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IFFBoston: Hannah Takes the Stairs

The film I was most eager to see at IFFBoston was Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. I’m a fan of his previous films and a big supporter of his style of working, which is to entirely improvise his films in conjunction with his friends. There is no script, and the scenes merely grow out of lots of lengthy conversations with his friends/collaborators. For this latest film, he says he rented an apartment in Chicago for one month, had everyone sleeping on the floor, shot the movie every day and edited it at night. He says it was a “magical” month. And I’m sure it was. I’m a bit envious of the depth of connections he must be making in the course of his work. But also inspired.

hannaandrew.jpgWhich is why I am having trouble saying that the film left me a bit underwhelmed. I haven’t quite placed my finger on why, but it might have something to do with the tiny groan I emitted when, after the screening of the film, Swanberg said that it only took a few minutes of meeting his lead actress, Greta Gerwig, to know she could carry a movie. It seemed a particularly male comment to make–not simply because she’s quite fetching, but because her charms are the kind that really only work on men. I have very much liked all of Swanberg’s films, but I like Hannah less so, primarily because I found the actress so irritating.

She’s damn cute, for sure, but she is constantly projecting an awareness of her cuteness and an awareness of being watched and admired for her cuteness that makes me want to *shake* her. I kept waiting for her to drop the giggly act and get real. Even in scenes with other females, or in scenes where she was crying, the tone I got from the scene was “I know you think I’m cute when I’m crying.”

Perhaps it’s not her fault though, perhaps it’s the fault of the filmmaker’s gaze, which clearly adores her. To me, the film was about the relationship between Greta and the camera. It felt oppressive to me, and I really wanted it to back off. I wanted to know more about some other characters. I wanted to breathe; I wanted Hannah to have a chance to breathe. In one scene she’s dancing crazily to some loud music and the camera holds her in a medium closeup as she thrashes her arms and fists wildly, and I like to imagine she is trying to break free of the camera’s frame, its gaze. I have always felt that all of Swanberg’s films have a very male perspective, but it has never bothered me until this film. It felt, overall, like nothing more than a chance to get Greta on film and stare, stare, stare. And for her to enjoy being stared at. And being female, that just doesn’t speak to me.

It’s part of a greater problem I’m having with a lot of indie film, especially the “Mumblecore” movement Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski have been lumped into. It’s a bunch of white twentysomething guys and their gaze. It’s a smarter and more sensitive gaze, but a gaze nonetheless. In and of itself that’s not a problem–they make great films, and I look forward to more from them. I guess we just need more female filmmakers. Lots more, to balance out the gaze. (I’m working on that myself…)

I’d love to hear from any other women who’ve seen the film–did you feel similarly? I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but my feeling is that most men will love the movie, while women will find it a bit lacking. Judging by the questions asked at the Q&A after the film, that’s probably right. Only men asked questions, many of which gushed over Greta’s “luminosity.” The film was speaking to them, and they heard it.

UPDATE–From this Salon article about SXSW and Hannah Takes the Stairs:  “An entire row of Austin women in front of me got up to leave about half an hour in, and I almost ran after them to hear their reasons.”

IFFBoston: Year of the Fish

I recently got a manicure in New York City and remarked to a friend that every time I go into one of these salons I feel an air of oppression. There are teams of Asian women who barely speak English doing the fairly difficult labor of manicures and pedicures all for $8. How can they afford to live? How did they get here? Who is the scowling man who sits in the corner and watches the operations? Am I a jerk for participating in this situation? If I give her a big tip will she even get to keep it?

yearoffish2.jpgThese questions were fresh in my mind when watching Year of the Fish, a sort of fairy tale set among Chinese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown. In fact, the film is based on what is said to be the oldest known version of the Cinderella story, the ancient Chinese fable of Ye Xian. Shy new arrival Ye Xian lands in Chinatown expecting to work in a beauty salon to pay off her travel costs, only to find out that the salon in question specializes in “massage”, not beauty, and the evil shop madam and her bitter masseurs (step-daughters) hold her hostage to pay off her debts. After refusing to do massage, she is forced to scrub floors and toilets and cook for the “family” of prostitutes. There is a dashing prince (an American-born Chinese musician), a royal ball (Chinese New Year Party), and a fairy godmother (fortune-telling sweatshop-owning old chinese woman). It’s a clever premise, and I very much enjoyed the setting, one we rarely get to see close up in film, from the point of view of characters who actually live there rather than just visit for a drug deal and start shooting things and beating people up and crashing cars into wonton carts. I did ask the director why he didn’t shoot the film in Chinese, which would have added to the effect, but it’s understandable that he had certain constraints and this is after all a fairy tale–gritty realism is not a requirement. Then again, the massage-parlor storyline gets pretty graphic in places, and the grit of the Chinatown streets is certainly on full display, so it seems that if you open the door to this kind of mixture of reality and fantasy it’s fair to hope for the full effect.yearoffish.jpg

The director also made the decision to rotoscope the entire film with a kind of painterly effect, which is a clever way to make digital video look less like … well, video. Which, in a fairy tale such as this, is appropriate. It’s odd though, after watching the effect for awhile you become accustomed to it and forget it’s there, and in some ways it loses its effect. I almost wished they had made the effect more dramatic in some way–some of the costuming looked very “costume-y”, which I think is the fault of video. Even with rotoscoping I just saw a guy with a big fake mustache. There were also clever painterly transitions and fades between scenes, all of which could have been kitschy in another film, but here were effective in keeping the film fantasy-like.

