The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Daddy Longlegs

Josh Safdie’s French New Wave-inflected debut feature The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) centers on a sociopathic protagonist named Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks) and played at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Eléonore robs people – purses, credit cards, cars, as well as pets from children – for the sheer fun of it. I’m not sure that the small coterie of New York movie reviewers who compared Safdie to Bresson, Godard, Tati, Miranda July and John Cassavetes did the young American indie filmmaker much of a favor, but Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film Daddy Longlegs, aka Go Get Some Rosemary (2010), which premiered at Cannes and played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is another matter altogether.

Many of the characters from The Pleasure of Being Robbed are back again, but Daddy Longlegs, a portrait of a harried and divorced father named Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), represents a leap forward in terms of filmmaking and proves that the Safdie brothers are indeed major talents. Much of the strength of the new film results from the complexity of its characterization. Although he’s not an actor – at least not until now – Bronstein brings intensity to Lenny, who appears to be overwhelmed by everyday life in New York City. Lenny, who works as a film projectionist, is perpetually someplace else – where else, we’re not exactly sure. His attention span appears momentary – like someone who suffers from ADD, which is mirrored by the shaky, hand-held camera work by Brett Jutkiewicz and Josh Safdie that captures the fleeting details of the action. Lenny at least tries to deal with his two mop-haired kids, Sage (Sage Ranaldo) and Frey (Frey Ranaldo) – the real-life sons of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo – even if he’s woefully inadequate to the task.

Ronnie Bronstein is no stranger to dysfunctional characters. He made the incredibly powerful Frownland (2008), which I admire immensely. The Safdie brothers were smart to cast him as the protagonist of their new film. Bronstein’s portrait of Keith, the horrific lead in Frownland, reflects the sensibility of an underground comic. It took months of improvisation and rehearsal to develop the characters who wound up on the screen. In Daddy Longlegs, there apparently wasn’t a conventional screenplay, but forty-four pages of notes that constituted a prose story. According to Josh Safdie, “So, with this movie, we wanted to keep it alive in much the same way that when, as a filmmaker, you read a short story or book you’re imagining the movie. We tried to use adjectives and certain words and syntax to indicate certain shots we wanted and certain emotions we were getting at.”

There’s a strong autobiographical undercurrent that flows through Daddy Longlegs, which is a bittersweet portrait of Josh and Benny Safdie’s own father and their conflicted feelings for him. The film contains the dedication: “For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments & our mother.” It’s interesting to note, even in the dedication, how the dad still manages to capture the fantasy and imagination of the children by his absence and irresponsible behavior, much like the father in So Yong Kim’s remarkable In Between Days (2006).

The two young filmmakers attempt to empathize with their own father, who found himself at their age with two young children. Single moms may have little sympathy for the character of Lenny – and rightly so – but he’s not really a bad person, but someone who fails miserably to adapt to the role of being a father when he gets to have the kids for a two-week period. Lenny is a deadbeat dad, but saying that sounds much too harsh. If someone referred to Lenny by such a label, he would no doubt be appalled, even though his parental behavior would most certainly not only get him in trouble with social services, but locked up.

Lenny is as much of a mess as Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Greenberg (2010), but the difference is that Lenny doesn’t psychoanalyze himself or try to rationalize his behavior, which, in a sense, might be his saving grace. The Safdie brothers manage to capture the sheer chaos of what it’s like to have young children within the confines of a cramped apartment in an urban environment. I confess I felt overwhelmed by the way Sage and Frey seemed to bounce off the walls in the scene of Lenny trying to play racquetball with them in the gym. Lenny doesn’t try to show them how to play, but instead ridicules them for missing the ball, indicating that he’s clueless when it comes to what’s expected of a father. Of course, it’s hard to concentrate on such things when there’s some naked flasher lurking in the locker room.

The film begins with Lenny dropping a hot dog as he attempts to scale a chain-link fence in the park. He at least has a sense of humor about himself, as his laughter continues over the hand-written opening credits. When Lenny picks up Sage and Frey at school, he immediately gets into conflict with the school principal, Mr. Puccio, who complains that Frey, the younger of the two boys, assaulted his math teacher. Lenny responds, “Okay, the kid is the size of a two-year-old, all right? So I don’t know what kind of ruckus he’d be causing in your classroom.” When Lenny curses, and the principal objects, Lenny insists with self-righteous indignation, “Do not reprimand me in front of my children! Do not reprimand me in front of my own kids, all right?” Lenny is full of ultimatums.

