Friday, September 27, 2013

Close Encounters

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Close Encounters of the Third Kind never actually explains its title. Truffaut's Lacombe gets close, deep in the film, when Roy presses him about his actual affiliation, his official title, screaming "Who the hell are you people?!" over and over again in that fun, Angry Dad way that Dreyfuss so completely becomes. He's so desperate that Lacombe breaks character to ask if Roy's had a "close encounter" recently, using the abbreviation that every audience member adopts and the design of the opening credits seems to accept, placing "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS" hugely above a tiny "of the third kind." And, so what? Who cares if the last half of that long, poetical looking title that looks so good typed out but maybe doesn't sound as great, or is just too cumbersome to say in casual conversation, gets some techy side-character to rattle off the definition of The First Kind, The Second Kind, then finally, The Kind at Hand. Instead it hangs out, more a thought than a sentence, more feeling than drama. It's a titular sidecar to Roy's UFO encounter, when his brief glance toward the posterior lights of an aircraft strikes him so close to his heart that it leaves him enraptured, but which he can't connect to his brain in any logical way -- practically the definition of insanity. More a dream, under your skin, known but unspeakable.

Considering this is "speculative science" written by Spielberg himself, a filmmaker who will happily ride high on cinematic vibes as long as they are grounded by explication, the movie is surprisingly jargon-free. In this freedom is its beauty. At one point a group of scientists gather into a room and try to decipher some numbers they've been receiving from outer space -- a veritable petri dish of jargon! NASA chatter ready to be born! But the actual point of the scene is to watch a group of middle-aged tie-wearing engineers tear a very expensive globe out of an office and wheel it into their control room -- an image of important men acting like children that I bet Spielberg would have wanted to see in a film when he was a kid. It's a clear joke: these guys are always so serious on screen, let them be silly for once. There's something very liberating about watching adult men do kid-things, and Spielberg taps into this over and over again. The Jurassic Park T-Rex attack climaxes with Martin Ferrero sitting on a toilet, like in the middle one of the most intense sequences of his career Spielberg couldn't resist turning it into the most ornate poop joke in Hollywood history. In different ways, entire films of his are dedicated to this adults-as-children feeling: Hook, Indiana Jones, The Adventures of Tin Tin. Roy, though, is the most emotionally resonant and heartbreakingly awful example of this. As a dad he smears shaving cream on his face, he crashes toy trains, he plans a family trip to see Pinnocchio whether they like it or not. He's like a kid who one day found himself with the powers of an adult, and he's trying his best to use them for good. After the UFO sighting, though, those powers switch inward and he becomes a man who has to act like a child. He can't help himself. He plays with his food, he throws trash in the house, he mutilates his train set with that one monolithic shape he can't get out of his brain. He makes it impossible for his wife to show her face to the neighbors, he drives his family out of their home, he abandons them, he ruins their lives. And Speilberg lets him get away with it.

Close Encounters sits neatly on the continuum of Spielberg movies in that it is consummately nice. Spielberg is a humanist and a cineast, and this is why his name is synonymous with movies for literally everyone everywhere. It's a great combination, the mastery of a form and the love of people. I can't name a mean movie he's made, or really even a movie with a distant or analytical stance from the characters. Rather, his movies always allow you a character to empathically glom onto, someone to lead you through the story as you would see it yourself, and story always comes first. His hierarchy of importance goes something like this: story over character empathy, character empathy over character depth, character depth over cinematic style, cinematic style over peripheral moments. This isn't to say he lacks style or depth, it's just that he doesn't stray from his path. The small moments always lead to the final big moment, and the style is a set and consistent emotional thread within the story, not something that explodes into a different set of rules from scene to scene. The characters are meant to be felt with, not analyzed from without. He makes his rules, he follows them, and he's nice.

It's this niceness toward Roy, this complicit acceptance of his choices and total justification of the abandonment of his family that makes Close Encounters so interesting and so emotionally difficult for me to watch. In another movie, this would have been the story of an a man's descent into insanity and the toll it takes on his family. In small ways it still is, but inherent in the emotional thrust of the movie is the assertion that Roy was right to do what he did, and we're expected to go along with it. After all, there was a UFO. He was inexplicably drawn to Devil's Mound in the middle of Wyoming, he wasn't "crazy" in the sense that he was seeing things. In one of their escalating fights about his inability to produce any evidence of his encounter, Roy shouts at Ronnie "I can't explain it!" to which she retorts, curt and beautifully loaded, "I can explain it." The entire movie is held in these lines. Ronnie's response implicates Roy not as an alcoholic, no, Spielberg is too nice for that. It simply says, you've been drunk and gotten in trouble with your friends before. We've seen this behavior and it's time to stop. Roy, of course, doesn't and when Ronnie drives away that last time we never see her again, she left with her life in shambles and Roy cosmically rewarded for pursuing his "dream." Roy arrives at Devil's Mound and is met with a gorgeous thirty minute spectacle of light and sound then sent to the heavens Jesus-style, arms out in a cross, carried onboard like the son of God as if he, not Ronnie, were sacrificed for the greater good. Even better, he is adopted into a kind of doppelganger family, sharing an innocent kiss with Melinda Dillon as Jillian, the woman who also witnessed the UFO. Ronnie is replaced without judgement or reservation from Spielberg by Jillian, a look-a-like who is linked to Roy simply by their mutual blindness, two Cyclopses meeting in a cave. Yet the movie allows Roy to be right and true, and by implication good in his actions, even though his actions are so clearly not good if only we weren't so effectively glommed onto his point of view.

