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I’ve been moving from coast to coast since I graduated university. No matter how many times I’ve moved over the course of my adult life, my journals have followed. Last time I moved they accounted for 4 boxes. Now I suspect it would take up to 8. After some soul searching, I rid myself of all those hand written documents. But I did take a last look at my 25 years of existential scrawling. Over the course of 6 months I reviewed all of my self-reflections. I came to the conclusion that my life took a positive but harrowing turn when I was 8 years old. This turn took place in 1975. My 8 year old self took a determined stand against my father and everything changed. I find it interesting that such a powerful moment in my assertion of self is so eclipsed by art and one profound realization about the world.

"Love will keep us together..." Captain & Tennille, 1975

“Love will keep us together…”
Captain & Tennille, 1975

I guess I should have known better.  I was eight years old, but I was still somehow too innocent. I can remember waiting with anticipation for the arrival of  The Sea-Monkey Aquarium package. I know I was eight because I had been working out my plan to get myself into the cinema to see Tommy which was due to open in our town before summer had even begun. It was 1975.  Jaws was playing at the movies and Captain & Tennilles’ Love Will Keep Us Together was always on the radio. My Grandmother had helped me place my Sea Monkeys order shortly after Christmas.

"Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia" But no one pointed out the fine print to me!

“Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia”
But no one pointed out the fine print to me! By the way, this image is dated 1978, but I got mine in 1975.

I had carefully cleaned a pickle jar, filled it with water and emptied the contents of my Sea Monkey “seeds” expecting to watch whole families of Amazing Life swimming about. They would me my pets! Not like my father’s mean little poodle that had once upon a time been intended for me. These Sea Monkeys would be my friends and my amazing pets!

Oh, for the promise of Sea Monkeys...

Oh, for the promise of Sea Monkeys…

I did eventually notice little specs moving about the jar. My Grandmother’s magnifying glass revealed surprisingly little of these highly uninteresting floating things. There was nothing amazing to be seen.

I think these are brine shrimp.

I was far too embarrassed to admit that I had expected to see multiple happy families just like the advert promised.

You didn’t think they were going to look like the cartoon, did you?

I wanted to say, “Yes, I did.” Instead I said something to the effect that I thought that Sea Monkeys would at least be fun to watch. These lifeless brine shrimp seemed to just float on the top of the water.

Artemia captured in motion for YouTube. The image seems magnified to what I saw in my pickle jar.

Artemia captured in motion for YouTube. The image seems magnified to what I saw in my pickle jar.

I had followed the directions very carefully, but it seemed like the very un-Amazing and practically microscopic brine shrimp were far from being Sea Monkeys.  I was also fairly certain they were already dead. A knotted feeling gripped my stomach as I poured the contents of my pickle jar into the toilet and flushed. Sea Monkeys had only yielded disappointment. Yet there were far darker realizations that took place in my 8th year of life. However the true realizations were  obscured by memories of movies and music.

My father was crazy. I am sure some who read this will think I’m exaggerating but the dude was nuts.

The man who put me through hell was buried six feet under a long while ago. I always thought his absence would bring me peace, but the truth is there are only more things I wish I could say to him. Only more questions I would like to ask. I doubt I would, but it would be nice to have the opportunity.

I do miss him. It would be a massive understatement to write that he had a twisted sense of humor. He was a complete character and a mound of eccentricities balanced on cowboy boots. While almost everything he left me has caused pain, he did gift me with the love of movies. It was a gift delivered in a sadistic manner, but I credit him all the same.

"Take a trip into terror!" One of many amazing films I saw on the adult side of our town's Drive-In. I saw this there in 1975. SISTERS Brian De Palma, 1973

“Take a trip into terror!”
One of many amazing films I saw on the adult side of our town’s Drive-In. I saw this there in 1975.
SISTERS
Brian De Palma, 1973

 

My father had no true sense of the appropriate. Not too long after I drew my line in the sand, he began to take me with him to the movies. He either had no sense or did not care about the content of a movie being inappropriate for a child and movie rating restrictions were always ignored. My mother did not like going to movies much and he did not like going alone. I think I became his movie pal. I sometimes wonder if this all wasn’t possibly an intentional toe over my blood marked line.

It was made clear that I was never to discuss the movies we saw with my mother or Grandmother. Most of these screenings were framed within the context of a shared secret. I did not mind. In fact, I loved going to the movies. Like any kid, I especially loved being able to see the movies that were forbidden to my school friends. My mother would have never allowed me to see most of these movies. However by the time I was 10 years old, she wasn’t too restrictive with me regarding movies. Her concern regarding the warning of the movie rating system seemed to only flare when a film contained a lot of sex. However if I articulated the desire to see a movie I could usually secure her buy in.

"Take her to the prom. I dare you!" Released in 1976, but I saw it in 1977. CARRIE Brian De Palma, 1976

“Take her to the prom. I dare you!”
Released in 1976, but I saw it in 1977.
CARRIE
Brian De Palma, 1976

By 1977 my mother’s own situation had become quite complex. I suspect it was a bit of a relief to drop me off to see Saturday Night Fever or The Rose.  I would usually end up alone at the two screened cinema and would end up sneaking in to see the move playing in the other cinema. This was how I saw Carrie in addition to Network. I know that my mother would have been very concerned had she been aware. Most especially when I was 8 or 9. Actually she would have been very concerned when I was 10. I just don’t think she had the time or the emotional ability to be to actually question or be aware. However, that is another topic. The only self-aware problem I encountered with our Father/Son movie outings was that I quite often did not understand much of what we saw. And he was never interested in explaining anything.

Back in the 1970’s movies never really seemed to have gone out of distribution. It is my impression that distributors just kept a lot of them in circulation to not only Grindhouse cinemas and Drive-In’s, but in pretty much all movie houses outside of major cities across the Americas. I remember thinking that the poster for the other two movies on the first screen looked more interesting, but we were not seeing those. My father considered the two that interested me to be dull. I usually fell asleep by the time the second feature began anyway. I remember Sisters fairly well. The whole movie confused me from beginning to end. It would be years later before I finally saw it as a young teen on VHS.

Like many of the movies we saw, they drifted through my head in confusing ways. Did that really happen in the movie? Why was she taking her clothes off in front of a guy? Was she blind? Were there two of her? Why did the other lady seem to be one of them? It would be well into the 80’s before these questions were answered.

I'm certain I was not the only child to be taken to see this. Swimming at the beach or even in pools would never be the same. JAWS Steven Spielberg, 1975

I’m certain I was not the only child to be taken to see this. Swimming at the beach or even in pools would never be the same.
JAWS
Steven Spielberg, 1975

 

We saw Jaws as a family unit. I saw the giant shark movie with my parents in our town’s nicer cinema. It was a shared terrifying experience. Unlike many of the movies I saw, most of my friends saw Jaws as well. It wasn’t just because I was a kid that this movie altered my perception of Fun-In-The-Sun. I think this film impacted culture ’round the world. Going for a swim would never be the same. The only fears that seemed to be unique to me was that I was convinced that my father had rigged our toilet and bathtub to drop me into The Gulf where sharks waited to kill me in the most painful ways possible.

Like a lot of kids, I was obsessed with Jaws and I taught myself to draw the iconic poster image. I don’t think I’m dreaming — we had a single of this movie’s theme song and I played that 45 rpm a lot! Unlike most of the kids I knew, my obsession came to end when I learned of another movie that was promoted as Coming Soon.

It was a movie that somehow captured my entire being.

 

"Your senses will never be the same..." TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975

“Your senses will never be the same…”
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975

 

I am fairly certain I become aware of Ken Russell’s Tommy because of preview I saw at the Drive-In and some odd photographs I noticed in my Grandmother’s copy of People Magazine. I remember knowing that it was Ann-Margret was on the cover. I am so certain of this that I would swear in a court of law. I recall a mention of it regarding Elton John on one of my Grandmother’s favorite talk shows. Did I see that on Dinah! or The Michael Douglas Show? Of this I am unsure, but one thing is solidly real: I had never seen or heard anything quite Tommy the movie. It just looked so incredibly cool and strange to me. And I knew the lyrics to Elton John’s version of Pinball Wizard within hours of having heard it on the radio.

"But I ain't seen nothing like him in any amusement hall. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!" Note: I have never seen this particular single. I found it on The Internet! Elton John Pinball Wizard Limited Edition 7" single, 1975

“But I ain’t seen nothing like him in any amusement hall. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!”
Note: I have never seen this particular single. I found it on The Internet!
Elton John
Pinball Wizard Limited Edition 7″ single, 1975

 

I immediately received push-back from all three of the adults in my life. Not even my father was willing to take me to see Tommy. And even though my mother had a couple of Elton John 8-Track Tapes and a Who LP, she was not interested and didn’t felt it unsuitable for a child to see. Initially she could not understand why I would even want to see it.

I just don’t understand why you like that Streisand lady, this weird movie or that ugly Patti Smith band!

My father dismissed my request because it looked like “hippie shit.” I attempted to lie and claimed that Ann-Margret was probably “totally naked!” in it. This did not change his opinion. What is interesting is that my longest pitch to my father was delivered as he parked his mammoth car in the field of the Drive-In to see one of the most notoriously shocking movies of the day.

