Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I've Always Been This Way: Bret Wood's The Little Death (2010)

A delightfully intoxicating and extremely thought-provoking work from writer and director Bret Wood, The Little Death (2010) is one of the most captivating and original American films in recent memory. Adapted from the Frank Wedekind play The Death and the Devil (along with the Anton Chekhov short-story "a Nervous Breakdown"), The Little Death is a visually dazzling period piece that manages to be feel both authentic to its Victorian-era setting, as well as completely topical to today's ugly political climate.

First staged in 1905, The Death and the Devil is not anywhere near as well-known as Frank Wedekind's plays Earth Spirt (1895) or Pandora's Box (1904) but it is an equally fascinating work and Wood's update shows it as an incredibly modern piece whose topics of sex, repression and judgement are as relevant as ever. Set in a brothel, The Little Death concerns a conservative reformer named Eleanor who has come in an attempt to 'rescue' a former employee named Lisiska from the clutches of the seedy, but intelligent, owner of the house of prostitution.

While the subject matter of The Little Death suggests a film that might be filled with skin and sex, Wood's work is actually very much a dialogue driven piece that finds his characters more emotionally, than physically, stripped. The centerpiece of the film, a heated debate between the reformer and brothel owner, is a masterful exercise in intelligent filmmaking and great acting. As the apparently straitlaced, but undeniably curious, Eleanor, stage-actress Courtney Patterson gives a wonderfully nuanced performance that perfectly captures a person driven by desire but controlled by denial. Just as good is Daniel May, who is both charming and menacing, as Eleanor's sparring partner. Equally compelling are Christie Vozniak as the 'fallen' woman who may or may not need saving and Clifton Guterman, as her paying suitor, who is either there to help or destroy her.

A visually dynamic low-budget production (that looks incredibly opulent thanks to cinematographer Chris Tsambis' skilled lighting skills), The Little Death improves on Wood's accomplished previous production Psychopathia Sexualis (2006) in nearly every way while at the same time complimenting it. Both films show Wood as a real talent with a very distinct vision that hearkens back to the glorious days of wildly uncompromising filmmakers like Walerian Borowczyk, Jose Benazeraf and The Quay Brothers. The subdued elegance that is on display throughout The Little Death shouldn't hide the fact that, at heart, this is a very confrontational film that asks its audience to question what they are seeing on the screen, and perhaps feeling in their heart.

While watching The Little Death, particularly the heated dialogue between Patterson and May, I couldn't help but think about today's combative political climate and the fact that we are facing a frightening part of the population willing to support candidates, whose driving force is a promise to interfere with the private sexual lives of people they find 'morally' corrupt. Wedekind's play from which The Little Death was taken from seems absolutely prophetic and is perhaps even more topical in 2012 than it was in 1905.

The Little Death is streaming at Netflix but I highly recommend going ahead and snagging the DVD for the terrific documentary on the production as well as a generous helping of deleted-scenes. The Kino-Lorber disc also offers up Wood's extraordinary, and wonderfully disturbing, short-film The Other Half, a work that is just as good in its own way as The Little Death.


Monday, February 27, 2012

'Something is about to happen': Celia Novis' on Vampyres and other Symptoms (2011)

Few filmmakers that came out of the seventies were more intriguing and, at times, as brilliant as Barcelona born José Ramón Larraz, a directer who really earned the often overused description of maverick. Throughout the seventies, Larraz made a series of extremely startling and wholly unique works that were equal parts shocking, haunting and unforgettable. Strangely the only Larraz film that has consistently been easily available to American audiences is his mesmerizing Vampyres (1975) with equally compelling titles like Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971), The House that Vanished (1974), The Coming of Sin (1978) and his masterpiece Symptoms (1974) languishing in the hands of collectors who found them via grey-market copies. Unlike say Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, the majority of work from José Ramón Larraz has remained hidden to even some of the most die-hard cult horror and exploitation fans, which is a real pity.

While watching Celia Novis' striking new documentary, on Vampyres and other Symptoms, I got the exhilarating feeling that perhaps the acceptance of José Ramón Larraz's importance is finally on the horizon. Novis' fascinating film, which is among the most unique and moving documentaries I have seen in some time, makes the case for José Larraz by bypassing the usual talking heads style that is typical for these kinds of films and instead uses his own art, films and words to tell his story. on Vampyres and other Symptoms is a real poetic piece of filmmaking that plays by its own rules and shows Larraz as a true auteur whose art and life are truly interconnected and sometimes indistinguishable.

