This week marks the theatrical release of Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs and New York City has been taking notice. First, there have been the commendable and tireless efforts of Matt Dentler, whose energy and enthusiasm in helping spread the word about Hannah are significant. In a terrific piece of marketing, Matt’s interviews with the Hannah team were farmed out to film bloggers of all stripes, and his piece for indieWIRE this weekend goes a long way toward giving the history of these films to those unfamiliar with them. The strategy appears to have paid dividends. This week, pieces in the New York Times, Village Voice, and a (hilariously) regrettable piece of nonsense in the New York Post have continued the conversation about Joe Swanberg’s Hannah, and Andrew Bujalski and Aaron Katz’s terrific films, all of which will be showing up in the coming weeks at the IFC Center. The The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y series has the feeling of a legitimate cinematic event, with an Apple Store panel, a highly anticipated party, and a lot of buzz for films that have become the talk of the town this August.
Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs
What has been most interesting for me has been the long-term project to name and define this community of filmmakers. What has been most frustrating in watching this process has been the way in which the need to define and, frankly, pigeonhole the movies has limited a critical discussion of the movies as individual works by individual filmmakers, all of whom seem to be responding in unique ways to our cultural moment (although many of them from the same cultural perspective).
Yeah, yeah, yeah; There is a lot of talk right now, but how many people have seen the films? How to put things into proper perspective? Let’s look back.
Talking about this new grassroots community in American movies, two concepts and traditions that seem most applicable to me which rarely get more than a mention; The D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself, for those not familiar with the lingo) music movement of the late 1970’s/ early 1980’s (which seems to be the focal reference of the IFC Center’s title) and media analysis, written back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, on the “coming impact of the digital film making revolution”. Before discussing the films themselves, I think it is critical to understand the ways in which D.I.Y. and film history have provided models for these filmmakers to create their movies and to develop this emerging community.
For me, Generation D.I.Y. began in the late 1970’s and ended officially when Nevermind made it big, and in my estimation, the loose, grassroots network of musicians and bands that formed the American hardcore punk rock scene of that era provides a mirror image of the film making community that is blossoming today. Which is to say, there are pockets of individual artists and film making communities in American cities that are loosely affiliated, made up of couch-crashing, cross-country road-tripping friends, who support and create with one another in what is essentially a grassroots network. In the same way that Washington, D.C., Athens, GA, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Seattle harbored bands in the post-punk era, Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Austin, TX provide a national network of artists who use new tools to write scripts, shoot and edit movies, and get them on the film festival circuit (which serves as a micro-distribution solution for many of these movies.) Simply put, the idea seems to be to make your movie, take it on the road to get it seen, meet up with like-minded colleagues, watch one another’s films and then get back to work on the next project; The punk rock ethic in a nutshell.
Ry Russo-Young’s Orphans
Of course, once this grassroots community intersects with more mainstream media, the impulse to define and categorize begins to assert itself and all sorts of lame names and debates begin to arise; Which films fit in this “category”? Who is “in” the “group” and who is “out”? In the case of the New York media, the immediate reaction is to understand the films and artists in the same way they always have, by labeling everyone as a part of a ‘scene’ (think East Village in the early 1980’s, Williamsburg in the early 2000’s, ad nauseum) and to de-emphasize the national scope of the work and its historical ties to similar film making communities. J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim do a nice job of giving some context (especially Hoberman’s ‘No Wave’ and Brackage references), but references to Andrew Bujalski’s use of 16 mm film aside, both writers tend to focus on the obvious similarities instead of individual artistic visions behind the films. In truth, none of this talk ever seems relevant when looking at the films themselves, despite the aesthetic similarities (more on this later) and the fact that you’ll see familiar faces on screen and familiar names in the credits. It may be an overstatement to compare many of these films to other grassroots cinematic movements, but the one thought that comes to my mind is how diverse the artists of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ or the ‘No Wave’ movements really are. And yet, the labeling impulse was there, too. Not to compare apples to oranges, but maybe it’s simply too much to ask to resist this desire to contain everything under a single name and fold things together.
