The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

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Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2014) tells the story of a thirteen-year-old autistic boy who gets lost in the New York subways in the period leading up to Hurricane Sandy. Although the film employs a dramatic framework – a family’s search for a lost child with a disability – the film is notable for Fleischner’s impressive use of visual storytelling. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors recalls an early classic of American indie cinema, Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), made in collaboration with fellow photographer Ruth Orkin and screenwriter Ray Ashley (Raymond Abrashkin). Like Engel’s film, which explores the legendary amusement park Coney Island, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is built around two locations: Rockaway Beach in Queens and the New York subway system. Based on an incident he had read about, Fleischner turns his film into a political statement couched in a poem. It deals with the enormous stress placed on an undocumented Mexican immigrant family struggling to cope with a disabled child within an institutional system that views them as unwanted burdens.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors begins with the sound of bagpipes and a shot of its protagonist, Ricky Garcia (Jesus Sanchez-Velez). Filmed from behind, he feeds diving seagulls as a plane glides diagonally through the frame after taking off from nearby JFK Airport. Ricky has skipped school to hang out at the beach, which, along with a local sneaker store, is one of his favorite haunts. He returns to the school steps, where his older sister, Carla (Azul Zorrilla), walks him home. Ricky, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and played by an actor who has Asperger syndrome, excels at computers and drawing but struggles with basic tasks. He pees on the top of the toilet seat, often forgets to eat, and resists taking his meds. After his mother chastises him for his truancy and his sister fails to pick him up at school, Ricky walks home alone. Fourteen minutes into the film, he follows a guy wearing sneakers with an Ouroboros sewn on the back of his jacket into the subway, where Ricky proceeds to ride the trains for days.

Fleischner utilizes a parallel structure – Ricky’s personal odyssey in the subway and his mother’s search for him. Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) is a beleaguered mom. She cleans house for a rich young white guy (Kevin Bewersdorf), while her husband works somewhere upstate and her rebellious teenage daughter would rather be elsewhere. Ricky’s disappearance causes the family unit to fracture even more. Mariana, who lives isolated from her neighbors, turns up at the sneaker store and gets help from the saleswoman, Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who encourages her to take action. Together they put up “missing person” posters, while the police turn out to be no help at all. (It’s a great touch that one of the detectives who visits them is on oxygen). Even though she cares deeply for her children, Mariana’s anger at her situation feels toxic. She blames Carla for Ricky’s disappearance and her estranged husband, Ricardo (Tenoch Huerta), for not being able to collect wages due him. Mariana and Carla clash constantly before Ricardo eventually returns home to join in the search.

Meanwhile, Ricky rides various subway trains, getting weaker and weaker from lack of food and water. For the most part, the other riders appear indifferent to him. A homeless black man gives him a banana, but one teenager becomes disgusted and abusive when he realizes that Ricky has wet his pants (because the public bathrooms inside the subway are, of course, all locked). Although viewers might expect that the search for a missing autistic child would entail incredible dramatic suspense, especially once we learn that Hurricane Sandy is imminent, that proves not to be the case. Little Fugitive does something similar. In Engel’s film, the narrative becomes a means to explore the visually exciting world of the amusement park – the rides, arcade games, junk food, and crowded beach – all seen through the eyes of an impressionable young child with an obsession with horses.

Fleischner also chooses not to exploit the inherent drama. Instead, one of the main strengths of Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is that it allows us to view the underground world of the New York subways through Ricky’s eyes. We see it not only as a microcosm of diversity – the interaction of people of all ages, races, and ethnic groups – but as a wondrous kaleidoscope of abstract patterns of color, light, and sound. Fleischner mixes staged scenes and documentary footage so skillfully that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. We overhear snippets of conversation – a gray-haired man tells a young child in a stroller an anecdote about “Louie the Tailor,” a crazy woman makes an Anti-Semitic remark about the mayor and expresses plans to vote for Mitt Romney, two arrogant guys grossly underestimate the power of the approaching storm – and watch teenage break dancers perform intricate dance movements for the benefit of the riders. On Halloween, people in scary costumes populate the subway, transforming it into a surreal carnival, before the trains finally shut down due to the hurricane. Yet, through all of this, Ricky’s detachment at being lost becomes our own detachment, so that the family drama involving his disappearance feels as if it’s occurring in an alternate universe.