Is there a literary connection between Roy's Jesus-ness and the diabolically named mesa? I don't think so. The name "Devil's Mound" well recalls the pulp serials that everyone by now knows Spielberg likes and is good at modernizing, and Roy's abduction is only religious in the sense that he finally arrives at bliss. He doesn't finally understand, he merely quells his bewilderment. From the beatific faces of the World War II pilots disembarking the space ship, we can glean that they've spent the last 30 or so years not giving a single shit about living in suspended animation on a UFO. They are completely accepting of the situation, docile yet alert, feeling present without thought and with no signs of disorientation -- practically the definition of Spielberg's ideal audience member. When Roy is carried off to live in this state in perpetuity, his Jesus arms and the bright, rapturous light don't signal to us that he is our savior, but rather that this kind of ecstatic orgasm of images is what should happen at the end of the joyous movie that Spielberg is trying to make, and what has been happening at the end of the perfect movie that's been playing on loop in his brain since he was a child. Utter elation, a boy's dream. Roy won't be in a place where he can finally communicate what's happening in his brain. No, out in space he will only feel, much the way Spielberg hopes we will only feel upon entering the movie. It would be easy to say that Roy's headed to the big movie theater in the sky. After all, the light coming out of the UFO looks an awful lot like that of the projector. And what better way to subsume the inability to communicate verbally than by setting sail on a sea of pure feeling, a preverbal communique of light, movement and sound: the building blocks of cinema.

And so we arrive at Francois Truffaut's hands. For a movie surprisingly jargon-free, Close Encounters is also strangely drama-free, at least externally. Basically aliens come over, play some music, drop off some old passengers and pick up some new ones. Credits roll. They don't attack and they don't communicate any information per se, other than that five note tone. This is a movie about people who can't communicate with anyone around them but at the same time still reach for some way to express their connection with heavenly bodies, some way to translate that thing inside them that seems to be -- and here literally is -- beamed into their hearts from outer space. I'm sure Spielberg can relate. And how fitting that it takes Francois Truffaut to translate these celestial transmissions into something we can understand, that he should be the one to stand in front of an audience and translate the voices of a thousand people singing only with the knowledge that their voices came from heaven into music and movement, sound and vision -- practically the definition of cinema. More a dream, under your skin, known but unspeakable.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tchoupitoulas Interview w/ Bill Ross

In more than a few of its slim 80 minutes, “Tchoupitoulas” feels like it accomplishes the impossible. “Tchoupitoulas,” before you keep asking, is pronounced “CHOP-ih-TOO-lus,” and it’s the second movie from Bill and Turner Ross, collectively known as the Ross Brothers. It is ostensibly a documentary, but the movie lands in a relatively unexplored nether-zone between fiction and nonfiction.  You won’t find any issues being discussed, or any world problems solved; only a bleary-eyed, overnight New Orleans adventure with three teenage brothers. From the very first shot, we’re inside the brain of the younger brother, privy to his internal dialogue, and he’s watching us watch him. His eye-contact is both riveting the raising of a signpost: “Abandon Expectations Upon Entry.” Other signposts throughout the night include: “Narrative Cul-de-Sac Ahead,” “Yield to Environment,” and “Abstract Shapes.”

“Tchoup,” as the filmmakers affectionately call it, presents itself as a single, all-night sojourn through New Orleans, but the Ross Brothers shot for far longer. After eight months of shooting, they found the three young brothers that would become their primary subjects. So, the film became an impression of the time spent in the city between two sets of brothers. It’s fraternal elements are palpable. The movie is, by design, the second of three planned films shot on a low-end miniDV camera that, frankly, looks like shit. So, it is all the more shocking when the Ross Brothers find the beauty of early morning haze, the drifting of harbor beacons, and, most importantly, the hilarious interaction of the three young brothers as their teenage bravado dials slowly down into annoyance, then desperation and finally flat-out exhaustion as the night rolls along.

Documentarian Ricky Leacock said that the most important aspect of a documentary is the feeling of “being there,” and “Tchoup” surely accomplishes that in strides. Leacock was speaking of the environment and his subjects, though, and “Tchoup” may require a broader definition. The audience is present in New Orleans, with the young brothers, in any burlesque house or with any street performers the Ross Brothers find interesting, with the point of view of the filmmakers, and with the notion that this might be a “movie” instead of a “documentary.” But it is a document – just of a broader nature than we are used to.

Recently, Paste sat down with Bill Ross, one half of the documentary team, for an appropriately sprawling conversation that covers dive bars in Los Angeles, the NFL draft, and the Lumiere Brothers.

“Tchoupitoulas” comes out of DVD packaged with another documentary, “Only the Young,” via Oscilloscope Laboratories on April 30.

Joe Peeler: Bill, how you doing?

Bill Ross: I am doing well. In an hour and twenty-four minutes I’m going to watch the NFL draft.

JP: [laughs] That’s why you had to get out at 7?

BR: Well, I’m meeting my dad at a bar here in town, so that is what’s happening.

JP: Where do you live?

BR: New Orleans.

JP: Oh yeah, so you guys shot the New Orleans spot for the Super Bowl, right?

BR: Yeah, we put that together in about 3 days. The job came in and it was very fast. Very quick.

JP: Did it come to you guys or did it come to the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” guys?

BR: It came through Ben [Zeitlin, director of “Beasts”], and Ben and I share an office. He was like, “Hey, you want to do this together?” and I was like, “Yeah, definitely.” Because we both needed money in a bad, bad way.

JP: Yeah, NFL money. That’s cool.

BR: Oh, yeah. NFL money is good. I don’t know if you’ve dealt with them before. They’re very kind. Where are you based out of?

JP: I’m smack in the butthole of Hollywood.

BR: Yes. I lived all over LA, but I used to live right by Jumbo’s Clown Room. You been?

JP: On Hollywood? Hell yeah, man.

BR: Yeah, I’ve been kicked out of that establishment several times. When I first moved out there after college, we were like two doors down. So, we were in and out of there all the time. A very special place.

JP: I was actually going to rattle off all the tedious “Tchoupitoulas” interview shit you have to answer repeatedly and just get that out of the way. So, it’s pronounced “CHOP-ih-TOO-lus.”

BR: Yes.

JP: It’s an immersive experience that takes place over the course of one night with three brothers in New Orleans.

BR: Yes.

JP: But you shot for 8 months and edited about 300 hours of footage to create an impressionistic portrait of this night.

BR: Yes.

JP: There you go. Anything else you want to add?

BR: That seems to sum it up just fine.

JP: Anything else you’re tired of talking about?

BR: [laughs] “Where did you meet the kids?”

JP: Please, yes. Conduct the rest of this interview with yourself.

BR: Let’s just talk about Jumbo’s, then at the end we can just be like, “Oh, yeah there’s a DVD coming out.” Have you ever been to Smog Cutter? That’s a great establishment.

JP: Where is that at? I don’t think so.

