NY Export: Opus Jazz

DVD Cover for Factory25's release of NY Export: Opus Jazz.

There is no other way to say it, this was the best film I saw this year. Try as I may to find a film better suited for this title I can’t. I’ve seen NY Export: Opus Jazz almost 20 times. I’ve stood outside theaters on multiple occasions where it was showing just to watch the audience’s enthusiastic reactions as they left the screening. I’ve shown it to everyone I know that will sit with me to watch it and the film never fails to take my breath away. When I watch this film tiny explosions go off in my mind. Sometimes it is a shot or series of shots for that matter, sometimes it is a cut, as in the case of the narrative bridges between the difference dance sequences, but at all times it is the film’s unashamed love for ballet that sweeps the floor.

Before this film I was essentially ignorant of Jerome Robbins’ life, but to be fair I was terribly familiar with his impressive contributions to film. I’ve seen and loved The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler on the Roof, all brilliantly choreographed by Robbins. But had I never seen Opus Jazz I might have overlooked his accomplishments due to his most notorious cinematic achievement. The film, for which he was ultimately awarded an Academy Award for directing, was West Side Story. I’ve always held a grudge with it, ever since we were forced to view it in my seventh grade English class. I hated that movie and hated the class. Ever since then I had never thought to revisit it. A task set forth upon me by the filmmaking team behind Opus Jazz. I can safely say there are only two films with dance numbers that give me goosebumps, and those are NY Export: Opus Jazz and West Side Story.

How can a film with essentially no story, no studio, and no money become the achievement that it is? To put it simply, “care.” There is no one detail of the film that isn’t on the same level as the posthumous contribution of Jerome Robbins. From the perfect urban locations found over the years of pre-production, to the vibrant yet common wardrobe of today’s youth, to the visceral passion of the dancers, and to the commitment of the filmmakers in presenting the work, every aspect has it’s own artful place. This sounds epically cheese ball, but every second of movie is a glimpse into heart of the dancers and the filmmakers alike. In the same way that Robbins created this ballet in praise of youth, the film gives light to the criminally under seen art of this particular ballet.

Directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes team up with Editor Zac Stuart-Pontier to recreate the spirit and vision for dance in cinema that Jerome Robbins clearly had as evidenced by his directorial work on West Side Story. To say that their input simply maintains the level of focus Robbins had would be the truth if that statement were not so inadequate. The trio not only finds the angles and cuts that bring the movement and energy hurtling to life on the screen, but they impress their strengths deep into the inner workings of the film’s language. This enriches the material with a perspective that at once demands your attention but also respects and enhances the work of dancers on screen.

A dance choreographed for the screen.

In one painfully physical sequence in a high school gym, the dancers seem to glide on the fronts of their toes. Yet the location of the gym provides this wonderful echo chamber that emphasizes the weight, strength, and momentum. With every step, pound and squeak the performance takes on another level of commitment. This piece is also the most entertaining as it tasks the dancers to evoke the struggle and playfulness of their young sexual desires. Who knew that ballet would be this much fun to watch? It makes you wonder why more of it isn’t performed in gyms and wearing sneakers.

We get this experience and others equally exciting in part because of Producers and NYCB Soloist Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi who came up with the idea to make a film of this ballet on location throughout the New York City. As someone who has seen many films featuring on location dance through years of working in video art festivals, it isn’t that crazy original of an idea. The true testament of the work of these producers was their unwillingness to compromise their ambitions. This film took years to make, and it shows in every single frame. In 2010 I had assumed that films like this don’t exist anymore. Part way through the production of West Side Story the Producers pulled Robbins off the film, telling him essentially that he didn’t know how to make a movie. He won best picture for his work. NY Export: Opus Jazz deserves every and any award it can get. It is simply, utterly, unique in all of right ways.

I had originally written a review declaring similar praise in my SXSW 2010 coverage where it had it’s theatrical premier, but it was too soon to say what I wanted to say. It went on to win SXSW’s Emerging Visions Audience Award and later premiered on PBS’s Great Performances nationally. The film plays with a short documentary by Matt Wolf and Anna Farrell about the making of the film and Jerome Robbins. NY Export: Opus Jazz is currently available on DVD, it is the perfect stocking stuffer (and currently on my wishlist!) for the film lover or dance enthusiast in your family.

Nowhere Boy

Kristin Scott Thomas and Aaron Johnson star in Sam Taylor Wood's Nowhere boy. 2010 The Weinstein Company

So we are going to do a John Lennon biopic, where do we start? Hmmm let me think, the origins of the band and his relationship with Paul McCartney, or wait maybe with the time in his life when he was getting to know his mother for the first time right before she was killed, or whatever defining moment. It seems like a stacked deck for melodrama and a sloppy plot. To me one movie is too little time to tell either of those stories to their fullest. Those would be my thoughts if it weren’t for Nowhere Boy’s ability to accomplish the former without running amuck with crappy Beatles references, etc. If there is a pitfall or cliché to avoid, Sam Taylor-Wood, the film’s director, does so, in search of a movie about a boy and his search for a mother.

To be honest I wasn’t going into the picture with fair expectations, I truly thought there would be a bit of dialogue that cleverly placed the word, “Imagine,” in a sentence. I sat waiting for a character to pop up with the name ‘Prudence,” or the band to play at a fictional club called the “Glass Onion.” As was the case with other “mainstream” Beatles films, by Beatles film I am not speaking of the film series in which the band produced while still together. I’m referencing movies like Julie Taymor’s disastrously indulgent “Across the Universe,” or even the VH1 made for TV film about the fictional reunion between John and Paul, “Two of Us.” The latter of which was not all that painful in fact at times it was quite nice, albeit a work of pure fantasy. No Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy is fortunately nowhere to be found among these and other less then savory legendary music biopic films. In fact it is hardly about The Beatles, it is about John Lennon and the family life that makes for a compelling start to a troubled career.