Shot by Adam Jandrup and Ethan Palmer, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors manages to capture the kinetic energy of the subway, and, in the process, the character of New York City itself. The film’s power derives largely from its subjective point of view and carefully observed details. Fleischner joins a group of indie filmmakers – Matt Porterfield, Tim Sutton, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Eliza Hittman, and Jeremy Saulnier, among others – who appear to be moving away from mumblecore’s reliance on dialogue in favor of a new emphasis on visual storytelling and style. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, as well as at BAMcinemaFEST, before having a brief theatrical run. Distributed by Oscilloscope, the film is currently available on VOD and just appeared on Amy Taubin’s year-end Top Ten list in Artforum.

Posted 30 November, 2014

Memphis

 

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Tim Sutton’s sophomore feature, Memphis (2014), is neither a character study nor a city portrait. Although there’s a sliver of narrative, Memphis is more akin to a haunting visual poem – a kind of ghost story, in which the ghosts never quite become fully manifest. Yet we feel their traces in virtually every shot of this magnificent and stunning film. They are there in the rustling trees and boarded-up wooden shacks, in the distant sound of the trains, in the kinetic energy found in the black church, in the piercing reaction shots of the characters, especially the young kids, and in the tracking shots that don’t so much follow the participants as anticipate their eventual presence within a shot.

At the center of Memphis is an African American musician named Willis (Willis Earl Beal). Following a shot of a kid on a bicycle making faces and muttering as if engaged in an internal dialogue, Willis appears at a TV studio. He needs to clarify whether he’s appearing on radio or television. Once Willis is assured of the medium, he is asked by the white announcer whether he ever dreamed he would achieve such notoriety: producing an album and being in a film. Willis’s answer is completely unexpected. He claims to be a wizard and talks about imagining his success into existence through sorcery. Willis explains: “You create a reality that you envision, you use magic and then the magic comes true, but the magic doesn’t fulfill everything you thought it would fulfill.” The cameraperson looks on impassively, as Willis proclaims: “Life is artifice, man. Everything is all artifice.”

Willis’s remarks, which seem to come from left field, leave the viewer unsure how to interpret his comments. Is Willis some kind of genius or a crazy person? As the film follows him, that question becomes central. Sutton eschews the kind of exposition provided by most conventional narratives. If legibility is central to Hollywood storytelling, Sutton continually undercuts it throughout Memphis. Other characters besides Willis, such as the woman with whom he’s romantically involved or his male buddy, are never identified by name. Nor are we clear about a number of relationships. There’s not so much a story, as a series of incidents or situations involving mostly Willis, who seems to be suffering from a creative block as he wanders around Memphis while his life seems to be falling apart.

After someone gives testimony during a church service, Willis appears at the microphone, but decides not to sing, creating a very awkward moment as the minister looks on. During a visit with his girlfriend, they get into a spat when she calls him crazy. A scene where Willis walks down the street and flaps his arms like a bird and a subsequent meeting with his record producer reinforces that possibility:

WILLIS: I look at the trees. Sometimes I wish I was a tree. You ever wish you were a tree?
RECORD PRODUCER:  Willis . . .
WILLIS: What?
RECORD PRODUCER:  We need a record.
WILLIS: We need to be trees. (he laughs loudly) We need oxygen. The trees give us oxygen (more laughter).

After the producer reacts with genuine frustration, Willis apologizes.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Willis does have real talent. In the recording session that we watch, as they play “Flying So Low,” the guitar player suddenly stops the session to complain that Willis is not following the score. Very annoyed, he yells, “Why was that changed?” Willis admits that he’s probably at fault, but insists, “No, we have to be intuitive about this. I’m an intuitive singer.” He tells him: “It’s got to be amorphous. It can’t just be on the paper.” Finally someone off-screen instructs the musicians, “You just gotta follow him wherever he goes.” The guitar player glowers in response. The scene is reminiscent of what we see in Shirley Clarke’s film on Ornette Coleman, Made in America (1985), where Coleman continually frustrates the musicians with whom he is playing by defying musical conventions.

Other films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) or Kentucker Audley’s Open Five (2010), have used the more well-known aspects of Memphis as a setting, but Sutton has something very different in mind. What he gives us is a view of Memphis as a landscape haunted by its legendary past. Except for a scene on Beale Street, we don’t get a view of the city’s landmarks, but rather its impoverished underside – as it might appear to those who live there. In one scene, the camera holds for several seconds on the face of Willis’s male friend. Afterwards, as the friend plays a board game on a wobbly table, he talks about an experience in which he suddenly realized he had been knifed. Right afterwards, there is a shot of the back of a white Cadillac. The friend gets out of the passenger side and it is revealed that the man is missing a leg as he walks away from the camera on crutches.

