Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sleepy Science: Part Two

On Charlotte Gainsbourg, Björk, and the White Stripes

sos horse.jpg
Stephane fixes Stephanie's toy horse in The Science of Sleep

In this section, Michel Gondry talks about his favorite actors and musicians.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of British singer/actress Jane Birkin and French singer/composer Serge Gainsbourg, is also a recording artist -- just as her father
was also an actor, author, and director -- but Gondry hasn't directed a video for her...yet. Like her mother, she married an actor/director, France's Yvan Attal
(My Wife is an Actress, Happily Ever After), who also appears in Bon Voyage and
Munich. And Charlotte's half-sister, Lou Doillon, daughter of Birkin and French
director Jacques Doillon, is one of the stars of the current Gap ad campaign.
Yes, it's true: The Gainsbourg-Birkin-Attal-Doillons are everywhere!

*****

Fennessy: So, growing up in France, were you a big fan of Serge Gainsbourg?

Gondry: Of course. Serge Gainsbourg -- I would say that in my
home, the two Gods were Serge Gainsbourg and Duke Ellington.

Fennessy: I love Serge Gainsbourg.

Gondry: But I don't think it's why I picked Charlotte. I mean, obviously it's in the back of the head, but Charlotte has been...very iconographic, since she was in her teens. She's one of the best actresses. If you ask even American directors, they
all think of Charlotte Gainsbourg as one of the most -- she's just a magical actress.

charlotte.jpg
Charlotte Gainsbourg...looking much like her mother
Fennessy: She's great. have you seen Lemming?
Gondry: Yeah.
Fennessy: Her and...Charlotte Rampling. I'm looking forward to that.
Gondry: Two Charlottes.
[And that's all he had to say about Lemming, but he smiled when I
asked about the film, so I'm guessing he didn't dislike it too much.]
Fennessy: It sounds like you had met her before casting her in the film?
Gondry: No. Since I was eight years old, I was impressed by meeting her. She's very sweet. She's shy, but quietly strong in some ways. She's very direct and discreet.
Fennessy: That's kind of how she is in the film. Had you written her part before you met her or with her in mind, kind of going back to his [Tyler's] question about Gael?
Gondry: The part was written thinking about somebody I knew. I knew if I had Charlotte, it would bring some humanity, because it could have been harsh. With some other actress, it would've been much harsher, and I didn't want this character to come off as being unfriendly, and I think Charlotte brings so much humanity. And it's interesting. I didn't give her direction in the sense of I didn't know if Stephanie is in love or not with Stephane, and I told her, 'I'm not gonna tell you, because I don't know,' so I'll give you the dialogue and you make the intention you want. Obviously, I gave her some direction, but overall, I would not say what was in her mind, because I didn't know, and I asked her many times, 'So do you think she likes him?' Just taking it for me, but I didn't say, 'Of course she loves him,' so I was happy, but I think she thought I was talking about Stephane-Michel and not Stephane-Gael.
bjork4a.jpg
Björk in Gondry's video for "Hyperballad"
Tyler: Do you know when we can see the American trailer for the movie?
Gondry: There is one...and there's a website, www.howdoyoudream.com. We're encouraging people to share their dreams. I'm doing a journal of my dreams on videotape and I'm trying to explain them in my own way. While I was working on the video with Beck, he told me his dream. It's going to be fun. It's going to be related to the film, but not completely directly. It's going to be...a community website.
Fennessy: Are you gonna use a song in the trailer that
isn't in the movie, like you did with Eternal Sunshine?
Gondry: I'm not sure...
Fennessy: [ELO's] 'Mr. Blue Sky.'
Gondry: We did use a song [I think he's referring to the Velvet Underground's
'After Hours']. First I was against it, then I said your terms are good -- let's do it.
Tyler: What do you think is most rewarding about your collaborations with
Björk and the White Stripes, who you work with a lot? Do you think if they
came to you with a project, like a feature-length project -- either fictional or
a concert film, like Dave Chappelle -- would you be willing to do that for them?
Gondry: Yeah, I think so. I have a project I wrote for the White Stripes and then it was put on the side. It was a biographical project and...I was really happy with the project, and I hope it's gonna happen someday. I wanted to interview them, and have a stage with some people re-enacting what they're saying, and we would bring more and more props, and I would have two actors to play Jack and Meg. And then Meg and Jack would...play their music, to demonstrate... I think the idea was like that -- I would play them their music and they would tell me...what they had in mind when they wrote the songs. Then we would illustrate those moments on stage with two actors, one from Jack and one from Meg, while they were doing the same music, so it would build up like that. Each time, we would have some interview or voiceover and we see people re-enacting as they're playing the next song.... At some point with Björk -- it would be a different medium. We may be doing a big exhibition together, maybe we'll do it next year... I don't think she wants to be an actress.
Tyler: That's what she said after Dancer in the Dark.
Gondry: She did do that...[Drawing Restraint 9] with her boyfriend [Matthew Barney], but it's different -- she was just being herself... She was not having to put all emotion out. I would do anything they want me to do, basically. And it's great to have met those people. I mean, it's what you wish for -- any director with my background, a video director -- in music directing. You get involved with a project that's taking off, you never know... And when you jump on one and, whoosh -- to the sky. [Makes airplane gesture.] Like it happened to me with Björk and the White Stripes. It's your best luck, because you travel with them and...you help them and they help you at the same time. Like the White Stripes, at some point, they considered me as a third member of the band. It's very flattering, and I've never been disappointed by any video I did with them. And when you work again and again with the same artist, you have an enormous pressure, which is to make better [work] than before -- not disappoint them -- and it's really a pressure you put to yourself, but it's a good one.
dvd_cover1.jpg
Gondry's Director's Series double-disc set. The image comes from
his Lego video for the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl."
Next: On Directing vs. Drumming
*****
The Science of Sleep continues at the Egyptian Theatre (801 E Pine). For
more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. For those Western Washingtonians not in Seattle, it's also playing at Lynnwood's Alderwood 16, Redmond's Bella Bottega 11, and Bellevue's Lincoln Square Cinemas.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sleepy Science With Michel Gondry

The Science of Sleep / La Science Des R/(TM)ves
(Michel Gondry, France, R, 105 mins.)


science-poster2-s.jpg

The third feature from Michel Gondry is a fanciful jumble of languages and visual trickery concerning two artistically inclined would-be lovers, Stephane (Gael Garc/<>a Bernal) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She's French-British and he's Mexican-French. They live in the same Parisian apartment building and learn to communicate using a highly fractured English. Language problem aside, they should be perfect for each other: They love vintage toys and even share the same name.

Unfortunately, Stephanie thinks Stephane is more interested in her friend Zo/',
and Stephane spends far too much time in his head to connect with anyone completely. In his first screenplay without an assist from Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Gondry allows the audience full access
to Stephane's bizarre daydreams. This creates as much melancholy as hilarity
since a potential relationship continually takes a backseat to an imagined one.

While Gondry was in town during SIFF, I conducted a joint interview alongside
a fellow named Tyler from Green River Community College. Tyler asked plenty
of good questions, so I've decided to include them in the following transcript.

*****

Tyler: Have you been to Seattle before?

