The Black Hole of the Camera

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints


Set in Texas (though apparently not actually shot there), David Lowery’s second feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), is a modern-day western, chock full of references to both genre and other films. Its emphasis on visual storytelling recalls Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. Prior to this, Lowery worked on many indie features, most notably as an editor on Dustin Defa’s Bad Fever (2012), Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (2013), and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013). Lowery intended to shoot Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as a low-budget feature, but stints at the Sundance screenwriting and producing labs led to a $6 million budget and big-name stars.

Lowery had made an earlier feature, St. Nick (2009), which did not receive wide release, as well as a dramatic short, Pioneer (2011), featuring Will Oldham. He credits Pioneer with helping to attract Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara to his new project. He told Eric Kohn of Indiewire: “I made St. Nick on a 30-page outline. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a full-bodied script, but it still had a lot of room for improvisation. There were scenes that weren’t there on the page – just a sentence saying something happens. I was like, ‘We’ll figure this out when we shoot it.’ I was very surprised to a certain extent that they responded to it as much as they did. But what helped was that we sent the script out with Pioneer. When folks could read the script and watch that movie, I think it really helped contextualize the film we wanted to make.”

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins with a spat between a young couple, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), which ends on a blissful note once she confides to him that she’s pregnant. Their happiness, however, is short-lived when they attempt to pull off a robbery. In a shootout with law officers, one of the gang members, Freddy (Kentucker Audley), gets killed and Ruth shoots and wounds the local sheriff in the shoulder. As the officers move in and the couple’s situation becomes dire, Ruth tells Bob that there’s no way she can go to prison with their baby due. His hands covered with Freddy’s blood, Bob surrenders, and the two are escorted out by the police in handcuffs. Bob takes the rap and gets sent away, leaving Ruth to fend on her own.

The film’s setup occurs so quickly that it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Lowery’s cutting is not only fast-paced, but the film is also shot in a highly elliptical style. The film’s emphasis is on individual shots rather than on sequence. There’s a minimum of dialogue. Events unfold through a series of stunning images, rich in texture and atmosphere, underscored by natural sounds and a heavy dose of mood music. Bradford Young, who won the best cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival last January, often opts to shoot in low light. Scenes take place at magic hour or in a world of dark shadows. Lowery is less interested in having a tight plot – there are huge narrative gaps – than in creating a kind of filmic poetry.

It turns out that Bob is madly in love with Ruth and always has been. These are doomed lovers – like Kit and Holly in Badlands (1973). Rather than a road movie of a couple on the run, this is a story about the enduring pain of separation. In prison, Bob writes long letters to Ruth every day. In voiceover, he professes his undying love for her and vows to come back for her eventually. Meanwhile, Ruth has a little girl, whom she names Sylvie. Almost from the moment the baby is placed into her arms, Ruth’s bond with Sylvie represents a case of transference. As she grows older, Sylvie (played by Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) is so adorably cute, that it’s not hard to see why. Ruth suffers from intense guilt. Her life is based on a lie, but what other choice does she have? We sense the roots of this tragedy almost from the first few minutes of Lowery’s deeply heartfelt film.

In Bob’s fixation to be reunited with his family, he attempts to break out of prison multiple times before he finally succeeds. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a kind of surrogate father to Bob and the deceased Freddy, laments the loss of his own family. He seems intent on keeping his eye on Ruth and Sylvie by moving them next door. His own bitterness becomes a determining factor in his contempt for Bob, setting up an inevitable showdown.

Given his position as representative of the law and the expectations of genre, the sheriff, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), would seem the more likely antagonist. He runs into Ruth at church, turns up at her house, and takes a kind-hearted interest in her and Sylvie. Ruth tries her best to keep her distance from him, but given her own dead-end situation, he represents the kind of stability that Bob can never give her. Several nasty individuals also manage to surface (are they bounty hunters?), so that when Bob finally returns, he faces three different sets of foes that stand between him and his family.

