Friday, November 6, 2009

World in Your Eyes: 35 Shots of Rum

35 SHOTS OF RUM / 35 Rhums
(Claire Denis, France, 2008, 35mm, 107 mins.)

"I have the feeling I'm going to work often with you, because there is something in you that is so calm, that gives me, helps me to create a character with you. You're a mysterious guy."
-- Claire Denis upon meeting Alex Descas

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

Taxis and trains hurtle though the night, lights flash and fade, reflections appear and disappear. In the play of burnt orange and acid green against black, cinematographer Agnès Godard channels Edward Hopper, but with movement and music by the Tindersticks. Gradually, two faces come into focus: a train conductor (Alex Descas) and a college student (Mati Diop).

Thus Claire Denis sets the scene for 35 Shots of Rum, her ninth feature. Never one to tell when she can show, it transpires that the two disparate characters are father and daughter. Their harmonious home life indicates that they've been living without a mother figure for some time now.

Gradually, Denis introduces their extended clan: Gabrielle, a chain-smoking cabbie (Nicole Dogué), and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a cat-loving computer technician. The former has eyes for Lionel, the latter for Jo. Lionel prefer single life. "We have everything here. Why go looking elsewhere?"

Meanwhile, René, one of Lionel's fellow conductors, has just been made redundant. Denis hints that the same could happen to him: best enjoy the life he has while he can.

Later, when Gabrielle's car breaks down as the four are en route to a concert, Lionel's coolness towards her becomes clearer: he sees her more as a friend or a relative than a romantic interest, but Josephine may be more frightened of her feelings for Noé than uninterested or unattracted.

A series of losses, both big and small, force father and daughter to reassess their cozy, if unchallenging domestic arrangement (I have to admit that I saw one of the losses coming from a mile away, and still haven't decided whether it's one of the script's weaknesses or not).

35 Shots isn't one of Denis's mind-fuck movies like The Intruder, but something more intimate, like Nénette et Boni or Friday Night (all of which feature Colin, a Modigliani painting come to life). It's the rare Parisian entry that eschews moneyed intellectuals and banlieu dwellers for regular working class folk. It is, in fact, the closest she's come to social realism, though Godard's impressionistic camera work prevents it from crossing that line.

Further, Denis populates the picture with characters of color, and never presents the situation as an issue, just a fact of life. Of French and Brazilian descent, the director grew up in West Africa, an influence that has seeped into many of her films (Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, I Can't Sleep).

Lionel is black, Josephine is biracial, and the worlds they occupy, the conductor community and the anthropology department, are mixed (as is their neighborhood, which is located just outside Paris). Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, Denis's main concern is the relationship between father and daughter. Most movies that depict such closeness end in tragedy; father dies, daughter dies, or some evil interloper comes between them.

Denis has little interest in that kind of scenario. Lionel and Josephine love one another, but can't lean on each other forever. As some point, they need to move on, to create new communities for themselves. The result marks one of Denis's smaller films--and one of the subtle Descas's best performances. He spends more time looking and thinking than acting or talking, but sometimes that's more than enough: his eyes speak volumes.

35 Shots of Rum plays the Northwest Film Forum 11/6-12. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. Images from Daily Plastic and Floating World.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Love Me Some Highway

(Melvin Van Peebles, 2008, US, Digi-Beta, 99 mins.)

Makin' your own bed ain't no guarantee it's gonna be comfortable.
-- Melvin Van Peebles

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

On 8/21/09, Melvin Van Peebles, the man behind 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, one of the top-grossing films of all time, turned 77. Filmmaker, actor, producer, playwright, painter, composer, novelist, astronomer, activist, racon-
teur, and cigar aficionado: Van Peebles has seen, done, and possibly smoked it all.

A reimagining of his 1982 Broadway play Waltz of the Stork, Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha recounts an eventful life, the regrets amassed, and
the lessons learned along the way. In his 9/9 introduction at the Northwest Film
Forum, Van Peebles, according to a friend, clarified that although he shares bio-
graphical details with the character—like a Chicago birthplace—it isn't a self-portrait.

Better run through the jungle...

Instead of casting younger actors to play Itchyfoot from 14-45, the septuagen-
arian tackles every age, which isn't as awkward as it sounds, since he narrates the entire time; it might actually present more of a disconnect for baby-fresh faces to attach themselves to his honeyed growl, like a warped version of The Wonder Years.

In the first act, Itchy travels from Chitown to New York. On the way there, he witnesses a mob hit and almost drowns. Once he washes up on the shores of
the Hudson, he spends his days listening to the blues and poring through the
travel books at the library. As loose-limbed funk plays in the background (Wil-
liam "Spaceman" Patterson served as music supervisor), black and white foot-
age commingles with color stock, and montage meets musical interludes.

It isn't always easy to follow what's going on, but it's easy to lose yourself in
lines like, "That light at the end of the tunnel could be a freight train comin' the
other way” and "The [Big] Apple ain't all that malevolent, but it can be a bitch.”

To earn his keep, Itchy drifts through a series of menial jobs, discovers sex,
and gets busy with a variety of honeys until he meets Rita, a classy sorority girl,
but then the wanderlust returns and he joins the merchant marines—another bio-
graphical detail—through which he meets biddies eager for male companionship
and pirates out for blood (son Mario, director of Baadassss, plays their captain).

After 11 years at sea, he continues to travel, carouse, and dance his way from Afri-
ca back to the Apple. Rambling, amateurish, artistic, funky, and funny, Van Peebles'
seventh film—not counting shorts—will exasperate some viewers as surely as it will delight others. To these eyes and ears, Melvin Van Peebles' picaresque way with words combined with his puckish personality makes the whole damn trip worthwhile.

Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 9/14 at 8pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. I took the photo of Van Peebles. Previous images from The Village Voice (Nick Pinkerton didn't like it), Hammer to Nail (Cullen Gallagher did), and Rotten Tomatoes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tony Manero: The Man in the White Suit

(Pablo Larraín, Chile/Brazil, 2008, 95 minutes)

"Al Pacino! Attica! Attica! Attica!"
-- Tony Manero (John Travolta)

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

As played by John Travolta, the Tony Manero of John Badham's Saturday Night Fever was a 19-year-old Brooklyn stud with a penchant for white suits and black shirts. As played by Alfredo Castro, the Raúl Peralta of Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero is a 52-year-old Santiago stud-wannabe with a penchant for white suits and black shirts.

In Badham's 1977 cultural touchstone, the lanky lead imagined himself as a sort of disco-dancing Al Pacino: tough, but smooth (note the Serpico poster on his wall). The wiry Raúl, on the other hand, actually looks like the Pacino of a decade ago--before the eye work and the curiously orange skin. If he isn't exactly smooth, he's tougher than the preening Tony ("Watch the hair!"), because this aspiring entertainer doubles as a brutal killer.

In his second film, Larraín establishes Raúl's contradictory nature in brief, but ef-
fective brushstrokes: Peralta's obsession with Saturday Night Fever provides a release from the unrelenting gloom of life under Augusto Pinochet, while his lethal escap-
ades allow him to eliminate rivals and to obtain goods he can't otherwise afford.