Which is a shame, because behind the labels and the grossly unfair ‘exceptions’ that have been employed by critics seems to be a bit of selective prejudice; The “straight white male” label in particular is grating to me, simply because it dismisses the superiority of the roles and films by women in this community (who serve on all creative levels, from producers and writers to actors and directors), it negates films like Craig Zobel’s Great World Of Sound, Zack Godshall’s Low And Behold, So Yong Kim’s In Between Days and David Gordon Green’s films, and also because that same level of scrutiny is never leveled at Godard, Truffaut or someone like Kenneth Anger (I guess we‘ll never see Truffaut’s ‘lesbian of color’ film). Instead, the criticism can, I think, be read as a coded dig at the class issues that are on full display in many of these films; The characters are primarily urban creative types who don’t do much in terms of work (and when they do, the work is generally artistic in nature), who spend a great deal of time partying and who almost never speak a political word (again, Zobel and and Godshall seem the exceptions.)
There is, without question, a political apathy inherent in most of the films from this moment that separates them from their historical models. The activist agendas on display in other D.I.Y. movements (e.g. punk rock’s rejection of Reganomics and American consumer culture or the New Queer Cinema’s outrage at inaction over AIDS) seem far too serious for Andrew Bujalski or Joe Swanberg’s films; They instead focus on a culture of young people who are divested from formal political activity, but who instead choose to live outside of the social and cultural conventions of mainstream America. It is as if the world of American politics was so poisoned and irrational that the mere mention would weigh down the films with an unbearable responsibility; Truthfully, how can any of us confront this conflict in our own lives? If you can’t articulate the entirety of a problem as large as America with a capital ‘A’, living a life that rejects all the things you despise about the world around you might make up for all of the things you can’t find the words to say.
Aaron Katz’s Quiet City
Besides, isn’t this one of the fundamental aesthetic connections between the films in this emerging community, a verbal inarticulateness and an almost essential self-denial that instead manifests itself through contradictory action? If there is one element that all of the films have in common, it is that despite every character’s best intention to outwardly conform to their understanding of their friends and lover’s expectations, their unspeakable inner-desires win out every time. And for me, that makes these films entirely in tune with the American moment and makes each one a unique document unto itself; These are films about the struggle of self-compromise, which is fundamentally political in today’s America. The examples are innumerable; Hannah‘s selfish need to be loved as the star of her own life constantly upends her attempts to be a loving person herself in Hannah Takes The Stairs, the obvious yet barely articulated attraction between Jamie and Charlie that provides the narrative thrust in Quiet City, the unspoken desire for acceptance and family between Sonia and Rosie in Ry Russo-Young’s Orphans, Martin’s recognition of the immorality of his work and his refusal to act upon it which provides the central conflict in Great World Of Sound, Maggie’s internalized self-criticism and her longing to be accepted for who she is in Pretty In The Face, Ellie’s attraction to Alan causing her to hurt her lover in Mutual Appreciation, Alan reliance on daddy’s money in to fulfill his rock star dreams in the same film, Scott’s stuttering inability to conquer his addictions and be the person he wants to be in Cocaine Angel, Josh and Emily’s inability to save their relationship in The Puffy Chair despite their obvious affection, and the grande dame of unspoken desire, Marnie, the heroine of Funny Ha Ha who begins the movie in a drunken attempt to procure a tattoo she doesn’t really seem to want and heads downhill from there.
Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha
The inability of characters to confront their inner desires, desires which are clear to any attentive audience, is the thrust of any great drama and is what makes the films feel connected and universal. This conflict between action and desire was grist for someone like Buñuel, who took desire and made into grand, anti-authoritarian absurdity. That absurdity has become far more intimate in the global age; The world around us feels completely out of our control, and despite the use of tools like the internet, which seem to make the world a smaller place, access to information now overwhelms us. Interestingly, many commentators on the films mention the internet and websites like MySpace as being integral to the film making community’s concerns, but if anything, films like Swanberg’s LOL and the Young American Bodies series show the personal disconnect that the internet has inspired; The access to information and online connectivity only seems to heighten the distances between us, to create more longing.
Nate Meyer’s Pretty In The Face
What grassroots cinema in America seems to be responding to is the repression of desire at the hands of a peculiar sense of helplessness, where the authority of personal feelings and intimate relationships has replaced the external authority of institutions and big politics. And like Kafka’s characters, caught in the machinations of external forces beyond their comprehension and control, the characters in these quintessentially American movies are confronting a similar conflict inside of themselves, where action and emotion are dissonant forces without any knowable resolution. Life has no right answer, no matter how hard we wish for one.