Gondry: I've been a bunch of times. One was for a wedding, then I was
here with Charlie Kaufman two years ago to promote Eternal Sunshine.

scienceberlin.jpg
Gondry and Bernal in Berlin
Tyler: I've noticed your music videos and your movies have a sort of
mathematical internal logic to them. Is that something that you...?
Gondry: Yeah, very much so. I like mathematics-not that I was really good
at it-I was good at geometry. I like the thinking of mathematics. I like to try
to find patterns in nature or in storytelling, as well. I like to find shapes in storytelling, try to represent flow and continuity of the story as a sort of graphic,
and actually I always do sort of a map of the movie before I start to shoot.
Tyler: Was this script [The Science of Sleep] written in the various languages?
Gondry: Initially I wrote it in French. Then I wrote it in American-
in English-then I did a version with the two bridged together.
Tyler: Was Gael supposed to speak Spanish or was that in the casting?
Gondry: It came from casting him, but I cast him one year before we started
to shoot, so I had time all this year. I worked with having him in mind. And we
knew little by little when we met-we knew who played his mother [Miou-Miou],
we knew she didn't want to speak English. So we said, 'Okay, with her, he's
gonna have to speak French.' Sometimes it happens like that. You get an actress you really want to work with, but she refuses to speak English, so you have to
make it work. But sometimes it's for the best of the project-it really makes
sense to the story. I tried to make it as believable as possible.
Tyler: Is that part of the reason you decided to shoot it in France? Because
it seems like your other two movies were more American productions.
Gondry: Because it's really personal and I wanted to have the background I knew. Like on Eternal Sunshine, I did three months of research over in New York to find out how people live and to make it real. On this one, I didn't want to spend this time, and I really wanted to make it from what I had in mind already, so actually I got
to shoot in the building where I used to live 10 years ago-two floors above-and on the street. It's a location I know very well. It saved a lot of time. As well I wanted to have this image-this thrill-when you come back to a place you've not been for awhile and you come back there and you fix something, so I wanted to take it there.
science1.jpg
Stephane (Bernal) as seen from Stephanie's apartment
Tyler: I'm assuming this is also why you tried to use more home-made, stop-
motion kind of things-physical effects-as opposed to computer graphics?
Gondry: Both, actually. I'm doing a video for Beck now ["Cell Phone's Dead"].
It's gonna be a lot of computer effects, but we have done some effects as well
in the camera. I mean, for The Science of Sleep, everything is Stephane's creation
or Stephanie's creation. I think it makes sense that it's all home-made, because
at the end of the day when you watch the film you will not feel you're going into
the world of a crazy art director or [movie] director, you're just going into Stephane's world. So, if you assume Stephane is me, then you're going into my world, but before all you're going into Stephane's world, and the different landscape of the dream can be all different or all really contradictory. They all match because you
feel he made them himself. It was important for me that-even though I was not really aware of this-it was important that this was his predicament.
Fennessy: Since you named him [Stephane] Miroux, was that a play
on Joan Mir/>=? I know he's Mexican, but [Mir/>=] is a Spanish artist...
Gondry: No, I mean I think it's good that you can find anything. It's
not easy for me to come up with names. It's not like I'm a writer...
Fennessy: In that book [the Director Series booklet, which
Tyler brought to the interview], there's a cat named Mirou...
Gondry: That's correct. I remember picking my brother up at school when I
was working on this screenplay and I picked the name of one of his teachers.
Fennessy: So it's random?
Gondry: Well, at first it feels real, but [it] feels very self-conscious to use
a name. It's kind of very French, very flat, but then you get used to it.
Fennessy: In Spanish, it's 'I see' or 'I look'-the
verb is mirar-so there's a lot going on there!
Gondry: Yeah...it's very random. I think as long as you're in tune with
yourself, you can go in many directions and always return in a good way.
smiro9.jpg
Joan Mir/>= likes feet, too
Tyler: You do a lot of animation. Have you thought about doing animated movies?
Gondry: I'm not sure I would want to do an all-animated movie. I was thinking today I would like to do an animation that I would do every day for five seconds for one year and then see where it goes, but completely improvized-do animated doodles. It's very satisfactory. It's just so relaxing, doing a little drawing and then it comes to life. So maybe I will do something like this. Today I was interviewed for TV, and I took a notebook and as I was doing the interview, I did a figure and then another one and another one. And then I said, 'Okay, you have to take all the shots, get one frame on each,' because his friend's gonna be an animator. I did a guy with a small foot on a big foot and he tries to walk on it. [Makes boom-chucka-boom noise] And then I said, 'Oh, I should do something like that for a bigger size.'
Next: On Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bj/drk, and the White Stripes
*****
The Science of Sleep is currently playing at the Egyptian Theatre (801
E. Pine). For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755.

Sleepy Science With Michel Gondry

The Science of Sleep / La Science Des Rêves
(Michel Gondry, France, R, 105 mins.)


science-poster2-s.jpg

The third feature from Michel Gondry is a fanciful jumble of languages and visual trickery concerning two artistically inclined would-be lovers, Stephane (Gael García Bernal) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She's French-British and he's Mexican-French. They live in the same Parisian apartment building and learn to communicate using a highly fractured English. Language problem aside, they should be perfect for each other: They love vintage toys and even share the same name.

Unfortunately, Stephanie thinks Stephane is more interested in her friend Zoë,
and Stephane spends far too much time in his head to connect with anyone completely. In his first screenplay without an assist from Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Gondry allows the audience full access
to Stephane's bizarre daydreams. This creates as much melancholy as hilarity
since a potential relationship continually takes a backseat to an imagined one.

While Gondry was in town during SIFF, I conducted a joint interview alongside
a fellow named Tyler from Green River Community College. Tyler asked plenty
of good questions, so I've decided to include them in the following transcript.

*****

Tyler: Have you been to Seattle before?

Gondry: I've been a bunch of times. One was for a wedding, then I was
here with Charlie Kaufman two years ago to promote Eternal Sunshine.

scienceberlin.jpg
Gondry and Bernal in Berlin
Tyler: I've noticed your music videos and your movies have a sort of
mathematical internal logic to them. Is that something that you...?
Gondry: Yeah, very much so. I like mathematics -- not that I was really good
at it -- I was good at geometry. I like the thinking of mathematics. I like to try
to find patterns in nature or in storytelling, as well. I like to find shapes in storytelling, try to represent flow and continuity of the story as a sort of graphic,
and actually I always do sort of a map of the movie before I start to shoot.
Tyler: Was this script [The Science of Sleep] written in the various languages?
Gondry: Initially I wrote it in French. Then I wrote it in American --
in English -- then I did a version with the two bridged together.
Tyler: Was Gael supposed to speak Spanish or was that in the casting?
Gondry: It came from casting him, but I cast him one year before we started
to shoot, so I had time all this year. I worked with having him in mind. And we
knew little by little when we met -- we knew who played his mother [Miou-Miou],
we knew she didn't want to speak English. So we said, 'Okay, with her, he's
gonna have to speak French.' Sometimes it happens like that. You get an actress you really want to work with, but she refuses to speak English, so you have to
make it work. But sometimes it's for the best of the project -- it really makes
sense to the story. I tried to make it as believable as possible.
Tyler: Is that part of the reason you decided to shoot it in France? Because
it seems like your other two movies were more American productions.
Gondry: Because it's really personal and I wanted to have the background I knew. Like on Eternal Sunshine, I did three months of research over in New York to find out how people live and to make it real. On this one, I didn't want to spend this time, and I really wanted to make it from what I had in mind already, so actually I got
to shoot in the building where I used to live 10 years ago -- two floors above -- and on the street. It's a location I know very well. It saved a lot of time. As well I wanted to have this image -- this thrill -- when you come back to a place you've not been for awhile and you come back there and you fix something, so I wanted to take it there.
science1.jpg
Stephane (Bernal) as seen from Stephanie's apartment
Tyler: I'm assuming this is also why you tried to use more home-made, stop-
motion kind of things -- physical effects -- as opposed to computer graphics?
Gondry: Both, actually. I'm doing a video for Beck now ["Cell Phone's Dead"].
It's gonna be a lot of computer effects, but we have done some effects as well
in the camera. I mean, for The Science of Sleep, everything is Stephane's creation
or Stephanie's creation. I think it makes sense that it's all home-made, because
at the end of the day when you watch the film you will not feel you're going into
the world of a crazy art director or [movie] director, you're just going into Stephane's world. So, if you assume Stephane is me, then you're going into my world, but before all you're going into Stephane's world, and the different landscape of the dream can be all different or all really contradictory. They all match because you
feel he made them himself. It was important for me that -- even though I was not really aware of this -- it was important that this was his predicament.
Fennessy: Since you named him [Stephane] Miroux, was that a play
on Joan Miró? I know he's Mexican, but [Miró] is a Spanish artist...
Gondry: No, I mean I think it's good that you can find anything. It's
not easy for me to come up with names. It's not like I'm a writer...
Fennessy: In that book [the Director Series booklet, which
Tyler brought to the interview], there's a cat named Mirou...
Gondry: That's correct. I remember picking my brother up at school when I
was working on this screenplay and I picked the name of one of his teachers.
Fennessy: So it's random?
Gondry: Well, at first it feels real, but [it] feels very self-conscious to use
a name. It's kind of very French, very flat, but then you get used to it.
Fennessy: In Spanish, it's 'I see' or 'I look' -- the
verb is mirar -- so there's a lot going on there!
Gondry: Yeah...it's very random. I think as long as you're in tune with
yourself, you can go in many directions and always return in a good way.
smiro9.jpg
Joan Miró likes feet, too
Tyler: You do a lot of animation. Have you thought about doing animated movies?
Gondry: I'm not sure I would want to do an all-animated movie. I was thinking today I would like to do an animation that I would do every day for five seconds for one year and then see where it goes, but completely improvized -- do animated doodles. It's very satisfactory. It's just so relaxing, doing a little drawing and then it comes to life. So maybe I will do something like this. Today I was interviewed for TV, and I took a notebook and as I was doing the interview, I did a figure and then another one and another one. And then I said, 'Okay, you have to take all the shots, get one frame on each,' because his friend's gonna be an animator. I did a guy with a small foot on a big foot and he tries to walk on it. [Makes boom-chucka-boom noise] And then I said, 'Oh, I should do something like that for a bigger size.'
Next: On Charlotte Gainsbourg, Björk, and the White Stripes
*****
The Science of Sleep is currently playing at the Egyptian Theatre (801
E. Pine). For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Flyboys