As with Pacino's Tony Montana, Travolta's blue-collar Manero wasn't born to wealth either, but he worked for his money. As Raúl's junkyard associate tells him, "Things cost what they cost, not what you want them to cost," sensible words that mean no-
thing to a cold-blooded sociopath. When Raúl decides that his performance space needs a lighted-glass floor and a mirror ball, in order to recreate Fever's 2001 Od-
yssey in miniature, he finds some cruelly creative ways to make it happen (he and his three-person troupe live in the apartments above the cantina where they dance).

Further, he doesn't lack for female companionship, but like Warren Beatty's bank robber in Bonnie and Clyde, Raúl's impotence extends to his entire existence. Unlike Clyde Barrow, however, his appeal for the opposite sex strains credibility. The low-rent Pinochet of his barrio, he's cold and grubby, and neither charms nor satisfies
the ladies in his life, which seems to be Larraín's deeply cynical point. i.e. that the Chilean dictator's antipathy acted as an aphrodisiac on his more masochistic citizens.

Though he's in nearly every frame, trained stage actor and co-writer Castro gives
an otherwise vanity-free performance. If most antiheroes have one or two compen-
sating qualities, Raúl is about as likeable as the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and those who failed to find the humor in Henry are likely to feel the same way about Tony Manero, its unlikely socio-political South American analogue.

While some have described the film as "ugly," both literally and figuratively, there's a beauty to Larraín's direction, the Super 16 cinematography (blown up to 35mm), and odd out-of-focus shot, making it a fever dream in every sense of the phrase.

"Oh fuck the future!"
-- Tony Manero (John Travolta)

"No, Tony! You can't fuck the future. The future fucks you! It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it!"
-- Fusco (Sam Coppola)

Tony Manero plays the Northwest Film Forum 8/21-27 at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more informa-
tion, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Highlighter and the NWFF.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Six

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part five)

Are any of your short films available on DVD?

The thing about going to Florida State University is that I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if there wasn’t a film school there. That’s just fact. And the beauty of Florida State is that you pay tuition which, for me as a Florida student, was $1000 a semester and everything was covered: the equipment, stock, editing facilities, crew. I mean, it was the works, it was everything, but they own your films when you’re done with them.

I had the opposite experience. I majored in art, and aside from the expensive tuition, we had to buy canvas and paint, which adds up, so that’s really interesting.
I probably paid more than you, and I own those works, but I was in debt for a long time. I went to Whitman which, for the Northwest, is a really expensive school.

The training was invaluable, it was absolutely invaluable.

Maybe they’ll do something with them, like a collection of student films.

My Josephine is available as part of Crafting Short Screenplays. There’s a chapter on Josephine and a DVD comes with the book. The screenplay and movie are in there.

That’s cool. That’s an interesting way to see it. Many times when I see a
first feature that I like, I want to go back and watch the director’s shorts.

That’s how I fell in love with Lynn Ramsay. I saw her film Morvern Callar

I saw her shorts after her features.

I did too. I met her at the Telluride Film Festival in the student symposium.

What’s that? I’ve only heard of the film festival.

You haven’t heard of the symposium? Well, the festival has an education program. You write an essay, and they invite 50 students out, and you watch the movies.

It’s an expensive festival, so that’s a good deal.

It’s really expensive, so you get a free pass, you just travel yourself out. You have to put yourself up, too, and they encourage you to bundle up, like 10 kids in a con-
do. You have a certain schedule: you see films, and after you watch them, you get an hour in a classroom setting with the director. It was wonderful. We watched Morvern Callar, and then we sat down and talked with Lynne for an hour. We watched City of God, and then we sat down and talked with Fernando [Meirelles] for an hour. We saw Russian Ark, and then we sat and talked about it with the DP [Tilman Büttner] for an hour. We saw Spider, and we talked to [David] Cronenberg for an hour. It was abso-
lutely ridiculous. Even Dave McKean was there with these two short films, and I don’t think anyone’s ever seen those movies. We got to sit down with him. It was a really great experience. So, I watched Morvern Callar, and I was like, “I love this film.” Lynne brought Ratcatcher, which I also loved, and then I saw the shorts.

The shorts are really good, too. I saw them…well, maybe I’ve only seen one. I have that Cinema16 release, a series of great foreign short films, so I finally got caught up with the short that won the Oscar. And another one, I think it’s called Fly.

That’s Wasp, from a different filmmaker, Andrea Arnold, who was also at Telluride.

That’s funny. I do confuse the two.

She was at Telluride with Wasp. She’s great, she’s funny.

[They're both female Scottish filmmakers born in the '60s. Though Ramsay has never won an Oscar, she won Cannes Jury Awards for Gasman and Small Deaths.]

You and Lynn Shelton definitely like some of the same filmmakers.

Lynn and I are in love with the same filmmakers: Yes! [laughs]

I became aware of her because of her first film…

We Go Way Back.

Which I really hope more people get to see. I really wanted to meet
her, and she’s the friend of a friend, so it was easy to set up. I com-
pared it to
[the work of] Claire Denis, which made her so happy.

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

Jenkins and I proceeded to chat for another 10 minutes or so, mostly about the struggle
to pay the rent while shooting a film (during his tenure at Banana Republic in, I think, the shipping department, he wrote three screenplays) and adaptations, like
Morvern Callar and John Hillcoat's upcoming version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but this is the point at which my tape ends, and I only brought one. Incidentally, my recorder ceased to function halfway through our conversation, so Jenkins took a look at it, determined the problem,
and with the judicious insertion of a tiny piece of crumpled-up paper, he fixed it.

Fellow Florida State University alum James Laxton

Endnote: Images from Popcorn Reel and Strike Anywhere Films.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dreamy Artisan Cinema: Part Two

(Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, 2008, 81 mins.)

Click here for part one

Turns out the money is the easy part. Juan borrows from a friend, but help continues to allude him and he can't reach his mother by telephone. The pastel port town of Progreso looks real, but ascribes to a sort of dream logic. Passive if persistent, Juan watches a video with David, then shares a meal with him and his evangelical mother.

Eimbcke, who wrote the semi-autobiographical script with Duck Season's Paula Mar-
kovitch, suggests that Juan needs the companionship of these lonely people as much as they need him. The difference is, they seem to know it, and he doesn't.

Juan walks home, but his mother and younger brother are in no mood to talk, so
he returns to town to pick up the missing part. Next thing he knows, he's watching Enter the Dragon with David, hanging out with Lucía, the aspiring punk-rock singer and single mother (Daniela Valentine) who works with him at the auto parts store, and walking—then losing—Don Heber's beloved boxer. A skinny, sad-faced kid whose clothes hang from his frame, Juan knows how to say no, but not very forcefully.

The reason for his demeanor gradually comes into relief, but Eimbcke drops some broad hints along the way. If the film works, and it does, it would work even better if those hints had been more subtle or had arrived closer to the end, but the way the director infuses a laconic comedy with layers of loss and longing links Lake Tahoe with Duck Season, and serves as a nominal sequel since he features the same actor, and despite the move from black and white to color, urban to rural, interior to exterior.