When Sage’s friend, Alex tags along as they head home, Lenny confronts him, “What? What are you doing? What are you doing? You know, we have things to do, okay? I’m sorry, it was nice to see you. You’ll see him at school tomorrow, okay?” Alex tries to interrupt, but Lenny insists, “No moms, no play dates, nothing today!” As they walk along the street, Lenny brags to Alex who has to go to bed at eight o’clock that Sage stays up until eleven o’clock “because he’s a grownup.”

Lenny has a girlfriend named Leni (Eleonore Hendricks). When Leni comes over, she finds him and the kids wrestling on the couch together. Leni comes across initially as a sympathetic character, as she pretends that a live salamander is a prize in a cereal box, much to everyone’s delight. But within minutes, she has to call Lenny into the bathroom to complain about the way he’s acting. It’s no wonder that Lenny picks up another woman named Roberta (Dakota Goldhor) in a bar when he slips out to have a beer with a male friend once the kids are asleep. The next morning, after Roberta indicates that she’s heading upstate for the weekend, Lenny manages to tag along. Her boyfriend, Aren (Aren Topdijian) is flustered that she’s invited a stranger, but even more so when Lenny brings along his kids. Aren finally blows his top when Lenny and the kids sing a mangled rendition of the national anthem on the journey upstate.

Life can be precarious in a place like New York City. While carrying ice cream cones for the kids, Lenny runs into an aggressive street person (an utterly convincing and scary cameo by film director Abel Ferrara), who tries to sell him a bogus CD. Lenny insists he has no money, but when he offers the guy a piece of  bread, the street hustler flashes a gun and takes his money. What’s interesting is how quickly Lenny shifts his attention away from this seemingly traumatic event. Once Lenny returns empty-handed, it’s as if it never happened to him.

The same is true of his phone arguments with his wife, Paige (played by artist Leah Singer, Sage and Frey’s real mom), which the kids watch with grave concern (Sage has big eyes and bears resemblance to the Italian actress Giulietta Masina). When Lenny abruptly hangs up on her, he turns to the kids and says, “You see that, guys? You see that? That was awesome, huh?” He laughs, rips open his shirt, playfully jumps on the kids and starts to wrestle with them. The wrestling match is interrupted by the surprise visit of a crazy friend named Salvie (Salvatone Sansone), who plays a questionable game of stepping on the kids’ stomachs.

At work, Lenny mixes up his schedule with that of a co-worker, which causes him to be late to pick up the kids at school (where one of the teachers sports a prominent black eye). Mr. Puccio has called Paige rather than him, which riles up Lenny once again. As Paige holds her kids tightly, Lenny insists, “Hello? This is my screw-up. I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks. You can screw up for the rest of the year.” Kids in tow, Lenny rushes back to the projection booth, just in time for the reel change-over.

Lenny attempts to instruct Sage on the nuances of film projection, but Sage fails to push the button at the appropriate moment. The kids spend much of their time drawing comics in the hallway. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Sage acts out the panels of the comic (complete with sounds effects and laughter), in which Lenny’s boss asks him to get a glass of water, and he pees in a cup and gives it to him. The two kids make nearly a thousand copies of their comic on the film theater’s copier. In a later scene that evokes Jean Vigo’s 1933 classic Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct), the wind blows all the sheets in the air, as Lenny, Leni, and the kids chase after them on the street.

Lenny bribes a neighbor (Jake Braff) to watch the kids with a rare comic, so that he and Leni can go out to a Chinese restaurant for the evening. When they miss the train while returning home, Leni suggests walking on the tracks to the next subway stop. Lenny at least has the gumption to tell her, “With all due respect, that’s a really stupid idea.” Of course, Leni impulsively does it anyway. The scene is extremely disconcerting, especially because Lenny is so preoccupied with his own issues, and Leni’s too self-indulgent to sympathize with his plight. The worried look on Lenny’s face and the suspenseful ride to the next stop while Leni walks through the train tunnel turns out to be one of the film’s most powerful moments.

As pressures mount at work, Lenny gets more and more desperate. Let’s just say that his judgment gets even more impaired, which ends up putting the kids at risk and really crosses the line of acceptable behavior. There’s a dream sequence involving a huge insect that works much better than the one involving Eléonore’s fantasy of the polar bear in the earlier The Pleasure of Being Robbed. The final image of Daddy Longlegs strikes an exuberantly poetic note of sad nostalgia “for lost love but still something there.”