It is the voice and writing (sometimes spoken by Vampyres Marianne Morris and Anulka) of the now 83 year old Larraz that guides Celia Novis' on Vampyres and other Symptoms. We follow Larraz on his oddysey though his own writings, his artwork, films and interviews and find that his feelings on life, and particularly death, are as distinct as his greatest films. Novis often allows a blurring between Larraz and his works and this gives on Vampyres and other Symptoms a wonderful dreamlike and narcotic quality; at times it feels like Larraz is traveling back in time to participate as a character in his own films. Using a powerful non-linear approach, Novis offers up a penetrating portrait of an artist driven by the characters and situations he created on paper and film.

Novis also offers up a potent reminder as to just how great films like Vampyres and Symptoms are through a series of film clips that show Larraz as a director who, at his best, was able to combine the paranoid intensity of Polanski with the dynamic eroticism of Borowczyk. In other words, there simply isn't anything else quite like the best works of José Ramón Larraz. They occupy a very specific and special place, as does Celia Novis' on Vampyres and other Symptoms.

More information Celia Novis' on Vampyres and other Symptoms can be found at this official site. The film is currently playing various film festivals and I sincerely hope that an American distributor picks it up for American release in the future. As a matter of fact, it would make an essential companion piece to the jaw-dropping Symptoms, one of the great, great films that has still not seen a proper release on disc anywhere. Criterion take note.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rock in Peace: Mark Evans' Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside of AC/DC

An engrossing, funny and ultimately moving memoir, Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside of AC/DC by Mark Evans is an indispensable look inside a pivotal period of one of rock's greatest bands. Just 19 when he joined AC/DC as a bassist, Dirty Deeds chronicles Evans wild journey with the band on the road, and in the studio, where he was featured on the classic LP's T.N.T., Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Let There Be Rock. Evans recounts his time with the legendary Bon Scott led AC/DC with a charming laid back flair that is both conversational and informative and its hard to imagine any fan of the band, or modern rock music in general, who wouldn't be sucked in by his fascinating memories.
Opening up with a hilarious Paris set story recounting AC/DC's infamous 1977 tour with Black Sabbath, Evans immediately sets the tone of the book as memoir based around honest-memories and not dirt-slinging gossip. His good-natured tone throughout is very refreshing and it's nice to read a rock memoir that manages to be both unflinchingly honest as well as snark-free. Evans comes across as a good guy, the kind of guy you'd like to find yourself listening to at a bar one evening while nursing a pint or two.
The early chapters of Dirty Deeds focus on Evans' childhood and teenage years in the Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena and then Prahran. Evans early memories of his family, school and especially his father, who sadly passed away in 1968 when Mark was just 12, are extremely emotional and are written with a real clarity and passion. Evans captures coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies, where he admits his main passions were girls, football and music, with a real authority and his memories of finding rock and roll and going to his first concerts capture a pivotal moment in music history extremely well.
Mark Evans life would begin to change when he attended a gig in 1969 featuring a group called The Valentines, a teen dream band that featured a young vocalist named Bon Scott. Evans describes the first time he layed his eyes on the future music legend with, "I thought he was dead cool, even though he was tiny compared to the others in the band." Evans recalls that he began following Bon's blossoming career in the rock-pages of the day but it would be six years before their paths crossed again, and Evans life would really be forever altered.
After banging around with some bands throughout his teenage years Mark got a surprising invite in the spring of '75, from a friend named Steve McGrath, to join a band called AC/DC as their bass-player. McGrath sold Evans on the idea by explaining, "They're a hard rock band" and "they just released an album and they play a lot of Stone covers." After an informal meeting and audition with future Guitar God Angus Young, Evans landed a spot in what would soon become one of the greatest and most iconic bands on the planet, thanks in part to what he referred to as his, "no-bullshit bass playing."
From there on, Dirty Deeds becomes an impossible to put down volume recounting Evans life on the road as a member of one of the hardest working bands in rock history. Page after page brings vivid memories ranging from playing his first gig with the band (at the Waltzing Matilda Hotel where tickets were just 2 bucks!) to playing the legendary Countdown television program to entering the recording studio (Albert Productions in Sydney) for the first-time, for the recording of the incredible T.N.T. LP.