On the basis of his first film, among the best of '06, I wouldn't have predicted that Eimbcke might one day recall Carlos Reygadas, except the distance between Lake Tahoe and Silent Light* is surprisingly short, while a greater gap lies between him and Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, since the Three Amigos are more genre-oriented (and though he thanks the last two in the credits).

At this point in their respective careers, Eimbcke and Reygadas have the art house in their (widescreen) sights, but while it's hard to imagine Carlos transitioning to Amer-
ican-style filmmaking, Fernando's interest in restless teenagers—notwithstanding Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También—predicts a career more like Kelly Reichardt or early
Gus Van Sant (especially Mala Noche) than any other Mexican filmmaker to date.

If Lake Tahoe isn't as funny as Duck Season, a low-income twist on Risky Business,
i.e. bored teenager makes the most of an unsupervised Sunday, it's a richer work.

Though Eimbcke relies too much on Jim Jarmusch's fade-to-black device and though
the sleepy pace has its longeurs (even at 81 minutes), he accurately reproduces the
rhythms of small-town life where the seemingly minor episodes between major ev-
ents and the seemingly random strangers who enter your life can attain mythic di-
mensions when the familiar can't—at least temporarily—offer the necessary support.

* DP Alexis Zabé also shot Silent Light.

Lake Tahoe continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/30 at 7 and 9pm.
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more infor-
mation, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Film Movement.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dreamy Artisan Cinema

(Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, 2008, 81 mins.)

"The director calls his style 'artisan cinema'; I just call it dreamy."
-- Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times

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

On a sunny day in the Yucatán, a red Nissan whizzes by and then, after the screen fades to black, the sound of a crash rings out. The picture returns. For reasons unexplained, the teenaged driver has smashed the family car into a telegraph pole. Apparently unharmed, he sets out to seek help for his ailing automobile.

As in Eimbcke's 2004 debut, Duck Season, cinematographer Alexis Zabé uses long, static shots to capture this prologue. Moments later, while Juan (Diego Cataño) waits for suspicious old coot Don Heber (Héctor Herrera) to assist him, Zabé shoots their figures from Ozu's "tatami mat" level, rendering Heber's vertical figure headless.

Once convinced Juan isn't trying to rob him, Heber slurps down a bowl of cereal, recommends a distributor harness, and then promptly falls asleep in his backyard hammock, leaving Juan to continue combing the empty streets for assistance.

Finally he meets David (Juan Carlos Lara), a martial arts-obsessed mechanic who gives him a ride to the sedan on his bike. David offers to repair the damage for 300 pesos, which Juan doesn't have, so the quest for help turns into a quest for money.

Click here for part two.

Lake Tahoe continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/30 at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Image from IONCINEMA.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Five

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part four)

I have a connection to San Francisco, but it’s mostly based in the 1980s and the early-‘90s, and I don’t know the city now the way you do, but I’m always interest-
ed in its representation on screen, so in terms of recent, bigger-budget films, I’m wondering what you thought about the city in Zodiac, which I understand is mostly blue screen. That amazed me, and I didn’t find out until afterwards. And Milk, where Gus Van Sant filmed in some of the actual locations. As someone making films in San Francisco—and these movies are so different from yours—were you at all affected by how they represented the city or what they were trying to do?

You know, it’s weird, but I wrote Medicine before I saw Zodiac—definitely before.
We had finished the film before I saw Milk. Those two, along with The Pursuit of Happyness, are three San Francisco movies that portray the city well. And of course they’re all period pieces. Zodiac is such a good movie, and it’s a great representation of the city. As for Milk, they completely re-did the Castro, like the main strip. I re-
member one day coming out of the BART station, and waiting to catch the bus, the 48, 22, or 28—I think; I’ve traveled so much this year—but the bus stop was not there. There’s a stop right in front of Diesel, in front of the little pizza joint, and I was like, “Where the hell’s the bus stop?” This went on for about a week, and I couldn’t figure out where the stop was, and I looked up at the Castro Theater, and
I realized. I was like, “Man, that sign looks different,” and then I realized the stop was gone because they were physically transforming the entire block, and that’s where a lot of Harvey’s life, in the film, took place. I don’t know what the budget was—it couldn’t have been very much—but they made that block authentic.

Above: Sean Penn speechifying his way to a second Oscar in Milk.

It was impressive, and I’ve seen many movies filmed in or about San Fran-
cisco in the ‘70s, and it was true to them, too, like That Man: Peter Berlin.

I’ve not seen that.

It’s about this gay porn star, whose main claim to fame was just walking around the Castro. He was this good looking German guy who came to America and reinvented himself—like everybody else in the ‘70s—got involved with the Warhol community, and had an affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. I mean, it all probably sounds very familiar, but he invented himself as this beautiful blond god who would just walk
up and down the street, and everyone would go, “Wow.” He eventually directed some porno films. I think he only made two. He’s a legend for those films, but people mostly just remember him for walking up and down the street, and he still lives there. I was reminded of those scenes, and thought: that’s the Castro that features in Milk, except Berlin isn’t representative of the kind of person Harvey
Milk or his friends were—they weren’t glamour guys…but that’s another story.

Is it a documentary?

Yes, it’s a documentary. It’s really good. A friend of my Dad’s used to coordinate the Castro Street Fair every year; he’s now deceased. I have weird connections to San Francisco, and that’s one of them. You answered the new film question, but what about older films? Did you grow up on things like What’s Up, Doc? or Bullit?

No, no, not at all. I wasn’t a film person. I was just literally walking across campus one day and saw a sign that said “film school.” That was how this all started. I was into football. There were three running backs on my high school team. One of them is [indistinguishable], the other two made it to the NFL; so it was a really big pro-
gram, and I wasn’t into film at all. My interests were very, very different. At Florida State, I was an English education major, and I was walking across campus when I saw this sign, so I applied, because I wasn’t satisfied with the education [program], and so I got into film school, didn’t have any experience, didn’t know you needed light to expose film, so the first semester was rough. You walk in and immediately there’s a Bolex camera and a 100-foot spool of film. The first day of class the pro-
fessor says, “This is how you load it. Go out and shoot something.” He doesn’t give you a light meter, doesn’t tell you anything; he just wants to see what we can do.

And most of the students had more experience than you?

My first attempt was terrible. It was embarrassing—I was embarrassed.
It was very clear I wasn’t prepared for this, so I went to the dean after
the first semester, and I was like, “Dean, I really want to be here, and
I really want to do this, but I’m not ready,” so he gave me a year off.

That’s a nice guy.

It was actually convenient, because at that point, the film school was going through
a transition period; you could come back as a transfer, do the program in two years, or as a freshman, and do it in three years, but you’re all together the first semester. There was a freshman who thought he was ready, so he accelerated to my place, and I dropped back to his. I took a still photography class and took black and white 35mm prints and made the prints myself and lived at the art library. I checked out photography books and read Masters of Light and all these things on painting and cinematography, and I started watching movies, and I read Sight & Sound.

I love Sight & Sound. That’s all I subscribe to. I read as much on-line as I can, but
as far as magazines are concerned, you only have so much time, so that’s the one. It was Satyajit Ray’s favorite—that’s what he was reading 30-40 years ago—whe-
ther you write about films or make them, you’re part of this awesome tradition.

