The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Notes on Marie Menken

As a child I lived only a block from Marie Menken, so that might explain why I always have had a tender spot in my heart for this major pioneer of American avant-garde cinema. Marie and her husband Willard Maas lived in a penthouse apartment at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. Menken is the subject of Martina Kudláček’s documentary, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), a biographical portrait of this largely neglected figure. The film is now available on DVD.

Marie Menken was an extremely tall and imposing woman. There’s a famous photo of her dancing with Tennessee Williams, in which she towers over him. Like Jonas Mekas, she was also from Lithuania. Menken was married to the poet/filmmaker Willard Maas, who was gay. They met at the artist’s colony Yaddo and married in 1937 – it was his second marriage. In Film at Wit’s End, Brakhage tells the story of first meeting the two of them, in which Maas gets into a fistfight with his lover, Ben Moore, and ends up a bloody mess in the snow.

Marie and Willard had a very difficult life together. As a couple of interviewees note in Kudláček’s film, they are reported to be the model for Edward Albee’s well-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – after he had occasion to observe their constant fighting. The couple lost a child and proceeded to torture each other over it for the rest of their lives. Marie was accepting of Willard’s gayness and befriended his many lovers. Together they started Gryphon Films. Brakhage, Charles Boultenhouse, and Gregory Markopoulos were associated with Gryphon, which represented an important early attempt at cooperative filmmaking. Marie supported herself for thirty years by working the graveyard shift at Time Magazine.

Marie was the camerawoman for Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943). She was the technical person, not Maas, which was the opposite situation of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Her first film was Visual Variation on Noguchi (1945), but she didn’t make another, Glimpse of the Garden (1957), for another twelve years. Menken made small, highly personal and lyrical films. Among them are: Hurry, Hurry (1957, Dwightiana (1959) Eye Music in Red Major (1961), Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961) Bagatelle for Willard Maas (1961), Mood Mondrian (1961), Notebook (1962-63), Go Go Go (1962-64) Wrestling (1964), Lights (1965) and Andy Warhol (1965). Many of them are interspersed throughout Kudláček’s richly evocative portrait of Menken.

Menken exerted a major influence on other avant-garde filmmakers. Brakhage acknowledged that he owed her an tremendous debt and claimed she gave him the courage to be completely free with the camera. Menken was overshadowed by Maas (who is now forgotten), even in the early issue of Filmwise devoted to them. Maas apparently ridiculed her filmmaking efforts. She didn’t appear in the first edition of P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film – an oversight he later corrected. Even Maya Deren reportedly only respected Marie as a painter, but not as a filmmaker. Although Menken never received the credit she deserved during he lifetime, her work is included as part of the permanent collection of Anthology Film Archives, which is where I first saw her magnificent films.

Why was she ignored? One reason no doubt has to do with sexism. At the time Menken worked, there were less than a handful of women filmmakers. The heavily symbolic “trance” films were very much in vogue. In the context of the high seriousness of a more literary poetic cinema, Menken’s more playful and painterly films were simply an anomaly. In Notes, Jonas Mekas, who gave Menken her first film show at the Charles Theatre, observes that they contained “no big action, nothing spectacular, no unusual content.” Menken’s work is visually poetic. She pioneered the autobiographical diary film – a tradition that includes such filmmakers as Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Peter Hutton, Warren Sonbert, Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky, Madeleine Gekiere, as well as a host of others.

Menken was also a painter. She had a one-person show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, but we learn from Alfred Leslie in Notes that John Bernard Myers later regretted giving her a show at Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1951 because her work “lacked edge.” According to Roger Jacoby in an old issue of Film Culture, all or most of her work was destroyed by a flood at her loft on Baltic Street, and by theft. Menken and Maas knew all the artists, the beautiful people, including Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright, and Truman Capote. Menken and Maas were notorious for their parties. They would invite all the celebrities, so it’s easy to see why Menken would connect with the Warhol crowd.

In POPism, Warhol says he met Marie Menken and Willard Maas through the surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford, who was a close friend of Parker Tyler, the film critic, who edited View magazine in the 1940s. Ford is the one who suggested Gerard Malanga as an assistant to Andy Warhol. Malanga’s high school English teacher was the poet Daisy Aldan. Through Aldan, Malanga was invited to a party, where he first met Maas, who taught at Wagner College in Staten Island, where, not coincidentally, Malanga wound up a student. At the very end, Marie and Willard were hopeless alcoholics. Marie and Willard died within days of each other.

