Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

SXSW: The Whole Shootin’ Match, indeed

Friday, March 16th, 2007

After a hellish 13 hour trip from Austin to Knoxville (don’t get me started about the airline industry) I’m in Knoxville scouting locations for a film. Before I get completely absorbed with that work, here are some final notes on my last day or so at SXSW.

Tuesday was my panel, Blogging about Film. Alison did a nice job moderating the conversation, and I really enjoyed sharing the microphone with Joel, Agnes, Mark, and Lance. All had very smart things to say, and we had different perspectives on the issues raised by Alison and the audience.

Many of the people in the audience — a crowd of about 75 — were bloggers themselves. At least some of them (Anthony Kaufman, Mike Tully, and AJ Schnack, to name just a few) could have just as easily been on the panel.

One of the more interesting discussions that arose concerned the question of whether bloggers are journalists or not. We also addressed some of the ethical issues that can arise when blogging about film, like whether you should review films by your friends.

After the panel, a few of the people mentioned above went to the Iron Works BBQ to continue talking film. I then caught 638 Ways to Kill Castro. I wasn’t planning on seeing it, but it was a good way to stay out of the torrential rain. Castro is a fairly typical leftist documentary (e.g., interviews and archival footage, romantic longing for the revolutionary spirit of the 60s, damning evidence of US government’s covert activities, etc.). It’s all very upsetting, but the film offers little in the way of suggestions about what the audience should do with its anger. Even more troubling is the fact that the film also asks very few questions about Casto’s own record on human rights. Of course, the question of whether such abuses make one worthy of assassination are never asked, in part, because the parties that want Castro dead don’t care about his human rights abuses — they simply want to exploit Cuba for their own ends. Still, in a film that takes as its subject the covert use of power and violence, it seems odd to neglect discussing Castro’s own abuses in this regard. Despite these misgivings, I was, in the moment, oddly entertained by the film — a combination of wry commentary and ironic archival footage give it a sense of humor (as well as a sense of the absurd), which is lacking in so many other earnest, liberal documentaries. My questions linger, though.

After the movie, I hung out with James Johnston and Amy McNutt. We talked politics, movies, and sugar substitutes over at a restaurant with some fine vegan deserts. Yum.

Finally, I made it over to Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match. With all due respect to Frownland, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Quiet City, and the Zellner / Duplass shorts program, this was my favorite film of the festival. Shot in the late ’70s, the film has been credited with inspiring Robert Redford to start the Sundance Institute. The film follows two blue collar Texas guys that can’t seem to get their act together. One’s single and an inventor, of sorts; the other is a married man who has trouble staying faithful to his spunky wife. It’s more than just a very real, funny, sweet, and unsentimental masterpiece — it ranks alongside Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as one of the most vivid pieces of celluloid Americana I’ve ever seen.

The Whole Shootin’ Match was a perfect last film to see, a reminder that the strong currents of do-it-yourself American independent filmmaking that were on display at SXSW flow from tributaries that go way back and have, for many of us, long since been lost or forgotten.

After I walked out of the theater, I ran back to the hotel in the rain, changed into dry clothes, and headed over to the closing night party, thanks to a ride from David Lowery.

I stayed for a while at the party, long enough to offer one more set of congratulations and compliments to the makers of all the films that I had liked, and long enough to talk face to face one more time with friends, many of whom I had met face to face for the first time in Austin.

The last conversation I had was with a very talented new friend in which we discussed collaborating on a project together. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can touch the promise and anticipation of making new work with people you respect. There are things that can’t be put into a swag bag, listed in a festival catalog, or even projected on a screen — and yet these intangibles of festival-going are why we attend in the first place.

As much as I was enjoying the party, it was time to call it a night. As if on cue, the rain had let up. So I walked back to my hotel in the dark with my mind buzzing, not with alcohol, but with something far better — ideas for a new film.

An Articulate Movement (of Inarticulateness) Articulated?

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Following up on Anthony Kaufman’s post of a couple days ago, Eugene Hernandez writes about what’s in the air in Austin this year — you can call them DIY, no-budget, or self-reliant filmmakers. This year, with Hannah Takes the Stairs, Quiet City, Frownland, Orphans these films are the toast of the town.

I’ve been traveling for the last 24 hours (in Knoxville to scout locations for a film I’m shooting), but I have more thoughts on this which I’ll try to articulate later.

Then again, I feel like I’ve been articulating thoughts about this stuff for the last year and a half. It’s nice to see indieWire discussing it, even if they do refer to these films as “mumblecore.” I believe it goes broader and deeper than that limiting name.

Anyway, here’s the article.

SXSW: Anthony Kaufman Gets It.

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

The article: “The SXSW All-Stars: A New Ultra-Indie Movement” Read it here.

SXSW: Hannah Take the Stairs

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs had its World Premiere at SXSW last night.

There was a lot of anticipation about the movie — it was billed as one of the must-see films of the festival, and when I arrived at the Paramount Theatre it’s clear that people took that buzz seriously. Two different lines — one for the festival passholders, one for the general public — stretched around the block. By the time that Matt Dentler, SXSW’s Director, was on stage introducing the film, I think every last of the Paramount’s 1200 seats was filled.

And the movie? It does not disappoint. It’s a wholly successful romantic comedy, and it’s Swanberg’s most technically accomplished feature.

The plot is admittedly slight: A woman looks for love and satisfaction from three different suitors, two of whom are co-workers. On one level, that’s “all.” But, as with so much, it’s all in the telling.

