Friday, June 25, 2010

Motion Studies: In the Snow

There are instinctive ways of seeing. It follows that the most direct way of filming what we see is in an environment we call home with the simplest equipment. This is what makes certain images shot on a home movie camcorder worth paying attention to.
The snow is falling in Brighton, MA. It is a recent winter. (We know this chiefly because this image may be viewed on YouTube.) A boy no older than twelve plays with his black puppy in the drifts of snow that cover his near-circular yard, framed by a bush in the background, proceeded by dense forestry. Naturally, the camera trembles. It is flaked with snow; the one constant in this image, provided by the forces of nature, are the darting, flicking snowflakes. A relative is probably operating the camera; we know because the boy addresses him colloquially at several points and the cameraman responds. The dog trots after a vanishing snowball through the foot-deep snow and pauses in dog confusion, his ears pricked up. The camera is now trained solely on the dog. This is the natural way of seeing in this shot. The subject has self evidently become the dog, and so that is what the camera will focus on. It follows that the movement of the dog will determine every movement of the camera. As the dog trots back towards the boy and runs with him to the center of the field, this is precisely what happens.
But the home movie camera has a way of working as a tool of the user’s impulses. This user swivels the camera to the right, as if surveying the forest landscape beyond the field, then jerks it in to the line of vision of a house with a chain link fence in front. It jiggles, suggesting that something is being adjusted. Then the cameraman swivels the camera back to its natural subjects; the boy and the dog. This burst of motion should not be called chaotic, because we sense a purpose behind it and a sense of control. It may be literally sporadic, but it is on a greater level it is a suggestion of the cameraman’s step-by-step thought process. The jiggling, the unexpected house and the swiveling are blunt, brutal suggestions of how the average mind ticks each moment of every day. Could camcorders be the most psychological tools of cinema yet?
But we must return to a natural way of seeing. The image ends on the boy calling to the cameraman, “She’s coming!” The dog is coming, chasing another snowball.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Trash Humpers

Trash Humpers is, by today’s standards, pure cinema. If the Lumiere’s and Edison had not come up with the form in the 1890’s, and cinema had instead begun in this previous decade with YouTube, an egalitarian access to cheap means of production, self-entitled justifications for expression, and cameras becoming one with every new technology, then Trash Humpers would be the most inventive piece of moving imagery we have seen. But since cinema has been around for a long time, long enough to produce mischievous, disingenuous souls like Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers is deliberately made to look like a piece of trash rather than a film. It’s something that wasn’t supposed to be released, but was found and somehow made it on to a screen.
It’s an intriguing concept and one that is a logical progression in Korine’s career. In 1997 directed Gummo, a simultaneously obnoxious and important film and then the unremarkable Julien Donkey Boy before disappearing for eight years, only resurfacing with 2007’s Mr. Lonely. Before Gummo, he scripted Kids and that film, along with all the features he has directed, was one of the earlier and most sustained illustrations of an artistic sensibility that had learned cynicism so well, it was second nature. Nihilism, too, was just a given for any film, and it was all passed off a sort of post-modern post-modernism; anti-art, in a way. Yet that does not mean there is no legitimate storyteller to be found in any of these films; the storyteller was just often suppressed. In Trash Humpers, Korine has stripped his film down (this could almost be called a Punk Rock film) and tried to forget all about artistic rubbish, such as story. The grainy home video interludes in Gummo are here expanded in to the entire product. This is innovative, but in no sense is it mature; it is a Gen-Y attempt at going bonkers.
The subjects are exactly the people the title suggests. Four frightening looking old people who behave like debased teenagers, vandalizing, breaking in to homes, apparently kidnapping people for the sake of entertainment, murdering, and humping trash cans. Their exploits around Nashville are recorded by one of the group who does not appear on camera himself until about halfway through. There does not seem to be any law enforcement in town, children appear to be unsupervised and everybody they encounter is be similarly strung-out or deadbeat in their own way. But just as this is looking to be a cheapo document from some post-apocalyptic landscape that resembles our own, we become aware that it is really an elaborate hipster freak show. First of all, the other characters in the film—who include a horny guitar player, a duo of amateur performers and a cross-dresser on a bridge—look like normal people, unlike the trash humpers. This is because the four trash humpers are actors wearing fright-masks; director Korine and his wife Rachel being two of them. Scripted monologues are delivered, songs are improvised and each character is clearly aware of how outrageous what they are doing will look on tape. A circus has come to Nashville.