That said the most distracting aspect of the movie are any and all aspect of the art direction. Rarely do the costumes feel lived in or unfitted. Everyone looks overly tidy and clean. This is rock and roll isn’t it? If that is the intent I don’t really buy it. A splotch of blood here and there, which looked so over the top it is a wonder they did it at all. Also no offense to Aaron Johnson who is a very handsome fellow, this is the second film I’ve seen him in where I thought to myself he looks like he’s got a physical trainer. John Lennon wasn’t an athletic person to the extent where it drew attention to itself. Either way, who knows maybe Lennon drank protein shakes every morning.

On this note there also seems to be a concerted attempt to manufacture a star at times, but the truth is with a story like Lennon’s childhood it is hard not to be on his side in the end. He is just one of those good old-fashioned underdogs. Which is thankfully what this movie economizes. The relationship between Lennon and his mother Julia, capably handled by Anne-Marie Duff, is unique and cinematically fertile territory for the subject at hand. What sells it and ties the knot for me is any one scene it is the characters’ relationship with Lennon’s guardian, Aunt Mimi who is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. The three play off each other like family, albeit a tad theatrically but nothing more then the script calls for.

While aspects of the film are more angst-y then necessary, I think audiences young and old will find something to enjoy here. Its about as commercial a movie as it could be given its inherit limitations and obvious niche appeal. It is a film that does work to expand on Lennon’s often autobiographical lyrics. Nowhere Boy definitely leaves songs like “Julia,” “Mother,” or “Look At Me” become a little less of an open book to imaginative fans. Was it an artistic achievement worthy of higher praise, no, but it was a good movie.

Pretty Pictures of Dangerous Things

Cover Image of the DVD set for release on June 29th, 2010. Property of Factory 25

A little over a week ago I went to a really tasty Indian Food Restaurant and two drab and obese women were sitting next to me.  My initial observations were laid to rest as I heard their conversation. Essentially they were discussing how to best utilize green screens with stop motion. Immediately I knew they were in fact filmmakers. I wanted to interrupt and join their conversation upon the immediate common ground that I shared with them. Thankfully I did not because what I learned from eavesdropping was a far more candid take on the issues they faced. Their audience, high school students, they were both teachers who collectively worked to create stop motion films to illustrate lessons. Brilliant! The argued over the new lesson plans that were in talks for the following year and how it would effect their work and whether or not they had enough time to finish their new project before the summer ended. They also commented on their persistence in doing what they love no matter how much time it takes out of their normal routine. These women for my dollar are the type artists I want to see more of! But sadly their’s is also the type of work that will never be seen by anyone who could appreciate it on the aesthetic level that would allow them to grow. Realistically I’m not sure they’d want that anyways. Needless to say it was no stretch for me to sympathize with their plight and just hearing their struggle was, simply put, comforting and notably inspiring.

This week a DVD will quietly be released of a documentary that quietly traveled the festival circuit last year despite winning various awards and inciting extensive critical acclaim. The film is Brock Enright: Good Time Will Never be the Same by Jody Lee Lipes. It follows the making and construction of Performance Artist Brock Enright’s first solo exhibition at the noted Perry Rubinstein Gallery in New York City. Brock had received previous attention with his Videogames Adventure Services, which customers, as I understand, could pay to have someone they know or themselves kidnapped. After the media circus that followed this endeavor, Brock committed himself to his artwork fulltime. Lipes’ film tackles a portrait of an artist finding meaning in his work while also seeking for inner direction. To call it a fascinating look behind the curtain, which by all means it is, would be an understatement. The film chooses to focus on the present tense in a way where we as viewers become a part of the world. Where our reactions to the material on screen seem interwoven into the framework of cuts and framing of the characters.

While I’m not sure the film successfully creates a hero in Brock, it does enjoy the steps taken to create one. Part child, part wild man, part nightmare, part mouse, Brock seems to work ceaselessly despite the mounting bills. So while the mischief Enright uses to create his work occurs we find ourselves drawn to see where his mind goes. In other hands this could be the point at which an audience might feel lost but this is quite the opposite. The darker our journey gets and the more wild and chaotic the happenings the perspective stays consistently calm. Through Lipes’ use of simple framing compositions and, editor Lance Edmunds, delicate cuts the insanity of the artwork is somehow by contrast grounded. The concept is simple enough, but in practice it is what makes this film by and large a unique and highly enjoyable spectacle to watch.

I have always seen successful art as something that just felt right for me. Whether I am creating it or observing it, if it feels off I know it usually means I must stop my train of thought and restart with a fresh and adaptive approach. This is a process captured on screen multiple times over with Brock during the course of the film. Despite the fact that most people will never make art the way Brock does, this film allows us to understand his struggle to create it. So whether an artist is preparing a class lesson with clay and a green screen or wearing a mouse nose dancing in woods with a sledgehammer for an exhibition in New York City, they are working to create something that feels right. In a time where many people spend their whole lives feeling out of place or uncomfortable it is always refreshing to encounter those with the aptitude to find out what uniquely gives them satisfaction. As much as there has been said about art and the creation of art; few sentiments offer a good comment to what it is or what it takes to make it. On the surface art can be beautiful, it can be disgusting, serene or abrasive, mild or dense, but little to reflect on the struggle to create or what it might feel like to do so. Currently we live in a time where art can be found anywhere; being made my almost everyone with an iPhone. It is safe to say that not just anyone could do what Brock Enright does, nor could many people make the film that Lipes has.

While the documentary does not include much of Brock’s final exhibition the DVD thankfully gives us the final product in the form of a film. If you are at all as frustrated with the present releases at the theaters then this film will come as a welcome surprise. Be warned this film deals with sexual and “gross out” subject matter (with drugs and alcohol in the mix) in a chaotic and often times in a concequence-free setting. In other words my mother would cringe through much of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

©2010, RDF Rights

Bill Hicks in NY.