We saw The Exorcist and a second “weird” movie called Beyond The Door. The lady inside the ticket booth saw me at me seated in the car. She asked my father if he knew that these were R-rated movies and not intended for children. He told her to calm down sell him the ticket. I was curious why we were seeing The Exorcist as I knew that he and Mom had seen it before. It had really bothered my mother and he hadn’t seemed all that impressed. The only answer I got was that he liked the movie. I remember being excited to see something I had heard so many people discuss. I had also been fascinated by the cover of my parents’ copy of the novel.

 

"Mother! Make it stop!" THE EXORCIST William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Mother! Make it stop!”
THE EXORCIST
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

I am not trying to defend my father’s taking me to see these two movies, but neither of these movie bothered or scared me as a childMy understanding of religion was somewhat limited. I had seen a crucifix, but at that time in my life I really did not fully understand what it was. My mother had given me a tiny bible when I was about 5 years old, but Jesus looked like a number of cool rock stars. I had been taught to say a prayer before I went to sleep, but this was a perfunctory requirement. I knew the story of Easter and Christmas, but neither meant anything to me. I just liked the candy and wished for certain gifts. Anyway, the only scene in The Exorcist that freaked me out was when Linda Blair began to spout profanity and repeatedly “stabbed” herself with a crucifix. I wasn’t sure what to call the cross with Jesus on it. I do not think I really understood what it was. While I  did have an understanding of human genitalia, I obviously did not fully grasp it.

What is she doing?

Why isn’t she dead?

“Is that the same kid?”

What is that she is stabbing herself with?

“How can she spin her head all the way around?” 

“Is it making the furniture move?”

I do not remember my father answering any of my questions. I do know that he was very quiet for the entirety of movie. As per usual he left the car a couple of times. Was he going to use a bathroom? He seemed like a zombie throughout both screenings.

"The most terrifying event in the history of mankind is about to occur!" Beyond The Door 1974

“The most terrifying event in the history of mankind is about to occur!”
Beyond The Door
1974

I remember thinking he was asleep during Beyond The Door. But he wasn’t snoring and when I poked him he turned to me and said I needed to shut up and leave him alone. The only thing I recall about Beyond The Door is the poster. I did think it looked promising. It still amuses me as an adult. The poster that is. I think the scariest aspect these two movies at that time was the music used in both and the way my father was acting throughout each of them. From an adult perspective the latter was easily the more worrying concern. And I do recall that it was a creepy drive home. It must have been because I still remember it so well.

My world began to open around this time. I had long been attempting to assert my own tastes, but it was 1975  I began to embrace mainstream culture as my own. When my older cousin introduced me to Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Grand Funk — I loved what I heard. It was at this time that the idea of a band being called Grand Funk seemed so grown-up and cool. I know it wasn’t a new song at the time, but I took great pride when I selected this single as my father purchased a Willie Nelson album. Upon reflection his purchase was wiser, but I still enjoy the groove of Grand Funk’s take on The Loco-Motion.

"Everybody's doing a brand-new dance, now..." My first cool 45 rpm single! The Loco Motion Grand Funk, 1974

“Everybody’s doing a brand-new dance, now…”
My first 45 rpm single!
The Loco Motion
Grand Funk, 1974

My mother liked popular music and she was already leaning into what seems like disco. I liked that stuff as well. I don’t know if it was actually called disco, but ABBA and The O’Jays seemed cool to me. Though, when I compared LP or 8-Track Tape covers, ABBA, The O’Jays and The Captain & Tennille did not look or sound nearly as cool as Grand Funk, Led Zeppelin or The Who.

Our neighbor had a daughter who was 4 years my senior. I thought her the ultimate in cool for a long time. I drove her crazy, but I suspect I also made her feel important. She would “borrow” record albums from her older siblings. One afternoon I was boasting of owning the Grand Funk single when she told me to wait a few minutes. She left me leaning on a tree, but she returned with an album that totally zapped me into a whole new universe.

"It's only teenage wasteland." The Who Who's Next? 1971

“It’s only teenage wasteland.”
The Who
Who’s Next? 1971

 

Who’s Next sounded completely alien to anything I had ever heard at that point. The music felt like hard rock but it had a booming sort of wired sound. The lead singer sang as if every lyric meant everything to him. And the cover seemed so “dirty” that I agreed with my neighbor.

The Who were far cooler than Grand Funk. In fact they were even cooler than Queen who I had only just discovered. It would be a while before I actually owned the Who’s Next album.

 

"Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters..." Queen Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975

“Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters…”
Queen
Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975

It was also my cool neighbor who saw Tommy on its opening night. She explained the movie to me scene by scene. I was mesmerized by the idea of Elton John in giant shoes, a TV that spewed Pork & Beans and Tina Turner injecting Tommy with new blood.

(this was how she explained it)

I put my campaign to see Tommy into full running force. It was literally all I talked about when I was around my family unit. My father ignored me. My mother begged me to stop. My Grandmother said that she would take me if only my mother would allow her. (Um, my Grandmother’s comment was not true. She just liked to blame all bad things on my poor, confused and often unplugged mother)

The following weekend after my 12 year old neighbor had laid out the entire plot of Tommy I found myself alone in the car at the Drive-In.

When my father returned to the car he handed me a soda. I had been plugging away with my “I must see Tommy!” assault. I started into it again as the previews began.

That is not the kind of movie that a son of mine should see!

A different kind of X... Iisa: She Wolf of the SS 1975

A different kind of X…
Iisa: She Wolf of the SS
1975

 

 

Cue the first reel of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. I was not frightened by what I saw but I was most certainly shocked. I am not positive that this was an X-rated movie, but it should have been. I had seen violent films, but this one took things to a whole new level. I knew more about Nazis than a crucifix. Nazis were more than just bad, they were evil. And Ilsa was really bad!

I should point out that I have never been able to look away from anything on a screen once a scene starts. I am compelled to watch.

I would not have known the words “fetish” or “grindhouse” but this was most certainly Nazi Torture Porn playing to the lowest human denominator. I don’t know, maybe it would seem camp to me now, but back then I was shocked. I’ve avoided ever seeing this movie again.

My father’s eyes never left the screen except for when he would leave the car. It is probably better that I never figured out what he was doing when he left our car. But he was once again like a zombie. I remember thinking that I should point out that I didn’t think Tommy was as dirty as Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS but my gut warned me not to speak as we drove home.

 

You know, I'd swear her copy was on an orange tape... "Well you came and you gave without taking." Barry Manilow II

You know, I’d swear her copy was on an orange tape…
“Well you came and you gave without taking.”
Barry Manilow II

 

By this time Tommy had been playing for close to 3 weeks. It was a hit. Back then movies seldom played in my town for more than two weeks. It had been held over for 4 weeks!  My mother was wearing down. She agreed to buy me the soundtrack album – a 2 LP set with a gate fold cover!!!

We drove to a record store. I roamed all over looking for my 2 LP set. I was having no luck. Mom approached carrying her planned purchase: an 8 Track Tape of a Barry Manilow album that contained a song she liked. She consulted with the guy at the counter: they only had the Tommy soundtrack on 8 Track Tape. That was not going to work. I had to have the album in LP format with the gate fold art!

 

Inside the gate fold... TOMMY: The Movie Soundtrack, 1975

Inside the gate fold…
TOMMY: The Movie Soundtrack, 1975

 

Exasperated she called me a spoiled brat, bought her tape and didn’t speak to me until Barry had finished crooning “Mandy” which amazingly was not broken apart by one of the 4 channels of the tape. (8-Track-Tapes were really strange!)

We were already almost home when she told me that we would go to the mall the next day if I would stop talking about the movie.

Maybe I was a spoiled brat. I told her that she had to take me to get the record and that I couldn’t stop talking about the movie unless she took me to see it.  She gave in and turned the car around bound for K-Mart. They had the album. At least the first part of the battle was won!

"Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste." Don Johnson and his talking dog A Boy and His Dog L.Q. Jones, 1975 Cinematography | John Arthur Morrill

“Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.”
Don Johnson and his talking dog
A Boy and His Dog
L.Q. Jones, 1975
Cinematography | John Arthur Morrill

 

I was not taken to see Benji like my other friends. For that matter I didn’t get to see The Apple Dumpling Gang. However I was always the coolest kid at school because I got to see the movies that the other kids could only think about! The downside was that some of these movies were simply unknown to the other kids and I couldn’t even articulate what I had seen. I did get to see a movie that featured a cute dog, but  A Man and His Dog was one of those movies that made no sense to my child brain. I had a hard time following this film. My father did point something out to me what I didn’t catch on my own: the boy and his dog ate the girl.

The second feature on this double bill was the only movie that actually upset me:  The Last House on the Left.

I should have been too young to understand much of what was going down on the screen, but this time I did understand. As per usual, my father was dazed out — but this time I was terrified.

I do not remember the ride home. It would take me a couple of decades to revisit Wes Craven’s notorious film.

