues are there from the very opening scene, in which the two lie on the bed together before Lawrence arrives home and plops himself between them.

It takes more than ten minutes of viewing to grasp the subtleties of Bujalski’s work. Like Warhol’s films, duration is important somehow. Bujalski’s performers are extremely charming and engaging as characters. No matter how inarticulate they might be, they all have a unique and idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves, a way of syncing up with each other’s body language that communicates to the viewer. Bujalski’s work, like Reichardt’s, gets better upon multiple viewings. The nuances become more apparent. Scenes unfold at their own leisurely pace, but Bujalski has a DJ’s sense of abruptly terminating a scene, just at the point where it gets most interesting. Even though his work is scripted, Bujalski’s non-professional performers have an ability to seem unpredictable in how they will say something, of making it sound like their own thoughts and words. They also have great sense of timing in terms of line delivery and reactions.

Bujalski’s cinema is one that’s centered on performance, but he also has the ability to create complex characterizations. One is often unclear of the ultimate direction of various scenes, but that unpredictability is what keeps us watching. There’s not the calculated arc to his scenes, nor does Bujalski seem very interested in dramatic situations, but he’s the master of creating very awkward or embarrassing ones. Obviously, this type of cinema, like Reichardt’s, may not be for everyone, but Bujalski has made two impressive features to date, and that’s no minor achievement.

Posted 11 June, 2007