Well, Viv and I made the arduous trek to far Lynnwood to see Flyboys last night. Presumably due to the unorthodox funding model employed by the film (the producers made the film with their own money), the film has terrible distribution in the Seattle area, playing only far-edge suburban screens. That said, the film is a very old-fashioned war movie and the values seen in the piece may be more inline with suburban America's than Capitol Hill's.


The film's two-hour plus length was not problematic, for me, however peculiar a choice it may be. The film's production values are absolutely top-notch, the acting is professional and on the whole I felt that the generally cool reviews the release has garnered to date undersell the film.


The film's appeal, of course, is primarily in the visual recreation of the experience of World War One air combat, and again, I feel that the party line seen in most reviews undersells what is actually on the screen. There are about four lengthy set-pieces and I found each one absorbing and free from irritating technical gaffes. One interesting digital addition to the visual vocabulary of the dogfight is the smoke trails the rounds leave in the air.


Despite my happiness with the spectacle, there are of course what I take to be a few adjustments to the historical events. Only one really bugged me:


An opening sequence shows a main character watching a newsreel in a Texas theatre and a reverse angle displays a segment on the newly-formed Lafayette Escadrille. The planes displayed in the segment appeared to me to be Nieuport 28s, a place which came into service after the events seen in the film. I suppose I may have mis-viewed them, as the rest of the film is relatively insistent on historical accuracy in details of setting and technology.


The other adjustments that appear to have been made are all apparently in the service of making the film more cinematic. First, nearly all the DR1s seen in he film (the famous Fokker triiplane), are bright red. It's my understanding that that color was actually only used by one pilot, the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and that the majority of the DR1s in service actually employed a base color scheme of a streaky green camouflage. I could sure be wrong on this one though, as distinctive color schemes are well documented for a large number of pilots.


A further adjustment is the repeated use of spoken or shouted dialog while in flight between the characters. In reality, while one might very well shout in an attempt to communicate, the combination of engine noise and airspeed in an open-cockpit plane makes unaided verbal communication an impossibility.


Finally, there are repeated shots depicting planes in very close proximity for seconds at a time, right on one another's tails, as the pilots hold fire in hopes of getting a solid shot lined up. While the tracking and firing details appeared satisfactory to me, it seems worth noting that these moments of close proximity did not make up the majority of time in this sort of combat; for each close-distance encounter a pilot often had to engage in long minutes of careful jockeying for position.


A kind of corollary to this is what appears to me to have been exaggerated performance characteristics of, in particular, the Nieuport 17s that are the featured planes in the film. N17s are in my opinion the most beautiful airplane ever made; however, they also exhibited a tendency to lose wings in steep, high-speed dives, an activity shown repeatedly in the film without such a consequence.


A further corollary is the repeated depiction of planes in relatively close proximity to the ground - a run of bombers appear to drop their payload from 500 feet or less; a Zeppelin is seen over Paris from above, the Eiffel Tower clearly visible in the distance, and an apparent altitude of 2000 feet. While the aviation technology of the war limited operations for most planes and zeppelins to under 20,000 feet (if I recall correctly, the Camel's ceiling was about 13,000 feet), attaining maximum altitude was always a key aspect in successful sorties. In particular, Zeppelins were often able to operate above the reach of most anti-aircraft weapons. A low-altitude daylight raid on paris as seen in the film strikes me as exceedingly improbable.


Despite these entirely understandable adjustments, they clearly do make the film more cinematically legible than it might have been, and as noted, I entirely enjoyed it.



Saturday, September 23, 2006

Crashing Into Yourself: Part Three

Part Three: On the Location, the Production, and the Cast

52581.jpg

This marks the conclusion of my chat with Lynn Shelton. Though we talked for al-
most two hours, I thought it best to keep things concise and end here. Reminder: We Go Way Back has been extended at the Varsity Theatre through Thursday, 9/28.

*****

Did you consider making this film anywhere
else or was it always going to be set in Seattle?


It was always going to be set in Seattle.

So, how did you choose the locations-Ballard,
Whidbey Island...? I might be missing something.


The Key Peninsula, sort of down Gig Harbor Way. And the theater-the in-
side-was the Bush School Theater. That was the hardest location to get.

It works well in the film. It seems like it had sight lines so you could
film things-so you could see everybody. I distinctly remember that.

It really works well. And I like how you can't really tell how big it is, because
it just goes off into black... I wanted something that didn't feel too dumpy.
So it was definitely a fringe theater-it wasn't a wreck-but it was a pretty nice
theater, basically. [laughs] My model was Empty Space. And it would've been
cool if we could've shot there-I would've been thrilled-but everybody had a
show up. There was no way to get the time that we needed-there was just no
way to do it. They did let us use the lobby and the outside of the Empty Space. That
was nice, but that almost didn't come together. It was really last minute.
estpics.gif
The Empty Space Theater
And there are a lot of scenes in the theater. I'm assuming all the stage scenes-that's not set, but the Bush School Theater when you're actually seeing people
on the stage.
[Kate has the lead in a production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.]
Yes, all of the rehearsals on the stage, that's all-and actually when the direc-
tor [Robert Hamilton Wright] tells her [Amber Hubert's Kate] that they're gonna
switch ideas, it's not working-that little woodshop is actually their woodshop, too.
I think we shot two whole weekends there-five or six days, something like that.
Were any students involved as extras?
Yeah, Kyle was actually a student of mine. [He happened to walk into the
coffee shop during our interview.] He was crafty-craft services-and a PA
[production assistant]. A lot of-I think most of-our PAs were students of mine
or just graduated...art department PAs, grips...and a bunch-we had this little
fleet of assistant editors, who helped a lot with digitizing and organizing foot-
age, and synching up the sound. There must have been eight of those guys too.
As far as the casting-and this applies to both Maggie [Brown]
and Amber-did you have them both in mind for these parts?
Maggie was the inspiration for the kernel that became the movie. I'd seen her in Megan Murphy's show The Rich Grandeur of Boxing at On the Boards, and as she constantly told me, she's not an actress. She doesn't consider herself an actress.
Isn't she a dancer?
060913_film_we_250.jpg
Maggie Brown as Little Kate
She actually studied with the PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] for many years, and
then stopped. I think she stopped when she was 12 or 13, but she studied with
them for a long time. And she was amazing in this show. This is kind of a dance theater show-I don't know if you've ever seen any of Megan's work, like Run/
Remain
; it's similar-but it's more kind of performance than it is play. She had
this incredible presence. It intrigued me, and I remember seeing her in that show and thinking I really would like to do a movie with her someday. And the summer before we did We Go Way Back, two summers ago, I had this sudden urge to-suddenly all these visceral memories of being her age, 13... I spent a lot of time
at my folks' house on Whidbey Island (which is why we ended up on Whidbey Island). There's this little lake there, this cabin, and I used to spend hours there in this canoe. I would go out into the middle of the lake and I'd just lay down and float out there and I would bring my journal and stuff. And I was just holding everything in-you know, like introspection, pulling in-it's like I was getting ready for this sort of galvanizing adolescence that was about to hit. [laughs] So I dragged her up there for a couple of days, and I found a sound recordist, who was also a woman, so she would feel comfortable... It was wonderful. We had this two-day shoot out in this cabin, and the three of us paddling around in this canoe. And I took her out to these woods and wandered around after her and shot this footage. So I have this little five-minute short film that's also probably gonna be an extra on the DVD. She was the kernel of the 13-year-old self in the movie, but the main character was the most important casting decision, so if somebody didn't look like Maggie, I knew I wouldn't be able to use Maggie. I realized that from the very beginning... and I just couldn't believe my luck. Amber was like the last person I looked at-I came really close to going to New York and looking for actresses there... It was one of those things where I kind of knew almost immediately when she walked in. And then the fact that they really look a lot alike... So, that's pretty great-I'm really happy about that.
*****
The Varsity Theatre is located at 4329 University Way NE. For more
information (show times, etc.), please click here or call 206-781-5755.