BR: Oh man, it’s an amazing establishment. It’s run by these three women who will be the drunkest people there and they’ll get into fights, and it’s just a beautiful thing. It’s on Virgil. It’s just down from the theater there in Los Feliz. So, it’s Virgil and Burns. Between Burns and Normal. That’s my favorite bar in town. And if you get into karaoke, it’s even better. It’s a fun place to take people. It’s a dive. Have you ever seen the movie, the Charles Bukowski / Mickey Rourke movie “Barfly?” It’s featured in that. That’s the kind of establishment you’re in for.

JP: That’s a good endorsement. “Barfly” is good.

BR: I love “Barfly,” that’s a great movie.

JP: Are you guys in charge of your Facebook page? Or do you have interns doing that?

BR: Oh, no. That’s just me nerding out all the time.

JP: I saw you posted [John Cassavettes’s movie] “Husbands” today.

BR: I was thinking about it recently, I don’t know why, but that might be the best movie ever made. That movie is just really something.

JP: I was just talking to somebody about all the different cuts. Cassavettes had a four hour cut, then they dumped it down to the two-and-a-half hour cut.

BR: Oh, I didn’t know anything about that. That’s interesting. You know there’s a “making of Husbands.” That’s definitely my favorite of his, for sure.

JP: Really, why? Finding “Love Streams” fans and “Husbands” fans is a rarity.

BR: Why? Because people usually go with “Woman Under the Influence?”

JP: Well, they’re even kind of harder to take than the other Cassavettes movies, particularly those two, “Husbands” and “Love Streams.”

BR: True. I wanted to make the documentary version of “Husbands.” The hope was, between Ben Zeitlin and I, that we would be able to put the two films out [“Tchoupitoulas” and “Beasts”] and go to all the same festivals. Now, obviously his film did some interesting things and that ended up not being the case. But the hope was to film us leaving New Orleans and going to the London Film Festival or something like that and just filming the – you know, it wouldn’t be like “Husbands,” but it would be a documentation of –

JP: -- you guys just vomiting in a bathroom for four hours.

BR: Pretty much, yeah. But that never happened, because that guy had to go get nominated for an Oscar and stuff.

JP: I was actually going to ask you about making an autobiographical movie. Because I feel like your first film “45365” is inherently personal to you guys because it’s set where you grew up, and then “Tchoupitoulas” – well, that’s kind of like “Husbands” with teenagers, right?

BR: [laughs] Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but yeah!

JP: I feel like the kids are surrogates for you guys. Like the camera is through their eyes maybe as much as it is yours. Is that fair to say?

BR: Well, going into it, that’s what we wanted. Because we had those experiences as kids down here, and it is autobiographical as far as the approach. Like, wanting to speak to being kids, and this environment that we found so appealing. But it is their story, too. You know, we’re not telling them what to do. That is their adventure. But it’s not unlike adventures we had at their age as well.

JP: I saw the trailers you put up for “River,” [about a journey the Ross Brothers took from Ohio to New Orleans by boat], and I think that’s an interesting path.  You have the environment that’s personal in “45365,” then you have something more personal with these three characters in “Tchoupitoulas,” then the next one is just you guys just filming yourselves.

BR: Besides documenting other people, we’ve always shot or filmed ourselves as well. So, there’s all sorts of weirdo videos out there of us doing something or other. But the “River” thing, because of the scale of the undertaking, I cut it into eight twenty-minute episodes.

JP: Holy shit, really?

BR: Yeah, they’re all online. But [Director of Programming at HotDocs Film Festival] Charlotte Cook saw them and she said she wanted to play the all of them as a whole at HotDocs.

JP: Whoa, dude, you are on your way to making “Husbands.”

BR: Oh, yeah. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes or something.

JP: Do you guys have another movie in the can waiting to cut, then?

BR: Yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now. It’s in the can and we are like two months into a probably year and half long edit.

JP: Just watching footage right now?

BR: I’ve watched the footage and now I’m going back and pulling selects of for consideration. Pulling selects for each character, you know, stuff like that. Stuff that I will revisit again and start cutting scenes with.

JP: What’s the process like between you and Turner when you’re editing?

BR: I, for the first six months, just deal with it. He and I will have conversations. We’re not in the same place, so we’ll talk on the phone just about broad ideas. And after six months I’ll report in and show him something. And at that point it’s very, very rough but it at least gives us something to talk about.

JP: I was at The Cinefamily screening of “45365,” I don’t know how many years ago now, three maybe?

BR: Oh, wow. Yeah, that was a great night.

JP: And you screened some early footage of “Tchoupitoulas.” I just remember thinking, “What the fuck is this?”

BR: [laughs] Yeah! I remember the footage we showed didn’t make it into the final film.

JP: That’s what I thought. All I remember is maybe a street band and a lot of cross-fades, maybe some palm trees. Very bizarre.

BR: I mean, at that point that was just me pulling footage from something that we hadn’t really cut yet.

JP: I felt like it was a total step up from “45365.”

BR: That was a cool screening. We went to a bar down the street, can’t remember the name of it now. It was the first and last time I was in there. The only thing I remember about that evening was, I was sort of courting this girl that I had gone to college with who was really, really out of my league. [laughs] We made out. God, wow! That was a great night! She ended up being really horrible, but at that point I didn’t know that. It was a great time [laughs].

JP: When I met Turner, the second question out of his mouth was. “Do you have a day job?” And I thought that was so cool. I usually try to hide the fact that I have a day job, and he was so unpretentious about it that I was like, “Yeah I do have a day job!”

BR: You know, there’s no hiding the fact that this ballgame doesn’t provide much financial stability.

JP: He said he might be working as a line cook or something like that this year.

BR: Yeah, working kitchens has been good to us. Usually the way I get by is editing or shooting other people’s stuff.

JP: Did you get into editing as a necessity?

