LAIFF: Digital Video West, from the Personal to the Derivative
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE/4.19.2000) -- To no one's surprise, Digital Video made an easy segue way into the 6th annual Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and proved that despite rumors to the contrary, the entire independent film community has not gone digital. In fact, of the twenty-six features shown, only two were digital and only one of them ("first, last and deposit") was actually projected digitally.
Festival-goers seemed less interested in the burgeoning not-so new medium of DV but rather in how they could shoot DV for the price of DV and make it look exactly like film. (This was aided in no small part by George Lucas' announcement the week prior that he plans to shoot the new "Star Wars" insiallment with Panavision's 24p digital camera.) Luckily, the festival's DV films had no such preoccupations, as they all look unmistakably like video.
Most striking among them was Scott Saunders' much-anticipated short "This Close to Nothing." Saunders' showing came on the heels of his being named one of Daily Variety's "10 Digital Filmmakers to Watch" and is his first completed project since "The Headhunter's Sister" (1997). Not content with using DV for solely economic reasons, Saunders develops a very modern video piece almost inconceivable, or at least substantially more difficult, in the old days of celluloid. Vaguely reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wei, "This Close to Nothing" is about many things (cybersex, infidelity, vagrancy) but ultimately about nothing but rhythm, performance and of course, DV. As Hitchcock said, "Do nothing, but do it well."
A healthy dose of irony came by way of Kodak's rather desperate "Only on Film" ads which were then followed by films shot entirely with DV cameras. The standing room only Next Wave Films seminar also provided a great teaser for Michael Rehfield's "Big Monday" a real-time black and white DV film (predating Mike Figgis' "Time Code") that can currently be seen at other festivals but not the LAIFF. The other DV seminar, fronted by Scott Stewart of The Orphanage was actually more entertaining though far less populated.
Partners Stewart, Stuart Maschwitz and Jonathan Rothbart, cut their teeth doing digital effects at ILM and are now bringing helicopters and high-tech carnage to their own low-budget DV shorts. Stewart didn't seem to be addressing the Dogme95-inspired artistes but rather the low-rent John Woos out there. Clips showcased The Orphanage's own work (including stuff from "Mission Impossible" and "Twister") alongside quieter, more intimate snippets like Ethan Hawke's DV feature "Last Word on Paradise," produced by Killer Films and Independent Digital Entertainment (InDigEnt) and starring Uma Thurman, Kevin Corrigan and Steve Zahn.
On the documentary front, Michel Negroponte (another of the Variety Ten) brought along "W.I.S.O.R.," a doc about a robot designed to repair New York City's steam system. An attempt to humanize a robot (HAL anyone?), the film comes off a bit cold and over-edited. Someone asked me if I didn't like it because it was too scientific. I told them that if I said yes that would make me sound pretty stupid, right? Oh well, I never liked NOVA either.
Next Wave also weighed in with the Holocaust doc "Fighter," about two Czech-Jewish survivors who retrace their steps through Europe. Taking a page from Alain Resnais' train track obsession in "Night and Fog," one of the survivors actually looks down at the tracks he had helped build, chuckling amazingly, without knowing at the time that they led to Auschwitz. The joy of director Amir Bar-Lev's work is the utter unobtrusiveness of it all. While more and more fiction filmmakers are turning to DV to capture the intimacies of life relationships, Bar-Lev proves that DV is not only economically advantageous but also aesthetically preferable for doc filmmakers. The film recalls none of the formalistic rigor of Errol Morris or the above-mentioned Resnais work, and the informality (loosely shot and edited) is a wonderful antithesis to so many button-pushing Holocaust pieces.
Meanwhile, fiction feature director Peter Hyoguchi's "first, last and deposit" uses DV as so many filmmakers in the past have used 16 mm film, as the bare bones means to a personal film. Hyoguchi does little but record reality, though his palm-sized Sony PC10 (Mini DV) gets him places that would be impossible with film cameras and allows obscured location filming. "first, last and deposit" echoes the themes of Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," but it comes off as more of a mix of Mexican soap opera and Iranian New Wave. We've got homelessness, teenage angst, mother-daughter relationship and last but not least, junior high school peppered melodrama which at times feels of hokum. While far from a great film, "first last deposit's" coup de grace is its underlying truth. Hyoguchi is not making "an American Rosetta" but draws from something deeper and more personal, embodied with dignity and fragility by Jessica White, his young subject.
Perhaps the biggest splash at LAIFF will also be the festival's largest cross to bear. "The St. Francisville Experiment" was picked up pre-festival by Trimark and already transferred to a 35-mm print, even if its DV origins are readily apparent. Four "participants," all armed with DV cameras go into a haunted house in order to photograph the ghosts. While festival programmers pitched it as part "X-Files" and part "Scooby Doo," there is no mistaking that the inspiration begins and ends with "Blair Witch." (Who was it that said the only difference between a rip-off and an homage is time?) If the premise doesn't sound similar enough, "Blair Witch"'s ingenious use of home video equipment and handheld amateur aesthetic is copied as well.
There are differences of course, as St. Francisville's ghost yarn is inspired by the "true" mythology surrounding Madame LaLaurie's French Quarter home cum ex-slave torture chamber. Furthermore, the characters here take themselves less seriously (one keeps reminding himself, and the spirits, aloud that he "loves ghosts") and their vernacular extends beyond variations of the word "fuck." While the film is far too derivative of "Blair Witch" to earn any points for creativity, it remains a mildly entertaining diversion. That said, LAIFF might have found a commercially successful benchmark to hold up as validation of its importance. However, is a low-budget knock-off that reeks of carpetbagging really what they want to stand for?
[Ryan Mottesheard is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]