After the recording and release of T.N.T., Evans recalled that "AC/DC came to dominate my whole being", and he captures the intensity and pressure of being in a band on the verge of exploding with precision. You can feel the sweat, blood, excitement and exhaustion of these days in Evans' prose recounting this pivotal period where AC/DC really became AC/DC much to chagrin of many music critics and teenage girls parents all over Australia and, finally, the world. Evans succinctly sums up the period with the memory that, "AC/DC was a band that seemed to survive on momentum", and it is that drive that guides Dirty Deeds all the way through.
That propulsive motion would find AC/DC on the road almost constantly and the mid-section of Dirty Deeds is mostly occupied by Evans' vivid concert and backstage memories that are loaded with antidotes about Bon, girls (Evans writes, "All fantasies were catered for") and other bands they played with (which included everyone from Thin Lizzy to T. Rex). It's the kind of real insider's look fans clamour for but very rarely get and it is in these sections that Dirty Deeds takes its place as one of the great books on Rock Music in the seventies.

Dirty Deeds My Life Inside/Outside of AC/DC is essential reading for any fan of the great Australian band or any real rock music fan in general. Poignant, funny, exciting and filled with the kind of warmth you get when the needle drops on a vinyl-copy of your favorite LP, Dirty Deeds is now available in a gorgeous illustrated paperback edition from Bazillion Points. Highly recommended? You betcha.


Monday, February 20, 2012

My Favorite Films and Performances from 2011

I'm always hesitant to make year-end lists because I know that there always films I still need to watch that very well might qualify. Still, I did manage to catch more than seventy 2011 releases at the theater and on disc in the past 14 months, so I figured posting some favorites couldn't hurt. It strikes me that none of my favorites were nominated for Best-Picture this year (although I quite loved The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants and Moneyball), which perhaps explains why I have never been less excited about the Oscars. The list of films I still need to see is large and would included everything from The Tree of Life to Margaret to House of Pleasures to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to The Skin I live In to 13 Assassins and I suspect a number of those titles might have ended up here. Perhaps some of those films might end up on my end of the decade list down the road...or not...only time will tell. For now, here are the films and performances, that were released here in the states in 2011, that moved me the most.


1. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

2. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

5. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

6. The Black Power MixTape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson)

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates)

8. Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes)

9. Hanna (Joe Wright)

10. Cracks (Jordan Scott)

11. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

Favorite Performance by an Actor:

1. John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Followed By:

2. Ryan Gosling in Drive

3. Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

4. Jude Law in Contagion

5. Patton Oswalt in Young Adult

6. Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother

7. Robert Pattinson in Water For Elephants

8. John C. Reilly in Carnage

Favorite Performance by an Actress

1. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

Followed By:

2. Charlize Theron in Young Adult

3. Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

4. Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

5. Evan Rachel Wood in Mildred Pierce

6. Saoirse Ronan in Hanna

7. Eva Green in Cracks

8. Elle Fanning in Super 8


Friday, February 17, 2012

As Long As I Have You: King Creole (1958)

***The news that Dolores Hart will be appearing at this years Oscars inspired me to revisit this look at my favorite film Hart made in her short movie career, the masterful Elvis Presley vehicle King Creole from director Michael Curtiz. I have never been less excited for an Academy Awards broadcast but the news of Hart's surprising appearance is very welcome.***

Hungarian born director Michael Curtiz shot one of his final features, KING CREOLE (1958), just five years before his death at the age of seventy four. The film is a remarkably fresh and alive work though, one that seems to have been made by a very talented young man rather than someone nearing seventy.

Curtiz had an astounding directorial career, helming well over 150 productions. His most well known film is of course CASABLANCA (1942), but he worked exceedingly well in many genres including comedy (WE'RE NO ANGELS 1955), heavy drama (MILDRED PIERCE 1945) and musicals (YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942). Curtiz, in fact, worked in nearly every conceivable genre throughout his long career, and he did well in all of them.

KING CREOLE got its start as a rather heavy-handed novel by CARPETBAGGERS mastermind Harold Robbins entitled A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER. The book sold fairly well on its release and was quickly optioned for a film version. The character in the Robin’s original work was a boxer, and the producers had it in mind to make it a vehicle for a young actor named James Dean. After Dean's tragic death, the name Marlon Brando was thrown around but the choice was finally made to turn the film into a musical and cast the young star who had turned the entertainment field completely on its head in the fifties, Elvis Presley.

Presley had only made three films when he stepped in front of Curtiz's camera, and they had all been critical duds but popular smashes. Acting wise, he had began to show a lot of flare in both LOVING YOU and JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) and Curtiz immediately saw that there was something strong he could work with.

