May 21, 2010

PODCAST: Jesse Eisenberg

HOLY ROLLERS star Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg, star of Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, stars in Kevin Asch's film Holy Rollers, which opened in select theaters this weekend.

Holy Rollers is inspired by actual events in the late nineties when Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States. Sam Gold (Eisenberg), a young Hasid from an Orthodox Brooklyn community reluctantly follows the path his family has chosen for him, awaiting a pending arranged marriage and studying to become a Rabbi. A charming neighbor, Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), senses Sam’s resistance and propositions him to transport ‘medicine’ for Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), an Israeli dealer, and his girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor).Sam quickly demonstrates his business skill to his bosses, who instantly take Sam under their wing. Now exposed to the exciting and gritty worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam nightlife, Sam begins to spiral deeper into their detrimental lifestyle, experimenting with ecstasy and then falling for Rachel. As the business grows, Sam’s double life begins to rip his family apart and the community becomes suspicious of his illegal activities. Sam slowly comes to realize the façade behind the easy money and parties. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam goes on the run, forced to make a fatal decision that could bring the entire operation crashing down.

I talked with Eisenberg about the illusion of "based on a true story," acting with his sister onscreen, his busy month ahead (Don't miss The Living Wake!), and the Zombieland sequel that's in the works.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:40)

Update: Holy Rollers is now out on DVD.

Posted by ahillis at 2:34 PM | Comments (2)

May 19, 2010

DA Pennebaker and The National

by Vadim Rizov

If the fact that DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus recently directed a live webcast of a performance by The National at Brooklyn's BAM Theater is notable to you, you're probably interested in at least one (and possibly all three) of the following things: The National, the general idea of the concert movie and/or the work of Pennebaker and Hegedus.

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The National are the Brooklyn-based band who've spent the past decade building up a fanatically loyal fanbase and critical army for their anthemically mopey music; Pennebaker is the man who's built an entire career upon the admitted coup of being able to follow Bob Dylan around during 1965 and giving the world Don't Look Back. And the concert movie is the hardest to evaluate with any kind of critical distance.

My gut feeling is that Pennebaker's filmography isn't as formidable as his reputation; he only seems to be firing on all levels when he's in the presence of the already famous, people who bring their glamour and presence with them. That's neither here nor there, though: it's fascinating that Pennebaker - who filmed Bowie's last Ziggy Stardust show and helped create one of Bob Dylan's most iconic moments - was brought in to helm a live webcast, something pretty much anyone could do. This raises questions like: who are The National and what kind of company are they stepping into? What are the limits of a live musical webcast? And just what is a concert movie capable of anyway?

To try to figure some of this out, I spent half a day watching Monterey Pop - Pennebaker's famous chronicle of 1967's Monterey Pop Festival - and The National's show. This wasn't precisely a fair comparison, but I'd always heard that the Stardust movie hadn't been released for forty years because it couldn't disguise the raw footage inadequacies, and I wasn't interested enough to watch Down From The Mountain, which chronicles the tour of the short-lived post-O Brother Where Art Thou? bluegrass revival. As it turned out, it was a reasonably instructive comparison anyway.

"I think it's going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year's and your birthday all together, you know?" a young woman says at the start of Pop, describing what she expects before things kick off. If you're not a fan of the music - and I could easily live without half of what's included - what's striking is the general aura of enthusiasm her statement accurately predicts.

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Pop alternates between observing the audience and training its attention on the performers: for the most part, it prefers the latter even when the crowd's more fun to watch. If you don't care about, say, Janis Joplin (I'm fascinated by how she knows precisely how loud she can be every half-inch away from the mic, but otherwise I'm just not responsive), there's not much to watch when you're supposed to be contemplating the music. There's some stylized '60s moments - during Otis Redding's performance, whenever his head movies back the frame is completely whited-out by the stage lights - and some fascinating tangents: I like the shot of a girl with a ring that has a butterfly with faux stained-glass wings staring in rapture while the guys behind her couldn't care less, suggesting the inevitable dissonance of an audience at a festival. But mostly there's not much here to watch: Pennebaker's so committed to the performers that not until Ravi Shankar goes off for 18 minutes does he feel comfortable in ignoring the stage for half that time and walking through the crowd.

Here's the crux: it's near impossible for me to think of a single concert film that would engage people not interested/amenable to the actual music. (I'd like to think this is the case with Dave Chappelle's Block Party, but am assured by my more ornery friends that this isn't actually the case.) It's the genre least capable of sustaining criticism (music criticism maybe, but not film); fascinating though Jonathan Demme is, I feel no urge to accompany him on every visit to his old friend Neil Young, even though Stop Making Sense is capable of inducing Talking Heads-related euphoria in me in under ten minutes. There's not a single director capable of taking music and making it into a stand-alone film if, say, you only want to listen to 18th-century lute concertos.