Crashing Into Yourself: Part Three

Part Three: On the Location, the Production, and the Cast

52581.jpg

This marks the conclusion of my chat with Lynn Shelton. Though we talked for al-
most two hours, I thought it best to keep things concise and end here. Reminder: We Go Way Back has been extended at the Varsity Theatre through Thursday, 9/28.

*****

Did you consider making this film anywhere
else or was it always going to be set in Seattle?


It was always going to be set in Seattle.

So, how did you choose the locations -- Ballard,
Whidbey Island...? I might be missing something.


The Key Peninsula, sort of down Gig Harbor Way. And the theater -- the in-
side -- was the Bush School Theater. That was the hardest location to get.

It works well in the film. It seems like it had sight lines so you could
film things -- so you could see everybody. I distinctly remember that.

It really works well. And I like how you can't really tell how big it is, because
it just goes off into black... I wanted something that didn't feel too dumpy.
So it was definitely a fringe theater -- it wasn't a wreck -- but it was a pretty nice
theater, basically. [laughs] My model was Empty Space. And it would've been
cool if we could've shot there -- I would've been thrilled -- but everybody had a
show up. There was no way to get the time that we needed -- there was just no
way to do it. They did let us use the lobby and the outside of the Empty Space. That
was nice, but that almost didn't come together. It was really last minute.
estpics.gif
The Empty Space Theater
And there are a lot of scenes in the theater. I'm assuming all the stage scenes -- that's not set, but the Bush School Theater when you're actually seeing people
on the stage.
[Kate has the lead in a production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.]
Yes, all of the rehearsals on the stage, that's all -- and actually when the direc-
tor [Robert Hamilton Wright] tells her [Amber Hubert's Kate] that they're gonna
switch ideas, it's not working -- that little woodshop is actually their woodshop, too.
I think we shot two whole weekends there -- five or six days, something like that.
Were any students involved as extras?
Yeah, Kyle was actually a student of mine. [He happened to walk into the
coffee shop during our interview.] He was crafty -- craft services -- and a PA
[production assistant]. A lot of -- I think most of -- our PAs were students of mine
or just graduated...art department PAs, grips...and a bunch -- we had this little
fleet of assistant editors, who helped a lot with digitizing and organizing foot-
age, and synching up the sound. There must have been eight of those guys too.
As far as the casting -- and this applies to both Maggie [Brown]
and Amber -- did you have them both in mind for these parts?
Maggie was the inspiration for the kernel that became the movie. I'd seen her in Megan Murphy's show The Rich Grandeur of Boxing at On the Boards, and as she constantly told me, she's not an actress. She doesn't consider herself an actress.
Isn't she a dancer?
060913_film_we_250.jpg
Maggie Brown as Little Kate
She actually studied with the PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] for many years, and
then stopped. I think she stopped when she was 12 or 13, but she studied with
them for a long time. And she was amazing in this show. This is kind of a dance theater show -- I don't know if you've ever seen any of Megan's work, like Run/
Remain
; it's similar -- but it's more kind of performance than it is play. She had
this incredible presence. It intrigued me, and I remember seeing her in that show and thinking I really would like to do a movie with her someday. And the summer before we did We Go Way Back, two summers ago, I had this sudden urge to -- suddenly all these visceral memories of being her age, 13... I spent a lot of time
at my folks' house on Whidbey Island (which is why we ended up on Whidbey Island). There's this little lake there, this cabin, and I used to spend hours there in this canoe. I would go out into the middle of the lake and I'd just lay down and float out there and I would bring my journal and stuff. And I was just holding everything in -- you know, like introspection, pulling in -- it's like I was getting ready for this sort of galvanizing adolescence that was about to hit. [laughs] So I dragged her up there for a couple of days, and I found a sound recordist, who was also a woman, so she would feel comfortable... It was wonderful. We had this two-day shoot out in this cabin, and the three of us paddling around in this canoe. And I took her out to these woods and wandered around after her and shot this footage. So I have this little five-minute short film that's also probably gonna be an extra on the DVD. She was the kernel of the 13-year-old self in the movie, but the main character was the most important casting decision, so if somebody didn't look like Maggie, I knew I wouldn't be able to use Maggie. I realized that from the very beginning... and I just couldn't believe my luck. Amber was like the last person I looked at -- I came really close to going to New York and looking for actresses there... It was one of those things where I kind of knew almost immediately when she walked in. And then the fact that they really look a lot alike... So, that's pretty great -- I'm really happy about that.
*****
The Varsity Theatre is located at 4329 University Way NE. For more
information (show times, etc.), please click here or call 206-781-5755.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Crashing Into Yourself: Part Two

On Jonathan Glazer, Chris Cunningham, and Michel Gondry

[image]
Laura Veirs

In part one, Lynn Shelton talked about working with Laura Veirs on the soundtrack for We Go Way Back. In this section, we talk strictly about videos. For those only interested in reading about the film, be advised that we barely touch on it, but we'll be doubling back in the next installment. Meanwhile, the run of WGWB has been extended at the Varsity Theater, so you have another week to get caught up.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

I just made a music video for her.

[Please see previous post for the QuickTime video.]

That's great. It seems like a logical move for both of you.

It's turned out really nicely. I actually am probably prouder--as proud--
of this music video as I am of the feature. [laughs] I love it so much.

Maybe there's a way, in terms of screenings,
that the video could be seen with the film.


That would be really cool. I didn't even consider that for screenings. I think it's gonna end up on the DVD as an extra, if we get it all worked out with Warner.

What's the song?

"Magnetized." It's my favorite song on the album [Year of Meteors].

Is that your first music video?

Yeah, it is.

That's excellent.

[image]
Michel Gondry

I'm extremely excited about it. It's not the usual--it's definitely in the
category of the "artsy" ones. I don't know if you've seen a lot of videos.

I have... For Amazon, I reviewed the [latest] Directors Series,
and then I interviewed Michel Gondry when he was in town.


Really?

Yeah, and we didn't talk too much about videos, although it's clear to me
that he loves it. I mean, he doesn't have to do it. He has a feature film car-
eer, but as far as I can tell he's continuing on. He mentioned that he was just working on this video with Beck
["Cell Phone's Dead"] . I think he really enjoys
it--I mean, frankly, I'm sure it pays well--but I think he truly enjoys it.