Joining Presley was an incredible supporting cast that included Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger, Vic Morrow and a young actor named Walter Matthau as the New Orleans crime boss Maxie Fields. They would all be working from a script credited to THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT scribe Herbert Baker and A HATFUL OF RAIN playwright Michael Gazzo.

Shot on location in New Orleans with style to spare by Curtiz with talented black and white Oscar nominated cinematographer Russell Harlan by his side, KING CREOLE is a stunningly beautiful movie to watch. Its rich black and white tones are a tribute to a very particular style of film making that is sadly rarely seen anymore.

Everything about the film is first rate. The script is rich if slightly melodramatic and the performances are all strong. The set design by Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy is superb and has a stylish realism to it that is particularly noteworthy. The costumes by Edith Head are refreshingly controlled through much of the film, but are strikingly provocative on Carolyn Jones and the strippers in the New Orleans nightclub that Danny sings in.

The film opens with one of the most memorable introductory shots in all of American cinema. Curtiz's camera pans down a virtually deserted French Quarter path filming various singing street vendors, before we see Elvis walking out on his balcony singing “Crawfish” with one of them (the talented Kitty White). It is an amazingly vivid and bold sequence that mixes stark realism and celebratory fantasy that doesn't feel quite like anything else before or since.

The film is filled with those kinds of special moments…from Fisher's first memorable meeting with Maxie to a touching scene where he takes Nellie (Hart) out on a riverboat to show her where he was from. It is an intensely personal little dramatic film that just so happens to be a major Hollywood musical as well.

And what a musical…the songs are all top notch and Curtiz wisely elects to have the songs played on stage for the most part. The couple of sequences where he breaks this rule are well done, organic and believable. There isn't anything overtly fantastical about the musical parts of KING CREOLE, except in how fine they are.

Curtiz's direction is quite splendid. He allows the scenes to play out and breathe, and his shooting style is commanding. Watch the way he expertly handles the mugging sequence of Danny's father, or the perfect way Elvis is framed from a slight distance when he breaks the bottle to protect Carolyn Jones from Maxie's thugs. KING CREOLE is a really expertly directed film by a very old pro.

The cast is especially good and it is to their credit that KING CREOLE doesn't feel nearly as dated as many other 'youth' pictures from this period. Walter Mattheau is particularly good as a gangster not big enough to be untouchable but just big enough to be really dangerous. Carolyn Jones and Dolores Hart are both sublime in their roles and Liliane Montevecchi is very memorable in a smaller role as one of the dancers.

It all falls back onto Elvis though…and in the most demanding role of his career he is really very good. He delivers a performance with a lot of depth and soul that is made all the more impressive when one considers how young and inexperienced he was. Curtiz liked him a lot, as did the cast. Mattheau was especially impressed and would later say, "He [Elvis Presley] was an instinctive actor…He was quite bright…he was very intelligent…He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, and refined, and sophisticated." The critics were even impressed and Elvis garnered mostly excellent reviews. Watching how good Elvis is in this makes a lot of his later film career (despite its pleasures and value) all the more disappointing.

KING CREOLE opened up in the summer of 1958 to strong business and mostly good reviews. Curtiz was proud of the film and predicted Elvis Presley would become a great actor. The iconic director would go onto finish an impressive six films before passing away in 1961. Hart, Jones, and especially Mattheau would all go onto to be stars in their own right.

Had Elvis not gone in the army right after finishing KING CREOLE there is no telling what might have happened with his film career. He did though, and then momentum from KING CREOLE was all but lost. When he returned he made two dramatic films that would nearly equal his work for Curtiz, FLAMING STAR and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, but those films would be relative popular failures. Despite making several fine films in the sixties, Elvis Presley never again had the chance to work with a director as great as Curtiz or shine as an actor like he had in KING CREOLE. It really is one of the great losses in Hollywood history.

KING CREOLE is available on a bare bones DVD with a nice widescreen transfer but little else. Film fans that look upon it as just another 'Elvis film' are really missing out. It is a really finely directed and performed work from a period in Hollywood history often overlooked. Fifty years after it was first released, KING CREOLE deserves a serious reappraisal.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Filmmaker Brandon Colvin

Many of you will know Brandon Colvin as one of the creative minds behind the terrific film site Out 1, and some of you might even remember the excellent piece he submitted here on Magnolia for my Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon a couple of years back. I know Brandon as a great friend, and valued peer, and I am so happy to present this new Q&A with him to discuss his first feature-length film, Frames.
I had the great opportunity to view a cut of Frames and it is an excellent work by an artist really worth watching. Thanks to Brandon for stopping by and participating in this and, after you read, take some time to "Like' Frames at its Facebook page for more information.

