The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


On the Marketing of Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress

filmmaker.jpg I had not intended to write about the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress because I personally find it impossible to separate her film from the tragedy surrounding Shelly’s senseless murder last November, following an argument with a nineteen-year-old construction worker in the building where she had an office. For one thing, it totally colors the film’s ending, giving it a poignancy that left me feeling devastated. The film has already grossed over $2.5 million in its first three weeks, and it’s even playing on two screens at Sundance 608 here in Madison. Waitress has received a 90% critical rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes and 97% from their “Cream of the Crop.” Internet ads are starting to appear involving animated pieces of pie. It’s now becoming clear that Fox Searchlight’s marketing goal is to turn Shelly’s film into this year’s Little Miss Sunshine.


The Spring issue of Filmmaker magazine has an article by Karina Longworth that provides a lot of background on the film’s production and subsequent sale at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film was handled by Shelly’s producing partner, Michael Roiff, who reportedly fell in love with the script and put up the money. According to the article, he then hooked up with sales agent Andrew Herwitz, a former acquisitions person from Miramax, who brokered the deal with Fox Searchlight. There are two disturbing quotes from Herwitz in the article. Talking about Sundance, Herwitz reportedly explained: “There’s great interest in seeing Keri [lead actress Keri Russell] – people love her. But the tragedy of Adrienne’s death has created a different kind of story. I think certainly, the amount of press the film has gotten is fueling distributor interest.” In relation to the film’s optimistic ending given the dark circumstances surrounding the production, Herwitz is later quoted as saying: “It’s excruciating on one level to see this film, and realize that the filmmaker was very happy, and to have her life taken away – it’s horrible. But that, for better or for worse, has become part of the lore of the film, and I think there’s a way to use that irony in a very real way.” Fox Searchlight’s campaign initially created a trailer that portrayed the film as a comedy at the expense of Shelly’s contribution, but, according to the article, plans are now in the works to “highlight the auteur in future promotions.”


Adrienne Shelly’s considerable reputation in indie circles rests largely on her feisty performances in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). In terms of Waitress, I also find it hard to separate Shelly’s protagonist, Jenna, from the lead character she herself played in Trust, especially because some of the line readings in Waitress mimic the idiosyncratic dialogue that has become one of stylistic features of Hartley’s work. In Trust, Shelly played a pregnant teenager knocked up by her jock boyfriend, Anthony, who promptly dumps her once he finds out. After her father refuses her request for money, she slaps and inadvertently kills him, thus setting in motion a Bressonian journey of spiritual growth and self-discovery once she encounters an angry computer guy named Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan). A romance develops between the two outcasts. They even consider marriage, but Maria eventually opts to have an abortion because it has forced Matthew to take a job he can’t stomach and because their relationship is changing him for the worse. In the end, Matthew threatens to blow up a computer factory, but the two of them achieve a more spiritual form of love before he’s whisked away in a police car. One of the ironies of Trust is that Matthew’s abusive father resents his son because his wife died while giving birth. Hartley plays up the Oedipal conflict by having Maria wear the mother’s dress throughout much of the film.


In Waitress, a film set in the rural South, Jenna (Keri Russell) is also the victim of an unwanted pregnancy, but abortion doesn’t seem to be a viable option this time. Her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a wife abuser, who’s jealous that the baby will replace him. Jenna consequently resents the baby and displaces her emotional feelings onto the pies she bakes. Utterly lacking in self-confidence except for her baking skills, she schemes to win a pie-baking contest as her only hope of getting out of the relationship. Jenna meanwhile falls for her handsome gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). The only complication preventing their running off together, which takes up most of the middle act, is the fact that he’s also married. According to the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, these two people are clearly meant for each other. In a final twist, however, Jenna chooses to leave both husband and lover, through a redemptive revelation following child birth, and a plot device involving the pie shop’s grumpy owner, Old Joe (played by Andy Griffith).