BR: Well, as a kid I remember we were shooting stuff on VHS tape and Hi-8 tapes and at that time editing was like: press play on the camera, press record on the VCR. That kind of stuff, and I loved doing that. There was something about putting one image next to another and just being incredibly fascinated by that. But even though I loved it, in college I would have other people edit my stuff. And after a while I was like, why? I guess I was scared of it in a way. There were people in film school that would say, “I’m an editor.” And you’re like, “Oh, you’re an editor? OK, cool. You want to edit my project?” And I was totally capable of doing that myself, but for some reason there’s that insecurity – or I had it at least – of not knowing what part of that world you should exist in and what you’ll be good at. And so I sort of spent college doing everything: shooting, editing. But when it came to the bigger projects, I’d have other people shoot it and other people edit it, and I would just do these side projects on my own teaching myself stuff. But then after college I moved to LA, and my first real job was an Assistant Editor at a trailer house. I started off as a runner, then moved up to an Assistant Editor and then eventually Editor. And that was where I really learned the craft. And now I can’t imagine anyone editing my shit. I wouldn’t let anybody touch our stuff.

JP: It’s just another form of writing the movie.

BR: Definitely. That’s what I think the editing process is for what we’re doing. You know, it’s like you’re writing. It’s backwards from fictional stuff.

JP: How long has each of the movies taken you?

BR: Shooting for a year and then editing for a year. And that’s been pretty consistent. The only reason this “River” trip came together so quickly is that it’s straightforward, point A to point B. We leave Cincinnati and we go to New Orleans. There’s really no way to maneuver that.

JP: I like docs that don’t impose a structure. TVTV and stuff like that. That’s one of the many things I dig about “Tchoupitoulas,” is that the structure is a night. I know you shot for more than a night, but that allows it a structure.

BR: I mean, it gives it a box to operate within. Just like with “45365,” the idea that the city is the parameter, and you can do anything within that sort of box.

JP: I feel like that was a series of mirror or counterpoints. Cop, then Criminal. Inherently searching for a balance.

BR: That was a very conscious – going into it with our checklist of people we wanted to exist with, it was very generic like that. Cop, Criminal. Young Woman, Old Woman.

JP: I dig that. It opens up the audience more because it’s simply an archetype. Then once you break the archetype down and say it’s a real person, that’s more personal than having a name on the bottom left corner of the screen that says, “Grandma,” or whatever.

BR: Yeah, exactly. I remember I was working for this real dumb guy at a post house and “45365,” had just come out and I was working there. And he’s like, “Well, let me see this movie you got.” And I showed it to him and the next day he came in and he was like, “That was cool man, it was kinda weird. You didn’t put any name plates on it or anything.” And I was like, “Oh, right! I forgot to put those on! Yeah, the graphics are on the way.”

JP: So, I watched a festival Q&A you guys did, and you talked about “The Rule of Woo!” Would you like to explain that?

BR: Well, the mind wanders when you are shooting for a year in a strange place and the only other person there is your brother, and so you start thinking weird thoughts. Aside from the self-loathing and doubt and depression about whether you’re truly meant for this line of work and if it’s going to be any good. Once you get all that out of the way, you get thinking about your craft and how it works and how it has worked in the past and how other people might have approached it and whatnot. And especially shooting in New Orleans, you’re walking around in the center of one of the greatest collection of drunkards on the planet. And everybody, once they get a couple cocktails in ‘em, wants to talk to a camera. And so going through the footage, so much of that footage was garbage because you have a good moment going, and all the sudden someone jumps out and goes “WOO! ALABAMA!! FOOTBALL!! WOO!!” And it’s like, what possessed someone to do that? It’s not simply because they’ve had some beers. So, I get to thinking about that. 1. Why do people do that? and 2. When did it start? Did the Lumiere brothers have this problem, where people in three piece suits and bowler hats, were they jumping out in front of their camera being like, “WOW!! Can’t wait for that train to come!”

JP: [laughs]

BR: “Just got off work! I’m gonna have a beer!” When did that become a thing? And so I continued to think about that. And this has actually sparked some interesting conversations, I know it’s funny to think about.

JP: I think it’s very interesting. Seriously.

BR: Me too. So, I thought – and I have since changed my perspective on this – first I thought it was the advent of local news. When that came in, and people knew that they could jump behind a reporter and then go home and see themselves on the TV, and once that’s possible, maybe it started then. But I talked to Steve Bognar, he makes films with his partner Julia Reichert. They did “A Lion in the House,” which was a doc that came out in 2006 and they got nominated for an Oscar. But the reason I know them is that they live very close to where I grew up, so we’re friends through the Ohio connection. Anyway, Steve is one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met. Really soulful, wise thinker. And he and I were talking about this and he seemed to think that it wasn’t local news, but it would have come much earlier. People want to be remembered. People want to put their stamp on their life and say, “I was here.” And this is why we’re able to do what we do. It could be a weird thing if I approached you and said, “Here’s what I’m doing, I want to make this movie about you.” That could come across weird, but it never does.

JP: And I think that’s what’s so cool about the verite in “Tchoupitoulas.” You keep in the sidelong glances that the kids make to the camera. I mean, the kids are looking at the camera a lot.

BR: And that’s not something we’re trying to hide. It’s very obvious they’re people witnessing this thing.

JP: Exactly, and I think that’s more true than trying to cut it out or edit around it. That’s kind of rare that you see that. It’s rare that the usual form of documentary is broken, let alone in a way that’s consistent and subtle. It’s kind of like TVTV in a way.

BR: Yeah, I love TVTV. You feel them in the room, you feel – there’s a transparency to their work where you feel like you’re a part of the gang that’s doing the filming, and you’re in on it. You’re there with them because they don’t try to mask the fact that they’re there. I think, if I remember correctly, Steve had brought up this documentary where some explorers or something had gone into the Amazon and they had found this tribe that was very isolated. It’s the first time they’d ever seen white people, first of all, so it’s a bit shocking. But they had a mirror, these explorer people did. And these tribe people had never seen themselves. And so they gave the mirror as – you know, they’re trading and they gave the mirror as a gift to the chief of the tribe – and he just stares at himself. He doesn’t blink. He was seeing himself for the first time. So, I bet the Lumiere’s did have to deal with that, you know? Because people will want to see themselves. People want to be noticed, want to be remembered. And whatever that is about our psychology or whatever, it’s in there somewhere. That our lives are meaningful. And as documentarians, because of that being part of our nature and you do take interest in somebody, the initial reaction is sort of confused. Like, “Why? I’m not that interesting.” But then they accept you there because they do want that. They find it interesting that you find them interesting. You play into that, in a way. Have you ever read Wim Wenders The Logic of Images?

