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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

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

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

Tiger Tail in Blue

Although hardly unknown within indie film circles, the films of Frank V. Ross remain under the radar for more mainstream audiences. His new film, Tiger Tail in Blue (2012), represents his seventh feature since 2000, yet Ross, whose films have been associated with those of Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, has had trouble getting his films distributed more widely, despite playing at SXSW and other notable venues. Hopefully this is about to change. Tiger Tail in Blue was nominated for the “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” Award at the recent Gotham Independent Film Awards, and rated number five on the “Best Undistributed Films of 2012” list on Indiewire.

While showing similarities to films associated with mumblecore, Ross’s work mines somewhat different territory. In contrast to fellow Chicagoan Joe Swanberg, for example, Ross carefully scripts his films, even though they might easily be mistaken for being improvised. If early mumblecore films dealt with the confusion of twentysomethings jumpstarting their adult lives, Ross’s characters seem to be a very different breed. They are less urban hipsters in a transitional stage of life than young, working-class suburbanites, who find themselves already trapped in humdrum lives and less than satisfying routines. They accept their fates with a certain resignation, yet feel stymied and unfulfilled as they struggle to make ends meet in a world of diminished prospects.

In Hohokam (2007), which is set in sweltering Phoenix, Anson (Anthony J. Baker) is an ex-marine working as a laborer, while his girlfriend Lori (Allison Latta) is stuck in a cramped office cubicle where she haggles on the phone with customers about their late medical payments. Anson has aspirations to start a restaurant or a car wash, but it’s not clear that he has the necessary drive, skills or luck to make that happen. To make matters worse, even Lori has her doubts. In Audrey the Trainwreck (2010), Ron Hogan (Baker), works as a purchaser for an ATM parts company, while the new girlfriend he meets on an Internet dating site, Stacy (Alexi Wasser), delivers parcels. It turns out that Ron hates his job, but can’t admit it to himself. In fact, he’s already secretly counting the days to early retirement (the working class dream), even though he’s only been employed there for three years.

If dead-end jobs largely define the worlds of Ross’s characters, they also consume so much of their lives that they don’t have much time for leisure. But the characters also appear to live in a cultural and artistic vacuum. In Hohokam, Anson and Lori decide to go out on the town and do something, but they are somewhat at a loss to figure out what that might be. For lack of anything better to do, they end up visiting the local zoo. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron spends time in coffee shops and dark bars. Beyond that, he plays volleyball with co-workers, while Stacy attends a bridal shower. The main characters in Tiger Tail in Blue go sledding down a not-very-steep hill.

What’s unique about Ross’s films is the way he deliberately eschews classical narrative. There’s no catalyst or inciting incident 10 or 15 minutes into the film to propel the story forward. In fact, there’s not much story per se. Viewers expecting a dramatic premise might question exactly what it is they’re watching. Yet Ross merely has a different agenda. He’s less interested in story conventions than in exploring the boundaries of narrative. At times, he even teases viewers by playing with their expectations. There is Anson’s gun, Lori’s flirtatious officemate, and another co-worker named The Jeffery (Joe Swanberg), who weasels a ride home from Lori early in Hohokam. Plotwise, these all turn out to be red herrings. In Audrey the Trainwreck, Ron’s roommate, Scott Kaniewski (Danny Rhodes) appears to have a crush on him, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, and is treated as a simple fact of life. If there’s a story there, Ross chooses not to tell it.

Ross seems to exult in chronicling the ordinary or the mundane. He gives equal weight to what would be excluded in most other films: bodily functions, pumping gas, office rumors, a phone call from a child that turns out to be a wrong number, breaking a favorite coffee mug, an older couple dancing in a restaurant, the surprise of getting a buffalo head nickel, the pleasure of a doughnut break or eating ice cream, the annoyance of cell phones, or a bad case of shingles. Ross’s characters talk very matter-of-factly, even provocatively, about sex, but the erotic pleasure appears to be more in talking about it – the possibility of sex – rather than actually engaging in the act. Any declaration about making love becomes an empty threat.

The sense that Ross’s characters feel trapped in their suburban lives and by jobs that “suck the life out of them” probably accounts for the fact that they get easily annoyed by little things. Ron gets upset about restaurants that claim to have the best hamburgers; the bride-to-be complains to Stacy about a parent interfering with her wedding plans. Chris in Tiger Tail in Blue gets irritated by older folks who call him “dude,” while Brandy’s roommate, Leonard (Baker), is convinced that reality television is making kids stupid. Scott launches into a long tirade, lasting several minutes, about security screenings of children at airports. He insists he’d rather be blown up than subjected to such “indignities.” “Just agree with me,” Scott heatedly vents to Ron, “that kids taking off their shoes at airports equals a shitty world.”