Daddy Longlegs will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival in mid-April. It’s one of the most impressive indie films I’ve seen so far this year, so if any tickets remain, you might want to snag them.

Posted 31 March, 2010


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



We tend to associate one strand of American independent cinema with regionalism. Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, and Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy serve as some recent examples. But a new trend rooted in globalism seems to be developing. Chris Smith made The Pool in India, So Yong Kim set Treeless Mountain in Korea, and Lee Isaac Chung shot Munyurangabo (2009) in, of all places, Rwanda. That Kim would locate her semi-autobiographical Treeless Mountain in Korea, where she grew up as a child, makes sense, while Chris Smith’s choice to transpose his story from Iowa to Goa, India is surprising, but the story is somewhat universal in scope. Yet the decision of Brooklyn-based filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung to make Munyurangabo in Rwanda, on the other hand, seems to take it to another level. Munyurangabo doesn’t sound like it could possibly be an American indie film, yet it most certainly is one.

Chung, who is Korean-American, grew up in rural Arkansas, attended Yale and later film school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He went to Rwanda where his wife worked as a volunteer at a Christian mission. Chung originally intended to teach a filmmaking workshop for kids there, but he subsequently decided the it would be more ambitious and educational to use the class to make a feature. He and his friend Samuel Anderson co-wrote a ten-page outline, and much of the film, especially the dialogue, wound up being improvised on location. The film was shot in a mere eleven days. The result is Munyurangabo, which premiered in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2007, as well as other major international film festivals around the world. Its rights were acquired by the subscription-based distributor Film Movement and it had a brief theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives only last May. It is now available on both VOD and DVD.

Munyurangabo tells the story of two young friends, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye). The story begins on a foreboding note. While everyone is distracted by a fight involving two men, Ngabo (as Munyurangabo is nicknamed) steals a machete on the streets of the capital city of Kigali. He later envisions it covered with blood, which is rendered in a single uninterrupted camera movement from the bloodied machete to his face and back again. After the title credits, Chung shows Ngabo, dressed in black with red sneakers, in a frontal wide shot as he pensively stares at the machete. Sangwa enters the frame from screen left and leans against the wall. He asks Ngabo, “Did you finish packing?” Ngabo stares at him and nods. The screen cuts to black. With spare economy – the stealing of the machete is conveyed in a ten brief shots – Chung manages to set up the story.

As we hear a song about people’s love for their country of Rwanda and the calamities that have befallen it – there is also written text that includes a biblical quote from Isaiah 51 – the two boys set out on a journey. On the way, they stop to visit Sangwa’s family, whom Sangwa hasn’t seen in three years. His mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) is ecstatic that her runaway son has returned, but his father (Jean-Marie Nkurykiyinka) is not very forgiving. He chastises his son for shirking his responsibilities to his family and flat out tells him, “You should have been aborted.” The camera holds on Sangwa’s pained reaction. At twenty-two minutes, we learn that Ngabo plans to avenge the killing of his family in the genocide.

Sangwa’s parents take a disliking to Ngabo. He overhears Sangwa’s father tell his son, “That boy you are with, don’t you know he’s a Tutsi? Don’t you know Tutsis are nasty? They have put our people in submission now. Now I’m suffering because of them. They tried to put me in prison even though I’m old. And yet you walk with them?” At one point, when Ngabo spies the father nearby, he instinctively reaches for his machete. After Gwiza (Jean-Pierre Harerimana Mulomda), Sangwa’s childhood friend, mysteriously becomes ill, Ngabo asks if he can visit Gwiza, with whom he has become friends, mostly as a result of the boy’s ability to make Ngabo laugh by inventing funny stories about fictitious animals. Sangwa’s father, however, blames Ngabo for everything that has gone wrong lately, and his son for bringing Ngabo into their house.

After a festival of dancing, Ngabo tells Sangwa that he’s deeply offended by what the father said about him. Sangwa, who has finally reconciled with his father as a result of repairing a mud wall, informs Ngabo that he has decided to stay with his family. Ngabo tells Sangwa, whom he calls his only friend, “You have a family, a mother, and a father. You know why my life is like this? Why my life is hard? It’s because of your relatives. Because Hutus killed my family. My life would have been better without them.” Ngabo suddenly points his finger at Sangwa and says something we’ve suspected, which leads Sangwa to break off their friendship.