Casey Affleck, looking like a younger David Byrne, is riveting as the love-struck criminal. He might stand outside the boundaries of the law, but he wears his love of Ruth as his own shiny badge of honor. She’s the only thing he has going for him and he knows it. Rooney Mara, as Ruth, is a woman of few words, despite the intensity of emotions that smolder inside her. Ruth is caught in a trap of her own making, and looking for any means of escape. She is well aware that her options are limited. Ben Foster, as Wheeler, harbors no particular resentment toward either Bob or Ruth – he views his injury merely as a hazard of his job. Yet, like Ruth, he has his own inner conflicts, especially regarding his duty to hunt down Bob.

Like Jeff Nichols’s Mud (2013), which grossed over $20 million at the box office this year,  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  – the meaning of the title eludes me – aspires to be a mythic American film. But Lowery’s film is far less conventional than Mud. Mud is a narrative film with rich poetic flourishes, whereas Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is much closer to a poem with narrative touches. I initially watched the film on pay-per-view, which left me underwhelmed. The dark palette simply did not play well on the smaller screen. After having a chance to see it at our local Sundance Cinema, I simply can tell you that this film really needs a big screen and good sound to work its considerable magic.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints might remind you of other great genre films you’ve seen, but that’s actually its strength rather than a weakness. Lowery’s emotionally affecting film is one of the most impressive cinematic achievements in a year filled with an unusual number of exceptional releases.

Posted 4 September, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Eric Hynes recently wrote an article in the New York Times about the new films by Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, suggesting that mumbecore has finally grown up. Given the fact that mumblecore reflected a youth culture and the problems of a generation of characters in their twenties, the passage of time would, of course, inevitably have that effect. Bujalski is now thirty-six, while Swanberg is thirty-one. Both filmmakers are married with young kids and have to make a living, which is hard to do making micro-budget indie features. Yet the new films by Bujalski and Swanberg couldn’t be more different. Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), a period piece set in the early days of computing (circa 1980), represents an entirely new direction for him, whereas Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) is a larger-budget romantic comedy that still has links to the style and substance of his earlier works.

I have seen quite a few of Joe Swanberg’s films over the years (roughly ten features by my count), even if I haven’t written about his work at any length until now. Like James Benning, Swanberg has been amazingly prolific in the digital format. Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with someone who has used sheer quantity as a means to survive as a filmmaker. This is in contrast to Bujalski, who has made only three other features since Funny Ha Ha (2002), the film that is credited with starting the mumblecore phenomenon. Yet, when all is said and done, Swanberg has made a number of equally strong films. I happened to take another look at Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) the other day for a book chapter I’m writing, and the film certainly holds up upon multiple viewings. In fact, it only seems to get better and better each time.

Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky (2013) screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. I considered it one of the highlights of the festival, which had a very strong indie lineup. Starring Jane Adams, the film has been largely overshadowed by Drinking Buddies, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Eric Kohn in Indiewire suggests that most of Swanberg’s films prior to Drinking Buddies are merely sketches, but I disagree. I find All the Light in the Sky to be a mature and sensitive look at the problems of being a middle-aged female actor, who has made great personal sacrifices to have a career. The main character, Marie (Adams), lives in a spectacularly nice house overlooking the ocean, but now finds herself without a partner and suddenly being passed over for major acting roles.

Based on a single page of notes (according to the filmmaker), Swanberg builds Drinking Buddies around a specific location, a craft brewery in Chicago, which reflects his current personal obsession with beer. The film centers on two couples. Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the events planner at the brewery, or, as the boss puts it, its “face and voice.” In the close-knit operation, Kate is very much at its center, as she organizes various public functions, much to the admiration of the guys who work there. Kate appears to have a special bond with the bearded Luke (Jake Johnson), who, with his boisterous personality, has an equally large presence among the workers. At the bar after work, we learn that Luke has a partner, Jill (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t seem at all his type. Although he’s up to partying some more, she prefers to go home, much to the annoyance of the others, especially Kate, who begins playing pool.

Luke and Kate have a very close and flirtatious relationship, so much so that we’re equally puzzled when she later shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Compared to Kate, Chris (Ron Livingston) is not at all the type of guy we expect someone like her to date. He’s soft-spoken as opposed to loud, a good deal more of an intellectual than Kate, as well as considerably older. When she quizzes him about his day, Chris wonders whether someone playing a cello in a rock band was being ironic, and admits that he can no longer tell. As the two start to make love, he suddenly interrupts their foreplay to give her a present, which turns out to be a hardback book (later revealed to be John Updike’s novel, Rabbit, Run). Rather than staying the night, Kate rides her bike home, ostensibly because a package is being delivered to her house in the morning.