Last year, I remarked that Swanberg’s LOL suggested hints of Renoir, and I’ll reiterate that here. Like Renoir, one of Swanberg’s primary talents is his ability to fill his films with immensely likable actors, and this film, which is almost completely comprised of other independent filmmakers, has an ensemble that’s as warm and generous as any I’ve seen in a long, long time. Greta Gerwig, in particular, is a knockout.

Most of the time the humor is not “funny ha ha” (to quote the title of a film made by Andrew Bujalski, one Hannah‘s stars). The “comedy” is really an orientation, an optimism and humility, that one senses in the person behind the camera. But, yes, at times, the movie is (with a nod to Swanberg’s last film) laugh out-loud funny.

The film is romantic, too, but not in the conventional sense of that word. It’s romantic not because it dramatizes the coming together of two passionate, fated lovers, but because it documents the hard-won moments of real closeness that young lovers can share and then, so quickly, lose.

Reflecting on it this morning, I thought of Dave Hickey’s introduction to Air Guitar. Hickey suggests that love songs matter because they play a social function: They help lovers find each other. With all the love songs in the world, you begin to search for your soul mate by finding the person that likes the same love song as you.

Hannah Takes the Stairs isn’t plotty enough to be a movie for the masses. Still, it will find its audience — at lots of festivals and on DVD. Among those audiences, I imagine that more than a few young couples will see this together and, in both liking it, they will learn something about themselves and each other in the process. How many films can you say that about?

A Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking at William & Mary: Pt. 2

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Saturday morning at William & Mary began with Troy Davis giving Ashley and me a tour around the William & Mary’s Swem Library Media Center. The Director of the Media Center, Troy was my host for the weekend and one of the primary organizers of the Media Center’s Long Weekend of Short Filmmaking.

The Media Center is several things in one — an equipment training center, an equipment check-out center, a recording studio for music and podcasts. It’s anything and everything that students want and Troy makes himself, and his assistants, available to students to teach them anything from iMovie to Logic Pro.

Troy has been the Director of the Media Center for a year and a half, and it’s impressive what he’s accomplished. On a technical level, he’s helped secure some superb editing facilities (several Mac tower stations with Final Cut, Logic Pro, and the rest of the works, each in its own sound controlled environment). For a guy who describes himself as a “dabbler” when it comes to film, I was impressed with all the smart technology purchases he has been making, not to mention his ability to talk in depth about the subtle differences between various pieces of equipment they own.

Since there are, no doubt, places like this at universities across the country, the biggest accomplishment isn’t the equipment and stations he’s amassed — it’s the sense of community generates out from this media hub. A lot of that, no doubt, is due to Troy’s vision for the Media Center as a place that is accessible and inviting (as opposed to exclusive and intimidating). The Media Center, in fact, is littered with Troy’s self-desribed “propaganda” — humorous, well-designed posters — that invite students into the space and use the equipment.

After the tour, Troy and I recorded a podcast that covered making and teaching film. He had thought a lot about my work and had some great questions, which is really flattering. (The podcast will be posted at some point on Media Center site. I’ll link to it when it’s available.)

The podcast led into a “self-reliant filmmaking” workshop that I conducted with some of William & Mary’s film students and faculty.

I began by discussing the work I do on this blog, including my reasons for starting it, and how it’s transformed my own film practice. I then opened things up for discussion, which led to a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from what video camera to purchase to some simple strategies for first-time documentarians. Ashley threw in some good advice during the conversation, to boot; I was happy she had joined me.

Our workshop group talked for nearly two hours, so Ashley and I had a quick break for lunch before I ran off to a screening of some of my own short films at the historic Kimball Theatre. The films looked good in this classy venue, I was happy with the turnout, and the questions the audience asked were, again, really good. (I even received some email from audience members after the screening thanking me for sharing my work.) There was a little reception in the theater lobby afterwards, and I enjoyed talking with some of the William & Mary faculty members that had come to the screening. That conversation led to a coffeehouse where Sharon Zuber, who teaches W&M’s production courses, and I compared notes about how to teach film production.

We closed out the day by stopping by the premiere of the Cans Film Festival (pun intended), a student-organized screening of films produced at a variety of Virginia universities. (There weren’t any entries from Virginia Tech — maybe next year?) Ashley and I weren’t able to stay for long — I was beat and we had a long drive back in the morning. We did manage to catch one zombie flick before we left.

Before we left on Sunday morning, Troy treated us to breakfast at one of Williamsburg’s many pancake houses. Ashley and I had seen a number of pancake houses on our drive in, and I suppose they reflect the fact that Williamsburg is a haven for retirees and a magnet for tourists (motto: “Where History Lives”). The three of us had one last movie-saturated conversation, and Troy told us about his next dream for the Media Center — restoring an unused auditorium in the William & Mary library and making into a screening facility/microcinema.

As we drove out of town, past a few more pancake houses, I thought about a place like Wiliamsburg. Even with the occasional major production (like Malick’s The New World) coming to town, it would still be surprising to see Williamsburg develop into the next Austin. Williamsburg’s a town of 12,000 people, and a lot of the people are transient (whether they’re tourists, college students, or retirees). That’s a tough place to build a film culture. Of course these things don’t only apply to Williamsburg. If this sounds like your town, too, well, so be it. It sounds like mine.

The thing is, something is happening in Williamsburg. Things like the Kimball Theatre, and the William & Mary Media Center are part of the puzzle. The “corner pieces” of that puzzle, though, are a dedicated group of people with vision, passion, and resourcefulness. That’s the real lifeblood of regional filmmaking and film culture. Some places don’t have this, or have enough of it. Luckily, for Williamsburg, it has Troy Davis, Sharon Zuber, Arthur Knight (coordinator of Film Studies at W&M), and a host of student filmmakers. Something tells me that their numbers will only continue to grow.