The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Postscript: Waitress

Steve Ramos reports in indieWIRE this morning that Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress expanded to 510 theaters and took in an additional $4 million at the box office last week, bringing the four-week total to $6.5 million. It will expand to 605 theaters tomorrow. “We are at a loss to compare another film that plays so broadly and so deeply as ‘Waitress,’” says Steve Gilula, Chief Operating Officer at Fox Searchlight. “This film is attracting audiences everywhere. I suppose the best comparison is ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’”

Posted 31 May, 2007

DVD Commentary and Special Features

johncassavetes5.jpgWilliam Speruzzi at [This Savage Art] asked folks to cite examples of the best commentary or special features on a DVD. I confess that I almost never rewatch the film with the director’s commentary, and only occasionally bother to watch the special features, including interviews with the director or actors. Why? Because they are usually boring, or I don’t learn enough new information to make watching them worth my time.

Obviously a company like Criterion excels at creating interesting commentaries and special features as part of the packaging of their DVDs, and even publishes accompanying pamphlets for certain films. The added features on Shadows in their boxed set of five films by John Cassavetes, for instance, has a fascinating interview with Lelia Goldoni on what it was like to participate in this now legendary indie film as an eighteen-old acting student. She talks about Cassavetes’ method, which was to have the actors hang out with each other outside of the production in order to develop their characters and relationships. Goldoni claims that Cassavetes was busy experimenting with various improvisational techniques, but that no one (herself included) really had a sense of what he was doing at the time. She talks about one of the key scenes, the bedroom scene, and her negative reaction after making love with Tony. Goldoni talks about the scene being scripted, and suggests: “I wouldn’t have the nerve to say that line. The line being: ‘I never thought it could be so awful.’ Because it was in the ’50s and there was an entire romantic thing about – which I thought was captured brilliantly – about your first experience at sexual encounters. You know, it was supposed to be wonderful. I, as a human being, would not have dared to say anything except for the convention. And that line was not the convention, and John wrote that. And I think that was John’s brilliance.” She discusses the inspirational aspect of Cassavetes, saying he kicked people’s butts to make films their own way. Goldoni concludes, “He was always in his films, in every one of his films, he was looking for how to express the truth – the truth of this moment, and the truth of this character, and the truth of this circumstance. And, man you can’t do better than that.”

I also liked the interview included on Thumbsucker (2005), even though it ultimately goes on much too long. Mike Mills, the director, and the novelist Walter Kirn obviously have incredible admiration for each other. Mills reads a long passage from the novel about Justin’s obsession with his mother, Audrey, and his oedipal rivalry. Mills comments: “I love the grandiosity of that in little Justin – you know what I mean? – so needing to be her peer, her suitor, her everyman. And it’s so hugely ambitious for a kid, and also terribly tragic when the kid drops the kidness and tries to become the adult to the mom. That was the part I could so grab on to. Kirn responds by discussing the autobiographical elements of his book. Mills talks about the difficulties he had raising financing for the film because of the “repulsion” factor. Kirn adds that it was no different in trying to get the book published. He explains: “But this [thumb sucking] was a genuinely uncomfortable behavior. And I think it immediately brings out that side of everyone they want to hide, which is the soft , gooey, dependent, unformed self.” In trying to obtain financing, Mills indicates that once the “soft” element in the film would be raised, it became a signal to him that the meeting was over.” Mills also has some interesting things to say about improvisational techniques he used in the film, some of which obviously mirror what Goldoni describes Cassavetes as doing. For instance Mills had the main actors live together as an actual family for several days in preparation for their roles.