Both Willard and Marie appeared in Warhol’s films. Willard’s major part was offscreen. He is rumored to be the guy giving head to DeVerne Bookwalter in Warhol’s infamous Blow Job (1964). Marie played Fidel’s rebellious sister, Juana, in the Warhol-Tavel collaboration, The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which cold war politics are portrayed as stemming from family squabbles and incidents from childhood. Marie becomes inebriated during the course of the film, which causes her to rebel against her brother Fidel and having to repeat Tavel’s dialogue verbatim. Menken is absolutely wonderful, as she butchers Tavel’s language, makes snide asides, and manages to epitomize the contrarian personality of Fidel’s sister. Marie also played Gerard Malanga’s mother in a scene in The Chelsea Girls (1966), where Marie puts on a frightening and sadistic display, as she rails against her son, while cracking a whip.

Martina Kudláček’s portrait isn’t really an in-depth scholarly documentary that has unearthed a lot of new facts and information on Menken. It’s more like a primer on her life and films in a similar manner to Jennifer M. Kroot’s homage to George and Mike Kuchar, It Came from Kuchar. Kudláček’s approach actually fits her subject matter in employing its own quiet poetry, such as when she focuses on the peeling paint of the rusty radiator in Alfred Leslie’s loft.

Kudláček has assembled a noted group of prominent individuals to talk about Marie Menken’s life and work. We hear Brakhage lecturing about Menken’s aesthetic in his booming voice. Peter Kubelka demonstrates her technique as reflecting the inherent properties of a Bolex camera in Go Go Go, which he demonstrates for us, complete with sound effects. Kenneth Anger tells about assisting Menken in making the film that became Arabesque for Kenneth Anger. He talks about her uncanny ability to edit in-camera as she filmed, noting that “she had a feeling for movement and rhythm that was like a dancer.” Anger indicates that Menken had a “halo around her head.” Anger also points out that if it wasn’t for staying at her place in Brooklyn, he would have never made his underground classic Scorpio Rising (1964). Billy Name (Linich) compares Marie to the legendary Tugboat Annie.

Gerard Malanga discovers new footage of Marie Menken and Andy Warhol  in which the two of them have a duel with Bolex cameras. The filmmaker and secret archivist in me cringes as Malanga opens an old rusty film can found in storage and uses hand rewinds to run the original footage through an old Moviescope viewer. What could be any harder on such priceless historical footage? Gerard later playfully criticizes Marie for underexposing some footage by not using a light meter.

Malanga is given considerable time in Notes for Marie Menken. He and Kudláček take a field trip out to visit Gerard’s estranged father’s vault and Marie’s grave. Gerard discusses the fact that Menken wanted to adopt him as a son, except that he already had a living mother. Malanga is unsure whether he really wanted Maas as his surrogate father. Kudláček also interviews Mary Woronov, who exudes her usual enthusiasm as she describes the harrowing scene with Marie in The Chelsea Girls, in which Mary plays Gerard’s sullen girlfriend.

The most poignant scene in Kudláček’s film, however, involves Jonas Mekas. To the credit of Kudláček and her editor Henry Hills, they keep the most riveting footage for the end. What’s fascinating is that Jonas, who’s appears to be a bit tipsy from drinking, decides to tell a remarkable story about Marie. First off, he addresses and toasts the filmmaker, Martina, by name. Jonas rubs his mouth, snorts several times, clears his throat, and waves his arms, upsetting the camera placement and framing before he shifts into “interview mode.”

In his heavy accent, Jonas begins, “I do not remember how I met Marie and Willard.” He hesitates, then remarks, “Her films were like . . . about nothing . . . little feeling, little emotion, little image.” He talks about pre-Christian Lithuanians being pantheists. Mekas suggests that Marie Menken’s work conveys a sense of nature – “flowers and trees and moon and the sun.” Jonas talks about how initially he didn’t know Menken’s ethnic origin, but one day he heard her singing a Lithuanian children’s song. Although the lower part of his face is cut off by the framing, Jonas sings the actual song for us.

Jonas then attempts to explain the lyrics. Haltingly, he translates: “Little girl, I’m like a little rose, like a lily in the flower garden.” He rubs his mussed hair and sweaty face, and rocks forward and backward in the frame He comments, “It’s another variation of how to attract [he moves his fingers] a young man.” Jonas suddenly sings in English, “I must know, I must know how to attract a young man. I must know, I must know, how to attract a young man.” Jonas laughs and remarks, “That’s a funny song, no?” As Jonas indicates it’s been a hard day and tries to regain his composure, Kudláček cuts to a shot of lily pads. Jonas laments, “There was so much love there. Poetry, and love, and cinema.” Sadly, he toasts, “Oh, Marie.”

The film cuts to scene where Marie’s nephew plays audio tape of her singing boisterously over footage of a performance involving people with umbrellas on the boardwalk. A hand rewinds Marie’s film footage, leaving the blank white screen of a Moviescope. Most documentaries depend on creating some type of intense dramatic conflict, but Kudláček’s portrait of Marie Menken is rooted in something far more basic. Like Menken’s films, Notes on Marie Menken is infused with intense love for its subject. “Oh, Marie . . .”

