Info

Art Opinions

Posts tagged Lawrence Michael Levine

Choose another tag?

I really do not care for the term “Mumblecore.” This term feels like an insult to the films and artists who have emerged within this assigned “genre.” Labels are always problematic. But we humans love to categorize and label. Admittedly I am the first to reject a label assigned to me and often the first to assign one. I do like things to be organized. So just in case you are unaware I will provide definitions and examples for two terms.

The heart and soul gets investigated, critiqued and exposed in Joe Swanberg's mumblecore Full Moon Trilogy. JOE SWANBERG: COLLECTED FILMS 2011 DVD Box Set from Factory 25 http://www.factorytwentyfive.com/joe-swanberg-collected-films-2/

The heart and soul gets investigated, critiqued and exposed in Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore Full Moon Trilogy.
JOE SWANBERG: COLLECTED FILMS 2011
DVD Box Set from
Factory 25
http://www.factorytwentyfive.com/joe-swanberg-collected-films-2/

Mumblecore refers to a subgenre of low-budget independent film in which focus is placed on dialogue over traditional plot. Mumblecore films utilize naturalism which is not only limited to dialogue and performance but usually extends to the manner in which production is executed. The concept of plot takes on a sort of organic or even seemingly accidental and it usually revolves around relationship issues clouded by the characters’ inability to articulate individual emotions or the lack of understanding individualistic identities. I have always felt this fairly new subgenre is really an extension of the early La Nouvelle Vague films that come out of France as the 20th Century began to move into the 1960’s. The style of the French New Wave was often less about choice as it was about limited budgets. No matter the intention, this wave of film ushered in whole new manners of speech within cinematic language. Mumblecore has also played a huge influence into the mainstream of film and television.

He may have directed it, but Frances Ha ties itself to both Mumblecore and The French New Wave with ease. And it reached a very large audience. Frances Ha Noah Baumbach, 2012 Cinematography | Sam Levy

He may have directed it, but Frances Ha ties itself to both Mumblecore and The French New Wave with ease. And it reached a very large audience.
Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach, 2012
Cinematography | Sam Levy

As an example of Mumblecore I offer a film made long before the idea of Mumblecore existed:  Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983) –  A highly acclaimed film running for 90 minutes about little more than three irresponsible adults confused about what love is and how to secure it. In this quietly brilliant film, there is no real plot. The dialogue feels improvised. It is the teenage title character who seems to have even a remote understanding of love and life. The film has no visual style. It is slowly paced. But when Pauline leaves and the credits begin to roll an unexpected punch has been delivered. Kentucker Audley’s Team Picture (2007) Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax (2009) Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever (2012) and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday all lead the audience to similar melancholy conclusions.

Feodor Atkine and Arielle Dombasle have very different ideas related to "love" Pauline at the Beach Eric Rohmer, 1983 Cinematography | Nestor Almendros

Feodor Atkine and Arielle Dombasle have very different ideas related to “love”
Pauline at the Beach
Eric Rohmer, 1983
Cinematography | Nestor Almendros

Meta-Film is also often called Metacinema and it is used to describe films that are either about the filmmaking process, business or movies that dare to break the fourth wall or even present a film within a film. The concept of the Meta-Film is directly related to the literary device of Metafiction. Examples of Meta-Films are Annie Hall, Adaptation, Fight Club, Sunset Blvd, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Synecdoche, New York and Mulholland Drive. As you will note the genre, tone and intention of the Meta-Film unlimited. My personal favorite example of the MetaFilm is Francois Truffaut’s acclaimed Day for Night (1973)

"Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive." Day for Night Francois Truffaut, 1973 Cinematography | Pierre-William Glenn

“Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”
Day for Night
Francois Truffaut, 1973
Cinematography | Pierre-William Glenn

While this film is most certainly dated, it is still very much alive. Truffaut is clearly playing a version of himself as he tries to make a movie while dealing with the many little dramas of his actors and crew threaten to throw the whole production down the drain. What I really love about Day for Night is its total lack of cynicism. Despite all of the troubles the director encounters, there is a love not only for each of the actors playing characters — this movie’s main intention is to serve as a shout out of love for movies and movie making. Day for Night refuses to commit to realism, surrealism or even satire. This quirky little 1970’s movie brims over with the sort of magic that only a film can provide.