Ross’s characters also tend to have very short fuses. Lori and Anson get into an argument over an offhanded racist comment. Lori’s failure to approve of Anson’s choice of clothes leads to a blowup that causes her to storm out of the house. During a game of volleyball, Ron angrily throws the ball at his co-worker Jeremy (Swanberg) after he slips on water that Jeremy accidentally spills on the court. Ron argues with Scott, and also gets into an altercation at the local bar with a smug contractor named David (Nick Offerman), who belittles the significance of Ron’s line of work. It’s the kind of situation we fully expect will escalate into a fistfight, but, in this case, David’s wife wisely intervenes before the two come to blows.

Ross’s films present slices of life rather than conventional narratives. They are not easily summarized or explained. In some sense they are character studies of couples. Anson and Lori seem to be a mismatched pair. They don’t have very much in common, and she finds it weird that he walks around with a loaded gun. In fact, Lori seems to share greater camaraderie with her gay friend, Guy (Rhodes) than with Anson. Audrey the Trainwreck explores the life and frustrations of a single guy who’s starting to get up there in age, but is still on the prowl, painfully aware that the clock is ticking and his prospects are narrowing. Tiger Tail in Blue examines the pressures of everyday life on a young married couple in suburban Chicago.

Tiger Tail in Blue feels less angry than Ross’s previous films. If Audrey the Trainwreck accentuates warmer, yellow and orange hues, Mike Gibisser’s assured cinematography gives the new film a cooler, bluish look, as befits the melancholic mood suggested by the title, and which is reinforced by the jazz score by Mike Medeski and Chris Speed. Ross has always excelled at getting strong naturalistic performances from his actors, and Tiger Tail in Blue uses an ensemble cast – Ross himself and Rebecca Spence, along with Megan Mercier and Anthony Baker in a cameo – to great effect. Ross continues to be the master of throw-away lines. If the anger has dissipated somewhat, it nevertheless lurks just under the surface, so that Tiger Tail still retains its edge. Ross is keenly observant of human behavior. The simplicity of Tiger Tail turns out to be a deceptive mask.

In Tiger Tail in Blue, Chis (Ross) is an aspiring writer, who also works nights as a waiter, while his wife, Melody (Rebecca Spence), is a high school teacher. As a result of their conflicting schedules, the two hardly see each other. Melody is already asleep by the time Chris gets home, which puts strain on their love life. Not only do their different work schedules create enormous tension between them, but Chris also flirts with a co-worker named Brandy, which causes him to linger at the restaurant even longer. Melody resents Chris’s aspirations to be a writer, especially because it affects them financially. To her, his pursuit of writing is a luxury they can’t afford. When Chris is late coming up with his share of expenses, it leads to a spat. They also get into an argument later when Chris needs Melody to give him a ride home after he has his eyes dilated. Melody’s resentment becomes evident when she refers to their health insurance as “my” insurance. She’s the one who has the job with benefits, even though she might not be able to keep it long-term.

Ross’s films have cryptic titles. They don’t actually describe the films they represent, but rather resonate in idiosyncratic ways. Hohokam suggests that Phoenix is less a mecca for young singles than a dying civilization. Audrey the Trainwreck refers to a drunken woman on the dance floor that Scott describes to Ron, while Tiger Tail in Blue alludes to the type of doughnuts that Chris and Melody eat on the street. For this couple, stopping for doughnuts represents one of the few pleasures in life that breaks the monotony of their daily grind. Ross’s films usually incorporate unexpected elements. In Tiger Tail in Blue, the film’s naturalism is confounded by the fact that Spence plays not only Chris’s wife, Melody, but also Brandy, the waitress with whom he works.

While this is initially confusing, a different actress (Megan Mercier) takes over the role at two crucial points in the film. The first occurs when Melody pays an unexpected visit to the restaurant; the second happens when Chris comes over to Brandy’s house to borrow a CD. Ross is not the only filmmaker to cast the same performer in different roles, but a viewer might question why he employs this unusual strategy here. Ross’s point seems to be that Chris’s feelings toward Melody and Brandy are tempered by the situation. Work allows Chris and Brandy the space to enjoy each other’s company, whereas the responsibilities of marriage conspire to snuff out the spark of romance between Chris and Melody.