Throughout the movie, I kept wondering who the target audience was for this movie, but by the time it was over, that part had become abundantly clear. It’s no wonder that the theater reportedly was packed on Mother’s Day. Fox Searchlight made sure of that by creating a special gift-bag promotion for Mother’s Day, which included (among various items) a Sara Lee Simple Sweets six-inch pre-baked pie, at 100 theaters nationwide. The film’s politics are not my own to be sure, but, let’s face it, there are many parents in the world who love their children a great deal more than their partners. The film is now being sold with the marketing tag line: “If only life were as easy as pie.” Yes, that’s the irony of the movie all right, and no doubt what Mr. Herwitz seems to have had in mind. Despite its portrayal of thwarted ambition, loveless and compromised relationships, and casual extra-marital affairs, Waitress ultimately provides a kind of light-hearted fairy tale with an upbeat ending, much like Little Miss Sunshine and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That grim reality has had the final say is what makes Waitress feel so heartbreaking. But that’s now part of the marketing strategy, which will no doubt succeed in taking Shelly’s small, personal, and somewhat whimsical film and turning it into dollars at the box office. Because I’ve always been a big fan and consider Adrienne Shelly to be a somewhat iconic figure in the history of independent cinema, I guess part of me finds that to be very sad as well.

Posted 26 May, 2007

Postscript: Sundance 608 Revisited

The added surcharge on tickets at Sundance 608 made the front page of The Capital Times last Friday afternoon with the $11.75 ticket price prominently featured in the headline. The article by Samara Kalk Derby indicates that there have been many complaints from customers, who are frankly baffled by the policy, as well as the rationale: Why am I being charged for reserved seats when they are all reserved? Derby suggests that “management was tight-lipped about the policy until the last minute.” She also states: “Conflicting ticket price information is given out by the box office, a telephone message, the Web Site, a screen outside the theater, and kiosks in front of the theater.” While several patrons interviewed for the article took the surcharge in stride, one person called it “sneaky.”


I was back for the third time on Friday to see the Danish melodrama After the Wedding. I deliberately went at 12:15 PM, because I thought there wasn’t a surcharge for the first show, but quickly found out that the policy is only in effect Monday through Thursday. My ticket cost an extra dollar ($7.25), even though there was only one other patron at the screening and no need for a reserved seat.


Some people have suggested that the added surcharge is a brilliant business strategy, but I now disagree, as evidenced by the negative publicity the policy is generating within the community. Everyone has heard about it, including people who haven’t been to the theater yet. I could see Sundance 608 charging higher ticket prices or a surcharge for choosing reserved seats, especially for crowded shows, but why this convoluted policy? Don’t you want to bring folks into the theater with quality movies, so that you can then have them stick around for food and drinks, and so forth? Isn’t that why Sundance 608 has a café, bistro, gift shop and two bars?

Posted 22 May, 2007

Robert Redford’s Sundance 608 Rides into Town

I attended the May 6 benefit at Sundance 608, the new six-screen multiplex that opened in Madison last week with great fanfare. I’m frankly excited at having Sundance in town, because it serves to increase the number of screening possibilities for non-Hollywood films. Robert Redford explained in an Isthmus interview: “We wanted to take the concept of supporting new artists into exhibition.”

I wasn’t so crazy about the film I saw at the benefit, Paris Je’Taime, which only proves how difficult the five-minute format is for even the best of filmmakers. The sound and picture, however, looked great, and each of theaters is stadium-tiered so that the sightlines are excellent. I went back this week to see the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress. Since I wrote about Hal Hartley’s Trust in one of the chapters of my book and have always been a huge fan, I don’t know how I thought I possibly could see the film without experiencing an inevitable meltdown.

In any event, I would not have imagined that a new movie theater would engender such a spirited debate on the “filmies” listserv, but the gripes have ranged from the croissants to the art on the walls to the imported birch trees that line the walkway to the various theaters. The biggest complaints, however, have to do with the scaled ticket pricing, or added surcharge, which varies according to the time and day. I paid $7.75 for a 2:30 PM matinee (my ticket receipt ironically shows $6.25) on a Monday, but I hear that it can cost $11.75 for a Friday or Saturday primetime screening, once the $3.00 surcharge is factored in. Will this business model work? I’m not really sure. At my matinee screening there were about 20 elderly people – the kind of audience you might expect to attend a movie on a weekday afternoon.


