The 'Fesser and the cinetrix successfully lured our pal Daniel of cinematic obsession north for our annual epic 4th of July throwdown. In turn, he turned me on to American Independents Week at the Harvard Film Archive, a series cocurated by Cassavetes guy Ray Carney and outgoing HFA pooh-bah Ted Barron. Here's how Carney's program notes describe the lineup:
This is the Harvard Film Archive’s second annual survey of independent work that “flew under the radar” – largely unknown or neglected films that have not entered the distribution cycle, did not receive major press coverage, or have not won awards at important festivals. Notwithstanding the fact that most of these titles are unheralded and unknown, they are among the most important and interesting recent American films. These young artists, many of them first–time filmmakers with no outside financial backing, are, almost without exception, taking more artistic risks and pushing the envelope much further than better–known and more financially secure American filmmakers who have reputations to protect.
If we ask why many of these works are still lurking in the shadows or searching for a distributor, the reasons are not that hard to come up with. These films do not push dependable box–office ticket–sales buttons. Their characters are not “cute,” “charming,” or “sweet” in the Napoleon Dynamite way. Their stories are not “clever,” “crowd–pleasing,” or “feel–good” in the Little Miss Sunshine way. They do not feature big–name actors making “in–joke” cameos. Though most of these films are made by Gen–Y artists about Gen–Y characters, they don’t even fit the pattern of Gen–Y movies. Their male characters are not introverted and narcissistic; their female characters are not whiney or clingy; and their narratives are not reducible to the group–hug ethos that says everything will be OK if only you have friends. The films in this program do not pander to the prejudices or predilections of young viewers or attempt to flatter audience members of any age. They take the pulse of contemporary American life toughly and unsentimentally. They challenge the viewer to look at experience in new and potentially disorienting ways and, at their best, ask the viewer to think freshly about the untapped expressive possibilities of the art.
Daniel was especially keen to see Swanberg's Sundance darling, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and revisit Mike Gibisser's Finally, Lillian and Dan, which Mike had sent him on dvr a couple months back. The latter flick, shot in and around Cambridge, kept setting off real-life ripples as our tromps around the People's Republic took us from one of the film's locations to the next. We also managed a screening of Aaron Katz's Quiet City, and I'm glad we did, not least because it's slated as the second offering from Benten, fellow film geeks Filmbrain and Cinephiliac's new DVD distribution shingle.
The incestuous nature of the cinetrix's experience is appropriate, given how these particular filmmakers are in one others' pockets, appearing in their pals' films and lumped together in trend pieces about the so-called mumblecore movement. Who am I to do otherwise?
I think you know the answer to that. Yes, all three movies also boast a strong female protagonist and the hoodied boys held in her sway. But they're very different works.
Gibisser's Finally, Lillian and Dan is the most resolutely lo-fi, like a Sebadoh cassette stuck in a hatchback's tape deck. Shy Lillian lives with her grandmother and is benignly stalked by Dan. Carney observed that at points it's almost a silent movie, and I think he's on to something there. And like the silents, there's a sophisticated visual intelligence at work here. My scribbles note: "So smart. Mask cut bird in sky is actually kite out of old Volvo wagon." Similar shots of the tree canopy are anything but pictorial parsley--each one is deliberate and adds either bite or a palate cleanser as the couple's relationship evolves. The other note I made was "It's like the best parts of Junebug," in its affection for the beauty of the homely accouterments of life.
At the confab after the next night's double feature, the cinetrix was called upon as the lone female to weigh in on the female protagonist of Hannah Takes the Stairs. [Story of my life.] Realistic or a male fantasy--yes or no? Days later, the jury's still out. Yes, sirens like Hannah exist in real life, albeit usually not with the amazing amber eyes of Greta Gerwig, but to me the film and its story was the most familiar of the lot, perhaps because of the presence of Andrew Bujalski again holding down one angle of a tortured love triangle. More fun for me was trying to scope out the spines of the VHS tapes behind the actress during an intense conversation. I spotted 81/2 Women, Savage Beauty, The Unbelievable Truth, and Doom Generation. And there're tub scenes that resonate with 2 ou 3 Choses and Les Reves des Anges.
Aaron Katz was present with producer Ben Stambler for the Quiet City screening. Nice guys. Their film, which follows a young woman randomly connecting with a rudderless hoodie boy after her flaky friend stands her up, captures the delicious quiet of Brooklyn in the wee small hours of the morning. There are many graceful, tentative moments amidst the couple's get-acquainted pas de deux, but I commend to you also the party cutaways to Mike Tully on the sofa, intoning like a hipster Andy Warhol [seriously, close your eyes and listen].
So why call this post Dance dance revolution? Well, in all three films there are spontaneous, visceral dance sequences that soar. Mike Gibisser's real-life granny dances rapturously to a Jolie Holland tune; Hannah and roommate Rocco rock out as they work through Hannah's romantic confusion; and Jamie, Charlie, Robin, and Kyle dreamily groove to an r&b track replaced by the diegetic music of Keegan DeWitt [rights issues]. These inarticulate idealists connect through the physical movement to music in a way that makes the cinetrix's bricolage-lovin' heart sing.
Do check 'em out, if and when you can, and nominate your own favorite musical moments in non-musicals in the comments. I'll start. "Kool Thing" in Simple Men, Almaric in Rois et Reine, and Martin Donovan in Surviving Desire. You?