 

"I thought you were supposed to be the love generation." The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

“I thought you were supposed to be the love generation.”
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

It would be a long time before I made any connection to why Tommy and the respective soundtrack album resonated so deeply for me. It was all I listened to at this time in my life. I loved side 2 on record 1 the most. By this time we were headed to summer. It was getting really hot. My father took me to a twin cinema instead of the Drive-In. We saw Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.

Yet another film I failed to understand. It is funny thinking back to this as Shampoo a movie with which I’ve had to spend a good deal of time. I love it now, but at 8 years old I just wanted to be sure I understood what a “cock” was and why did the pretty lady want to suck one. My question caused a spasm of laughter throughout the cinema. It also led to a well-intentioned woman attempting to lecture my father for having taken a “little boy” to “such a movie.”

What is that and why does she want to suck it? Julie Christie and Warren Beatty Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975 Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

What is that and why does she want to suck it?
Julie Christie and Warren Beatty
Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975
Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

He had to stop and let her correct him. He was a polite, “Well Lady, you are here seeing it so I guess it can’t be that bad?

As for me I had moved to the other side of the cinema’s lobby. I was studying the poster for movie that was playing in Cinema One. The strange doubled image of Roger Daltrey wearing the Blind Deaf & Dumb contraption was like a beacon to me. I could hear Jack Nicholson attempting to sing as I looked. Before we had even reached the car I was advised I would not be seeing “that fucking movie!

Just two days before it closed I did get to see Tommy.

"Gather your wits and hold on fast, Your mind must learn to roam." Tina Turner is The Acid Queen TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Gather your wits and hold on fast,
Your mind must learn to roam.”
Tina Turner is The Acid Queen
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

Drugs as a way to escape the pain. "I'll tear your soul apart..." Roger Daltrey TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Drugs as a way to escape the pain.
“I’ll tear your soul apart…”
Roger Daltrey
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

The coolest platform shoes on record... Elton John is The Pinball Wizard TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

The coolest platform shoes on record…
Elton John is The Pinball Wizard
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

Tommy studies his splintered selves as his mother worries and his step father calculates things to his advantage. Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey and Oliver Reed TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Tommy studies his splintered selves as his mother worries and his step father calculates things to his advantage.
Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey and Oliver Reed
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I finally got to see the movie thanks to my mother. I didn’t really understand all that I saw.

Why was his mother working with all those women? What is a “Holiday Camp?” Is that like a Marilyn Monroe church? Why is Tina Turner taking out blood and shooting more in? What is a “Pinball Wizard” anyway? Why do all those people want to be “Blind, Deaf and Dumb?”

I did understand a couple of things. I understood that Tommy was trapped. I understood that he was trying to escape pain. I understood what Uncle Ernie was doing — and I was relieved it was treated comically. Interestingly, I did not  connect the film to myself. That understanding would dawn much later.  But the great music, camera work and consistently strange set designs took hold of me from first image and sound until the end credit cards hit the screen.

Tommy was completely unique to anything I had ever seen. The same was true for the rest of the audience.

Even in a small Texas town, the kids were totally into what Ken Russell was showing. My neighbor pointed out that her boyfriend had gotten stoned and watched it four times. I wasn’t sure I understood what she was talking about, but there was a strange aroma coming from a few odd cigarettes being shared in the audience.

But all of this aside, it is interesting how strongly this move held me in its grip. This was my Star Wars. This film was speaking to me.

"It out-Tommy's TOMMY!" Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975

“It out-Tommy’s TOMMY!”
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975

 

Not too long after I finally saw Tommy, my father took me to another movie. There was a big movie theatre in our town to which we seldom went. It was not in the best part of our town though it was fairly close to the college. It tended to get older movies that were probably too sophisticated for my father’s taste. He would end up taking me to see three movies there. The first movie we saw there was in 1975. The other two we would see there would be during the period my parents were divorced. Those two movies were also wildly inappropriate for a child to see: Dressed To Kill and Cruising.

But in 1975 my father was swayed to another rock musical staring The Who’s Roger Daltrey: Lisztomania.

 

Franz Liszt becomes "inspired." Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Franz Liszt becomes “inspired.”
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

 

The reason he was swayed? A Playboy Magazine pictorial promoting the movie as an erotic filled fantasy. Of course this would propel my father to take his 8 year old child to see it. I was thrilled and excited to see Lisztomania. I was already becoming a bit of cinephile. I recognized Ken Russell’s name. I saw that the movie poster referenced Tommy. And I also recognized Ringo Starr and Rick Wakemans’ names.

 

Ringo Starr is The Pope Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Ringo Starr is The Pope
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

 

I doubt I would have even known about this movie if my father had not taken me to see it. I had seen the soundtrack LP, but had not been able to get near enough to understand what it was. I had recognized Roger Daltrey on its cover, but I don’t think I was aware that it was a movie soundtrack.

"The Soundtrack Album of the Ken Russell Film" Lisztomania 1975

“The Soundtrack Album of the Ken Russell Film”
Lisztomania
1975

I used to study the movie section of the city newspaper. I remember that Lisztomania closed after 3 days. I didn’t understand it was based on historical facts. I had not heard of Franz Liszt. I knew of the Pope, but I didn’t really understand what he did. I was fascinated by the film’s visuals and the strange mix of music. I knew who Hitler was, but I didn’t understand why he showed up. The whole movie was like a dirty cartoon. I loved it. And I wanted Roger Daltrey’s boots.

As we left the theater my father was not zombie like at all. He was annoyed. I tried to ask him some questions, but all he wanted to do was complain about “hippie bullshit” and that there “was no sexy stuff” in it. As he drove onto the highway I did ask him something that was bothering me:

Why was it OK for me to see that but not OK for me to see Tommy?

To my surprise he actually answered me.

I didn’t want to see Tommy.

"That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball." Elton John TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.”
Elton John
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

I owe my knowledge and love of cinema to my father, but it was at this moment that I realized it was never about me. These were not movies we were seeing together — these were movies he wanted to see and I was being taken along for the ride. Ten years later he asked me to go to Houston with him to see a movie. I agreed. Turned out it was a foreign film I had wanted to see. He slept through the entire film. I found it somehow touching that he was attempting to somehow connect with me by taking me to see a movie I wanted to see. As we left the cinema I was about to thank him when it turned out we were actually in Houston so he could meet up with a seller regarding some guns he wanted to buy. I was needed to load the car and figured a movie was a good way to kill time and avoid rush hour traffic.

Glad you wanted to see it, though. I didn’t much care for it.

Perhaps I owe more credit to my love of film and my endless pursuit to understand the whole “picture” to Ken Russell. It was Lisztomania that propelled me to look into classical music and history. Tommy had also led me to find more of his films once the age of VHS began. I read interviews with Mr. Russell that pointed me toward other filmmakers like John Ford, Nicolas Roeg and others. But I would have never been connected to the world of movies had it not been for my insane father.

Do you think it's alright? Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret search for saving grace... TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Do you think it’s alright?
Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret search for saving grace…
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I destroyed the last of my journals yesterday. As I watched them denigrate I was brought back to the moment I flushed the disappointment of Sea Monkeys away. After the water had pushed the brine shrimp from my life, I took the empty pickle jar for a walk past our back yard. I raced down and up the other side of the ditch to the railroad tracks. I sat the pickle jar on a track. I ran down and back up to return to our side of the ditch. I crouched down and waited for the train. When is sped by the pickle jar was smashed into thousands of glass pieces.

A dream was crushed that would require me to wear my flip-flops instead of going barefoot for a long while.  The promise of Sea Monkeys was hollow, but the idea of them was still pretty fucking cool.

Matty Stanfield, 5.21.2016

You may not not fully recognize Memorex’s slogan or Steve Steigman’s iconic photograph unless you were born before 1978. Memorex Tapes were challenging listeners’ ability to judge between live performance and recordings of something that was once a live performance.

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.  Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.
Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is gained sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. That doesn’t mean that a 7 year old will  trust his mother when she tells him there are no such things as monsters.  It also doesn’t mean that the child’s mother might not be able to fight the need to look in her own closet or under her own bed from time to time. The concept of “monster” changes as we grow into adulthood.  Mom and Dad know there are no monsters in the house, life’s brutal truths leaves us all with a vague uncertainty about what potentially could be hiding under our beds. The mind’s perceptions related to “truth” and “false” are constantly shifting. Movies constantly challenge our process of thought.

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?  Jaws, Steven Spielberg Cinematography | Bill Butler

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?
Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Cinematography | Bill Butler

Logic tells us that being attacked and consumed by huge shark is not only highly unlikely, but close to impossible. Logic also refuses to let go of the very real horror that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws lodged deep within our collective consciousness. We know that Michael Myers is not in our house, but there will always be a vague worry that someone like him might not have followed us and now waits to attack us. Movies play an important role in life beyond entertainment. Film Art projects our hopes, dreams, fears and reality in deeply effective ways. Our ideas and certainties often find themselves being challenged by the Film Artist’s motivation. Whether the intent is to manipulate us into fear or to bend it to suspend them to accept fiction as fact or to force our attention on an idea in a whole new perceptive. Defining the art of documentary from the art of fictional film is often more difficult than can be easily articulated.

