The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

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

Starlet

Starlet, Sean Baker’s fourth feature, is his most successful to date. Baker’s last two films, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), took an ethnographic approach toward their subjects. Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) delves into the world of Asian illegal immigrants by focusing on a home delivery person indebted to loan sharks, while Prince of Broadway is a portrait of a West African street peddler who sells knock-off merchandise and gets a baby dumped on him unexpectedly. Starlet again deals with characters living on the margins. The film tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a young woman in her early twenties and a gruff woman in her mid-eighties, following the purchase of an item at a yard sale. Baker’s new film also contains an ethnographic element, but that is not readily apparent at first.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) lives with two roommates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) in the San Fernando Valley, along with her male Chihuahua incongruously named Starlet. Melissa is an airhead and basket case who likes to get high all the time. Mikey apparently deals drugs, but also has other sidelines. Neither of them is terribly likeable. It is especially hard to care much for Melissa after she tries to get Starlet high by blowing smoke in the poor dog’s face. If we take a liking to Jane, much of it has to do with her genuine affection for her small companion.

The plot initially centers on a thermos that Jane buys from an elderly woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson). After initially mistaking it for an urn and deciding it would make a great flower vase, Jane discovers that it contains rolls of cash that amount to roughly $10,000. This causes a personal dilemma, along with myriad questions: Should Jane return the loot to the old lady? Where did Sadie get the money? How did it get in the thermos? The discovery creates an alluring mystery, but, as Starlet slowly unfolds, more mysteries abound.

Jane tries to solve the initial one by getting to know Sadie, who rebuffs her awkward attempts at friendship. The fiercely independent old lady is suspicious of Jane, and only wants to be left alone. In her obsession to find answers, Jane begins to stalk Sadie. She disperses Sadie’s cab outside the grocery store, so that she can give her a lift home. Once inside her house, Jane tries to strike up a conversation by asking the perplexed woman what she does for fun. When Sadie indicates that she likes to play bingo at a local church, Jane turns up there as well. After Sadie’s cab disappears once again, Jane gives her another ride home, but this time the elderly woman retaliates.

The rift between them is short-lived when Sadie calls Jane and apologizes. As the two resume their tentative relationship, Sadie gradually reveals aspects of her life to the inquisitive young woman, including details about her deceased husband, who was a gambler, and her love of Paris. It’s more than the mystery of the money, however, that Jane seeks. She seems to be a lost soul, who has little else going for her. One afternoon, while they are together, Jane gets a phone call from Melissa, who is experiencing a meltdown, which brings the two plotlines together.

Not only is Melissa in the porn film business, but it turns out that Jane is new to the trade as well. This explains the shot of Jane getting a blood test in the doctor’s office earlier and the slight sway in her thin hips when she walks, as well as a couple of other well-placed clues. Shortly after the incident with Melisssa, we watch a porn shoot involving hard-core sex between Jane and a male performer, which Baker shoots in a documentary-like style.

There is a later scene at an adult entertainment expo, where Jane appears with a stack of her sex videos and has pictures taken with fans. Her boss, Arash (Karren Karagulian), talks about breast implants being the next step for her, but Melissa (who’s been “frozen” for a month for bad behavior) and Mikey crash the event, causing a major ruckus. After banishing them, Arash tells Jane, “That girl is bad news. I don’t want to see you with her.” Jane responds quizzically, “I live with her.” Arash snaps, “So don’t live with her anymore.”

Given the impersonal world that Jane inhabits, it’s no wonder that Sadie seems a welcome respite, even if Sadie can be remote and easily irritated. Baker manages to get arresting performances from the entire cast, but especially from the chemistry between Dree Hemingway and first-time performer, Besedka Johnson. Hemingway, with her lanky frame, seems to regress in the old lady’s presence, so that she appears to revert to a confused teen rather than young adult, while fissures appear in Sadie’s armor, before the mystery behind her character eventually is revealed.

Baker shot Starlet in actual locations connected to the adult film industry. The setting, however, provides more than just an intriguing backdrop to the story. It actually provides a crucial context for establishing the relationships between Jane, Melissa, Mikey, and Arash,as well as the motivation behind why Jane might be drawn to someone like Sadie. The film is, at heart, a fascinating character study, even if the screenplay (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch) contains more plot than is usually found in a Sean Baker film.

Starlet has a somewhat languorous pace compared to his previous films, but Baker has an innate feel for when to cut scenes. The cinematography by Radium Cheung captures the muted tones of the Valley, so that the colors, like the characters, appear to be washed out by the perpetual sun. In exposing the less glamorous underside of this social milieu, Baker shows how it affects young women, who get trapped emotionally in what he describes as a kind of dependent “pre-adolescent environment.” We come to see that, like her dog, Starlet, Sadie represents a kind of desperate lifeline for Jane.