FUNNY HA HA, British poster art, Kate Dollenmayer (top left), Myles Paige (top center), William Westfall (hat), Christian Rudder (center), 2002. ©Goodbye Cruel Releasing

FUNNY HA HA, British poster art, Kate Dollenmayer (top left), Myles Paige (top center), William Westfall (hat), Christian Rudder (center), 2002. ©Goodbye Cruel Releasing

I may not like the label / term of Mumblecore, but I have been an advocate of this group of Film Artists from the beginning. There are some very interesting aspects of this subgenre of Independent Film:

A simultaneous blending of cinematic auteur theory and active collaboration

The development of an artistic community and a loosely formed Acting / Filmmaking Troupe

Continuous exploration of identity

A unique shape of narrative structure

A consistent feeling of a unity between projects no matter how different they might be 

As with any labeled genre, there are certain artists who interest me more than others. Among them are Kelly Reichardt, The Duplass Brothers, Kentucker Audley, Josephine Decker, Rick Alverson, Lynn Shelton, Todd Rohal, Amy Seimetz and Michael Tully. It is essential to note that the term “Mumblecore” literally fails when held up to much of what these filmmakers do. Then again I’ve never gotten any sense that these artists worry about coloring outside the lines. Kelly Reichardt’s work is transformative. Rick Alverson’s films always contain a mix of societal criticism interlacing with absurdist or surrealist humor. His most recent film, Entertainment, is dark surreal vision of an artist pushed to the edge of sanity.

Look it, God will you fuck you up! The Catechism Cataclysm Todd Rohal, 2011 Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Look it, God will you fuck you up!
The Catechism Cataclysm
Todd Rohal, 2011
Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Michael Tully’s films are always surprising. Each of his films takes the audience to very different places. It is almost impossible to even provide a brief synopsis for his strange breath-taker, Septien. Todd Rohal’s work is always hinged uncomfortably with the Surreal or Absurdist — yet every film he makes manages to resonate. The Catechism Cataclysm, anyone? Amy Seimetz has actually only made one feature length film. However Sun Don’t Shine is so damned brilliant I keep waiting to see when she will make another. Jay and Mark Duplass and Lynn Shelton have already moved the genre into the mainstream without any sense of actually buying into full-on commercialization of what they do. HBO’s recent decision to cancel The Duplass’ Togetherness left a great many upset. Togetherness was the perfect artistic alternative to Lena Dunham’s Girls. The decision to cancel Togetherness will haunt HBO. Girls is a game-changer, but Togetherness was the intelligent result.

Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil have good hearts, but they do very bad things. Sun Don't Shine Amy Seimetz, 2012 Cinematography | Jay Keitel

Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil have good hearts, but they do very bad things.
Sun Don’t Shine
Amy Seimetz, 2012
Cinematography | Jay Keitel

Josephine Decker’s work is perhaps the most resoundingly unique of the Mumblecore Wave. Both Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely lead the audience into worlds that only seem familiar. Decker presents both stories with beauty and devastating horror. Each film is tied closely to the ways in which Ashley Connor finds to lens the director’s ideas. Decker’s work might have a connection to a Lynchian-like viewpoint, but there is something completely new found in both of these films. Each is blessed with a female voice that refuses to be restricted by societal norms or political correctness. That folk song might sound pretty and that barn may appear lovely, but Decker pushes us to the conclusion that both have been reconstructed to hide something far more sinister. Decker’s last two films deviate so far from what is considered Mumblecore that I almost hesitate to list her here. However her work is already deeply entrenched in the Mumblecore artistic troupe I do not see how I can leave her out. In truth, her most recent films seem to align closer to Shane Carruth’s work.