Chris tags along with Kate to the big brewery event she’s organized, which gives her co-workers their first glimpse of her boyfriend. Seeing the two of them in the midst of her work milieu, the mismatch between Kate and Chris seems both surprising and obvious to everyone who works there. Jill is also with Luke as well. She turns out to be a special education teacher, very straight, and later jokes about being a “bourgeois pig” when she carries a set of plates and glasses in her backpack on a hiking trip. What is she doing with a guy like Luke, who exults in continually playing the role of the house blackjack player, a job he previously held on a riverboat casino?

When the two couples decide to visit Chris’s cabin, presumably on Lake Michigan, they end up spending more time with each other’s partners. Chris wants to go hiking, but only Jill expresses any interest in accompanying him. The film cuts back and forth between Chris and Jill walking through the woods and stopping to picnic, and Kate and Luke back at the cabin. Later that night, after a great deal of drinking, when Luke and Kate find themselves the only ones still up, he proposes building a bonfire on the sandy beach. Kate accepts the challenge and later provocatively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake.

The events of the weekend getaway, however, take their toll when Chris breaks up with Kate upon their return. Kate announces the news the next morning: “The shackles are off, I’m free,” she exclaims loudly, which is clearly an open invitation to Luke, but he actually has a mixed reaction. Kate begins to behave wildly after work, especially when she has a fling with one of the brewers, a guy named Dave (Ti West), and rumors swirl around the brewery. Needless to say, Luke gets both annoyed and very jealous. Meanwhile, things between Luke and Jill also become strained. She’s pressuring him to get married, and he acts as if he’s much too busy to get involved in planning a wedding right now. As he puts it, “figuring it out is the boring part.” Things reach a head when Jill goes away for a week to Costa Rica, leaving Luke to his own devices.

During the first half of Drinking Buddies, I confess that I missed the usual group of Swanberg performers. Despite cameos by regulars Frank V. Ross and Ti West, it took me awhile to warm to this group of professional actors. Only gradually did I begin to understand that Jill’s desperation to get married had to do with her life stage. When Kate tries to get back with Chris, he tells her they’ve been together long enough (eight months) for him to know their relationship isn’t going to work. It’s time for him to move on. For Jill, who’s been with Luke far too long (since she was twenty-one, we learn), she’s painfully aware that time is running out for them.

Although Jill might seem more suited to Chris, and Kate to Luke (especially in terms of social class), Drinking Buddies, in its observational style, suggests that there’s some truth to the old adage that opposites attract. Luke is much too comfortable in front of the bonfire to plunge into the ocean with Kate despite her seductive invitation. When Luke shows up at Kate’s apartment to help her move, he is grossed out by the fact that her place is such a mess. When Luke cuts his hand badly while moving her couch, Kate is too freaked out by the sight of blood to be able to offer assistance, whereas Jill’s response comes naturally and is just the opposite. While Kate and Luke make great drinking buddies, would they make a viable couple? Relationships generally need a certain balance or stability to keep them from veering wildly out of control. Referring to Luke and Jill’s nice apartment, Kate jokes, “I want a Jill . . . Does she have a male clone?”

There is unmistakable attraction and affection between Kate and Luke. The two feel enormously comfortable around each other, even physically, as they lie intertwined on the couch together. On some level, they’re very close, but what Swanberg seems to be suggesting in Drinking Buddies is that best buddies don’t necessarily make the best mates. As a result, there’s a sad undercurrent that runs throughout the film, which explores issues of friendship and romance, and the difference between casual crushes and actual commitments. Kate and Luke’s relationship seems to involve a series of missed connections. As it turns out, they might actually make better drinking buddies than lovers.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, in particular, give outstanding and believable performances as strong working-class characters. Kate (who has the piercing eyes of a Siamese cat) might act like one of the guys, but when she feels judged by Luke, she responds with the fierceness of a caged animal. As played by Wilde, Kate is very much her own person, and certainly no one to mess with, which makes her one of the strongest female characters in any of Swanberg’s films. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, plays the part of Jill with such understated vulnerability that it’s easy to miss the subtlety of what she’s doing, performance-wise.