It is in this obviousness of being a crude inside joke, a clever stunt, that Korine’s disingenuity comes in to play. Korine wanted to make this a “found document,” and an amusing but pointless piece of trash. But to the close eye, Trash Humpers is very clearly a planned, structured film. What’s more is its footage was clearly not captured by one of these scary denizens, but by a filmmaker. Nobody but a filmmaker would think of inserting shots of the red sunset over a city, or holding shots of the yellowness of the roadside lights. Nobody but a filmmaker would think of using a creepy nursery-rhymish song as a recurring motif. Nobody but a filmmaker would cut from a character (his character) pronouncing that he “feels like a new man”, to a long shot of that character dancing and singing. Nobody but a filmmaker would end his film with a tender sequence involving a human baby, after so much mayhem, sin and some weirdness involving a baby doll. Trash Humpers takes a vignette form and shows people plotlessly goofing off within that form. It is not a formless mess of footage.
So why, then, can’t Harmony Korine just call this a story? What he could have done was elaborated on the story aspects by making his character—the one with the camera- an actual filmmaker documenting these people, rather than one of them. That might have been more honest. Here is a film that does not even want to look like a film, that was deliberately made with cheap technology, that is frustratingly dishonest.
It is worth noting that Korine’s filmmaking instincts do produce some fantastically clever scenes. The best scene comes early on, in which a little boy is playing basketball with the trash humpers and being mocked by them. He looks uncomfortable as the camera moves closer to him. But then he starts to get in to it. He is making evil pronouncements, riding around on a bike, and being taught by one of the humpers how to insert a razor blade in to an apple and offer it to someone. This mini-story within the film is both morbidly funny and feels like southern gothic style in overdrive. Scenes like this one make Trash Humpers worth watching, if only to see how filmmakers are reconciling digital technology and a smarmy attitude of aimlessness with a genuine story. It is not the reason Korine had in mind, but to hell with him.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Silent Film comes to America

In this country, we expect that we have everything we need and then some. But one thing that we do not have enough of, to say nothing of other nations, is Silent Film. This happens to be an instance in which New Zealand has helped us out. News stories have been breaking over the past several days about a handful of lost American silents being discovered in vaults in New Zealand. The films found include a John Ford film from 1927 called Upstream, a Clara Bow picture called Maytime, a film by the early woman filmmaker Mabel Normand and series of one-reel westerns.
Just yesterday, news broke that another film called To Catch a Thief had been discovered at an antique sale in Michigan. The comedy was produced by Keystone in 1914 and features a two-minute or so appearance by none other than Charlie Chaplin. It is one of the earliest films he acted in. Here is a silent film that was here the whole time, the country just forgot about it.
These simultaneous discoveries of film's history feel like they signal something; to my mind, what they do is reinforce the fact that America shrugs off its film history until that history barges its own way in. Of the films found in New Zealand, only seventy-five were specifically selected for shipment. This appears to have to do with their cultural significance (Dave Kehr's article in the Times mentions that the Bow and Normand films are important to the history of women in cinema). We can only hope that at some point  the rest are returned, or at least duplicate prints are made.
But these discoveries bring up one more interesting aspect of silent film; many of them appear to be from the 1910's. It is common knowledge that the 1920's were the true decade of achievement for silent film. With these discoveries cropping up, perhaps we should shift our attention to the previous decade. The 1910's brought us an explosion of westerns, most of Griffith's films, the beginnings of German Expressionism, the formation of a number of studios, the founding of Hollywood, and now what is probably the earliest Charlie Chaplin picture, plus a batch of early films made by or starring women. Film Historians may have a field day, but silent film fans will have to wait for the restorations of these films to evaluate them individually. All we know for now is that, 2010, a grim year so far, has already been a far more positive year for silent film than most other years. And it may revive interest in what was happening on celluloid in its twin decade, an even century ago. As it happens, those were grim years too.