Everything learned by tending to the farm. And everything is offering surprises... Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Everything learned by tending to the farm. And everything is offering surprises…
Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Of these mentioned, Kentucker Audley is the artist who remains triumphantly grounded in a unique vision that so far has remained stridently Mumblecore. Ambitious and determined, Audley always seems to find a way to continue his cinematic explorations. In the process he has established himself as a solid leading man. As an actor, he is really only challenged by Robert Longstreet. As competent in front of the camera as behind it, this is a filmmaker who will continue to thrive.

This makes De Niro's "Rupert Pupkin" look safe and sane... Kentucker Audley at the mic Bad Fever Dustin Guy Defa, 2011 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

This makes De Niro’s “Rupert Pupkin” look safe and sane…
Kentucker Audley at the mic
Bad Fever
Dustin Guy Defa, 2011
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

But there is another member of the Mumblecore Wave who is riding it with a conviction and an artistic slant that is ever-growing, expanding and convulsing ideas that seem to evolve with each of his cinematic projects. If we are to buy-into the concept of The Auteur, then we must be able to somehow chart a key thread in the work. Most importantly, the audience should be able to notice a growth from that core thread toward increasing achievement. Art is all too subjective and no artist is ever going to be able to make every step perfect. This is not what I mean when I write “increasing achievement.” The auteur filmmaker is by his/her own formation will not allow their work to fall prey to commercial interests or film criticism. The auteur will create the art no matter where it may lead him/her …or his / her audience. 

A film can be commercial without killing the intent. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson Drinking Buddies Joe Swanberg, 2013 Cinematography | Ben Richardson

A film can satisfy the mainstream without killing the intent.
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson
Drinking Buddies
Joe Swanberg, 2013
Cinematography | Ben Richardson

Joe Swanberg is most definitively an Autuer. And if you doubt a progression in his work you only need check out the films he released in 2011. Joe Swanberg directed 6 films released in 2011. All 6 are of interest and merit, but 3 form a trilogy that I strongly recommend. I’ve always referred to these 3 films as Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy. This trilogy not only captures the pursuit of the filmmaker, it shines a fascinating light on the art of filmmaking and psychological puzzle that Meta-Film can create. I am not certain if this is the correct way to refer to them, but for this essay I am going to use the Full Moon label.

Silver Bullets was not the first film Swanberg released in 2011. His first film of that year was Uncle Kent. An established storyboard director / writer for such animated hits as SpongeBob SquarePants as well as a longtime member of the Mumblecore Artistic Troupe, Kent Osborne takes the title role. As “Uncle Kent” he is essentially playing a variation of himself. As is often the case in Swanberg’s films, it is almost impossible to know how much of what we see is based on truth or complete fiction. There is an uneasy feeling that Uncle Kent is serving as a sort of fuzzy staged re-enactment from Osborne’s private life. The acting is that believable. It may not be the case, but this film gives the impression that we are seeing a slanted manipulation of Osborne’s own life.

Reality, identity and situations merge with fiction. Or is it the other way around? Uncle Kent Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Joe Swanberg

Reality, identity and situations merge with fiction. Or is it the other way around?
Uncle Kent
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Joe Swanberg

It is an interesting and often voyeuristic proposition. It often feels like we are seeing something that we should not be allowed to see. Kent has a successful and seemingly profitable career as an animator, but he is getting older and is lonely. Part of that loneliness reveals itself to be a product of Kent‘s inability to fully grasp hold of maturity and the soon to arrive mid-life crisis. He does not seem to relate or even know anyone his own age. His co-worker is a good decade younger and while he has a nice home it is furnished like a college student dwelling. It would appear that Kent spends most of his free time surfing the Internet and playing the hyper-sexualized  Chatroulette. Watching these random online interactions is both fascinating and uncomfortable. When he meets Jennifer Prediger’s Kate on the site the two make the rather strange choice to not only meet up, but for her to visit and stay with him for a few days while she is in Los Angeles.