In an interview, Sutton explains: “Memphis is a place that is both cursed and blessed. It has the history of many kings but, at the same time, has grass growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. That’s what I wanted to ruminate on and further illustrate. To explore a place that feels like a forgotten Eden, not some tourist’s idea of blues but REAL blues, a world that is mythic and being taken back by the trees and the river and the witnesses who live there.” In depicting this forgotten Eden, about a third of the way through the film, the thin narrative begins to fracture. It’s replaced with impressionistic images: guys talking in a seemingly deserted strip mall, shots of moving clouds and the moon at night, kids riding their mountain bikes, a row of brick houses set amidst very tall trees, and a stunning red filtered image of a young girl sitting by herself in a booth at a rolling skating rink (reminiscent of a Yang Fudong photograph), Willis sitting in the front seat of a car as the windshield wiper clears the rain, or a shot of the white Cadillac from behind as it drives through the streets at night while colorful car lights create strange, diaphanous patterns.

Sutton mixes together different types of narration, continually blending narrative, documentary, and avant-garde modes of filmmaking. Willis, for instance, talks directly into the camera at times, suggesting a verité style of filmmaking. In one noteworthy scene, he espouses his views on glory: “You find glory alone, by yourself, with nobody around. Nobody can hear you. That’s where the glory is found.” Yet Willis continues his tailspin, withdrawing more and more into himself, except for his one-legged friend, while the film continues to digress from the main plotline involving Willis. In one scene, the camera stays on the one-legged man as he slowly buttons his white shirt. After he walks away from his car on crutches and leaves the frame, we see a hand smash the back window with a mallet or hammer. The man returns to his car and peers at the broken window. As he drives through the streets, he looks in the rearview mirror. We watch as shards of glass fall from the broken window. The man later sits alone in the back seat of the parked car and stares at the flame of his lighter for over half a second.

Questions of who smashed the window or why don’t matter to Sutton. In the world he’s portraying, people get stabbed and cars get vandalized. His concerns are actually much more formal, as the description of the scene indicates. Toward the film’s end, the director and his cinematographer, Chris Dapkins, resort to several long tracking shots that again are less concerned with story than with creating visually compelling imagery. Because the film was funded by a $200,000 grant from the Venice Biennale College program, Sutton needed to have a “scriptment” for it, but once he chose the eccentric artist and musician, Willis Earl Beal, for the lead role, the story was subsequently improvised and shaped around the personality of the performer. Sutton explains his open approach on set: “But within the scenes, the people in the film had control over how they acted. I work with real people as real people; I guide them and give them hints, but within the frame it becomes very much about them.”

In terms of Beal, the character in the film bears a resemblance to the musician in certain ways, which helps to collapse the divide between performer and role. Although the film is carefully constructed, especially through Seth Bomse’s editing and various sound and image juxtapositions, Beal inhabits his character in such a natural way that the film feels more observational than scripted. There is a sense that we are watching real people rather than fictional characters. Sutton’s follow-up to his superb Pavilion (2013) is even more layered, formal, and complex. Memphis is a poetic, visual rendition on the blues, a dazzling meditation on a deeply troubled musician in free fall and a mythic American city that has likewise seen better days.

Memphis played at Venice, Sundance, Sarasota, and the Wisconsin Film Festival (where I saw it), and most recently at the BAMcinemaFEST in Brooklyn. The film will be distributed theatrically by Kino Lorber and will be available on VOD for a month through Vimeo.

Posted 8 July, 2014

Something, Anything

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Paul Harrill’s debut feature, Something, Anything (2014), seems like an unlikely independent film. For one thing, it is shot in a fairly conventional style. In addition, it doesn’t deal with either hip or edgy subject matter. Instead, the film is set in the American South – Knoxville, Tennessee, to be exact – and concerns a kind of spiritual journey by a straight, young middle-class protagonist, Peggy (Ashley Shelton), who transforms into a very different person (Margaret) during the course of the film. Harrill’s sensitive and engaging character study reminds me of two other indie films, Hal Hartley’s Trust (1991) and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), in how Peggy’s life seems to be going along smoothly and then suddenly falls apart in ways that prove both deeply moving and sad.

Something, Anything begins with a close-up of dark red nail polish being applied to one of Peggy’s fingernails, an image that becomes a metaphor, not so much for glamour but for a kind of artificial veneer. Harrill sets up the story with an economy of means. When her boyfriend, Mark (Bryce Johnson), pops the big question at dinner, Peggy’s response is strangely shy and reserved, but he immediately places a diamond engagement ring on her nail-polished finger. By the end of the opening credits, the two get married and she becomes pregnant. Eight minutes into the film, Peggy has a miscarriage, which radically alters her life in ways that even she does not fully understand.