Ngabo retaliates by squealing on Sangwa, causing Sangwa’s father to turn on his son again. In terms of characterization, we are often only able to understand the motivation of characters through inference. Why did Sangwa run away from his family? We learn from Gwiza that Sangwa’s father is no longer drinking. Later, Ngabo has a conversation with Sangwa in which he wonders, if Sangwa’s father is “bad,” why he’s working so hard to try and please him. Why would Sangwa’s father beat Sangwa and expel him away solely on the basis of what Ngabo tells them (even if he might be drunk)? After he gets banished by his family, Sangwa tries to make up with Ngabo, but, once crossed, Ngabo no longer wants to have anything to do with him either, causing the friends to part ways.

Although the title of the film is Munyurangabo and we fully expect it to be his story, after the opening scenes, the film focuses more on Sangwa, while Ngabo recedes into the background. Once Ngabo ditches Sangwa at roughly 70 minutes, the narrative switches back to his now solitary journey, in which, in voiceover, he goes deep into his memory and recalls details of the genocide, while we see subjective shots of the landscape as he treks back home. In my book on screenwriting, I have a chapter about shifting protagonists (Fargo does this, as does Psycho, the film the Coen brothers reference), so such a strategy is by no means unprecedented. Chung has discussed the fact that he deliberately employed a split narrative, but it’s not clear why. One possible explanation is that the structure allows him to present both sides of the story or two different perspectives on what’s taking place.

The film takes another unexpected detour in the third act when Ngabo stops to eat at a café. Another patron (Edouard B. Uwayo) sees his machete. The guy comes over, announces he’s a poet and indicates that he will be reciting his poem the next day to commemorate National Liberation Day. The poet then recites his poem while looking directly into the camera. Entitled “Liberation is a Journey,” the poem is simply astonishing. Even as a pure sound poem (spoken in the Kinyarwandan language), it has the most unbelievable cadence I’ve ever heard. The poet proceeds to tell the story of what happened in Rwanda, addresses injustice, and what needs to change in the country. We originally think his poem will be brief, but it goes on for over six minutes – so long that it begins to feel surreal.

One might assume that such an epic poem would have an immediate impact on Ngabo, but right after this strange interlude he stands with his machete in a wide shot and then moves move forward toward his family’s dwelling. From behind, we watch as he slowly approaches the building and hear the sounds of cows and chickens in the background. He goes around the building, enters cautiously, and makes a discovery. After his father appears to him in a vision and he dreams of Sangwa, Ngabo’s journey of revenge leads to a final image of hope and redemption. The shot happens so quickly and it is so subtle and unexpected, you might miss it.

Munyurangabo represents an amazing accomplishment on Lee Isaac Chung’s part. Working from only a brief outline with an inexperienced and indigenous crew, he was forced to improvise while on location and had to communicate with his nonprofessional actors through translators. Chung chose to shoot his elliptical narrative on 16mm film rather than digital video for both aesthetic and practical purposes. He uses long takes, relies on natural light, and stages most of his scenes outdoors. Chung doesn’t try to hide his stylistic influences, which range from Ozu to the Dardenne brothers and Terrence Malick. He embeds his characters within the landscape through his inspired framing of shots and camera movement – it’s simply impossible to look at the terrain of Rwanda without being reminded about what happened there.

Although Munyurangabo ostensibly focuses on the lives and relationship of its teenage characters, Ngabo and Sangwa, as we discover, the film is really a parable about an impoverished land that is still very much haunted by ghosts.

Posted 3 January, 2010

In Between Days

As the typewritten title scrolls across the lower right portion of the screen, we hear footsteps crunching snow, which continue over black. Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a Korean-American teenage girl in a fur-lined parka, trudges toward us in closeup, as we see a couple of high-rise buildings in the background. Over an image of this desolate urban landscape (Toronto), she writes to her absent father about going to school, “My friends are white, black, Chinese, and Japanese, too. Isn’t that amazing?” The film cuts to a closeup of Aimie’s face as she eats a sandwich by herself in the lunchroom. After school, she spends time with a male Asian friend named Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). Aimie asks Tran whether his breaking up with his girlfriend Janet is somehow connected to her, but he denies it. What she’s really asking is whether he likes her, but the subtlety of her indirect question is lost on him, a pattern that will continue throughout their courtship. In her debut feature, In Between Days (2006), So Yong Kim (who also directed the recent indie film Treeless Mountain) does a terrific job of capturing the mixed signals that often pass for communication amongst teenagers, especially when they are compounded by the pain of divorce and cultural displacement. In Between Days manages to convey the temporal aspect of adolescence – the sense of boredom of teenagers simply hanging out together for long stretches of dead time.