239737.jpgI’d say the best interview on a DVD that comes to mind, however, is by the Turkish director of Distant (2004), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who also did the more recent Climates (2006). Strongly influenced by Tarkovsky, Ceylan makes a positive case for low-budget filmmaking. He talks about the benefits of utilizing a small crew and non-professional actors. He also offers great insights into casting, dialogue, and performance. Ceylan indicates, for instance, that he chose the lead actor, even though this person gave the worst performance in the casting session. The casting session involved line readings of dialogue, but because Ceylan’s film involved very little dialogue, he decided to go with his intuition. He shot a great deal of the film in his apartment. Ceylan also discusses how he was able to utilize what was available around him: the weather (snow), the huge shipwreck in the harbor, and the city of Istanbul itself. Ceylan provides a rationale for using long takes and for a more minimal style. He says he loves to edit, and talks about getting up in the middle of the night and editing. Ceylan discusses how the actual film changed from the script, and how he came to eliminate things that he felt were not necessary to the story. Most insightful are Ceylan’s insights into the characters. He discusses the implications of key scenes, such as when Mahmut falsely accuses Yusuf of stealing, and then hides the evidence to the contrary. In terms of Mahmut’s former wife, Ceylan explains that Mahmut goes to see her before she leaves for Canada with her new husband because he’s hoping for a miracle. Ceylan talks about people doing things even when they know they’re not really viable. In other words, even if Mahmut and his wife were to reconcile, their relationship still wouldn’t work. Ceylan observes that people don’t really change, which becomes a rationale for the kind of naturalism he employs.

Posted 30 May, 2007

On the Marketing of Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress

filmmaker.jpg I had not intended to write about the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress because I personally find it impossible to separate her film from the tragedy surrounding Shelly’s senseless murder last November, following an argument with a nineteen-year-old construction worker in the building where she had an office. For one thing, it totally colors the film’s ending, giving it a poignancy that left me feeling devastated. The film has already grossed over $2.5 million in its first three weeks, and it’s even playing on two screens at Sundance 608 here in Madison. Waitress has received a 90% critical rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes and 97% from their “Cream of the Crop.” Internet ads are starting to appear involving animated pieces of pie. It’s now becoming clear that Fox Searchlight’s marketing goal is to turn Shelly’s film into this year’s Little Miss Sunshine.


The Spring issue of Filmmaker magazine has an article by Karina Longworth that provides a lot of background on the film’s production and subsequent sale at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film was handled by Shelly’s producing partner, Michael Roiff, who reportedly fell in love with the script and put up the money. According to the article, he then hooked up with sales agent Andrew Herwitz, a former acquisitions person from Miramax, who brokered the deal with Fox Searchlight. There are two disturbing quotes from Herwitz in the article. Talking about Sundance, Herwitz reportedly explained: “There’s great interest in seeing Keri [lead actress Keri Russell] – people love her. But the tragedy of Adrienne’s death has created a different kind of story. I think certainly, the amount of press the film has gotten is fueling distributor interest.” In relation to the film’s optimistic ending given the dark circumstances surrounding the production, Herwitz is later quoted as saying: “It’s excruciating on one level to see this film, and realize that the filmmaker was very happy, and to have her life taken away – it’s horrible. But that, for better or for worse, has become part of the lore of the film, and I think there’s a way to use that irony in a very real way.” Fox Searchlight’s campaign initially created a trailer that portrayed the film as a comedy at the expense of Shelly’s contribution, but, according to the article, plans are now in the works to “highlight the auteur in future promotions.”


Adrienne Shelly’s considerable reputation in indie circles rests largely on her feisty performances in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). In terms of Waitress, I also find it hard to separate Shelly’s protagonist, Jenna, from the lead character she herself played in Trust, especially because some of the line readings in Waitress mimic the idiosyncratic dialogue that has become one of stylistic features of Hartley’s work. In Trust, Shelly played a pregnant teenager knocked up by her jock boyfriend, Anthony, who promptly dumps her once he finds out. After her father refuses her request for money, she slaps and inadvertently kills him, thus setting in motion a Bressonian journey of spiritual growth and self-discovery once she encounters an angry computer guy named Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan). A romance develops between the two outcasts. They even consider marriage, but Maria eventually opts to have an abortion because it has forced Matthew to take a job he can’t stomach and because their relationship is changing him for the worse. In the end, Matthew threatens to blow up a computer factory, but the two of them achieve a more spiritual form of love before he’s whisked away in a police car. One of the ironies of Trust is that Matthew’s abusive father resents his son because his wife died while giving birth. Hartley plays up the Oedipal conflict by having Maria wear the mother’s dress throughout much of the film.