Sundance 608 is attempting to convey an upscale rather than ballpark experience for movie-goers, with a bar and bistro, lounges, cafe, free wi-fi, and a rooftop bar for warm weather. The gift shop sells mostly Sundance sweat shirts and caps or branded merchandise and crafts (but so far no books on independent cinema). I was interested in a Sundance Film Festival catalogue, but unfortunately it wasn’t for sale. The theater décor itself made me think I was in Scottsdale, Arizona rather than Madison, except for the trees rather than cacti. Despite public relations statements from Sundance that emphasize this community, I’m not convinced that Sundance completely understands the Madison market or the subtle politics and mores of the city.


Madison doesn’t have a moneyed class in the same way that many other cities do. It’s not that there aren’t wealthy people who live here – there are plenty – but snobbery has never played well. It took years before wine bars and chic restaurants became accepted. The Wisconsin Film Festival is certainly a major hit. This year there were 28,700 paid admissions for the four-day festival, but it’s not a star-studded event and ticket prices are inexpensive. The UW Cinematheque often draws packed audiences for its weekly fare of classic films and art cinema. Like the art museums, it’s free to the public. Sundance, however, is selling a brand name, a certain lifestyle to people, so it doesn’t surprise me that Madisonians might remain a bit skeptical, even though they appreciate the attention. Robert Redford was a no-show at the opening, but I’m sure he’ll turn up as promised at some point in the near future.


Numerous emails and blogs reported that having ushers introduce the films seemed pretentious. At my screening, the young female usher beamed as she escorted people to their reserved seats, while a claymation short played silently on the screen minus its sound track. When the usher publicly welcomed everyone and announced she would be checking on our viewing experience, I can’t say I felt reassured. After Waitress, I needed some time to regain my composure, but the usher was back again and her enthusiastic smile upon exiting seemed somehow inappropriate to the sadness I felt after watching Shelly’s film.


Sundance 608 is counter-intuitive in a business sense. Jim Kreul suggests that most people (other than cinephiles) don’t go to the movies anymore. He writes: “Generally speaking, it is very hard to get people out of the house for a film. This seems true of young and old, but for different reasons. Young: Income, video games, rap music, etc. Old: Home Theaters, fear of parallel parking, fear of rap music, etc.” Many friends with kids certainly no longer go to the movies. It’s too expensive to get a baby sitter. There’s television and Netflix, and let’s face it: people are working harder and longer hours than ever. How do you fit in a three-hour movie such as David Lynch’s Inland Empire (or any overly long feature film) on a work night? It’s almost as if many film directors are deliberately trying to drive off the remaining audience by extending most viewing experiences beyond endurance. It really does boil down to being able to find the time to go to the movies.


Obviously Sundance is counting on people to have a drink and dinner and catch a movie, but that’s where the ticket surcharge could backfire. It could easily be seen as unnecessary gouging. The success of Sundance will also depend very heavily on the quality of its programming. I think people want to see the alternative movies they are reading about nationally in the New York Times and the New Yorker, or hearing about on National Public Radio. That’s why there was a big audience for Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep at a 5 PM Thursday screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival. That’s where Sundance will be able to pick up an audience for certain films. It’s possible that Sundance 608 could become a place for people to go for one-stop entertainment, which is why the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) also has a restaurant and bar and a Rooftop Film Series in the summer.


I looked at the movies that are playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan: Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the beautifully restored 35mm print of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Day Night Day Night, Private Fears in Public Places, Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Zoo. I’ll promise not to kvetch if Sundance 608 delivers this type of programming. In addition, the Madison newspapers better bolster their staff of movie reviewers because that’s also an important part of the equation. And audiences really need to attend screenings of great films when they play here. Kreul writes to his fellow film colleagues: “All you can do is support what you want to maintain in your community, and see what happens. You’re the target audience for these films, so you’re essentially telling the distributors not to market the films in Madison if you don’t go to see them in the theaters.” He’s right!