Links to the articles:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Please Give

      In the unwritten rules of narrative, every story must fit a form. Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener has chosen the moral fable as her form for her new film Please Give. In this fable, we are introduced to Cate (Katherine Keener), an embodiment of a few key contradictions. She is a furniture salesperson catering to upper-middle class city folks, but can think of nothing better to do than give away money or food to any homeless person she meets. She is a neurotic Manhattanite besotten with enough guilt to impulsively volunteer for causes aiding the sick or retarted, but has no problem buying an dying 91-year old curmudgeon’s apartment, desperately waiting for her to pass on. She is, in short, not a person, but an embodiment of themes; Charity, Guilt and Hypocrisy.
            She is joined by a few other representations. Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), the elderly neighbor whose apartment has been bought, is Cynicism. A woman who can’t help but voice her (usually) negative opinion about everything, she has mistreated so many people by her crotchety old age that she has no chance of redemption. Then there are her granddaughters; Rebecca and Mary. Mary, the older one, is Narcissism and Catiness. She has taken after her grandmother in ways she can’t possibly realize, and casually abuses her sister to no end. Her sister, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is something like the moral balance in the story. She works as a nurse who does mammograms at a city hospital. She is shy yet charming and rather sane; lonely but trying to keep the peace with everybody else.
How these characters collide with the three opposing characters—Cate, her Materialist daughter Cathy (Elizabeth Keener) and hapless husband Alex (Oliver Platt) – is intended as the source of development in this story. Throwing two sets of characters together to watch what happens is vaguely theatrical in nature, and perhaps Holofcener crafted her film this way in order to let the actors roam free. They do; one thing that should be said is that there isn’t an unaccomplished performance in the film. Alex, who does not represent much of anything, is the standout character in this feminine film; Oliver Platt plays him as a quiet burn of an outwardly personable man exasperated by his marriage.
            The performances themselves, however, ultimately clash with the film’s moral leanings. Cate, for one, has been written as such a ridiculous person that she is impossible to believe—she provides a homeless man with enough money to buy outrageous clothing and apparently thinks it’s cute; she is so righteous in her concern for others that it’s difficult believe that a grown woman—especially one played by the mature-seeming Keener-- could act so  grossly politically correct and never have been forced to tone it down. Conversely, the sniggering Mary is so wicked that we lose all faith in her as the force of wickedness in the film. She becomes predictably, boringly mean. Andra provides some cranky humor, but we find ourselves just waiting for her to die, like everybody else. The moral center, Rebecca, remains sympathetic, but what is she left to do that surprises us? Stumble upon good fortune? The guy of her dreams maybe?

            If this sounds like a lot of reductionist griping about a film that’s earnestly trying to make a few points about human interaction, then let’s return to the rules of narrative. Every writing teacher will tell you that a character must want something and that at the end of the story they must change. Holofcener abides by these rules, but makes such a point of her characters wanting something that she reduces the film for us. Please Give becomes a chess game of character A wanting something and characters B and C getting in the way. She is so intent on making her characters change, that a single line has to be the turning point for characters who we don’t believe will change anytime soon. Much of the dialogue is overflowing with implication and suggestion; it felt as though a Creative Writing professor should be reading the script and explaining why the various elements work. By the end, when the inevitable “arc” of the story is coming to its conclusion, a teary Cathy has to tell a teary Rebecca; “you’re a good person.” It’s not that I disagree, per se. I just wish these were good people who sprang from a complex reality and not from a writing workshop.