This is the Harvard Film Archive’s second annual survey of independent work that “flew under the radar” – largely unknown or neglected films that have not entered the distribution cycle, did not receive major press coverage, or have not won awards at important festivals. Notwithstanding the fact that most of these titles are unheralded and unknown, they are among the most important and interesting recent American films. These young artists, many of them first–time filmmakers with no outside financial backing, are, almost without exception, taking more artistic risks and pushing the envelope much further than better–known and more financially secure American filmmakers who have reputations to protect.
If we ask why many of these works are still lurking in the shadows or searching for a distributor, the reasons are not that hard to come up with. These films do not push dependable box–office ticket–sales buttons. Their characters are not “cute,” “charming,” or “sweet” in the Napoleon Dynamite way. Their stories are not “clever,” “crowd–pleasing,” or “feel–good” in the Little Miss Sunshine way. They do not feature big–name actors making “in–joke” cameos. Though most of these films are made by Gen–Y artists about Gen–Y characters, they don’t even fit the pattern of Gen–Y movies. Their male characters are not introverted and narcissistic; their female characters are not whiney or clingy; and their narratives are not reducible to the group–hug ethos that says everything will be OK if only you have friends. The films in this program do not pander to the prejudices or predilections of young viewers or attempt to flatter audience members of any age. They take the pulse of contemporary American life toughly and unsentimentally. They challenge the viewer to look at experience in new and potentially disorienting ways and, at their best, ask the viewer to think freshly about the untapped expressive possibilities of the art.
This series was curated by Ted Barron and Ray Carney. Headnote and program notes were written by Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies at Boston University. Prof. Carney is the author of more than ten books on film and other art and manages a web site devoted to independent film at: www.Cassavetes.com.
Ray Carney would like to express his gratitude to Alex Lipschultz, John Gianvito, Andrew Bujalski, Donal Foreman, Kristen Lauerman, Nina Avedon, and to Ted Barron above all for invaluable programming advice and assistance.
June 30 (Saturday) 7 pm
Directed by Craig Zobel
US 2007, video, color, 106 min.
With Pat Healy, Kene Holliday
In many respects, Great World of Sound is the most conventional
work in the series. We’ve seen the main character, his female companion, and his sidekick many times before, and we’ve seen a similar plot in many previous movies. Nothing new there. But Emerson said we have to read for the glimmers, and Craig Zobel’s film is saved from being a Thank You for Smoking knock–off by its “grace notes” – the oddly touching moments the two main characters share, and the nutty audition scenes, which seem too bizarre to have been scripted and acted. Only reality could be this weird. Print courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
June 30 (Saturday) 9 pm
Directed by So Yong Kim
US 2006, video, color, 82 min.
With Jiseon Kim, Taegu Andy Kang, Bokja Kim
English and Korean with English subtitles
American film is so dominated by male central characters and masculine cinematic points of view that it's all the more exciting to see a young woman’s consciousness represented this deeply and sensitively by a female filmmaker. How different Aimie’s way of encountering life – and director So Young Kim’s way of presenting it – is from a man’s. Kim crafts a cinematic style that parallels the way her quiet, passive female character moves through life. Like Aimie, In Between Days quietly observes, refusing to point-make, editorialize, or judge. Aimie refuses to raise her voice or make a scene, and Kim similarly refuses to stoke up the drama for dramatic effect. The entire story is told in shy sideways glances, pregnant pauses, and silences. Print courtesy of Kino International.
July 1 (Sunday) 7 pm
July 3 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Frank V. Ross, Appearing in Person July 3
US 2007, video, color, 72 min.