I don’t know why I gravitated towards Sight & Sound. I just wanted—like, what’s the film criticism magazine, and that was it, so I just blindly picked it up, and there was
a film library on campus and the only things that weren’t always checked out were these bad VHS copies of new wave films, these really obscure foreign or independent movies, so I was literally just immersing myself in these really esoteric, odd movies, and that was the baseline for me as a filmmaker. I didn’t have any background, any film studies projects that year, and so in that year off, I gorged myself on those types of things, and then when I came back to the department, I’d developed an aesthetic that wasn’t rooted in this love of American cinema or mainstream cinema in general, whether American or foreign. It was weird. I think it gave me an interesting perspective as a filmmaker, and things just took off from there. My first short film was in Arabic. It was about this couple washing American flags on the night shift.

In Arabic? That was a bold move.

Oddly enough, it’s the only film I traveled with before Medicine. It screened at quite
a few festivals, and the only one I visited was the Arab Film Festival here in Seattle.

Was that My Josephine?

My Josephine, yeah. That was a really cool experience.

Click here for part six and here to watch his short films.

Endnote: Images from Phoenix, New York Magazine, and Strike Anywhere Films.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Little Film That Did

Last June, Steve Clare (Prost Amerika, Seattle Fine Arts Examiner) and I took Lynn Shelton up on her offer to visit the set of Humpday. Shortly thereafter, I filed a digressive dispatch about our field trip, while he interviewed the director via email prior to the Centerpiece Gala premiere at this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

At the time I wrote, "I have no idea whether this micro-budget film will actually 'work' or not. Based on the quality of Shelton's previous efforts, though, I have faith. The scenes were intriguing, and since she's working with a more experienced cast, the movie might even attract more attention than We Go Way Back and My Effortless Bril-
despite—or even because of—the fact that she made it on a smaller scale."

Shelton, Leonard, and Duplass at Sundance '09

Since completion, Humpday has attracted far more attention than I could have
ever possibly predicted. Shelton has traveled with "the little film that could" to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, and Edinburgh and has appeared in a number of high-profile publications, including The New York Times. It's rare for a local film to receive this kind of exposure. It's also incredibly exciting and extremely well deserved.

Since Clare used a few of my questions, I secured his permission to repro-
duce his Q&A here. Humpday opens in Seattle and New York this Friday.

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

Clare: In as many or as few words as it needs,
how does a Seattle filmmaker become a success?

Shelton: By making regular sacrifices to the aztec fertility goddess CIHUACOATYL.

Clare: Do you intend to stay in Seattle and continue to make film here?

Shelton: Yes, I do.

Clare: Was there a pivotal moment when it
dawned on you Humpday was going to be big?

Shelton: When Mark Duplass said he'd do it, I had a hunch. Signing
Joshua Leonard on added to my hopes. And when Alycia Delmore
said yes, I pretty much knew I had a blockbuster on my hands.

Clare: What have you learned about male bonding since My Ef-
fortless Brilliance
? Do you like us more, the more you find out?

Shelton: You become even more adorable with every movie I make.

Clare: In an unashamed moment of unadulter-
ated "luvviness," pay tribute to your co-stars.

Shelton: Yes, my actors are talented. Incredibly talented. But what impressed me even more was the high level of commitment they brought to the set. The only possible way a film like this could have ever worked was with that kind of engage-
ment on the part of the entire cast, and those guys brought it, they really did.

Clare: Mark [and Jay] Duplass made Baghead and you've made
Humpday. Is there something to be said for one-word film titles?

Shelton: Only when you combine two words to
make one. There is something to be said for that.

Clare: What's next for Lynn Shelton?

Shelton: I plan on making more films.

Clare: Do you have any interest in making a film about women?

Shelton: No. Girls are boring. Just kidding! I'm very
excited to work with the female race some day.

[We Go Way Back, her feature-film debut, focuses on a female character.]

Fennessy: How much of the dialogue was improvised?

Shelton: 110%

Fennessy: What do your parents think about it?

Shelton: My dad and stepmom saw it at Sundance and lov-
ed it. My mom and stepdad will see it at SIFF; I have high
hopes that they won't disown me but you never know.

Fennessy: Have you ever been to Hump?

Shelton: No; it always sells out before I can get a ticket!

[Slightly revised from the original text.]

Related reading: Click here for my '06 interview with Shelton and here
for the '08 interview Clare and I conducted with Mark and Jay Duplass.

Endnote: Humpday opens in Seattle on 7/10 at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy) and in New York at the Angelika Film Center (18 West Houston St.). According to Shelton, the film "will roll out to other cities in the weeks following (for a complete list, please refer to the Humpday website)." Images from Magnolia Pictures and indieWIRE.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Everything Dies in Godard's Made in U.S.A. Pt 2

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966, 90 mins.)

Click here for part one

In Made in U.S.A., the plot isn't the point, though the film does have one, loosely borrowed from Richard Stark's novel The Jugger* and Howard Hawks' noir The Big Sleep. In Godard's post-modern policier, newly-retired reporter Paula Nelson (Godard's ex-wife, Anna Karina) sets out to determine what happened to her lover, Richard. When he turns up dead, she tries to figure out who killed him. Or so she says.

Since Karina is such a sympathetic presence and since the proceedings play out from Paula's perspective, it's easy to side with her trenchcoat-clad femme fatale even as she murders several men, putting her proclaimed innocence in serious doubt.

Just as the location is an abstraction, death also plays for laughs until Paula's final homicide, which brings her to tears. When she shoots Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), however, he dies in such a comical fashion, it's hard to suppress a smile.

Aside from Siegel, a reference to the Baby Face Nelson auteur, Godard's Atlantic City features Ben Hecht and Preminger Streets and characters named Inspector Aldrich, Miss Daisy Kenyon, Paul (not Richard) Widmark, and David Goodis, author of the novel behind Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. As is his wont, Godard also works in nods to Italian poetry, German psychology, and Japanese film, as embodied by Doris Mizoguchi (Kyoko Kosaka), who sings a lovely little number in Paula's tub.

Furthermore, Godard and DP Raoul Coutard use the color red here much as in Pierrot le Fou and La Chinoise. It saturates the scene in spectacularly vivid form. When blood flows, it looks more like cherry-flavored cough syrup than actual sanguination.

That said, Made in U.S.A. isn't a comedy, not when Godard aligns the plight of Paula's paramour with left-wing Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka, who also disappeared for months before his body was discovered (he had been tortured to death).

Consequently, tone and pacing tend to vary wildly, contributing to the picture's poor reception in some quarters, although a few contemporary critics, like David Phelps and Jonathan Rosenbaum, consider it among the filmmaker's finest works.

It's also worth noting that Godard shot his 12th film at the same time as Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which has been more widely seen and celebrated over the years. Nonetheless, I prefer Made in U.S.A., particularly since Godard largely avoids the didacticism that would mar much of his output in subsequent decades. Just as Chinatown and Atlantic City signify places and ideas of places, Made in U.S.A. signifies a place and an idea of a place: the inside of Jean-Luc Godard's big, beautiful brain.

* The pen name of author Donald E. Westlake, whose novel inspired Point Blank.