Well, it probably does...but not for me! [laughs] They [Nonesuch] didn't ac-
tually want to give us any money. The album happened too long ago to them.
So, I think we'll get a budget for one for the next album, so that's something
to look forward to. But I was just so excited about this one that I paid for it
myself. From a lot of people, I got a lot of equipment and most of the people
worked for free, like the dancers. Yeah, it's a really exciting form of cinema.
I love how it's this way of sneaking experimental art into the mainstream.

It is.

Kids who are really excited by music may end up seeing one as a re-
sult of getting their hands on an enhanced CD or...Michel Gondry gets
on MTV, as well. Usually, experimental film has its own very separate
and tiny audience, and it never gets seen by anybody else, so....

Crashing into...Denis Lavant

Have you seen any of Jonathan Glazer's videos? Because those are some of the more--I don't know if I would say experimental--but his are definitely more, in terms of vibe and tone and mood, they're not...obvious. I'll just say that. And that's true of his feature film work too, whereas his commercials are a whole other thing. They're just expressing whatever they're meant to express.

Did he do the one with the French actor in the tunnel?

[UNKLE's "Rabbit In Your Headlights."]

Yes. That is like an experimental film.

It really is.

More than most, I think, although you could say that about Chris Cun-
ningham, too, but...
[it] isn't for me. I think I've seen all of his videos.

Except for that amazing one. It's incredible. Do you remember that one...

It's like people floating? Yeah, that's cool. And that [Portishead's "Only You"] actually doesn't look like his work.

I know.

Beth Gibbons floating in space

All these other ones, you've got machines and stuff. I love Björk, but Björk and robots--I don't know.

I'm actually sort of partial to that one ["All Is Full of Love"]. I mean, I was intrigued, but the floating one is just really cool. The thing that's so interesting about Chris Cunningham, that I like about him--and the same reason that I like that Jonathan Glazer video--is this getting away from an illustration of the music or the lyrics and whatever and just really going off to this other more associative place. It's really exciting. I'm teaching a music video production class at the Art Institute. I acquired it at the last minute. I really wanted to teach the class, and I didn't think I was gonna get to. I just love it--I love it. I love being able to talk about it and try to steer them towards making...art. [laughs] And most of them coming into that class are thinking, "I'm gonna make this very commercial video that looks like something [indistinguishable]," which most of them can't do, because those are million-dollar productions, and we don't have 35mm film, we don't have huge cranes, so I try to expose them to this whole other genre--subgenre--get them thinking that way.

I can see why you would appreciate Gondry then, because I think even
though some of his videos probably have a big budget behind them, there's
still a lot of stuff that he does that he could do for cheap if he were really,
really patient, like he has all that stop-motion stuff. And he does use CGI.


That's right, he does.

We didn't get into that, but...you can't really tell. It's buried.

Exactly. That's what I love about his stuff--his use of effects. For the most part, they're all totally organic and to a purpose. It's like Eternal Sunshine, I felt the same way. I didn't feel like they were--I felt like some of them were even kind of...throw-away. Like, they were so brief or so tiny. You could hardly even see them. And they're not about the effects. Most CGI...you see in movies is all about the effects, and he just--it's all a part of the whole, and it serves the greater purpose. It's very elegant. And he works hard to make them not look "computery," too. And half the time they aren't. I think he'd rather do something in-camera, if it's posible.

[image]
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eter-
nal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Plus, he was doing that when he was here... When he was doing an in-
terview for TV, he was working on some kind of flip book thing... I think
he's always working. I got this impression that he's...kind of obsessive.


I think my favorite one--well, I don't know if I can say that--but the
[Gondry video] that comes to me a lot is the [Chemical Brothers] 'Star
Guitar' one. That's the one where you're looking out the window of the train.

Do you have the booklet? He explains how he came up with the idea.

Oh, really? I've never read it.

I think it came from his brother [Twist].

His brother is the guy who makes all the technical stuff happen, because Mich-
el is not the technical guy. He comes up with the ideas and then he lets other
people--which is also really great. And it makes a lot of sense, too, because he's
so out there. He's not coming from this place of "Let's make this cool effect"...
he's just thinking of these wild ideas. He's a huge hero of mine--he's awesome.

Next up: On the Location, the Production, and the Cast

*****

The Varsity Theater is located at 4329 University Way NE. For more
information (show times, etc.), please click here or call 206-781-5755.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Wicker Man

littleliars.jpg
You little liars!


Here's the thing about the original Wicker Man: It is not as if there aren't elements that will make you laugh - there definitely are. You can't expect to watch Christopher Lee cavorting about an island in tights, singing, and NOT laugh. But for all its blantant sexuality, bright costumes, and musical numbers, you're still left with a sense of dread, and by the end of the film you've figured out why. To sum up: it's uncomfortable to watch, the ending is a bit a shocker, and you identify with it and feel the creepiness acutely. Not so in the remake.

In the original, Detective Neil Howie (played with perfection by straight-faced Edward Woodward) was absolutely faithful to his Christian beliefs. Thus, there is a clash of his religion and the paganism rampant on the island of Summerisle, where he's been called to investigate the disappearance of a child. In the remake, the character of Edward Malus (played with not-so-much perfection by Nicolas Cage) has no such beliefs. In fact, they never address his religion at all. Removing the main character's spirituality made it so he didn't have that much to fear (except the bees which covered the island).
Cage's character is drawn to investigate a girl's disappearance by an ex-girlfriend who apparently dumped him mysteriously by disappearing as well. His motivation: guilt from not being able to save another little girl in a highway accident months earlier. He spends most of the movie shouting in his trademark over-the-top style (and though that style works well in other movies, it sure doesn't here), sneaking around with a flashlight, and riding an antique bike around angrily. Yes, you read that right. He rides ANGRY - to the point where he forcefully throws the bike down when he has to stop riding. I'm sorry, but there's no way to do that without making me laugh.
Another change Labute makes it to switch the island's inhabitants to a matriarchal society. Ellen Burstyn takes the place of Christoper Lee, but in a much less captivating manner. I believe she is supposed to look menacing (especially to the men on the island who appear to be nothing more than mute sex-slaves/handymen), but instead she just looks bored. I would even go so far as to say that Kate Beahan's overly plump lips did more acting than Ms. Burstyn, which is a real shame considering how great she usually is. As for Beahan herself, she was beautiful, but her doe-eyed speeches got old quickly.
Frances Conroy and Molly Parker proved to be adequately menacing, and Lelee Sobieski's smoldering and pouting was interesting in a come-hither way (although I'm pretty sure she only had a few lines of limp dialogue), but none of them really added anything to the film. It was like watching a whole cast of prettily-costumed characters who didn't really DO anything. Cage was just running around in-between them, shouting, glaring, riding his bike angrily, and getting more and more pissed off.
You could argue in this situation that the director was likely going for deliberate camp, but what was up there wasn't even good enough to be labeled that. In my opinion, Labute's changes to the screenplay deflated the heart of the film and made the final scene much less powerful. AND, you can see the unnecessary epilogue coming a mile away.
My advice to you is to skip this one and rent Robin Hardy's 1973 film instead. You'll still get to laugh, you'll save about $5, and you'll be satisfied that you saw a good movie. And if you're looking for a Labute fix, try In the Company of Men or Your Friends and Nieghbors - you definitely won't find what you're looking for here.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Crashing Into Yourself: A Chat With Lynn Shelton

Part One: On Laura Veirs and the WGWB Soundtrack

[image]
Shelton on the road

In July, I interviewed Lynn Shelton regarding We Go Way Back, which opened at the Varsity Theater on Friday. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. In an email message, Shelton adds, "It's been a good week for WGWB; nice reviews from several corners... What a surreal feeling to see the name of your film on a marquee. Weird and wonderful. The first screenings went well and the Q&As were fun." Shelton will also be at the Varsity on Saturday and Sunday at 7 and 9:15pm.



Could you tell me about Laura Veirs's score? I under-
stand that most of it comes from her studio recordings.


