Thursday, March 25, 2010

Free Vodka

Film festivals are easily parties more than they're cultural events. They often get started as home-grown affairs, attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to create a curated art happening that lasts a weekend or a whole week; get visitors into a sleepy borough in the off-season and rent some hotel rooms.

It's easy to find promotional partners to pitch in screening spaces and printing costs for the program, all with the lure of peeling off some of the Hollywood sexiness and glamour that comes from showing half-indie premieres (like "The Cooler" (really "indie"? Like "Juno" is indie?)) and having media louse up the place and maybe get some gift-bag bling.

Festivals inevitably attract submissions from desperate filmmakers, corporate marketers looking to get a laurel leaf on their DVD box, and actual artists that get lost in the fog of late-night activity and the ghetto of a 9:00 am showing on Sunday morning. But the nicer the location (the south of France, or Bermuda) the more visitors come to spend money and only occasionally see an actual film. The theatres are for shit anyway. If they're even theatres. Half the films aren't shown on film - they're shown digitally, from betacam or DVD.

Who's watching? The good films were already bought and the undiscovered gems can be had by screener.

It's a social scene with local dignitaries and any actor or filmmaker with a new straight-to-video feature they could lure with a free room, a date with the local prom queen and free booze from the current hipster vintner to do a Q&A after the screening. Michael Madsen is doing the festival circuit for "The Killing Jar." It's more fun to hang out with him than sit in the dark watching the thing - it'd only kill the conversation at the opening night party.

Palm Springs, Nashville, Mill Valley, and Carbondale pull from all 4 corners of the globe. They use promotional partners, offer half-off dinners at local restaurants, and advertise bars that are open late (and early). They also give away ball point pens, iPods loaded with the opening-night movie, and hats saying "Lionsgate."

The films are just an excuse. The appreciation of independent cinematic art can be sated nowadays with a subscription to Netflix and judicious searching on a bittorrent site. With 450 film festivals in the US last year, you may wonder why so many people are still going.

Don't they have plasma t.v.s?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lights. Camera.

"Avatar" won the Oscar for Best Cinematography a few weeks ago, and the immediate reaction was to wonder how much of the look and composition is due to cinematography and how much is due to computer programming.

Cinematography, it seems to me, is rather pretty intricately linked to cameras and lenses. It's the art of doing what you can with the equipment you have at your disposal to enhance the director's artistic vision and create/emphasize a mood.

There's not room for programming. It's the artisianal use of the indexical quality of film and cameras to make what you point your camera at as emotionally resonant. "Writing with light," as Vittorio Storaro would insist.

J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars" is as guilty as writing with software as "Avatar" is. This discussion quotes Mr. Abrams' artistic enthusiasm for adding lens flares to the film to create a subtext of an overflowing future. I guess that's writing with "light" too. This use of added visual icing to create some sense of "reality" was foregrounded in Lucas's fourth (or is it the first)"Star Wars" film, shot entirely digitally and a busier film on the surface (covering over a disconcerting lack of cake) I've never seen (including the "Matrix" pie-fights). "Phantom Menace" is a film fingered in post-production to re-appropriate the artifacts of film-based and "conservative" and traditional camera work, such as adding lens flares, camera shake, focus rack-ins (all documented in the extensive and strangely disconcerting making-of featurette on the first DVD release).

There's of course an irony to shooting everything in perfect digital and then adding the accidental and (formerly unwanted) visual anomalies. They give us comfort, especially when we realize they aren't there. I imagine "Phantom Menace" as cold and pointless until the "warmth" was added, this in one of the most backward-looking retro films of recent memory. ("Grindhouse" comes to mind, which also takes its inspiration from previous narrative-making modes and is guilty of a similar attempt to "add" authenticity.)

All these digital manipulations are in the interest of making things "real." Even "Avatar"'s hype about changing the way movies will be made also ensures us that the techniques make things more real than real. Actors have nothing to worry about; they aren't obsolete.

See how "easy" it is to add flare:

The other nominee was "Transformers." They photo-shopped out Megan Fox's tattoos in her scenes so they wouldn't distract us. That's a little too real for the story they were trying to tell.

Now that's acting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Did You Know Mike?

The Warner Archives' press-on-demand DVD series has gone deep into their forgotten catalog and slipped James Bridges' "Mike's Murder" (1984) past us with no fanfare. But it's a lost gem that deserves rediscovering, not only for its strongly evocative tone capturing the post-70s corruption of urban life, but for the many small and powerful pleasures possible in a studio film that was withheld, recut, dumped and then abandoned by the studio (the Alan Ladd Co.), itself becoming a victim of test-screenings and marketing pressure.