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

"I started off intending to make a simple film; and for the first time I tried to tell
a story. But it isn't my way of doing things. I don't know how to tell stories. I want
to cover the whole ground, from all possible angles, saying everything at once."
-- Jean-Luc Godard, La Nouvel Observateur (1966)

Made in U.S.A. continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/9 at 7 and 9pm.
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Incidentally, though never before available in the US, Criterion now lists a DVD release date of 7/21. Images from The Auteurs and DVD Beaver.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Everything Dies in Godard's Made in U.S.A.

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966, 90 mins)

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."--Walsh (Joe Mantell), Chinatown (1974) 

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact."--Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City" (1982)

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

In Polish-American transplant Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), the title signifies a place and an idea of a place. In Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980), the title signifies a place and an idea of a place, but the French filmmaker actually shot his character piece in the American city of the same name, while LA's Chinatown only cameos in Polanski's classic noir.

France's Jean-Luc Godard beat both of his contemporaries to the punch with Made in U.S.A., which takes place entirely in a fictional "Atlantic-Cité." The great thing about the concept is that Godard makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he shot his film in Paris with a Gallic cast speaking en français (further, according to Rialto's press notes, the word "cité," in his native country, "usually refers to a housing project").

Though British singer Marianne Faithfull drops by to sing 1964's "As Tears Go By"--acappella, no less--this is still a French filmmaker's comment on American pop culture and the future of the left, circa 1966 (two years later, Godard made Sympathy for the Devil with the song's authors, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones).

Click here for part two

Not to be confused with the Lori Singer/Adrian Pasdar picture, Made in U.S.A., in a new 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum through 7/9 at 7 and 9pm (no 9pm screening on 7/4). Never on TV, video, or DVD. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Image from Tout le Cine and The French American Chamber of Commerce.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let Nothing You Dismay

(Michael Keaton, US, 2008, 97 mins.)

"We're like two peas in a pod."

Once upon a time he was a versatile comic presence who moved from sitcoms in
the 1970s (Working Stiffs) to Ron Howard laughers (Night Shift, Gung Ho) in the 19-
80s. He was, in other words, on the same career track as Splash-era Tom Hanks.

Then he turned away from the light towards the darkness of the Caped Crusader (and long before he launched his movie career, he was a Pittsburgh kid serving as a stage hand on Mister Rogers Neighborhood). Whether by choice or by necessity, actor Michael Keaton has kept a lower profile ever since, though he’s done some of his most interesting work—like Jackie Brown and Game 6—in the intervening years.

Now he makes his directorial debut with The Merry Gentleman, which isn’t a topic-
al comedy like Mr. Mom, a Tim Burton bauble like Beetle Juice, or even a suburban chiller like Pacific Heights, but a two-pronged character study shot in shades of noir.

“It’s not uncommon to mistake boredom for hunger.”

The set-up begins in Chicago with a man (Keaton) and woman (Kelly Macdonald), leading separate lives. The woman, who lives in another city with another man (Bob-
by Cannavale) enters the scene with a bruised eye. After the other man leaves for work, she packs up her stuff, catches a plane to Illinois, and starts a new life.

Meanwhile, Keaton’s Frank Logan watches a trio of men leave a corner bar while he swigs what looks like cough syrup. Moments later, he shoots one of them dead.

Then, while planning another hit, he spies Kate Frazier, now working as a reception-
ist, through his viewfinder. She notices him on the roof, screams, and then calls the police because she thought he was going to jump. He disappears, but after a second murder, they return to question her about the man she saw. In the process, alcohol-
ic Officer Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes) provides a third narrative strand that comments on the first two, since he falls for Kate while looking for Frank.

Now, Frank’s got two bodies to his name and a connection to Kate, who tells dif-
ferent people different stories about her shiner—and about her marital status.

From the opening sequence, the film appears to share thematic similarities with John Dahl’s Chicago-situated You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hit man and Téa Leoni as a fellow tippler, except The Merry Gentleman isn’t a black comedy, despite
a few subtle comic touches, like the world's most depressing office Christmas party.

Plus, the central duo doesn’t really meet until the halfway point, not counting an earlier, "unplanned" encounter in Kate’s building. So, Frank does Kate a good turn (helps her with her tree), and she does one for him (takes him to the hospital after he passes out), unaware that this considerate stranger is also a skilled assassin.

If a first film reveals where an actor-turned-director’s head is at, then Keaton’s mind is in a dimly-lit, but not hopeless place. The Merry Gentleman starts out as a two-hander, but Macdonald gets all the best scenes, while he barely speaks a word. Frank’s die is cast, but Kate’s future is unwritten, and a hit man helps her to write it.

In the end, Keaton’s carefully observed debut is so low-key it could slip between the cracks of the summer movie season, especially since the studio chose not to release it around the holidays as they should have, but like its characters, the film could use a little affection: it’s as if Edward Hopper turned to digital video instead of paint.

"You just might be the sweetest man I’ve ever met."

Endnote: According to WENN, “Keaton took over…when filmmaker Ron Lazzeretti's appendix burst.” (Also, I'm adding the actor to my Men with Eyeliner list.) The Mer-
ry Gentleman
opens today at the Uptown Theater (511 Queen Anne Avenue N). For
more information, please click here. Images from the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What Does Your Soul Look Like?

(Sophie Barthes, US, 97 mins.)

In debut director Sophie Barthes' believably surreal world, lovingly shot by Andrij Parekh, human beings can live without their souls--but it isn't much of a way to live.

Last seen duking it out with Tom Wilkinson in Duplicity, Paul Giamatti plays a look-
ing-glass version of himself, an award-winning actor top-lining Chekhov's Uncle Van-
. When the strain becomes too much to bear, he pays a visit to Soul Storage, where Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) offers to store his soul during the run of the play. After Flintstein's assistant (Lauren Ambrose) extracts it, the lighter Paul can
no longer handle Vanya's heaviness, so he tries on the soul of a Russian poet.

It's an improvement, but Giamatti would rather have his own chickpea-sized soul back. Unfortunately, it's gone missing. Flintstein's associate, Nina (Dina Korzun, 40 Shades of Blue), a Russian mule, has borrowed it on her boss's orders, where it re-
sides in the body of his actress wife, so Giamatti enlists Nina's help to get it back.

His sad and hilarious journey from well-heeled Manhattan to the St. Peters-
berg underworld occasionally recalls Charlie Kaufman's existential comedies,
except the French-born filmmaker, who has cited Carl Jung and Woody Allen
as inspirations, conjures up her own unique universe, where European litera-
ture and philosophy rub shoulders with American ingenuity and impatience.

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

Cold Souls plays the Harvard Exit on 6/8 at 7pm and on
6/10 at 4:30pm. Director and actor in attendance.

Endnote: Edited and revised from my Amazon review. Title from
a track by DJ Shadow. Images from Row Three and The LA Weekly.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Quick Hits: Food, Inc. and Summer Hours

SIFF screenings for the following have ended, but one title
has already opened in Seattle, while the other opens shortly.