This extended adult sleepover sprouts increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness. This is more than a man reluctantly facing the fact that he getting older. Our Uncle Kent is led to the realization that he no longer fits into the world he inhabits. The feeling that he might be missing out on something soon morphs into existential crisis. It is no longer enough to spend his days working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoon, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Chatroulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hoping against hope that a meaningless sexual encounter might lead to something resembling love. There is no resolution for Kent. We leave him stuck in a trap of his own making. There are no signs that he will be able to change the direction of his life, but there are no clear signs that he won’t. Uncle Kent is a sweetly sour experimental film of mid-life awareness.

Uncle Kent‘s idea of sexual freedom and single life is not something to desire. The film is potent and surprisingly entertaining. There are laughs to be found, but there is a dark sea of tears floating just beneath the surface. Most importantly Swanberg creates a film filled with characters that confuse typical cinematic ideas of reality. Where does Uncle Kent‘s fiction end and truth begin? Or has it all been a fiction?

Artists struggle to keep their private relationships separate from the cinematic work with some dire consequences in the first film of The Full Moon Trilogy... Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Artists struggle to keep their private relationships separate from the cinematic work with some dire consequences in the first film of The Full Moon Trilogy…
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

The first of what I believe is correctly called The Full Moon Trilogy came out not too long after Uncle Kent. Silver Bullets is a slow-burn experience into a meditation on the artist, the artistic process and the attempt to maintain relationships throughout. At first glance Silver Bullets appears to be firmly grounded in realism. While the film presents itself as realism, it really does not try to confuse reality with fiction. Even viewers coming to the film with little to no knowledge of Swanberg or Mumblecore will know they are seeing a narrative fictional film. Swanberg has managed to secure both established actors, Jane Adams and Larry Fessenden in supporting roles. They are clearly not playing versions of themselves beyond the fact that both characters are respected actors facing dwindling options as they grow older in a profession obsessed with youth.

But the idea of naturalism / realism is immediately challenged when we first see Kate Lyn Sheil’s Claire. Framed in the left side of the screen she starts to produce animalistic howling and it is here that Swanberg inserts his title card. This is not a horror film, but it is established that is most likely a film is about the making of one. In fact, the horror filmmaker is played by Indie Horror King himself, Ti West. Claire has won the lead role as a female werewolf and West’s Ben is her director. Her life partner is a filmmaker played by Joe Swanberg. Swanberg’s character is named Ethan. He is also a filmmaker who appears to be very unhappy with a film he and Claire have been making. A film that is either so bad he will never release it or is still in a stage of incompletion. This is the third film that Silver Bullets may or may not be about.

Is the latex mask doing something more than cover the skin of its actor? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is the latex mask doing something more than cover the skin of its actor?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

When an acting pal of Claire‘s arrives fairly unfreshly from Los Angeles, she presents her friendship with a bit of poison.

It is essential to note that the acting work in this film is very naturalistic and real. No wit or major drama. Communications are often muted and seem to oppose the actions the characters take. In a key scene, Claire‘s friend played Amy Seimetz offers a grim bit of advice. In her view, Claire has not yet had enough experience as a film actor. She advises her to go to Los Angeles and work her trade there. As Seimetz’s character abruptly walks away to change her top because she “feels fat,” she offers the observation that it is clear that Claire has not yet gained the required actor training because she still retains hope.

This advice and observation are delivered with sincerity. There is no intended irony or sarcasm. According to Charlie, the life of a working actor does not offer hope. It offers only disappointment and body issues. Yet there is an undertone to Amy Seimetz’s delivery of the lines. (if they are delivered at all — note: it is hard to know if we are seeing something fully scripted or improvised under a rough guideline) It might just be that the friend wants to push Claire away from the business to avoid competition. It is never clear.