In Drinking Buddies, it’s interesting to watch these actors respond to Swanberg’s more improvisational approach to filmmaking. In an interview, he discusses the benefits of working with professional actors: “They have a whole rich life and thought process to draw from, and so then in the moments where they’re sort of put on the spot they have stuff to talk about . . . Olivia reads a lot, she’s engaged in politics in the world around her, she has opinions about things. That’s all you need for improvisation – to be a person who is able to express yourself. If you’re working with good actors then everybody’s doing that, and you end up with fascinating scenes.”

Drinking Buddies is playing on Amazon Instant as a two-day rental for $10 (as well as on iTunes). I ran across it quite by accident, but I was happy to have an opportunity to see the film before it is released theatrically in late August.

Posted 1 August, 2013

I Used to Be Darker

Matt Porterfield gained prominence in indie film circles with Putty Hill (2011), a second feature that was shot using a short outline after financing fell through on a more ambitious scripted project. A mixture of documentary and fictional elements, Putty Hill used an episodic structure, off-screen interviewer, and improvised acting to explore the reactions of family and friends to a drug overdose in a working class neighborhood of Baltimore. Porterfield’s new feature, I Used to Be Darker (2013), was scripted by Porterfield and writer Amy Belk. The film is about the corrosive effects of divorce, how it impacts everyone involved, including the children who also wind up being its victims. I Used to Be Darker premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing, and will screen as part of the prestigious BAMcinemaFEST on June 21.

I Used to Be Darker (the enigmatic title comes from Bill Callahan song lyrics) tells the story of a runaway teen from Northern Ireland named Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who flees to the beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland and gets pregnant. She turns up unexpectedly at the Baltimore home of her aunt and uncle, Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), only to discover that they are in the process of getting a divorce. What’s unusual about Bill and Kim is that they are actually hip musicians rather than your typical straight middle-class couple. It’s hard not to like the two of them, even though our sympathies lie more with Bill than Kim, largely because he’s the one getting dumped.

During a brief argument in which Kim is packing books, it becomes clear that the pressures of making a living have curtailed Bill’s musical aspirations, while Kim hasn’t given up the dream and continues to play with a local band. They know how to play the blame game. Kim suggests that once she’s gone, Bill will become more productive again. Bill tells her: “I just don’t write songs anymore. I pay bills. I pay for my daughter’s education. I pay for your health insurance.” Kim responds, “Well, not anymore.” Right after this, there’s a message on the answering machine from Taryn, announcing that she’s coming to visit.

When Taryn arrives, she ends up staying with Bill, partly because Kim is moving to a new place. Her cousin, Abby (Hannah Gross), is upset with her mom and is barely speaking to her. She tells Taryn, “Welcome to my personal hell!” The tension between Bill and Kim is palpable, especially when her fellow band members help to cart away her musical instruments. Bill’s reaction is to sit and play a song on his guitar before he calmly gets up and smashes it. Later, as the two of them attempt to discuss Taryn’s situation, Bill complains about having to shake hands with the men who took her instruments away. He tells Kim, “Yeah, you know, I think I’d probably rather take a punch in the face than to feel that handshake again.”

The beauty of the scene is that, even without the dialogue, it still manages to convey their discomfit through gestures: the way Kim nervously fidgets with her drink or periodically looks away from him, as well as Bill’s syncopated hand movements as he slouches in his chair. Even more revealing, however, are the musical interludes that are interwoven throughout the film, providing an emotional outlet for the characters (Taylor and Oldham are actual musicians). Taryn and Abby attend a punk concert, which gives vent to their pent-up anger. Music becomes a means for the characters to communicate and to express emotions that would otherwise remain under the surface.

Part of the power of I Used to Be Darker stems from the extraordinary performances Porterfield is able to draw from his nonprofessional cast. Campbell adeptly conveys a confused sexuality that has obviously gotten Taryn into her current predicament. It has the potential to complicate her life even more when she flirts with her aunt’s new band mate, Nick (Nick Petr). Taryn talks in clipped fragments delivered in a sing-song, heavy Irish accent. When Bill first confesses that he and Kim are in the process of separating, Taryn responds: “Can’t believe it. Had no idea . . . I’m such an idiot.”