Posted 18 May, 2007

The State of American Indies

I talked about the identity crisis facing American independent cinema in my recent book on indie screenwriting. It’s been a topic of discussion almost from the start, as evidenced by Jonas Mekas’s criticism of the second “scripted” version of John Cassavetes’ Shadows as “just another Hollywood film.” Jon Jost’s premature declaration of the indie movement’s death in an article in Film Comment in 1989 would serve as another important historical marker, as would Ted Hope’s similar conclusions in a 1995 issue of Filmmaker. Sparked by the lack of emerging talent at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sight & Sound’s April cover story also decries the cooption of a truly alternative practice.

There is, of course, much truth in Michael Atkinson’s largely cultural analysis of the phenomenon facing American independent filmmakers, in which he sees a shift from social interaction to self-absorption as a result of a preoccupation with new technologies. He writes: “Today, we are consumers first, citizens second, and the castle of distraction we’ve built around ourselves is itself little more than a series of revenue streams devised to exploit us.” In terms of a truly independent practice, Atkinson asks what is there to make films about when “everyone’s too comfortably busy being entertained, intoxicated, distracted and market-researched.” Yet he finds some glimmer of hope in the self-distributed work of David Lynch and Andrew Bujalski, along with filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Solondz, Lodge Kerrigan, and Kelly Reichardt.

Despite her acknowledgement of some strong isolated features over the past several years, Amy Taubin contends that “only two US filmmakers – Richard Kelly and Andrew Bujalski – made me think they had a shot at having careers as significant as Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch.” Her email quote from Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation) seems a bit odd within the context of the Atkinson’s critique. Bujalski writes of his intention to shoot another small low budget project, suggesting that “as the unsustainability of this endeavor becomes more & more pressing it seems like I’ve got to make a small film now or never, certainly it would be harder to go ‘back’ if the studio project I’ve been hired onto comes to fruition.”

The mainstream film industry has the ability to co-opt independence, including Bujalski’s desire to make another small low-budget feature. Yet what’s not mentioned in Sight & Sound article is that there’s another alternative out there, namely the art world. One only has to go to a major gallery, art fair, museum, or biennial to realize that half of the work shown involves film or video in some form or another. While the big galleries have their own issues (which I shouldn’t minimize), the art world is at least a lot more willing to allow artists the freedom to realize their vision than executives of film companies. Artists such Matthew Barney, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Yang Fudong, Diana Thater, and Jane and Louise Wilson are striking examples. If Bill Viola, Pierre Huyghe, and Jesper Just can have galleries and museums commission large-budget projects, I easily could see David Lynch and Gus Van Sant receiving the same type of financing and by-passing the studios as well. Art magazines today are also writing about film in ways they haven’t before, so I’m not at all surprised to find David Lynch on the cover of the March issue of the highly influential Art Review with the heading: “David Lynch Takes on the Art World.” The article discusses his current show “The Air Is on Fire” at Foundation Cartier in Paris, which features work in a variety of media: painting, drawing, photography, installation, sound, and film.

Posted 16 May, 2007

Mala Noche

Still from Mala NocheUnavailable for a number of years now, Gus Van Sant’s first feature Mala Noche (1985) will be re-released theatrically by Janus Films within the next couple of weeks. Originally shot in 16mm format, the film has been restored and blown up to 35mm. Mala Noche premiered as the concluding film in the Spotlight Film and Video Series I curated at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art this spring, thanks to the generosity and efforts of Sarah Finklea at Janus, the film’s U. S. distributor. Mala Noche is a landmark film in the history of American independent cinema. Its re-release simply reconfirms the status of Gus Van Sant as one of the very best indie directors.