Taking aim. Kate Lyn Sheil and Joe Swanberg Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Taking aim.
Kate Lyn Sheil and Joe Swanberg
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

As Claire pursues her staring role in a horror film about a predatory female monster, her relationship with Ethan is placed in jeopardy. Her filmmaker boyfriend views her success with jealousy and his interest in her as his muse/leading lady seems to have vanished. Ethan is interested in pursuing Claire‘s friend from LA as his new leading lady. Meanwhile back on the horror movie set, it is clear that Claire is becoming dependent upon Ben‘s attention to help her be successful as his horror film leading lady. There is confusion both on and projecting from the screen about the identities of filmmakers. Is there a difference between serving as a leading lady and being a lover? Does one supersede the other?

Is this a role or a new development in identity and all that relate to it? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is this a role or a new development in identity and all that relate to it?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

This is an experimental film about art and those who create it — and the impact it can have on their lives. It works. As Silver Bullets moves to it’s conclusion disorientation creeps over the entire film. Just when we feel fairly positive we are seeing a fictional narrative film rooted in realism and naturalism, Swanberg pulls the rug from beneath our feet. In a disturbing mix of realism, surrealism and possibly footage from another movie — the audience is left with the conundrum of sorting out the film we thought we were watching from the two others films we know the characters are making. But there is an added idea of psychological horror lurking and bubbling over in true horror film style.

Silver Bullets is a Meta-Film that presents a film within a film within a film and it never fully commits on which film(s) the characters are in during which scenes.

Are these the tears of a broken heart or those of an actor ready for her close-up? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Are these the tears of a broken heart or those of an actor ready for her close-up?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

It is not a frustrating result. The film satisfies and when a prologue arrives some questions are answered. But before Swanberg fades his screen to black he tosses a new idea out to the audience — Is Ethan a variation of Joe Swanberg?

The second film in The Full Moon Trilogy is Art History. This is about the making of a movie. That movie appears to be about an extended sexual encounter that becomes an intimate interaction beyond the sexual. Swanberg once again casts himself as a filmmaker directing a movie. While he is playing a character with a different name than his own, he plays it exactly like he played Ethan in the previous film. An unsatisfied and uninspired filmmaker who struggles with his private life as much as with his artistic calling. For Art History he has cast both Adam Wingard and his real-life wife and real-life filmmaker, Kris Swanberg. Wingard is clearly playing himself. He is given no name in the movie, but he is not only playing a cinematographer — he is also serving as Art History‘s co-cinematographer. Kris Swanberg’s role in the production is not articulated, though we know she is pregnant and we are given hints that she is involved with the film director. The two actors are played by Kent Osborne (who is given a different character name, but still seems just like Uncle Kent) and Josephine Decker.

What is going on here?!?! The concept of Meta-Film truly becomes impossible. Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011

What is going on here?!?! The concept of Meta-Film truly becomes impossible.
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011

The puzzle of this Meta-Film begins immediately when the first thing we see is a graphic scene of sexuality. A close-up of Kent Osborne’s penis and Josephine Decker attempting to cover it with a condom. The only clue that this may all be fiction is that Osborne’s penis is not erect. In addition, as Decker mount and grinds, the positioning and POV seem slightly off for the camera to be filming unstimulated sex. Soon enough Joe Swanberg’s character stops the filming for a quick “re-group” on the scene. None of this is presented in an erotic way. This is almost anti-erotic.

Perhaps more than any other Swanberg film, Art History looks truly ugly, unframed and clunky. The acting is first rate and firmly grounded in realism. Both Osborne and Decker seem to be doing their best to become comfortable with each other. But wait, was that re-grouping to help Osborne relax so that he can achieve an erection? Is the sex meant to be unstimulated? The conversing is painfully realistic as are the mutually awkward attempts at touching each other to both stimulate and relax. So, wait. Is this acting? We think it is. Or, hold up. Are these two actors actually involved. Decker seems to be playing the same character who showed up for a three-way with Uncle Kent and Kate in the other movie. Did they develop a relationship during that shoot and this is continuing as an idea for a movie? Where does the film within a film end/begin?