As far as Pennebaker and Hegedus' helming of the BAM show, it's predictably unexceptional and deliberately self-effacing. If you want to talk about trans-media or whatever, there's not much here to suggest that the final product would have come out any differently given editorial time. In Pop, framing with a mild degree of chaos and clutter from the sidelines was preferred, alternating with straight-forward close-ups and the occasional tapping foot (one of those "small gestures" that seem to arouse editors): sure enough, four minutes into the generic intro, we zoom in on vocalist Matt Berninger tapping his foot on the subway. There's a few glitches in there - I seriously doubt anyone meant to include a shot of a spit-valve being released in the foreground of the frame, then looming in front of the piano, which happens during "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" - but it's mostly unexceptional. Late in the proceedings, someone had the bright idea of sticking a camera directly under the drum kit and pointing it straight at the ceiling lights for some flare, but that's about it. Performance wise, it's fun to watch Berninger get very very drunk, do some half-assed walking through the crowd and forget his cues both at the beginning and end of the last song, but it's hardly Jimi Hendrix humping an amp.

Which raises the question again: what's a concert film, and what does it do? Monterey Pop at least has some external fascination as a time capsule of the audience, which it's suggested is as important as the bands. Unless someone wants archival footage of white Brooklynites ranging from their twenties to forties, this is unlikely to prove the case with this document. Plus no one's as amusingly zonked-out/feeling the best acid trip of their lives here; it's a mostly staid crowd, full of stoically unimpressed women and fist-pumping young men. If it's possible that the only value of a concert film - besides recording for fans a performance - is in the crowd, it's safe to say almost every concert movie ever made is a failure. It's an impossible genre, no matter who's behind the camera.


Vadim Rizov is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to IFC's Indie Eye blog, as well as The Village Voice, Sight & Sound magazine and others.
Posted by ahillis at 10:05 AM | Comments (1)

May 18, 2010

INTERVIEW: Patrice Leconte

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In a career that has taken him from the heights of French cinema to the honors of the Academy Awards, director Patrice Leconte has always followed his own remarkable muse. For his most personal film yet, Dogora (now out on DVD), Leconte now travels to Cambodia to create a sound and image symphony of a land and its people. From the city streets to rural villages, from factories to farmlands and beyond, discover the men, women and children of this ever-surprising Southeast Asia nation at work, play and peace, all moving at the speed of life.--Aaron Hillis

When was your first trip to Cambodia, what did you discover, and why were you inspired to film your discoveries?

Patrice Leconte: The true source of Dogora was French composer Étienne Perruchon's music. I knew his suite for orchestra and choirs. He had sent it to me to introduce me to his work. When he saw how enthusiastic I was, he just gave it to me: 'Take it,' he said. 'I hope one day this Dogora will be an inspiration for a film.' And I kept that in mind. A few months later, I went to Cambodia to visit my brother, who was working there then. No other country ever moved me as much as Cambodia. All of a sudden, Perruchon's music resurfaced, and I decided to make a film through which I would express those emotions, with just images and sound. I had the guts to make Dogora thanks to Godfrey Reggio's films (Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi), built upon Philip Glass's splendid scores, and which I had liked so much.

Dogora-DVD-1.jpgSince there is no distinct narrative, what was your shooting philosophy in terms of both content and technique?

PL: Throughout this first stay in Cambodia, I constantly thought about this project, always looking around and conceiving some particular sequences, in relation to the differents movements of the score (the bicycle and scooter waltz, the junkyard, the carwash station, the girls on their bicycles, the hevea forest, etc.). A sequence for each movement. When I came back a year later, I knew which pictures would go with which movement. But this didn't prevent me from paying attention to everything, from being available and open to the unexpected. Technically, it was pretty simple: the crew was a four-person crew, including myself. I myself was behind the (HD) camera, and we'd travel in a minibus. I wanted to be completely free.

I read Perruchon's score was recorded first. Surprisingly, it's not Eastern-based. What did you ask of Perruchon, and could you discuss the juxtaposition between the music to the footage you shot?

Dogora-DVD-2.jpg PL: When I came back from the first trip and let Etienne Perruchon know about my project, he found it peculiar and weird, but he trusted me. His music, you are right, has no Eastern basis. How fortunate! If I had used Cambodian tunes for the film, it would have been horribly redundant. Dogora would have been just another documentary. The first version of Etienne's score (35 minutes) was too short. I asked him to write some additional themes (and he was very pleased to do so), but I made it clear his inspiration should not be Orient-ed.