Hey Brandon, thanks so much for stopping by Moon in the Gutter again to share some information about your first feature-length film Frames! I think the film is really terrific and I am excited to see it at the festival we are going to discuss here in bit. To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from originally?

Thanks so much for having me, Jeremy! To begin at the beginning, I’m originally from eastern Kentucky and lived in the Bluegrass State for the first 22 years of my life, including the four years I spent attending Western Kentucky University. I moved to Wisconsin a little under two years ago to begin my graduate work in film studies at UW-Madison. Currently, I work as a full-time student and film production instructor – a pretty great gig.

I always ask about early influences as I think it’s an important thing to know about every artist, so can you tell us about some of your yours?

My interest in film really began when I was about 14. A couple of older kids at my high school introduced me to Eraserhead, Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights within the span of a few days. I remember seeing those films and feeling aesthetic emotions I had never felt before. My best estimation is that this was primarily a result of the films’ relatively long takes and bold camera movement. Seeing these films marked the first time I was ever critically conscious of film style and technique – perhaps because these films all demonstrated styles which were decidedly not invisible, or “seamless,” as is the case with the majority of commercial Hollywood cinema.

David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson became huge figures for me, as did Stanley Kubrick. Soon after, I began exploring foreign cinema and latched onto the major icons of the art cinema golden age: Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel and Godard, primarily. Taxi Driver was also totally formative for me, especially in its depiction of isolation.

I know you are extremely passionate about writing on film. Tell us a bit about how you became interested in cinema-studies and what you see as the importance of discussing and writing on film.

As I did my best to learn about the great directors and great films in high school, I relied on the writings and recommendations of various critics and accessible scholars. Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis, The Village Voice, authors of essays in Criterion Collection DVD booklets – they all provided context, guidance, and carefully considered evaluations. All of this was absolutely indispensable to a teenager in eastern Kentucky with limited access to “high” art (praise be to the Internet). These writers introduced me to artworks which enriched my life. They provided the first models of film culture I ever experienced. Without them, I would have been stranded, in a way.

In college, scholars began to take precedence over critics as my interests shifted from evaluative writing to theoretical, historical and analytical work. Though I was heavily into historically influential critics like André Bazin and Jonas Mekas, I found a deeper level of understanding in the academic work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, among others. I still learn something new every day from film critics and scholars – something I hope never changes. Criticism and scholarship are incredibly useful for anyone with genuine curiosity about cinematic art, for anyone willing to acknowledge the following: there are many things worth knowing which I do not know, and which my uninstructed intuition will never fully grasp. Filmmakers and film enthusiasts of all types need instruction from real experts, as in any field of knowledge.

Before we move onto Frames, had you had much experience behind the camera and if so what did that entail?

Very little experience behind the camera, actually. I wrote, directed and edited a one-minute short when I was 17 and helped out on a few students productions in college; that’s basically it. My real experience came in screenwriting. I had written a couple of feature length scripts before Frames, none of which I attempted to produce, but which were great practice.

Okay, let’s talk about Frames! First-off can you give us a brief description of what the film is about and your many roles in making it?

Sure. Plot-wise, Frames is about Peter Farkas, a young filmmaker making a documentary about his hometown of White River. His filmmaking partner is a young woman named Vera, the daughter of a prominent pillar of the community – Larry Kanan. Romantic tension threatens to arise between Peter and Vera, a situation which is exacerbated when Peter becomes obsessed with a bit of surreptitiously-recorded erotic footage of Vera. Shortly after this development, Vera vanishes, prompting Peter to investigate her disappearance while mourning her absence. Thematically, the film is about how we create narratives out of images, the way cinema encourages us to “frame” reality, the way editing and juxtaposition allow us to rearrange fragments of reality into stories, stories which may be misleading, or enlightening. Along with this, the film is about aestheticization, how the art of cinema transforms elements of reality into art objects or aesthetic experiences – a central question of the film being: does making cinematic art constitute a dilution of the world or a purification/concentration of the world? To what extent are any of those transformations truthful, useful or reliable for people attempting to understand their lives? The film is also very much about itself. There are a number of parallels between Peter’s experience with his footage and his filming process and Frames as a film. Those are very important, but I’d rather leave it to viewers to uncover them.