And there was absolutely no shakycam! Overall it’s an admirable film and I look forward to David Kaplan’s future projects.

IFFBoston: Kinetta

I very much admire the intentions of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinetta, but unfortunately the camerawork was a little too “kinetta” for me to really enjoy the experience. I was looking away for about 85% of the film to tame the shakycam-induced nausea that is so prevalent these days in indie film. I really hope that trend stops someday. Either my stomach getting stronger or the shakycam stopping, either would be fine. But either is equally unlikely.




Nausea aside, it was a beautiful and bizarre film, slow and nearly no dialogue other than the scripted stage directions of the man orchestrating the re-enacted murder scenes. The film unfolds at a glacial pace, revealing bits of the isolated lives of the three characters–a maid at the off-season seaside resort which serves as the location for the re-enactments, a policeman who supplies the scripts for the murders from the crimes he investigates, and a photographer who takes passport photos and aspires to be a filmmaker–just barely giving you an impression of who they are and why they might be participating in these bizarre rituals.

The sparse (really nearly non-existant) dialogue dramatizes the characters’ isolation, especially when they are in the presence of others–whatever words are spoken end up sounding useless and futile, like the cries of a person falling off a cliff. The only source of anything resembling intimacy and connection comes in the form of touch, when the characters are acting out murder scenes. They cannot face each other in normal situations–the girl hides in the bathroom when the photographer delivers shoes she is to wear for a beach murder scene–but the way they grapple with each other with faux violence becomes at times like an awkward dance, at times a very satisfying (for the viewer) release of their excruciating longing and isolation. None of the scenes are of sexual crimes, but their re-enactments take on sexual overtones; when the maid practices her scenes alone, it is reminiscent of masturbation. The film reminds me of Bresson’s Pickpocket in this way, especially in that film’s beautifully choreographed and strangely intimate and tactile scenes of the title character teaching a protegee how to get close to strangers and lift their wallets. Like in Kinetta, these practiced crimes are the only intimacy in the film, and itself a kind of faux intimacy, an intimacy by proxy.

The silence also heightens the effect of the images and sound. The crackling of feet walking on gravel, the clinking of dishes, the sound of a prostitute’s hair slapping across a man’s chest. Certain scenes are beautifully impressionistic–in one scene, we suddenly have loud swooping ballroom dance music on the soundtrack and we see an extreme closeup, out of focus, of what looks like part of the back of a woman’s head with the ocean in the distance, sparkling with light. Eventually the film cuts back to silence and a long shot of our hotel maid, sweeping the floor and listening to this music with headphones, lost in her own world, a world we just glimpsed in the blurry ocean shot.

I could go on for days about this film, and I realize more about it even as I write. It’s a film that stays with you and gets richer over time, and I encourage you to see it. If your stomach can handle the shakycam, that is.

Dunst the Dunce

Kirsten Dunst can always be counted on to say dumber and dumber things in interviews. Her latest:

Kirsten Dunst has been dating Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell – and apparently rock stars make better boyfriends that movie stars.

“I don’t ever want to date another actor again,” the Spider-Man 3 star, 24, tells Jane magazine in its May issue.

“This quote is probably going to come back in my face, but I know someone who has a great saying: ‘There are no actors, there are only actresses,’ ” she continues. “Sometimes creative people can be very dark and destructive.”

Still, Dunst, who dated Jake Gyllenhaal off and on for nearly two years before they split last year, admits: “I’m only saying bad things. I do know a few actors who are good and sweet and adorable.”

Yeah, rock stars are a MUCH safer bet than actors. I’m sure Jake Gyllenhal is a total psycho compared to her current boyfriend:

IFFBoston Day 1 … er … 2

Due to unforeseen logistical problems, namely a mover who never showed up and left me waiting in an apartment the entire day, I missed IFFBoston‘s opening night last night. The film was Hal Hartley’s latest, Fay Grim, a sequel of sorts to Henry Fool, and as I am not a huge fan, I was not hugely disappointed to miss it. I was mostly just bummed to miss the festivities. And it’s a film I’m sure I’ll get another opportunity to see.

On the slate tonight is a Greek film called Kinetta, which my Greek friend Serpico will be proud of me for making time to see.

“Against the backdrop of a deserted resort town, three otherwise unconnected people—a chambermaid, a photographer, and a government official—meet to re-enact murders. But these documented re-enactments have nothing to do with crime-solving or for that matter any other discernable productive purpose; rather, the three appear to perform out of a perversely pleasurable fascination with death and with male-female power dynamics. They work with few props, but the government man, who provides the “scripts,” insists on such detailed blocking that their movements are mechanical, slow, awkward, and unprofessional. What emerges from this strange relationship is a meditation on despair, restlessness, and a disturbing attachment to prescribed roles.”

