a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

a couple pointers

* Debra Dickenson wrote a pretty interesting take on the Cosby meltdown, specifically how it should come as no shock to us. As good as the piece is, I can't help feeling that Dickenson only went half-way. Cosby's knocks on minstrelsy are, of course, mostly right on (and Spike Lee has his back -- at least to a point), but it seems like he's knocking everyone who hasn't tried to subtly subvert the white man's world from within. Certainly black culture has grown leaps and bounds over the years -- hip-hop seems to have become the national music genre -- and it's all the more respectable because it's not forgotten its roots. Indeed, it grows out from it. Right now, a fusion has taken hold of the country, of which, as someone who laid the groundwork for mainstream acceptance of black culture, he should be immensely proud.

* Quasi-speaking of which, the new Roots album, The Tipping Point, landed yesterday, and the Philly outfit celebrated by playing two different half-hour sets in the city: one on South Street and another during the official release party at the miserably grotesque Northern Liberties club Emerald City. Haven't heard the album yet, but after attending each performance, I have to say they're one of the best live acts right now, if not the big cheese. (And longtime fans say they've been slowly eroding over the years. So ponder that.) Restlessly energetic, perpetually tight, graced with ?uestlove's awesomely flat-sounded drumming, they're better than any jam band, more infectuous than any rock band. And reportedly I should forgive them their shockingly crap single.

* Shameless plugs! A piece on an oddball screening of René Clair's short Entr'acte and my usual thang are only two of the pieces written by yours truly in the today's Weekly. The other seven things are blurbs of films in the 10th annual Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (or PIGLFF -- say it, it's fun), where Indiewood Queer Cinema serves as a distraction for some foreign takes and, the usual best bets, documentaries. Of these, In Good Conscience, shot by Albert Maysles and produced by HBO titan Tom Fontana, is clearly the find of the fest, while the fiction films are invariably mediocre to flat-out tedious (200 American, namely).

About the later, I can't help thinking that these films -- i.e., this new breed of ultra-low budget romances where little happens, either dramatically or conversationally -- are the true nadir of cinema. Why? Here's five indie filmmaker misconceptions, each of the sweeping generalization variety (i.e., there are exceptions -- many of them, in fact):

(1) Their characters' sexual preference automatically makes the resulting film interesting. The age-old acid test goes like this: imagine the characters are straight. Does the work still hold up? Maybe in the early days of queer indie cinema (Go Fish, et al.), this could be forgiven: they were still creating a niche in a society more homophobic than it is now. Ten years later, it's simply lazy. Besides, Fassbinder not only made interesting films with gay characters, but often worked themes about homosexuals in society into the film.

(2) Likewise, independent cinema is automatically better than Hollywood because it's more real. This is just lazy. And bullshit -- indies indulge just as often in ludicrous situations and conveniences as their mega-budgeted counterparts. They just do it on a smaller scale, and sometimes even more incompetently.

(3) We don't need competent photography, expressive acting, original dramatic thrusts or dialogue that isn't tediously mundane. People will like it because they're seeing themselves on screen. Actually, I hope no one believes in that, as it's the most condescending and shallow thing you can say about a culture. But when a film has little going for it than gay characters, it's tough not to think some filmmakers do as little as possible, cynically figuring they'll gain automatic acceptance from their brethren.

(4) People don't talk the way they do in Mamet, Tarantino or even Kevin Smith movies. Our films capture real human interaction. Which, sorry, is almost always of the tedious variety. Ever eavesdrop on a conversation? Or even better, listen to your own conversations. We're boring. Take one of the countless longwinded, low-watt exchanges from Inescapable, seen yesterday:

Character A: Mmm...This is good chicken. Did you make it?
Character B: No, Susie did.
Character A: It's very good.
Character C: Thank you. I like making chicken.
Character A: And it shows. It's very good.
Character C: I do my best.
Character B: Her best is quite excellent, as you can see.
Character A: Yeah. Good chicken.
Character C: It's all about the spices.
Character A: The spices really add to the flavor.
Character C: Sure do.

That's a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture: no one's trying very hard. Duplicating reality, just as it is with reality TV, smacks of laziness. As ridiculous as they can get, Mamet and Tarantino (and to an extent Smith) work at a higher level of creativity. Also, they're rarely boring. (Okay, Smith is, as he needs a fucking script editor.)

(5) DV has made it so much easier for anyone to become a filmmaker. Can't believe I'm saying this, but there's a strong aphorism to be found in, of all things, the wretched League of Our Own. When Geena Davis complains about baseball being "hard," Tom Hanks sagely shoots her this: "Of course it's hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it." His point is that the game's inherent toughness is what elevates it above the rest of society. But my point is: not everyone has talent. Film, like any other study, is something you have to work hard at. And 35mm is almost on par with a medical degree. You have to learn how to light, how different angles cut together, how certain fusions of angles and lighting can really sell a shot, even create something that was not there in the script. The result, when it works (and even when it works by sheer accident), is a thing of beauty, on par with the best in painting, literature and music. DV, however, has built-in limitations: depth of field is crap, actors look pasty, and when someone tries to shoot it as though it's a typical film, it's invariably looks amateur, not unlike a home movie. The best and smartest filmmakers working with DV don't try to cover these problems up; they accept them, use the limitations as their strong point. Ever sit in the front row of Attack of the Clones? Ewan's makeup is noticeable, the movement is off-putting and the whole thing looks like it was shot by some random dude who just happens to have a multi-million CGI outfit at his beck and call.

Cynically lazy, borderline incompetent, sporting negligible and incident-free plots, with dead spaces that could be called Warholian if only they featured mugging "Superstars," a great deal of Indiewood is without a doubt fathoms below the most hopelessly convoluted serial killer movie of the month. It is with existential dread that I sit through them whenever I have to. This is not to say that all of Indiewood or DIY is like this; I'm going chiefly on the films 200 American and Inescapable, as well as a couple others I've had to endure over the years. (And docs, by and large, are the exception to the rule.) I leave you with this thought, given to me by a friend: "The one thing an artist has to understand is that someone has to sit through this piece of shit."

(Then again, this is a very long rant, written from the top of my head. Calling the kettle black, no?)

Addendum, many hours later...
Feel like I should point out a couple things about this, easily my most angry tirade yet posted. First off, the get-a-thesaurus count breaks down like this:
variations on the word:
lazy = 4
cynical = 2
limitation = 2
incompetent = 2
Also, just in case people were in doubt over this entry's rant-like qualities, I went and made sure people knew I was railing against a genre of film almost no one sees - twice. What's more, I disobeyed one of my cardinal rules, given to me (second-hand) by an estimable rock critic: don't squash a fly with a sledgehammer (or something like that). I'm assuming I meant it all as constructive criticism. On the other hand, these people just ain't even trying. So, at least in this case, to hell with the fly-sledgehammer aphorism. This is the closest I'll ever come to proclaiming "Don't quit your day job," and I'm leaving it up, un-edited.

But in reality, I'm a wimp. Sorry if I offended any lo-fi-ers.


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