The Blair Witch Project played with the idea of turning “found footage” intended for a film student’s documentary into the horror film genre. In the years since Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 low-budget classic seeped first tripped many film viewer up at the cineplex, this idea is has been explored so much that it is increasingly hard to fool us. The Blair Witch Project has become a symbol of parody and a lingering source of cinematic inspiration. It is interesting how most refuse to admit how this 1999 movie has changed the experience of camping in the woods. Interestingly, the sounds of what could potentially be a very real threat of a bear has morphed into an idea of some paranormal demonic presence. It takes only a few seconds to push the irrational fear away so the we can focus on what could be a “real” concern.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

The power of a talented film director lies in his/her ability to utilize motivational intent to sculpt fiction into reality or reality into fiction to form a bridge toward “the truth” that leads the audience. It is not unusual for an artist to be somewhat fixated or even obsessed with one or maybe two core themes that runs his/her entire collected works. It is also not usual for an artist to approach a wide variety of themes by use of one particular style. What is rare is to discover an artist as self-aware of not only his work but what truly motivates him to pursue it. Werner Herzog never uses vague or opaque terminology when he discusses film. He is blunt in addressing questions related to his work and his opinion of the type of film art that appeals most to him.

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise.” – Werner Herzog

His interests revolve in the way humanity attempts to interact with nature which inevitably lead his audience to an idea that seems to bother many. The core idea is that nature’s beauty is deceptive. Herzog sees nature as a place of cruelty, chaos and danger. Despite this bleak view, he is a major advocate of saving it. But the most interesting aspect of Herzog’s work is that he loves exploring the perplexing ambition of humanity to bend nature to his needs and dreams. Werner Herzog loves dreamers and the pursuit of their dreams. These dreamer might take the form of a sociopathic warrior, an obsessive music fan, a drug addled cop, a brave soldier, a naive amateur environmentalist, or a vampire — These dreamers eventually must wake and face their irrelevance to “The Beast” of the earth’s natural power. Aside from the fact that Herzog has always expressed his logical views and awareness of the chaotic world of nature, he still fully relates to his flawed cinematic dreamers.

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982. Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Herzog seldom applies any trace of what I would call “style” — even his surrealist work is grounded in a very simple application of camera. Both Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are both amazingly beautiful and take full advantage of the surroundings in which his dreamers find themselves. But the camera work is economical and usually static. They both have the look of a documentary. Regarding the making of both these movies, Herzog and his team encountered more than a few major challenges. These challenges were often as dangerous and unbelievable as the stories themselves. Defining documentary as “truth” and narrative film as “fiction” restricts artist, subject and audience from understanding how to engage.

Herzog’s brilliant film is not a fictional film. It is based on the Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a 19th Century Peruvian rubber barron who managed to fight all odds and transport a 30 ton steamship across a treacherous isthmus (or strait of land) and then onwards from one challenging river to another. He and his team did this by dismantling the ship into pieces and reassembling it once destination was reached. This feat obviously caught Herzog’s imagination, but he had no problem in mixing fiction with truth. As  Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski conveys a passion that quickly turns into almost insane obsession. So strong is his love of opera that is determination knows no bounds in bringing that music to the culture in which he lives. The core of Fitzcarraldo is one man fighting any and all odds in pulling a 300 ton steamboat over an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea rivers. Herzog not only increased the boat by ten times the truth, but he had his protagonist achieve it without any dismantling.

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself  "Conquistador of the Useless"  The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.  Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”
The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Not only did Herzog, his dedicated crew, and the tribal Aguaruna people of the region have to join forces to make this happen they also had to deal with the insanity of Klaus Kinski while doing it. Herzog uses no special effects. He and his crew really pulled that huge boat up and over the mountain. Misunderstandings between cultures resulted in tribal members destroying camp sites. Frustrations and exhaustion created intense fits of rage. Friendships and cultural relations were pushed beyond well past acceptable boundaries. Mount all of this with the perspective that the tribal Aguaruna men so detested Klaus Kinski they wanted to kill him.

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.  Fitzcarraldo Werner Herzog, 1982 Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.
Fitzcarraldo
Werner Herzog, 1982
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Tragically, three of the six film artists on the boat as it crashed against the rapids were seriously injured. To be clear, Herzog was one of the six on the boat. Consistently honest and open to discussion, Herzog has stated that he used all tensions to the benefit of the energy we see in the film. All challenges were faced and ultimately met head-on. The result is one of the most interesting films of not only its era, but of all time. Even with 34+ years of time since, Herzog is still often in the position of defending his choices during the staggering production of the iconic movie.

The sheer beauty and idea of a man and his pursuit of a dream against all obstacles may not be new in “concept” but never has it been portrayed in such a painfully realistic way. How does one actually define “truth” and “fiction” when it comes to Fitzcarraldo?

The level of will, risks of danger and dedication required by the production is the stuff of legend. But this is legendary truth.  Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, is focused on Herzog making Fitzcarraldo is almost as interesting as the film itself. Les Blank captures The Artist grappling with not only incredible odds of completing production — it also captures Werner Herzog worn down past the point of exhaustion, but on the brink of re-thinknig his own personal identity to filmmaking, to nature and to life itself. It serves as a historic document of filmmaking. The distinction between “truth” and “fiction” are more clear in Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Or are they?

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

As Les Blank films the ever-mounting challenges, failures, tensions, fatigue and dangers involved in bringing Fitzcarroldo to the screen —  we are able to actually see how Herzog and all involved managed to do what we see in the film. However, there are moments in Blank’s documentary that make it all too clear that everyone knows they are being filmed. There is no escaping that in any documentary, but when you are filming artists at work some of what is said or how things are done take on a greater significance. This is especially true early on before everything begins to unravel beyond control. It is obvious that Klaus Kinski’s personal vision of reality has long been loosely defined.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Most interesting is the way we first see Herzog discussing his views of nature vs. Kinski’s attitude. Herzog loves to discuss ideas. So the content of what he tells Les Blank is all familiar. But to hear these ideas within the context of “where” he is both geographically and psychologically does not seem to fit. There is a most definite air of performance. It is only as Herzog’s determination, patience and passion began to collapse from tensions and exhaustion that Blank actually captures Herzog at his most self-aware and most distanced from the concept of Blank’s camera. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that,” he tells Blank. As the production gets closer to completion, Blank asks what he plans to do next. A surprising defeatist attitude comes forward: “I shouldn’t make movies anymore.”

Lucky for us that was exhaustion speaking. Herzog would go on. As he moves further into documentary filmmaking his artistic motivation remains consistent. Contrary to what many would like the audience to think, Herzog is not a cruel man. “Exploitation” is a problematic word when it comes to The Creative Arts. I do not feel Herzog “exploits” his subjects more than any other filmmaker. He does sometimes manipulate and approaches all subjects/topics in a distinct pursuit from the moment productions star though to the post-production editing and narration. Herzog bend and adjust the focus of the camera’s lens on reality so that it captures his motivational intent of showing us his personal “truth” — and that is not far from how fictional narratives are made.

I did entertain the idea of writing about these films in a chronological order, but when discussing the art of documentary vs. the art of Narrative Film — it just seems most natural to start with Herzog and then immediately turn to Errol Morris. While the motivational goals of both filmmakers are different, there is a very strong connection in the way both artists capture humanity and the many ways we either adapt or refuse to adapt to our environment and the others with whom we share it. It is also no secret that Werner Herzog played a key role in helping Errol Morris to stick with his vision and get his film completed. Herzog even stated that he would eat his own shoe if Morris would finish his movie. Ever true, Herzog ate his shoe in front of a full house at UC Berkeley forever captured in Les Blank’s Herzog Eats His Shoe.

In support of Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven.  Herzog Eats His Shoe Les Blank, 1980

In support of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven.
Herzog Eats His Shoe
Les Blank, 1980

It is challenging to think of an art form that is more collaboratively dependent than filmmaking. Every member of a film crew and crew is crucial to the outcome of each scene. And when the crew is minimal it often only enhances the need for collaborative unity in bringing all skills and talent together to meet the director’s vision. I’ve always thought of the director as an intensely driven orchestra conductor. The director must find ways to guide, motivate and gain the trust of everyone behind and in front of the camera(s). Some are better at this than others. I’ve noticed that the directors who most interest me tend to have the reputation of being more open to new ideas and feedback from his/her crew/cast but never never to the point of breaking away from  her/his artistic intent. I suspect it is a very fine art of balancing perspective to be open enough, but finding a way to close it without turning the other artists against him/her.

Over the years since Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris has evolved a system of documentary filmmaking that is efficient and effective. But no matter how his approach has changed, Morris cares about his subjects. They trust him as much as his crew. He consistently produces powerful and polished documentaries. As good as his current work is, he has never found a way back to the casual approach applied that created as magic or human as Gates of Heaven.

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.  Gates of Heaven Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.
Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematography | Ned Burgess

No matter how many times I watch Gates of Heaven — and I have watched it over and over ever since it came out on VHS — I always notice something new or I discover something deeper of myself hiding within it. As one of the pet owners attempts to needlessly defend grief, he says “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something. Didn’t it?” Over time, these people and their respective observations Errol Morris captured have consistently taken a deeper meaning for me. I’m not alone in that feeling.

