While prepping for an American Pavilion Q & A with Cam Archer and David Robert Mitchell, writer-directors of two micro-budget indies, one film put me to sleep while the other didn’t.
I fought to stay alert during Archer’s sophomore feature Shit Year (Director’s Fortnight), a non-linear black-and-white 16 mm meditation on a retired actress (Ellen Barkin) who goes loony when stripped of her anchoring identity. “I made 35 movies in 30 years,” she says. “Being someone else can be very addictive. It’s funny how familiar being a stranger can be.” She later wails, “I am surrounded by a world of nothing. How can something become nothing?” The movie is incantatory, narcoleptic, as Archer uses long, static shots. Many folks walked out at my screening.
On the other hand, I was completely engaged by rookie David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover (Critics’ Week), which is a deceptively simple reworking of the American Graffiti trope: a bunch of high school kids at summer’s end seek connection. Shot on the Red digital camera in a Detroit suburb, the film lacks intellectual depth or rich dialogue, but Mitchell immerses you in the lives and slow minutia of these kids (well-played by an ensemble of unknowns–Claire Sloma is the break-out), shows them reacting to each other, looking, hoping, touching. Developed while Mitchell was studying film at Florida State, the film took seven years to reach the screen.
Archer, who is a post-grad production instructor at UC Santa Cruz, is playing with surrealist imagery–he’s no Maya Deren–and such films as Un Chien Andalou, Repulsion and Sunset Boulevard, among others. The central image of a menacing shadow in the trees came to him in a dream (and he played the figure himself). He scored big-time–and he knows it–when he landed Ellen Barkin for his movie. Fractured and disjunctive, the narrative is carried along by a voice-over by Rickie Lee Jones, who bears no relation to anything.
Of course, one movie is stylized, purposefully artificial. Barkin gives a bravura “performance.” The other is naturalistic, seeking to pull the viewer into an authentically “real” world. I guessed that Mitchell was trained as an editor; he expertly manipulates the ebbs and flows of various groups of kids on bikes, in cars, moving, walking, boating, and a boy and a girl sitting close on a bobbing float on a dark lake, feet dangling in the water, tingling with anticipation of a first kiss.
Both directors recognize the challenges of forging a career in the current indie marketplace. For Archer, it’s simple. He knows he’ll be teaching for a living, making art films on the side. He doesn’t expect to make money with his filmmaking. Ever. He just wants the movies to be seen, somehow, and he’s eager to try alternative modes of digital distribution. Mitchell, on the other hand, holds hope for finding a more mainstream future as a director, and wants his films to be seen in theaters, if possible. He just wants the ability to keep on working, at whatever level he can manage. A bigger budget and more production time would help. Shooting commercials? Even that option seems very far away.
[Photos: Mitchell and Archer in Cannes; Ellen Barkin and Luke Grimes in Shit Year; AP Photo of Claire Soma in Cannes.]