Gregory Crewdson has been my favorite photographer since I saw an exhibit of photographs from Twilight a decade ago. Perhaps my expectations of Ben Shapiro’s documentary were accordingly a bit too high. Certainly there’s much here that I loved: plenty of shots of Crewdson and his team of both dedicated professionals and random passers-by creating the elaborate scenarios that Crewdson’s work documents. If you have a chance to see this film in a theatre, it also affords a better look at the rich detail of Crewdson’s work than you can get in a gallery, let alone from one of the monographs of his work. But while there’s ample demonstration of the physical process of realizing Crewdson’s singular visions, and some insightful discussion from the likes of authors Russell Banks and Rick Moody on what Crewdson’s images have to tell us, the energy that drives Crewdson’s mental processes remains obscure. Which is probably just as Crewdson wants it, but still just a touch disappointing.
This year’s animation package was marked by an extraordinary cohesiveness. Elements kept appearing in multiple films: whales, rabbits, briefcases, ominous low tones, visual and audio glitches. Oh, and darkness — this was an almost unrelievedly grim group of films.
Drew Christie’s “Song of the Spindle” is a short, pointed dialogue between a man and a sperm whale. It’s sharp and inventively realized. I liked it a lot.
Daniel Seideneder’s “Hurdy Gurdy” is stop motion piece with a surprising gimmick. It’s very appropriately scored, but I found it such a one-trick pony that it barely sustained it’s four-minute run time for me.
Julia Pott’s “Belly” provides a glimpse into a disturbing environment. It reminded me of Larry Marder’s Beanworld and the work of Jim Woodring, not in any specific detail, but in the sense of the pervasive strangeness of the internal logic of the invented world. One of my favorites.
The unusual techniques Dan Ojari brings to “Slow Derek” were arresting and unusual, but the story just didn’t grab me.
Alberto Vasquez and Pedro Rivero’s “Birdboy” offers some striking imagery, but again, the story failed to engage me.
Frederick Tremblay is probably tired of being compared to Jan Ŝvankmajer and the Brother’s Quay, but his disturbing stop-motion piece “Blanche Fraise” also powerfully, if elliptically called Lynch’s Eraserhead to mind. His claustrophobic, frightening vision is unique and compelling, and the sound design was brilliant. Most likely to give me nightmares of anything I’ve seen in the festival so far.
Chrstopher Kezelos’s “The Maker” present a sumptuously detailed environment and packs a creepy punch.
Kelly Sears “Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise” was the clear standout for me. An evocative narrative that see-saws between silly and scary is bolstered by a genuinely inventive and surprisingly restrained animation technique.
Don Hertzfeldt’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” feels a bit like two short films somewhat awkwardly joined by something I can’t discuss without getting spoiler-y. I’m less keen on the second portion. But the first section joins Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Peter Handke’s “The Left-Handed Woman,” and the works of Oliver Sacks among my favorite descriptions of misfiring brains. Some of the purely visual depictions of the symptoms associated with corpus callosum damage are stunning. This is e concluding third of a trilogy which I now very much want to see the rest of.
The first program of documentary shorts are all character studies.
Helen Hood Scheer’s brief piece “Full-time Ministry” engaged me least. It depicts an art teacher who views his creation of ice sculptures as a form of worship. The black & white cinematography was pretty and the sculpture process was interesting, but not compelling.
Igor Drljaca’s “The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar” is built around some astounding footage of the outbreak of civil war in Sarajevo. Powerful, but as the title suggests, it brings a very human and personal dimension to the impact of the conflict.
Tom and Jim Isler’s “Two’s a Crowd” was a knockout. It’s a surprising, very funny, and tender look at a couple with an unusual relationship dynamic. The chronology of the narrative arc is adroitly structured, and the editing is outstanding. This was my favorite film in the program.
Matt Lenski’s “The Meaning of Robots” starts weird, gets weirder, and then even weirder. It doesn’t provide any real insight into its subject, but it delivers a lot of shocks in its scant four minutes.