The film, titled disarmingly with the straight-forward "Mike's Murder" to have us believe this is simply a whodunit, is anything but. Betty (Debra Winger) has an on-again-off-again relationship with Mike (Mark Keyloun) a tennis coach who seems to be slipping in and out of trouble with drug deals with characters we - and he - never quite get to see or know. They meet by accident over the course of a year or so (without the amount of time being clearly defined, but that's part of the dreamy momentum) and by the time Mike is murdered (off-screen) we've been slowly investing so much emotional baggage on them getting together that Betty's ambling search for the truth of the murder, and of Mike, takes on a fated urgency.

Ultimately the film is really about the inability to know who people say they are, the world around us, who we can trust. Betty, in the center, is a cypher who hasn't quite been paying attention to the various vacuous influences around her but "likes" Mike. A lot. Yet except for the opening romantic montage in which we see them play tennis then dissolve into falling into bed, they actually spend more time together on the phone making and breaking plans to meet than actually going out on dates. Mike, even before he disappears from the film, slowly comes into focus by various photos of him by friends (Sam, his drunk older mentor, and Randy at a record producer's house up in the Hollywood Hills).

Indeed the story shorthands the obvious broad strokes and is aggressively ambiguous in its details, more interested in the nuances of conversation, looking, and even composition. It's formal but strangely cocaine-inflected. Anxious yet non-causal. The phone calls are often shot in one take, without intercutting to the other person, a sly and troublesome affectation to withhold information, even if it's simply the look on the face of the other person.

The ambiguity spreads to the sexuality of the various relationships as well, which we are left to ponder along with Betty, not only starting with the unexplored relationship between Mike and Sam, but most enticingly in the Hollywood Hills where Phillip the record producer (played quietly and strongly by a slightly swish Paul Winfield) begins to suggest a more polymorphous network of alliances and debts among him and Mike's friends before Betty stops him, not wanting to know more. Details are withheld. The camera stays its distance, not revealing anything out of turn.

Ultimately it all boils down to drugs. And yet the film never gives a face or range to the forces against Mike (and against his surviving buddy, Pete, who gets the closest to Betty finally, uncomfortably so). The film seems to take the drug subculture as so obvious that it doesn't dirty its hands by explaining it. It merely permeates the film. The cocaine world in the film is populated and partaken in by the upper middle class, white collar businessmen with no foreign, black or sinister inflections in sight. Phillip, the black record producer, is only seen to drink cranberry juice although there is cocaine around. The entire business is portrayed as efficient and omnipresent, invisibly and peaceably coexisting with the characters.

The film is unable or unwilling to reveal the unexplored corners of the world Betty travels in. Mike's world is dark and less knowable.

The film has no center. It's perfect. Presumably Bridges originally conceived the film as being told in a jumbled or even "backward" timeline, akin to "Memento" (per Ned Merrill in his fine write-up on Obscure One-Sheet blog here) as Betty tries to uncover the mystery, in fragments. If the original cut still survives (and there is a rumor it's still out there) it's not likely forthcoming. The original trailer's tagline "No one is innocent" is quite different and ominous than the final's "The mystery that led her into a world of incredible danger." No doubt before its time, and a hard thing to pull off in any case, the film was recut and reformulated by the studio, appearing 2 years late.

If the film was that altered, it survived well. Those elliptical scenes of Mike making deals would serve equally well as visual evidence in flashbacks, yet fold in well in strict chronological order. The sense of lost time and uncapturable memory, underscored by such moments as when Mike sees Betty in her car and notes "It's been 6 months" or later, when he calls her and she says "It's been 3 months", take us by surprise. Late in the film, when Betty has visited various people she says to a friend that the murder happened "last night" and we are equally surprised that only a day has passed.

The original trailer, available on the Warners' DVD (and here), suggest a more rigorous investigation into the mystery of "Mike." There are more shots of bloody knives and violence (all of which may be stock footage and not originally part of the film) as well as Betty and him in romantic soft-focus shots (and she is implicated in the drug-taking in an apparent sharing of a joint). Instead the Morricone-esque plaintive music (by John Barry, added to replace Joe Jackson's original score) every time Betty is on screen centers the tale on her.

The film only suggests the theme of how we know someone only by how they're reflected in others, and formulates an uneasy truce over the heartache when we confront inevitable loss.

The final confrontation between Pete and Betty is a neo-noir red herring. But the film offers other profound and authentic pleasures such as watching Debra Winger in profile driving a VW Rabbit down Sunset Blvd, phone conversations that play out in one-sided real time, and an LA filled with trees, concrete, chain link fences and late model cars, all alternately too dark or bathed in the warm diffused aura of the setting Southern California sun. Visible and yet unknowable.