Although Taryn is the lens through which we view the impact of divorce, Bill and Kim’s separation is felt most acutely by Abby, whose sullen disposition suggests that she’s extremely depressed about the situation. In one telling scene, her frustration is evident when she attempts to make waffles for breakfast only to discover that her mom took the waffle iron with her. When this finally becomes apparent, Abby dumps the batter into the garbage. She then takes out her anger on Taryn.

Oldham portrays Bill as someone who’s trying valiantly to hold things together. When he finally drops Taryn off with Kim, he informs her that Abby has split for New York and insists that she take responsibility for her sister’s kid. In arriving unannounced at Kim’s new place, he makes a discovery that leads to more heated conflict. Taylor’s sad eyes, low-key demeanor, and soulful songs, such as Days Like This, suggest the emotional pain that Kim is also experiencing. As she and Taryn look at her photo album together, the teen asks, “Does it suck being a mother? Kim responds in a voice barely above a whisper, “No, it’s hard, though, especially when the person you’d die for doesn’t want to talk to you.”

In his previous films, Porterfield mined cinematic realism through use of nonprofessional actors, improvisation, found locations, and long extended takes. There’s a great deal more cutting in I Used to Be Darker, despite his continued predilection for highly formal framings and a languid pace. Porterfield often keeps his camera at a distance from his characters, suggesting a more observational approach. There’s a scene early on where, in a wide shot, Bill takes a dip in the backyard pool. He slowly swims off-screen. The camera holds on the undulating water for several seconds until he comes back into the frame again. Much credit for the film’s visual strength is no doubt also due to Porterfield’s talented cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, who also shot Porterfield’s other two features.

Porterfield felt that not having a script in Putty Hill made it a better film than his first feature, Hamilton (2006), because it made him more open to the possibilities of the moment. But having an 89-page script for I Used to Be Darker also had benefits. In an interview in Filmmaker, he suggests that “this imposed structure gave the actors more to work with and also push against, which elevated the level of performance.” Porterfield comments: “I feel lucky to have made Putty Hill first, because it liberated me from feeling absolute loyalty to the page. Several times during the shoot, when things we’d written weren’t working, I’d throw the script out and improvise with the cast. And the results were always better than we’d imagined.  Moving forward, I’d like to adjust the balance a little more, to give myself more time to work and play with the actors on location while still adhering to a pre-determined structure.”

This has been a great year so far for independent cinema. I Used to Be Darker played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April as part of an impressive program of new low-budget independent films that included Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue. Even though the script for his new film was co-written, Porterfield has indicated that he considers I Used to Be Darker to be his most personal and collaborative film to date. It’s also his best.

Posted 20 June, 2013

Best Independent Films of 2012

My best film list always appears in February, but I’m late this year, mainly because, even though I saw a streamed version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to see it again in 35 mm. It played at our Cinematheque only last Friday. Yet, that issue aside, it’s been a hard year for me to keep up with the blog. Due to time constraints, I’ve been forced to be more selective in my coverage. As a general rule, I don’t write about films unless I’m enthusiastic about them and have an opportunity to view them at least twice.

More of my attention this year went toward other pursuits. My book, The Black Hole of the Camera: the Films of Andy Warhol, was published by the University of California Press in April. As a result, I’ve been screening films and lecturing more than usual. I gave two conference papers, a couple of presentations at the Brakhage Symposium in Boulder, a keynote in Sydney, and screenings and talks in Milwaukee, Boston, and Houston in the fall. I’m also co-organizing, with my colleague Kelley Conway, an international conference on screenwriting. The 2013 SRN Screenwriting Conference will take place in Madison (August 20–22) and will feature 70 scholars from around the world.

On one level, I could complain that independent cinema seems to have fallen off a cliff. Although there are more films being made than ever before, getting them distributed has become even more difficult than in past years. Many people, especially those living outside major cities, don’t seem to want to leave their houses. People want their media when they want it, so streaming has become the preferred means of distribution, relegating DVDs to the latest casualty of the digital revolution.