In Between Days deals with Aimie’s life as a new immigrant, but does so mostly by focusing on her relationship with her only friend Tran, a petty criminal and slacker, who wears a signature hand-woven wool ski cap for most of the film. When Aimie talks about “doing it” with him, we assume she’s talking about sex, but it turns out to involve her giving him a tattoo. But when he later asks her again while they’re watching television together, it is clearly sexual. This is never made explicit, but rather conveyed through subtle gestures and reaction shots. Like the characters themselves, the viewer tends to get lost in the labyrinth of their confused and conflicted personal feelings for each other. Aimie does not even possess the vocabulary to articulate what she’s experiencing, which is why adolescence represents such a traumatic period of transition for most of us. This might explain the film’s title, which also happens to reference a song by The Cure.

Aimie writes Tran’s name on the fogged window of the bus, indicating her romantic feelings for him. But when he suggests that they engage in sexual intercourse, Aimie indignantly refuses. Right afterwards, she quits her English class in order to buy him a very expensive bracelet. When she gives it to him, she says diffidently, “Hey, I saw this and got it. I thought it would look cool on you.” Kim’s camera focuses on the reaction on her face and then on his to capture the ambiguous resonances of this moment. At a party afterwards, Aimie becomes jealous when she sees Tran flirting with other girls, and retaliates by doing the same, causing Tran to insist that they leave. As the two wait at the bus shelter and then ride home, the tension between them is palpable. Concerned about his infected tattoo, Tran awakens her in the middle of the night, but when Aimie comes over, she shows little sympathy and calls him a sissy. Tran later feels up her breasts as she dozes off. She responds by calling him a pervert. He counters, “You got nothing to grab anyway.” A subsequent shot of Aimie looking at lingerie in a store window reveals her true feelings.

Tran turns up at her house and suggests that he was joking and thinks of her more like a “guy friend” – an attempt at an apology that completely backfires. To get back at him she tells him she kissed Steve at the party, which makes Tran noticeably jealous, indicating that they know exactly how to wound each other. When Tran asks whether Aimie really did kiss Steve, she denies it. Aimie, however, becomes even more sullen and withdrawn. Once they are together again, Tran asks her, “Are you on the rag?”Aimie laughs in disbelief at his crassness and calls him a jerk. After he flirts with another girl on the way back from the bathroom, Kim’s camera lingers on the two of them as they sit in a game room and don’t speak to each other, unable to break the stalemate.

Things don’t get any better between the two teens. Tran tries to get Aimie to go to a party, but she refuses for no apparent reason – she stays home and does laundry – other than the fact that she’s still angry with him. As the night wears on, she proceeds to call Tran and ends up alone in a karaoke place, where she sings an animated but sad pop song. Tran later shows up at her house after he’s been thrown out of his. Aimie makes Tran beg to be let in, then insists that he sleep in her closet, so as not to be detected by her mother. When she finds out that Tran is planning to move into a room at Michelle’s house, Aimie becomes upset once again. After she presses him, Tran insists, “For me . . .you’ve always been . . . from start to end . . . just a good friend.” The camera again focuses on their faces before Aimie simply walks away. We see her delayed emotional reaction as a tear streams down her face while riding a bus.

Like Jim Jarmusch, So Yong Kim (who co-wrote the screenplay with her filmmaker husband Bradley Rust Gray) builds the story from an accumulation of details, and from character rather than plot. She told director Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson and Sugar) in an interview in Bomb: “I usually develop my characters from little moments, and hopefully at the end of the writing process, I feel like I have a whole person. Everything – other supporting characters and the whole overall story – has to be based on my main character. I don’t really put that much importance on a big story or a theme.” Her main character is as ambivalent as Willy in Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Even after viewing the film twice, I still have a few questions about what’s going on between Aimie and Tran, but Kim suggests that adolescence is rooted in buried motivation. And, like Paul and Noel in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003), the story of Aimie and Tran is ultimately one of missed connections.