What fascinates me about the editing is that, like in music, there are movements. And specifically, movement: one sequence groups together people driving on scooters, and another depicts bicycle riders. What led to this grouping/rhyming method, and how did you approach the editing so that a feature-length film with no dialogue wouldn't feel monotonous?

PL: As each musical movement is escorted by a "family" of images, with distinct subjects, distinct moods, ambiances, places, the risk of becoming repetitive, i.e. monotonous was fairly limited.

Dogora has been compared to other non-verbal films like Koyaanisqatsi (concerning man, nature and technology) and Baraka (about religion and spirituality). Your film, however, seems more about a sight-and-sound experience then any specific thesis. Is that a fair interpretation?

PL: I discovered Reggio's films when they were released in France, a long time ago. They were more important for me than Baraka¸ which I find less impressive. With Dogora, beyond the formal 'sight and sound' experience, my intention was not to pass on a message (this could have turned the film into a pretentious, moralizing or didactic piece), but just to share human emotions, to make people look at things in a better and different way, realize how lucky they are, we are, in the Western world, living the life we live. That's the reason why I dedicated Dogora to Lucie, my first granddaughter, who was born while we were editing the film (she is now six years old), hoping that one day, when she is older, she will want to watch Dogora. She will then realize that, on the same planet, some men, women and especially children live without being as lucky as she is. I just want her to know.

It's great that the film is being rediscovered as it was originally met with mixed critical reception. In your opinion, why do you think that was?

PL: People like to pigeonhole directors. I should have used a pseudonym, as nobody understood why a guy like me could make a film like that. As if I didn't have the right to do such a film. As if I had crossed some red line. Critics only gave my film lip service; they judged it with clumsy prejudices; they found suspect intentions. But six years later, Dogora lives on, and continues to do the rounds and create magnificent emotions. Maybe, of all my films, it's the one with the longest lifespan. Or the most constant one.

Dogora-DVD-3.jpg Speaking of unlike films, your oeuvre is incredibly diverse. Are there any new genres or styles you haven't yet explored in your career that you'd still like to? (Please, surprise us!)

PL: I am no longer a young man. I hope I can still shoot a few films. Among which a musical. But there is a rub: you should not copy or remake what has already been done in that genre — you should come up with something personal. I am working on it. I am working my way around it. Slowly. But I'll do it!

I'd like to add this: Dogora was the joint work of three people, Etienne Perruchon of course, myself and Joëlle Hache, who is a fabulous editor, and whose talent I have used for almost all my films. Without her, Dogora would be nothing. I wish I had been allowed to put our three names on the same line in the credits.

Posted by ahillis at 10:03 AM

May 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Walkabout

By Steve Dollar

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There’s every reason to revisit Walkabout and expect it to look like a period piece. Newly reissued by Criterion, in their usual gorgeous restored high-def makeover edition, Nicolas Roeg’s first full-fledged outing as a director (after collaborating on Performance with Donald Cammell), was shot in 1968, and finally released theatrically three years later. At once packed with blunt symbolism and left open to wide interpretation by the narrative’s purposeful ambiguities, the movie’s dynamic evoked a sense of pop mysticism and social critique that was pure Sixties.

Though Roeg’s usage of consciousness-fragmenting flash forwards would be more prevalent in later films, such as Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing, Walkabout provides plenty of sensory rush in its shock-cut juxtapositions between the raw and the cooked, between visceral necessities in the Australian Outback and the processed realities of the city, between animal logic and air-conditioned nightmare.

Though far more moderate in tone and effect, it’s not out of place in a continuum that includes visionary cult items like Zabriskie Point, The Last Movie, and El Topo, or even 2001. Roeg wouldn’t contemplate outer space (and then obliquely) until The Man Who Fell to Earth a few years later, but the Outback was an ideal stage for the director’s considerable cinematographic eye. That sweeping, desolate, endless desert, with its Edenic abundance of alien fauna – lizards, bugs, rodents, furry carnivores and bounding marsupials – might as easily have been the landscape of Mars. Like Death Valley, the Andes, or those interstellar vistas for Antonioni, Hopper and Kubrick, the Australian wild serves as transcendent eye candy and natural counterpoint to the civilized world, its blasted splendor rendered in geological abstractions that aren’t merely breathtaking, but aspire to the mythopoeic primacy people dig in Stan Brakhage. Plus didgeridoos and Stockhausen. Like, trippy, man.

And I’m not ashamed to say that’s one reason I love it.

