Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seinfeld's Spawn

The Maryland Film Festival 2010 has come and gone. Those folks do an incredible job organizing. I got to see 10 features and a whole lot of shorts (which you only really get to see these days at Festivals).

I’m not sure how representative the films are of the current independent film scene, but my sense is they represent.

That said, two basic stories—more like situations—emerged: the dysfunctional family and young, post-grads lost. In a few cases, they merge.These films also are constructed on a spare narrative and formal scaffolding that somewhat advances the mumblecore moment (see my blog "A Semester's Surprise," 12/18/09). Like Seinfeld, these films are largely about nothing. Well, they are about something, but that something is very small, very “present.”

I think these indies are to mainstream Hollywood what the French New Wave was to the established French cinema of the late 1950s: both demonstrated that there is a very different way to tell a story cinematically.

The stories these indies tell all but abandon—with abandon—the structural guideposts of classical storytelling; in other words, cause does not necessarily lead to an effect. There isn’t really always a cause. Effects often occur on their own, suddenly. Characters are not particularly fleshed out, but you sort get a sense of who they are from the time you spend with them (do we ever really know people, anyway?) Many are engaging, at some level, and others you want to smack in the head. Repeatedly. Endings seem to occur when the film—or tape—runs out. Ambiguous and often confusing, the final credits roll over furrowed eyebrows and a fair share of “Hmmm”s.

If these stories have any common thread, it is that they articulate the concept that lives don’t follow scripts. Things most often happen randomly and don’t always make sense or relate to anything else. And there are no Hollywood endings in life. No nicely wrapped up storylines with issues resolved and character changes in place.

Films about nothing. And everything. Audiences seemed very enthusiastic.

My wife asked, “Are they tedious”? The answer depends on what you think a movie should be about.

And how you think they should look and sound.

Imagine sitting in a stranger’s living room, but they don’t see you. You are a voyeur. They are un-selfconscious. You watch them interact much like you’d watch a tennis match were you seated at center court. Just turning your head from one to the other as they talk. Not a lot of cuts. No dissolves or fades. Often not even a tripod.

I tell my students that bad sound will ruin an otherwise good film. The sound in these indies is great. In fact, the technical achievement for relatively low-budget films is impressive. You can tell great time has been taken on lighting, finding locations, set design (when the set isn’t someone’s actual living space, untouched generally).

In these indies, things do happen. Confrontations occur. Interactions unwind. Much of these stories are about young people in their twenties trying to figure out where they belong in the world, how they relate to other people. There are hookups. Often rather graphic. But as I’ve noted in an earlier blog on mumblecore’s first lady (to me, anyway), Greta Gerwig, the nudity and sexual intimacies are not really lewd; they’re just sort of ... there. The whole thing is voyeuristic, again, like we’ve walked in on people who thought they were alone.

They act as if no one was watching. No affect. No filter on language or action. That’s how I’d describe the acting. It’s The Method without affect. Actors don’t act to appear natural, they’re just natural.

Filmmakers often play the leads in their films. They often are telling their own story, sort of. In Tiny Furniture, director-writer Lena Dunham tells the story of a 22-year-old who returns to her Tribeca home following her graduation from Oberlin College. What will she do? How will she integrate herself into a family that consists of an artist mother and a brilliant high school senior sister? Dunham stars as a character that is herself, and her real mother and real sister play the character’s mother and sister. In their real apartment. (Funny moment: in the Q&A after the film, someone asked Lena how the production designer created such a cold, ultra-modern living space, to which Lena laughed and said, “That’s where we live.”)

In Bass Akwards (pictured above), we peek in on Linas (played by filmmaker Linas Phillips) as he goes on a road trip from the west coast to his parent’s Boston home to regroup after a messy patch with his married lover and no real direction. Phillips get in his car with some friends and ... they take a road trip. He meets three interesting people along the way. But their interactions don’t accumulate in meaning for some thematic revelation. At film’s end it’s just Linas finally stopping for a bit at the New York apartment of one of the guys he met on the road. Then the film just sort of stops (hmmmm).

OK, so, you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I did, mostly. There were a couple I didn’t like or didn’t think worked, even within the context of what I’ve described. That said, these films are refreshing narratives, small films by emerging talents. But you have to see them for yourself because you either like this sort of film or you don’t.

In the next blog, I’ll take a look at a few specific films.


  1. This will become our "Go-To" source. Thoroughly enjoyed your comments about the festival and the Fellini class.

    Your comment about "sound" is definitely true. Know you didn't see Earthling at the festival but the sound was horrible. It seemed like no one ever spoke above a whisper. The film was an attempt to redo "Aliens" but more intelligently. (Does that make sense?) Anyway, that made it complicated and when you couldn't hear it only made it worse.

    Take care,


  2. From what you described, I wish I'd caught Tiny Furniture. It was next on my list of things to see and sounds interesting.

    So, Putty Hill, which we touched on in person. I was wondering if you thought that the uneven, and occasionally inaudible sound in it was on purpose, or the result of a amateur filmmaker dealing with an also amateur sound mixer? Or maybe both, perhaps they compensated for being handicapped in that area, thought it jived with their aesthetic, and let it go. I have yet to see Hamilton so I don't know if that is an aesthetic that was carried over or not. Like I mentioned, I didn't care for the film overall. But I feel it warrants discussion, and for that Matt Porterfield must have done something right.

  3. Great review of the MFF films that you saw, Steve! In fact, it helped me to put into focus my own impressions of the films I enjoyed (mostly) at the festival. On the other hand, I still prefer more depth in films, more character development, better editing, well-written scripts, beautiful cinematography, some sort of redemption or message, etc. I want to see films that are memorable; films that won't leave me, but shake me up enough to make me really look at life around me or new cultures or new issues or new ideas, etc. Six months from now, I believe the only MFF 2010 films I'll really remember clearly are "12th and Delaware" and "Putty Hill." I guess there can't be a "The Hurt Locker" at every festival.

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