A Case for Joe Swanberg

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg at reRun Gastropub at screening of SILVER BULLETS; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Joe Swanberg has been the subject of debate pretty much since his first movie, “Kissing on the Mouth”, debuted in 2005.  His subsequent films, along with those of Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers became the movement known as mumblecore.  The term was a result of the relative lo-fi camera work and sound; and the films were, for a couple of seasons, a topic of much rancor among the indie film community.  Mumblecore, as a genre —or sub-genre— has already given way to the more accurately  monikered microbudget film.  The term mumblecore is not very relevant any more since most filmmakers, even those operating at a threadbare budget, know that to hire a sound guy is what could very well distinguish their film from looking amateur.  Crisp and clear dialogue puts the audience member in the center of the story and does not feel as though they are merely watching a cheap movie.  Cheap movies are fine, in other words, but you still need to get lost in them.

When “Hannah Takes The Stairs” debuted in 2007, it changed the game for Swanberg.  Up to that stage his films had been mostly ignored by anyone not subscribing to Sundance or SxSW.  “Hannah”, was a hit with audiences and, to some degree, critics.  As Matt Zoller Seitz said in his New York Times review, calling “Hannah” a evolutionary entry in the so-called Do It Yourself (D. I. Y.) independent film movement.”  So, producers and agents came calling but Swanberg rejected their offers.  As he explained to a spare audience at the reRun Gastropub in DUMBO last night, he soon with through a phase after that regretting his decision.  He saw his peers taking those steps towards commercial success (eg. “Greenberg”, “Cyrus”, etc.) and wondered if he hadn’t blundered.  After a less than wonderful experience collaborating with filmmaker/producer Noah Baumbach on “Alexander The Last”, Swanberg re-calibrated and realized that he was not a commercial filmmaker and D.I.Y. was, indeed, the right way. Read more

Filmwax screening of LITTLE MOTH

This Sunday, October 30th, 6pm, The Filmwax Film Series will be screening the 2nd of 4 Chinese films in partnership with dGenerate Films.  dGenerate, run by producer Karin Chien, distributes non-government sanctioned films here in the U.S. and other points West.  Last Sunday, 10/23, we screened “Super, Girls!” directed by Jian Yi which was followed by an engaging Q&A with New York Asian Film Festival co-founder and programmer, Grady Hendrix.  This Sunday, the film is “Little Moth” directed by Peng Tao a lovely dramatic fiction film.  The guest speaker will be Chinese film scholar and dGenerate blogger, Maya Rudolph.  There is a suggested donation of $10.  Proceeds from ticket sales are being sent back to China to benefit the filmmakers, who are in need of… well, benefits.


DOC NYC Back for a Second Season

New York’s fall documentary festival is back for a second year, with galas “Into the Abyss”, “Lemon” and “The Island President” and a tribute to cinéma vérité pioneer Richard Leacock.

It’s great to catch a film festival at its beginning. It has a vitality similar to that of a young child. Along with that creative energy usually comes some growing pains, but those can be fun to witness as well.

DOC NYC, which starts its second year on Wednesday, November 2, 2011, and goes through November 10, enjoyed an exceptionally strong debut season last year, including a couple of titans of the documentary world. Werner Herzog offered an advance screening of his 3-D French movie, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, and another event of note was Errol Morris’ “Tabloid”, perhaps more memorable for the post-screening Q&A where an uninvited Joyce McKinney, Morris’ main subject, inserted herself most vocally into the proceedings.

A still from Werner Herzog's new film INTO THE ABYSS

The gala films at 2011 DOC NYC are “Into the Abyss”, “The Island President”, “Lemon”. Richard Leacock gets the retrospective treatment.

This year’s season is less star-studded but hardly less interesting. Herzog, in an exceptionally prolific mode these days, returns with his latest film called Into the Abyss. His film, a Sundance Selects title, once again opens the festival. The movie concerns Michael James Perry who, like a character out of In Cold Blood or Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line”, is on death row in Conroe, Texas (“The capital murder capital of the world”). Herzog, who always remains off-camera, interviews his subjects just once, including Mr. Perry, who is only eight days from being executed by lethal injection. Read more

INTERVIEW with Alma Har’el

Alma Har’el is a commercial and music video director whose first feature film, the documentary “Bombay Beach”, was named Best Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

The film focuses on the impoverished but cinematic Southern Californian outpost of the same name, with Har’el giving it some context by aiming her camera, vérité-style, at a few of its denizens, including a hyperactive 7-year-old child (Benny), his family, and CeeJay, an ambitious teenager who escaped the drugs and violence of his Los Angeles home to “make it” here. Har’el also collaborated with her subjects to incorporate dance sequences, giving the film an otherworldly dimension that inexplicably feels right.

Adam Schartoff: Bombay Beach presents a real relationship between people and place. Was that something you were conscious of creating from the start?