The situation for indie cinema is a lot like in the 1960s. Now that there’s less prospect of there being a pot of gold out there for the grabbing, independent filmmakers, in some ways, are making the films they really want to make. I applaud that impulse. Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham are now considered mainstream. You can make fun of mumblecore all you want, but it had an undeniable impact. By all accounts, 2013 promises to be a great year for independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski, Richard Linklater, Matthew Porterfield, David Lowery, Shane Carruth, Harmony Korine, and Jeff Nichols, among others, all have new films.

Most top ten lists are based on a film having a theatrical release. Using that criterion, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue count for this year rather than last. The same goes for Tim Sutton’s Pavilion. I’m starting to feel that the line has become extremely blurry. I wrote about Bad Fever and Green ages ago. Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was listed in my 2008 poll, only recently made it out on DVD.

I’ve seen many of the films that made other more eclectic lists: Holy Motors, Amour, Cosmopolis, Tabu, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with the Bike, In Another Country, and so forth. I also saw some wonderful avant-garde films, including several programs of Phil Solomon’s work, as well as programs by Vanessa Renwick and Stacey Steers during the past year. I also saw Chris Sullivan’s terrific animated feature, Consuming Spirits, but regret that I’ve only seen this new version once, and haven’t had the opportunity to write about it. I also try to follow what’s screening in museums and galleries. By far, the most impressive piece I saw was Eve Sussman’s self-generating and ever changing whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, made in collaboration with the Rufus Corporation. I found the interplay between the computer program and what appears on the screen to be utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the work with the film’s actor, Jeff Wood, who spoke at the screening I attended in Houston.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2012:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  2. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  3. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
  4. Starlet (Sean Baker)
  5. The Dish & the Spoon (Alison Bagnall)
  6. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
  7. Bad Fever (Dustin Defa)
  8. Green (Sophia Takal)
  9. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
  10. For Ellen (So Yong Kim)

I found the sheer ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild to be totally impressive. It’s worth noting that Sean Baker has now made three strong films in a row, as has So Yong Kim. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet convinces me that she has emerged as a major American indie filmmaker. Loktev has indicated that the film was incredibly hard to shoot. To anyone who has ever made one, that’s pretty obvious. In terms of performance, I found the chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in The Dish & the Spoon and between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in Starlet to be pretty riveting.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 28 February, 2013

The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s haunting Day Night Day Night (2006) established her reputation as a rigorously formal filmmaker in the tradition of Chantal Akerman. Her portrait of a young female suicide bomber (Luisa Williams) intent on detonating a bomb in crowded Midtown Manhattan is chilling in its exacting attention to detail. As the infamous O. J. Simpson white Bronco car chase proved, it doesn’t take much to keep viewers on the edges of their seats, as long as they expect there will be a payoff. Like Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Loktev exploits this impulse to the maximum. Once the intentions of the nameless protagonist become apparent, we can only watch her actions with rapt attention. Loktev’s new film, The Loneliest Planet (2012) creates a similar sense of ominous suspense in telling the story of a young couple backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Day Night Day Night begins with a profile close-up of the protagonist on a bus, as she rationalizes her decision by detailing the various ways that people die. Like Béla Tarr or Van Sant, Loktev follows her main character from behind, so that when she turns and faces the camera, allowing us to see her intense features and piercing eyes, it comes as a shock. Our initial antipathy slowly shifts to sympathy once her vulnerability becomes evident as she’s ordered around by an anonymous male voice on the phone and then by masked men. Her high-pitched, girlish voice and overly polite compliance to their orders make her appear less like a religious martyr than a victim of mind control. This aspect is reinforced by Loktev’s palette of icy blues and greens, first in the bus station and later in a New Jersey motel room.