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Sure, Roeg probably forecast corny eco-emo jeremiads like Koyaanisqatsi, just as his was among the first of many films to deploy the Outback as a dramatic backdrop for American audiences (usually ones getting high at drive-ins or sipping cappuccino at arthouses), before Crocodile Dundee was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. That National Geographic vibe was more subversive though, in the same way that the film’s coming-of-age/culture clash particulars rejected any predictable arc. This isn’t a movie that really abides categorization.

On paper, at least, the plot could have worked for a certain kind of kids nature adventure movie that Disney used to make (and which made for many an elementary school and church group field trip to the theater back in the day). A teenage girl and her younger brother find themselves lost in the Outback, where they are rescued by a friendly Aboriginal boy who is on his “Walkabout,” a rite of passage in which pubescent males are dispatched, for several months, on a solo journey through the wilds. Indeed, the film is adapted from James Vance Marshall’s 1959 children’s book of the same name. Paul Ryan’s essay, which accompanies the Criterion discs, draws some distinctions of which most contemporary viewers will be unaware.

The film’s treatment of the source material is much edgier. The story is bracketed by deaths: caused by the plane crash that originally strands the children, and the virus that the Aborigine boy contracts from his new white friends. Along with screenwriter Edward Bond, Roeg takes things to a much darker place. The film opens with the unnamed geologist father of the girl (Jenny Agutter) and boy (Luc Roeg, the director's son) driving them into the Outback for a picnic. Instead of joining them, he pulls out a gun and takes aim. Failing to off his progeny, he douses the car in gasoline, sets it afire, and blows his brains out. The kids make for the desert, with no explanations offered or psychology decoded. Later, after guiding them to safety, the Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil, who's had a pretty long career since) hangs himself in a tree. The implication is that he is heartbroken when Agutter’s schoolgirl rejects his tribal courtship dance – after several instances of mutual sexual revelation. Although, as with other such moments in the film, the act also is more largely symbolic. It’s profoundly sad, not least because the boy is one king hell lizard hunter.

Sadder still seems the inevitable closing off that occurs as the adventure, with all its danger, discovery and liberation, comes to an end. (Roeg doesn’t want anyone to miss this point, closing with a few lines about those “blue remembered hills” from A.E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad as Agutter, now a bored housewife, daydreams about romping nude in a natural spring with Gulpilil and Master Roeg. Ah, sweet youth!).

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Agutter, who would become a cinematic hot crush in Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London, was only 16 when the movie was shot. And though essentially chaste, the scenes of her skinny dipping and otherwise exposing herself, as well as the film’s sexual tension – only made explicit in a comic sidebar moment featuring a crew of randy geologists and a bosomy colleague – still generates a transgressive buzz. (In the United Kingdom, of course, 16 is the age of consent; had Roeg managed to begin production when he first cast Agutter, the nudity would have been a no-go). In the greater context of the film, Agutter is yet another natural phenomenon for Roeg’s camera to celebrate, pitched at that intangible edge between innocence and experience, the very duality that defines the entire piece.

Maybe what’s so “period” about Walkaboutis how it now reminds us that movies used to be concerned with such themes. What it also shows us is that metaphysical, visionary ambition need not be flaky.

Posted by ahillis at 2:02 PM

May 12, 2010

Murch to a Different Drummer

By David Lowery

Walter Murch Two weeks ago, Walter Murch gave the annual State Of Cinema address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which on paper seemed entirely appropriate. Who better than the preeminent “poet-philosopher of the cinema” (the festival's description of him) to, at least momentarily, rouse us out of the stupor of an art form that's currently all too focused on business?

And personally, it gave me opportunity to reflect on the admiration I, as a filmmaker, hold for Murch, who is best known as the editor of Apocalypse Now, and who has quietly and without ego exerted no small amount of influence upon an entire generation of cinema. He's worked as an editor, most frequently for Coppola and Anthony Minghella, and he's directed one film of his own (the fairly terrifying Return To Oz), but it's his early work as a sound designer on films like The Conversation and THX 1138 that revolutionized not just how films sound today but how those sounds function in concert with the picture. His subtle innovations altered the way in which we, as an audience, perceive motion pictures.

When one speaks of a "filmmaker," it is usually in reference to a director; Murch's career, however, makes a fine case for the inclusion under that title of all the disparate crafstpersons who contribute to this medium. In so much as editing a film or mixing a film involves just as much artistry as directing, Murch is an artist. In so much as his efforts bring a film into the fully realized form its director intended, he is a filmmaker.