With Allison Latta, Anthony Baker, Joe Swanberg
Although Hohokam recognizably belongs with the other films on the program, the characters appear to be five or ten years older and considerably more battle–scarred and world–weary than those in the other works – and that changes everything. Ross’s couple hold jobs they don’t enjoy; they have money problems and past due MasterCard bills; their relationship has unclaimed emotional baggage; and some nights they bicker and argue about nothing. In short, the bloom is off the rose. Hohokam is not set in the enchanted, magical, romantic land of young love, the first love where most of the other films the current generation of filmmakers is making take place. Possibilities of magic still survive – in the strangest places, like at the zoo – but magic is the decided exception and its presence is all too brief. Life is not a romance, and neither is Ross’s film. Is this the future the characters in the other works have to look forward to? If so, is it enough? Or, to ask the question these filmmakers ask themselves on a daily basis: Are these lives and careers sustainable? Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 1 (Sunday) 8:45 pm
July 3 (Tuesday) 7 pm
Directed by Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin, Appearing in Person
US 2006, video, color, 120 min.
With Alice Ellingson, Kathleen McNearney, Kyle Conyers
Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin have created a work that, both in its form and content, is organized entirely differently from a conventional film. Their universe is a fragmented, cubistic one where characters’ identities won’t be reduced to cinematic sound bites and their relationships with each other keep shifting and changing. Characters move through a half-comical, half-absurd dreamscape of crowded gatherings, surprising parallels, uncanny linkages, and altered perspectives – as if the shape–shifting of the masks we wear and identities we assume on Halloween were able to liberate the magic in the mundane. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 2 (Monday) 7 pm
Directed by Kentucker Audley, Appearing in Person
US 2007, video, color, 62 min.
With Andrew Nehringer, Timothy Morton, Amanda Harris
Who says drama has to be dramatic? Audley’s Team
Picture presents a view of experience close to the flatness and banality of off–screen life. Rather than being organized around dramatic conflicts, confrontations, and resolutions, Audley’s narrative consists of evasions, delays, and deferrals of dramatic significance. The main character, Dave, drifts and dawdles for most of the movie, and most of what matters to him and other characters is never verbalized. These may sound like merely negative virtues, but Audley’s studious avoidance of rhetorical heightening reveals a complex world on the other side of the programmatic conflicts and patterned intensifications of mainstream filmmaking. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 2 (Monday) 8:15 pm
July 6 (Friday) 9 pm
Directed by Mike Gibisser, Appearing in Person
US 2006, video, color, 97 min.
With Gretchen Akers, Jason Kean, Lucy Quinn
Finally, Lillian and Dan is almost a silent movie. Mike Gibisser’s awkward love story is presented less in words than through the characters’ facial expressions, gestures, and movements. Gibisser gets extraordinary performances from two first–time actors: Gretchen Akers’ (Lillian’s) face is more expressive than a thousand lines of dialogue. She makes even standing in a checkout line exciting. Lucy Quinn (who plays Akers’ grandmother and is played by Gibisser’s real–life grandmother) is just as terrific, and just as non–verbal. Her dancing and singing are as expressive as Akers’ face. Gibisser’s reliance on body language to tell his story is his way of staying true to the inarticulateness of his characters and to the reality of a love story that refuses to get sentimental. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 4 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by David Ball, Appearing in Person
US 2004, video, color, 84 min.
With Anthony Leslie, Laura Flannagan, Christopher Michael Bauer
It says a lot about the state of independent film programming and distribution that David Ball’s film was completed eight years ago but has yet to find a distributor or be screened in a major venue. Perhaps that is because Honey violates most of the conventions of Gen–Why filmmaking. While the vast majority of recent indie films take their inspiration from the coolness and cerebralism of the work of Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Hal Hartley, Ball takes his from the shouts, fights, and life–and–death romantic battles that roil and shake the films of John Cassavetes. Honey focuses on the intertwined lives of two twenty–something couples, but rather than being cool and reflective, they and their interactions are hot–blooded, high–stakes, and more than half out–of–control. Honey’s characters don’t stare at their navels and take their own pulses, but fight and argue and jockey for romantic dominance. Ball’s brilliantly nervous staging, irritatingly jerky shooting, and disorientingly twitchy editing reveal things about Gen–Y that the Time magazine cover story left out. A manifesto for the film can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/97496/Honey-Manifesto. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 4 (Wednesday) 9 pm
Directed by David Barker
US 1999, 35mm, color, 80 min.
