The Black Hole of the Camera

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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

All the Light in the Sky

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Considering how many feature films Joe Swanberg has made at this point in his career, All the Light in the Sky (2013) might be easy to overlook, especially following the recent success of his commercial breakthrough, Drinking Buddies (2013). Inspired by and starring Jane Adams, who will forever be identified with Joy, the inveterate family loser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), All the Light in the Sky tells the story of a middle-aged actress, Marie, who finds herself moderately successful but also very much alone. The visit of her twenty-five-year-old niece from New York, Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress, causes Marie to experience a minor mid-life crisis when she suddenly realizes that her life is on a downward slope.

Marie’s small Malibu house perched atop the rocks above the Pacific Ocean serves as a kind of metaphor for the precariousness of her situation. As often happens to female actors when they hit a certain age, Marie is starting to get passed over for parts in major studio films, and has to settle for appearing in low-budget indies that have start dates but sketchy financing. The film opens with a shot of Marie waking up to a self-help video. Without a partner to assist her, she struggles to get into a rubber wetsuit in order to paddle out into the ocean on a surfboard for morning exercise. We soon see that neither exercise nor a steady diet of blended health drinks can fully stave off the inevitable passage of time.

Marie is thrilled to see her niece. When she asks Faye about her boyfriend, the younger woman indicates that things are “the best” and the two are planning to get married. Although Marie doesn’t appear to react, this revelation invariably causes her to ruminate on her own life choices. After taking a dip in the ocean, the two women have intimate discussions about female bodies and sexuality. As they change out of their wetsuits, Marie laments that her breasts already sag and suggests that Faye should enjoy her firm ones as long as she can. Marie later confesses that she has always been used to being the object of male desire – “the image that starts the ball rolling” – a point that has been underscored when Faye’s boyfriend (Lawrence Michael Levine) gets her to expose her breasts while talking to him on Skype the night before.

When friends come over, Marie and an older stoner named Dan (Kent Osborne) seem to hit it off, especially when he plays the role of handyman by fixing her wobbly toilet seat and putting up a coat rack. Meanwhile, when they all use a friend’s hot tub, a young director (Ti West) comes on to Faye, but when she indicates that she has a boyfriend, he immediately loses interest, and she later watches him make out with another young woman (Lindsay Burdge). The socially awkward interaction between Marie and Dan seems promising at first, but it results in a one-night stand, as Marie skips out while Dan is still asleep, only to forget her car keys.

All the Light in the Sky is more episodic than plot-driven. It consists of a series of incidents that have thematic links. The intimate conversations between Marie and her niece, however, turn out to be the film’s most compelling material. To Marie, Faye has everything – her youth represents her power – but the younger woman already worries what will happen when she loses that weapon. Marie, on the contrary, knows only too well what it’s like to walk into a room and seem invisible. Marie insists that it’s different for guys. She attributes it to biology that her neighbor friend, Rusty (Larry Fessenden), is drawn to young women who are Faye’s age. Marie confesses to Faye that she always assumed that she would have kids, but concedes that she never met a reliable man whom she thought would make a good father.

At one point, Rusty and Faye sit on the beach watching the sun set at magic hour. He reflects on the fact that the surrounding houses overlooking the ocean are sheer folly – he predicts they’ll be gone in ten years due to global warming. Yet he’s content to live in the moment and enjoy it while he can. If this makes the film sound overly didactic, it actually feels quite the opposite – like we’re simply eavesdropping on two people conversing. Once Faye leaves to return home, Marie and Rusty have dinner together. Afterwards, the two of them lie together on the sofa, and he amuses her by doing Jack Nicholson imitations. When Marie takes umbrage at a number of his actions and comments, he accuses her of being on a “pity-party tear.” She rejects his attempt to turn their friendship into something more.

There’s something so casual about All the Light in the Sky that it feels invented on the spot. Much of the film’s strength derives from the performance of Jane Adams, who, though her character tries hard to remain upbeat, allows occasional flickers of sadness to appear in her eyes. Adams, who shares writing credit, describes the process of making the film in an interview in Entertainment Weekly: “We sent emails back and forth for a long time with ideas – and text messages even. Joe wrote an outline and sent it to me and we made a few adjustments and then he showed up with two actresses, Lindsay and Sophia, and we just started improvising and shooting. It was an exciting process.”

All the Light in the Sky is easily Swanberg’s most thematically integrated film, yet it might also be his most effortless. The flow of conversations seems as natural as the tide we watch going in and out, or the subtle changes in the bright California sunlight that illuminates so many scenes. Swanberg’s film seems to go beyond simple naturalism by confusing the boundaries between the artifice of performance and real life. It involves a delicate sleight of hand that Swanberg has managed to pull off masterfully. Swanberg shot the film himself, which no doubt contributed to the intimate dynamics of the production.