American: The Bill Hicks Story, is exactly that, his story no more, and no less, as told by those who loved him the most. The filmmakers applied an interesting approach by animating photos to recreate memories that would never or could never have been filmed. You’d think that this would work towards creating context for the live shows that Mr. Hicks was famous for, but it just doesn’t. As captivating it is to watch a man tear himself down to only turn around and become a counter-culture superstar is, I never felt like I was transported to what it felt like to be near him or to have to deal with him. Part of that is because of the animations which turn him into a cartoon and sort of undermine his presence. Don’t get me wrong.  There are some hilarious and thought-provoking clips of Bill performing, but that makes for only about a little more then a third of the film.

But those events were not created by the filmmakers, those events were created by Bill Hicks and the controversy his mind stirred. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, began as just fans interested in spreading the good word about Bill Hicks. The most logical step beyond revivals was of course to create this documentary as a love letter to Bill and his career. It seems like a good idea, but this film misses where it so badly needs it. Essentially Bill’s greatest obstacle was himself, but he manages to overcome that to then die years later from complications due to the excessive substance abuse of his early years. It is always sad to see a man burn out before he could shine his brightest, but it ain’t anything new. Even as personal as this film gets, nothing unpredictable was unearthed. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the point of a portrait doc, to pull back a veil, or shine light, on someone we have never met? So therein lies the biggest problem: We know Bill Hicks. He told who he was and how he felt.

What makes this film fun to watch are the numerous and clips of Bill’s shows. What isn’t fun to watch is the boring documentary attached. While fans will appreciate its “Behind the Music” approach and Hicks “virgins” might even find this as an intriguing introduction to the man, seekers of great cinema be warned. The documentary segment of the film is visually tedious and benign in its attempt to be evocative. A better introduction to Bill Hicks and his legacy would be to check out one his fantastic stand up specials which capture his essence far more efficiently than American: The Bill Hicks Story.

The film opens in the UK on May 14th.

American: The Bill Hicks Story • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 • Running Time: 107 minutes • MPAA Rating: Not Rated • Distributed by RDF Rights

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

Harmony Korine: Trash Humpers

"Harmony Korine" Drawing by Douglas Pollard

Dressed all in white and with a smile, Harmony upon meeting me asked if I’d ever added an “I – A” to my last name.  Thus began our what was actually a pretty normal conversation for two filmmakers to have.

Cinemalogue: What time did you come in?

Harmony Korine: Well I’ve been filming rum ads in Central American, so I didn’t get in until late.

C: Wait, you were doing rum ads?

HK: Yeah.

C: What company?

HK: The company’s called Havana Rum. I don’t think they sell it here. Oh no, sorry! It’s called Havana Club.

C: They wouldn’t if it’s Cuban, I guess.

HK: Well it’s a French-Cuban company.

C: Wow, have you heard about the screenings here, they have been touting another story, say you were in dream therapy, I don’t recall the details. But it was a much more dramatic story then Rum Commercials. Do you attend your screenings?

HK: Well I haven’t been in a while, but I’ve been to a couple. Cause it’s pretty fun.

C: They played you opening night against “Kick-Ass,” and I was able to go.

HK: Oh you went the first night! I heard about that, yes.

C: Really? What did you hear?

HK: Well that’s all I heard. I never even heard of “Kick-Ass,” but that it was a big movie.

C: My friends were going to “Kick-Ass” and I waited in line with them and got in, and I just started feeling sick from the morning and it was crowded. So I left, I don’t know, because…

HK: You didn’t want to see it! I don’t blame you.

C: It had a weird feel and I just it might start everything off sort of dirty or wrong, or sourly. And I was already not feeling well so, that coupled the thought of seeing Nick Cage’s hair for the first time on screen.

HK: It’s just another superhero movie.

C: Well anyway, so for whatever reason, I, at the last moment, hurried over to see your film. And I was the last badge holder to get in, before the tickets folk were let in. The only seats were in the very front two rows, which actually was really great. So I got to sit with the ticket holders who’d been waiting in line for some time, and the turn-aways from “Kick-Ass.”

HK: Oh no, those people probably walked out.

C: I had a real trooper next to me, apparently she was a city council person, and the kid next to me kept whispering “this is amazing” over and over again. While the woman one the other side of me held her hand to her mouth as she witnessed the death of the dream. It was I can only imagine both a terrifying and profound experience for her.

HK: For sure, that’s what I was hoping for, I know it’s not going to happen, but to show it in some kind of school situation.

C: You know, I could see the reception for it there to go quite well actually.

HK: I know it’s sounds weird but, eventually before I started making the film, I was hoping to make a movie that, it was my dream to make a film that somehow could connect with the tween set. You know what I mean, like the Miley Cyrus, like the Jonas Brothers.

C: There is actually a woman running around with a cardboard cut out standee of Miley Cyrus trying to get filmmakers to pose with it.

HK: Really that’s funny, well I know that they like things with like novelty, and that maybe somehow they’d be seduced by the kind of insanity of the situation.

C: I know that last year there was a field trip day at one of the venues, and they had both a retirement community and a high school group there on the same day. They had the buses and everything all over the parking lot. Anyway, I saw a pretty provocative film, called “Afterschool,” and the elders openly refused the film. I assume based on the themes being presented. Most of them left before the film was over, but the kids staid. While I don’t think they got the film, they stuck around and watched until the credits were finished.

HK: Really, now was that for “Trash Humpers?”

C: No, a film the played at SXSW last year, called “Afterschool.”

HK: I expect a 10 to 15 percent walk out from my film.

C: I think you might’ve got it at the first screening.