Jushua Weinstein’s “I Beat Mike Tyson” is a tough sell for me; I am not a fan of boxing. Weinstein’s portrait of Kevin McBride doesn’t shy from showing that the sport is not good for the men in it; McBride seems surprisingly gentle for a man who makes a living punching people. I liked it better than I expected to.
Ben Steinbauer’s “Brute Force” taught me about a musician I’d never heard of, even though he recorded for the Apple label. Nicely paced and structured; Makes me want to hear more.
The brilliantly titled “American Juggalo” reminded me of Jeff Krulik’s classic “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Director Sean Dunne and his crew wander around the Gathering of the Juggalos, letting them describe what Juggalohood means to them in their own words. It’s sharply edited and well-paced, by turns disturbing (even outright frightening), funny, and sometimes touching. I assumed it was shot before “Miracles” unveiled the kinder, gentler Insane Clown Posse, but apparently that’s not the case.
In Nate Meyer’s anti-rom-com Emmie (Robin Tunney) and Jason (Adam Scott) are former high school sweethearts who never really got over each other. An encounter with a producer of a reality show about reuniting couples threatens to destabilize both of their current relationships. It’s a funny film, but also a bit subversive; it challenges the valuation of relationships as commonly portrayed by Hollywood. Scott is (barely) charming enough to come off as not a total shitheel. I found it interesting and engaging but marred by a few problems. The relative ages of some of the characters seemed a bit off, and the husband-buys-her-a-life aspect of Emmie’s marriage was a bit off-putting (and not, it seemed to me, thematically necessary).
p.s. if you remember the title/artist for the song that played in the closing credits, please drop me a line or leave a comment. Thanks!
Andrew Bird, if you’ve somehow missed hearing him, is a songwriter and singer who whistles, plays violin, guitar, and assorted other instruments. After early experiences with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, he reinvented himself as a solo performing musician, constructing elaborate stacks of sound with multiple delay pedals in the mode pioneered by the likes of Les Paul and Robert Fripp. More recently, he’s reintroduced live musicians to his music, starting with percussionist/composer/fellow loop-builder Martin Dosh, and eventually expanding to something approaching a conventional rock band lineup.
He approached flimmaker and collaborator Xan Aranda with the goal of documenting his performance process, and she created something much farther reaching; a depiction of his creative process. The portrait that emerges is of an uncomfortably driven artist, touring incessantly despite the constant low-grade fever from which the film takes its title, and railing consistently against the tendency of music to calcify into unchanging forms.
Aranda deftly defies the expectations of the music documentary and the concert film. It centers around live performances — she described it in her introduction as “ten songs and a story, all true,” — but it has no pretense to linearity, let alone the documentation of a single event. It almost completely eschews biographical detail, providing no clue to the origins of the forces that push Bird so hard. At times it takes on the impressionistic qualities of a really good music video, with the visuals loosely coupled but thoroughly sympatico with the audio.
The music itself is beautifully recorded and some of the performances are jaw-dropping. I had to restrain myself from clapping in the middle of the screening. His motel room rehearsal of a duet with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and the smooth segué into live performance was stunning. (No clue what alchemy made a motel room sound so good. Maybe there was a classic ribbon mic just out of frame.) The suppleness with which the band tackles Bird’s don’t-let-the-song-get-stuck-in-a-rut approach also called Wilco to mind.
Although the film was Bird’s idea, he apparently doesn’t like it much, and no DVD release is currently planned. So your best bet to try to see it — which I decidedly recommend, most especially if you already enjoy Bird’s music — is to catch a screening as listed on the Andrew Bird: Fever year website. (It’s really worth seeing on a big screen anyway.)
In the Q&A session, Aranda discussed her next film, tentatively titled Mormon Movie, about her family’s experience in Mormon film studios, and her own experience with the faith. I’m really eager to see that, too.
I’d heard a few of (star/co-writer/co-director) Mike Birbiglia’s radio pieces for This American Life. They were hilarious, but since one of them centered around sleepwalking, I was a little worried that his movie might be disappointing because it would just rehash bits that I’d heard before. I should have had more faith.
