The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature The Color Wheel (2011) has a tendency to polarize critics – sometimes even the same critic, as if he or she might be suffering from bipolar disorder. The film comes at you with a certain velocity – often from left field. At times it shocks by being in-your-face politically incorrect. Yet The Color Wheel exudes a certain shaggy dog charm, even as it deliberately attempts to disturb and provoke viewers. It bills itself as an “objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.”

The Color Wheel tells the story of an estranged brother and sister, Colin (Alex Ross Perry) and JR (co-writer Carlen Altman) who go on a road trip together, ostensibly to retrieve some of her belongings from her Journalism professor (Bob Byington) with whom she’s had, as far as the family is concerned, a rather scandalous affair. Colin’s girlfriend, Zoe (Ry Russo-Young) questions why he would even bother to help his sister. He responds: “You know, you don’t have any siblings, so you have no frame of reference for what it’s like when one of them asks for a favor.” JR is apparently the black sheep in the family. At least Colin, for his own personal reasons, chooses to portray her that way. This is a case of sibling rivalry that, considering that they’re now in their twenties, seems mired in adolescence. Throughout their road trip, the two of them constantly bicker like a couple stuck in a bad marriage without a divorce option.

JR is something of a mess. Although very attractive, she has low self-esteem. Her aspirations to be a TV anchor lead her to have an affair with her professor, who belittles her for being incredibly immature when she and Colin finally show up at his house to retrieve a couple of boxes of her stuff. She ridicules him for not helping her get a job in the business as promised, while he berates her for never picking up the check at a restaurant. When JR later spots a television personality at a diner, she makes a complete fool of herself by seeking career advice. The woman tells her bluntly: “You know, off the top of my head, don’t interrupt people while they’re eating.” JR is later lured to a party of her snotty old school chums by the prospect of meeting an agent from Los Angeles. After she’s grilled about her career aspirations, JR fibs that she’s actually working as a nurse while auditioning for jobs in major markets. As she performs the role of being a news anchor for several of her former classmates, she proves to be quite terrible by continually flubbing her lines.

On the car trip, Colin gloats over the fact that his parents took him on a vacation to Puerto Rico and didn’t invite JR. It’s later revealed that the family also neglected to inform her about an aunt’s death, lest she might actually turn up at the funeral. Like the Journalism professor, Colin uses language to bludgeon her into submission, but, like a carnival knockdown doll, she keeps popping back up. If anything, JR’s resilience is her major strength. Although Colin relishes his superior position, he has his own serious flaws. For one thing, his writing career apparently isn’t going anywhere either. Both at the professor’s house and party, he rather quickly winds up crumpled on the floor – if he were a boxer, he’d be hitting the canvas before his opponent even threw a punch. He’s also been in a loveless relationship with Zoe for several years, and has his own sexual frustrations, as evidenced by the hand job he angles for and doesn’t receive before embarking on the trip.

Shot on grainy black-and-white 16mm film by Sean Price Williams, The Color Wheel is essentially a highly complex character study that takes the form of a road movie. Colin and JR stay overnight at a motel run by a religious zealot, visit the professor’s house, party with old classmates, and finally take a detour to a relative’s nearby cabin. It’s a journey of mutual self-discovery, but one that’s steeped in humiliation. Their trip involves a sudden realization that their dreams are not exactly working out as planned. This becomes apparent at the party, where Colin shows up carrying a pineapple and the two are quickly relegated to pathetic comic figures. Although the film was apparently fully scripted, the constant banter between JR and Colin feels completely natural, as if invented on the spot. Colin’s spiteful condemnation of JR and her failings stems from his own insecurities that are as vast as hers. And while the barbed exchanges between them are often very funny, the result is actually the kind of laughter that hurts.

Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel cuts much deeper than most independent films, which is its major strength. Although the clues have been carefully planted, the extended climax, which lasts for nine minutes, nonetheless packs the wallop of a perfectly executed sucker punch.

Postscript: I first saw The Color Wheel at the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It opened last week at the BAMcinématek and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York before screening at other theatrical venues around the country.

Posted 28 May, 2012

Sun Don’t Shine

Indie actress and producer Amy Seimetz’s first feature Sun Don’t Shine (2012) received considerable buzz when it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March. Given Seimetz’s acting background, it might be expected that the film would contain terrific performances, but, for me, the real surprise turns out to be the film’s assured and poetic visual style. Sun Don’t Shine (you have to love the title) is a character study – a film noir-like road movie set in the intense heat and blazing sun of the filmmaker’s home state of Florida. Seimetz has indicated that the genesis of the film was a dream, so it’s little wonder that Sun Don’t Shine, which plays with a number of different genres including suspense and horror, feels very much like an extended nightmare.