HK: I hope so, its just that, the thing is that you can make the argument that it’s not actually a movie, in the traditional sense. I wasn’t sure that calling it a film was the right thing to do, it was it’s own thing. It’s more like an artifact or a found piece of footage, but it should feel more like something that was discarded. Like it was buried somewhere in a ditch, it was meant to work more in that kind of, watch it and there wasn’t any kind of formal narrative.  Do you know what I mean? And I’m starting to believe that this idea of movies and films is starting to change, and this traditional kind of three-act structure, beginning middle and end and lasts two hours, that’s starting to maybe be an old idea. That maybe, there’s something else out there.

C: I don’t know, there is something different that’s been happening for a while though now, which is how we perceive entertainment. The means to procure a quick laugh or tear comes from, well at first America’s Funniest Home Videos, but then now with YouTube and “treadmill humor.” These situations created an accessible opportunity to audiences to bring their own stories or experiences to these very, very short vignettes. So for whatever reason they just went with it, they didn’t stop to think wait I have to think here! That was what it was and people accept that.

HK: Which is strange because that is what was in my mind when I was making Gummo, that’s what I felt at the time very strongly about, a specific direction that was exciting. There was a fragmentation or a collage element to it, that was poignant.

C: As a teenager, I watched that film with my mother…

HK: Gummo?

C: Yeah.

HK: You watched it with your Mom? [laughs]

C: Yeah, I had just found IFC or whatever and I taped all these movies and I showed her. She didn’t like it at all. At the time, I’m not sure I liked it either because I was in a phase where I was obsessed with finding movies that we could both like. It always made me very nervous because she didn’t like it and I used get really weird if someone were to bring it up. Because she was so mad at the film. [Harmony laughs] Around the same time this girl I liked, had a picture of the boy with the accordion, and she though he was really cute. So I thought I’d try and learn to play the accordion. Which never occurred, but that was how I remember that film.

HK: Really? [laughs] I never heard that. How did that turn out for you?

C: Well, I didn’t learn how to play the accordion. It was not a successful story.

HK: Oh shit.

C: Back to Trash Humpers though, it has a similar sort of approach to the scenes.

HK: I wouldn’t even call them scenes, I mean, like when we were editing them I started out calling them scenes and then, I stopped. They are just moments, you know, like in a home movie, it’s just a collection of moments. Trash Humpers was more about documenting that action.  We never did anything twice, there was no kind of coverage, you’d never go to a close up. It was only, it was about, you would wake up in the morning you’d have a group of people, you’d have a camera, and start to walk through the woods. You would come out the other side and you’d see a strip mall. You’d throw a rock through a window. You would film that, you would walk to a house, a street light, you would hump it. Hump the mailbox. You would knock on the door, and then walk in the house. And it just became a kind of documentation of vandalism. Once I figured that out in my mind the structure of it, the look of it, the feel, and that it was more like an artifact. Then I thought to myself, there really could be no right or wrong. Are there mistakes in home videos? You know what I’m saying? It is what it is. And so then the editing process was more like picking a moment, think of it starting and ending randomly. And that there is never attention paid to a bigger moment. Like you wouldn’t necessarily pay more attention to an amateurish shot or you would to someone being killed. Its all the same thing, its all part of the same thing.

C: There is definitely the sense when you’re watching the film, and I’ve seen quite a few other films that are share this sense, that when you are watching the film on a surface level, the cuts seem to occur arbitrarily or randomly. I think there is a way to watch Trash  Humpers, and presumed this, but I really do not think that mentality could last the duration of the film. It’s the opinion of the walkout or what have you. For me, that sense I’m talking about is an increasing comfort that I feel with each consecutive cut. You it isn’t [in a crazy voice] “well let’s cut here to and what the heck.”

HK: That’s a very good observation, it’s made to look like that, but it’s not necessarily like that.

C: You couldn’t create the feelings. I mean you might, I guess… it might be interesting to watch footage like that in this way but, I don’t think…

HK: There is a manipulator, there is a maker behind it.

C: That is what I appreciate the most about it. It’s capturing amusement, the [Humpers] aren’t filming anything that doesn’t entertain them. The character of the camera operator looks for that. I mean sometimes they are less then excited about the performer they are watching, but they still pay very close attention. They are very polite.

HK: They are self contained. They just think of things in opposite terms. You know what I mean? Because all they want to do is bad, but they want to do it beautifully. Do you know what I mean? They kind of want to turn vandalism and destruction and chaos into something that’s transcendent and beautiful. So like the thing where people go to sleep they’re awake and vise versa. They’re just living a life in terms of philosophy only everything is opposite.

C: It really is a sweet and tender movie in a lot of ways like that. It doesn’t end on any sort of negativity, unless negativity is projected upon it. It leaves you with not a sense of cruelty but quite the opposite, it is intimate and sweet. It comes back to what I was saying earlier the woman next to me is terrified as it concludes. When the guy on my right is and has been “on the level” or whatever the whole time. Yet in some way I help but think her experience was far superior to his. I can’t imagine what her day was like the next morning.

HK: That’s interesting, I mean, it is interesting, because I wonder if movies today still have that kind of effect. Like when I used to watch movies like Tati’s films there was always the possibility that it could change the way you thought about life. Or it could cast a kind of a glow on you. Now there’s so much information out there I wonder if people could still be shocked or if people could still be moved in that way. In that very deep way, in a way that is difficult to articulate. That’s very exciting to me. That someone, you keep making films, because you want people to be moved in someway that’s inexplicable. In a way that’s difficult to articulate in words, and the movies are necessarily about liking or disliking. They’re about changing, they’re about going through you, and they’re experiential. Like where you, where you’ve been emotionally altered. Its not exactly like you know why, like a life experience.