JP: No, but I really like his photo books.

BR: I seem to remember him talking about capturing the fleeting moment before it’s gone. Anyway, anyway. Little diatribe there.

JP: Perhaps it was even a bigger problem for the Lumiere’s, you know? Because it was a new thing. You have this giant fucking bulky box you’re lugging around.

BR: Right, and people didn’t live in a camera culture where everyone has a camera. Yeah. Anyway. “Tchoup” comes out on DVD, uhh…

JP: [laughs] Yeah, gotta keep this on track. Well, the other obligatory – but I’m also interested – question is how you guys got hooked up with “Only the Young?” I missed it like an idiot at AFI Film Festival but I heard it was just incredible.

BR: It’s a brilliant film. It’s my favorite film of last year. And we both got picked up by Oscilloscope. And they were going to go all digital with the thing, but I think it’s very smart what they’re doing. They saw an opportunity to bring our audience to “Only the Young” and “Only’s” audience to us. And because they’re two films about youth and discovery and growing up, it seemed like in a very strange way they were related. I think it’s really cool. Their packaging is always very wonderful, and this, I think is on par with everything they’ve put out.

JP: I think it’s cool that it’s not like one or the other is the bonus film. They literally blend the covers together.

BR: I also think it’s cool that, having grown up in the age of rap double albums, it’s sort of a throwback to Biggie, 2-Pac, and Wu-Tang. That was the original thinking behind that.

JP: [laughs]

BR:  That might be a lie, but we’ll go with that.

JP: I think the whole kids-looking-into-the-camera thing and the Rule of Woo that you have to deal with, kind of got me thinking about documentary ethics. I don’t think you guys interfere with your subjects, but do you feel like rearranging the timeframe of the footage or creating an impression of something, do you think that’s somehow a different kind of movie than a straight documentary?

BR: Well, who wrote the rules to this whole thing? It seems as though this conversation’s pretty popular right now, but where’s the fucking rule book that says we have to do things a certain way? You know? Yeah, we’ve written our own rules. We do things our own way. And that’s something that works for us, but to be used as an example of, “Oh, they’re breaking rules!” Well, which fucking rules are you talking about? If there were any rules to this shit I know that my brother and I would not be in this business. But, look. I want to be invited back to the homes that we’ve shot in. So, there’s a fairness with which the footage is treated, but the point of the constructions that we make – and we’re very clear that these are heavily constructed films – is to not tell you the definition of something, but to create a feeling that we felt while we were there. And that’s much truer to what we’re after than if we had just done what so many people want us to do. You know, “If it’s one night in New Orleans, then it better be just one night.” OK, that film would blow! So just go with it. We’re creating fictional non-fiction. Somebody said that at some point and I like that. The moments are true, but they’re built to be a heightened truth.

JP: A way to get at the truth when the truth isn’t adequate.

BR: Yes. That’s great.

JP: I was thinking about “Jesus Camp” and “Hell House,” which is a great double feature. But “Jesus Camp” is interesting because it’s extremely balanced. You could show it to either side of that issue – somebody who’s appalled by it, or someone who is an attendee, and they would both say, “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m seeing.” But I don’t know if it necessarily gets at a feeling like “Tchoupitoulas” does. It’s rare a documentary documents not only the external, but also the internal thoughts of not only the characters but also the filmmakers.

BR: Right. I guess when people say there are rules to this, that’s just narrow-minded thinking that documentary has to solve a problem or shine light on this critical story. That’s journalism. That’s a different thing. We’re not writing an essay here about how we’re going to solve our financial woes. That does have rules and that needs to be treated differently. We’re not doing that. We’re making movies. We’re not trying to solve all the world’s problems, because we would not be very good at that.

JP: The supposed rules are interesting. When’s the last time I saw a documentary with a narrator? Or at least straight narration to it.

BR: Well, I guess you haven’t been watching enough Ken Burns. And that is not talking shit about Ken Burns, I love that dude.

JP: I love Ken Burns. But is there another?

BR: He has his own style.

JP: He has his own style so much that you can do a Ken Burns effect in iPhoto.

BR: Yes you can. I wonder if there was a Ross Brothers effect, what that would look like. Probably some out of focus image that was shot on mini DV or something.

JP: The photo would actually reveal itself to be three photos.

BR: [laughs]

JP: Sounds like you guys get bugged about this shit a lot. Do a lot of people want you to play by the rules?

BR: I just think people go in with expectations to a ‘documentary,’ and once you’re not being spoon fed the standard approach, people start to ask questions. And yeah, it gets a little old having that discussion. But, fuck it. Who cares? It’s cool. I understand why we are programmed as documentaries, but if we could just say, “Look, you’re just watching a movie. It’s just a movie.” It’s all about expectations, I guess. And I don’t want to dog on other people’s approaches. I watch more talking-head documentaries that I do art cinema documentaries. That’s the reason I read mostly non-fiction. I want to know what went on behind the scenes in Elliot Spitzer’s situation. That sounds cool.

JP: Absolutely. I dug that documentary.

BR: Yeah it was great. At the end of the day, after editing for 16 hours, I just can’t sit down and watch “Leviathan.” I need to be spoon-fed some information. Give me the details, I’m going to turn my brain off, and tell me why the stock market crashed. I don’t need “art” right now.

JP: It’s genre conventions. You guys are a documentary, technically, but then that spirals into a conversation about “What does that mean exactly?” Which we seem to be having.

BR: But no, this is much more satisfying than having to defend yourself.

JP: It’s kind of like “Red Tails,” the George Lucas movie. I think that movie is so awesome because I know way more about Lucas’s brain watching that than I do watching something like “Star Wars.” I’d rather know that. It’s interesting.

BR: It is indeed. But I tell you, sometimes you just want to talk about something else. [laughs]

JP: [laughs] Well, yeah. What else you feeling?

BR: What else am I feeling. Growing up in Ohio I had no choice, I had to root for the Cincinnati Bengles. So, that is my one guilty pleasure. It’s not a guilty pleasure, it is a pleasure, but the Bengles have been the laughing stock of the league for so long it’s a bit painful. The best part of the Cincinnati calendar is the draft, because it allows you some hope that the future might be brighter.