Murch on Apocalypse Now

He's also something of a scientist. In his two books, In The Blink Of An Eye and The Conversations (which is a series of interviews by Michael Ondaatje), he outlines not simply how he cuts a film, but why. He backs up his creative decisions with historical, psychological and physiological evidence, to the point that creativity is very nearly rendered a tertiary detail in its own process. Almost, but not quite - for if the process of putting a film together could be completely distilled to a system of semantics, there'd be no reason for an editor to engage in the process (and no explanation as to why some of the films Murch has been involved with have fallen flat on their faces).

Even after over a century, there's enough mystery, magic and unpredictability implicit in the science of cinema that one cannot rely on the acuity of theory; indeed, when it comes to making any given cut in any given film, Murch explains in Conversations, he more often than not relies on his gut. He might test his instinct, again and again, to make sure it's correct, but nonetheless: there is a tremendous gulf between what feels right and what is right, and in that inexplicable gray zone lies the difference between a good editor and a bad editor, an artist and a craftsman. I said Murch is something of a scientist, but perhaps it's more accurate to call him an alchemist.

His address in San Francisco the other night was entitled "The Three Fathers Of Cinema," whom he identified as Beethoven, Flaubert and Edison. This reminded me of a particular dilemma I posed some time ago: if a person can be said to be a born filmmaker. what became of all the filmmakers born before the advent of cinema? The answer, it would seem, is that they made their movies in other mediums. This is what we touch on when we call this novel or that symphony "cinematic." Who hasn't listened to Holst's The Planets and thought that it sounds like the soundtrack to a film? We think this because, in a way, it is a film.

This is what Murch was getting at with his three progenitors. Or, at least, the first two: Beethoven, who with his clashing symphonies first defined the magnificent potential of juxtaposition, and Flaubert, who separated narrative from incident and found poetry in the mundane (Edison is no less a visionary in this chronology, but of a more catalytic sort).

Note that Murch does not include photographers or painters or any other visual artist in his round-up, and consider that what defines cinema is not its imagery (its most literal property) but the more kinetic potential, latent in the subjection of that imagery to time, to sound, to everything that is antithetical to the notion of a frozen, autonomous moment. Cinema, as an art, is born out of friction, and Murch, for the past three decades, has been exploring the best ways to push all the right buttons.

Murch at work on Jarhead

This is why I respond to his work, and even moreso to the theories behind it: he has a notion of what cinema is capable of, and he aspires towards it. As evidenced in his texts, he is immensely intelligent and educated. He takes the unknown into consideration. He is curious. He believes in film, and defers to it, it is this that I hold close to my heart, especially when I take off my own director's cap and work as an editor or a cinematographer or some other craftsman laboring towards another filmmaker's vision.

So here is where I must admit: I listened to his speech, and all of the ideas outlined above, and I was not thrilled.

I was intrigued, but not enlightened; interested, but not excited. I didn't want to admit this to myself, nor did I want to write about it here, for fear that this hero of mine might read it. But as I turned my dissatisfaction over in my head, I began to wonder if perhaps Murch was not an ideal candidate for delivering such an address. His ideas served as an extended footnote to the current cinema, rather than the summation that they should have been, and listening to his delivery of them I realized that the one thing he's missing, a trait I've already cited as en absentia, is an ego.

For one can surmise that an ego comes hand in hand with a requisite degree of passion and fervor; it can make a firebrand of a lecturer, and a conflagration of a speech. It contains confidence in one's subject, and an ability to instill that same confidence in others. This is why Murch, great filmmaker though he may be, is not an Auteur, and this is why his deference to his craft does not a galvanizing speech make.

I turn now to Tilda Swinton. She was asked to deliver the State Of Cinema address four years prior, and proffered an oratorical lightening bolt to the film industry - an elegant and moving ode to our cultural and individual need for good, strong and challenging motion pictures. Anyone who heard her found their esteem for her instantly elevated. She was, suddenly, no longer just an actress with good taste but a vessel for the spirit of cinema itself. She was, suddenly, a Filmmaker.

There was a moment when she spoke (spread out, perhaps, over the course of several months and persisting still as new readers discover the text online) in which filmmakers and film lovers alike stood together and held aloft the potential of cinema. In that moment, there were men and women who realized for the first time just how much movies meant to them, and there were boys and girls who suddenly know just how deeply they felt the need to make some of their own. You go back and read Swinton's lecture, written in the form of a letter to her son, and you think: this is why we do this. This is why we go to the movies, and this is why we make them.