The film begins with a shot of a young woman aptly named Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil). Her head jerks up into the frame against a pure blue sky, as she frantically gasps for air. She’s in the midst of a violent scuffle with a young construction worker named Leo (Kentucker Audley). As she slaps and flails at him with dogged intensity, he defends himself by throwing her in the mud, knocking her down, and then shoving her up against the car. “We don’t need to keep talking about this,” he tells her, “but we need to keep going.” Once they’re in the car, he tries to placate her with a kiss, but she accuses him of trying to strangle her. After a long stare, he apologizes for breaking her cell phone. Crystal takes off her blouse, dangles it out the window like a homemade kite flapping in the breeze, before eventually letting go of it.

It soon becomes obvious that the pair are in some type of deep trouble. We’re not sure exactly why, but it’s clear that Crystal is not really helping the situation. Leo insists that they need to visit his friend Terry’s bar – a four or five hour drive away. Crystal becomes jealous and accuses Terry (Kit Gwin) of being his girlfriend, which he denies. Once in the car, she wants to go to a motel room and make love to Leo. He’s in a state of panic about the situation, and ignores her attempts at seduction. There’s something very child-like about Crystal’s responses – she appears to be regressing under the pressure and weight of events. She insists that he doesn’t want to make love to her because she has a daughter and big hips, while Leo tries his best to ignore her remarks.

As they argue, things get even more tense when their car overheats on the sweltering highway and an overzealous Good Samaritan (AJ Bowen) insists on helping them, despite Leo’s protestations and attempts to get rid of him. As the film progresses, we learn incremental details of the missing back story, after strong clues are revealed in the glove compartment and the trunk of their car. I’m not sure whether it ruins the film to know what has set this reckless couple on their road journey, but I won’t say any more. Sun Don’t Shine contains a skeletal plot, but that’s much less important than the interaction between the two main characters, which develops into an intense psychodrama.

Kate Lyn Sheil has appeared in a number of recent indie films previously, including Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Sophia Takal’s Green and Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets and The Zone, but this strikes me as her best performance to date. Her character becomes increasingly unglued as the film moves forward, causing multiple personalities to surface: an obsessed lover, a little girl with a love of mermaids, a highly jealous seductress, a liar, and a pretty scary person. There’s something about how seamlessly she transforms into so many different people that’s very unsettling, as if reality can shift on a dime. At one point, she shares her improbable fantasies of their future life together. She tells Leo, “I want to go on a boat with you, or an airplane.” When she looks forward to the two of them going grocery shopping together, Leo asks: “What made you think of that?” She responds: “Boats?”

Crystal begins to read off the names of the various motels as they drive past them and reminisces about a mermaid theatrical show she saw as a child, as we see images of various motels, a peacock, and dazzling shots of fish and mermaids swimming underwater. As she continues to read the signs, Leo finally asks her to stop. She doesn’t, but exults in a motel that happens to bear her name: Crystal Palms. But once they arrive at their destination, she becomes even more sullen, as jealousy kicks in, which is initially conveyed through close-ups on her face and very subtle movements of her eyes. Leo’s attempts to help Crystal seem noble at first, but he has his own demons, which are only revealed once the two of them arrive at Terry’s house.

After a highly revealing sex scene, Leo insists that they go to the bar. Once there, Crystal tells him a convoluted story about a co-worker who stole her lipstick, but Leo simply gets up and goes to the bar for a whiskey as she trails after him and tries to finish her story. He again walks away from her over to the jukebox, but she follows and comes on to him as if nothing has happened and pretends to be picking him up for the first time. The scene suddenly becomes highly stylized as a result of colored gels. As country music plays softly in the background, you suddenly want to believe in their relationship, as they walk out of the bar with their arms wrapped around each other and their shadows reflected on the green grass.

Sun Don’t Shine recalls a number of other movies – from Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) to Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994), but it only resonates even more as a result of the references it conjures up for the viewer. With an economy of means, Seimetz is able to create a remarkable degree of suspense. The film, which was originally shot in 16mm by cinematographer Jay Keitel, also contains lyrical and abstract passages that were shot both outside and inside the car. Early on, as it rains and the inside of the car steams up, Crystal draws a heart on the front windshield that slowly fades in the light. When Leo later drives off alone to rendezvous with Terry, the car lights illuminating the inside of the tent gradually dim and then disappear, turning Crystal’s sad face into a dark silhouette.