JP: I’d love to see you guys do a Bengles documentary.

BR: There are so many films I want to do under an assumed name. There are some topics that I really, really want to get into, but I don’t want to put our stamp on it. And I’m not going to tell you, because I’m going to keep it to myself, but there’s one right now that we’re really trying to get going that we’ll put under a different name.

JP: You’re serious.

BR: Oh, my God, yeah. And it will be so good. It’ll easily be our best film, and the funnest to make, by far.

JP: It’s going to be a two month stint at Jumbo’s?

BR: Well, now that would be interesting. I have thought about that film. Sort of do a Frederick Wiseman treatment of the Paris Review, kind of thing. “Crazy Horse,” or something. Yeah, that would be wildly entertaining. I would watch the shit out of that.

“Tchoupitoulas” comes out on DVD paired with “Only the Young” on April 30.

Friday, September 13, 2013

3 Capsule Reviews from SFIFF 2013

Written for Paste Magazine.

Before You Know It (2013)

"Before You Know It" is a gentle film. It walks into the room, welcomes you as a friend, and embraces you. The documentary, which screened last month at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, chronicles the lives of three aging gay men in different parts of the United States. It bears witness to their economic troubles, changing sex lives, struggles to legalize their right to marry the one they love, and many other smaller, more interior battles as they enter a new -- and perhaps final -- chapter of their lives. Director PJ Raval treats his subjects with the empathy required to fully appreciate and understand, for example, the loneliness of Dennis, a 76-year-old cross-dresser living deep in Florida. Dennis' attempts to connect with other, younger gay men seem both necessary for his emotional health and a cumulative weight on his self-confidence and, by extension, his soul. It takes a certain level of openness for a documentarian to properly recognize and convey that hopeless, melancholic feeling without judgment, and for this Raval should be commended. 

When taken as a whole, though, the film is full of flaws. It is at least twenty minutes too long. It leans heavily on its musical cues for unearned emotion, including incessant reuse of the Liars song, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack." The film seems unwilling to allow its audience members to find their own emotions within the varied and textured stories of these men, and instead insists on certain feelings at certain times, whether you like them or not. These overwrought emotional cues seem anathema to Raval's greater desire to portray the lives of these three men without expectation, judgement or intrusion. 

Cold War (2012)

At their best, Hong Kong action movies can provide a discreet layer of social commentary just below the burning, oil-slicked harbor water that a gun-toting detective speed-boats through. They grapple with the ethics of current Chinese life by playing out morality tales between police and Triad mobs. Like the Japanese samurai genre, they know that a great way to criticize the government is by hiding it in an action movie.

"Cold War," which screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival last month, plays out like a state-sponsored counter to everything that is interesting about the HK action genre. The plot is ostensibly about two rival police commissioners, one older and one younger, trying to track down a hijacked police van and the mole that must have informed the hijackers. What plays out is a series of nationalistic speeches and forced plot "twists." Police officials literally stand at pulpits and deliver speeches about the sanctity of Hong Kong law, why Hong Kong is Asia's greatest city and how the younger generation must learn from their elders to uphold the law's greatness. 

This could have been interesting, since it is so diametrically opposed to the genre, but "Cold War" barely even feels like a movie. It's an overwhelming string of cliches. Even its style is infected with adolescent rah-rah excitement for state-run security. It steals shots not from other action movies, but from video games like "Metal Gear Solid" and "Counter-Strike." And, bizarrely, the movie is self-assured enough to set up a sequel. 

Youth (2013)

Most audiences will arrive at "Youth" knowing two things: that Justine Malle is the daughter of the French director Louis Malle, and that "Youth" is an autobiographical look at his death through her eyes. This being Ms. Malle's first film, the inevitable comparisons to her father will ensue, with her style, story and effectively her life being defined in his shadow. The movie, though, as the director said during her introduction at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, is about her, not her dad. In fact, "Youth" would work just as well if Juliette, Ms. Malle’s fictional proxy played by Esther Ferrel, had a mechanic, sculptor or physician for a father. His profession doesn't matter. What matters is Ms. Malle's voice, which is strong and clear, and her almost satirical look at this fictionalized version of her life. 

“Youth” quietly reveals a self-awareness that sets it apart from a straight memoir. Ms. Malle acknowledges Juliette's mistakes, knowing intimately her feelings while also commenting on them. The comments are never entirely present, though, and this is what makes the movie very beautiful. Olivier Ferrari's editing, along with Malle's script (which she wrote with Cecile Vargaftig), often exclude key scenes in a way that keeps the viewer connecting Juliette's emotional dots, deepening her as a character by ignoring what she ignores, avoiding what she avoids. The effect is something less reminiscent of Ms. Malle's father than of another French director, Eric Rohmer, whose subtlety Juliette defends while leaving a movie theater with a potential lover. The lover simply responds, "Rohmer sucks balls." The relationship is clearly doomed.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Laurence, anyways.

Laurence Anyways (2012)
Dir. Xavier Dolan

During a lecture, Laurence, the titular character of Xavier Dolan's film, asks his high school students, "Can one's writing be great enough to exempt one from the rejection and ostracism that affects people who are different?" It sounds like a challenge Dolan makes to himself, to see how well he can make his film and how deeply he can write his characters; and his characters are certainly "people who are different." Laurence, born a man, was a biological mistake. He knows in his heart he should have been a woman. After a two-year relationship with his girlfriend, Frederique, he comes out to her with his desire for a sex change. He wants to hit the play button on his life, which he says has been on pause for 30 years. Fred must either ride the wave of this sea change or abandon ship. The human heart is a lot to take on, and it is maybe even more difficult a thing to believe in. Dolan does both. He sees something unattainably beautiful inside Laurence and Fred, and tries to expose their depths with every cinematic tool he can think of. Around them he builds an extremely romantic melodrama that cascades over ten years their lives, and the movie is wonderful. "Laurence Anyways" feels like a high-five for the soul. 