Swanberg has cleverly added an additional element. In researching a role for a film (this one?), Marie interviews a solar engineer (David Siskind), who measures sunlight with a pyrometer.  He later describes the sun as a “middle-aged star,” which, like all things, ultimately goes away. Her conversations with him contextualize Marie’s own situation within the broader context of flux and change in the natural world. The film’s spectacular final image encapsulates the entire film. In wide shot, Marie is rendered as a tiny figure against the ocean and vast expanse of sky, as she paddles out on her surfboard, while birds periodically fly through the frame.

I first saw All the Light in the Sky when it played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It was recently picked up by boutique distributor, Factory 25, and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York City. Joe Swanberg has been on a roll this year. He has a new film, Happy Christmas (2014), which is scheduled to play in competition at Sundance in January. And, judging by the success of Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-), Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013), and even the new film by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I think it’s fair to say that Swanberg’s influence as a filmmaker has never seemed greater.

Posted 22 December, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Eric Hynes recently wrote an article in the New York Times about the new films by Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, suggesting that mumbecore has finally grown up. Given the fact that mumblecore reflected a youth culture and the problems of a generation of characters in their twenties, the passage of time would, of course, inevitably have that effect. Bujalski is now thirty-six, while Swanberg is thirty-one. Both filmmakers are married with young kids and have to make a living, which is hard to do making micro-budget indie features. Yet the new films by Bujalski and Swanberg couldn’t be more different. Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), a period piece set in the early days of computing (circa 1980), represents an entirely new direction for him, whereas Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is a larger-budget romantic comedy that still has links to the style and substance of his earlier works.

I have seen quite a few of Joe Swanberg’s films over the years (roughly ten features by my count), even if I haven’t written about his work at any length until now. Like James Benning, Swanberg has been amazingly prolific in the digital format. Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with someone who has used sheer quantity as a means to survive as a filmmaker. This is in contrast to Bujalski, who has made only three other features since Funny Ha Ha (2002), the film that is credited with starting the mumblecore phenomenon. Yet, when all is said and done, Swanberg has made a number of equally strong films. I happened to take another look at Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) the other day for a book chapter I’m writing, and the film certainly holds up upon multiple viewings. In fact, it only seems to get better and better each time.

Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky (2013) screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. I considered it one of the highlights of the festival, which had a very strong indie lineup. Starring Jane Adams, the film has been largely overshadowed by Drinking Buddies, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Eric Kohn in Indiewire suggests that most of Swanberg’s films prior to Drinking Buddies are merely sketches, but I disagree. I find All the Light in the Sky to be a mature and sensitive look at the problems of being a middle-aged female actor, who has made great personal sacrifices to have a career. The main character, Marie (Adams), lives in a spectacularly nice house overlooking the ocean, but now finds herself without a partner and suddenly being passed over for major acting roles.

Based on a single page of notes (according to the filmmaker), Swanberg builds Drinking Buddies around a specific location, a craft brewery in Chicago, which reflects his current personal obsession with beer. The film centers on two couples. Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the events planner at the brewery, or, as the boss puts it, its “face and voice.” In the close-knit operation, Kate is very much at its center, as she organizes various public functions, much to the admiration of the guys who work there. Kate appears to have a special bond with the bearded Luke (Jake Johnson), who, with his boisterous personality, has an equally large presence among the workers. At the bar after work, we learn that Luke has a partner, Jill (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t seem at all his type. Although he’s up to partying some more, she prefers to go home, much to the annoyance of the others, especially Kate, who begins playing pool.

Luke and Kate have a very close and flirtatious relationship, so much so that we’re equally puzzled when she later shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Compared to Kate, Chris (Ron Livingston) is not at all the type of guy we expect someone like her to date. He’s soft-spoken as opposed to loud, a good deal more of an intellectual than Kate, as well as considerably older. When she quizzes him about his day, Chris wonders whether someone playing a cello in a rock band was being ironic, and admits that he can no longer tell. As the two start to make love, he suddenly interrupts their foreplay to give her a present, which turns out to be a hardback book (later revealed to be John Updike’s novel, Rabbit, Run). Rather than staying the night, Kate rides her bike home, ostensibly because a package is being delivered to her house in the morning.