In Amy Seimetz’s haunting debut feature, Sun Don’t Shine, geography and climate impact the core of its characters, suggesting that Florida is really a state of mind. Sadly, it’s not love that binds these intimate strangers together, as they desperately try to navigate their troubled lives in a vast landscape of swampland under the harsh summer sun. Rather, it’s a sense of mutual blame.

Posted 18 May, 2012

Two Years at Sea

The 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival began last Wednesday night with London filmmaker Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea (2011), his majestic feature-length portrait of an eccentric recluse named Jake Williams, whom he had filmed previously in a fourteen-minute short This is My Land (2006). The film documents and explores Jake’s isolated rural existence within the clutter and junk of a sprawling ramshackle dwelling in a forest in Scotland. Throughout the course of Two Years at Sea, we never see another human being, but hear sounds of sheep, cows, birds, and other wildlife.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Jake, as we observe him in his daily rituals: trudging through the snow from behind, sleeping in various places, bathing in a home-made shower, washing clothes, chopping wood, fishing on a primitive raft, listening to cassette tapes, reading a book, and so forth. There’s a story there, to be sure. Why does Jake live the way he does? Why has he chosen this type of existence? Rivers, however, has little interest in issues of conventional narrative, despite the fact that Jake looks at old photographs (there’s one of an attractive young woman; another of an older man; and an overexposed one of two kids) that hint at some type of missing back story.

In an interview with Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, Rivers explains: “Because the film is also a world, it’s something I want to exist in and of itself, rather than being about something. This all brings me to J.G. Ballard, one of my all-time favourite authors. His work is all about the transformation of landscape into something that somehow frees the central character from all their preconceived norms, a place that is consciously significant to every decision made about how one is living and proceeding through the mire.”

At times, we feel as if Jake might be the last human being left on earth. Yet, to me, the film feels less about the present or future or a self-contained world than a depiction of a present that’s nonetheless imbued with a strong sense of the past. Rivers shot the film in anamorphic 16mm film, which he hand processed in his kitchen sink. It was subsequently blown up to 35mm. There’s a sense that we’re viewing historical footage. It feels, at first, as if we’re back in the 1960s or early 1970s, observing an old hippie who has dropped out.

As the film progresses, however, there’s an odd sensation that we seem to be moving backward in time. The shots of Jake asleep in various locations and situations reminded me of post-mortems, those antique photos of loved ones preserved through photography. In one sequence, we watch as Jake makes a long trek over rugged terrain. In a wide shot, he walks toward the camera, carrying some type of rig on his head and four oblong plastic containers. Jake gradually blows up air mattresses and constructs a raft that he uses to fish in a loch. This shot of him fishing, which lasts nearly 7 minutes, is a key scene in the film’s trajectory back in time – as if we’ve suddenly been transported to the 19th century.

It’s difficult to make an intriguing film with a single character, especially if it’s going to be feature length. We watch Jake go through his daily chores, routines, and rituals, some of which seem to be of the filmmaker’s devising (this is a somewhat contrived or fictional quasi-documentary portrait), especially when he transforms an old camper into a sort of tree house. The shot shows the trailer, like a flying saucer, magically rising up in the frame to eventually perch atop trees. The artifice of how this is accomplished is deliberately withheld, which adds a sense of mystery. Throughout the film, Rivers focuses on formal shots of clouds moving through the sky, a thunderstorm, steam rising from a kettle on the stove, and a black cat who stares curiously at the camera.

Jake’s lifestyle nevertheless embodies the past. The film mimics this in a number of ways. It’s shot on film, for one thing. The photo-chemical process (as was evident in the retrospective of exquisite films Phil Solomon presented in subsequent programs at the festival) contains its own inherent magic that somehow continues to fascinate, even as it heads toward extinction. Whether acknowledged by the filmmaker or not, death hovers like specter over the film, not only in the imagery (a photo of a tombstone and other old photographs) and in its obsession with earlier technology (phonograph and cassettes), but even in the lyrics of the Scottish song “The Carpenter and the Sexton,” which we hear on the soundtrack at one point.

Certain shots are remarkably crisp, yet deliberately grainy, which gives Rivers’s film a liveliness lacking in most digital films. Processing blotches from home development swirl about the image, and the light within certain shots pulsates and flickers, giving an energy and sense of materiality to Two Years at Sea. Rivers’s rigorous framing often places the subject at the right hand side of the frame, such as in the scenes of him showering or fishing, or the extended portrait shot of Jake at the film’s end.