We used two pieces from "Raven Marching Band" [The Triumphs and Travails of Or-
phan Mae
] as little instrumental sections of songs and...as incidental music in the soundtrack, and it worked really well. The main songs came from Carbon Glacier and Year of Meteors, both of which are on Nonesuch Records. Two came from Carbon Glacier and two came from Year of Meteors. There's one section in particular--the last time that Kate [Amber Hubert] has sex...that is an entire piece. It's amazing. It just works so beautifully as soundtrack. We cut to that piece. It sounds like movie score.

That's why I asked if she wanted to do more scoring [I conducted a sep-
arate interview with Veirs via email]. I wasn't surprised she said yes. And
she works with a lot of people that, I mean she does vocals and lyrics, but
she's worked with
[jazz guitarist] Bill Frisell. That whole group of people
just seem like naturals. I don't think Frisell has done any soundtracks.


He seems like he should.

He has a CD, a double-CD of music for Buster Keaton films, but I'm not aware
that there are actually films with his music. So, how did you first hear Laura?




It seems like I've seen his name, his credit.... Yeah, I was really excited to find
her voice... I was starting to write the script, and I was at my dad's house in East-
ern Washington. I was just trying to come up with, to formulate the [script]--it was very vague at that point. And he came in and checked his email, and turned his music on, and her voice came up [it was pre-loaded on the computer]. It was the very first song on a compilation that I heard, and I was typing and going...God.

That's bizarre.

I listened to the lyrics--it was the combination of the lyrics and the quality of
her voice. Little bits of the lyrics started coming through, and I just couldn't be-
lieve it. I didn't know who she was--I didn't know who was singing, much less
that she was local. I really immediately became obsessed and thought, this wo-
man's voice has to be in my movie somehow, because it was...everything. The quality of it was capturing the same tone that I wanted to capture. I love how she doesn't use vibrato; it's very straightforward. It's achingly vulnerable, but it's not prettied up. It's very difficult for me to articulate what's go great about it...

So she ended up influencing the script, the tone.

Yeah, she totally influenced the script. In fact, there were several--the second
song on that album [Carbon Glacier] is called "Icebound Stream," and it's...you just have to look at the lyrics. It's incredible. I literally became obsessed and listened to it all the time. And there's actually a line in there about crashing into yourself. That was what it was called for awhile--my script was called Crashing Into Myself, Crashing Into Yourself--I can't remember which, but it was totally derived from that song.

At one point I remember being so frustrated with the script that I remember throwing up my hands and thinking, Laura's already said everything that I want--it's just better, the medium of music. I should just let Laura write her songs and forget this whole movie thing! I could never do it as well as she can. It was interesting, too, because for awhile all the songs that inspired me, I was hoping to fit one of them in, but it was too redundant. It was just too close somehow. I was a little bit worried about whether she was gonna get onto the soundtrack or not, so she started out influencing me as I was writing, but it wasn't immediately apparent which songs would be working. Then she gave me the rough mixes for the new album [Year of Meteors], which didn't come out until a year ago, and still I wasn't really sure what was gonna be working. I think it was my co-editor, Michelle, who was the first one to find a Laura song that worked. Because when I first listened to the record, nothing was grabbing me, so it just kind of happened organically while we were working.

That's one of the collateral effects of making this movie that I'm most grateful
for--is now having this friendship with her--and even if we don't work together
again, I have this friendship, but I think that we will work together again, too.

Since collaborating on We Go Way Back, Shelton directed the video for
Veirs's song "Magnetized." Click here to watch the QuickTime video.



Up next: On Jonathan Glazer, Chris Cunningham, and Michel Gondry.

Friday, September 15, 2006

We Go Way Back

WGWBheader.jpg

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, Seattle writer/director Lynn Shelton's feature debut, We Go Way Back (SIFF '06), opens today at the Varsity Theater (4500 Ninth Avenue NE). Shelton will be at the 7 and 9:15pm screenings.

Here's a description from Landmark Theatres:

A hard-working young actress with a small theater company, Kate (Amber Hubert) lands her first leading role on her 23rd birthday. When she reads a cheerfully inquisitive birthday letter from her 13-year-old self, it seems she might actually be fulfilling childhood aspirations. But the letter triggers mounting confusion for Kate. As she bends to the whims of those around her with dwindling resistance, the protests of her adolescent self grow more hauntingly intrusive until, in a surrealistic turn, 13-year-old Katie (Maggie Brown) appears in the flesh, primed for a confrontation.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelton and Laura Veirs for a piece in this month's Seattle Sound. I didn't have space to mention this, but Shelton was listening to Veirs's music the entire time she was working on the script so, in a sense, the soundtrack came first and influenced the end product. I think this is partly why it works so well in the film (Shelton and Veirs are also in sync in terms of mood and tone).
I chatted with Shelton for literally hours. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the tape is almost impossible to understand as my recorder picked up and amplified every noise around us (and the space in which we met wasn't even that noisy). If possible, I'll post excerpts from that conversation here, but I make no promises.
*****
To read my original review, please click here. For more information about Lynn Shelton and We Go Way Back, please visit The Film Company. Photos by Mark Sullo.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

All About Almodovar

VivaPedro.gif

Somehow, my Pedro Almodovar-loving friends and I did not know about the festival of his movies running at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy at Harvard) RIGHT NOW! In an effort to make sure none of you miss any future screenings, I thought I'd drop the schedule in SIFFBlog.

To be honest, I've only seen a few of his films: Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I saw them to feed my Antonio Banderas obsession, but ended up loving them for lots of other reasons, so I'm looking forward to catching a few more on the big screen.

Schedule of Films:

WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988): Sept. 1-7 Friday-Monday 2 p.m., 4:30, 7, 9:30; Tuesday-Thursday 4:30 p.m., 7, 9:30.

TALK TO HER (2002): Sept. 8-14, daily 4:30 p.m.

THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET (1995): Sept. 8-14, daily 7 p.m.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999): Sept. 8-14, daily 9:30 p.m.; plus Friday-Sunday 2 p.m.

LIVE FLESH (1997): Sept. 15-21, daily 4:30 p.m.

LAW OF DESIRE (1987): Sept. 15-21, daily 7 p.m.

BAD EDUCATION (2004): Sept. 15-21, daily 9:30 p.m.; plus Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m.

MATADOR (1986): Sept. 22-28, Friday-Sunday 2 p.m., 4, 7, 9:30; Monday-Tuesday 4:30 p.m., 7, 9:30; Wednesday 4:30 p.m., Thursday 4:30 p.m., 7, 9:30.

There's also an official web site up. Almodovar's new movie Volver opens in Seattle Nov. 22.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Burning From the Inside

Burn to Shine: Portland, OR 06.15.05
(Christoph Green, USA, 2005/06, BetaSP, 45 mins.)


PORTLAND_HOUSE_2s.jpg

"It doesn't make sense to anybody now why we would do this, besides just to do it, but in 20 years it will only get cooler and more interesting with time."
-- Burn to Shine co-creator Brendan Canty

The concept is a simple one. Find a house slated for destruction in the midst of a vibrant music community. Spend all day filming bands performing one song each in said house. Document the destruction. Roll credits. The end.

So it goes with Burn to Shine: Portland, third in a series after Washington DC and Chicago. Created by Brendan Canty (Fugazi) and filmmaker Christoph Green, the concept is so simple, it's brilliant. Then again, the audio-visual quality's gotta be top-rate if the focus is gonna be on the music. It is. More importantly, the independent recordings artists themselves have gotta be top-rate. They are.

At least that's the case with Portland's stellar line-up, which was "curated"--man, I hate that term--by Chris Funk from new major label signees the Decemberists (who perform the epic "Mariner's Revenge Song"). It includes the Thermals, Quasi, Mirah, the Lifesavas, Wet Confetti, Tom Heinl, and the Ready. (Modest Mouse, Stephen Malkmus, and Dead Moon were all unavailable on that day.)