Chris tags along with Kate to the big brewery event she’s organized, which gives her co-workers their first glimpse of her boyfriend. Seeing the two of them in the midst of her work milieu, the mismatch between Kate and Chris seems both surprising and obvious to everyone who works there. Jill is also with Luke as well. She turns out to be a special education teacher, very straight, and later jokes about being a “bourgeois pig” when she carries a set of plates and glasses in her backpack on a hiking trip. What is she doing with a guy like Luke, who exults in continually playing the role of the house blackjack player, a job he previously held on a riverboat casino?

When the two couples decide to visit Chris’s cabin, presumably on Lake Michigan, they end up spending more time with each other’s partners. Chris wants to go hiking, but only Jill expresses any interest in accompanying him. The film cuts back and forth between Chris and Jill walking through the woods and stopping to picnic, and Kate and Luke back at the cabin. Later that night, after a great deal of drinking, when Luke and Kate find themselves the only ones still up, he proposes building a bonfire on the sandy beach. Kate accepts the challenge and later provocatively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake.

The events of the weekend getaway, however, take their toll when Chris breaks up with Kate upon their return. Kate announces the news the next morning: “The shackles are off, I’m free,” she exclaims loudly, which is clearly an open invitation to Luke, but he actually has a mixed reaction. Kate begins to behave wildly after work, especially when she has a fling with one of the brewers, a guy named Dave (Ti West), and rumors swirl around the brewery. Needless to say, Luke gets both annoyed and very jealous. Meanwhile, things between Luke and Jill also become strained. She’s pressuring him to get married, and he acts as if he’s much too busy to get involved in planning a wedding right now. As he puts it, “figuring it out is the boring part.” Things reach a head when Jill goes away for a week to Costa Rica, leaving Luke to his own devices.

During the first half of Drinking Buddies, I confess that I missed the usual group of Swanberg performers. Despite cameos by regulars Frank V. Ross and Ti West, it took me awhile to warm to this group of professional actors. Only gradually did I begin to understand that Jill’s desperation to get married had to do with her life stage. When Kate tries to get back with Chris, he tells her they’ve been together long enough (eight months) for him to know their relationship isn’t going to work. It’s time for him to move on. For Jill, who’s been with Luke far too long (since she was twenty-one, we learn), she’s painfully aware that time is running out for them.

Although Jill might seem more suited to Chris, and Kate to Luke (especially in terms of social class), Drinking Buddies, in its observational style, suggests that there’s some truth to the old adage that opposites attract. Luke is much too comfortable in front of the bonfire to plunge into the ocean with Kate despite her seductive invitation. When Luke shows up at Kate’s apartment to help her move, he is grossed out by the fact that her place is such a mess. When Luke cuts his hand badly while moving her couch, Kate is too freaked out by the sight of blood to be able to offer assistance, whereas Jill’s response comes naturally and is just the opposite. While Kate and Luke make great drinking buddies, would they make a viable couple? Relationships generally need a certain balance or stability to keep them from veering wildly out of control. Referring to Luke and Jill’s nice apartment, Kate jokes, “I want a Jill . . . Does she have a male clone?”

There is unmistakable attraction and affection between Kate and Luke. The two feel enormously comfortable around each other, even physically, as they lie intertwined on the couch together. On some level, they’re very close, but what Swanberg seems to be suggesting in Drinking Buddies is that best buddies don’t necessarily make the best mates. As a result, there’s a sad undercurrent that runs throughout the film, which explores issues of friendship and romance, and the difference between casual crushes and actual commitments. Kate and Luke’s relationship seems to involve a series of missed connections. As it turns out, they might actually make better drinking buddies than lovers.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, in particular, give outstanding and believable performances as strong working-class characters. Kate (who has the piercing eyes of a Siamese cat) might act like one of the guys, but when she feels judged by Luke, she responds with the fierceness of a caged animal. As played by Wilde, Kate is very much her own person, and certainly no one to mess with, which makes her one of the strongest female characters in any of Swanberg’s films. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, plays the part of Jill with such understated vulnerability that it’s easy to miss the subtlety of what she’s doing, performance-wise.

In Drinking Buddies, it’s interesting to watch these actors respond to Swanberg’s more improvisational approach to filmmaking. In an interview, he discusses the benefits of working with professional actors: “They have a whole rich life and thought process to draw from, and so then in the moments where they’re sort of put on the spot they have stuff to talk about . . . Olivia reads a lot, she’s engaged in politics in the world around her, she has opinions about things. That’s all you need for improvisation – to be a person who is able to express yourself. If you’re working with good actors then everybody’s doing that, and you end up with fascinating scenes.”

Drinking Buddies is playing on Amazon Instant as a two-day rental for $10 (as well as on iTunes). I ran across it quite by accident, but I was happy to have an opportunity to see the film before it is released theatrically in late August.

Posted 1 August, 2013