As for my roles on the film, I wrote the script, directed the film, and co-produced/casted/location scouted/art directed and production managed with Aaron Granat. I was wearing many hats at all times, which was quite exhausting, but definitely thrilling.

I know one of the biggest obstacles in getting a film made is funding. Take us through the early planning stages for Frames and how difficult it was for a young filmmaker like yourself to get together the money and then the cast.

On a small production like this, funding amounts to sacrifice. There is no guarantee that this film will ever make money, so everyone involved in funding the film is more like a donor than an investor – which is tough. Most of the production was funded through loans, while we also gathered sizable donations from friends and family. Everyone around Aaron and I knew that we had both been wanting to make a film for years, and, when the time came, there were a number of people willing to help. We also received a ton of support from UW-Madison Instructional Media Center – where Aaron and I both work – as it provided quite a bit of equipment for us to borrow free of charge. I think most of the people involved in funding the production see their donation as an investment in everyone’s future as filmmakers, rather than an investment in a single project.

That being said, we learned a lot about how much making a film really costs – experience which will undoubtedly help us in the future, hopefully making our efforts to secure funding more efficient. This film went from “Hey, let’s make this” to shooting in about three months, during which we were casting, rehearsing, location scouting, assembling a crew, etc., all the while I was writing term papers in an highly challenging graduate program. With more pre-production time and more know-how, I think funding might be much easier.

Speaking of your cast, one of the main things that impressed me about Frames was the terrific performances given by Holland Noel and Maria Travis as the young couple. Can you tell us a bit about both of them and what it was like working with actors on a project like this for the first-time?

All of our actors were Wisconsin locals, with minimal, if any, screen acting experience. We found Holland via Craigslist, and I had met Maria in a class on Russian Cinema. Both of them, as well as the other actors, had to undergo a very particular type of casting process (which I will describe below). Before I get into the process and their reactions to it, I’d like to explain, in theoretical terms, how I intended the acting to work in the film.

Performance style, in my conception of cinema, is absolutely crucial for creating an aesthetically unified film (and, aesthetic unity is a quality I value). What I want to emphasize here is the importance of the word “style.” Naturalistic acting is a stylistic choice, not an absolute. Too often, it is a default setting for filmmakers, regardless of their other formal commitments. Indeed, many critical criteria used for determining a film’s quality are based on how naturalistic or realistic a performance is, or how accurately and legibly a character’s psychology is rendered “three-dimensionally” by a performance. This is only one option among many, however, an option rooted in a type of cinema explicitly concerned with character psychology.

My style is not so much interested in rendering psychology legibly and naturalistically, because that would be incredibly inconsistent with the formal design, at the level of images and sounds, of my work. I am most interested in surfaces and appearances, which is not to say I want to make superficial films. Rather, I find film a very perceptual medium rather than a psychological medium. It’s difficult to separate the two, and I’m not suggesting that Frames does, but it does differ in its emphasis from most films. Much of the film is about the relationship between perceiving and psychological understanding. Indeed, Peter’s crisis in the film is a result of his inability to understand what he perceives. This is directly related to how people apprehend aesthetic experiences, and, particularly, how they make sense out of cinematic stimuli. I want to give the viewer a series of chosen surfaces, which he or she will perceive and make a story out of, just as Peter does with Vera’s disappearance. The performances of the actors, then, must be carefully chosen surfaces, like everything else in the film. One might ask then, where does the psychological understanding occur? I would say, in the viewer, not in the film, just as the rationale for Vera’s disappearance lies in Peter’s mind, not in the fragments he combines to make that story.

The consequence this has for performers is that they must be able to render themselves as surfaces, which is a considerable challenge considering how explicit most human behavior is in terms of psychological communication. I wanted the actors to restrict and control every communicative tool they had. In order to do this, they had to be trained. Most people think of acting as inherently expressive, rather than depictive, as I mentioned earlier. And, of course, Holland and Maria came to our casting sessions with the assumption that they should represent the characters with emotion and psychology. The tough part was teaching them how to represent the characters with gesture, movement, and superficiality. What we were trying to do is not to communicate the idea that someone feels a certain way, but to dissect the surface elements of that emotional/psychological state (eye movement, bodily contortion, facial modulation, pace), abstract them, and then represent those isolated details apart from any sort of underlying intentionality.