Posted 2 July, 2010

Tiny Furniture

A move toward the autobiographical has been one of the more interesting developments to surface in recent indie cinema. Azazel Jacobs’s Momma Man (2008) and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs (2010) can serve as reference points. Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), the second feature written and directed by the twenty-four-year-old filmmaker, represents the most recent example. It won the top prize at the SXSW Film Festival in March, is being distributed by IFC Films, and played at BAMcinemaFEST last night.

On some level, all of these films deal with the filmmakers’ relationships with their parents. Daddy Longlegs is a fictional portrait of Josh and Benny Safdie’s eccentric father, but it details their own conflicted feelings about their dad based on memories from their childhood. I saw the film for the third time at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April. I can tell you that Daddy Longlegs gets better with each viewing, and this last time, it packed an even stronger emotional wallop due to Frey’s response at the end.

The other two films take the perspective of young adults, whose parents also happen to be well-known figures in the art world. Jacobs uses a surrogate actor, Matt Boren, in Momma’s Man, but he casts his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, his real high school friend as Dante, and sets the film in the Tribeca loft in which he grew up. Jacobs later cuts in home-movie footage of himself as child, which makes the autobiographical aspect even more overt.

Lena Dunham plays the protagonist, Aura, in Tiny Furniture. The film is also shot in her family’s Tribeca loft in NYC, features her artist mother Laurie Simmons as her fictional single mother, Siri, and her high school-aged sister Grace as her fictional sister, Nadine. Her actual father, the painter Carroll Dunham, is not included in this family portrait. Aura has just graduated from college in Ohio (Dunham went to Oberlin), and the film is about leaving the safety net of college and Aura’s awkward attempt to navigate her life after graduation.

I don’t know the filmmaker personally – though I’m familiar with her film reviews – but the autobiographical parts, like in Momma’s Man and Daddy Longlegs manage to give the film additional layers of complexity. With semi-autobiographical work, a viewer is always conscious of how the filmmakers choose to portray themselves and their own family within a fictional world. Because the films are trying to blur the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction, those things that manage to be revealed – the unintentional slippages – actually turn out to be part of the work’s fascination.

Although Aura has all benefits of class privilege, she’s depressed to be leaving college. She fears her that her film theory degree will turn out to be useless in finding meaningful employment. Aura makes self-deprecating videos that feature her in very unflattering poses, such as in a bikini bathing suit, causing online viewers to ridicule her with comments like “whales ahead” and “what a blubber factory!” Upon returning home, she calls out, “Honey, I’m home . . . family?”

Aura doesn’t quite get the warm reception she somehow anticipates. Her mom is too busy photographing Nadine amidst dollhouse furniture (hence, the film’s title) for her art work. Aura questions why her mother has never photographed her. Siri claims that it’s because Aura is never around, but Nadine suggests that it’s because her legs are “longer and more supple.” In Aura’s absence, Nadine has pre-empted her room. There’s obvious sibling rivalry between them. Whereas Aura lacks self-confidence and is short and a bit on the pudgy side, Nadine, despite her age, is tall and slim and very self-assured.

Aura complains that she’s just broken up with her boyfriend, who has moved to Colorado. She gets very little sympathy. Nadine compares him to a “speck of Granola,” while Siri tells her, “You know, I always said he was really a sweet guy, but like the perfect first boyfriend – like the way a college boyfriend should be.” Her mother downplays her own twenties, thereby minimizing Aura’s feelings as merely reflecting a stage of life. While looking for a light bulb, Aura finds and begins to read her mother’s diary. Aura discovers intimate details about her mother’s life at her age, which she casually shares with her friends.

In Momma’s Man, Mikey’s mom dotes on him, reinforcing the image of him as an adult baby. Aura in Tiny Furniture is clingy and whiny and in need of her mother’s attention, but Siri is too self-absorbed and involved in her own art career to pay much heed. Aura has several female friends. One is from college – Frankie (Merritt Wever from Greenberg). While expressing great love for Frankie, Aura nevertheless backs out of sharing an apartment with her at the last moment, leaving Frankie in the lurch. Aura claims that it’s because her mother has become dependent on her and needs her, when it’s actually the other way around.

At a party, the hostess, Ashlynn (Amy Seimetz from Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last) manages to get Aura hooked up with a potential boyfriend, Jed (Alex Karpovsky), whose YouTube videos, unlike Aura’s, have gained him minor celebrity status on the Internet. When they meet, Jed tells Ashlynn, “I thought you told me there was going to be some grinding at this party . . . like straight-up, eighth grade-style grinding.” With a deadpan delivery, Ashlynn replies, “No, I said eighth grade-style crying. We’re all going to cry together.” This exchange epitomizes Dunham’s understated, but considerable humor.