C: Its very interesting because I think a lot of writer and a lot of directors work very hard to get that out of actors and their plots. Just like the people in the film its that turn around, but only it is with the viewer where we are creating a sense of dramatic conflict, desire and expectation. That’s one thing that is really important in Trash Humpers, and whether or not it works on people is that it can change how you expect the next sixty minutes of your life.

HK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, its like that thing, and I’ve said it before. I’ve never been concerned with or I’ve never desired, I’ve never been obsessed with making perfect sense. The idea that you would create a perfect nonsense. That’s something that is much more exciting to me.

C: As we are talking here, I sort of wish I had been angered by the film in some way. Just really upset with you, even though I’m happy I’m not. I was frustrated with the film and disoriented by it, but I liked that feeling. In a lot of ways the fact the I reacted so diversely to the moments of the film, was pretty inspiring. There is a quote that says you don’t go into a theater to think, you go there to be thought for. That’s sort of a rule of thumb for all your films though isn’t it?

HK: Yeah, there is something different about this one. In someways, I don’t even know, in someways, this one might be my favorite. Just because it is very, I know know, there is something special about it.

C: Oh definitely there is definitely something special about a film that prompts people to quote for a week or so after seeing it! Every time you hear one thing mentioned from it, your mind races through the song, the laugh…

HK: Or the expression, “Make it, make it, don’t take it.” Yeah, the cackle is the thing. I think, it just happened very naturally too. I was  like, ohhh, well maybe that was it. Maybe it is thematically connective, these horrific cackles, maybe that becomes the connector.

C: How did the monologues come about, there are these, for lack of a better word, stand-up comics come about. Where did they come from?

HK: The entertainers, well, you know it is different with each. They are all people that I know, a lot of them I knew as a kid growing up in Nashville. Some of them are like comedians who tell jokes with punch lines. They are kind of like bedroom musicians or closet vaudevillian actors and something like that. I always liked that type of thing. A lot of that was different people I knew that had these types of very specific talent. And that were also, kind of, marginally eccentric. At some point the Trash Humpers, if you look at the movie, one of the things is that they are always searching for entertainment. There’s like four or five moments or scenes where they’re being given stand up routines or people playing music for them or breaking light bulbs. Whatever it is, all they really care about is fornicating with trash, smashing things, breaking things, burning things, fucking things, fellating things, and being entertained. In some ways I really love all those things too. Minus the fellating of course.

Trash Humpers opens in New York and Los Angeles in May and Austin in June. The film will then be released on DVD by Drag City Records sometime in September. I guarantee you this film’s 35mm print will play at midnights on into the ether. If it plays and you are around it is worth a watch, if only to be a part of conversation. At least that’s what a pretty honest friend of mine told someone after he saw it at SXSW.

Frank V. Ross: Audrey the Trainwreck

"Frank V. Ross" drawing by Douglas Pollard.

Audrey starts in the middle of a party, everyone is talking and there really is no time to gather your bearings before the story begins. I caught up with writer/director/editor Frank V. Ross and his cinematographer David Lowery in much the same way. So it seemed to make sense that I should speak with them five days into a festival that seems forever in motion. This was a day after the film premiered to a very vocal reception from the satisfied festival audience. Both of them were pleasant to speak to, but what surprised me was their nonchalant attitude to their filmmaking process.

Cinemalogue: So the screening went really well yesterday, what were your thoughts?

Frank V. Ross: People were laughing. They laughed a lot, when they should’ve, you know. Laughed out loud. You know, violence is funny. When the credits came up and everyone laughed and applauded, I was like, yeah okay. Good. [both laugh] I sort of welled up.

C: It was a really infectious screening.

David Lowery: I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it, it is not one of the buzzed about films.

C: One of the things about the film that worked so well was the piecing together of the cast, which made for a very strong sense ensemble in the supporting cast. It is a very big little film in that way.

FVR: The idea of the film was to have one of the lead characters be judged and then looked at through all the people in his periphery. How work friends sort of trail off into real friends, and real friends have their friends and they know him. It was just creating a strong periphery. Okay, because when you see him in his world that’s when you’re judging him as opposed to how he sees them.

C: As a contrast there is one scene where it is definitely from his perspective, when they are playing volleyball, or in other scenes when he doesn’t want to take the phone call…

FVR: But that’s half an hour into the film, and we’ve already seen the other side, and then it sort of switches over, in an ever so subtle way.

C: Really, I guess that’s because the film moves quick. While those transitions are subtle, the opening is really jarring. I thought it was mistake with the projector until the opening title came up, and then came up again, and then this other title. Is that something of a trademark with your work?

FVR: I don’t know I just like to start them and get them rolling and I felt the idea of the movie was really abstract. So I wanted to call it these two different things. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday, and everyone calls it Breakfast of Champions. Yet, the “or Goodbye Blue Monday” is such an awesome part in the book, so I just wanted to do that specifically. That was it.

C: Since so much of the film is this chaotic dialogue, it really feels like a writer’s movie. It’s very literary while at the same time, it still feels real. Was this a script that you had for a long time before you shot it?

FVR: No. I had the script for maybe three months before we shot it, I think. I really wanted to do it in October. Cause it is really pretty with all the leaves. So it’s October make or break it, David…

David Lowery: I read it in August.

FVR: And that was right after I finished it. David was on board whether we had money or didn’t have money. So it was more, let’s shoot this movie.

DL: Regardless of how much people say about the ad-libbing that goes on, this film was the script 90%.

FVR: [nods] It is, it is. A weird thing happens and [the audience] thinks that [the actors] made it up. But that’s when its like, it works. They’re like, [he has] enough credit.

DL: But that was there, word for word.

C: Last night I ran into one of your actors, Danny Rhodes, and I complimented him on what was a really nice bit of improv, but he then informed me that his rant towards the end of the film was completely scripted.

DL: That was a scene where ad-libbing caused great stress. Cause we had to re-shoot it.