Ross, in fact, states it bluntly in an interview with Hammer to Nail: “I mean, romance goes away at a certain point. You displace your feelings after a certain amount of time, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh wasn’t it fun when we did this?’ But it’s a new relationship now, and if you can’t enjoy it, you’re going to, you know, do what happens in the movie.” The film’s loopy song-and-dance number perfectly embodies Chris’s personal dilemma. A curious amalgam of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical and a John Wayne western, the scene is so playful and exhilarating that its tonal shift catches us completely by surprise.

Along with Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (which was just acquired by Factory 25) and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Tiger Tail in Blue strikes me as one of the best indie films to surface in the past year. The film will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago later this month and at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April.

Posted 18 January, 2013

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) established his career as one of the best young independent American directors. Quiet City abandoned a written screenplay in favor of structured improvisation, allowing his actors – Cris Lankenau and Jamie Fisher – to improvise their scenes to the point where they shared screenwriting credit with the director. What serves to distinguish Katz’s films from those of his peers who employ similar strategies are strong formal concerns – his films are visually striking in ways that the work of certain other filmmakers simply aren’t. Memphis-based filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who made Team Picture (2007) and Open Five (2010), for instance, recently told an interviewer: “I try to be visually tame . . .  But I’m basically of the opinion that style is the easy part, and I always resist doing the easy thing.” Yet Katz’s films benefit precisely from the tension that arises between a casual approach to structure and working with actors and a more rigorous visual style. This holds true for his absorbing new film Cold Weather, a mystery set in his home town of Portland, Oregon.

Expectations ran high when, working on a larger budget (reportedly low six figures) after micro-budgets, Katz turned his attention to genre. We all remember what happened when David Gordon Green, who, like Katz, also graduated from the film program at North Carolina School of the Arts, tried to be more commercial by making Undertow (2004). After the brilliance of the character-based George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), the genre elements in Undertow wound up seeming fairly contrived. Katz’s Cold Weather, on the other hand, manages to have fun with genre without getting too wrapped up in audience expectations of what needs to happen. Rather than an Agatha Christie-type mystery, Cold Weather might better be described as a slacker mystery, as epitomized by a stakeout scene in which the film’s protagonist, Doug, his co-worker, and then his sister sit in a car and eat “Swedish Fish” for several minutes. Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope talks about the film having “a crackling plot,” but, for me, Cold Weather uses plot merely as an opportunity to delve deeper into his characters.

Cold Weather begins with a shot of a rain splattered windowpane with the background out of focus, followed by a buoyant original score by Keegan DeWitt. The focus changes to reveal the courtyard of an apartment building, as a light rain falls. Doug (Cris Lankenau) enters carrying a large package. The shot cuts to Doug, a forensic science dropout, and his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), preparing a meal. There appears to be an awkward tension during dinner with their parents. Lankenau, looking scruffy and in need of a shave, proves that his endearing performance in Quiet City wasn’t a fluke. His self-deprecating demeanor once again gives him a certain charm. Lankenau has a way of breaking up his thoughts into discrete units, as if they comprise pieces of a puzzle. In response to his stepfather’s question how long he worked at an internship at a restaurant, he responds: “Two months. Like twenty hours a week . . . I mean I could have kept going, but I kind of quit . . . because . . . I didn’t get paid. And I started getting bored.” Doug discusses buying a coffee table – the large package we initially see him carrying. He tells his parents: “I’m assembling it. It’s coming right along . . . and by coming right along, I mean, not at all.”

The dialogue in Cold Weather involves excess verbiage; assertions end in negations. In the next scene, the camera focuses on a door that changes from yellow to cream color as Gail turns off the light and addresses Doug, who’s reading a book.

GAIL: All right. I’m going to go to bed now.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG (sing song): Good night.
GAIL: You gonna go to bed soon?
DOUG: I don’t know. I’m not really tired.
GAIL: It weird you’re never tired.
DOUG: I’m tired in the morning.
GAIL: Yeah . . . me too. (After a very long pause) All right, I’m going to bed.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG: Good night.

Screenwriting professors no doubt would flag the above dialogue as “chitchat,” but, as the scene indicates, we’re in the realm of naturalism. Between Gail’s first line and Doug’s last, the redundancy of their sentences merely attempts to fill up empty space between them, in a similar manner to Katz’s pans back and forth between the two characters. Gail’s pregnant pause indicates her concern for Doug, who is crashing with her. The next day he persuades her to skip out of work to go “whale watching” with him. The trip up the coast serves no narrative function other than to provide a sense of the Oregon landscape.