SHINS_2s.jpg
The fabulous Shins
Each band gets the job done. In all honesty, there wasn't one I didn't like, although if I had to pick a least favorite it would be the Planet The, who just broke up (according to their MySpace Page). No guitar, no bass; just one drummer, one keyboard player, and one "intense" front man. Too theatrical for my tastes, but the song itself ("Look of a Woman") wasn't bad. If I had to pick a favorite, it would surely be the Shins. To my mind, they're like a stripped-down, modern-day version of the Zombies, although they took a countrified turn in the direction of the Byrds/the Flying Burrito Brothers on their last album, Chutes Too Narrow.
In Burn to Shine, the quartet performs a sublime version of "Saint Simon," to which I couldn't resist humming along. It reminded me that it's time for some new music from these Albuquerque-transplants. According to Sub Pop, a new record, tentatively titled Wincing the Night Away, is expected in January. Other highlights include the Gossip with the soulful ESG-styled funk of "Listen Up!" and the late, great Sleater-Kinney with "Modern Girl" (S-K drummer Janet Weiss is also a member of Quasi with ex-husband Sam Coomes). Carrie Brownstein, who sings lead on this track (instead of the warbly-voiced Corin Tucker), really reminded me of a young Patti Smith--always a good thing. Granted, S-K is currently on indefinite hiatus, so who's to say if they're really broken up or not. Being the sentimental fool I am, however, my eyes welled a little to think this might be the last we ever see of the dynamic trio.
GOSSIPs.jpg
Ace groove-meisters the Gossip
The line-up for DC is Bob Mould, Medications, French Toast, Q and Not U, Weird War (with Ian "Nation of Ulysses" Svenonius), Ted Leo, Garland of Hours, and the Evens. For Chicago, it's Wilco, Shellac, Tortoise, Freakwater, the Ponys, Red Eyed Legends, Tight Phantomz, Lonesome Organist, and Pit er Pat. Interestingly, Leo resides in Brooklyn, but he did emerge from our nation's capitol, so I guess I shouldn't carp too much about his inclusion. The Northwest Film Forum was kind enough to make his performance (sans Pharmacists) and Wilco's available in advance. Both are excellent. Whether that bodes well for the rest of these installments, I couldn't say, but if I had to prioritize, I'd opt for Portland first, followed by Chicago, and then DC (sorry, but I haven't heard of most of those acts).
Canty recently told The Denver Post that Louisville, KY is the location of the next Burn to Shine. Artists include the Magik Markers and jack-of-all-trades Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers, and SIFF '06 entry Old Joy). It's said that Seattle may follow suit. After the press screening, Rachel Shimp (The Seattle Weekly) suggested the always-happening Austin. I would also suggest Chapel Hill and Vancouver, assuming Canty and Green are willing and/or able to step outside the US.
If you have any interest in independent music, Burn to Shine has your name written all over it. Granted, watching the house get destroyed at the end is rather depressing (in Portland, it's burned to the ground). Unlike most music documentaries and concert films, however, there's no commentary, no narration, no cheesy graphics, and no extraneous "story" (about some fan who follows the bands around).
In other words: None of the bells and whistles that have destroyed some of the more promising music films of the past. After all, not every one can be The Kids Are Alright. I'm thinking instead of titles like the Clash's Rude Boy or Alice Cooper's Good to See You Again, where you're left wondering, Why didn't they just document the music and dump the rest? (Actually, I kinda dig the rambling Rude Boy, but I guess I'm in the minority.) Burn to Shine gets right to the heart of the matter--the music.
bts03-cover_art_s.jpg
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney
Burn to Shine plays the Northwest Film Forum Sept. 10-13, Sun.-Wed. at 7pm (Washington DC), 8pm (Chicago), and 9pm (Portland). There's one admission price for the trio with an intermission between each. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org or call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times. All photos courtesy Jim Saah.

Burning From the Inside

Burn to Shine: Portland, OR 06.15.05
(Christoph Green, USA, 2005/06, BetaSP, 45 mins.)


PORTLAND_HOUSE_2s.jpg

"It doesn't make sense to anybody now why we would do this, besides just to do it, but in 20 years it will only get cooler and more interesting with time."
-- Burn to Shine co-creator Brendan Canty

The concept is a simple one. Find a house slated for destruction in the midst of a vibrant music community. Spend all day filming bands performing one song each in said house. Document the destruction. Roll credits. The end.

So it goes with Burn to Shine: Portland, third in a series after Washington DC and Chicago. Created by Brendan Canty (Fugazi) and filmmaker Christoph Green, the concept is so simple, it's brilliant. Then again, the audio-visual quality's gotta be top-rate if the focus is gonna be on the music. It is. More importantly, the independent recordings artists themselves have gotta be top-rate. They are.

At least that's the case with Portland's stellar line-up, which was "curated"--man, I hate that term--by Chris Funk from new major label signees the Decemberists (who perform the epic "Mariner's Revenge Song"). It includes the Thermals, Quasi, Mirah, the Lifesavas, Wet Confetti, Tom Heinl, and the Ready. (Modest Mouse, Stephen Malkmus, and Dead Moon were all unavailable on that day.)

SHINS_2s.jpg
The fabulous Shins
Each band gets the job done. In all honesty, there wasn't one I didn't like, although if I had to pick a least favorite it would be the Planet The, who just broke up (according to their MySpace Page). No guitar, no bass; just one drummer, one keyboard player, and one "intense" front man. Too theatrical for my tastes, but the song itself ("Look of a Woman") wasn't bad. If I had to pick a favorite, it would surely be the Shins. To my mind, they're like a stripped-down, modern-day version of the Zombies, although they took a countrified turn in the direction of the Byrds/the Flying Burrito Brothers on their last album, Chutes Too Narrow.
In Burn to Shine, the quartet performs a sublime version of "Saint Simon," to which I couldn't resist humming along. It reminded me that it's time for some new music from these Albuquerque-transplants. According to Sub Pop, a new record, tentatively titled Wincing the Night Away, is expected in January. Other highlights include the Gossip with the soulful ESG-styled funk of "Listen Up!" and the late, great Sleater-Kinney with "Modern Girl" (S-K drummer Janet Weiss is also a member of Quasi with ex-husband Sam Coomes). Carrie Brownstein, who sings lead on this track (instead of the warbly-voiced Corin Tucker), really reminded me of a young Patti Smith--always a good thing. Granted, S-K is currently on indefinite hiatus, so who's to say if they're really broken up or not. Being the sentimental fool I am, however, my eyes welled a little to think this might be the last we ever see of the dynamic trio.
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Ace groove-meisters the Gossip
The line-up for DC is Bob Mould, Medications, French Toast, Q and Not U, Weird War (with Ian "Nation of Ulysses" Svenonius), Ted Leo, Garland of Hours, and the Evens. For Chicago, it's Wilco, Shellac, Tortoise, Freakwater, the Ponys, Red Eyed Legends, Tight Phantomz, Lonesome Organist, and Pit er Pat. Interestingly, Leo resides in Brooklyn, but he did emerge from our nation's capitol, so I guess I shouldn't carp too much about his inclusion. The Northwest Film Forum was kind enough to make his performance (sans Pharmacists) and Wilco's available in advance. Both are excellent. Whether that bodes well for the rest of these installments, I couldn't say, but if I had to prioritize, I'd opt for Portland first, followed by Chicago, and then DC (sorry, but I haven't heard of most of those acts).
Canty recently told The Denver Post that Louisville, KY is the location of the next Burn to Shine. Artists include the Magik Markers and jack-of-all-trades Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers, and SIFF '06 entry Old Joy). It's said that Seattle may follow suit. After the press screening, Rachel Shimp (The Seattle Weekly) suggested the always-happening Austin. I would also suggest Chapel Hill and Vancouver, assuming Canty and Green are willing and/or able to step outside the US.
If you have any interest in independent music, Burn to Shine has your name written all over it. Granted, watching the house get destroyed at the end is rather depressing (in Portland, it's burned to the ground). Unlike most music documentaries and concert films, however, there's no commentary, no narration, no cheesy graphics, and no extraneous "story" (about some fan who follows the bands around).
In other words: None of the bells and whistles that have destroyed some of the more promising music films of the past. After all, not every one can be The Kids Are Alright. I'm thinking instead of titles like the Clash's Rude Boy or Alice Cooper's Good to See You Again, where you're left wondering, Why didn't they just document the music and dump the rest? (Actually, I kinda dig the rambling Rude Boy, but I guess I'm in the minority.) Burn to Shine gets right to the heart of the matter--the music.
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Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney
Burn to Shine plays the Northwest Film Forum Sept. 10-13, Sun.-Wed. at 7pm (Washington DC), 8pm (Chicago), and 9pm (Portland). There's one admission price for the trio with an intermission between each. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org or call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times. All photos courtesy Jim Saah.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

To Sir, With Something Like Love

Half Nelson
(Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, US, rated R, 104 mins.)