Errol Morris had not yet fully grasped what would serve as his artistic motivation. In the mid-1970’s he only knew what he found interesting. The starting point seems to have been an article he read in the newspaper. Some sort of falling out between the owners of a small pet cemetery had led to the decision to sell the cemetery’s land to a corporate developer. While the soon-to-be former owners of the cemetery have found a way to remove the deceased animals and transfer them to another pet cemetery, the former pet owners were upset. This was the starting point of Errol Morris unforgettable feature debut. His starting point would lead him to unexpected discoveries that pulled him in a number of directions. It wasn’t until he sat down to edit the footage that he found his motivation: humanity.

Gates of Heaven was a true game-changer in the world of documentary filmmaking as well as to the general Art of Film. We now know that much of what Morris achieved was due to some lucky circumstances that seem to have not only inspired him but required him to come up with a way to get these people to actually talk with him. Gates of Heaven transcends beyond the typical ideology of “The Documentary Film” — the focus and tone are always changing as we watch. What appears to be a documentary about the reasons for the creation and demolition of one pet cemetery gradually appears to be leading us to the story of a new pet cemetery. As the “stories” develop his camera continually readjust “focus” to a wide variety of people who have some vested link.  Morris’ initial interviews with the first round of owners feels familiar but somehow “off” — These people open up to Morris, but it seems as if he is attempting to stage them. There is a long shot of his first subject sitting uncomfortably under a tree. The camera’s perspective is distant. But soon we notice a distinct change in the manner Morris approaches his subjects. With the gift of hindsight information we know that Errol Morris discovered that people are more open when you allow them to decide where they will be filmed. He also discovered that the best thing he could do was simply ask one question and just keep the camera rolling. As these people begin to try and form an answer to his question(s) they began to forget the presence of the camera. They are actually speaking to Errol Morris as a person. He loses the identity of a filmmaker. They trust him.

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

If you’re taking the time and attempting to read my ramblings — I’m confident that you’ve already seen Gates of Heaven at least once if not multiple times. The above screenshot is a classic example of Errol Morris’ technique. Sitting in his office surrounded by the objects that he most prizes, Phillip Halberts begins his infamous system for being an effective salesman. It is a truly funny scene of the movie. The key hers is that the viewer never loses sight of the fact that this guy is grappling with emotional and professional challenges that are all too familiar to any adult. We can’t help but giggle as he lists out his theory for success. But we can’t help but like him. Like nearly everyone featured in the movie, you find yourself wishing you could reach through the screen and offer some support.

"Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!"  Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematographer | Ned Burgess

“Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!”
Gates of Heaven,
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematographer |
Ned Burgess

The main point here is that Gates of Heaven is important, valid and ageless documentary. Gates of Heaven offers nothing in the areas of the political, environmental, social or ethical issue. Errol Morris found an entry point into the deepest concerns of humanity.  The only artistic motivation is focused down to exploring the deep need for connection, love and understanding. In the end, it has very little to do with the pets. It is about the humans who love them.

Albert and David Maysles began their careers firmly rooted in the idea that they were not really “Documentarians” — Both brothers were devoted to the idea of cinéma vérité or, more accurately, The Maysles Brothers viewed their films as “Direct Cinema.” In other words, their artistic motivation was to capture reality as it happened and then to turn it all around to question the validity of the “reality” captured. Direct Cinema doesn’t clearly define a boundary between the filmmaker and the situation/subject that is being filmed. Albert and David Maysles and their fellow collaborators had no problem if they became a part of the situation or developed a friendship or disdain with their subjects. The idea of “reality” is always in question when Direct Cinema technique is applied. Direct Cinema film artists welcome confusing concepts of reality. But it is fairly well documented that neither of The Maysles had any idea that their interest in Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie would become a cinematic and cultural milestone.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, "...you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what."  Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles& David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, “…you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that they both found themselves caring about these two women. It would be challenging to touch on all of the aspects of culture and film that Grey Gardens influenced. Too strange and intense to match the easy-access of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven that would follow over three years later. Grey Gardens became a cult hit that slow-burned itself into the cultural thumbprint of America.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale / “Big Edie” and  Edith Bouvier Beale / “Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At one time these two women were major players in the world of wealth and influence.

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can't forget Little Edie.  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can’t forget Little Edie.
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

But by the mid-1960’s they had officially slipped into an isolated world. They had already been living in the grand home for decades and labeled as “Crazy Recluses” for quite a while. Despite being supposedly well-monied, Big & Little Edie lived on limited funds for decades. The once stunning home officially named Grey Gardens in the 1920’s  began to fall into decay. By 1971 the wealthy residents who lived near the estate began to file official complaints. They were living without running water, tons of garbage, a slew of cats as well as wild feral animals. Grey Gardens had become more than a somewhat hidden eye sore, it was officially a health hazard. They attracted unwanted attention from the media due to their connection to The Kennedy Family just before their County Health Department was about to condemn the property and evict both women. The media speculation was so intense that both Jackie Kennedy and her sister paid for the entire clean-up and repair of the house. Neither ever seemed to ever get over what they considered an attack by the media, but it Little Edie who seemed to be the most plagued with fear and paranoia.

Little Edie wearing 'the best costume for the day' and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

Little Edie wearing ‘the best costume for the day’ and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

It has never been clear to me how The Maysles Brothers secured Big and Little Edies’ permission to film them, but they did. And the method of Direct Cinema for documentary gave these two amazing but deeply eccentric women the opportunity to freely share their history and opinions to the camera. Grey Gardens is profound in the way it captures the on-going love/hate shared between mother and daughter.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too in life.” Little Edie casually points out.
“Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” Big Edie responds with pointed glee.

At turns hilarious, disturbing, haunting, sad, grotesque — it is impossible to not love these two women. And while both take deep joy in “hamming” it up for the Maysles cameras — the film captures devastating moments of self-awareness, regret and longing that grip the audience so tight it can never let go or forget the movie. While the film is certainly a documentary, it is also just as certainly confused about what is “true” and what is “fiction” — Grey Gardens is a mysterious film that is unrelenting in confusing “reality” with “distorted truth” and often the deception of “memory” tinged with the need to “alter” truths — not for the audience but for these two women. It is a complex, fragile and beautiful film that refuses to tell us the truth.

European and Asian countries have specific eras of like-minded film artist who have created films at the same time that have resulted in what are easily identified as cinematic waves.

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,  François Truffaut, 1959. Cinematography | Henri Decaë

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,
François Truffaut, 1959.
Cinematography | Henri Decaë

I’m unaware of any such occurrence in American Cinema. Aside from the Golden Era of Hollywood, I’m hard pressed to think of any American “waves” — our culture is too young and diverse. Once the old-school Hollywood studio system fell away there was a whole new generation of almost maverick-like filmmakers. But it seems that there was no singular shared voice at the same time. There was certainly a revolutionary shift in cinematic art starting in the mid 1960’s, but typically the American Film Artist tends to be somewhat of a loner. There are two American filmmakers and one American film that I want to highlight briefly because all three touch directly on depicting fictionalized reality or fictional narrative within an almost documentary-like approach. These two American Film Artists created two unique styles with two very different artistic motivations. And, then there is one film that really stands out and remains entrenched in my brain.

I don’t think anyone filmmaker can be named as “the best” or “the most influential” — art is far too subjective for that level of claim. That being said, the work left by Robert Altman is as relevant, interesting, provocative, experimental, unique and experimental today as it must have been when it was released. Some of his films fail. A few seem to get anchored in a sort of drug’d haze that alienates the viewer. But he made more than a couple of films which are true cinematic masterpieces. And when it comes to mixing ideas around reality with fiction, he was undisputedly a genius.

Largely credited with  reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

Largely credited with reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

In this sense the key work is 1975’s Nashville. It is essentially an epic study of American culture just before it hit it’s 200th birthday. While it might seem odd that he chose to capture a snapshot of America via The Nashville Music Industry, it was incredibly clever. Like most of Altman’s 1970’s work, all the actors are mic’d.  Unlike Altman’s prior work the actors are usually in filled spaces with non-actors.  Only a very select few of the actors actually knew when one of Paul Lohmann’s cameras are focused on them. They had lines, but were free to “riff” or alter lines if it felt more believable to do so. Those actors who were playing musicians or actual County & Western Stars were required to write or co-write their songs as wall as to play/sing them. And, as Altman was constantly changing ideas or re-writing scenes, it is my understanding that no one had a full screenplay of the film while it was being shot.

Long before we had access to cyber "search engines" like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a "real" Nashville TV reporter.  Nashville, Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Long before we had access to cyber “search engines” like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a “real” Nashville TV reporter.
Nashville,
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

When combined with Altman’s grim view of the state of American culture and it’s ever-growing obsession with fame — Altman was taking a big risk. Nashville could have easily been a meandering mess. Instead it is a darkly funny, insightful and disturbing film. Nashville does meander, but all of the subplots and characters are slowly working their way to a conclusion which remains a topic of controversy within the world of celebrity. Not that entities such as The Academy Awards should ever be given the level of ultimate cinematic valuation that it is often allowed, but it is likely the disquieting view of both “celebrity” and American culture which prevented Nashville from being honored as 1975’s best film.