With Nathalie Richard, Daniel Aukin, Sarah Adler
David Barker is a minimalist. He pares away every non–essential detail, event, and line of dialogue in his three–character drama about a couple who have to cope with the disruption of an unexpected, Boudu–like visitor. Coinciding with the austerity of the visuals and the spareness of the narrative, the emotional content is almost entirely suppressed, pushed downward, swept under the rug, and left unspoken. These characters cannot even admit their emotional problems, let alone discuss them or work them out. The question Barker asks without asking is which character does the title most describe? And what is he or she afraid of? Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 5 (Thursday) 7 pm
July 9 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by Nick Peterson
US 2006, video, color, 97 min.
With Eric Schopmeyer, Nora Ryan, Nico Izambard
Nick Peterson's Yellow is that most unexpected thing – a Gen–Y musical! Amid the grainy, the gritty, and the grim – in contrast to virtually every other indie "first film" out there – Peterson brings the lyricism of song to his characters’ interactions and the lusciousness of primary colors to his visuals. Peterson has the most sensuous “eye” of any recent filmmaker. Yellow is visually delicious, acoustically sumptuous, and completely original in its sensibility. It doesn't hurt that it is also deeply perceptive and penetrating – an eye- and ear-opener of a movie. It is the first installment in a planned “color trilogy;” Blue will be next. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 5 (Thursday) 9 pm
July 9 (Monday) 7 pm
Directed by Nick Peterson
US 2004, video, color, 26 min.
Directed by Nick Peterson
US 2004, video, color, 4 min.
Directed by Nick Peterson
US 2003, video, color, 10 min.
Directed by Nick Peterson
US 2006, video, color, 3 min.
The influence of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu is everywhere in Peterson’s work, but never more obviously than in Contingent. The story is told almost entirely through a series of carefully composed static shots, in which, as in Ozu’s work, Peterson’s painterly photography creates a series of emotional spaces that function to compare and contrast each of the film’s characters and interactions. Two and Split Pea Soup are both about states of isolation, missed connections, and failures of communication, recurring themes in Peterson’s work, but the first film treats the subject seriously and the second comically. Frenesi, the final Peterson short, was made strictly as a jeu d’esprit. It was planned, shot, and edited in ten hours on a single day, simply for Peterson to have something to do to pass the time and calm his nerves the morning and afternoon preceding the first public screening of Yellow. Even in its off–hand joking way, it shows what a magician of shapes and forms Peterson is. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
Directed by Francesca Rizzo, Appearing in Person July 5
US 1996, video, b/w, 18 min.
There’s always a difference between the kind of movie an actor
makes and the kind of movie a non–actor makes. Fran Rizzo is a veteran film and stage actress and teacher of acting. Her film about the accidental reunion of former lovers reveals an actor’s awareness of the emotional slip–slidingness latent in every living, breathing relationship. Her characters play out their identities and their continuously adjusted relationship in a dance of shifting beats, tones, and moods that zig–zag, collide, and bounce around almost too rapidly for a viewer to keep up with. As an established actress who is significantly older than any of the other filmmakers included in the program, Rizzo does not really fall within the “emerging talent” category, but her film is still so unknown both to critics and the public that it deserves inclusion. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
Directed by Josh Safdie, Appearing in Person July 5
US 2006, 16mm, color, video, 14 min.
With Mickey Sumner, Giacomo Sumner, Josh Safdie
Josh Safdie’s movie was made while he was a university film student
– perhaps as a rebellion against the rules his teachers undoubtedly drummed into him about how movies should be scripted, lighted, and shot. In this comically zany, free–wheeling work, which clearly affiliates itself with Beat Generation values, Safdie (who plays the main character) celebrates the virtues of a life of impulse and a cinematic style that honors spontaneity and improvisation. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 6 (Friday) 7 pm
Directed by Mike Akel
US 2006, video, color, 85 min.