At the same party, Aura re-meets a wacky childhood friend with a British accent named Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), who promptly slaps Aura in the face. She screams, “I’m so sorry I slapped you. I’m just so overwhelmed. Aura, are you here? Are you here?” It turns out that Aura has been deliberately avoiding Charlotte since high school. The two smoke pot together at Charlotte’s place afterward, even though Charlotte discloses that she’s spent time in rehab. She asks Aura, “Can’t we just start again as new friends, who were old friends?”

After watching Aura’s videos, Charlotte declares her a genius. Charlotte, who wears so much makeup she could easily be mistaken for a mime, curates art shows in Brooklyn and lives on her father’s credit card. She also gives Aura a tip about a hostess job at a neighborhood bistro. Despite Aura’s lack of experience, she does manage to get hired. Almost immediately she becomes attracted to the restaurant’s egotistical sous chef, Keith (David Call).

Both of Aura’s romantic escapades don’t end up well. Jed merely uses her because he needs a place to crash while he’s in New York City. He stays with her at her loft when Siri and Nadine are away scouting colleges, but their relationship remains platonic. Upon returning, Siri doesn’t approve of Jed and eventually insists that he leave. Keith lives with his girlfriend, but he really wants Aura to get him some Vicodin. Keith is a no-show for their first date, causing Aura to quit her hostess job.

When Charlotte arranges for Aura’s video to be shown in a group exhibit at an art gallery in Dumbo, Keith appears and the two have sex about as fast as Roger and Florence in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Once again, Dunham’s portrayal of Aura in this situation is hardly flattering, but it’s nevertheless extremely humorous. To her credit, Lena Dunham is not at all afraid to have the joke be at her expense.

Tiny Furniture, however, is less about romance and Aura finding her place in the world than it is about mother and daughter relationships or about the changing relationship between parents and their kids in this particular generation. Lena views her mother as a friend and even a role model, even though she craves more attention from Siri, who is rather cold and aloof and, after she hurts her back, glides through the loft like Morticia from The Addams Family.

Like Mikey in Momma’s Man, once back home, Aura also regresses. She walks around in the equivalent of her underwear. She begins to talk in a childish voice like a little girl, at times calling Siri, “Mommy.” Like Mikey, Aura also winds up sitting in her mother’s lap. She also finds it hard to leave and explodes at her mother and sister – she refers to the two of them as a “gang” – for not supporting her emotionally and making her feel like an outcast in her own home.

Although the motivation for Mikey getting stuck at home in Momma’s Man is never clear, he lies to his parents about his situation. Aura, on the other hand, tells Siri all about the sexual fling she’s just had, including the odd setting and the fact that she didn’t use protection. I recognize that there’s a gender difference at work in the two films. I can also assure you that I never would have dreamed of discussing such things with my parents.

Parents of boomer kids wanted them to have better lives, which is why they made incredible sacrifices to send their children to college. As a result, though bridged by love, a chasm developed between the two generations. Parents acted like parents not friends. Momma’s Man and Tiny Furniture are about young people who have hip, educated, and highly successful parents.

These days, there’s something almost incestuous occurring between some kids and their parents, such as Aura’s need to sleep in the same bed with her mom. Parents and kids expect to be close friends. They befriend each other on Facebook, where young people have few qualms about disclosing extremely personal aspects of their lives. In an interview, Lena Dunham comments, “I clearly project oversharing, it’s what I do!”

To me, Tiny Furniture feels very much a product of this current generation, whereas Momma’s Man doesn’t. This makes sense because Azazel Jacobs is considerably older than Dunham. Aura reveals at the end that she aspires to be as successful as her mother. When she adds that she wants to be as successful as Nadine, who has just won a major poetry prize, Siri indicates that’s going to be much harder. The film mimics Andrew Bujalski’s films in the abrupt cut that ends the film.

Dunham employs a type of naturalism that has become the prevalent style of many younger filmmakers today. But she and her extremely talented cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot Antonio Campos’s Afterschool, wisely decide not to use a hand-held camera. They favor wide shots that capture the expansive space of the loft, which is often divided compositionally by large stacks of books. The use of wide shots helps to create some distance from events that might otherwise seem indulgent.

Lena Dunham might play a sad sack, clownish figure, but don’t be fooled for a moment. Her achievement in Tiny Furniture is impressive by any standards, but it’s even more extraordinary given her age. This talented filmmaker is just getting started.