In the final shot, which lasts close to 8 minutes, the camera frames Jake in close-up in front of a cracking fire that illuminates his face. He has a contemplative expression. At one point he rubs his head and rests his head on his hand. His eyes momentarily dart around the frame. He repositions his body and appears to get sleepy as the dying fire’s light ever so slowly begins to fade. This spectacular shot conjures up an antiquated Andy Warhol-like Screen Test, as the image of Jake gradually fades to black and transforms into bouncing grain.

Postscript: The Wisconsin Film Festival was pretty awesome. I saw many great films over the course of 5 days. Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader provides a very humorous, outsider perspective on the festival.

Posted 28 April, 2012

We Need to Talk about Kevin

Most people don’t think twice about having children. That’s not exactly the case for Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a career woman and travel writer who decides to have a kid, but remains ambivalent. A potential parent might wonder: what if I don’t actually love my child, or what if he or she doesn’t love me? But Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s film, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), takes it a step further. She interrogates the more seldom-thought possibility: what if my kid turns out to be a sociopath? There have been other films that have dealt with teenagers who ruthlessly slaughter their classmates, such as Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003). The former portrays the perpetrators, while the latter focuses more on the victims. Yet Ramsay filters her film through the mind of the perpetrator’s mother, portraying it as a kind of unfolding horror story that begins at birth.

Ramsay’s film fractures the narrative by employing a type of associational logic. It parcels out information relating to the inevitable carnage at school, while withholding the actual details until the very end. The film instead focuses on Eva’s tenuous psychological state in the traumatic aftermath of the event: the red paint that’s been splattered on her ramshackle house and car windshield, the hard stare of the neighbors, a physical assault on the street, the perils of shopping at the local grocery store, the difficulty of finding a job, and the utter isolation at work that comes from being stigmatized. When one of her co-workers at the travel agency, where Eva finally lands a job, asks her to dance at a holiday party and she politely refuses, he quietly snarls, “Where do you get off, you stuck-up bitch. Do you think anyone else is going to want you now?”

While driving home one night, someone in an ape costume approaches her car from the driver’s side and a skeleton and other masked figures scamper in her path. What appear to be frightening fantasies turn out to be merely kids in costume on Halloween, but daily life for Eva is filled with real demons from both the present and the past. When she visits Kevin in prison, he bites his finger nails and places them in a row in front of her while not bothering to speak. As he glowers at her, she clearly must wonder how the trajectory of her life caused her to wind up in this predicament. Yet Ramsay reinforces the connection, as their faces merge while she washes her face.  The director told Eric Kohn in Indiewire: “By proxy, she has murdered all these people. It’s really exploring the psyche of a woman who has this massive guilt.”

As the film flashes back, Kevin cries incessantly as a baby, initially doesn’t speak, refuses to be potty trained, and gradually becomes openly hostile to Eva. Her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), a cuddly bear of a guy, is a study in denial. Kevin favors his father, who shows him more affection, but doesn’t hide his loathing for his mother who remains defensively distant. Franklin insists that they move out of the city to the suburbs, so that Kevin will have more space and access to better schools, which only alienates and isolates Eva even further. It does nothing for Kevin, except that it allows him to take up archery, a sport he seems to relish after becoming fixated on a passage from Robin Hood that his mother reads to him.

When Eva and Franklin unexpectedly have a second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), they dress Kevin in a shirt that says “I’m the Big Brother.” He’s not a protective older brother but a menace, as he immediately makes the baby cry. Sure enough, several years later, the sweet little girl finds her hamster missing and then suffers an eye injury that Eva suspects has been caused by Kevin. When his father suggests that Kevin look out for Celia at school, the teen responds, “You don’t really remember being a kid much, do you, dad? Celia’s just going to have to suck it up.” When Eva tries to relate to Kevin by taking him out to dinner, he stuffs himself beforehand. As they sit together in the restaurant, she’s forced to eat alone.

Ramsay, who along with Rory Stewart Kinnear, adapted the screenplay from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, deviates from employing any sort of conventional linear storyline by creating an impressionistic film that scrambles time. Images fade in and out of focus, sounds become amplified, while the film conveys Eva’s feelings of guilt and repulsion in an almost visceral way, which is reinforced by the film’s excessively red palette.