Doug’s takes a job at the ice factory, which provides Katz and his talented cinematographer Andrew Reed (using a RED camera) with an opportunity to explore an assembly line where bags of ice are produced. Doug meets a DJ co-worker, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), with whom he becomes fast friends, and at roughly fifteen minutes, he meets his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), at a coffee shop after she turns up unexpectedly from Chicago. She asks, “How’s living with your sister?” Rachel presses, “You like it more than living with me?” Surprisingly, he equivocates: “I don’t know, maybe not.”

The two guys and two women get together to play cards, which is followed by a montage that includes a spectacular shot: the camera slowly zooms in on Doug and Rachel as they stand on a bridge that overlooks a breathtaking waterfall. Carlos and Rachel attend a Star Trek convention together. Soon afterward, Carlos shows up at Doug’s apartment, informing him that Rachel never turned up at a club where she was supposed to meet him and is now missing. Carlos implores Doug to accompany him in investigating because he knows about “mysteries.” That may be true, but it’s Carlos who functions as the catalyst, while the more apathetic Doug gets dragged into getting involved.

I’ve gone into the film’s setup at some length, but I’ll not divulge the details of the mystery even though, on some level, the intricacies involving Rachel’s disappearance serve other purposes. As Doug attempts to solve the mystery, he and Gail grow closer together. Katz doesn’t poke fun at genre conventions; he takes them seriously despite having another agenda. There’s a hilarious cameo by Brendan McFadden (one of Katz’s collaborators) as Gail’s date, Swen. Katz’s other major collaborator, Ben Stambler, plays the hotel clerk, who gives knowing glances when Doug and Carlos rent a room together at Rachel’s motel. Another humorous exchange occurs later when Doug helps Gail navigate a porn site. She remarks, “You seem pretty familiar with how this kind of site works.” Doug’s response is a cold stare.

A Sherlock Holmes fan, Doug buys a cheap pipe to help him “think,” but we suspect the prop allows him to play the role better – even though he’s more like Frank or Joe Hardy than Holmes. The camera tracks through aisles of a grocery store and then the stacks of books in a library, creating a playful connection. Baseball figures prominently in the mystery, even though Doug obviously can’t hit a ball when he visits a batting cage, and Gail butchers the pronunciation of the name of ex-Yankee Clete Boyer. Late in the film, Doug follows a suspect into a building, where Reed’s slow zoom down a corridor is reminiscent of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity. Earlier, the exterior of the motel has a lime-colored cast, while one of the occupied rooms is lit with a yellow filter. There’s also a memorable shot of Doug climbing stairs of a train overpass as the sun flares directly into the lens, illuminating both Doug and the structure with an intense reddish orange glow. One of the major strengths of Cold Weather is its extraordinary attention to visual details (which, I’d argue, is hardly the “easy part” of making a film).

As Katz points out, there are other films about brother and sister relationships, namely You Can Count on Me (2000) and The Savages (2007), but the relationships in those films are far more contentious. Cold Weather on the other hand, explores the subtle yet powerful impact that siblings, such as Gail and Doug, can have one another. Katz told Nayman: “I’m interested in the idea of siblinghood as a kind of co-dependency, at once very intimate and oddly removed – like when she tells him she had a boyfriend for six months and he has no idea.” Katz is exploring that odd sense of comfort that siblings often share from having grown up together, even though he adeptly buries the motivation of his characters. We never learn anything about Doug’s past relationship with Rachel or why they broke up. Doug seems unfazed by Rachel’s return, yet his dropping out of school and lack of direction might stem from the end of their relationship. Doug and Gail appear at ease with each other, but that’s not necessarily true of their own love relationships, which they each have greater difficulty navigating.

With Cold Weather, Aaron Katz has managed to achieve something very difficult, namely he’s made three terrific low-budget films in the past four years. Some months ago, I wrote a blog about the overemphasis on social networking as marketing tools for indie films. Katz weighed in on this subject in an interview in Filmmaker. He told Scott Macaulay: “The best thing, I think, is to make a film you feel proud of and then find an audience. But I’m for anything that can get people to see a movie. It’s when [these tools] become the dominant things, it sometimes feels they are not in service of the movies.” In this sense, Katz has his priorities straight.

Cold Weather is being distributed by IFC. The film premiered at South by Southwest and has been playing the festival circuit, but I’ve been waiting for it to surface theatrically. Cold Weather is now expected to open in February.

Posted 12 December, 2010

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