Posted 12 June, 2010

For Callie Angell (1948–2010)

© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

I learned the news about the passing of Callie Angell the other day. It made me sad, a feeling that has stayed with me days later. I knew Callie Angell from when I lived in NYC in the ’70s. I didn’t know her well, but we hung around in the same circles and I often ran into her at screenings at Anthology Film Archives where she worked for Jonas Mekas. As the curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project, she was responsible for the painstaking task of archiving all of Andy Warhol’s films.

I had a chance to chat with her after a gap of nearly thirty years at the Warhol Symposium, which was part of the “Other Voices, Other Rooms” exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the fall of 2008. Whenever factual questions related to the films arose at the symposium, everyone automatically would look to her. Callie always had the answer. It’s safe to say that Callie Angell knew more about Warhol’s films than anyone else in the world. Her work has provided the groundwork for all future Warhol scholarship. Her two slim catalogs on Warhol’s films at The Whitney Museum are seminal pieces. She wrote major articles in The Andy Warhol Museum and on Outer and Inner Space in Millennium Film Journal. Her encyclopedic book Andy Warhol Screen Tests is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Warhol’s films.

I have referenced Callie in other blogs I’ve written on Warhol (please see here and here and here and here). There’s simply no way to avoid citing her. Jim Hoberman wrote a really nice memorial tribute about Callie in the Village Voice. I’m posting this piece about a little-known, but extremely important Warhol film Since (1966) – a work that I’m very fond of, but which no one ever seems to talk about – as my own personal tribute to her:

In his book POPism, Andy Warhol commented about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963: “What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everyone to feel so sad. It seems like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.” The Kennedys had captured the imagination of the public and become a modern American myth. Warhol would turn Jackie Kennedy into an iconic image of national grief in the numerous silkscreens that he made of her. Douglas Fogle also reminds us in ANDY WARHOL/ SUPERNOVA, “As television broadcasts would endlessly show footage from the 8mm film taken of the Kennedy assassination by Abraham Zapruder, Jackie herself would become the unwitting star of her very own film.” Another avant-garde filmmaker, Bruce Conner, made a film of Kennedy’s assassination, Report (1967), so perhaps it was inevitable that Warhol would also shoot his own film about this traumatic event, which had so transfixed the nation that no one could leave their television sets for several days.

Conner used pre-existing or found footage, such as that taken by Zapruder, to comment on mass media itself. To a certain extent, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were media creations. They were sold to us just like appliances, which is why Warhol claimed not to see any differences between the commercials and other types of television programming, including the news. Warhol’s version of the Kennedy assassination, Since, turns out to be one of his most anarchic films. It’s almost as if the death of the president becomes directly related to the sense of utter chaos that seems to exist among the participants on the set. Like Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of . . . (1963), Warhol’s Since seems so heavily reliant on improvisation that it appears at times to lack any sort of clear sense of direction (even though there’s evidence in the actual film of at least some type of written treatment).

In Since, Warhol inadvertently plays Abraham Zapruder by filming the media events that the actors stage for the camera. The film features Ondine, as Lyndon B. Johnson, in the lead role. Other cast members include: Ingrid Superstar (Lady Bird Johnson), Mary Woronov (John F. Kennedy), Susan Bottomly (Jackie Kennedy), and Richard Rheem (Texas Governor John Connally). Gerard Malanga and Ronnie Cutrone, the artist and one-time Warhol assistant, play a combination of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. There is no attempt at realism. A large, crumpled sheet of red construction paper becomes blood. A banana substitutes for a gun. The couch in the Factory serves as a car. Rather than evoking sadness, Since is rather comedic.

Warhol’s mobile camera moves around the set in a seemingly random fashion. Each assassination attempt results in some type of incomplete coverage – the shaky camera movement often misses the important action, but invariably ends up focusing on the blood. Inflatable Baby Ruth candy bars create their own commercials within the film. Indeed, Since, along with Soap Opera (1964), might be viewed as the Warhol films that relate most directly to Pop Art. It’s probably not a coincidence that both deal with Warhol’s fascination with television. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol comments, “Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”

As we view Ondine in a closeup shot at the opening of Since, a male voice offscreen indicates the conceptual framework of the film, which will follow the model of the “Oswald display on television.” He continues: “First it happened, then it was played back in tape, and then it was played back in slow motion . . . Except that we don’t have to maintain the stiff character portrayals – like one individual can assume another role, assuming that he has assumed that role by choice originally.” The commentator also states that we’re not in Dallas. Ondine seems surprised and immediately contradicts this by saying, “It’s marvelous being in Dallas with the President.”

The participants appear to be pretty confused about the events. They are unable, for instance, to cite the proper street on which the motorcade is traveling or to supply the name of the Book Depository. Ondine indicates that Ingrid Superstar is his First Lady. He initially seems to think he’s the President, but then is informed that he’s actually the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Ondine announces that he has to hire the assassins, suggesting one of the common conspiracy theories surrounding the event, namely LBJ’s desire to be president at all costs.