There are two other films competing for my attention tonight:

The Good Times Kid. “What would you do if you met yourself? Rodolfo Cano (Azazel Jacobs) and Rodolfo Cano (Gerardo Naranjo), by chance, cross paths. But there is more to these men in common than just their names. Both Rodolfos flounder through life, barely getting involved and want to step back even further. Rodolfo is exasperated with his girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz), and walks out on her. Rodolfo walks in on her. These multiple chance meetings have created the most magical night for any of them and as the night flows on and on, each character’s secrets slowly rise to the surface. As the sun starts the next day, we finally see who each character really is.”

Gretchen. “Wildly expressionistic and deeply strange, this expansion of Steve Collins’ SXSW prize-winning short film GRETCHEN AND THE NIGHT DANGER follows Courtney Davis’ titular foot-clomping high-school casualty, adrift in ugly sweaters and laugh-out-loud pig-tail holders, and still always undone by her misguided love for bad boys. Stringy-longhaired chain-smoking Ricky hasn’t been treating Gretchen right, which – for reasons it is probably best not to get into here – leads to our heroine spending a fair amount of time at the Shady Acres Center for Emotional Growth. … an eerie echo of a recently bad affair sends Gretchen on the road to track down her long lost father (News Radio genius and Texas indie film hero Stephen Root). The results of this reconciliation are both heartbreaking and darkly hilarious, as Collins finds a way to convey the awkward outsider ethos that appreciates and accepts his main character’s pathos without ever devolving into NAPOLEON DYNAMITE-styled mockery.”

Gretchen has gotten good reviews but that mention of Napoleon Dynamite is possibly enough to keep me away. And I’m working up a post about how indie film–and indie culture more generally–is annoyingly obsessed with the childlike, the childish, with childhood in general. I think it’s damaging and I’m tired of seeing it. I thought it was exclusively an American thing but I heard recently that a recent trend in France is people drinking cocktails out of baby bottles in bars. WTF.

Blog Changes

Starting this week with my coverage of the Independent Film Festival of Boston, this blog will be a film- and photo-only blog; I’ve deleted all non-film-related posts and moved them to a new blog. Past and future non-film posts can be found at a new address, which you can obtain by emailing me at cynthia dot rockwell at gmail. Or just look in your referer logs.

IFFBoston Here I Come

Look out Davis Square, I’ll be back April 25-30 to cover the Independent Film Festival of Boston. The lineup is looking good, and seems very doc-heavy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Here are a few of the narrative features I’m looking forward to:

Hanna Takes the Stairs. I really liked Joe Swanberg’s LOL, which I saw at last year’s IFFBoston, and I also very much liked his Young American Bodies series for So I’m looking forward to his new film, though am wondering if he’s going to break any new ground with this one…the other two projects are good, but mostly cut from the same cloth, and this one looks to be as well, so making something fresh out of that cloth is the challenge he’s facing. Although perhaps it’s a vast enough cloth that there’s still material to be mined. At the very least the film has plenty of cameos by indie film darlings to check out–Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, and Todd Rohal. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Congorama. A Belgian finds out he was born in Canada and travels there to find his biological parents, but “all he finds in the Canadian countryside is bad fries and bad beer.” I look forward to someone making a movie that slams Canada for a change. Move over America, there’s a new asshole on the map!
(Full disclosure: I stole that line from The Kids In the Hall. And I have a grudge against Canadians.)

Day Night Day Night. The description of this film sounds very Jeanne Dielman: “A 19-year-old girl prepares and waits. Though what she is waiting for is not immediately clear, we are caught up in the minutiae of her preparation. When hooded handlers arrive, what follows is the suspenseful and emotional outcome of someone who has not only chosen when and how she will die, but also why.” But if that film description just totally ruined the film I’m going to be pissed.

Year of the Fish. And indie film fest usually specializes in films that are trying hard to be ‘quirky’. It can get to be annoying because all the films start to seem the same. But this one just sounds loopy enough to be interesting: “A modern-day Cinderella travels to New York’s Chinatown to earn to money help her father. Before she knows it, she’s working as a servant for an evil massage parlor madam. Her only companion is a fish that acts as narrator to our trip through this painted fairy tale.”

And this festival is no exception from the quirky-as-genre rule–there are several which seem to fit the profile, but could be good: Eagle vs. Shark, GoodTimesKid, Gretchen, Quiet City, Low and Behold, Monkey Warfare, The Sensation of Flight. There are also several films in the fest which are, as usual, questionably “indie”–there’s Brooklyn Rules, a gangster film starring Alec Baldwin and Freddy Prinze Jr., Away from Her, an alzheimer’s drama starring Julie Christie, and On Broadway, a Boston Irish funeral drama starring former NKOTB Joey McIntyre and Eliza Dushku. But hey, every festival needs a little starpower, no?
As for docs, there are so many I’m looking forward to but I’ll name just a few–A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar, about lawyers and lawsuits and America’s fascination with both, The Paper, about modern journalism and its problems, including declining circulation, and Strange Culture, about an artist who was interrogated post 9/11 but who can’t speak about the case, so actors such as Tilda Swinton tell the story.