FOOD, INC. ***

Food, Inc. examines the costs of putting value and convenience over nutrition and environmental impact. Robert Kenner explores the subject from all angles, talking to farmers, activists, and authors, like producer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and takes his camera into factory farms and abattoirs where chicken grow too fast to walk properly, cows eat feed pumped with toxic chemicals, and illegal immigrants risk life and limb to bring these products to market at an affordable cost. If eco-docs, like Super-Size Me and King Corn, tend to preach to the converted, Kenner presents his findings in such an engaging fashion that Food, Inc. may well reach the very viewers who could benefit from it the most: harried workers who don't have the time or in-
come to read every book and to eat non-genetically modified produce every day.

Click here for the accompanying book. Food Inc. opens on 6/26 (venue TBA).



What interests me in the movie in not so much the
material value of things, but their symbolic value.

-- Olivier Assayas in the production notes

For a film about objects, Summer Hours presents a surprisingly affecting scenario. Then again, Olivier Assayas has never taken the easy road to catharsis. It's no spoiler to note that family matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) passes away shortly after her 75th birthday, at which she tells her three adult children (Charles Berling, Juliet-
te Binoche, and Jérémie Renier), that they're free to do what they want with her precious objets d’art, including Musée d’Orsay-loaned works by Degas and Redon. Were he a different kind of director, the superficial would lock horns with the righteous, but these characters aren't quite so simplistic. Largely devoid of music, once an Assayas signature, the movie ends with a raucous house party that recalls his 1994 feature Cold Water, and Berling continues to do some of his finest work for the filmmaker, anchoring this deceptively rich picture with his subtle performance.

Summer Hours, which opened on 5/29, continues at the Harvard Exit.

Sidenote: Though I've been avidly following Assayas' career for 15 years now, I wasn't a big fan of his last film. For Video Librarian, I wrote, "The last act plays like
an attempt at a Johnny To crime drama with guns, drugs, and double-crossings (Kel-
ly Lin is a To veteran), but Assayas lacks the flair for this kind of thing. Intimacy
has always been one of his specialties, and Boarding Gate feels like an exercise in
detachment. Despite [Asia] Argento's earthy sexuality, there's no real heat."

Other recommended openings (all playing at Landmark Theatres TBA): Tulpan (6/26), Moon (7/3), The Hurt Locker (7/10), In the Loop (7/31), and The Cove (8/7).

Scob as shot by the great Eric Gautier

Endnote: Images from the Buenos Aires Film Festival, Cinematic
Intelligence Agency
, and Breath of Life - A2P Cinema Blog.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Men with Eyeliner

Rudy in 1921's The Sheik

"I feel pretty, oh so pretty."
-- Maria, West Side Story (words: Stephen Sondheim)

"What a drag it is getting old."
-- the Rolling Stones, "Mother's Little Helper" (lyrics: Jagger/Richards)

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

Specifically: actors. I've been keeping track for awhile now. I'm not talking about
the days of old when everybody wore it—especially Rudolph Valentino and his si-
lent-film brethren—but now that it's become more of a specialty item. Also, per-
iod pieces, drag fantasias, and Johnny Depp's Keef impersonation don't count.

I'm thinking specifically of straight-acting movie or television actors in straight-act-
ing roles (even if the actors or their characters aren't actually straight). Consequent-
ly, theater performers, where visible makeup is a necessity, and so-called metro-
sexuals also get the (designer) boot. Here's the list I started compiling last year.

Another Italian stallion

In the order in which I watched the movie or TV show:
1. Billy Campbell (Once and Again, The 4400)
2. John Cusack (Grace Is Gone, War, Inc.)*
3. Robert Downey Jr. (yes, Iron Man wears make-up)
4. Ray Liotta (Battle in Seattle, Observe & Report)
5. Al Pacino (everything, all the time)*
6. Jason Statham (The Bank Job)**
7. Nestor Carbanell (The Dark Knight: Batman Returns)
8. Hart Bochner (The Starter Wife)
9. Ryan Reynolds (Adventureland)
10. Chris Pine (Star Trek XI)

Pine as James T. Kirk by way of Alex De Large

*Cusack and Pacino worked together in City Hall, but I'm
certain the former was sporting liner prior to that project.

** All the men in The Bank Job appear to be wearing eyeliner. Granted, Roger
Donaldson's film is a period piece, but Statham plays a Steve McQueen-style
bank robber who headbutts an opponent, so the liner was an unexpected touch.

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

I realize this survey may seem superficial, but that's kind of the point. I'm not suggesting that these actors are vain—though that may be a factor—but that they, their makeup artist, or director view eyeliner as a way to enhance their on-screen image. It also adds an intriguing, possibly unintentional whiff of sexual ambiguity.

And since I was thinking specifically of men who aren't known for wearing cosme-
tics and extravagant outfits off the set, maybe Pacino shouldn't count. (Mickey Rourke with his godawful shiny suits most definitely does not.) Pacino's also been looking rather orange lately—especially in the unnecessary Ocean's 13—so he's eith-
er going crazy with the bronzer or he may want to cut back on the beta carotene.

The Orange Italian Stallion and the Chicago Kid

Sidenote: In Pop Star on Ice, Johnny Weir extols the virtues of Laura Mercier. His friend, Paris, adds that all male figure skaters wear makeup whether they care to admit it or not. Aside from the fact that he isn't an actor, I'm leaving Weir off this list since he has more of an off-the-ice penchant for lipstick and mascara than eyeliner (the next Pop Star screening takes place at the Kirkland Performance Center on 6/5).

Endnote: Images from This and That and More of the Same,
The Cinema Source,, and People.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Four

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part three)

You weren’t looking at Sundance.

Oh, hell no. Hell no.

I’m glad you weren’t, and that’s not a criticism of Sundance. A lot of fantastic
films play there every year, but it’s just easy to get…lost. That’s the problem.

We just didn’t think we would get into Sundance.

And a lot of good films don’t.

Right. And a lot of good films don’t get into SXSW either. It’s just the festival game, you know? All this stuff is about taste, and it’s not that your movie is bad; it just doesn’t fit the taste of the programmers. There’s a festival for every film. I definitely know that for a fact, because I’ve been to a lot of them this year. So our only goal was to get into SXSW, to follow the mumblecore model, and then go to a few regional festivals. And a few things happened. The first thing was, we sent the movie to bloggers on the heads of the SXSW film festival, and we got a couple of really positive reviews from the bloggers. Karina Longworth at Spout wrote a great review, Mike at Twitch wrote a good review, and Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail wrote a good review also, and so we got to SXSW, and people were like, “What’s this little indie...?”

NBC's Friday Night Lights

I had heard about your film really early on, and it made me want to see it.

Oh, that’s awesome. So, when we were at SXSW, we got our first two screenings, and again we’re learning as we go on to talk to the other filmmakers, and they were like, “Who’s seen your movie?” And we said, “I don’t know.” And they said, “You’ve got to get press. You’ve got to get festival people to see your film.” We had one last screening, so we went through the book, because SWXW lists all the people attending, and we emailed or left voice mail for every person who was from a film festival or [listed] as press, and this woman from the Toronto Film Festival returned one of my calls, and she said, “Hey, I’m glad you guys called me, but I’m pretty tired. My festival is done, I’m too far outside of town. I can’t make it. And my producer, Justin goes, “We’ll pick you up.” And she was like, “Wow.” She thought it was so sweet that we were willing to come pick her up, and she was like, "All right, I’ll come and see your film,” and she loved it, so we got offered to screen at Toronto. Again it was just as random as us calling this woman that got us into Toronto, and little things like that continued to happen, so it wasn’t that we were planning these things, we were just always trying to do extra work, and good things came out of it.