Posted 11 February, 2013

Prince of Broadway

Sean Baker has to be one of the most underrated young American indie filmmakers working today. After Four Letter Words (2000), he reinvented himself with two stellar features, namely Take Out (2004), which took years to screen theatrically, and Prince of Broadway (2010), which actually came out a couple of years ago. It played at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival, but only had its theatrical opening last September. Both Take Out and Prince of Broadway vied for the 2009 John Cassavetes Award (films made under $500,000). The double nomination probably hurt Baker’s chances of winning by splitting the votes he received.

A documentary-like look at an illegal immigrant Chinese delivery person in New York City, Take Out was shot in an actual Upper West Side restaurant during business hours, featured lots of b-roll shots, and interspersed actual orders with Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s fictional story. An added bonus was the candid responses of the various customers (solicited via Craigslist) to the home delivery person, Ming Ding (Charles Jang). Despite his desperate need to pay off pressing debts to loan sharks, Ming is much too shy and proud to play up to the customers in order to get bigger tips.

Prince of Broadway shares the same gritty realism as the previous film in telling the story of immigrants who sell counterfeit goods on the streets of New York City. One is a fast-talking West African hustler named Lucky (Prince Adu). The other is his boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), a middle-aged Armenian from Lebanon, whose bare clothing store serves as a front for a secret back room full of luxury-brand knockoffs – from Gucci to Vuitton. Levon has married an attractive young woman in order to get a green card. Although he yearns for the relationship to be much more, it’s already on the skids.

The film’s catalyst occurs roughly twelve minutes into the film, when Lucky’s Latina ex-girlfriend, Linda (Kat Sanchez), dumps off a baby (Aiden Noesi), claiming that he’s the father. She tells him: “Be a man for once.” Linda indicates that it will only be temporary, but it soon becomes clear that the baby is interfering with a relationship she’s developed with a new boyfriend – a muscle-bound, jealous thug, who beats up Lucky when he chases after Linda. “I have no papers,” Lucky later pleads to her mother, “what can I do with this baby, please?”

Even though he’s an adult, Lucky is emotionally a child. When he gets the baby home, he lays down the law, telling him not to mess with his porno collection or his weed before breaking into tears. The eighteen-month-old baby, whom he eventually names Prince, is adorable, but Lucky only sees him as a burden. He complains constantly about his plight, not only to the uncomprehending toddler, but to anyone else who will listen. Most of his friends feel he’s being duped – the baby looks too light-skinned to be his kid. Prince also throws a wrench into Lucky’s relationship with his current girlfriend, Karina (Keyali Mayaga), who wants him to get an education. Like Take Out, Prince of Broadway has a ticking clock, in this case a DNA test to prove paternity, but Baker is careful not to use it in a heavy-handed way.

Not only does the film focus on the bond that slowly develops between Lucky and Prince, but it also centers on Lucky’s relationship with Levon, who serves as a father figure, even though he’s hardly the ideal role model. Levon asks him, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” He gives Lucky money and instructions on how to hold the baby properly. He puts the baby’s hat on and tells Lucky, “Hold the kid, man. You’re going to drop the kid!” When Lucky doesn’t listen, he shouts, “Are you fucking kidding me? Hold the kid!” There have been a number of recent films that deal with the issue of fatherhood: Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Life During Wartime. Prince of Broadway also has echoes of Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, which also explored the experience of new immigrants in this country.

Baker likes to confuse and blend documentary and fiction. His films have a raw power that’s makes it seem as if he’s stuck his camera into real-life situations. The script is credited to Baker and his producer Darren Dean, but, as a final credit indicates, “the characters’ dialogue was realized through improvisation and a collaborative process with all actors.” As I keep writing about, many indie filmmakers have forsaken the well-written script in favor of structured improvisation. Baker, however, points out that there is often a stigma attached to working this way. He told an interviewer: “But [with Prince of Broadway] the improvised is simply the dialogue. Every scene had a beginning middle and end. It was just the dialogue. Some people think you are not doing your work if you don’t have the full fleshed out script.”

If the use of improvisation is becoming common in micro-budget indie films lately, the cutting in Baker’s films is quite unusual. In his excellent book The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell explores the concept of “intensified continuity” in depth and why the cutting of Hollywood films keeps getting faster. Indie films, especially naturalistic ones, have generally shared with art cinema a contrarian impulse – the story often unfolds in long, leisurely takes. Yet Baker fractures the space and time of his film through the use of manic cutting. An editor by profession, Baker’s impulse is to cut continually, which gives his film an exciting kinetic energy.

As a result, Prince of Broadway never feels boring. In exploring the subculture of those engaged in the underground economy, Baker provides an exciting glimpse into the lives of largely invisible characters who live on the margins.

Posted 18 February, 2011