Some elements of Birbiglia’s whacky, more-or-less autobiographical story were familiar, but a lot of them weren’t, and even some of the familiar bits popped up in surprising new contexts. Even more importantly, Birbiglia (and his talented collaborators) have really embraced the challenge of turning what started as a comic monologue into a bona fide film. Birbiglia is even flamboyant about it, wielding techniques that I often hate — voiceover narration, dream sequences, 4th-wall-breaking — with such reckless abandon that they swept me away. (Ira Glass took some pains to praise the cinematography of Adam Beckman (from the This American Life TV show) and indeed the film looks great. I thought Jesse Flaitz and team made it sound really good, too.
Birbiglia’s singular charm is hard to pin down: his timing is surely important,as is the delicate see-saw between hesitancy and confidence. But mostly I think he manages to sound as surprised by what he is saying as he expects you to be.
I also needlessly tried to temper my expectations of Ira Glass’s Q & A session. I think I expected him in person to be a bit like the late Spalding Gray — they both construct narratives with such obvious care and precision. When I saw Gray perform live he was careful to explain that he was disinclined to spontaneity or off-the-cuff topicality; his artistic process required digestion before regurgitation (if memory serves, he employed that very metaphor). In contrast, Glass in person was like a sizzling firecracker; less artful, perhaps, than his precisely choreographed radio shows, but hardly less entertaining.
in no special order except for #1
awesomest ever wife/best friend
the extra time we had with Theo
just being here
being able to move both sides of my face
being able to hand wash a heavy bowl without wincing
family stuff trending upwards
having a job at all
having a completely awesome job
being part of a great team
opportunities to make things better for people
a roof over my head and food on the table
our completely awesome home
really good health insurance
opportunities to worry about stuff at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy
steel frame bicycles
being able to ride 125 miles in one day
ridiculously awesome recording and performing experiences beyond the merit of my talent
punk fffffffn rock
the Marshall/Gibson pairing
the internets in my pocketssss
the freshly repaved stretch of Mass Ave
MBTA, as flawed as it is
olives, oranges, bananas, and other perfect foods
a short vacation
If, like me, you somehow managed to miss the late-night-talk-show-host-wars, Rodman Flender’s film will catch you up, but here’s the gist, as I see it: O’Brien turns down what for many would be the gig of a lifetime, and walks away with a fat cash settlement, the massed goodwill of the Internets, and an injunction restricting him from TV appearances for a little while. What to do with the no-tv-time? As the title of this documentary informs you, he definitely can’t stop, so he mounts a tour in which, somewhat oddly, he mixes comedy with live classic rock & soul*; this film basically documents that tour from the germination of the idea through the last shows.
I certainly didn’t dislike this movie, but I also didn’t love it. I think what bothers me most about it is that it’s just not very surprising. It certainly creates the impression of candor (Flender corroborated this in the Q&A: he said O’Brien did not ask for unflattering material to be cut). But the putatively candid O’Brien is more-or-less as you might imagine him: he’s engaging and interesting (well, duh), he’s ambitious and driven (again, duh), he’s funny off-stage (so there are definitely some laughs in the film), he seems like he’d be a challenging co-worker (his long-suffering assistant Sona Movsesian perhaps emerges as the real hero), and he has a very ambivalent push-pull relationship with his fans (throughout the film he goes above and beyond the call of celeb duty to be nice to strangers, then expresses resentment afterward).
Of course, this observation is more about the nature of the film’s subject than the merits of the film, which I thought did a good job of presenting this not-terribly-startling picture of a big TV star. It’s paced well, and I think Flender selected enough moments from his copious footage to build an impression of character without having too many sequences that illuminated O’Brien in exactly the same way. (Arguably, the most redundant moments in terms of character-building are among the funniest, so they don’t seem problematic.) I would have put in somewhat less of the live music footage, but that’s probably just me.
And if I were a big-time fan of O’Brien I might well have totally loved it.
* It would be easy, but unduly harsh, to make a crack like “as a singer and guitarist O’Brien is a pretty good comedian”; in fact he seems sturdily competent at both. But I can’t imagine he’d have had a career that led to selling out mid-sized theatres if that had been his main gig.