Perhaps we don't need hundreds of thousands of newly inspired would-be auteurs clamoring to uphold cinema; perhaps we don't need all the born bankers and born politicians wondering if they might be better off picking up an HD camera. But by the same token, were Tilda Swinton to speak of the three fathers of cinema, nascent filmmakers the world over would be looking away from their Kickstarter campaigns and picking up Madame Bovary.

And then, having read it, they'd turn to Murch, who is precisely the type one would want to stoke this sort of fire.

Walter Murch: "Three Fathers of Cinema" from Old School Cinema on Vimeo.


David Lowery is the writer and director of the award-winning feature film St. Nick (2009). He also served as the cinematographer for this year's Sundance competition entry Lovers Of Hate, as well as Frank V. Ross's latest feature Audrey The Trainwreck.
Posted by ahillis at 2:03 PM

May 10, 2010

PODCAST: Best Worst Movie (Michael Paul Stephenson)

BEST WORST MOVIE director Michael Paul Stephenson

From child actor to cinematographer to first-time feature filmmaker, Michael Paul Stephenson reflects back on a now notoriously awful (read: jaw-droppingly enjoyable) movie he starred in as a kid in his entertaining and offfbeat new doc, Best Worst Movie, which opens in NYC this weekend:

In 1989, when an Italian filmmaker and unwitting Utah actors shot the ultra-low budget horror film, Troll 2, they had no idea that twenty years later they would be celebrated worldwide for their legendary ineptitude. Two decades later, the film’s now-grown-up child star (Michael Paul Stephenson) unravels the improbable, heartfelt story of the Alabama dentist-turned-cult movie icon and the Italian filmmaker who come to terms with this genuine, internationally revered cinematic failure. Is Troll 2 really the worst movie ever made, as claimed by IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes? Or is it, as some claim, a misunderstood masterpiece that never fails to entertain… a work of genius? Best Worst Movie explores the phenomenon through the personal story of the cast of characters that took part in its creation and why it is celebrated by fans worldwide.

By phone, I spoke with Stephenson about his personal take on the 20-year incubation of Troll 2's fandom, the power of the collective audience, the cult of anti-celebrity, and parlaying a terrible stain on one's résumé into something positive.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (27:18)

Podcast Music
INTRO: The Shining Path: "Nilbog"
OUTRO: Prewar Yardsale: "Would Ed Wood"

Posted by ahillis at 1:24 PM

May 5, 2010

Ride With the Schamus

by Craig Phillips

James Schamus Film producer and screenwriter James Schamus was in San Francisco to accept the Kanbar Award, a fairly recent prize SFIFF gives to writers who have had distinguished careers. (Other recent honorees include Paul Haggis, Robert Towne and Peter Morgan.) I attended the Q&A with Schamus that was then followed by a screening of the new director's cut of Ride With the Devil (now available on DVD from Criterion), which Schamus scripted for director Ang Lee. Like any good screenwriter, he answered with wit and steered himself back on point whenever he got off on a tangent, except when he knew said tangents were the real prize.

The talk was moderated by critic, scholar and teacher B. Ruby Rich, who knew Schamus in New York during the '80s when the guest of honor was starting out (he joked that when they met, his hair looked more like her full, curly hair). So there were references to those early days, the timeline stretching further back than his first forays into filmmaking; Schamus earned a PhD from Berkeley, writing a thesis on Carl Theodor Dreyer, and specifically the Danish auteur's seminal work Gertrud. Schamus joked about his "esoteric devotion to the single-most obscure Scandinavian formalist failure," and both he and Rich worried if they had alienated the audience by spending too much time chatting about Dreyer. (I suspect more of the crowd were aware of him than they realized, and I actually loved hearing about this connection.)

Pushing HandsThe namedropping people wanted to hear most about was Ang Lee, with whom Schamus has collaborated on nine features and counting. Rich pointed out that it's hard to fathom someone going from writing about Dreyer and producing Raoul Ruiz—neither famous for their verbosity—to screenwriting. Schamus was a writer who only dabbled in screenplays when he first met Lee in the early '90s. Lee had won an award back in his native Taiwan for a short, and with the prize money was to direct a feature. He pitched it to Schamus and a few other production colleagues (by that point, Schamus had produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Swoon, and In the Soup, among others). Schamus recounted their session as "one of the worst pitches ever," as Lee took 45 minutes to sell it, belaboring the seemingly unimportant details. But after it was over, Schamus defended the pitch to his colleagues because "he had the entire film in his head, in great detail. This is a director you should have confidence in." This lead to Pushing Hands, their first collaboration together.