Although working with another actor, director and crew member -- Juliette is clearly feeling alone and more than a little lost. What is the point of bothering with the sheet? Josephine Decker Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard & Joe Swanberg

Although working with another actor, director and crew member — Juliette is clearly feeling alone and more than a little lost. What is the point of bothering with the sheet?
Josephine Decker
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard & Joe Swanberg

Swanberg’s character may be called Sam, but he sure seems like the Joe Swanberg I’ve seen chatting in interviews. As Osborne and Deckers’ characters seem to be warming to each other, Sam becomes jealous. Later it is clear he is developing sexual feelings for Decker’s character. And it looks like Decker is asking Kris Swanberg for relationship advice when it comes down to meeting someone in this sort of circumstance. The video stock looks different. Is this off someone’s cellphone? Was that Decker as Juliette asking Kris Swanberg’s character a question? Or was that Decker and Swanberg having a private huddle that has been edited into the film?

At what point are we in a movie within a movie or possibly a document of the whole process. Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

At what point are we in a movie within a movie or possibly a document of the whole process.
Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

One could almost accuse Swanberg of No Wave style or having absolutely no style to his filmmaking. In Art History, the absence of style actually begins to feel stylized. Interestingly, Art History contains several of the most stunning shots Swanberg has ever captured. A carefully lit in limited POV we see a swimming pool in which the two actors and director swim nude to relax. These shots serve as pause notations for the film itself. And these brief and artistically sensual shots are completely cinematic. The line between reality and fiction is blurred, but there is a lingering feeling that we are just watching a movie within a movie.

Wait a second. Who is actually swimming nude in that pool? Are these the two actors and one director or are they the three characters? Is this a movie within a movie and a documentary of both all edited together? Is there a difference?

A beautifully sensual shot. Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

A beautifully sensual shot.
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

The beautiful set-up of the swimming pool serves as the place for the film’s final scene. Art History‘s ending raises a whole new level of psychological game play for the viewer. Were the pool shots artistically set or just the blind luck of light and a perfectly placed surveillance camera? Either way, was the final scene real or scripted rage?  Did we just see documented rage? When were Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker acting? Were they ever filmed as themselves? Are they consistently acting throughout? Without knowing the artists involved it is impossible to fully know.

Unable to sleep... Joe Swanberg Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

Unable to sleep…
Joe Swanberg
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

This is the magic of Art History as a Meta-Film. This is also the cinematic moment when no one can deny Joe Swanberg’s talent as a filmmaker. The expression of intimacy is a tricky business for any actor, but within Art History, this challenge seems to be creating a view from almost every angle. There again, maybe it doesn’t. No matter the answer, Art History fully demonstrates an ever growing thread started in Silver Bullets as well as a growing maturity in filming.  However Swanberg’s strangest artistic turn is delivered in the final film of The Full Moon Trilogy.

Fictional and Real in their private bedroom, these two actors and fellow filmmakers ponder questions of art, identity and consequence... Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

Fictional and Real in their private bedroom, these two actors and fellow filmmakers ponder questions of art, identity and consequence…
Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

The Zone is the final third film of the trilogy. The first half of this movie plays like a low-rent take on Pasolini’s “Teorema.” Kentucker Audley is the mysterious visitor who is initially introduced as Kate Lyn Sheil’s  moody lover. At first it is not clear he is a mystery guest in the house. This understanding is gained when he seduces a more than willing Sophia Takal. Swanberg films the first sexual encounter in a somewhat non-erotic way. While there are many nude shots of the beautiful Kate Lyn Sheil, they do not seem overtly sensual. She and Audley play a strange game which leads to sex, but the whole exchange lacks lust or desire. Both actors appear to be a little bored.

