Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Two days of New Directors/New Films, plus a "correction".

Ok, according to ABCNews, the official statement made by Robert Altman during the press conference immediately after his acceptance of his honorary Oscar was that nowadays, there are so many ways of making a romance, not just boy-girl, but boy-boy, and girl-girl, and he'd like to try making a girl-girl romance.

So much for that. Now onto New Directors/New Films.

And on the second day, we were treated to a hunk of Kiwi romantic whimsy, which seems to be a very specialized taste. This time, it was a film written and directed by Sarah Watt, called "Look Both Ways"; i'm still recovering from the one i saw in the mid-1990s, Shirley Barrett's "Love Serenade". Still, it had its attractions, and there was one intriguing sidelight: the Aborigine character was not presented in terms of a "problem" but simply as another participant in the romantic complications. In other words: her ethnicity wasn't "stressed" or emphasized. So that i found very interesting.

But yesterday's films, "Half Nelson" and "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros", were much more interesting, and point to a real situation which is going to crop up more and more: what is a "good" film? By this i mean: in the past, there was a certain technical competence which was assumed as a criterion of value. Of course, there are cases of films which were borderline incompetent, but which nevertheless were important documents. I'm not talking about so-called "avantgarde" films, which define their own aesthetic parameters. I'm thinking of something like "Straight Out of Brooklyn", which i remember seeing at a special screening, with the young (adolescent) writer-director Matty Rich in attendance. He was, what, nineteen or twenty when he made the film? And it was (in many ways) abysmal: shots didn't match, there was no concept of editing continuity (let alone fluidity), the lighting was haphazard. Yet there was an intensity about the film, and a patent sincerity that came through in terms of the performances. Technically, it wasn't even a mess: it was totally amateurish. This was the period when African-American directors were trying to find a place within the American motion picture industry, and Rich had (some) talent and so you couldn't just dismiss him, and he'd had the tenacity to actually get his movie finished!

"Half Nelson" was a good "indie" movie, and it shares with so many other "indie" movies a fatal weakness: a kind of "kitchen-sink" realism that makes you feel like you've been swatted by a wet dishrag. But the question with "Half Nelson" is: Ryan Fleck had made the short "Gowanus, Brooklyn" (from which he expanded the material to get this feature). Was there really enough in the material that warranted taking a quite decent short film and making it into a feature? This is similar to the questions i had about "Raising Victor Vargas". Did Peter Sollett really have to expand his short "Five Feet High and Rising"? (I enjoyed "Raising Victor Vargas" tremendously, and the expansion of the material was really satisfying in that case.) This time, the attempt to "flesh out" the story seemed to leave the central situation (the friendship between the teacher and the student) a little stunted. Also: so many of the peripheral characters came across as theatrical in a way that made the film seem schizophrenic.

"The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" was one of the best movies i've seen from the Philippines. That said, what was really intriguing to me was the fact that it was a digital production. Over the past few years, digital filmmaking has become the norm in so many countries, "film" as the celluloid matter passing through a camera is becoming a thing of the past. Yet one of the problems has been that so many "filmmakers" persist in using digital video as if it were film, and they try to frame and light and edit digital material in a way commensurate with film, and the results are (usually) visually atrocious. And we've been forced to put up with this, because (at times) the material has been quite good. (I hate to use it as an example, but I found Jia Zhangke's "Unknown Pleasures" visually flaccid, with a general fuzziness which got wearisome. The digital camerawork was simply not distinguished. Especially since "Platform" had been visually so precise.) And "Unknown Pleasures" is the high end; i'm not even talking about all those InDigEnt productions, like "Tadpole" and "Chelsea Walls" and "Pieces of April" which look so bad, they're an affront to the eyes. But there have been appearing some digital productions which seem to be developing a new style, along with "new" content. It's hard to explain, but those digital productions which really seemed distinctive (such as the Chinese films "Blind Shaft," "The Green Hat" and "Stolen Life"; the Swiss film "Garcon Stupide"; Benoit Jacquot's "A Tout de Suite"; Mark Street's "Rockaway"; Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble") have learned not to mimic film, but have tried to allow the new medium to shape the visual material. It's a more casual approach, with a (mostly) shallow visual field, but (if used intelligently) with a greater concentration on close-up gestures and expressions. The crowded Manila slums of "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" provide an appropriate setting, so that most scenes are crowded and played very close-in. Auraeus Solito, the young director, is very astute in terms of the performers: he uses the self-consciousness often found in nonprofessionals as part of the characters, especially in the case of the young person playing Maxi, Nathan Lopez. The film had a great deal of charm, and the ending (a quote from the ending of "The Third Man") was sweetly evocative, but what's most intriguing is the way that Solito is trying to use the digital medium in a way that makes it quite different from film.

I think this period in "film" is going to be like the changeover to sound: there's a lot of resistance, as well as a lot of people unable to make the change. But those who do are trying to find new, less structured, more casual ways of working, ways which are not as cumbersome as the old (heavy) 35mm cameras. In many ways, the approach seems to be a revival of Neo-Realism, with scripted stories which are cast with people who actually are what their characters are supposed to be. It's also allowing a mixture of approaches, so that monologues and direct-to-the-camera addresses also become part of the texture, giving a greater sense of intimacy with the people being seen.

This just in: according to a report from the New York Daily News, George Lucas is predicting the demise of any vestige of the studio system; he believes that, by 2025, the only movies that will be released theatrically will be "indie" movies.

He should know (i guess).

Anyway, "American Idol" had the eight female contestants singing. Most were good, Mandisa singing "I'm Every Woman" was a terrific. But it was (unfortunately) a little unfair. Someone like that girl Paris or that girl Ayla (the 6' tall college athlete) are teenagers (17 years old) with no professional experience at all! And Mandisa is the oldest (at 28) and she's been singing professionally for years. Yes, her voice is incredible, but if she wasn't "professional" and able to carry off whatever she wants to sing (and she also should have a clear idea of what she can and cannot sing), then what has she been doing for the last decade? So even in something like this, there is no level playing field.

Oh, well. Dana Reeve died, and it was noted that she never smoked, but she worked as a cabaret singer for a lot of her career, and the lung cancer was a development from second-hand smoke. Gordon Parks died. I hope that the IFP does some sort of tribute to him. Ali Farka Toure died, one of the first West African musicians to really achieve an international career.

Onto day three of ND/NF.


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