Mumblecore/Slackervetes

As a would-be filmmaker, sometimes the most inspiring pictures are the lowest low-budget ones. These films, made on a shoestring, shot on digital video in a rough and ready style are often innovative in all the ways films with massive budgets aren’t. Without millions of dollars at their disposal these ‘guerrilla’ films often tailor there stories toward real locations, focus their attention on regular folk struggling with day-to-day existence or frequently detail the chance encounter of a boy and a girl. They place emphasis on character, performance, and pace, three elements that should be the crux of all films regardless of budget.

This isn’t to say all low budget films are great. I’ve seen many that aren’t. Films trying to reach beyond their budget or schlock genre fare offering nothing new are the most common crimes. There are however many worthy low budget films that have reached us primarily because of two technological innovations. The first being the availability of cheap digital video cameras (most recently digital SLR camera’s with extraordinary video capabilities) and the second being the internet and it’s marketing power. Desktop filmmakers can operate a one-stop-shop editing their features on laptops and then using the net to market or distribute the finished product.

Whole digital cinema movements have started, including one in my country that has probably influenced me as a filmmaker more than anything else. The Aro Valley film movement, named by Dr. Russell Campbell and chronicled in the wonderful documentary Campbell Walker is a Friend of Mine will be detailed further on this blog in an upcoming post. The films made by proponents of this school of cinema including Campbell Walker, Alex Greenhough and Elric Kane, and Dick Whyte, are influenced by ‘realist’ filmmakers like Jean Eustache and Maurice Pialat, and often focus on the tenuous relationships of 20-something kiwis. Greenhough and Kane’s Murmurs and Kissy Kissy were utter revelations to me when I first encountered them and are shining lights in a national cinema starved for originality in recent times.

Today however, I want to talk about the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movies that have been conquering the festival circuits in the US. The film in particular is Quiet City, a minor masterpiece made for a paltry sum and shot on HD video. Though Quiet City might not be made with the intellectual rigour of some of the Aro Valley films, it progresses at a poetic pace and represents to me the zenith of the boy-meets-girl-in-chance-encounter tale that was less successfully explored in mumblecore’s break out success In Search of a Midnight Kiss.

Quiet City follows a very familiar premise, one that had me very wary to begin with. Jamie (Erin Fischer) has arrived in New York only to discover the friend who she has come to visit is nowhere to be seen in a deserted subway station. As luck would have it she meets Charlie (Cris Lankenau), a goofy unshaven musician who more than fills Quiet City’s mumble quota. Charlie offers Jamie a place to stay and over the next few days they gently forge a connection. On paper this seems terribly boring and trite but director Aaron Katz lets the film unfold at a glorious pace and follows a series of events that are wholly realistic.

While some of the supporting roles are irritating the central performances of Fischer and Lankenau are rather charming and the slow deepening of their bond manages to remain indistinct but still carry an emotional weight. It’s a film built on subtlety, something I was convinced was non-existent in recent American cinema. Nothing is overbearing. The music, the performances, the dialogue, the visuals and most wonderfully the resolution are all understated. Just shy of ninety minutes Quiet City is lean too, Katz never letting his images linger longer than they need to or his dialogue drift into redundancy. The overall feeling is that there are a million stories in the Quiet City, and this is just one of them.

As I suggested in my post on Three Blind Mice, this is the type of cinema that should be championed. But I’ve slightly rethought this conclusion. I now think it’s exactly the type of cinema filmmakers need to remember how to make. Without the buffer of a huge budget, overzealous use of CGI, the draw card of a well-known star, or the marketing machine that can sell the very worst forms of the art, these low budget filmmakers are fuelling a renaissance of films that exercise simplicity and reflect the reality of everyday life. Furthermore, these films transcend their meagre running times by leaving the viewer with something to think about well after the credits have rolled.

If you can find a copy of Quiet City give it a go. Below is a trailer for Aaron Katz’s follow up film which looks promising, I only hope I’m not forced to eat my words re: ‘…genre fare that offering nothing new…’

Cold Weather Trailer from Alex Bickel on Vimeo.

 

 

Three Blind Mice

Australia. My country lives in its hulking shadow and it fills us Kiwi’s with a disproportionate amount of resentment. I’ve never been, so I can’t pass judgement, but I just about murdered the dozen or so people overseas who took my accent to be Aussie. That said, I must confess I just bought a six pack of VB. Only ‘cause it was on special though.

That just about sums up the Kiwi/Aussie relationship, we love to hate them, but when it comes to the crunch we get all ANZAC and go to war together. Brothers-in-arms and all that. They’re okay really aye? Anyway, this post is meant to be about cinema, something I think the Aussies have been doing better than us lately.