Ondine gradually becomes frustrated, mostly because the other characters aren’t very imaginative in their repartee, especially Ingrid Superstar. Ondine complains that they “are absolutely boring.” The only person Ondine praises is the “close-mouthed” Jack Kennedy (his pal, Mary Woronov), who he claims “may have been the most interesting person here.” At one point Ondine turns his back to the camera in protest. He then addresses his fellow performers: “We all have to try to cohesively keep attention away from Jack and play some kind of a vague scene. I hate to be the announcer of this, but I really think that we’re all lacking in character. I have mine, sketchy as it is – I’m still trying to maintain it. After insulting others on the set, Ondine yells, “What the hell is the matter with you people?”

It’s almost as if by trying to stage the Kennedy assassination as a television event on film, Warhol is showing the inability of a theatrical presentation to be convincing or to hold our interest, because it’s incapable of employing the very techniques – repetition, slow motion, images of real celebrities in moments of tragedy – that kept viewers glued to their television sets, even though what they were watching was as minimal as anything Warhol had done in his own films. Since is ultimately about the artifice of live theater, and the fact that it relies so heavily on a suspension of disbelief.

In theater, an action is always different, whereas Warhol was fascinated with mechanical reproduction, with television’s ability to reproduce or replay the same exact image over and over again. On the other hand, Warhol allows for imaginative transformation to take place. Not only are objects mutable, but characters can change identities, gender roles, and move between the living and dead. Throughout Since, the recording apparatus – camera and microphone – as well as the lights becomes an intricate part of the action. Warhol stages the assassination of JFK, not as an historical event, but, largely due to the impact of television, as the media spectacle it truly was.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Since and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 15 May, 2010

Indie Film in the Cross Fire

Producer Mike S. Ryan has written a very provocative piece about indie cinema, entitled “Straight Talk,” in the latest issue of Filmmaker. He writes: “What concerns me, though, is not the slow, vague emergence of new business strategies but the idea that filmmakers need to adjust their ideas to conform to these so-called new models.” He makes an ardent defense of indie work that might not be commercially viable or adaptable to viral marketing plans. This comes on the heels of Michael Tully’s “The TAKE-BACK Manifesto,” which appeared on indieWIRE. Tully’s manifesto takes aim at the countless panels about social networking as a promotional tool.

I agree with Ryan on his point that filmmakers really need to concentrate their main energies on doing their work. I suspect that Ted Hope’s “The Twenty New Rules: What we all MUST TRY to do prior to shooting,” which he posted on his blog Truly Free Film last November, might be one of the hidden targets of both pieces. Hope’s notion that indie filmmakers, on top of making films, should be promoting them endlessly via social networking strategies is a daunting and unenviable task. I confess I get exhausted just reading through Hope’s wish list. A colleague asked whether I’d ever make another film if I had to do this. I told him, “absolutely not.” Note that Ted Hope’s checklist is what you’re supposed to be doing before you shoot the film. What about after it’s done?

Filmmaker Jon Jost commented on Hope’s site at the time: “I sincerely doubt that Godard Tarkovsky Rocha Marker Gehr Hutton Antonioni Dorsky Parajadnov and a list of 1000 other really great filmmakers ever gave 10 seconds of thought to the above [Twenty New Rules]. This is not about filmmaking, it is about marketing. This is 100% bought and sold into the Great Market Economy mentality, and there isn’t a milligram of ‘truly free’ about it at all. This is like Jeff Koons in the ‘arts.’” I’m not surprised that Jon Jost’s remarks were ignored by Hope as well as the other respondents. Ironically, Jost wrote about the death of indie cinema in 1989, while Ted Hope wrote its obituary in 1995.

Mike Ryan is right that such endeavors can drain the creative energy of indie filmmakers and take them away from what’s really essential, which is making the best work possible. In his very measured response to Tully’s “The TAKE-BACK Manifesto,” Brian Geldin over at The Film Panel Notetaker quotes me as pointing this out in relation to Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters (FEM) some years back. Their indefatigable self-promotion, which turned their film and digital media project FEM into the hit it would not have been otherwise, is laudable on some level, but depressing on another. I expressed the concern that, in their obsession with promotion, Buice and Crumley risked becoming full-time marketers rather than artists.

The notion that the marketing campaign needs to start before the process of making the film is a Hollywood idea, so Ryan and Tully and Jost are right to be critical of applying it to indie cinema, which many of us would prefer to provide some type of alternative practice. Ryan writes: “We need to get back to the heart and soul of what it means to be independent and stop chasing the mainstream dragon; it was a pipe dream to begin with.” In addition, such strategies only work for a certain type of film. It’s like designing the CD cover before you’ve ever sat down to make the music. It also makes the actual production of the film seem like a mechanical process rather than one of exploration and discovery. How can mimicking the methods of Hollywood be the brilliant new liberating strategy for indie cinema?

