Monday, September 24, 2007

The Children of Don Corleone (and Red Bull)

(Joe Swanberg, US, 2007, BETA-SP, 84 mins.)

It's so easy to record a CD, or make a film, and
the result is that there's a lot of crap out there.
-- Joe Swanberg, GreenCine (8/29/06)

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

When it comes to "mumblecore," I have a high tolerance--even though I'm beyond the target demographic. [The term describes micro-budgeted, semi-improvised, relationship-oriented independents.] After catching Andrew Bu-
jalski's Mutual Appreciation, it occurred to me I might even be a fan. With the exception of Alex Katz's Quiet City (with Joe Swanberg), I haven't enjoyed the rest as much, but never felt as if I was wasting my time.

As for Bujalski, it's no wonder I prefer his work: He shoots on film, and edits by hand. It's a dying art. With the old guard, like Sidney Lumet (83) and David Lynch (60) making a permanent switch to digital video, it's heartening to see young filmmakers, like Bujalski and David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), keeping this venerable tradition alive.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-video, but when everybody adopts the same format, we all lose. It's essential to keep the old ways and traditions alive. But even if Bujalski shoots his next movie on video, I won't label him a sellout--just as long as someone steps in to take his place (the fact that the indie icon is penning a studio feature is another matter entirely).

Similarly, if every musician in the world turned to their computer and ditched analog recording entirely, I'd feel as if the world dropped out from under me. That said, I have no problem with Röyksopp, Caribou, Various, and other laptop acts. I'm just grateful there are musicians still plugging
away--literally--with guitar, bass, and drums. To say nothing of cowbell! It's an imperfect comparison. So, consider these other near-obsolete items: the eight-track, the cassette, the lathe, the record player, the seven-inch single, and the 10-inch EP. In a few years, we'll be able to add CDs to that list.

There's no ideal parallel between the way films and recordings are made and appreciated, but my point remains the same. Black and white movies must continue. Silents, too. Even if they're shot on video. Filmmakers should be able to tell their stories and create their images however they choose. I would hate to see these options taken away from them. And that's what could happen if there's no audience for art that breaks the rules, and no way for artists to acquire the means to do so. All of this is to say that Hannah Takes the Stairs is the first mumblecore film to receive national distribution. It was shot on video, which is neither here nor there as my problem isn't with the look of the thing. I just didn't like it.

Joe Swanberg could have shot and edited it Bujalski-style--Guy Maddin-style even--and I would still feel the same way. Andrew Bujalski even acts in the film, much as he does in his own far superior Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. And I found his clingy character just as tiresome as the whiny Hannah (co-writer Greta Gerwig). Actor-directors Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair) and Kent Osborne (Dropping Out) didn't irritate me as much. Mike (Duplass) disappears before he has the chance to overstay his welcome, while Matt (Osborne) has an appealing sort of low-key charisma.

The story begins with Hannah and Mike. When their relationship hits the skids, she turns to Paul (Bujalski), her besotted boss at some kind of Chicago production company. Later, she turns to Matt, Paul's business partner. Hannah isn't a "woman of easy leisure" or a hopelessly confused romantic. She just drifts from man to man. The scenario isn't implausible. Nor is the acting terrible. I just didn't care. I can enjoy narratives about unlikable characters, but it helps when a filmmaker acknowledges that their protagonist might be off-putting. In this case, though, it felt as if Swanberg found the hipster-cute, frequently nude Hannah just as irresistible as Paul and Mike. I'm sure he'd be quick to list her faults, but I doubt he has any idea how irritating her self-absorption might strike those outside their orbit.

Nonetheless, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of the multi-hyphenates involved with this film. Aside from Gerwig, Osborne, Bujalski, and Duplass, co-directors include Ry Russo-Young (Orphans), Todd Rohal (Guatemalan Handshake), and composer Kevin Bewersdorf. Hannah Takes the Stairs isn't a complete disaster, but I felt relieved when it ended. And I regret that it will, for some, be their introduction to mumblecore. Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair, or Quiet City would all serve as far finer rites of initiation.

As tempting as it is to write off the term--and those involved with this super-incestuous movement seem to find it equally unappealing--I haven't written off mumblecore yet, and look forward to seeing what these folks cook up next. The key word here is cook. Joe Swanberg may have overseen the film, his follow-up to Kissing on the Mouth and LOL (now available on DVD), but his co-directors must share part of the blame--or credit, if it strikes your fancy. When it comes to politics, democracy is a wonderful thing. In the world of film, however... Well, let's just say eight's a crowd.