Aimie’s real love and feelings are channeled into the letters and images she sends to her deadbeat dad back in Korea. His absence only causes her love for him to grow larger in magnitude. Aimie’s anger over her parents’ divorce is reserved only for her mother (Bokya Kim), who works hard to support the two of them as a single mom in a new country. When her mother asks how she would feel about having a new father, Aimie answers that she already has one. The mom insists that her father abandoned them, but her daughter snaps, “Is that my fault?” When her mother gets ready to go out one night, the sulky teenager calls her “a cheap whore.” Yet Aimie hears her mother crying on the couch one night and calls out to her, as she watches sympathetically from the stairwell. It’s the only bit of warmth we see between them. Otherwise her father remains the specter behind what Aimie is trying to work out with Tran. It’s her father rather than Tran who represents the gaping hole in her heart – the source of her incredible loss and longing – that no doubt results in her moody and erratic behavior.

Kim uses wide shots and spoken voiceover for Aimie’s letters to her dad, which serve as transitions in the film. Otherwise, cinematographer Sarah Levy keeps extremely close to the characters by using a hand-held camera that gives a sense of intimacy to what transpires. Aimie and Tran often simply stare at each other as a substitute for talking. So Yong Kim trusts the camera to capture the emotions that are registered on their young faces, especially those of Jiseon Kim, who gives a truly extraordinary performance for a nonprofessional actress. What’s not said between Aimie and Tran is more important that what’s actually said, which suggests the unspoken undercurrent – the film’s subtext – that provides the real energy in the film.

There’s the scene in Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise after Eva leaves New York City, where Willie and Eddie sit and drink beers in awkward silence for what feels like an eternity. So Yong Kim keeps her scenes extremely short by conventional standards, but milks the dead time – the negative space of the film – in a similar assured way by relying on visual storytelling rather than dialogue to tell her story.

Posted 9 November, 2009

Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Like Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America is the type of film that will polarize critics and audiences, even those sympathetic to independent film. Except for a few positive reviews – most notably by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and a spirited defense of its originality by Mike Ryan on the indie blog Hammer to Nail – most responses are what you might expect from a narrative film that eschews complexity of characterization, plot, and dialogue in favor of a poetic exploration of visuals, sound, and music. Severed Ways is a Modern Gothic period piece that is shot much more like an experimental film or a very inspired home movie, where the actual story is far less interesting or important than the music soundtrack and the spectacular natural landscapes its two main characters traverse for nearly two hours of screen time.

Like so many narratives by younger film directors today, Severed Ways relies on a rough outline rather than a traditional script (see my recent article on this in the Journal of Screenwriting). Stone is much more concerned with improvising while on location – the weather became a major structuring device – which is one of the decided benefits of low-budget digital cinema. For instance, there’s an incredible shot toward the end of the film where Orn chops a tree frantically, and the sun behind him keeps obliterating his image into a burst of white frames as he rhythmically swings his ax.

The stunning imagery of the film continually trumps story, which is what you might expect from someone who studied with a bunch of experimental filmmakers (Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Adolfas Mekas) at Bard College. In an interview on The House Next Door, Stone defends the power of visual storytelling: “There’s so much to show and explain through the visuals, editing and simple pacing. Most films are spending most of their time figuring out how to frame a conversation. It’s pretty liberating to be free of that restraint.”

Based on Thorfinn Karlsefni’s actual expedition from Greenland to the New World, Severed Ways tells the story of two Vikings – Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) – who become stranded after the rest of their party have been slaughtered by the local tribe of Abenaki, whom the Vikings call “skraelings” in 1007 AD. Orn and Volnard wander off into the interior in hopes of finding others and survival. Along the way, they stumble upon a makeshift church with a huge cross and two monks. Orn attacks and kills one of them, while Volnard spares the other one after running him down. We understand his motivation from a previous flashback involving his sister’s love affair with a Christian.

A relationship develops between Volnard and the remaining monk, which epitomizes the split between paganism and Christianity. The scene of the monk washing Volnard’s feet is an obvious religious reference, but also hints at possible erotic overtones. Whatever the case, their secret meetings will have later ramifications for Orn and Volnard, who are revealed to be contrasting characters. Stone at one point provides a dream of Orn’s wife (Gaby Hoffmann), who castigates him for going on the journey and turning out to be “an embarrassment to the Norse.” She also indicates she’s now married to another man “who actually knows how to service me.” In a utter male fantasy, Orn later gets drugged and raped by a female Abenaki, who at first stalks him from a distance. As might be expected, the specter of death hovers over the remainder of the film.