Craig Zobel’s Great World Of Sound
This plays directly on the stylistic choices that many of these films employ, most notably the understated use of music and the hand-held close-up, which seems to underscore the deeply-felt, insecure sense of longing at the heart of these movies. Of course, not all of the films adhere to this principle or, when they do, they refuse to play by the rules; Aaron Katz’s use of exterior master shots in Quiet City or Ry Russo-Young’s isolated, frozen landscapes in Orphans being the best examples of creating absolutely lovely harmony between their intimate stories and the environments in which they flourish. Still, it seems again unfair to take exception to the hand-held/interiors/close-up aesthetic here without mentioning the history of a small movie that immediately comes to mind for me; Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity. When that film was released in 2002, it was the heat of the DV moment; Blair Witch had made hundreds of millions of dollars in 1999, Dancer In The Dark closed the New York Film Festival after big wins in Cannes in 2000 and Spike Lee had released Bamboozled, which inspired a long debate about the look and feel of digital video in the theaters.
Enter Personal Velocity which, no matter what critics said about its storytelling, garnered unanimous praise for cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ use of close-up. This, we were told, was using the technology to its best effect; Small stories, told in close-up (so as not to expose the technology’s limitations in wide shots and exteriors) that echoed the intimate nature of the film’s subject matter. Let’s look at a few:
“Filmmakers looking to master the no-budget digital video movie — which has morphed into a new and often visually tacky subgenre — need look no further than Personal Velocity,’ where Ellen Kuras’s cinematography possesses delicacy and freshness. Ms. Kuras understands first and foremost that there’s no point in trying to pretend that digital video is the same as film. Nor does she light Velocity in a way that awkwardly tries to replicate film, a fool’s errand. Instead she uses the strengths of digital and wisely chooses to go smaller; she shoots the picture as if it were hand-painted, an intimacy that complements the writer and director Rebecca Miller’s script and handling of her actors.” –Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times
“Much has been made of the Sundance award-winning cinematography by Ellen Kuras, because it is digital, and cheerfully makes that obvious. No doubt the quickness and economy of digital made the film possible. But I didn’t much think about the cinematography while watching the film–or if I did, I had the same thoughts I would have had while watching 35mm. My thoughts were focused on the characters. That is a compliment to Kuras and Miller.” –Roger Ebert
“The movie plays to the strengths of digital video. It’s intimate, fast-moving and free. Action moves in and out of the tightly framed shots. The visual techniques are nice too, and they seem distantly experimental yet matched to the story and the footage around them. We see action go by, for example, in a series of slide-show stills that offer us freeze-frame characters trapped in a series of moments.” –Jeff Stark, Salon.com
“Texturally, pic has an off-the-cuff feel that nicely externalizes impulsive states of mind; Ellen Kuras’ DV lensing is often momentarily blinded by glare, as if squinting along with protags not at all sure where they stand.”—Dennis Harvey, Variety
I’ve never seen the cinematography of a film mentioned as many times as Ellen Kuras’ work on Personal Velocity (even notoriously video-loathing Roger Ebert enjoyed it), but digital video was of the moment and the message seemed loud and clear; Small, personal stories are the forte of the medium. All of the talk back then was about how these digital cameras and editing systems were revolutionizing the way in which artists were making films; You couldn’t pick up an issue of any film making magazine without long pieces on how digital video was going to democratize film making and change movies as we know them. Soon, very soon, they said. Five years later, the American grassroots cinema seems to be the beginnings of a fulfillment of that promise. And now, the criticisms of no-budget digital video are re-born, to the point where the stories are neglected by some and individual film making styles ignored for the sake of a manageable definition of the group as a whole.
Michael Tully’s Cocaine Angel
For me, none of that matters. What does matter is that people like Ry Russo-Young, Craig Zobel, Aaron Katz, Nate Meyer, Frank V. Ross, Jay and Mark Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Michael Tully, Zack Godshall, David Gordon Green, Alex Karpovsky, Todd Rohal and Andrew Bujalski are recognized for their accomplishments as artists, love them or hate them, rather than whether shooting with a script using 35 mm makes your movie in or out of the OED definition of grassroots cinema. If you need to know one thing, know this; If, on any given night in America, there is room on the couch, if someone needs a camera operator or an actor, if a script needs reviewing or a computer crashes and footage needs to be edited, I know that all of these artists would be there to help one another out. In the end, the auteur theory lives on in a collaborative network of very talented people, but each is his or her own creative talent, instantly recognizable. My hope is that audiences give them all the chance to prove it.