Mike Ryan suggests that good work will always be recognized by the market, but I wish I shared his implicit faith that talent always gets recognized and rewarded. Successful people or insiders always seem to make this claim, yet I have a sneaking suspicion that sheer luck might be an equally critical factor. Ryan concedes that truly visionary or more difficult work may never find success in the mainstream. I don’t bemoan the fact that Gummo, Munyurangabo, Frownland, or Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America never played at my local multiplex. These films don’t represent a mainstream sensibility. Yet there’s definitely a smaller audience, a niche market, for more difficult and challenging work.

In the case of someone like Béla Tarr, the financing of international art cinema represents a very different context. American indie filmmakers labor under the large shadow cast by Hollywood – the most entrenched film industry in the world. If indie filmmakers make a feature, they are automatically competing against Hollywood, which just happens to control the major distribution outlets. That’s a pretty hard battle to win.

Mike Ryan writes: “There is a problem with independent film today, but it’s not that filmmakers don’t have access to the marketing tools they need. If we create strong innovative work audiences will come, and in turn, new forms of profit will evolve. But if we start by encouraging filmmakers to please as wide an audience as possible then we will destroy what is alive and essential about alternative cinema. New distribution strategies are inevitable, but we should not allow our search for new platforms to dilute the content or crush the dreams of our next generation of auteurs.”

Mike argues that distribution isn’t the big issue plaguing independent film today. He insists it’s always been a problem for indie cinema, but I think we have to concede that things have gotten much worse. Doesn’t Ronnie Bronstein, who made Frownland, deserve to get his money back, or how about Lance Hammer or Chris Smith? I’m still waiting for someone to put out the DVD of Chris Smith’s The Pool, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival how many years ago now? So distribution remains a huge roadblock, and illegal downloads are helping to destroy what little market there remains for low-budget independent cinema.

If you live outside of New York City, it’s next to impossible to see the best indie work being produced. The current theatrical model that plays the film in a smaller market such as Madison, Wisconsin (if at all) many months later and a couple of weeks before the DVD release is not helping indie filmmakers find an audience. There is an audience for independent cinema, but those of us who live outside NYC or Los Angeles would like to be able to see the new films when they are released and we’re first reading about them, not months later. It’s really a challenge to see truly indie cinema these days.

Mike Ryan concedes that some brilliant films out there aren’t finding their audiences. He doesn’t blame the filmmakers, but that fact that youth culture has been co-opted. Ryan writes: “It’s the fault of the youth audience whose minds have been melded by the corporate consumer-entertainment machine. What was potentially indie film’s next greatest audience didn’t materialize because it never learned about true rebellion, what counter culture means and where it is often found. It’s often conjured up and cultivated under smelly overpasses by angry outsiders, not in corporate-sponsored high-tech think tanks by salaried media trend experts.”

I was initially taken back by Ryan’s indictment of youth culture (as a gross generalization), but I think his remarks need to be placed within the context of some of the views expressed in Anthony Kaufman’s column “Youthquake: Where Is the Under 30s Audience For Indie Film?” in the same issue of Filmmaker. Kaufman quotes Alex Johnson of WBP Labs as saying, “I’ll stream movies on Netflix, rent from my Xbox, use torrents, whatever is easiest. If I can watch something on my cell phone, I will.” Because in the new age of watching-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want, according to Johnson, “it’s really about being able to watch it immediately and talk to other people about it and be a part of that conversation.” Johnson later “suggests that ‘event-izing’ a film can work for both big movies – like Twilight-watching parties – and small movies, if a group of like-minded young folks can embrace seeing a film as a social happening.”

Both Ryan and his Hammer to Nail colleague Michael Tully make a point of emphasizing that they are only interested in the quality of the film, whereas Johnson appears less concerned about film as an aesthetic experience than as something about which to converse – in other words, social networking. Immediacy and the social experience appear to trump everything else. Ryan later concedes that it’s not entirely young people’s fault, but the fact that indie film has been co-opted by the mainstream, robbing it of the vitality that differentiated it in the first place.

Mike Ryan says: “I am not into indie film because I like being part of an indie ‘community.’ I don’t help make bold, boundary-pushing work because I want to connect to or be part of a group of outsiders.” Because I personally believe that indie film is a community, I was puzzled by his remarks until I was able to place them in context. It’s like art museums having singles nights for young people, hoping that they might notice the art on the walls once they’ve been lured to the museum by the prospect of drinks and music and social interaction. Ryan and Tully only care about the art on the wall or, in this case, the quality of the film on the screen.