As Altman’s cast intermingles with valid country musicians, non-actors and actors playing versions of themselves — this fictional film takes on a vibe that feels real. Nashville is filled with awkward, comic and disturbing moments inter-laced to create an uneasy tension. We forget that it is Laugh-In’s Lily Tomlin struggling with her duties as a wife, mother, desires and self-identity within cultural and societal pressures. When she allows herself to be seduced we are surprised in the discovery that she not only fully understands the Keith Carradine’s hollow vacancy, she is not bothered by it. The womanizing soon-to-be major recording artist seems as shocked as we are when this “truth” is passively revealed. “Tom” croons that he is “easy” but he is actually very difficult. It is here that Robert Altman and three actors push fictional moments into the realm of painful reality. This points to one of the many key reasons Nashville is so powerful. Altman films his epic like a documentary. It is an essential film and a classic example fiction merging into deeper truth than the viewer anticipates. The suspension of disbelief is not really so much as an audience choice but a clever manipulation to force it.  From the most superficial to the deepest core, Nashville is disconcertingly real.

Lily Tomlin's comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not 'easy' in Nashville, Robert Altman.  Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Lily Tomlin’s comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not ‘easy’ in Nashville, Robert Altman.
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

No one filmmaker has ever been better at blurring the lines of reality and fiction than John Cassavetes. It is my opinion that all true lovers of cinematic art holds at least one Cassavetes movie close to the heart. A Woman Under The Influence is the best example of a filmmaker’s motivation applied in what appears to be either a very loose improvisation of reality or an obscure documentary of a family in crisis. With hindsight we know that nothing about this film was improvised or real, but a viewer would have to be truly emotionally stunted not to find her/himself challenging those facts as this movie unspools. Gena Rowlands has earned a unique place within the world of cinematic acting — and, when carefully studied, it is impossible to name any actor or actress who displays such effective naturalized performance. I view that statement as fact. Rowlands has charisma, presence, natural grace, impossible beauty and an ability to merge identities into characters like no other. For 135 minutes, Gina Rowlands is Mabel and Mabel is Gina Rowlands.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..."  Gena Rowlands A Woman Under The Influence John Cassavetes, 1974.

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under The Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974.

In A Woman Under The Influence Cassavetes artistically approaches everything as simply and as minimally as possible. Rowland’s Mabel is car wreck waiting to happen. The late and criminally underrated, Peter Falk, is equally realistic Mabel’s confused and helpless husband. As Mabel’s emotional grounding becomes shakier with each passing moment, Peter Falk tackles the issue from every perspective he can find. When he turns to the equivalent of domestic abuse we are so unsettled that we barely have time to recover before their children jump in to protect their mom. When Mabel finally breaks, it is disorienting to determine if it Mabel or Rowlands having a nervous breakdown. The complexity and fragility of mental illness is almost too realistically articulated. It is terrifying to watch. Without any frame of context, Cassavetes’ cinéma vérité style could easily mistaken for a 1970’s documentary of a family coping and functioning through crisis. John Cassavetes was always very clear regarding his artistic motivation. His goal was to capture real love in film. It is at the heart of every film he ever made. He had no interest in vasolined-screened mush. He sought out the realities of love. His muse was his wife. Together, he almost always hit his mark. As dark and disturbing as A Woman gets, there are two things we know about Mabel and her husband: they are in love and they have each other’s backs no matter what challenges come their way.

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?  A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.  Cinematography | Al Ruban

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?
A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.
Cinematography | Al Ruban

Many cinephiles of my generation or older feel that the levels of Film Art which which these artists’ reached is no longer possible. This opinion is not true. A number of current film artists are even more strident in applying individual motivations which artistically merge truth with fiction than ever before. Independent Filmmaking has never been easy. Technology has provided tools and platforms that potentially allow anyone to make a movie. Too many movies are being made for film festivals to fairly evaluate what films get on their screens. And Film Critics are finding it impossible to actually review the number of films that manage to get distributed. he challenges of getting worthy art shown and distributed has never been harder. There are too many movies being made. And because anyone can make them it is a challenge to determine which independently funded films are worth the time to watch. Esteemed New York Times Film Critic, A.O. Scott sendt an email to Variety this year stating, “Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases.” It is not hard to understand why The Times had to make this decision, but it doesn’t minimize the impact. A review from The New York Times can “make” or “break” a film artist’s career.

Looking at the challenge from another perspective,  I’ve never seen film artists approach a challenge with this creativity, tenacity, energy and devotion.  Unlike the late ’80’s/’90’s, the artist’s who seem to really succeed are the most devoted to their art. I find the drive and work of these new filmmakers incredibly powerful. I’m not a film critic. I just love cinema. But like many of my friends I had started to feel sad about the state of American Film in the year that actually gave us some amazing film. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Ed Wood, Red, Muriel’s Wedding, Chungking Express and even Oliver Stone’s admittedly questionable but highly experimental Natural Born Killers — all came out in 1994. But in 1994 I started to note a shift in many of my peers perspective regarding films. This next remark is likely to earn me a number of angry emails, but I loathed Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Interview with a Vampire and The Lion King. It was around this time that my closest friends begin to tell me I was a “movie snob”

"Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!" or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994

“Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!” or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994

Skip forward a decade and I actually was afraid to tell people that I detested Paul Haggis’ Crash. I can remember a friend not speaking to me for over a year because of my opinion. This is particularly interesting because I’m not an aggressive person when it comes to my opinions. I have them, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Sometimes I’m surprised when even one person agrees with me. So, I knew this movie was really a “hot” topic for white people. When I said that Haggis might be well-intentioned but the whole movie was so ham-fisted and too simplistic in resolutions that I felt insulted. I had a similar reaction when Jonathan Demme made Philadelphia over eleven years earlier. But in 1993 my “crowd” more or less agreed with me — or were at least willing to admit to the painfully “black and white” approach to only partially-formed characters. By the time every major film critic and the Academy Awards chose Thomas Langmann’s The Artist, which I hated, 2011’s best film, I seldom ventured to the cinema. The movies that were interesting me were harder to see on the screen. My two personal favorite films of 2011 were Steve McQueen’s Shame, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I was able to see two of these films on the big screen.

Living in San Francisco I was surprised when I was unaware of it having played here. I had to wait for it on blu-ray. When I suggested each of these movies to friends in West Virginia and Ohio, neither were able to find them screening in their areas. Interestingly, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life screened in their areas. Maybe I was hoping for too much as I entered The Sundance Kabuki Cinema to watch Malick’s film. I’m not sure. I was entranced by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, but I was never actually engaged by the film itself. Both of these friends contacted me after they had seen it. They were excited and loved Tree of Life, but as I discussed it with each of them — I discovered that neither understood what they had seen. The fact that I found myself explaining it twice to two very intelligent people confirmed my assessment of the movie. My two pals were claiming to like the movie because so many of the critics liked it.

This can't be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be  Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001. Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

This can’t be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be
Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001.
Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

In my spare time, I’ve worked for film festivals. I’ve even served on the board of one that has become fairly influential. It was involvement with a Film Festival that offered me the opportunity to see two films before they had secured distribution and were released. The first was Joe Maggio’s Virgil Bliss starring Clint Jordan as the title character. I was hooked from the beginning to the end. Maggio’s film was a lo-fi character study of a recently paroled criminal who desperately wants to secure a stable life. I had never seen Clint Jordan play a character this complex. It didn’t even feel like I was watching a movie so much as some profane transmission from reality’s grimmest corner. A couple of years later I would see Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, a brutally realistic story of parenting and addiction which featured an unforgettable Vera Farmiga. Granik and Farmiga pulled me into this horrifying world. Both of these films were intensely intimate and painfully “real” — I will never forget them. They did secure distribution but largely thanks to the DVD and streaming markets.

Vera Farmiga's performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004. Cinematography | Michael McDonough

Vera Farmiga’s performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004.
Cinematography | Michael McDonough

And, then I started hearing about Mumblecore. A term I still dislike as it seems more than a little pejorative. Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig were the first of the “Mumblecore Movement” I saw. Both of these artist are naturalistic actors, but most importantly they are filmmakers who have disarming ways of presenting intimate and relatable characters that often feel so real that you find yourself squirming in your seat. Early on the co-wrote and co-directed Night and Weekends. With no budget and a non-apologetic manner of presenting themselves as actors, their movie challenges the audience in determining which of the two characters are more vested in this relationship. When the two lovers eagerly disrobe and have sex, the absence of any pretense of eroticism and the immediacy of the two characters’ mutual desire makes the audience feel like ashamed. It is as if we are voyeuristically looking at something private. At some point, it is impossible to discern these two filmmakers from the characters that they are playing. Insightful, sad and real — The movie refuses to be dismissed. The same goes with Joe Swanberg’s previous film staring Gerwig, Hannah Takes The Stairs.