Socrates’s adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living” might seem like a truism, but the unfortunate fact is that most people lead unreflective lives. In Hartley’s Trust, for instance, seventeen-year-old Maria gets pregnant by her high school boyfriend, Anthony. She fully expects Anthony to go to college on a football scholarship and then take over his father’s construction business. But when he dumps her, Maria’s life gets turned upside-down, which sets her on a spiritual quest. Peggy is a lot like Maria, but older and even more vulnerable. After her traumatic experience, she finds herself alienated from her husband and soon separates from him. Her parents think her move into a small apartment of her own is merely temporary and offer to pay for a trip to Europe. Peggy’s female friends don’t get it either, and in fact, clearly sympathize and side with Mark.

Peggy works as a realtor, but a number of experiences selling houses during an economic recession cause her to question her choice of a profession. After her boss at the realty company gets her to be complicit in something a bit shady, she abruptly quits her job. Peggy takes a low-paying position shelving books at the local library, which provides her with her own monastic retreat from the world. She cancels her cell phone, dumps all her cosmetics, sells her nice clothes and donates the money, and begins to read the Bible for inspiration.

Peggy receives a short note from the older brother of one of her high school friends, a guy named Tim (Linds Edwards), who turns out to be a monk. Peggy’s curiosity about the life of a monk mimics her own attempt to find some type of meaning in her own life. She impulsively drives three-and-a-half hours to the Abbey at Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery, in Kentucky, only to discover that Tim has recently left. Before she heads back the next day, a kind monk slips her Tim’s address. This potential romantic plotline, however, is a bit of a red herring because the film is more about Peggy trying to find herself rather than someone else. When she finally becomes reacquainted with Tim, who’s into music, she introduces herself as Margaret, suggesting her own change in identity. When Peggy eventually asks him what she should do about her situation, Tim advises her to return to her husband.

Characters in numerous films develop personal crises, but what seems especially poignant about Peggy’s plight is how ill-equipped she is to deal with the fallout. In this sense she’s a lot like Carol White in Safe, someone who has no real personal support network (other than a couple of superficial friends), and thus when she tumbles, she goes into a similar kind of free fall. Harrill proves adept at capturing what it’s like to be someone as lost as Peggy, a Southern woman who tries hard to have a conventional life – to be married and have a family – yet finds herself unfulfilled.

Like Haynes with Safe, Harrill refuses to psychologize his protagonist. Peggy might be going through a struggle of personal identity, but he doesn’t provide us with any type of backstory that would explain her character. Harrill talks about this aspect of the film in an interview with Darren Hughes on Mubi: “For me to identify the crisis she’s going through—for me to label it, or explain it in the terminology of psychology – well, at that point I’ve done three things. First, I’m telling the audience how to understand the character, which I think disrespects the audience. Second, I’ve taken away some of the character’s mystery. And finally, I’ve basically said, ‘I have all the answers, I understand all of this, everything about these characters.’ That’s a lie.”

Part of the success of Something, Anything stems from Harrill’s highly nuanced script, which he developed from improvisations with various actors during the lengthy auditioning process. Shot over the course of a year, Harrill’s film relies heavily on the subtext of the various interactions of the characters. The understated performances by the cast turn out to be a major part of the film’s strength. Ashley Shelton shines as the confused, but inner-directed protagonist, while Linds Edwards displays an utterly convincing sincerity that gives him an endearing quality.

Harrill and his cinematographer, Kunitaro Ohi, opt for conventional coverage of the action by choosing to use mostly medium and close-up shots that keep the story focused on the characters. Yet a couple of individual shots stand out. As Peggy approaches the Abbey, the composition of the shot – a small solitary figure set against an architectural-like background – will no doubt remind viewers of Antonioni’s Eclipse (1962) and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In another scene, Margaret observes the magic of synchronized fireflies at a national park. The scene, which was recorded in natural light rather than through computer generated effects, is one of the film’s wondrous highlights. Harrill’s film feels highly personal and contains an undercurrent of sadness that feels heartbreaking, even though the film ostensibly ends on a more ambiguous but hopeful note.

One of ten films selected for the highly competitive 2013 IFP Narrative Lab, Something, Anything co-premiered at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival (where I saw it) and the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival. The film will have its NYC premiere as part of BAMcinemaFEST on June 26.

Posted 19 June, 2014