Alternative methods need to be explored for connecting indie films with audiences, but they should not take priority over the actual quality of the work. You have to have something worth marketing, or what’s the point? Michael Tully concludes: “All of this talking about ‘finances,’ and ‘connecting’ and ‘publicity’ is the insidious language of a corporate, numbers-before-content mindset. Truly personal, independent cinema has never been preoccupied with these details, and making us feel guilty for not caring about them is not the answer. You’re only driving the most talented souls away. Can we get back to talking about movies, please?”

Posted 3 May, 2010

Passenger Side

Matthew Bissonnette’s Passenger Side, a Canadian indie feature that played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last week, is a road movie that stays within very narrow parameters by mapping a specific place – the city of Los Angeles and vicinity – during the span of a single day.

The title of Passenger Side derives from a song by the band Wilco. The lyrics talk about not liking to sit on the passenger side while having to depend on someone to get around because of an impending court date. In Bissonnette’s film, Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) imposes on his older brother Michael (Adam Scott) to drive him around Los Angeles for reasons that are unclear initially. The two brothers, Canadian expatriates, present a study in contrasts. Michael is a novelist, while Tobey is an ex-junkie. Michael acts put upon and seems to resent Tobey for a host of reasons, including the fact that he’s forgotten that it’s his thirty-seventh birthday.

The film begins with the sound of a phone ringing for a long time. Michael, wearing black shorts and a tee shirt, finally answers by saying “Fuck you.” After arguing briefly with Tobey, he hangs up and proceeds to leave the phone off the hook as if he’s just encountered some aggressive telemarketer rather than his brother. He only agrees to chauffeur Tobey around after their mother intervenes.

Michael acts superior to Tobey, who is equally critical of Michael. As the film progresses, Tobey takes issue with the fact that Michael is sloppy, doesn’t show a lot of sympathy for other people, and hasn’t bothered to learn Spanish even though he’s been living in LA for years. Michael is also something of a Luddite, preferring a 1975 BMW, audio cassettes, a black and white TV set, print newspapers, pay phones, and listening to hockey games on the radio. In short, he seems to be someone who is desperately trying to hold onto the past.

The two brothers have a strained relationship and apparently haven’t seen each other in awhile. Much to Michael’s surprise, Tobey has read his brother’s novel recently, but doesn’t find the portrayal of either him or their mother very flattering. Michael insists the book is fiction and that the characterizations are exaggerated out of necessity. He claims to be writing a new novel, but it seems to be based on the events that are unfolding. Their interactions during the day consist of witty and acerbic banter, which, along with Tobey’s quest, provides the film’s forward momentum.

Michael becomes convinced that Tobey is seeking drugs, but that turns out to be a red herring. Passenger Side is highly episodic. As the brothers drive around, they encounter a series of characters, including a transsexual prostitute friend of Tobey’s, a desert psychic who insists that Michael harbors secrets, a Mexican immigrant who has chopped off some fingers and has to be taken to the hospital, a production assistant on a porno shoot, a hostile gas station attendant, and a drunken woman with bad politics.

One of the film’s funnier scenes occurs when Tobey lets the drunken woman into their car against Michael’s protests. At one point she discusses the fact that she loves George Bush, who wasn’t a fag about doing what he had to do. Michael responds, “Are you talking about the war where we killed hundreds of thousands of people for no reason? Totally. You’re right. I’m sure glad he wasn’t a fag about that. It’s awesome.” Michael sarcastically suggests that she’s wasting her time in Los Angeles and that she should go back to Washington and start a political blog. The two brothers engage in a heated argument when Michael wants to ditch her at a coffee shop.

As the film progresses our perception of the two characters changes, as does their relationship to each other. Although Passenger Side relies on a very dialogue-driven screenplay, Bissonnette intersperses purely visual passages. He also integrates a fine music score put together by Mac McCaughan of the indie rock band Superchunk. Right after the Canadian-hating gas station attendant flips them the finger, for instance, there’s a moving shot from the car. We see an oil rig in the dark blue ocean, which serves as a focal point, while a sandy beach passes by in the foreground and we hear the song “Suzanne” by Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Passenger Side is very much a well-acted character study and genre piece, but it succeeds largely due to a smart script that includes a number of unexpected twists and an ending that comes as a surprise (even if the clues have been there right along). Bissonnette sees his film as a throwback to1980s American indie cinema – to films by Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and Alex Cox – and indeed Passenger Side has a certain retro quality. He told an interviewer: “I enjoy these films as works of art, but I also have this idea that they stand as a sort of last gasp of romance and mystery in popular North American cinema, and I strongly believe that art, romance and mystery have a place in that arena, even in light of all evidence to the contrary.”

Posted 24 April, 2010

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