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends, Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008. Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends,
Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008.
Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

Both Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg have pursued their artistic goals with a vengeance. Not to be conceived as a criticism, but Gerwig seems more comfortable in moving in the higher powered/monied productions of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen. Whether that is luck or successful networking, Greta Gerwig has firmly established herself as a unique actor and filmmaker. It would be impossible not to mention the work of Mark and Jay Duplass who have both managed to move comfortably into mainstream without selling out. The same is true for Lynn Shelton who has achieved a great deal of success. Ti West has also found a great deal of success in the horror genre. Michael Tully is another to emerge as a truly riveting filmmaker. Also of note are the works of Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and Onur Tukel within the realms of comedy. Amy Seimetz is another incredibly amazing actor who has thus far made one film, Sun Don’t Shine, which was one of the best films of 2013. Aside from Seimetz’s skill as an actor, Kate Lyn Sheil is probably the second most valuable player as an actress.

Joe Swanberg’s interests in film seem to be more committed to remaining the chief architect of his work. His talent and skill are unquestionable, but it wasn’t until he was able to collaborate with Kent Osborne and make Uncle Kent that his strength was crystal clear. Osborne is well established in the world of animated film art. In Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Kent Osborne is playing a version of himself which leaves a great deal of mystery for the audience. We have no way of knowing when we are seeing “truth” in fuzzy sort of staged way or in a sort of re-enactment. Osborne is so believable in this film that it is more than a little difficult to know if this is made up or a very slanted manipulation of reality. Either way, the film works incredibly well. Swanberg does not deviate from his deceptively loose and slow pacing. In Uncle Kent we see a successful LA Film Artist who, through a series of increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness, must come to grips with the fact that not only is he getting older — he is now finding it difficult to fit in and relate to the friends who populate his world. And his world appears to be made up of working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoons, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Online Roulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hanging out with friends ten years his junior.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

It is an entertaining but precisely executed examination of the formation of what will likely be a tough mid-life crisis. Another aspect of Uncle Kent that adds a great deal is the contributions of both fellow filmmakers and actors, Jennifer Prediger and Josephine Decker. Prediger plays Kate with a mix of humor and sadness. It is a surprisingly complex performance that catches the audience off-guard. She must be acting, but it never feels like acting. When Josephine Decker enters the film she brings a level of energy that Swanberg is able to use as a major catalyst for Kent. As most of us know, the erotic idea of a three-way usually quickly dissolves into awkwardness in which usually only two of three finds any real erotic pleasure. A three way is exciting in concept, but when placed into theory it is most often an unenjoyable realization of interpersonal dynamics that are better off unexplored. This is certainly the case in Swanberg’s three-way scene. It is a powerful moment in a surprisingly potent movie.

It is important to note that Jennifer Prediger has gone to make her own mark as a filmmaker collaborating with Jess Weixler to create the quirky, funny and unique look at friendship, Apartment Problems (or known to some as Trouble Dolls)  Actually, The Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky are not the only artists to find success. Meanwhile Josephine Decker continues to act, perform and create in various challenging and interesting projects. But most importantly Decker has recently made two vitally important films as both director and writer. Both of her directorial feature length films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely are truly essential films Decker’s path as Film Artist seems to be headed toward a more experimental direction. Josephine Decker is an important Film Artist that I suspect will be leading us in some very interesting directions. With her second film, she actually surpassed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which was my favorite film of 2013.  Another independent filmmaker to note is Patrick Brice whose recent collaboration with Mark Duplass, Creep, re-examines the ideas of “found footage” and “documentary” to amazing effect.

It's creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

It’s creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

In 80 minutes Brice/Duplass manage to deliver a movie that elevates the horror genre both intellectually and emotionally. On the surface, Creep is fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely does.

I was a little late in learning about Kentucker Audley. A friend in NYC sent me a DVD of his first feature length film, Team Picture. Perhaps more than any of the other filmmakers to emerge under the term “Mumblecore”,  Audley shines out as the boldest Film Artist. Much like Herzog, Audley is very open about his motivation regarding filmmaking. He has described his approach as being almost autobiographical documentary. It is and it most likely isn’t. The vital importance of Team Picture is the almost lazy feeling Audley applies as the minimal story unfolds. After only about five minutes into this movie, you can sense that Audley is far more schooled in the art of film than his film wants to show. A quiet film, Kentucker Audley plays David. David should be in college or seriously pursuing a career. Instead he is happy just to hang out with friends, strum his guitar and sit outside be the kiddie pool he uses to cool off in the summer sun. Despite the slow pace and drifting conversations, there is an odd pulse at play with Team Picture.

"I guess you don't need any help with anything. That's cool." The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture, Kentucker Audley, 2007 Cinematography | Timothy Morton

“I guess you don’t need any help with anything. That’s cool.” The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture,
Kentucker Audley, 2007
Cinematography | Timothy Morton

When Audley’s David decides to move on to another town it seems without any clear direction or purpose. However, we gain a gradual perspective into David’s life that reveals a childhood that offered him no clear paths to bonding with a male figure as well as a distinct level of confusion regarding his identity. A creeping sense that David’s environment and childhood have almost set him up. His expectations in life are muted. He is not a team player, but he has a confused need to somehow fit into the team if only for the purpose of momentary capture of belonging to something. Of the recent films to achieve a realism that feels more “true” than “fiction” — this might be the most powerful film.

In addition to being an important voice in modern film, Audley is an exceptional effective actor. I suspect his acting roles are how he funds his filmmaking work. But he will soon be seen in two important independent films: Jason Banker’s Felt and Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny. Audley has also positioned himself as vital member of the American Independent Film Artist World with his passionate approach to protecting the rights of individuality in Film Art with the creation of the user-friendly web site, NoBudge. He accepts submissions from indie-filmmakers and curates them on the site for free viewing and feedback. These are both feature-length and short films that might not hold the “commercial” accessibility required for film festivals and the increasingly powerful role of Aggregators to negotiate for independent films to be available for purchase/rental on digital media sites such as iTunes or AmazonPrime. But that certainly does not mean that they have a great deal to offer.

Check out NoBudge: http://nobudge.com

It was on Audley’s NoBudge site that I “discovered” Brandon Colvin. Colvin’s Sabbatical is a beautifully-rendered exploration of a man in crisis that adheres rigidly to Formalist Style. Colvin not only succeeds, he exceeds what one expects to find in a low budget film. Nothing about Sabbatical looks low budget. Sadly, Brandon Colvin’s masterful film is failing to secure distribution and an aggregator because Sabbatical does not “fit” or “conform” to the current ideas around what is commercial and what isn’t.

You can find out more about Sabbatical which also stars Robert Longstreet. An actor who so many of us admire. People are missing an amazing experience.

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Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture's frame in  Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.  Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture’s frame in
Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever is another crucial film within the context of modern American Film Art. Kentucker Audley’s turn as a misfit and wanna-be comedian is more than just awkward and anxiety-inducing — it is tragic. Eleonore Hendricks plays Irene who quickly becomes Edie’s obsession. His desperation for her love is not only misplaced, it is inappropriate. Even within the context of Irene’s world, Edie’s presence is too worrying. Dustin Guy Defa’s experimental film delivers a constant stream of frustrated uncomfortable confusion hinged with potential violence. Nothing about this ver low budget film “feels” like acting.

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists' existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.  Cinematography | 2011

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists’ existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.
Cinematography | 2011

Matt Boyd seems to be approaching documentary film with a style that is somewhere between the accepted notion of what documenting reality and The Maysles Brother’s type of Direct Cinema that leave the audience wondering when what we are seeing is real or possibly staged. His study of marginalized musician, Walter Bakes, and his family in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument is a challenging but rewarding examination of decay and self-absorbtion. It does not hedge from showing the warts and all of its subject but it never feels judgmental or exploitive. Matt Boyd is heading to an interesting career.

And as I come to the end of this rambling post, Rick Alverson must be mentioned. Along with Kentucker Audley, Alverson may be the most interesting Film Artist who is unrelenting in his pursuit of cinematic truth. Rick Alverson is far more concerned with style than Audley. This may end up being Alverson’s greatest challenge as filmmaker. His stylistic impulses sometimes appear to be at odds with the more immediate concerns just below the sensitive skin of his films. All the same, Alverson is building an amazing body of work. Best know for his 2012 film, The Comedy, which received a great deal of attention at the time of its release. It was praised and dismissed in equal measure. One of the dismissals came from my personal favorite Film Critic, A.O. Scott who caught me off guard when he was so frustrated by Alverson’s movie that he felt the need to attack those of us who saw the merit in it. According to A.O. Scott if I find any “critical distance” or “interesting perspective” in Alverson’s The Comedy — then I am the butt of Alverson’s joke. I do not know Rick Alverson and I have not ever read an interview with him. I only am aware of him by his work. Alverson was not joking with The Comedy. Alverson presents a level of white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. Thanks to an amazing cast of effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions. We might not like the main character or any of his friends, but viewers would need to be equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness which Alverson masterfully examines.