After hours of rehearsal, take after take, motion after motion, inflection after inflection, both of them really got this down. They understood the idea of psychological “blankness.” We explored that concept by asking them to read their lines without moving or inflecting anything. Over and over and over again. We wanted them to start from nothing: no assumptions, no ideas of intentionality, no conceptions of psychological states which might inform their performances. Then, slowly and methodically, we added details: a facial modulation here, an altered vocal inflection there. The performances were built in this way, both in rehearsal and on set. It required a great deal of calm and focus throughout, an atmosphere which was difficult to maintain, but which worked, in no small part thanks to Holland and Maria. I’m very proud of all of the hard work and genuine openness they brought to the roles. Without them, the film would be a total failure.

I don’t want to delve into the film thematically at this point, due to the fact that it is just now starting to be seen by people, but there was an aspect that I loved about it that I did want to mention. There’s a terrific little repeating motif in the film about the main character’s inability to finish Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which is ironic considering he is a young filmmaker and due to the fact that his own real life is in some ways mirroring Hitchcock’s work. Talk a bit about what you see as perhaps the responsibility of young students of film, and filmmakers, to know their film history and, perhaps, the importance at times of rejecting accepted ‘great’ films (which I don’t mean as a swipe against Rear Window at all, as it is a film I personally love).

I’m happy that you latched onto that. Peter’s inability to finish Rear Window, as well as its general presence in Frames, serve several purposes. First, I’ll address the mirroring. I definitely want to encourage viewers to make comparisons between what happens in the two films and to pay particular attention to the differences between them. What happens to the investigative protagonists, each attempting to create a story out of what they see, each paranoid and emotionally volatile? How correct are their conclusions? What are the dangers they face? We know L.B. Jeffries’s hunch in Rear Window ends up being confirmed. Is Peter’s? What actually happens at the end of the film?

As for the second part of your question, I wanted to point out some things about Peter by using Rear Window. On one hand, I wanted to demonstrate that Peter might not be the best, most trustworthy viewer. On the other hand, I wanted to demonstrate that when he does watch, he seems to trust images too naively as representations of reality. To some extent, Peter’s investigative spirit is inspired by Rear Window, because he sees it at a time when it could spur him to look for secrets, perhaps to manufacture them in order to uncover assumed hidden meanings. In that way, Frames is encouraging viewers to consider the application value of the “classics” – particularly regarding happy, resolved endings – and to reject some of the ideological material in those films, if not the films themselves.

Speaking of personal canons and favorite filmmakers…who were some of the main people who inspired Frames and who are some of your favorite filmmakers in general?

The primary cinematic inspirations for Frames are Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni. Those two filmmakers are a sort of sacred duo, for me. Watching their movies over and over is really what has shaped my taste and my desire to create. Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer is my filmmaking textbook. It’s a constant reminder of the value of a film which is constructed with efficiency, concentration, and obliqueness. Seeing his films in college really shook up everything I thought I knew about cinema. His discussions of cinematic rhythm and restrained performances were absolutely formative for Frames. Antonioni is the ultimate model of a filmmaker concerned with surfaces, as well as a filmmaker who I feel does an excellent job of blending narrative tension and durational digressions – something I really worked on with Frames. His oblique thrillers – including Blow-Up and The Passenger – were models of how to stretch the conventions of the genre.

As for contemporary filmmakers, I’d say Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant (in his more formalist works) are the most important for me. Frames is certainly in a sort of dialogue with a number of their films – Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and Caché; Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Elephant – perhaps because those filmmakers have the same, or similar basic influences, but do very different things.

I know February is going to be a big-month for you and Frames. Let’s talk about the upcoming festival appearances!

Right! The film will be premiering at the Derby City Film Festival in Louisville, KY on February 18. I’m really happy about this screening, as it provides an opportunity for a number of friends and family to see the film in a theater. In late April, the film will also be playing at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, which means a lot of folks related to the cast and crew will have a similar opportunity to see the film in an optimal environment. We’re still waiting on responses from a number of fests, so, hopefully, this list of screenings will grow in the coming months.

Take us through the process of how a young director gets his (or her) work into a festival.

I’m actually still learning about that process, and it’s been pretty enlightening. Festival submissions require a lot of work, research, and money. The main thing I’ve learned is that it’s important for a truly independent, upstart filmmaker – no industry connections, stars, etc. – to strategically target which festivals he or she applies to. The biggest festivals are often the biggest rackets, with limited slots, tons of submissions, and exorbitant entry fees ($75-$100 per fest, which really adds up). What this means is that experienced filmmakers, or those with marketable actors, often have a leg up on first-timers. Zeroing in on small and mid-range festivals – places where your film will be seen, but where you won’t be competing with productions with much higher budgets and profiles – is important. It’s also crucial to target festivals specifically interested in first-time filmmakers, or which might have a particular interest in your film’s general style or subject matter.