Set on skid row in Van Sant’s home town of Portland, the regionally-flavored Mala Noche is based on a novella by local poet Walt Curtis. It presents the story of a hapless store clerk, Walt (Tim Streeter), and his infatuation with a young Mexican illegal immigrant named Johnny Alonzo. It’s the story of unrequited love as well as the clash between different cultures, as exemplified by the huge gulf that separates these two individuals. Through his voiceover narration, Walt exudes an air of gringo superiority, despite the fact that he’s clearly down and out himself. While continually declaring his love for Johnny, Walt seems unaware of the contradictions of his own veiled bigotry. Walt’s sexual desire for Johnny in turn makes him an object of derision to the young macho Mexicans, especially when he prostrates himself in front of Johnny and his sidekick, Roberto, like a groveling dog. Walt persists in pursuing Johnny throughout the film, only to encounter rejection, humiliation, and hostility.

Walt ends up instead having vicarious sex with Roberto, who becomes Johnny’s surrogate, not only in terms of their relationship, but also in terms of the narrative structure itself. The main plotline of Mala Noche – Walt’s romantic pursuit of Johnny – gets sidetracked into what initially seems like a subplot when Johnny mysteriously disappears forty minutes into the film. As a result, the film focuses more on the tensions of this equally doomed relationship. Walt defines the film’s structure in sexual terms: “Roberto’s cock fucks Johnny, fucked me. That’s about as close to Johnny as I’ll ever get unless I had the money. Poor boys never win. Who fucks whom. Mala Noche.” Power relations in various forms – racial, sexual, and cultural – remain at the core of film. After his first sexual encounter with Roberto, Walt complains: “Chingalo, my ass is sore! It’s true. I think he tried to use his cock like a weapon on me. Macho fucking prick!”

Mala Noche begins with a wide shot of a train moving through the rural landscape. Inside one of the pitch-black box cars, we get high-contrast shots of Johnny Alonzo (Doug Cooeyate) and Roberto (Ray Monge) as they journey to Portland, Oregon. After hand-written titles, there’s an epigraph: “If you fuck with the bull, you get the horn.” Matted home-movie images of derelicts on skid row follow, as well as of shot of a beer bottle being tossed into a puddle in the gutter. Walt’s narration begins: “Working in the store Sunday all day, I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo from LA near Riverside” Walt aggressively teases Johnny about the hickeys on his neck. Johnny’s response is to steal from the store, thereby establishing the dynamic of their relationship. When Walt sees Johnny on the street after work, he tries unsuccessfully to befriend him. Walt confides his feelings about Johnny to a female friend, who offers to invite them to dinner. For Walt, his love for Johnny represents an affirmation of his gay identity and beat sensibility. He tells her: “I don’t care. Even if it jeopardizes working at the store, I have to show him that I’m gay for him, to show him how I feel.” Johnny’s later response is to blow cigarette smoke in Walt’s face, but Walt succeeds in getting Johnny, another friend, and Roberto to come for dinner.

The dinner becomes an occasion to learn about the abuse experienced by illegal aliens, as the Mexicans describe a friend being beaten by the cops on their journey north. On the way home, Johnny drives like a madman. Walt offers to give Roberto fifteen dollars if he can sleep with Johnny, who adamantly refuses. Johnny retreats to his hotel, leaving Roberto and Walt locked out, so they are forced to go to Walt’s place for the night. As the sound of trains and church bells can be heard on the soundtrack, Walt takes off his clothes and slides down next to Roberto, who has already gone to bed. As Walt caresses his body, the camera causes the image of Roberto’s face, bathed in light and shadow, to spin around. Roberto maneuvers behind to penetrate Walt. Roberto steals ten dollars from Walt’s pants pocket on the way out. Acknowledging the Mexican boys need money, Walt nevertheless reflects: “I hope they got it, though I was upset that I’d been fucked, violated, and lost the money too. For a few moments thinking about it in the morning, of the Mexicans gloating over having fucked the gringo puto [faggot] and got his money too, talking about it and laughing, my ass sore.”