Hannah Takes the Stairs, part of the series Mumble Without a Cause, opens at the Northwest Film Forum on 9/28. Joe Swanberg will be in attendance for the screenings on 10/3. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ain't We Lucky We Got 'Em

(Charles Burnett, US, 1983, 81 mins.)


He has a very romantic view of the have-nots.
--Mrs. Mundy (Jessie Holmes) on her son

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

Only a few minutes into My Brother's Wedding, and my childhood be-
gan to flash before my eyes. Though Charles Burnett made the film in
the 1980s, it conjured up visions of the African-American sitcoms I used
to watch in the 1970s, namely Sanford and Son, Good Times, and What's Happening. That isn't a backhanded compliment, and Burnett's second feature doesn't play like a network comedy. It's just that the story re-
volves around a working class family, and it's frequently quite funny. After the lyrically gritty Killer of Sheep, I wasn't expecting something so light.

Inspired by Britain's Steptoe and Son, Sanford centered on Watts junk dealer Fred (Redd Foxx) and his 31-year-old son, Lamont (Demond Wil-
son). Similarly, My Brother's Wedding pivots on 30-year-old Pierce (Ev-
erett Silas), who works in his family's Watts drycleaners. Lamont lived at home and so does Pierce--who's built just like Good Times' Jimmy Walker.

"You big dummy!"
Though basic-
ally a decent guy, his moth-
er (the hilar-
ious Jessie Holmes) razzes him constantly. His newspaper-reading, be-
spectacled buppy brother, Wendell (Den-
nis Kemper), is engaged to fel-
low attorney Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett), who comes from an affluent family, while Pierce has been seeing a married woman on the sly. His best friend, Sol-
dier (Ronnie Bell), is an ex-con. Only Pierce treats him with any respect.

This isn't the South Central of Boyz N the Hood or Training Day. For
all his faults, Pierce is neither a pusher nor a drug user. If anything, he's the glue that holds his neighborhood together. It's just that no one ever notices. Soldier hasn't been much of a son to his mother, but Pierce vis-
its her regularly, and she treats the attentive young man as a surrogate.

Then there's the elderly couple down the street (it wasn't clear whether they were grandparents or family friends). Everyday, Pierce makes sure they take their medication and helps out with more delicate matters, such as bathing. Like his parents, they take his assistance for granted. Yet without it, these frail, possibly senile seniors surely would've kicked the bucket ages ago. That's all well and good, but Pierce is no saint. Aside from the fact that he's been stepping out with another man's woman and associates with known felons, he's an aimless wanderer with a big mouth.

Pierce can't stand his brother's uptight fiancée and often lets her know, and when no one else is around, the glamorous Sonia insults him back. (She shields her mean side from the other Mundys.) When the two fami-
lies meet for a pre-wedding dinner, Pierce hurls insults at the lot of them--
with the exception of their Latino maid, one of his beloved "have-nots."

Not long after that dinner, tragedy strikes and the humor evapor-
ates, but My Brother's Wed-
ding doesn't feel like two movies in one. Death, when it arrives, doesn't seem particularly surprising. A man like Pierce can look after friends and family to the best of his ability, but he's no miracle worker. And that's the irony of his situation, really. On one side, he's surrounded by "heath-
ens," like Soldier; on the other by pious churchgoers, like his mother. It's fortunate, then, that he can always wrestle with his father when he needs to blow off some steam. Or enjoy a little hooch with Soldier's mom.

Unlike Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding was shot in color, but Bur-
nett uses music just as artfully. While other African-American films and TV shows of the time moved to the beat of funk and disco--see Quincy Jones's great Sanford and Son theme--there's a little doo wop here, a little gospel there, and some heartfelt acapella singing at the beginning and the end.

Throughout, his largely non-professional cast rises to the occasion repeat-
edly. While I wouldn't call the acting great, Burnett knows how to work around their limitations. Most scenes are short, and exposition is kept to a minimum. So, some line readings are a little flat, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. These are charismatic people--especially the rotund gent with the torn trousers--and everyone gets the chance to shine.

If anything, My Brother's Wedding is even funnier than Sanford and Son, Good Times, or What's Happening. I don't mean to disparage pro-
grams that brought me such joy as a kid, but like most sitcoms, they could be predictable (and that's to say nothing of the penthouse dwellers of The Jeffersons). Burnett's targets may be similar--shiftless sons, judgmental parents--but the combination of real people, authentic locations, and higher-stakes situations only makes the humor that much richer.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Keepin' your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.