FVR: The first time we shot it they tried to sort of dance around it, but [the scene] is so specific. And its such a difficult, finite rhetoric that you can’t waver. Plus if you waver it’s going to take twice as long, which is like twenty minutes.

DL: Exactly.

C: There is a sort of episodic nature to the film, don’t get me wrong, it really flows, it doesn’t feel like the film is starting and stopping, starting and stopping. In fact it is quite the opposite.

FVR: That all comes from the laying out the outline of scripting it out and everything.

C: There doesn’t seem to be a way for a film to feel so controlled and then turn around and say it was all made up on the spot.

FVR: It probably could, but I couldn’t do it. Someone could pull it off for sure, but not me.

C: Can you walk me through creating one of these scenes, because in all of them there is  a density to them.

DL: Well like for the first scene, in the garage, we would just talk about what was going on. I guess I was like, here’s how I see it happening and often times that’s how you’d see it. And then we’d shoot it.

FVR: Yep, I think we think similarly.

DL: We think cinematically very similarly. So it is more just, here’s a scene, but there were a few times where I could not understand what you wanted.

FVR: [laughs]

DL: Or where, I remember being surprised at how I envisioned something, one or two times where I envisioned something differently, and then it was, oh this is how you wanted it. It occurred to me during the screening, but I don’t remember what they are now. But the opening scene is really complex in a lot of ways, but as I remember it was really easy to shoot. We shot it really fast.

FVR: That’s how I know how to shoot.

DL: There is so much that makes sense here, but I know we talked about how Ron was always in the background. Just hanging out, and you just said that at the very beginning of the shoot. We just went with that, and that was sort of the centrifugal idea. Around which we built the rest of the movie. He’s always just kind of in the background a bit.

I don’t know. [trails off] I guess we just made it…

FVR: Terrible answer. Its all on real locations they can only be in so many places in the house so it’s like, you’re in the front room. [acts it out] Okay, you get on the floor, okay that looks good. You know David, the table looks better here, okay good. And then you just get the coverage. You know what I mean, the actors don’t play to a camera, ever. And sometimes David would find a shot that looks so good, that it eliminated what I wanted. Like the scene where he’s eating the chips. When we shot that, we didn’t shoot any coverage. No, that’s it. I want to watch that. Or when the train is going by and all that, we just shot all the masters every time there was a train, and then when there wasn’t a train we went for a close-up.

C: What about with the ambulance? Did you call 9-1-1?

FVR: We heard it coming off in the distance. “I hear and ambulance, I hear and ambulance!” Okay, then we just waited for it. We only shot like three takes of that part because it was like, it’s got to be the ambulance. [laughs] We could sit here and wait for another one, but it won’t happen.  You know, because the reason why the answer is bad, is because we work fast and quick and instinctively. So we really didn’t second guess ourselves.

DL: We’ve gotten to a point where we can trust our instincts enough to be able to work fast and not really think about it. Now is the first time where we are actually talking about it.

FVR: I’ve never had the opportunity to not work fast. It’s how we work.

C: Even then there is a comfort here with all the chaos.

DL: There is one thing I noticed that I don’t think we really talked about, maybe we did, but, like [the material] so intensely confrontational. At the beginning and then from the cutting to the way we shot it, it was all really relaxed.

C: There was one scene where I was a little frustrated when I watched the film, at this point we discussed the philosophy behind it, but could you talk about the realtor scene with Kris Swanberg. In the scene the main characters meet for the first time in a cafe, but then this realtor comes in with a customer and sits near to them. The direction of the scene rather jarringly then places the realtor and the customer at the forefront. Both conversations remain audible, but the realtor’s is mixed slightly louder.

FVR: That was directly from the script, and I thought it was a good idea. There’s a version of the script where it’s much more typical, as far as first dates go, and I felt it was really, really boring. But I think as it is, it makes a good point about how you can BS with anyone. You know, you can talk with anyone. That it’s really easy to talk to people, but there’s other people you just feel a certain connection that doesn’t have anything to do with what you are saying. I thought it would be funny to show those people talking about relationships, but they’re just there for business.

C: It was a nice unexpected gag when they then pull out the housing listing after having this very nice conversation.

Tiny Furniture

Aura, played by writer/director Lena Dunham, and Jed, played by Alex Karpovsky, examine the health of her hampster. Photo Property of Tiny Furniture Film

Before there was Home Video there were these theaters that took on long runs of films like Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude, or Grey Gardens. Where audiences would just return to the theater to watch a film over and over again. These films developed multifaceted cult followings. Certain groups could watch the film like a record hearing the music they loved, for others like a series of their favorite pictures of friends or family they know, or like the themes of a novel. But all of them understood the offbeat humor, and knew the story by heart. When I think back on Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, it feels like one of those films.

With Tiny Furniture, Dunham marks this as both her second feature film as a writer/director as well as fulfilling the role of lead star. Her first feature film, Creative Nonfiction, with all its tensely awkward humor and dry self-depreciation conveys everything there is to be liked from Todd Solondz without being confrontational. I was very enthusiastic when the opportunity arose to have a conversation with Lena about her new film, but when it occurred I of course left my audio recorder somewhere at the hotel. However I will do my best to restate the insight I have attained here as I explain why Tiny Furniture is the most important film to leave the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival.

In the first minutes of the film, during the exquisitely crafted opening titles sequence, we learn almost everything we need to know about Aura, played by Dunham, she is leaving school, she has a hamster, and most of all she is very unhappy. Immediately the capable filmmaking of, Creative Nonfiction, is gone and the serendipitous collaboration between Dunham and her cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, rises up to command your undivided attention. As often as I found myself comparing Tiny Furniture to a Woody Allen flick, there was never a movie of his that left me as much in awe of the imagery as this. So in this way, what could have been a completely entertaining sophomore effort from the director, becomes something so extravagantly more. “I really felt that I had to step up my game with this film,” understates Dunham. “We met for two weeks creating the shots prior to shooting,” Jody Lee Lipes adds. That is the initial point of brilliance that is just distracting at first, but after about twenty minutes in, as with all Lipes’ films, you become accustomed to great shots. Pictures as well composed as these are hard to find in most big budget films let alone in a tiny independent like this.