As Schamus is also the head of Focus Features, he knows all sides of the film process as well as anyone else I can name. At Focus, he has overseen titles like Sin Nombre, Coraline and Milk, and personally produced such indies as Happiness, Walking and Talking, and Auto Focus. In one candid moment, he worried aloud about an aspect of the production process that makes it hard for a script to make it intact to screen—something he's often been fortunate enough to not worry about: When actors (read: "stars") are allowed to have input and suggest story changes, "it's lost."

James Schamus and Ang LeeSchamus was fairly humble, but talked at length about how he'd helped Lee improve the original story for The Wedding Banquet, which would become the most renowned and acclaimed of their early team-ups. Lee's first draft was melodramatic and straight (as it were), but Schamus guided the concept towards screwball comedy. But, as would seem to foreshadow their future working relationship, Lee would then push Schamus to rework certain scenes (including the climax) to be funnier.

When asked about the process of writing scripts in English that would be performed in another language (like Lust, Caution (Se, Jie) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Schamus said he loves the back-and-forth translation process, which includes personally overseeing the subtitles, though he likened it to putting something into Babelfish—jumping from English to Mandarin back to English again can produce peculiar results. (Thus, why he oversees the subtitles.) He admitted there are plenty of times when Schamus the Producer argues with Schamus the Screenwriter, though it wasn't clear who typically wins those battles.

For screenwriting advice, he referenced the old chestnut "write what you know" and said, no: "Write anything BUT what you know." There is no autobiography in his oeuvre, and his experiences have allowed him to explore his "inner film buff," as he called it, to "mess with genre." Schamus also called a screenplay basically "120 pages of begging for money." That may have been Schamus the Producer talking.

Ride With the Devil

Rehashing a quote from the beginning of Ride With the Devil in which the Civil War is called "a war fought not by armies but by neighbors," Schamus quipped that all his films, along those lines, are "basically versions of faculty meetings." It was one of the few films he already had casting in mind—in this case, Tobey Maguire (who'd worked in Schamus and Lee's Ice Storm two years earlier). When asked why Ride with the Devil was released so unceremoniously in 1999, he ruefully recalled how it was made just as Universal was going bankrupt, and the film's ownership itself has taken an ironic, circular path: it was owned by Grammercy, then USA Films, that company later bought by Focus Features. Two years later, Schamus the Screenwriter now owned the rights to his own film.

Ride With the DevilI had never seen Ride With the Devil on the big screen—let alone the director's cut—so it was rewarding to give the film a fair second shot. My initial disappointment had come from the high standards I held its writing-directing team to, and more superficially, that a couple of casting choices bugged me then. Schamus had adapted it from novelist Daniel Woodrell's Civil War-set epic "Woe to Live On," with a lot of the book's period-realist dialogue intact. The film follows two life-long friends (Maguire and Skeet Ulrich) in wartime Missouri, who join a group of "Bushwhackers" loyal to the Southern cause. The story focuses on Maguire's Jake Roedel, not yet 20, as he comes to comprehend the intricacies of the cause he's fighting for and the brutality depicted on both sides (the film paints all sides, even the Blue, in gray).

Roedel's deepest camaraderie, however, is the one that forms with Daniel Holt, a former slave who only has Southern loyalties because of his close connection to the white Missourian George Clyde (Simon Baker). Holt is played by one of my favorite actors, Jeffrey Wright, and it is he and Maguire who center the film. It helps that they have a similar impish charm, and expressive faces that can convey a lot with few words. Wright regularly gives off a vibe of quiet wisdom and, at times, a slow burning anger. We're left to wonder why the hell this ex-slave would put his life on the line for men fighting in favor of slavery, especially alongside unabated racists who only accept him by association. Wright's performance sells the complexity.

Ride With the DevilUlrich always seemed to me [ed. note: and many others!] the poor man's Johnny Depp, without the range or charm, but he's actually more than adequate here. Surprisingly, I also found the folksinger Jewel more benign this go-around; an inexperienced actress, she neither shows great range nor tries to do too much, and I sense the naturalism in her performance that must have attracted Lee and Schamus. In short, she's appealing enough. Now and again, I was irritated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers' pretty-boy villain Mackeson, whose fairly homoerotic rivalry with Roedel would feel tenser if Meyers wasn't acting like a glam rocker. Ride is dotted with an excellent cast of character actors fitting the bill and period: Tom Wilkinson (then beginning his run in American cinema) as a kindly farmer; Celia Weston, now ubiquitous in just about every Southern-tinged American film; a young Mark Ruffalo as the neighbor who betrays Roedel; a heavily bearded Jim Caviezel as a cruel Bushwhacking officer; the doughy-eyed Zach Grenier and many others.