Dolan’s characters face daunting life choices, but they also have their victories and celebrations. Laurence may ultimately be fired from her job, but her first day in class as a woman is so happy that it becomes a hallucinatory dance party. An island tryst may disintegrate into anger, but it begins with a cloud that rains underwear and pajamas down on the two lovers. Dolan balances the highs and lows of his characters in a way that is constantly surprising, not only because of the emotional resonance of scenes like these, but also the sheer audacity of his expression. He is unashamed to steal from every aspect of visual culture, whether that be fashion, music videos, photography, or cinema new and old, but he also seems to approach each scene with the same question in mind: "What have I never seen in a film before?"

This paradox is perfectly embodied in Laurence, who has held two competing self-images in mind since his, and now her, birth. Even Frederique, already equipped with the masculine diminutive, subtly offers Laurence the deepest support she can give: "If you want to take the next step," she tells him, "I'm your man." Dolan uses these dualities to crack the movie open. He allows it room to hold naturalistic performances next to cartoonish caricatures, still and composed conversations by neon dance parties, and vast emotion underneath a poised and affected surface. The film's structure even holds competing timelines together, as the story comes to a close on both the first and last meetings Laurence and Fred will ever have. The film's title is the first thing we see, and the last thing we hear. Everything in the film is in opposition to itself, yet everything is balanced.

Dolan, now on his third film, is confident. He takes his time. The movie is long enough and covers a great enough time span that the word "epic" will be thrown at it. It is brazen and stylized enough that it will be called "indulgent." But if the movie were to grow legs and walk down the street, the reaction would be much the same as that of so many bystanders to Laurence himself, over six feet tall, heels, wig, manly face, flashy dress. Some will gawk, some will avert their eyes, but others still will be struck unexpectedly smitten. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux (2012)
Dir. Carlos Reygadas
Essay for Paste Magazine

"Fading Away
 Only a dream
 Just a memory
 Without anywhere to stay"
             -- Neil Young

Carlos Reygadas' fourth film "Post Tenebras Lux" begins with what, in retrospect, appear to be two dreams. They both become nightmares.

1. Rut, a toddler (played by the director's daughter), runs around a football pitch with cows, donkeys and her family's dogs. It is beautiful, verdant. A storm rolls in. She is alone in the dark. She calls for her brother, Eleazor. She calls for her mother. Lightning strikes.

2. Inside a house. A demon (Satan Himself?) enters. His junk dangles between his legs. He carries a toolbox, like he's just returned home from work. He walks down the hall to find a small boy out of bed, waiting. The demon walks into the boy's parents' room and shuts the door behind him.

On the surface, these are just a couple in a long line of scenes that do not particularly add up. Reygadas has no problem diving off into a new narrative strand, new characters, into the future, into the past, and even into a subconscious or two without notice or even cinematic inflection. Even as the reality of the film settles in -- an upperclass Mexican family, the father Juan's violent outbursts, his pornography addiction, his trip to an Alcoholics Anonymous-type meeting with a worker named Seven -- the entire thing still feels like a lucid dream. The film is not only shot in a boxed 4:3 format, but also uses a beveled lens that blurs the outer edges of the frame, restricting the audience's view to the small portion of the center image that is actually in focus. The effect is like that of having just woken up from one of these nightmares. The bad news: waking life may not feel much better, or make any more sense, or answer any of your questions.

To describe the plot and include the leaps forward through the lives -- and deaths -- of some of the characters would not necessarily spoil the film, because the truth, through Reygadas's lens, is peripheral. A character may be dead in the present and alive in the future, but these realities exist in tandem, like a dream or a world where one person's idea of their life is just as tangible (and by extension as meaningful) as the reality. This all sounds very heady, and on one hand it is -- there's the distinct intellectual quality of a Thomas Pynchon novel woven into the film -- but the root of its philosophical interest always leads back to the characters and their emotional states. Even the smallest side characters are vivid and beautiful, treated with a humor and care that deepen their inner lives on screen. These roots keep Reygadas from spiraling into a pretentious, esoteric “cinematic journey” of the worst kind. Call it ridiculous, call it indulgent – it clearly is – but it is so because Reygadas needs it to be. He needs to open himself up on screen, bluntly explore his filmmaking, leave himself completely open to ridicule in order to try to fully understand his characters. And this journey should be justifiable for any filmmaker willing to take that risk.

"Post Tenebras Lux" is palpably interested in cinematic theory (for God's sake just try to look at one of those blurred, condensed frames), but above all it is emotionally curious.  It wonders about the emotional quality of a Neil Young song banged out on a piano, sung completely out of tune, at the edge of a deathbed. It wants to find out why, despite Juan's apparent love for his family and his pets, he cannot seem to connect his ideals with his reality. Juan's wife is gorgeous. Why is he addicted to pornography? Juan's dogs are very intelligent. Why must he beat the smartest nearly to death? It's not that the answers aren't clear. On the contrary, Reygadas shows us that the answers are present, numerous, multifaceted, subconscious, futuristic, fantastical -- all the things buzzing around each of our brains that are rarely verbalized, let alone put on screen as reality. Rut and her Spider-Man-obsessed older brother Eleazor are not only devastatingly cute, but Reygadas also manages to put us inside their brains so we can wander around their world and enjoy it as they do. A beach scene in particular is so evocative of childhood that it's hard not to feel the sand between your toes. And, if greeted with enough openness and interest, that seemingly incoherent string of scenes reveals itself as a carefully executed emotional structure that begs for, and rewards, repeated viewings. 

How Did I Get Here?

Upstream Color (2013)
Dir. Shane Carruth
Essay for Paste Magazine

If Shane Carruth's time-traveling debut "Primer" was about outthinking what you might do in the future, his second movie, "Upstream Color," is about deciphering why you feel the way you do right now. This is not by any means an easy question to answer, and Carruth measures the distance from our actions to our understanding with all the confusion and swirls of emotion that accompany our worst decisions. He does so in a way that taps into some of the best elements of the current American moviescape -- the editing is crisp and pushes the story along at a clip, the performances are naturalistic with an ear toward the cinematic, and the story takes genre conventions and turns them into idiosyncrasies.  The result is an intense and almost uncomfortably personal film that doesn't always make perfect sense, but which has such a grasp on both silent and modern cinema that it's guaranteed to be considered by some the best movie of the year. 