By pure happenstance I stumbled across Three Blind Mice, an Australian picture directed by bad-boy Matthew Newton (familiar to Kiwi audiences as ‘Mr Asia’ in the most recent series of Underbelly). The film sounded like an Australian version of The Last Detail, a picture I’m greatly fond of. It follows three young Navy men the night before they were to be shipped to the Gulf. Cue revelry and regret as the trio come to terms with their past actions and their future horizons.

It’s an indie film and one that doesn’t aim beyond its means. Newton does a great job performance wise (he’s largely got a great cast to thank for that) and to my great joy allows scenes to play out casually. Despite the impending time-pressure of the gents’ departure some conversations last minutes longer than they would in any conventional film and yet Three Blind Mice still manages to cram a heap of stuff into 100 minutes.

I’m into films that take place over a short time span. Even better when it’s just the course of a night like Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Paul Thomas Andersons Magnolia or Mike Nichols’ Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf. These movies are massively eventful, packed full of great dialogue and work as a well rounded whole due to the arc of their timeframe. Three Blind Mice is in the same vein. It’s full of quiet, sometimes painful revelations that add layers to the storyline in the most simple way. The end result is the feeling that we’ve survived the night ourselves and taken an equally emotional journey.

As one review of Three Blind Mice states “This is the kind of Australian cinema we should get excited about.” Well in my opinion this is the type of cinema we should be excited about full stop. These things must be dead easy to fund and there must be screeds of young filmmakers who could make films like this in a cinch if they were given half a chance. I know I always say it but we need to derail mainstream cinema because it is killing the small films like this one. Three Blind Mice is a rare picture; realistic, funny, well acted, and with something meaningful to say.

Here’s a link to a Guardian article about Newton.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!

Before Friday Night Lights was a TV show it was a wildly underrated film made by Peter Berg in 2004 adapted from his cousin H.G. Bissinger’s revered book of the same name. After striking a deal with NBC to adapt Friday Night Lights into a television series, Berg helmed the Emmy award winning pilot which features the first seasons inciting incident: the tackle that breaks the neck of star quarterback Jason Street. From here the show follows the fallout from this event and chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Dillon High Panthers as they attempt to recoup after losing their best player. Yes, it is a show about Football, and jocks, and cheerleaders, but it humanises these clichéd characters in a way that is new, compelling, and at times downright rousing.

Admittedly I was sceptical about the show, expecting The O.C. against a high-school football backdrop, yet I gave the series a chance due to the strength of Berg’s film and his involvement as the show’s creator. To my delight the series is better than the film. Like most things I become enamoured with I’m sure it’s not as good as I think it is, and taking a step back I can see the moments of cliché and sentimentality that creep in every now and again. Yet it could be argued that the way Friday Night Lights uses cliché is in fact one of it’s key strengths. The writing is human with characters we would normally judge superficially becoming so endearing you hope they never decide to leave Dillon. It’s a show worth persevering with, even through some of the serious flaws of season two. You’ll be hooked by Season three and feel spear tackled at its conclusion when FNL is completely flipped on its head in an inspired and brave change of course.

The mainstays of FNL are Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, guidance counsellor Tami played by Connie Britton. Both are wonderful characters, played by two actors who we probably remember from lesser shows (Chandler played Gary in the 90s high-concept drama Early Edition, whilst Britton played assistant Nikki Faber in Spin City). The husband and wife relationship between Eric and Tami must be one of the best in any TV show or film I have seen.

Other notable key players are Taylor Kitsch (who recently played Gambit in Wolverine) as rogue full-back Tim Riggins and replacement Quarter Back Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) who must fill the massive shoes of Jason Street (Scott Porter) whilst coping with some more than difficult circumstances at home. But my favourite? Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), a character so likeable it is ridiculous. The real strength of FNL is it’s character development, and the way it can completely change the way you feel about a character in the space of one episode (sometimes even just one scene).

Besides its human drama and beautiful evocation of small town life, Friday Night Lights is the most realistically cast show in existence. Every single family looks utterly real. Children look so exactly like the combination of their parents DNA it can actually be distracting. Take for instance ‘Smash’ Williams and his Mama, Julie Taylor and her folks, Lyla and Buddy (check out the chins!) and later Landry and his father.

A carryover from the film is the use of music by post-rockers Explosions in the Sky. As music supervisor on the film Brian Reitzell filled the score with awesome tracks by Explosions as well as Iggy and Stooges, and even radical post-punkers Refused. The unusual choices suit the subject matter remarkably and despite Reitzell not supervising the show the same inspired choices are there, including the stirring sound of Explosions playing over the trademark sombre shots of Dillon from a moving vehicle. Later seasons feature some of my favourite songs including the title track from …Trail of the Dead’s masterpiece ‘Source Tags and Codes’.