Are you more nervous or excited about having Frames seen by more and more people and how much does a positive reception mean to you?

Definitively excited, but guarded. I’m fully aware that the film is a bit “challenging,” to use a popular euphemism. The acting is muted. The narrative is deliberately elliptical. The visual style is patient and restrained. A great deal of the thematic content is buried below the surface, or might only become clear upon repeat viewings and careful attention to structure. It’s a bit of a hard sell, especially for viewers who might not be accustomed to the work of the filmmakers I’ve discussed above. However, it’s a film I feel good about. It’s not perfect, and there are a number of things I would do differently, if given the opportunity. It’s my kind of movie, though. I’d love to receive a positive response, and it’s always encouraging to hear praise and appreciation. Seeing a feature length film through from start to finish is tough, and knowing that what you’re doing will matter to other people is fuel for the fire. And, when another person “gets” the movie and likes it, the pleasure I feel is similar to the pleasure of feeling genuinely understood in a conversation, though on a much grander scale. To me, that’s very powerful and motivating.

Finally, what’s next for you after Frames?

Glad you asked. I’m currently working on a new script, tentatively titled Yield. It’s about a Kierkegaard scholar who goes back home to take care of his ill mother while on sabbatical. My dream is to shoot it in Kentucky. I hope to finish the script this summer and initiate fundraising efforts shortly thereafter. It’s shaping up to be a bit of a scandalous narrative, which is exciting.

Thanks so much Brandon. I always love when you stop by and we are looking forward to seeing you (and your film again) in a few weeks! All the best of luck with it and your future-projects.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Moseby Confidential Files (Laura Gemser in the Seventies) Eva nera (1976)

A quick glance at the cast and crew of the 1976 Italian production Eva nera would probably send even the most jaded cult film lover into a bit of a frenzy. The cast, which features the inspired pairing of Jack Palance and Laura Gemser, would probably be enough to do the trick, but when you factor in the fact that it was directed by Joe D'Amato, edited by Bruno Mattei and features a score from Piero Umiliani then Eva nera would fall into the category of must see for most exploitation film lovers. If the final film isn't the crazed powerhouse of cinematic mayhem one might hope for it is a very entertaining, if surprisingly subdued film, from the unstoppable team of D'Amato and Gemser and is deserving of better treatment than it has gotten on Region 1 Disc so far (as it is only available on a disappointing full-frame DVD under the title Black Cobra Woman).

Written and photographed by D'Amato, Eva nera focuses on an eccentric and rather bored wealthy man named Judas, living in Homg Kong, who dabbles in womanizing and snake collecting. Judas thinks he finds shangra la when he meets an impossibly beautiful young dancer named Eva, who happens to have an act featuring the slithering creatures he is so obsessed by.

Eva nera was the final of three whopping features D'Amato released in 1976, following Vow of Chasity and the stunning Emanuelle in Bangkok, an powerful entry in the Black Emanuelle saga starring the Eva nera players Gemser and Gabriele Tinti. While it isn't the dizzying cinematic experience that Emanuelle in Bangkok, or especially the follow-up Emanuelle in America, is Eva nera has its pleasures even though it finally feels a little too laid-back for its own good. D'Amato would have never been what one would refer to as a subtle filmmaker, but Eva nera feels positively tame when compared with the other films the great man was making in this period.

The chief pleasures of Eva nera are easy to spot. D'Amato's picturesque photography is typically striking and his camera gazes at Gemser, who was in her absolute prime in 1976, like a lover attempting to come to terms with what has become an obsession. The dance sequences are both erotic and playful and Umiliani's score keeps the material incredibly engaging, even during the moments where D'Amato's direction feels a bit lethargic (one imagines a certain creative and physical exhaustion might have been setting it.

Perhaps the biggest strike against Eva nera is the surprisingly muted performance delivered by Palance, who looks a little too bored at various points throughout the film. Watching Eva nera today, one wishes Palance would have perhaps had a little more fun with the material but more often than not he is overshadowed by both Genser and Tinti.

Eva nera is ultimately not among the essential D'Amato-Gemser collaborations but its charms finally outweighs its flaws and I would love to see a better quality-copy hit a Region 1 release on par with Severin's remarkable Black Emanuelle collections.