The time has come
for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave
I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
and weak from strong
That's a lot to learn.

-- Lulu, "To Sir, With Love"


***** ***** *****

I first heard about Half Nelson earlier this year and was intrigued by the description. Unfortunately, films about caring teachers, like Dangerous Minds, and crack addicts, like Losing Isaiah, are usually well-meaning balderdash. So what to make of a movie about a man who is both caring teacher and crack addict? Well, it sounded like a potential disaster to me, and American indies have never been SIFF's strong suit.

Then I noticed the cast: Ryan Gosling (the teacher) and Anthony Mackie (the dealer). Gosling is a Mouseketeer-turned-critic's darling who hasn't won me over yet. The last film of his I caught was 2002's The United States of Leland. Not only is it a misguided mess, but Gosling's jittery turn had me wondering what all the fuss was about (as usual, Don Cheadle emerges unscathed). The classically-trained Mackie, on the other hand, has impressed me each and every time, from scrappy indie Brother to Brother to Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby to Spike Lee stinkeroo She Hate Me, which he miraculously manages to make (almost) worthwhile.



[In 1967's To Sir, With Love, Sidney Poitier plays an aspir-
ing engineer who
takes a teaching job at a white high school
in Britain. In the end, it's more swinging sixties snapshot than
classic cinema, but Lulu's heartbreaking theme is timeless.]


So, I read a few reviews, and I asked around. The consensus seemed to be, "Not bad." Well, there are plenty of fine films to see during SIFF, so why would I want to waste my time on "not bad." Nonetheless, the curiosity was killing me. I made time in my schedule for the press screening. Missed it. The evening screenings. Missed 'em. The press department even offered up a screener. I decided to check out some more reliable titles instead. Curiosity aside, I just couldn't work up the enthusiasm. Months passed and I forgot all about Half Nelson. Until a few weeks ago.

I'm watching Ebert and Roeper one night and Kevin Smith--of all people--is sitting in for Ebert, who's recovering from surgery. I may not be the biggest View Askew fan, but his unbridled enthusiasm for Half Nelson is infectious. And Roeper is with him all the way. (Other guests have included, uh, Jay Leno and writer/director John Ridley, the best so far.) I decided I had to see this film. Here's an excerpt from Smith's spiel--plus video, if you'd like to experience the whole thing for yourself:

This pops. This pops in a big bad way. And also, when you look at it, it's the work of people who haven't made a lot of flicks. Like this dude, Fleck, he took the short film he had, blew it up into this feature, and it holds... You know, like it's an amazing piece to look at where, I sit there as a filmmaker and I'm like, this dude's way better than me. I've been doing this twelve years. This dude is phenomenal... There aren't enough thumbs in the world to do HALF NELSON half the justice it deserves. This is just simply an incredible film.



He goes on to declare it one of the best of the decade, and Gosling the equivalent
of Taxi Driver-era De Niro. Now, if you don't like Smith, this might actually scare you away, which would be a shame as Half Nelson is, indeed, one of the best films of
the year. On the other hand, I predict his praise will put punters in the seats who wouldn't otherwise take a chance on a slice of social realism like this. That can
only be a good thing, because this low-budget indie deserves to be seen by a
wide audience. Without word of mouth, that's not gonna happen, because 1) The
film is a risky proposition, and 2) Some scribes have made it sound too much like "spinach cinema." Well, it may be good for you and you may just learn something, but Half Nelson is neither preachy nor polemical. And if the buzz was lukewarm during SIFF, local critics have since come out of the closet, as it were, to sing its praises.
What impressed me most was Gosling's performance. I liked everything else, but that's what sold me. And now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. His Dan Dunne is a history teacher and basketball coach at a Brooklyn middle school. Dan has given up his dream of becoming a novelist. Fortunately, he likes to teach and he likes his students, most of whom are black. What he doesn't like is himself. In fact, he hates himself. Fleck and Boden drop a lot of clues, but they never come right out and say why that is, and this is one of the film's biggest strengths. (Because he was raised by drunks, because he hasn't been able to change the world the way they did in the 1960s...?) All we know is that at some point, Dan picked up the pipe. Where he lives, crack is cheap, it's easy to get, it makes him feel better -- heck, why not?

[shareeka]

One day, however, 14-year-old Drey (impressive newcomer Shareeka Epps) catches him with the vial in his hand. Will she tell, will she try to blackmail him in some way? It's no spoiler to say she's not that kind of kid. It's written all over her face -- she's concerned. She's worried. That's what she does. Her dad's long gone, her mother's always at work, her brother's in prison. Drey's had to grow up fast. So while Dan is living in a sort of suspended adolescence, Drey's caught somewhere between childhood and an adulthood that's closing in on her too quickly. The two become friends. They spend time together. There is no sex...but there is sexual tension.
Other than his cat, his leftist books, and his old records, Drey is all Dan has. (The part may have been written for an older actor, but the 25-year-old pulls it off -- not least because he looks like he hasn't slept in ages.) It isn't enough. He used to be able to hide his addiction, but now it's become increasingly apparent that something is terribly wrong. Then even Drey, his only lifeline, starts drifting away as Frank (Mackie), for whom her brother is doing time, seduces her over to the Dark Side. Unlike Dan, Frank has his shit together. He may sell the stuff, but he doesn't do
it, and Drey just happens to be looking for a father figure. With Dan, the lines are fuzzy, with Frank the lines are clear: He'll take care of her if she'll work for him.

[mackie]

If this were a different movie, guns would enter the picture at this point. Or a drug bust. Or a fatal overdose. Half Nelson isn't that kind of film. At its worst, the coincidences pile up too heavily. Then again, all of the action takes place in the same inner-city neighborhood, as opposed to the schematic Los Angeles of Crash, where the same people keep running into each other over and over again. Most of the coincidences in Half Nelson make sense.

Best of all, Fleck and Boden, expanding on their 2004 short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, found the perfect way to resolve the central conflict--with a corny joke. Of course, the conflict isn't really resolved. Or maybe it is. That's up to the viewer to decide. But the final scene is so lovely--so subtle, yet funny--that it makes up for any missteps that have come before it.

In an ideal world, Half Nelson will go the route of last year's Junebug, i.e. the little indie that could. Word of mouth will continue to spread and enough people will see the film that Gosling, like Amy Adams, will garner the Oscar nomination he so richly deserves (and not just an Independent Spirit Award, which may be flattering and all, but...). Maybe it'll even be nominated for a few other awards besides--directing, screenplay, supporting actor/actress.

Not to take anything away from Mackie and Epps, but Gosling makes Half Nelson the triumph that it is and he's in pretty much every scene. Just to sweeten the pot, the film also features the always-reliable Jay O. Sanders and Deborah Rush as Dan's boozy parents and a pitch-perfect soundtrack from Canadian collective Broken Social Scene. What can I say? It pops.



Half Nelson is currently playing at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy). For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. HBO's criminally underrated drug war drama The Wire also segues from the streets to the schools for its fourth season, which premieres this Sunday. Click here for more details. If you don't have premium cable, not to worry: The first three seasons are all now available on DVD.