The bomb maker, using sign language, and his female assistant set the mechanism and place the heavy device in her backpack. Once she’s set loose in the colorful and carnival-like atmosphere of Times Square, the tension becomes palpable. When she eats two soft pretzels with mustard followed by a candy apple, her child-like innocence creates a striking contrast to the horrific deed she’s about to commit. Her efforts to find a working pay phone and the necessary coins ratchet up the tension. Her desperate phone call results in a surprising revelation. Her confusion, internal struggle, and suffering become manifest once the camera fixes on her blackened eyes and tearful face, recalling Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

The Loneliest Planet shares a similar minimalist aesthetic to Loktev’s earlier film. It contains more narrative pleasure, even if the pace is as deliberate and slow as the typical art film. The title derives from the name of a popular travel guide (taken to an extreme). The story involves a young English-speaking couple who decide to backpack in the mountains. We know little about the two characters. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) appears to be American, while her handsome bearded lover, Alex (Gael García Bernal), is Latino. In a series of quick and abrupt cuts, Nica entertains children at a party by doing handstands and transforming a banana into a comedic prop, while Nica looks on approvingly. The language barrier asserts itself when an old lady tells a long story to them. It’s clear from Alex’s reactions of embarrassment that neither he nor Nica have a clue what she’s saying.

Loktev never translates Georgian into English subtitles, so the viewer is allowed to feel the confusion regarding both language and culture that is the heart of the experience of traveling to any foreign country. After some haggling over the price, Alex and Nica hire a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), as a drunk repeatedly interrupts the negotiation. The barrier of language and culture surfaces once again when Alex and Nica have drinks at a nightclub, and one of the local men creates an awkward situation by asking Nica to dance.

Most of The Loneliest Planet involves three characters and a landscape, as the young couple treks through the mountainous terrain, accompanied by Dato. Alex and Nica appear to be very much in love with each other. Although their physical expressions of intimacy and sexual passion suggest that they are in the early stages of love, we learn that they are engaged to be married in the fall. The fact that they are from different cultures – he’s teaching her Spanish – adds an additional layer of complexity to their relationship. Not knowing one’s bearings has a tendency to exacerbate tensions between couples. In this case, their guide functions a bit like a camera. Traveling with a third person makes the couple self-conscious and begins to affect their interactions.

Based on a short story by Tom Bissell, The Loneliest Planet contains very little plot or dialogue. The film is exemplary in its reliance on visual storytelling, which forces us to pay close attention to gestures, body movements, sounds, and images. It is also a study of proxemics – the positioning of human bodies in space. Since the characters rarely talk, we are forced to watch carefully for clues in how the three of them negotiate the vast expanse of space – the shifting distance and dynamic between the three of them as they traverse what amounts to a dangerous obstacle course. Nica’s bright red hair provides a visual accent to the predominantly green canvas of the natural landscape.

Navigating the landscape proves treacherous, despite the physical fitness of the couple. In one of the most exhilarating scenes in any film I’ve seen during the past year, we watch as Alex and Nica stand on their heads against the mountainous backdrop and verbally “count chimpanzees” (“twenty-one chimpanzees,” “twenty-two chimpanzees,” . . .) to mark time as they exercise. Tellingly, Alex wobbles several times, while Nica remains steady the whole time. Throughout the journey, Nica insists on her physical prowess and independence by refusing assistance from either Alex or Dato.

Being alone and isolated in the mountains with a stranger can induce paranoia. Dato exhibits an odd sense of humor. He tells Alex and Nica an elaborate off-color joke about castration that goes on interminably. He indicates he plans to buy a new car, but his comments have disturbing overtones. Nica and Alex start to react, but then choose to ignore the remarks. Dato also has them eat a plant that he then suggests might be poisonous. Is he joking? At one point the three of them listen intently to a sound in the distance that could be thunder. Dato stops unexpectedly at another point, as if danger is imminent. An unnerving incident involving three strangers does eventually occur, which serves to reveal character.

Alex’s instinctive reaction to this startling event profoundly alters his relationship with Nica, who becomes noticeably more aloof and solitary afterward. His behavior has crossed some invisible boundary that significantly alters the way she views him. From this point on, Alex and Nica grow more distant from each other, causing the dynamic between all three characters to shift as a result. With great subtlety and visual style, The Loneliest Planet manages to explore not only issues of gender roles, independence and dependence, nature and culture, but the strange and often fickle mysteries of the human heart.

Along with Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, Julia Loktev’s The Lonelist Planet is one of the most visually stunning independent films of the past year. The film finally played at the UW Cinematheque last Friday in a gorgeous 35mm print. It has just been released on DVD.

Posted 28 February, 2013

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