Plot, however, is really beside the point in Severed Ways. The few subtitles are too fast to read, and the minimal dialogue, when understood, appears very stilted (especially when it employs contemporary idioms delivered in highly mannered Old Norse). The huge red chapter headings that are interspersed throughout add an odd sense of gravity, even though they are more or less extraneous or blatantly obvious in terms of the actual story. In lesser hands, Severed Ways might seem laughable – and judging from responses on the Internet, many people consider the film to be just that – but Stone’s insistence on the connection between the Vikings and black metal provides an interesting revisionist spin on the history of this country.

The scene of the two Vikings burning down the church with fiery torches at night, has contemporary parallels to the black metal subculture in Norway, which is reinforced through Stone’s inclusion of soundtrack music by Burzum (Varg Vikernes). A notorious figure in black metal subculture, Vikernes was convicted of murder and setting fires to churches, and spent time in prison for these crimes. In this regard, Severed Ways recalls Banks Violette’s haunting multi-media sculptural installation of a burned-out church, fabricated in salt, at the Whitney Museum in 2005. It featured black metal music by Snorre W. Ruch, who was also associated with Vikernes.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Stone made films as a teenager and played as a child in the main locations for the film (which was shot in Vermont, but also apparently in Newfoundland and Maine). With Severed Ways, Stone seemed able to tap into his own childhood and teenage filmmaking as a source of inspiration. He told an interviewer: “I’ve said this a bunch, but as a kid we used to run around, pretend to kill each other, make forts, and build fires, and not much was changed. This is an extension of that cranked up and documented.”

There’s a shot roughly twenty minutes into the film where Orn defecates in closeup, and then wipes himself with leaves from nearby branches – a scene that appears to have grossed out many viewers. Back in college when I saw my first Andy Warhol films, I remember being surprised when Paul America suddenly took a pee in the bathroom scene of My Hustler (1965), and Louis Waldon literally urinated on screen in Lonesome Cowboys (1968). I realized I hadn’t seen that in a film before. In showing the primitive conditions of the early Norse, Stone’s inclusion of such material makes sense. Have folks never gone camping? If moviegoers are really so shocked and disgusted by this, then Stone’s deliberate in-your-face attitude might provide a much-needed corrective.

Throughout Severed Ways, Stone emphasizes the sheer physicality of early exploration. The Vikings chop down trees, build shelters, spear fish in the creek, slaughter and eviscerate chickens, make fires, and seem to walk endlessly through thick brush and forests. Stone’s approach is a lot like that of Lance Hammer in Ballast. He’s less interested in a dialogue-driven film than in how we actually experience the characters. He commented: “But I think you can read a lot into people by their physicality, how they walk, chop. I think it’s more accurate and fairer to the characters. I think it’s far more interesting to decipher characters by actions than words that conveniently tell you who these people are immediately and give you their backstory within five minutes of watching a movie. That’s not how life works.” One memorable shot shows Orn headbanging to black metal while chopping a tree – a visual joke involving the chapter heading titled “camp,” as well as a playful joke about the relationship between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in film.

Just as Warhol was apt to point his camera at something other than the main action, that’s equally true of Stone. We get the closeup of Orn previously mentioned or a plant or grass against the sky, but some important narrative action might be filmed so closely with a shaky mobile camera or in such an extreme wide shot tableau that it’s rendered less legible on a narrative level. One crucial scene involving Volnard resorts to synecdoche. Yet what Stone does choose to focus upon always turns out to be visually fascinating.

Like the very best outsider art, there’s an obsessive quality to Severed Ways – an intensity and insistence to Stone’s eccentric vision that shines through nearly every frame. The film exudes a sense of mad conviction, and, to its credit, Severed Ways is never really predictable. There’s a love of nature, a sense of child-like wonder at the natural world depicted here – a sense of paradise about to be lost as a result of the “discovery” of America by the Norse. On Columbus Day, I happened to pass a protest on campus by a small group of American Indians, who drummed and chanted. One held a sign that read, “The only thing that Columbus discovered was that he was lost.” The same could be said of these Vikings.

While Severed Ways might be much too weird for most mainstream viewers, I’m nevertheless grateful to Magnolia Home Entertainment for releasing this unusual film on DVD. Compared to most of the formulaic movies playing at the local multiplex, I’ll take weird any day.

Posted 16 October, 2009

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