However when it turns out that Sophia Tikal is more than willing to fool around with Kentucker Audley’s character, the tone of their sexual interaction is filmed in a different way. They, too, play a game. The difference is that both characters use the game as a form of flirtation. This sexual intimacy is filmed with a casual sort of lo-fi eroticism. Graphic and interplaying the use of a quilt which highlights gestures of  body movements. It is a simple idea, but effective.  This sexual encounter is erotic.

The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

When Takal’s real life fiancé arrives home from some sort of sporting event, Kentucker Audley’s character is seated seductively without a shirt. He sips a beer bottle and follows Lawrence Michael Levine into the bathroom where he films Levine’s character taking a shower. Before long it becomes obvious that Audley’s character is putting the moves on Sophia’s soon-to-be-husband. As both remove their pants and the nude Audley walks toward the nude Levine — their images become digitally “ghosted.” We can see through both men. As Audley bends to his knees to pleasure Levine, one can’t help but wonder if the previous realistic film is taking a turn for the surreal. Is this a sexual fantasy or daydream? If it is, to whom does it belong?

What's going on? Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley get ghosted... The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

What’s going on?
Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley get ghosted…
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

At this point Swanberg gives the audience a surprising turn. Suddenly this film becomes an unfinished production with Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Dustin Guy Defa, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sophia Tikal and Lawrence Michael Levine all watching the film we’ve just seen on Swanberg’s laptop. It would appear that the actors are no longer acting. The director is no longer directing. And the co-cinematographer is no longer filming. All five artists begin to critique the film, their work and question the validity of moving forward with the production.

We are to understand that Kentucker Audley has already left and not coming back. His part in the film was finished. One of the actors questions Swanberg’s choice of filming each seduction. All find it problematic that the Kat Lyn and Sophia sex scenes are filmed for long durations without clothing while Lawrence is barely given any nude or sex time. There are also concerns voiced about Swanberg’s choice to not show much of the homosexual encounter and that he has treated it as if it might not have even happened.

Can a happy marriage of two actors handle the sexual confusion of roles? Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

Can a happy marriage of two actors handle the sexual confusion of roles?
Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

We come to realize two factors of The Zone that are presented in a rather casual ways: Swanberg is filming in the actual home that Sophia and Lawrence share with Kate Lyn. Thus another layer of fiction has been merged with reality. Acting is difficult, but it is even more challenging when the cameras are right up near the face. These are all very talented actors. Finding ways to make sexual intimacy and simulated sex look and appear real is not at all easy. It takes a large emotional toil and can often be more than a little confusing for the actors — even more so if they rely on Method Acting. To simulate sex in their own private house, bathroom, bedrooms and living room would not be any easy feat. Yet all four actors do it very well.

The second factor is revealed in such a flippant and casual manner that I’m not sure I noticed it when I first saw this movie several years back — All four artists discuss Kentucker Audley’s participation in Swanberg’s film as if he had been playing himself. They begin to compare and discuss Audley’s manner and his way of moving into a love scene. Later Michael Lawrence Levin bravely secures an on-screen erection in an attempt to recreate what Swanberg had failed to film with he and Kentucker. At this point the director and the two soon-to-be-married actors try to think of what Kentucker would have done and/or wanted. It is already been made clear that neither Audley or Levine have any interest in homosexual sex, yet that idea that these actors may not really be acting in any traditional sense.

When the four discuss filming a three-way simulated sex scene, the actors speak as if they are really going to be engaging in three-way sex. They do not appear to be talking about acting. They appear to be talking about sharing the sexual experience. Is this a tease of the of the film or do they plan to have full-on sex? Meanwhile, Swanberg shares his fears and concerns about forcing the actors to film something. They assure him that they are participating of their own free will and want to make the best film possible. Swanberg discusses how “certain past filmed scenes” in other films have caused some major hurt and anger. The mind immediately springs back to the closing moments of Art History. As the film within a film continues to challenge its own concept a surprising thing happens while Swanberg films a new scene. The occurrence is unexpected and looks very real. It sounds very real. The panic, rage, hurt and fear do not seem like acting.