I realize that by calling this movie tiny, is a touch misleading, because there is nothing small about the scope of this story. On some level a film about three woman living in a house, two sisters and their mother, is small on paper, but the film is constantly growing in scope and story. As Aura returns home after college she reintroduces herself to world she left behind. For a period the film plays out like a twenty something going through a scrapbook of her life thus far. For every character we meet, their story and the most memorably part of who they are is revealed, continuing this theme of reintroduction. While this comes off as a little tedious at times, in comparison to the more subtle visual narratives the camera work implies with each frame, the information helps to build sense of the world Aura has been away from. So the feeling of paging through a scrapbook I can only assume is just a very literary approach to establishing Aura’s return.

While Dunham’s writing is most noticeable in her dialogue, it’s the subversive spinning of a plot that recalls most the promise of her first film. It is also in the plot where I find myself the most satisfied. With each character and activity that is introduced the film feels so familiar. On the surface a romantic comedy might be playing out, but there is a constant duality almost as if Dunham is directing the story in character. A good example of this is the scene where Aura meets up with a famous YouTube Comedian named Jed, played by Alex Karpovsky, for a “date.” The exchange here goes exactly as Aura hopes, Jed comes home with her and they hang out together. When they decide to something together the rom-com music picks up and Aura’s unhappiness is stilted for that moment. Unfortunately we know better even if Aura does not. Jed is essentially pining for a handout. His character is not only homeless, but he is also broke. As their relationship moves on in the script, Jed’s intentions slowly become obvious to the Aura, whose desperation for human connection has blinded, the, well, obvious. At the very point where the would be romantic comedy begins, it is simply setting up another of this films well crafted jokes.

If it is Dunham’s ambition to bare her inner most insecurities on screen, then the choice to cast her real life mother and sister and shoot in their actual home was yet another top notch one. Laurie Simmons who plays Aura’s photographer mother Siri is in fact a photographer in real life. Her perfectly honest and uncommonly cruel sister Nadine is played by Grace Dunham. Laurie told me that, “if there was one thing that impressed me the most, its how the film created strong female presence over the house.” When in reality Laurie’s husband also lives there. The world of Aura’s home life is perhaps the most efficiently captured one in the film. At the outset of her graduation Aura feels insignificant, and in the four years of her absence, Siri and Nadine have developed a bond that feels almost like that of two partners in life and art. They perfectly take Aura’s frustrations for granted, presuming them to be a trifle. To add to their general indifference to her return, they are openly critical of her hygiene. If Aura was capable to handle all of her other complexes, developing one over sweating the bed could be the ticker that throws her over the edge.

The poster of the film simply states that, Aura is having a bad time, and she really wants you to know that. Tiny Furniture is highly entertaining portrait of just that. While I’m not sure that this film is for everyone, there will be audiences that will rally around this film. I could see mothers and sisters having girls nights and Tiny Furniture joining them, or film aficionados harping over the exceptional craft of the film. What I’m trying to get at here is that this is a film that belongs anywhere in the last forty years of filmmaking. Only time will tell whether a film like this can exceed its humble beginnings to find a place in the theaters and homes of audiences who will champion it.

Tiny Furniture went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature as well as a Special Jury for Achievement in Women’s Filmmaking. Tiny Furniture will likely be playing festivals for the next year or two, it can next be seen at the Sarasota Film Festival. She has also written and directed several shorts and a very funny web-series entitled, “Delusional Downtown Divas.” Most of which can be found at her vimeo page.

SXSW Wrap up Part Three of Three: The Sundancers

Still from Enter the Void directed by Gaspar Noe. Property of IFC Films

Upon leaving Gaspar Noe’s latest film, Enter the Void, a friend of mine stood up and stated, “Now that’s how you make a fucking movie.” I couldn’t agree more. Films at this level are nothing more then a spectacle to behold. As the film begins it completely assaults your senses. It feels on par or at least the cinematic equivalent to being ejected or launched out of a catapult or a trebuchet. When you do ultimately land, you are in the first person, seeing the world from the eyes of a DMT addict living somewhere in Tokyo, Japan. I have never taken DMT, but I will never have to, because I know enough of what it feels like from the trip scenes in this film. Similar to his other films, Noe’s imposes upon his audience a totalitarian picture, for which his followers with be the risk takers and the dissenters will sit and watch the rest in total confusion.

Again, I find myself thinking and writing this a lot in the coverage, but its true, this one isn’t for everyone. Due to the nature of a fully realizing the first person POV element, a lot of the film occurs in single takes or long takes, where the action plays out in real time. I immediately got the sensation I was witnessing a film that could easily become this generation’s Requiem for Dream, as far drug movies go. I feel in a certain way that Noe’s approach will keep this one far from just being a drug movie. He accomplishes too much for it be just that. This is a very cool film, but most folks will need to allow themselves the patience for it.  For those who do, Enter the Void is worth every minute.

Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory star as robots in Spike Jonze's new short film, I'm Here. Photo Property of Absolut.