On a surface level FNL looks great. It is shot in an exciting, handheld documentary style, which often snatches moments of intimacy through doorways in beautiful close-ups. At times it is very close to the visual style of a Cassavetes film, cutting from wides to extreme close ups as well as breaking basic rules of cinematography (such as crossing the line constantly). Everything in the show also seems to take place at either dusk or dawn, in front of the most beautiful Texas ‘big skies’ this side of a John Ford Western. The use of authentic locations adding to the shows realistic bent. In an age of the horrible, mundane high-key lighting used in shows like CSI and Greys Anatomy it is liberating to see a series shot the way FNL is shot. It is simply the most visually arresting television series I can think of.

So, if that doesn’t convince somebody to watch this overlooked gem of a show I don’t know what else will. Give the Panthers a fighting chance. For anyone interested here is the opening of the pilot episode.

“The other things you showed us are more exciting.” The September Issue (R.J. Cutler, 2009)

Fashion The September Issue

The September issue is the phonebook sized fashion bible Vogue magazine puts out every year which has the power to make or break designers and to ostensibly define what’s ‘in’ for the new fashion season. This film follows the production of the issue from concepts, to photo-shoots, to publication. Calling all the shots is Vogues ‘ice-queen’ editor Anna Wintour. Wintour was famously caricatured by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and has maintained her reputation as queen bitch of the fashion industry ever since. Good subject for a documentary.

Well, the trouble is she’s not really that much of a bitch. Anyone expecting this film to be full of behind-the-scenes fashionista infighting, and Wintour reducing interns to tears will be disappointed. The real Wintour is far from the bastardised version that Streep played. She is a petite woman, from a family of highly respected editors, who ruffles people’s feathers merely because she is in a position of power and must make tough decisions. Wintour isn’t nasty, like any editor she is just highly discerning.

Much of the film focuses on Wintour’s relationship with creative-editor Grace Coddington, a Welsh ex-model with a great mane of red hair. Towards the end the film becomes more about Coddington and it’s not hard to see why. She is everything Wintour is not, emotional, relatable and in essence interesting. The film plays on the inherent conflict between Coddington and Wintour, which is one of creativity vs. criticism. We side with Coddington because she seems like the only one who actually contributes to the magazine. Her often stunning photo-shoots when completed are lined up on a desk where all Wintour appears to do is yay or nay them.

This documentary is a great insight into the inner workings of Vogue magazine, however I can’t help but think the director RJ Cutler was expecting more meat. We never really get anywhere near Wintour, her ice-queen persona and designer glasses shielding any potential for intimate details. The confrontation between Coddington and Wintour never escalates far beyond Coddington complaining, and I frequently felt the film overreaching to try and make more of it. However, even without a great interest in the fashion industry The September Issue was an enlightening glimpse of the frequent absurdity of those in it, and the way in which a magazine like Vogue finds its way to the newsstand.

The September Issue Trailer

“I’m here to help you Sam.” Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

moon

There is a heck of a lot to like about Moon. It is a very confident debut by director Duncan Jones, which boasts retro-cool set design, coherent storytelling, and an excellent performance by the consistently wonderful Sam Rockwell. Despite knowing nods to sci-fi classics like 2001 and Solaris, Jones has created a truly original piece that uses its revisionist detailing to subvert generic trends and in many cases enliven them. Moon also manages to mix conventional narrative with challenging concepts, whilst remaining an accessible and enthralling picture for those uninitiated with science fiction cinema.

Moon is set in the near future as Earth suffers in the midst of a massive energy crisis. Helium3, a source of alternative power is discovered in abundance on the Moon’s surface where it is mined and shot back to Earth. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has the lonely job as the sole human inhabitant of the Moon, responsible for maintaining the harvesting of H3 for Lunar Industries. The film begins with Sam only two weeks from the end of his three-year contract and very much ready to return to his wife and daughter on Earth. Cue extreme complications.

It takes a great actor to carry a film by himself, and Sam Rockwell is exactly the man for the job. He is in fine form here, but then again always is. Another steadfast asset is Clint Mansell who contributes a marvellous score, perfectly suited to the isolation of the Moons dark side. Nathan Parker’s script is intricately plotted yet stays clear and interesting, perhaps only loosing its momentum slightly towards the end. The film also benefits from Kevin Spacey’s contribution as the voice of Gerty, a HAL 9000-esque talking robot who expresses feeling through constantly changing emoticons and is responsible for Sam’s safekeeping.