Strike a pose... Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley The Zone Joe Swanberg

Strike a pose…
Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley
The Zone
Joe Swanberg

When can know we are seeing these five artists acting and when can we know that what we are seeing is an actual documentation of The Zone‘s behind the scenes filming?

We can’t.

But then, Swanberg  does something I’ve never seen a filmmaker do — Already having totally disoriented the cast as well as the audience in the ability to understand fictional truth vs. reality truth. Already having inverted the idea of identity beyond recognition — and without warning, The Zone totally implodes upon itself.

We find ourselves in Joe and Kris Swanbergs’ living room. There they are sitting with their newly born baby. Kris is offering Joe criticism of The Zone. She begins to push him to explain what it is he was after. She comments that she has no idea if what she has seen was real. She questions the unexpected moment within the movie as not being valid. Now his wife is questioning the validity of reality vs. fiction. Neither the filmmaker or his filmmaker wife like the movie he had made.

Is this really a film within the film or has it been planned. Does reality fit into this realism? Kate Lyn Sheil, Dustin Guy Defa, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Joe Swanberg The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is this really a film within the film or has it been planned. Does reality fit into this realism?
Kate Lyn Sheil, Dustin Guy Defa, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Joe Swanberg
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

We reach a true Meta-Film Trip Out when Kris Swanberg notes that Joe has made movie within a movie in which he is questioning his motivations regarding a film within another film that unfolds to another film in which he is still complaining about all of the films — none of which has been fully produced. This is a psychological trap. It could even be called a mind fuck. Swanberg laments he may have reached a dead-end. It is a profoundly disorienting scene. Especially when you take into account that this final Meta-Film Twist may have been scripted.

While watching the final moments of The Zone I can’t help but wonder if we were really seeing the Swanberg living room. Is it a set? What’s up with the odd blue light emitting from the gap in the curtains? How is a couple with a baby able to live in such a minimal room? 

In the end Joe Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy is a brilliant success. One does not need to see all three in sequential order. All three films function independent of one another. But when you see Silver Bullets, Art History and The Zone together you not only see the thread and Swanberg’s progressing evolvement as an Autuer Filmmaker — the viewer experiences is a rewarding and interesting flow of cinematic ideas. These three films offer a thoroughly unique take on human psychology and the impact of fluidly mixing realism with fiction so deeply leads you into a sort of labyrinth.

Is that a real gun? Joe Swanberg Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography |

Is that a real gun?
Joe Swanberg
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography |

If you’ve not seen Joe Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy and would like to check it out:

The DVD Box Set is available from Factory 25

Swanberg Full Moon Trilogy

Or you can rent or purchase all three from Vimeo

Swanberg at Vimeo

If you are a member of Fandor, all three films are currently streaming as of April, 2016

@ Fandor

Matty Stanfield, 4.7.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

sabbatical-mossgarden.com

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.

blogthumb_005_mumblecore-1024x576

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.

jaws_xlg

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.

three_women_ver2_xlg

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.

1986-shes-gotta-have-it-poster1

clerks

sex_lies_and_videotape_ver1

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.

468250b

bernie

dark_horse

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.

HAYWIRE QUAD@50%.indd

kaboom_970x390

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.

solaris-2002

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.

breathless

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

400blowsposter02

Le beau serge 1959 rŽal : Claude Chabrol Collection Christophel

Le beau serge
1959
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.

the-puffy-chair-review-poster

hannah_takes_the_stairs_xlg

SDS+Pic2

upstream_color

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.

9P2gwXPhUIhIGkeOXQKExnbijhM

nights_and_weekends_xlg

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.

POSTER THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY-05_1200_1200_1200

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.

newjerusalemposterNEWopt8.24x36

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.

synt25

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.

tumblr_mxf1szqg0I1qa5lnno1_500