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O'Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O’Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

In The Builder, Alverson’s first feature which was made in 2009 and very limited released 201o — he collaborates with Colm O’Leary to create a very realistic study of an immigrant who attempts to pursue construction of his American dream house. O’Leary has a strong presence, but is allowed very little to say. The film is a bleak depiction of a man fighting through a depression in pursuit of something that seems to be failed abstraction of something deeper he can’t obtain. While the film offers viewers too little information to fully encage, it carries a power that is hard to forget. It feels like a film from an alternate universe of 1970’s American Filmmaking. We don’t understand this builder, but he feels far too real and familiar to forget.

Colm O'Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.  New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

Colm O’Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.
New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

In Rick Alverson’s New Jerusalem we are given more insight into the two men we follow. New Jerusalem touches on everything from faith to immigration to PTSD but it only barely touches this topics and themes. Alverson’s motivation is to explore an uneasy connection that begins to form between two men. This uncomfortable look at male bonding provides challenging ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving the tension and conflict. His goal is bring the reality of it to the audience.

New Jerusalem  Rick Alverson, 2011

New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

The conclusion is left to us. The merging of “truth” and “fiction” will not always result in something simply entertaining and satisfying. Most often true art forces us to look at our own reflection and projections. Being able to fully understand the difference between real and fake is not always an asset. Most of human life is spent putting on one mask and quickly replacing it with another as we navigate our way through life. Not all of us want to escape from reality. Some of us want more from art than escape. I want to gain perspectives regarding the complexities and challenges of life. Like everyone, I want to know I’m not alone.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth.  As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth. As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens,
Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” – Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale

Ideas around “origin” and “truth” have always proved to be challenging throughout the history of history. The truth is often difficult if not impossible to be certain within the context of the manner in which human beings communicate. And, as we move further into the beginning of the 21st century the reliance on the Internet, the already unsteady concept of truthful communication is growing ever more obtuse.

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The reason I am starting this post with this bland observation is that I have never been sure if I really understand the truth and origin of a term that I have found to be not merely problematic, but an all too casual sort of dismissive attitude to some very skilled artists.

I love film. And, from about the age of 10 I became almost obsessed with seeing as many movies as I could. I turned 10 in 1976. That was just before mainstream Hollywood would discover the idea of “blockbuster” and it would not be too long before the creation of the cineplex approach to movies.

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I was not the 10 year old who latched on to the “mainstream” the way so many of my friends did. Though I certainly enjoyed JAWS and STAR WARS — movies like ANNIE HALL, NASHVILLE and 3 WOMEN were far more interesting to me. Depending upon your point of view, I was born to parents who often seemed to be challenged by “appropriate boundaries” —  this was especially true of my father. He took me to everything he wanted to see. I think I was the only 10 year old I knew who had seen NASHVILLE and CARRIE.

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And, if you’re doing the math, I was 10 when those films played in my hometown. There was something far more intensely interesting to me about these movies that only played little South East Texas town than the ones that were on my friends lunch boxes.

I never had any interest in pursuing film as profession. But I am still mystified at the magic that a film artist can create. I was at the perfect age for the resurgence of what we started calling “Independent Cinema” — Out of college and the restrictions of the Bible Belt —  I was able to see game changing work as it was happening.

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Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Close to 30 years later many of those late ’80’s / early ’90’s filmmakers are still creating interesting work.

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But sadly, most of these once innovative artists have either sold out, lost energy or most probably — have not been able to remain fully connected to the culture in a way that allows them to explore ideas of value.

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It is quite interesting that it was during the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival that Eric Masunaga, a sound editor, unknowingly gave a label to a group of young film artists that was very quickly and permanently plugged into our culture. Steven Soderbergh and Gregg Araki are the first two that pop into my mind. These two filmmakers started their careers exploring corners of the human experience in new and provocative ways. I no longer trust them enough to pay to see what they are now making.

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So after this rambled mess of an explanation, I first remember reading the term “mumble core” was in indieWIRE magazine. During the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival a writer from that magazine asked a sound editor if he/she (?) could explain the connection shared by several important films that premiered there. This film artist probably had no idea that when she/he said “mumblecore” that it would end up taking on such significance. But it has.

I continue to be puzzled by the way critics and audiences use that term. This new group of filmmakers are every bit as relevant as the late ’50’s / 60’s La Nouvelle Vague.

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…And, strikingly similar when one considers the restrictions of shoe string budgets and an intense need to turn attention more inward.

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Le beau serge 1959 rŽal : Claude Chabrol Collection Christophel

Le beau serge
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rŽal : Claude Chabrol
Collection Christophel

This was a generation as it was emerging from the impacts of World War and entering the impact of looming cultural fears of the nuclear age and what would soon be obscured by the tragedies of The Algerian and Vietnam conflicts. Yet the label of “La Nouvelle Vague” never seemed to be dismissive.

But as hard as I try to never use “mumble core” as a label for these filmmakers who have found truly unique and innovative ways to not only make their art, but to continue to find equally unique and innovative ways for it to be seen.  Filmmakers such as Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kentucky Audley, Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Rick Alverson, Josephine Decker, Onur Tukel, Dustin Guy Defa, Alex Ross Perry, Lawrence Michael Levine, Kevin Barker and Sophia Takal among others are all lumped together under the label “mumble core” — And, yet each of the above and others bring distinctive viewpoints, ideas, style and often unexpected potency.

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Both Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth find powerful and unexpected ways to pull their audiences into the horror and paranoia of people in crisis. SUN DON’T SHINE and UPSTREAM COLOR could not be more different from each other. One is like being absorbed into a cinematic puzzle of survival that is as beautiful as it is horrific. The other, SUN, is a whole new take on two lovers on the lam but a bold, gritty and unnerving glimpse into an almost alien-like take on the Florida Everglades.

While I do understand what “navel gazing” means, I find that it almost offensive that the idea of artistically exploring “the self” and the complexity of humanity has become a point of criticism.

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Both of the above films are intensely intimate portraits of the characters captured. While Audley, Swanberg and Gerwig are experimenting in different ways — both of these films explore the complications of human connection in distinctively original ways. It is the artist’s choice to determine how far he/she wishes to reach regarding any issue. And, to be honest, it is work that is intimately communicated that offers the most insight into culture and societal issues.

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It is so restrictive to refer to any of these film as “mumblecore” — Most especially the intense examination of erotic desire, obsession and the perverse in Josephine Decker’s truly masterfully made THOU WAST MILD & LOVELY —  which is about as close to cinematic poetry I’ve ever seen. It also unnervingly disturbing. Nothing is “mumbling” here. At any rate, call it what you like. But it was starting in 2006 that I really began to note a strong spark of hope in the power of film that was stepping away from the openly sadistic strain of the French Extreme and not restricting itself to the lazy film language cranking out from the likes of Ron Howard and Spielberg and totally side-stepping away from the cartoon-like special effects laden movies that have so over-populating cinemas. The films grouped into “mumblecore” actually share little in common other than none of them have hardly any budget. This seems to give these movies an added level of energy — even when the director intentionally paces the film slowly.

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Most of all, I am very impressed by the way this generation of filmmakers are approaching media platforms of streaming to get their work out and be seen. Film Festivals have always been tied up in politics and commerce as much (or even more) than they are interested in film as art. And, while the major studios grapple with how to “control” the Internet instead of the content and quality of the movies that they green light — these people are focusing on creating the work that interests them and getting out to an audience.

A highly gifted experimental filmmaker and a skilled actor who goes by the name, Kentucker Audley, has created a simple website he calls “No Budge”

Kentucker Audley  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Kentucker Audley
(Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

From what I can tell he is the sole curator of the site. I have found some of the most amazing work to watch here. He accepts submissions and then chooses the films that appeal to him the most to be streamed online for free. These “screenings” are often set with a specific window of time to help the filmmakers get the work out and seen. Then, they can have their films taken down once they find a way to distribute and make a bit of money.

Eleanore Pienta is Mona in Drew Tobia's See You Next Tuesday

Eleanore Pienta is Mona
in Drew Tobia’s See You Next Tuesday

For example I would have never known about an amazing movie titled SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY directed by Drew Tobia and co-written with his leading actor, Eleanore Pienta. I saw this film during it’s screening window time for free. I was so amazed that such a low budget film could entertainingly lace quirky, profane, crude and often silly scenes to form a truly complex and potent examination of the challenges marginalized women over come to form bonds of friendship and love. Quite a feat.

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And, here lies the beauty of Audley’s site. I saw the film for free, but purchased a legal download of the film via iTunes. Now I can watch it and hopefully the artist has made a little money. There have been several films and filmmakers I’ve discovered here that I have been able to seek out their work and purchase or rent it legally. The current film on the Audley’s site that has my attention is IN MEMORIAM, a 2011 movie by Stephen Cone. I would have never had the opportunity to see it or even know about Cone were it not for this site. This film, like many made by these artists, is almost brimming over with clever twists and turns in tone and mood.

A still from Stephen Cone's IN MEMORIAM

A still from Stephen Cone’s IN MEMORIAM

Here is a link to Audley’s site:

http://nobudge.com

Not that many people stop by here anymore, but in case you have — check it out. There is cinematic treasure to be found here.

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