Toronto is about as big as it gets. I was amazed
by it—there’s no way you can see all the films.

[I attended the festival in 1999 and 2000.]

It’s impossible.

And it’s not like, “Oh well, who cares about that film.” You’re literally missing some of the very films you came there to see—it’s that kind of festival. I guess we should go back a little bit, because you mentioned that you went to film school with someone in the audience [at the NWFF] who was from Florida. Are you from Florida?

[The year I planned to see Ghost Dog in Toronto, the screening sold out.]

I’m from Florida, born and raised.

You have a slight accent—it comes and goes. I wasn’t sure where the ac-
cent originated, but I thought it was from somewhere in the Southeast.

Yeah, I was born and raised in Miami. I was a jock in high school.
I was a very, you know, an inner-city kid. It was a straight-forward,
simple, four-block childhood. I played football, I loved football.

I haven’t met very many filmmakers who could say that. [laughs]

You know what? You’d be surprised. There are quite a few of us. Benh Zeitlin, who did the short film—the name escapes me—a great film set in New Orleans, it’s absolutely beautiful—Glory at Sea. He’s a football fanatic, an even bigger football fan than I am. I like college and high school football, but this guy is like totally a nut.

Do you watch Friday Night Lights?

I don’t watch the TV show, but I watched the feature, and actually, I was a little bit upset with the feature. It made me write—I’ve already written my own high school football movie that's about my childhood growing up as a counterpoint to Friday Night Lights. But you always see these films, and they’re about these rural, small-town football teams, but when you get to the NFL, the municipality with the most football players in the NFL is Miami-Dade County, and most of the major stars in the NFL, the position players, come from these really tough, sort of inner-city enclaves, but you never see that story told in films. They’re always small, rural teams.

That’s true.

So I want to make this movie. But anyway, that’s totally a side note.

You should. I’ve always assumed—I don’t know the story behind Friday Night Lights—but in the show, it’s Dillon, TX. It’s either filmed in or inspired by Odessa.

[Peter Berg based his movie on H.G. Bissinger’s 2004 novel Friday Night Lights.]

I think it’s based on Odessa, the Permian Panthers. It was a best-
selling novel that was done by this journalist who lived down there.

I assumed they were also influenced by the documentary Go Tigers!

No, not at all.

Because there’s a similar feel to the show.

Well, it’s the same story over and over again. Go Tigers! was set in Ohio, which is
still not another football-rich state. I get very nationalist when it comes to football.

You have to make your movie then, because football is usually seen as the province of mainstream people like Oliver Stone or Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced Remember the Titans. There have also been comedies, like The Longest Yard remake, although the original wasn’t really a comedy. I just watched it for the first time.

I was actually just watching The Gridiron Gang in the hotel.

The old football movies were different.

Very different. Wildcats—remember that, with Goldie Hawn as the football coach?

I was in a bar recently where it was on in the back-
ground, so I can’t really say I’ve seen it. Is it good?

Yeah, it’s funny. They should remake that movie—I can’t believe I just said that!

Click here for part five

Endnote: Images from Film in Focus and As Far as You Know.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Three

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part two)


I don’t know how to phrase this, but…

Phrase it! [laughs]

Your film feels very personal, regardless as to…

It is personal.

It definitely feels personal, and it’s gotten a lot of good reviews and a
lot of play throughout the country. If that hadn’t happened, how would
you feel? It seems like it would be impossible not to take it personally.

[Medicine for Melancholy scored an 88% at Rotten Tomatoes.]

No. That’s exactly—I did not expect any of that to happen. I was completely sur-
prised as the year went on and more and more things happened, and a lot of the things that happened just happened by chance. I mean, I worked for the Telluride Film Festival, and I have for the last seven years, so I kind of know—I see from the inside how that system works. It’s all about connections, and we made a film with a group of people who no one knew. So actually, I didn’t think any of this stuff would happen, and would not have been the least bit disappointed if any of it hadn’t.

2002's Vendredi Soir (Friday Night)

That’s good.

Before we started making the film—it was literally just me and my friends, it
was really inexpensive, and it was more about proving that we could make a
film. One of the things that changed our expectations was the fact that Matt
Dentler, who at the time was the head of South by Southwest, found out a-
bout the movie from a blog. This guy, Sujewa [Ekanayake], who’s a blogger…

I recognize that name.

He was complaining about the mumblecore movement, and the fact that there were no filmmakers or characters of color, so one of my producers, who is white—beside myself, Wyatt, and Tracey, everyone involved with the film is white; they're kids I went to school with and we bonded because we worked on sets 18 hours together...

That sounds like Aaron Katz, who’s also been to Seattle, and went to the same school as David Gordon Green. He’s with the people he went to school with, and Green is with his people. If you meet people then, and you hit it off, you’re lucky.

The other thing, too, was that we started out talking about Darnell and Halle
Berry and Oprah, and I wrote this script and I decided I wanted to make it, and
I wrote some letters to those people and for whatever reason—sometimes very
good reasons or maybe [it was due to] their busy schedules—they just couldn’t
help me. Some of the people who would help me were my friends so, un-
doubtedly, that's who was going to help me make the film.

That almost gives you more to be proud of, though. You guys did it yourselves.

I’ve said all year that even if I’m not happy with the movie, I’m extremely proud of it. So yeah, Matt Dentler found a post that one of our producers put on Sujewa’s blog that said, “I’m a producer of a film by a minority filmmaker that’s a mumblecore film.” I would never call it mumblecore, but she referred to it as mumblecore…


Then Dentler wrote an email in response to her comment and said, “I hear you’re making a movie, and it sounds really interesting. Keep me posted.” And so, right away, it sort of put a bug in our ears, like, “Hey, maybe people will be interested.”

SXSW seems like a good place for your film to be seen, since it’s becoming
more and more important for independent films and first-time filmmakers.

Well, one of my motivators for the film—I always cite Claire Denis’s Friday Night
as being the inspiration for the actual scenario. The other motivator behind actual-
ly making the film was a friend of mine, Chris Wells, who was involved with Joe Swanberg's LOL. I worked with Chris Wells at the Telluride Film Festival. He work-
ed one year, and he didn’t come back the next year, and I was like, “Where did Chris go?” I heard, “Well, he made a movie with this guy Joe Swanberg.” And I was like, “What—Chris made a movie?” And so I looked it up, and there was “Joe Swan-
berg” and “mumblecore,” and I started reading about how they made the films.

You can’t stop him!

Exactly: a few friends, simple scenario, digital camera, and they all went to SXSW, so I said, “Shit! We’re gonna make a movie digitally, just a few of us, very simple, and we’re going to screen at SXSW.” And that was the only goal—that’s all we expected.

Click here for part four


Endnote: Images from Harvard Film Archive, indieWIRE, and Scarlett Cinema.

Monday, May 18, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Two

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part one)


I noticed you acted a little in your short films.

But never a featured role. I’m in the background, and I help
out on other people’s films sometimes, but not on camera.