With Troy Schremmer, Janelle Schremmer, Chris Mass
One of the tests of satire is whether it can, at least at moments, be mistaken for reality. Mike Akel’s Chalk passes the test. There are many scenes in Akel’s film where someone not in on the joke would not be able to tell that the film was a parody. In fact, I’ve shown the movie to school teachers who didn’t realize until the final credits that they were not watching a documentary. The reason is that the reality almost exceeds the possibility of parody; things are already comically unbelievable enough as they really are. Akel’s schoolroom version of The Office or This is Spinal Tap will ring bells and bring back Sunday night panic attacks for anyone who has ever worked in a school – or attended one. An educational film in more than one sense of the adjective. Print courtesy of Abramorama.
July 7 (Saturday) 7 pm
Directed by Joe Swanberg
US 2007, video, color, 84 min.
With Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski
Joe Swanberg is one of several directors in the program who is not a first–time feature filmmaker. He has made two previous movies – Kissing on the Mouth and LOL. His third film is a triumph of ensemble (and largely improvised) acting. Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Mark Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski (the latter two are accomplished independent screenwriters and filmmakers in their own right) turn in stunningly relaxed and poised performances. Swanberg’s film demonstrates a dramatic truth many Hollywood films would benefit from. By minimizing external actions, events, and plot, and building scenes around a series of leisurely, extended conversations, Hannah Takes the Stairs makes time and space for emotional revelations. The interactions between the characters coruscate with shifting, subtle flickers of feeling that a more plot–heavy narrative would only have obscured, blurred, or rushed. Print courtesy of IFC.
July 7 (Saturday) 9 pm
July 8 (Sunday) 9 pm
Directed by Aaron Katz, Appearing in Person
US 2007, video, color, 81 min.
With Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau, Sarah Hellman
Quiet City seems so simple, so spontaneous, and so unstructured – as if Katz had merely followed his central couple around the city with a camera for a few days and recorded what they did; but the simplicity is deceptive. Much of the dialogue was indeed improvised, but the film is beautifully constructed to culminate with the scenes in the art gallery and the dance party, where the romantic issues that were suppressed in earlier scenes are finally brought to the surface. Katz also beautifully modulates the film’s tone from scene to scene, glissading from clumsy tenderness (e.g. Jamie and Charlie’s meeting), to broad comedy (e.g. the scenes featuring Adam and then Kyle), to romantic meditativeness (e.g. the scene in the bedroom where Robin talks to Jamie about her need for love), to intimacy (at the end of the film). A point of interest: Joe Swanberg, the director of Hannah Takes the Stairs, also showing in this series, plays Adam in the comical coleslaw scene. Print courtesy of the filmmaker.
July 8 (Sunday) 7 pm
July 10 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Ronald Bronstein, Appearing in Person July 8
US 2007, 35mm, color, 106 min.
With Dore Mann, Mary Wall, Paul Grimstad
No matter what their flaws, the main characters in mainstream movies are almost always appealing in some way. If they are nebbishes, their klutziness is endearing. (Look at the work of Woody Allen.) If they are lonely, their alienation is grand and alluring. (Look at the work of Orson Welles.) If they are evil, their villainy is sexy and rakish. (Look at the work of Christopher Walken.) Ronald Bronstein strips away the Hollywood idealizations and asks us to spend time with genuinely unromantic characters leading genuinely unromantic lives. He creates characters we don’t want to see ourselves as, characters we refuse to identify with. There is much lip service paid to the importance of depictions of “otherness” in film; Frownland reveals that the concept of otherness as redemptive and transformative is a romantic myth. He gives us otherness we want to cross the street to avoid; otherness without sentimentality. Or is he just giving us ourselves with our self–deluded idealizations removed? Print courtesy of the filmmaker.