Alma Har’el, director of “Bombay Beach”: You know, I talk a lot but I’m really not that cerebral when it comes to making art. What you’re describing wasn’t something I thought about during the process of making the film, but with some distance, yes, it is like that

When I first visited Bombay Beach I was very much drawn to something that I know from being an Israeli, from my own past. I can relate to a place on the outskirts of society where there was once a promise and turned out very violent and disappointing to many people. But it’s a place that you live as a kid that has a history that you will never really comprehend. You might not care, though people will tell you what it used to be like. And then that mythology that sort of gets build up. Benny (one of the film’s primary subjects) touches on this when he talks about having been in jail for 100 years. He might not even know what jail is, perhaps. He’s only seven. He knows his parents were in jail but he says he was in jail. He even describes it, how it has scorpions and there’s nothing to do, no food, no television. That got to me. I was grappling with the same idea about creating a mythology that is, in fact, quite broken. The thing about Bombay Beach was that it was some place that really showed that, and I wouldn’t have to say anything or explain it. You don’t need a narrator to tell you. Every frame tells a story in that place. Read more

film review: MELANCHOLIA

While the planets may not have aligned so well for director Lars Von Trier at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where he was made persona non grata, his new film, “Melancholia” seems to be faring much better. An end of days tale, the film plays out in two distinct sections. After an otherworldly extended prologue (which has garnered an occasional ovation at festival screenings), the movie moves on to its first chapter, the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) with Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). The wedding is extraordinarily lavish taking place at the sprawling mansion and grounds of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (a very good Kiefer Sutherland). A small bright celestial entity appears and disappears in the night sky.

Over the course of the wedding, a clinically depressed Justine sinks further and further into a state of despair. Her circumstances are not helped by her cold removed mother (Charlotte Rampling), her clownish removed father (John Hurt) or her morally corrupt boss, Jack. Jack (Alexander’s Dad, Stellan), the deviously ambitious owner of an advertising firm where Justine works, pursues her throughout the wedding for a hook line on a new ad campaign. Justine is surrounded by toxicity and feels compelled to sabotage her own wedding. Read more

INTERVIEW with Danfung Dennis

Danfung Dennis is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Time and Newsweek, to name a few. With “Hell and Back Again”, a documentary that follows a Marine sergeant from combat in Afghanistan to his transition back to North Carolina, Dennis makes his debut as a filmmaker.

Adam Schartoff, P.O.V.: How long have you been a war photographer?

Danfung Dennis, director of “Hell and Back Again”: My dad gave me my first camera when I was 13. I had studied applied economics in school but made an abrupt change to photography. I started woking in 2005 as a photojournalist. I still remember opening the book Inferno by James Nachtwey. The images were photos he shot in various conflicts over a period of 30 years. It seared into my consciousness. He was bearing witness, showing the mistakes we were making and reminding us not to repeat them. Shooting these inhumanities was a moral act on his part — images could impact people and change how they think.

Schartoff: When did you get the idea to start making documentaries?

Dennis: After a few years I felt my work wasn’t really having any impact. I felt that as a society we’ve become so inundated with still images, that they weren’t having the same impact they once did. So I wanted to take the same ideas that still images had but bring it to the new medium of filmmaking. So I brought a Canon 5D, began shooting high-quality video. I wanted to meld the ethics and methods of photojournalism with documentary filmmaking — to be an observer and let events unfold in front of the lens.

Schartoff: What kind of impact did the death of Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”) have on you?

Dennis: Tim was an inspirational figure. He was our prince. He pioneered storytelling in so many ways. And he pushed the boundaries of film and in media in general. He was so artful in the way he made mass communication. He really inspired me and his loss was deeply, deeply saddening. In my own small way, I hope to continue his work and to honor his legacy.

Schartoff: The film is definitely not pedantic in any way but you still can’t help but read the anti-war message. Did you ever discuss the tone with Sgt. Harris?

Dennis: We actually never talked about politics. I think it’s this unspoken rule among soldiers. They were there to be professionals and to execute their orders. You’re fighting for the men around you and so you can get home. The bigger picture never came up. I never sat down with Nathan about what he thought of the war, or the film for that matter. He never saw any footage until it was finished. He trusted me to tell his story.

Schartoff: And what was your way in to “Hell and Back Again”?

Dennis: In 2009 I was embedded with the Echo Company during a very large offensive. This was a key operation to break the military stalemate that we had reached in Afghanistan. Echo Company was dropped behind enemy lines, and shortly after landing they were surrounded and attacked on all sides. The fighting was mainly focused around this pile of rubble which became known as Machine Gun Hill. That was the first day and one Marine was killed, and others collapsed from exhaustion. It was at that time when I met Sgt. Nathan Harris.

Schartoff: What were your initial thoughts about Sgt. Harris?

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