Micah says he’s “the number two aquarium guy in the city.”
Have you ever been “the number two guy” in anything?

I feel like I’m always the number two guy. I don’t
ever think I’m the number one guy. [laughs]

I liked that line, I don’t know why.

You know, that actually comes—a lot of the things in the movie are taken
either from my life or the lives of my friends. The apartment we shot in, Mic-
ah's apartment, belonged to a friend of mine and her boyfriend is the number
two aquarium guy in the area, and I didn't want to move his aquariums out
of there, and thought it was a really interesting job, so I gave it to Micah.


I like the montage where he talks about aquariums, so
it isn't the only one you end up seeing in the movie.

And you know what, that's—we're jumping all over the place in this interview.

I like that. I kind of hope for that.

Wyatt is a really dedicated performer and that monologue in the screenplay was-
n't meant to cut away to montage. What Wyatt did is, we brought him to San Fran-
cisco for the part, and he just started wandering around on his days off, looking for aquarium stores and that was one he stumbled into, and he asked the guy, "Hey, can we shoot here?" And the guy was like, "Yeah sure, no problem," and we couldn't work it into the schedule—we were on a really, really tight schedule—but on the last day when we were taking Wyatt to the airport, we pulled over to the side of the road, took the camera out, ran inside the store, and got those shots in about five minutes.

Without a permit?

Oh yeah. This entire movie is permit-free, except for one sequence.

I was wondering about that. I noticed more scenes than I'm used to seeing in a lower-budget film where you're in a big city, and there are a lot of people around, but for obvious reasons, you don't [usually] see that much. You see more interiors.


That was interesting. I was watching the people—I can't help doing that—to see if they were looking at the camera or not, and you seemed to get both. Some people were just doing their thing, while a few faces started to move [towards the camer-
a], but it never became self-conscious enough to draw me away from the movie.

Even in the one sequence where we got permits, we couldn't lock anything up. We were literally a four-person crew, us and the two actors. We just used really long
lenses, and if people were looking at them, they were looking in the camera.

I'm assuming it was a pretty small camera?

Yeah, it was pretty small.

That's the advantage you now have over directors in the '70s who were making
films on the street and trying to get naturalism while holding huge cameras.

Wassup Rockers (2005)

This is a question I hate to ask, because I'm of two minds about it, but I have
to go there. I liked the article, but it spawned a horrible word. So Micah talks
about being a minority at indie rock shows. Has that been your experience?

Yeah, of course.

Did you read that New York Times article about "blipsters"?

[Blipster = a black hipster.]

I did.

I'm on a list for women who write about music, and everyone has been talking about it, and no matter what their racial background, they thought it was horrible. The sad thing is, it isn't a horrible article, and I wish more people had paid attention to what these individuals had to say, and then dismissed the word. The word was offensive.

The word was terrible.

It was awful, but it's how newspapers work. If you're a writer, and you have
a catch phrase, everybody's going to read your article and everybody's going
to talk about it, but if she—I think it was a she—had just left out that word...

Then the article would have been much more—would've real-
ly engaged them, as opposed to just combating the word.

That made me sad, because people should be talking about this, but some of
these women thought, so what? Maybe they haven't had that experience and don't know what it's like to feel left out, but why shouldn't we read about that and be sympathetic to that? Every time I'm at a show—even before I read that article—I always look around, and if the audience is mostly white, I think something's wrong.


It makes me uncomfortable. Sorry, that's not much of a question. If a band isn't attracting any female or minority fans, then something's wrong with that picture—not necessarily with their music, but with their image. That's what concerns me.

There's a flipside, too. Like you go to a TV on the Radio show, and it's still a predominantly caucasian crowd. For whatever reason, people's musical tastes fol-
low along certain lines, in a macro point of view, and part of that is because we've
gotten so used to determining people's ethnicity or cultural identity by things that don't have anything to do with ethnicity. Like hip-hop isn't really about being
black, but it just so happens that...the majority of hip-hop artists are black.

And then you have Eminem—and he's from Detroit.

But even the bonafide hip-hop has
more to do with environment than ethnicity.

That's a good point. I was glad Curtis Hanson made that movie. He did well.

He did well. And if you asked the average hip-hop fan,
they'd be like, I hope he does the new 50 Cent movie.

I actually went to the 50 Cent movie, even though I don't
have any strong opinions about 50 one way or the other.

I haven't seen it.

I'm a Jim Sheridan fan, and I'm Irish, and I thought, how did an Irish guy end up making this movie, but I would recommend it, because 50 Cent is shot—I think the story is that he was shot nine times—and Sheridan films the sequence like an IRA hit, and I don't think I imagined it, because I've seen Alan Clarke's Elephant...

I've seen Alan Clarke's Elephant—I have Elephant on my Sony PSP. [laughs]

There you go. That's awesome. Once you've seen that, then watch Get Rich or Die Tryin' and see how he stages the hit: it's dark, it's at night, you don't see who it is... Supposedly 50 Cent didn't know who it was, but I have my doubts about that. For the most part, critics didn't really review that film, and I'm not saying it's great, but it isn't terrible either. There's more to it than meets the eye—probably more than is even in 50 Cent's life. Jim Sheridan was trying to put some of his own stuff in there.

This thing about being the only black guy at the indie show or the only white guy at a hip-hop show—what I wanted to say about The New York Times piece—is that there's this thing where if you grew up in a certain place—like if you grew up in inner-city Mi-
ami, if you grew up in Harlem—it's not cool to listen to rock music. It's just not what you do, and it's almost like if you do that, instantly there's a part of you that's less black because you might want to listen to Nirvana or the Rapture or something like that. What I feel about the Times article—like you said, "except for the word blip-
ster"—is that it legitimately stated that these are young black kids who like skate-
boards, who like mohawks, who like rock music, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But skateboard culture can be kind of limiting, too.

Even if the article only hit on three or four of them, skateboard culture is a culture that is not hip-hop. Although it was saying they're "special" because they listen to these things, it wasn't saying they aren't any less black; it was saying black kids are into these things. I was walking down the street in LA the other day, and there were these four Mexican kids. They're wearing skinny jeans, they're out there on their skateboards, they're trying to do tricks, and it's like, "Hey, we're just out here on
our skateboards, doing tricks." That's the shit I'm talking about—it doesn't make them any less Mexican. It just makes them more skateboard people.

Did you see Wassup Rockers? Because the kids are skateboarders and they're
into the Ramones, and oddly enough—since we're talking about cultures and subcultures—a middle-aged white guy, Larry Clark, made that film. Go figure.

I was going to say: don't go figure, because it's Larry Clark. [laughs]

Another thing more people didn't address is that hipster has become a bad word. That's another problem people seemed to have with the Times article, i.e. "I'm
not a hipster because I like TV on the Radio!" It breeds a sort of defensiveness.

We consciously do not put it in the movie.

Some reviewers have.

Some reviewers definitely have.

I didn't want to touch that word.

I don't think they're hipsters.

I don't either.

Click here for part three


Endnote: Images from the Internet Movie Database, OutNow!, Trailer Addict,
and my personal collection (Jenkins with NWFF program director Adam Sekuler).