In an early scene of La Tomatina, a Spanish tomato festival, a mass of semi-naked bodies sway amidst a tomato throwing contest. In one image that appears to be in her dream, we see an ecstatic Eva lifted, Crucifixion style, above the crowd before being splattered in thick red sauce. The image becomes a kind of metaphor for the horrific violence soon to come, as indicated by the repeated shots of flashing lights and anxious parents outside a school that appear several times throughout the film.

We Need to Talk about Kevin does not really attempt to offer insight into Kevin’s behavior. Erza Miller, with his good looks and cocky swagger, does his best to deny viewers any semblance of empathy. Somewhat strangely, we don’t feel sorry for Eva either. As played by Tilda Swinton, there’s a decided lack of emotion to her character as she bravely soldiers on, despite everything that’s happened.

We Need to Talk about Kevin, which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, opened Friday at the Sundance Cinemas here in Madison, where it is scheduled to play for the rest of the week.

Posted 4 March, 2012

Best Indpendent Films of 2011

Although the overall quality of this past year’s independent films remained strong, most still had difficulty finding an audience. Of the films on my list, Martha Marcy May Marlene grossed the highest amount, at nearly $3 million; Take Shelter and The Future made less than their budgets.

Todd Solondz claims his films don’t make money any more and is struggling to release his latest effort, Dark Horse, while Hal Hartley is looking to raise funding on Kickstarter. Even Spike Lee got tired of waiting to find financing for his latest commercial film, and wound up self-financing it. Everyone keeps talking about new distribution models, but let’s face it: the theaters are, for the most part, empty when independent films actually do have theatrical runs. DVD appears to have died as well, as we know from the fiasco involving Netflix. I believe that only 6 of the 10 films on my list played in my home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

No matter how cheap films are to make these days, filmmakers can’t continue to lose money. VOD doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Ti West literally wrote a letter to fans begging them not to pirate his latest release, The Innkeepers. He claims he hasn’t made any money from his films. Joe Swanberg seems to have found a viable model, but it appears to involve sheer quantity. Frank V. Ross, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire (Hohokam, 2007 and Audrey the Trainwreck, 2010) told me he doesn’t ever expect to realize any return on his films.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled to keep up with this blog because I’ve been consumed with completing my latest book, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012), which has taken up so much of my time. It’s due out this spring. Publishing, however, isn’t all that different from making movies these days. Unless you’re a celebrity author, you can’t expect to get rich on book sales, especially writing academic books.

I saw a number of inspiring films from outside the USA: Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Certified Copy, to name a few, but I also missed a number of important films that I hope to see shortly. Ironically, I saw some terrific American indie films this past year that I can’t include them because they didn’t have a theatrical opening: Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever, Sophia Takal’s Green, Gregory Kohn’s Northeast, and Mark Jackson’s Without. I’ve written about four of the five already. I saw Alex Ross Perry’s film at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, and intend to write about it at some point this year.

To be honest, it’s difficult to write blogs about films that many folks simply haven’t seen, but I remain committed to doing so if it can bring more attention to independent work. I have to say that no blogger has been more supportive of my efforts than Mike Everleth at Bad Lit, whose site I consider essential reading for anyone interested in alternative film.

If there was one major theme that emerged this year, it was the feeling that the end of the world is imminent. Melancholia might serve as the model, but Take Shelter, The Future, and Bellflower share the same vision of impending doom.

I saw Meek’s Cutoff twice when it played to the New York Film Festival in October of 2010. I found myself driving to the theater when it played here in town many months later. I felt under a spell like in a Miranda July film. Once the first image appeared, however, I suddenly understood why I was there. It was without a doubt my favorite film of the year. Jon Raymond, the film’s gifted screenwriter, has a new novel coming out this spring, entitled Rain Dragon. Jon (who co-wrote the screenplays for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy as well) is a terrific writer. I strongly recommend that you order his book. It’s already listed on Amazon.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2011:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  2. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  3. The Future (Miranda July)
  4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
  5. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
  6. Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield)
  7. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
  8. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)
  9. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
  10. The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal)

Two of the filmmakers on my list have been included in this year’s upcoming Whitney Biennial: Kelly Reichardt and Matthew Porterfield. I try never to miss a Whitney Biennial, if at all possible.

There were many extraordinary performances this year: Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Jacob Wysocki (Terri), Robert Longstreet (The Catechism Cataclysm), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff), and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Austin Vickers (Jess + Moss) is a natural. For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009” as well as “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

For the record, I always post my list in February.

Posted 24 February, 2012

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