All these elements would be useless without the hands of a competent director and Jones certainly rises to the occasion, avoiding the stylistic pitfalls that can plague first time directors. His film is restrained, allowing the brilliantly designed sets to dominate his frame and give the picture its air of alienation. The production design is a real joy, which gives the film value far beyond its meagre budget, whilst the exterior sequences that utilise miniatures are really something special. I strongly recommend Moon. It’s another case of ambitious independent films trumping Hollywood mega-productions not only in terms of originality, but storytelling, acting and even production design as well.

Moon Trailer

Interview with Director Duncan Jones

“Those satisfactions are permanent.” Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

GTO

The “New Hollywood” was a period beginning around 1967 with Arthur Penn’s explosive Bonnie and Clyde and ending with the studio-busting catastrophe of Michael Cimino’s overblown Heavens Gate in 1980. Perhaps the most fruitful chapter in the history of Hollywood cinema, one need only mention The Godfather, Taxidriver, Jaws and Star Wars for examples of the calibre of pictures being churned out by the new generation of “Movie Brats”. Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Spielberg and Altman all peaked in this era when the bewildered studios threw them money to make whatever pictures they wanted to.

Beyond these giants was a wealth of superb directors. Malick, Rafelson, Lumet and Ashby all deserve the praise lashed upon those mentioned above. It is Monte Hellman who has been most sorely overlooked. He remained only a footnote for many years, responsible for the peculiar Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. However, in 1971 Hellman made the definitive existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, a picture that like so many classics flopped terribly and took years to receive the reconsideration it deserved.    

Two-Lane features James Taylor as The Driver and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, two car aficionados who drive around looking for street drags in their iconic primer-grey ‘55 Chevy. The plot is as pared down as their car revolving around a cross-country race for “pink-slips” between them and Warren Oates’ fast-talking GTO. Thrown into the unlikely group is The Girl, a young drifter who moves between both cars offering these troubled, stoic men the only means for any possible expression.

For a car movie the pace is slow, but I prefer to term it ‘hypnotic’. The race fizzles out revealing a film that’s really about men who are lost. Warren Oates is magnificent as GTO, a pathological liar he epitomises the confidence man, telling wild lies he thinks everybody wants to hear. There are so many great lines in Rudy Wurlitzers script, and Oates gets most of them. His best is “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit”, which by the end we realise is probably the truest thing he’s said. The ending is wildly audacious but absolutely perfect, summing up the dictum that the horizon is invisible and the road endless. If you’re looking for a film that will stay with you try this one, it’s a satisfaction that’s permanent. 

“Nobody loses all the time.” Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)

Alfredo Garcia

In Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, a lengthy shot simply holds on the face of Warren Oates. The longer it lasts the more handsome Oates seems, he is motionless and his eyes squint under his hallmark furrowed brow. And then he moves his mouth, and you realise it must be one of the strangest mouths to grace any human being on earth. There’s never been any actor quite like Oates, he was one of a kind, utterly unique in every respect, and brilliant beyond recognition.

Alfredo Garcia marks one of only a handful of films in which Oates was given a lead role, and boy does he leave his mark on it. A synopsis is hardly necessary, the films title is emblematic of the plot. Needless to say, the head of Alfredo Garcia becomes the object of desire for Bennie, a down-and-out pianist playing Guantanamera in Mexico for chump change. When ten large is offered for the said head, Bennie sets out with his lover Elita, a prostitute, and former mistress of Garcia to find the crown and claim the jewels. 

Critically savaged and a box-office flop, Alfredo Garcia is still regarded by some as among the worst films ever made. For others it is Peckinpah’s last masterpiece, his most personal film, and contains Oates’ most sublime performance. Amongst the violence and absurdity is an elegiac Oates, most beautifully visible during a roadside picnic in the gentlest scene in Peckinpah’s oeuvre.  Despite this tender scene the film is transgressive even by Peckinpah’s standards. When Garcia does enter the plot, this lucid road-movie really switches gears and becomes very violent, yet remains heartbreakingly affecting despite the self-induced despair of Bennie’s situation. 

On the back of Pat Garett’s failure, Peckinpah drunk himself half to death on Alfredo Garcia, ostracising practically everyone around, him including his good friend Oates. Oates’ performance is  an imitation of this Peckinpah, so much so that he took to wearing the directors clothes and  sunglasses, as well as adopting his drinking habit. As much as Peckinpah tried to self-destruct, it was sadly Oates who died first, at 53. Alfredo Garcia is the last picture they would make together, and in my opinion the best. The film is about as hard to come by as Garcia’s head, but if you find it grab it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.