One of the last press announcements made before the festival went live in Austin was that Spike Jonze’s short film I’m Here would be a part of the program. Placed outside the regular short blocks and in what felt like a showcase to for it, I’m Here tells a love story between two robots living among humans in the present. It’s a cute film and fans of Jonze will find much satisfaction in it. While I can not say I love the film, it does shine a light on a side of festivals, many film goers are aware of but never experience. That is the short form. For the most part short films are a big part of childhood entertainment. Films typically lasting no more then twenty minutes for me are best represented by those great Warner Brothers’ Merry Melodies. In a lot of ways Spike Jonze has tapped into that tradition with I’m Here. It’s story is simple but the notes it hits are familiar in almost every way. I should also add that Andrew Garfield stars as the lead robot, he does pretty well here, but this guy is really great watch out for him. He keeps popping up in really all these brilliant roles, in all these great movies.

While personally I remain indifferent to a work like this, partially because I consider Spike Jonze of those great filmmakers of our time. Even though I didn’t particularly love Where the Wild Things Are, I was still glad he made it. I’m not so sure that I feel the same way about I’m Here. There is a certain sensibility that understands the time economy in terms of short films, and brevity is not something I will attribute to this. It seems like an unfinished novel, that was scrapped because it didn’t hold up on it’s own. There is something fun about it, but really what I can get over is the whole “robots in love” idea. To that I say, no thank you. It isn’t just that it’s cliche, it goes further. It was a tough sit for me, perhaps because I could not get over the expectations I have built up for this director. So my opinion here is a bit loaded.

This ends my third and probably not final part to my SXSW coverage. While most of these films premiered in Sundance, SXSW placed most of them in a category called Festival Favorites. Enter the Void I think has played every huge international festival since its premier at Cannes last year. IFC has the distribution rights for it in the US and I believe a Criterion DVD is in the works, but at a truncated run time. Jonze’s new short I’m Here can be seen online here, represented in a really cool virtual cinema by Absolut. And while I am targeting links I will also shoot one over to David Lowery’s interesting, albeit incomplete, comment as well, to start that post viewing discussion.

Harmony Korine’s Lost Home Movies of Back When He Was a Creepy Old Man

It is pointless to conduct a dialogue as to whether one likes or dislikes Harmony Korine’s latest “film” Trash Humpers, unless you are from the ages 10 to 13. Which in my discussion with Harmony (which I will be posting soon), we mused about its intended audience and prospect of the film’s effects.  Furthermore it is irrelevant as to whether or not you enjoyed yourself while watching it. There is a certain heady crowd who will love this film for everything it is and stands for. I am proudly amongst the ones who speak out in fondness for it. This film drew up a vast array of multifaceted and complex emotions that I did not expect from it. Watching Trash Humpers is comparable to few things, while its sense of humor can be divisive, the reality or contextual implications of the film are not.

The Trash Humpers in action. Photo propert of Harmony Korine.

The film follows the adventures of four core “Humpers” on a search for one thing, pure entertainment. If there can be a narrative to this film, then that is it. Each day they begin by going out and seeking it, much in the same way that we journey through the internet seeking out the same. Only this is far more participatory then the average seeker of porn or treadmill humor online, here the Humpers seek to fornicate and vandalize the world at large. Here is where the true horror of this film lies, not in the idea of old people masturbating to trash or defecating in front of garage doors. The horror is in what their goal is. Of the four humpers one, played by Korine himself, documents their vile rampage. His cackles and narration constantly mock or taunt, and arguably inspire the other three in their humpity endeavors. It is very, very similar to a home video in which a parent is directing their children to stay in frame while they open presents on Christmas day. It is by his will that they appear on camera, but it is safe to apply the same logic behind drunk driving arrests. What we see on tape here is simply the tip of the iceberg.

The Humpers are not without friends, while they are quite capable of amusing themselves they have an array of “true originals.” Characters that only a film like Korine’s would shine its light on. For each character that enters their periphery, the Humpers cease their shenanigans to become docile parishioners, nurturing and supporting the entertainers who have come to bestow their gifts. In each case the performer is memorable and he, they are all males (with exception of a group of hefty hymnal crooning prostitutes), is what they could be seeking out. These sequences reminded me heavily of my childhood, how so often I would watch whatever crap was on television and react very little, but when I was in a theater watching a film the effect on me was nothing short of magic. I would be curious to know if which was more important to them, the chance to be entertained or the acts of fornication they commit? This begs the question of what is beauty or entertainment. Indeed the social commentary here runs deep. If this were the only thing Korine was attempting to accomplish in this film, it would be a disaster, but thankfully it is not.

The Trash Humpers sizing you up. Photo property of Harmony Korine.

Social criticism aside this film tackles an array of subject matter, and it is nearly boundless in its seething attack on American life. What interests me though is how this film works toward creating a fully realized experience for its viewers. That by the way is what it succeeds the most at. The obvious parts are the destructive behaviors of the Humpers; the actual garbage humping, the breaking of light bulbs, the smashing of houses and televisions, this is easy to decode. It is the subtler things that work on you when you aren’t paying attention. At times the characters simply stand and stare into the camera, almost as if they are sizing you up to see if you are capable of joining their ranks, if only to be a witness. Others, the camera operator, will set down his recording device to address the lens himself. As he adjusts his wig in mock vanity he hoots and cackles at the camera, or the audience, he does a jig and then reverts back to the chalk board scratchy taunts and chirps. Or in one particularly memorable moment, our wigged friend takes us for a nighttime drive through the neighbor hood. As he drives he rants and laments on the failures of suburban culture. Citing his pity for their trapped minds, pitting his personal availability to own his actions against homeowner’s fear to truly enjoy life.

Trash Humpers seeks to affect you on a very deep and private level of morality. This is in no way a film for the average viewer, at the screening I attended there was an Austin city council person next to me. Their reactions were basic and real, when the film came to its surprisingly intimate and loving close, the horror and shock of it all was plain to see. In this film there is no structure or narrative beyond cultural manipulation, but there is a significant achievement here. That is the unfailing art of Harmony Korine. While I do not think Trash Humper’s cultural revolution will ever reach the extent to which Korine desires, the film will affect and stay with anyone who is willing to watch it.