In Waitress, a film set in the rural South, Jenna (Keri Russell) is also the victim of an unwanted pregnancy, but abortion doesn’t seem to be a viable option this time. Her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a wife abuser, who’s jealous that the baby will replace him. Jenna consequently resents the baby and displaces her emotional feelings onto the pies she bakes. Utterly lacking in self-confidence except for her baking skills, she schemes to win a pie-baking contest as her only hope of getting out of the relationship. Jenna meanwhile falls for her handsome gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). The only complication preventing their running off together, which takes up most of the middle act, is the fact that he’s also married. According to the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, these two people are clearly meant for each other. In a final twist, however, Jenna chooses to leave both husband and lover, through a redemptive revelation following child birth, and a plot device involving the pie shop’s grumpy owner, Old Joe (played by Andy Griffith).


Throughout the movie, I kept wondering who the target audience was for this movie, but by the time it was over, that part had become abundantly clear. It’s no wonder that the theater reportedly was packed on Mother’s Day. Fox Searchlight made sure of that by creating a special gift-bag promotion for Mother’s Day, which included (among various items) a Sara Lee Simple Sweets six-inch pre-baked pie, at 100 theaters nationwide. The film’s politics are not my own to be sure, but, let’s face it, there are many parents in the world who love their children a great deal more than their partners. The film is now being sold with the marketing tag line: “If only life were as easy as pie.” Yes, that’s the irony of the movie all right, and no doubt what Mr. Herwitz seems to have had in mind. Despite its portrayal of thwarted ambition, loveless and compromised relationships, and casual extra-marital affairs, Waitress ultimately provides a kind of light-hearted fairy tale with an upbeat ending, much like Little Miss Sunshine and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That grim reality has had the final say is what makes Waitress feel so heartbreaking. But that’s now part of the marketing strategy, which will no doubt succeed in taking Shelly’s small, personal, and somewhat whimsical film and turning it into dollars at the box office. Because I’ve always been a big fan and consider Adrienne Shelly to be a somewhat iconic figure in the history of independent cinema, I guess part of me finds that to be very sad as well.

Posted 26 May, 2007

Postscript: Sundance 608 Revisited

The added surcharge on tickets at Sundance 608 made the front page of The Capital Times last Friday afternoon with the $11.75 ticket price prominently featured in the headline. The article by Samara Kalk Derby indicates that there have been many complaints from customers, who are frankly baffled by the policy, as well as the rationale: Why am I being charged for reserved seats when they are all reserved? Derby suggests that “management was tight-lipped about the policy until the last minute.” She also states: “Conflicting ticket price information is given out by the box office, a telephone message, the Web Site, a screen outside the theater, and kiosks in front of the theater.” While several patrons interviewed for the article took the surcharge in stride, one person called it “sneaky.”


I was back for the third time on Friday to see the Danish melodrama After the Wedding. I deliberately went at 12:15 PM, because I thought there wasn’t a surcharge for the first show, but quickly found out that the policy is only in effect Monday through Thursday. My ticket cost an extra dollar ($7.25), even though there was only one other patron at the screening and no need for a reserved seat.


Some people have suggested that the added surcharge is a brilliant business strategy, but I now disagree, as evidenced by the negative publicity the policy is generating within the community. Everyone has heard about it, including people who haven’t been to the theater yet. I could see Sundance 608 charging higher ticket prices or a surcharge for choosing reserved seats, especially for crowded shows, but why this convoluted policy? Don’t you want to bring folks into the theater with quality movies, so that you can then have them stick around for food and drinks, and so forth? Isn’t that why Sundance 608 has a café, bistro, gift shop and two bars?

Posted 22 May, 2007

Robert Redford’s Sundance 608 Rides into Town

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Posted 18 May, 2007

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