--"Good Times" (1974)

Previously denied a proper theatrical release, My Brother's Wedding
opens at SIFF Cinema (321 Mercer St.) on Friday, 9/21. According to
SIFF, "This 2007 director's cut will screen in HDCam and will be accom-
panied by a brand-new short Burnett film, the Hurricane Katrina-themed  
Quiet as Keep." For more information, please click here or call 206-633-
7151. Distributor Milestone adds that My Brother's Wedding is "com-
ing in 11/13/07 as part of Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Col-
lection." Images from Milestone, Newsday, and The Village Voice.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Van Sant's Obscure Object of Desire

(Gus Van Sant, US, 1985, 35mm, 78 mins.)

This has been a fantastic year to catch up with old favorites.

American iconoclasts Allison Anders, Jim Jarmusch, and Gus Van Sant
came to fame in the 1980s, their debuts didn't arrive on DVD until 2007, all thanks to the Criterion Collection. (Criterion has also made it possible to partake of Alfonso Cuarón's debut, Sólo con Tu Pareja.)

First, there was Anders' Border Radio (1987; co-directed with Kurt Voss
and Dean Lent), then Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation (1980), now Van
Sant's Mala Noche (1985). Many people probably consider Gas, Food
and Lodging
(1992), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and Drugstore Cowboy
(1989) first films. On the contrary, they were breakthroughs. (Criterion
has packaged Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise together).

All three prove my rather cynical theory about talent: Some have it, some don't. (And those who don't never will.) I haven't seen Permanent Vacation, so I don't know how it holds up, but if Border Radio and Mala Noche are rough around the edges, the innate ability of their makers shines through. After two decades, Anders and Jarmusch are also as wild about music as ever, while Van Sant remains obsessed with miscommunication.

In Van Sant's Paris Je T'aime short film ("Le Marais"), a Frenchman (Gaspard Ulliel) tries to communicate with an American (Christian Bramsen). The attraction appears to be one-sided. If they spoke the same language, maybe things would be different. The same conflict drives Mala Noche. In this case, Walt (Tim Streeter), a Yank, is attracted to Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a Mexican illegal. Walt speaks a little Spanish, but Johnny doesn't speak any English. Walt is gay, while Johnny is straight.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis, the film is set in Portland, populated by non-professionals, and shot in high-contrast black and white (with a couple of color interludes). While queer cinema is filled with tired tales about gay men pining for unattainable straights, Mala Noche never feels cliched--and I don't mean to single out gay films; they're just echoing the creaky template of all those hetero flicks about neurotic gals pining for unattainable gents. In this case, though, Walt doesn't really pine. Unlike recent Van Sant protagonists who have little to say--see the semi-silent Last Days (2005)--Walt's a talkative fellow. He tells Johnny, in no uncertain terms, that he's interested. Johnny may not understand English, but he gets the picture. The feeling isn't mutual.

Walt doesn't give up, and the two establish a tentative friendship, which
includes a little fooling around. It's hardly a romance, but Walt tries to
convince himself otherwise. If anything, Johnny and his friend, Roberto (Ray
Monge), aren't even very nice to their gringo patron, like the time they lock
him out of his car and drive off. They pick Walt up later, but not after mak-
ing him jump through a few humiliating hoops. When Johnny disappears, Walt takes up with Roberto more out of necessity than desire. Roberto needs a place to crash, Walt has a roach-infested apartment to offer. Does Walt see him as a unique individual or a convenient replacement? Either way, he can blame it on language, class, or other barriers, but he can't make Roberto love him--and even bigger problems lie ahead.

Does Walt learn from the experience? It's hard to say. Though refreshingly un-conflicted about his sexual orientation, there's nothing intrinsically queer about the central dilemma: Wanting something you can't have. It could be anything--even talent. And Van Sant has squandered his at times: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Psycho, Finding Forrester--take your pick--but even his worst films bear his imprint. And Mala Noche is far from bad. Sensitive, but never sentimental, it's the work of a born filmmaker.

Luis Buñuel claims two of the world's finest film titles: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Mala Noche, in a new 35mm print, opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Fri., 9/21. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. In case you missed it during SIFF, Paris Je T'aime is currently playing at the Metro Cinemas. The Metro is located at 4500 9th Ave. NE. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from Google Images and Allocine.