The film is at turns mystifying and bluntly oblique, but plot itself is, on paper, relatively simple science fiction. There is a worm that, when ingested, places the eater under a susceptible hypnosis. From there, a triangle emerges. 1. The Thief (Thiago Martins) uses the worm to drain the bank accounts and control the lives of 2. people who have eaten the worm who, when discarded by the Thief, are summoned to 3. the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who transfers the worm from the victim into a pig for safe keeping.  The Sampler then sends the amnesiac back into their broken and incoherently destroyed life. 

OK, so maybe it's not exactly simple, but really the plot is just a distraction from the deeply emotional exploration lurking below its surface. Carruth isn't particularly good at conveying what you would normally consider "plot points," but the film pivots so nimbly from science fiction to romantic comedy to family drama and back that "plot" is very rarely in sight, let alone something to worry about. "Upstream," like "Primer," will take multiple viewings to simply understand the surface of what's happening, and even then the puzzle will still be missing some key pieces. His movies don't always add up, but here it doesn't matter -- the emotions are lucid from moment one. The film's beauty is in the relationship between two of those post-worm victims: Kris, played with the emotional energy of a silent movie siren by Amy Seimetz, and Jeff, played by Carruth himself. 

Carruth is essentially a one-man band -- he wrote, directed, produced, co-edited, scored and acted in the film -- but his foundation is Seimetz's bodily, dense performance. The Thief forces Kris to ingest one of the worms, and it is through her experience that the entire sprawling narrative opens up. It's impressive to convincingly play a woman totally baffled by the current state of her life, but the real joy comes when Seimetz's acting and Carruth's direction work in a kind of grotesque cinematic union. The worm grows in Kris's body and she slithers around her bed, either unable to control her limbs or losing her humanity to this thing inside her. She works up the courage to evacuate the invader the only way she knows how: a kitchen knife. These are the images that will stay with you, and these are the moments when we know Kris intimately. There are so many moments like this in the film that it feels like Carruth can barely keep control of them, and they accumulate to what is in my mind an almost unbearable bummer of an ending. The movie, though, with all of its weird sidetracks and dead ends, is so uniquely itself that it is worth the frustration. 

"Upstream Color" is by its nature a flawed movie. Carruth is clearly pushing himself both cinematically and emotionally. Every aspect of the filmmaking from the sound design to the cinematography stands out in some way, but the entire thing still feels just beyond reach. The story never makes enough sense to come to full fruition. There is an entire strand involving Henry David Thoreau's Walden that I can barely pretend to understand. And while this is all very fragmented, it creates for itself a certain kind of whole -- one in which the audience emerges with more questions than answers, and with the same disoriented notion of time and love and control that Carruth's characters must feel. What just happened to me? Why do I feel this way? How did I get here?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Passing as Human

Hugo (2011)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

The opening shot of Hugo shows us that Paris is like a clock. A clock is like an automaton: every mechanized piece fitting perfectly in place without a single spare part, once wound moving along without the aid of human hand. A clock is also like cinema: ticking along at an inexorable pace. So, the automaton is also cinema: a beautiful constructed mechanization of life. The construction is, in its own way, a facade, but Hugo's father understands this facade in a positive light. According to him, cinema is not where life is made false, but rather where dreams are invented. A movie, then, is a collective dream. And since the automaton is cinema, and it appears in this movie, it must be a dream within a dream. Hugo himself has a dream in the middle of the movie, and in it he becomes an automaton. And if Hugo is an automaton, then Hugo is cinema. A dream within a dream within a dream.

Can you imagine what dreams must have been like before movies were born? We go to the movies, and their visual grammar becomes the language with which our minds translate themselves. This is certainly true for me. My good dreams are those that have no battles. The battles, however, are full of moving images straight out of Fellini, with all the suspense of an action or war movie, and often even structured like one (albeit free-flowing and intuitive). My nightmares are like broken mechanizations of life, repeating the same attack on my brain every night: run, fight, run, fight, and on and on. I think Scorsese's dreams must play like movies, too, because while Hugo is, yes, ostensibly about his love of cinema, it's also a full attempt to explore the inner lives of mechanical men with fragmented minds, facades of their own and dreams that, in their way, need cinema to become whole again. There is Sacha Baron Cohen's character, named simply Station Inspector, and his hatred for orphans despite being raised as one himself. There's Georges Melies, who abandoned his art only to become, what else, a peddler of toy automations -- sad cinematic doppelgangers of his films, his inventions like nightmares within a nightmare. And, of course, there's Hugo, in search of the one thing that might bring him some understanding about his father's death: a resurrected automaton, a mechanization of life that says, yes, there is light to be seen here, and yes, you are whole again. And this, as a movie, is what Hugo does for me.

Hugo is a walking mesh of storybook fragments -- orphan, urchin, explorer, the list goes on -- and for the bulk of the movie he merely passes as a character of any depth, like a ghost wearing a mask. The peripheral cast of Montparnasse Station all feel somewhat cardboard as well. Lisette, the flower girl, has no apparent character depth beside the fact that her brother was killed in the World War. The fat man and his love interest are even more flimsy, with very little dialogue and only a cute angry dog between them. Isabelle, for example, is simply a reflection of Hugo. Her love of literature mirrors his love of cinema. Scorsese shows their connection quite distinctly in the scene when the automaton finally comes to life: the shots of each character mimic one another, with their faces shown opposite the automaton's, just as you would see yourself in a mirror. But just like the automaton he builds piece by piece, I see Hugo's story as a transformation from archetype to human, from a flat two dimensional pastiche of traits to a whole person. While each character may not have a convincing internal life when inspected individually, taken together they act as cogs in a greater machine, filling one another out and existing as a whole.

The moment when Hugo wakes into humanity is the emotional climax of the film: he tells the Station Agent that he needs the automaton to understand his father's death. But, as each character exists together in this larger dream, I can't explain the significance of this moment without speaking of the other wheels and springs. It is important to note that in this moment all the primary characters are present: Isabelle, Melies, Hugo and the Station Agent. It is not a moment for Hugo, but a moment for all of them and all of their reflecting themes. It is even more important to note that I did not cry when Hugo tells the Station Agent what he needs to understand, but rather when the camera cuts to the Station Agent and we see Hugo through his eyes. The Station Agent is like a little emotional trojan horse, and in my mind his understanding is what lets Hugo become whole.