In the middle act, Johnny and Roberto continue to harass Walt, who attempts to ingratiate himself with them. Walt takes home movies – as the stark black and white suddenly switches to color – even though Johnny doesn’t want to participate. Walt also watches helplessly from the store as a cop chases after Johnny and Roberto. Johnny returns with a gun, and later crashes Walt’s car into the guard rail while speeding recklessly down a rural road. Johnny also fires the gun out the window, and he and Roberto later steal Walt’s car keys and then the car. Undaunted, Walt continues his amorous pursuit of Johnny by climbing up the fire escape of their hotel, but winds up frightening a young Chicana woman instead. “No, I’m not the immigration,” he tells her, totally missing the point. While searching for Johnny, Walt finds Roberto, who tells him that Johnny and his other friends have left. Walt later turns his attention to Roberto, who maintains his distance. As we watch Roberto walk down the street, Walt responds: “Fuck it, do I need them that badly? Am I that desperate? Of course, I am.”

Walt’s efforts to befriend Roberto also fail miserably, but Walt attends to Roberto when he becomes ill. As Walt caresses Roberto’s head, we get flashbacks of Johnny and Roberto, before Roberto demands that Walt buy him a milk shake. Once Roberto recovers, Walt tries to help him get work. Later that night, the two get stoned and roll together on the bed before Walt goes down on him. Walt later tries to be playful, but Roberto retaliates roughly. Walt takes Roberto for a driving lesson, but the car ends up in a ditch. Completely flustered, Walt yells: “You drive like you fuck.” Roberto retaliates by flirting with a woman outside the store. One night, however, the police shoot Roberto, when he brandishes the gun. The impact sends his body crashing through a window to the wet ground below, where Walt eventually holds Roberto’s lifeless body in his arms.

Shortly afterwards, Johnny finally turns up one rainy night and explains that he was picked up by immigration and deported back to Mexico. As the two drink together, Johnny asks about Roberto, only to learn that he’s been killed. Johnny initially thinks it’s a joke, but then turns on Walt. On the way out, Johnny uses his knife to inscribe the word “puto” on Walt’s door. Walt drives around town with his female friend looking for him, and finally spies Johnny standing on a corner. Walt asks Johnny to come by the store to see him. As Walt watches Johnny in the rear-view mirror, his woman friend applies lipstick. The car disappears down the street, as an upbeat song by the Neo Boys, plays on the soundtrack. The credits roll over color home movie footage of the cast smoking dope and clowning for the camera.

Originally shot for a mere $25,000 and using a cast of non-professional locals, Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche represents an impressive debut feature. John Campbell’s grainy cinematography at times recalls the look and ambience of film noir. It creates a poetic realism that captures the grittiness of life as it’s lived by those on its margins. The store, in which Walt works, serves as a major focal point, as various derelicts make cameo appearances as they parade in and out. Mala Noche feels more like a filmic prose poem than a plot-driven narrative. Walt’s obsessive insistence on his own gay identity and sexual desire drives the film forward, but Mala Noche is essentially episodic rather than dramatic, deliberately fractured rather than fluid. Van Sant abstracts and fragments the narrative through the use of canted angles, striking compositions, and synecdoche.

The film works as an accumulation of poetic images: packs of cigarettes, money exchanging hands, a gush of exhaled smoke, an assortment of pills in a hand, clear liquid filling a glass, the texture of wet streets, accelerated billowing clouds, a shot of headlight of a moving car, vintage advertising, or water boiling in a pot. An especially good example of Van Sant’s approach is the first sex scene between Walt and Roberto, which contains a series of abstract closeups of their clasped hands, faces, and bodies writhing together. Mala Noche is ultimately a meditation on light, especially in how it illuminates male bodies and faces. It recalls early Larry Clark photographs, Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, with some Jack Kerouac-inspired riffs thrown into the mix, but Van Sant still manages to establish his own distinct visual style.

Like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), the brand new remastered 35mm print of Mala Noche is simply not to be missed when it begins its threatrical run on June 1 at the IFC Center in New York.

Posted 25 April, 2007

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