Schamus didn't go into detail about the differences in this extended cut, except that it was the only Lee-Schamus production where such a cut made sense. It is purportedly ten minutes longer than the theatrical version, and as much as I can piece together from hazy memories, extends the scenes between Maguire and Jewel plus a few key battle sequences. One brutal bit near the end, set in Lawrence and based on real events, seems more tragic and harder to watch, and all the more unforgettable because of it.


Budd Boetticher's THE TALL TAs you'd expect from Lee, who made Crouching Tiger and went on to do Brokeback Mountain, the film has momentum but still plenty of breathing room to allow the wooded Missouri atmosphere to come alive: the rustling tree leaves, the clumped dirt in the hills, even the way the air must feel. As a pseudo-Western, the film takes on a Budd Boetticher feel; a large portion takes place in a darkened, makeshift shelter built into a hillside with characters in close quarters, which made me think of The Tall T's claustrophobic, ramshackle shack where the hostages are put up. Schamus mentioned Boetticher in the Q&A so presumably I'm not pulling this out of my... holster.

What resonates most for me are the scenes in which Roedel reads letters that the Bushwhackers have intercepted, each from Union (enemy) families. What might've been eye-rollingly cheesy in another's hands is moving with the help of Lee and Schamus, Maguire and Wright. "One mother is very much like another" is an obvious platitude, but these letters—articulate and heartfelt remembrances that the Civil War provided unlike any other—attracted Schamus to the story, and stayed with me long after the film was over.

Posted by cphillips at 11:56 AM

May 1, 2010

SFIFF '10: Marwencol

by Craig Phillips

[editor's note: Please seek out this film, which was my favorite doc feature at this year's SXSW.]

Marwencol

After nearly dying from a vicious attack that left him brain damaged, Mark Hogancamp had to learn to walk, talk and write again—only finding solace in the building of a small-scale WWII European village in his backyard. Named for this fictional, war-torn town, Marwencol is filmmaker Jeff Malmberg's four-year chronicle of Hogancamp's life and project, a film as much about the restoration of a human psyche as it is the story of an intricate art form rising out of tragedy.

It's both extraordinary and heartbreaking to see how fully Hogancamp lives in his constructed world. By piecing together WWII history for his town, he attempts to piece together the mystery of his former life before the attack. Malmberg has clearly built a trusting relationship with his subject, allowing him to reveal multiple sides of Hogancamp—fascinating shades of who he was and is now.

Marwencol Hogancamp uses doppelgänger dolls to represent everyone in his life, which one of his friends explains to be flattering. A Goldfinger-era Miss Moneypenny stands in for his mother, and a Barbie-like beauty for his boss. (He kills off the alter-ego of one of his coworkers, who doesn't feel so good about that.) His own double—a handsome Steve McQueen type in a Great Escape bomber jacket—exists in the fictional bar at the center of the mini-village, a place where Americans, British and Germans all drink together in his ahistorical fantasy. The meticulous attention to detail is impressive, down to the tiny weapons, clothes, and vehicles. In one of the more bizarre moments, we witness Hogancamp taking his jeep full of mini-passengers out for a walk as if it were a dog.

Marwencol Sure, this guy seems an oddball and outsider, but his story is profoundly moving because of how universal it is. In one sense, these recreations are a slow-motion, lo-fi version of online role-playing communities. (At one point, he refers to his post-trauma existence as a "second life.") What transcends the eccentricity, making an overgrown dollhouse into a powerful work of art can be seen in Hogancamp's expertly shot, macro-lensed photographs, which capture key moments in the invented wartime narrative. Virtual lives are being lived, and it's through these close-up images that the art world took notice. As a magazine editor interviewed in the film says, what's refreshing is the rare lack of irony and winking in his posed-figurine photographs.

Marwencol Hogancamp speaks of his characters as if their stories are vividly real, but worries about his delusions are quickly replaced with the appreciation for a gifted storyteller's keen imagination. Perhaps most interesting is the effect of seeing these photographed actions coupled with Hogancamp's real life, which, bittersweetly, seems to have less meaning to him. Eerily, he barely remembers his own wedding (we watch him watching video footage of the festivities, two decades later) while his fake persona's wedding has become more poignantly memorable.

Marwencol At times, Malmberg's film felt a bit too slow for my taste. At a still-brief 83 minutes, it could've tightened to an hour. Still, it successfully builds to the moment when Hogancamp's work is to be exhibited in New York. Art patrons take in his work with open arms, even if many don't know what to make of this odd, shy man who loves photography, dolls... and another secret I won't reveal here.

[For more info on the film and Hogancamp's work, visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:25 PM | Comments (3)