Friday, September 10, 2010

DIY Cinema

My posting has dropped off the cliff this month, but I have an excuse. I've been a screener for a film festival this summer and the past few weeks were crunch time (plus, I went to Dragon•Con last week, but that's another matter). I can't tell you which festival. I can't even tell you about the movies I saw. I can tell you about the experience, though.

For the most part, I saw short films. There were a scattering of features, but most of those were sent in on DVD and, since I don't actually live in the city where this particular film festival takes place, I missed out on those. The festival also used online screeners for their entries, presumably because wrangling a bunch of people into one place to watch a DVD is a bit like herding cats. The quality of the entries was all over the place, especially given that the preponderance of entries were student films. Here are some general observations:

  1. Digital filmmaking rules the day. I don't believe I saw a single film shot on actual film. The quality of digital, like the films themselves, is all over the place. A goodly number of films looked like they were shot on consumer model cameras. A fair number of them looked to be shot on seriously high-end cameras. Most of the ones that were shot on high-end cameras were from outside the US and were presumably funded by government film institutes and whatnot. I won't say that the quality of the image didn't have an effect on my opinion--it did--but creative filmmaking works regardless.

  2. The major theme of the movies I saw was "parents recovering from the death of a child." It got to the point where I wanted to throw up my hands and shout "Again? Really?" Not all of them were like this, nor even a majority, but there were enough to be annoying.

  3. Animation is alive and well. Several animated shorts were included in the submissions. While the 3-d computer animation tended to be really stiff in these films, other forms of computer assisted animation--one film looked to have been made in Flash, for instance--make creative use of their limitations. One film was a small-scale knock-off of Miyazaki, and not a bad one, either.

  4. Documentaries and film noir produced the best films among the entries. While not all of the films from these sectors were good, they hit on a higher percentage than other kinds of films.

  5. Conversely, comedies were the most trying sector. Comedy is hard.

  6. Feature films are hard to make. Of the features I saw, only one didn't seem like it was padded to make length. The others tended to meander with footage that didn't have much to do with the thrust of the film. An excess of establishing shots was a major problem with almost all of these films. I don't think many of them were well-thought out at the script stage. Mind you, there are plenty of films in the multiplexes that aren't well-thought out at the script stage, either, but they generally don't make the same mistakes as DIY features.

  7. Only one queer-themed movie among the entries. Only one Western. Not the same movie, by the way. Only a small handful of truly experimental films (and these were generally not that good). A smattering of horror films, too, and a couple of these were very good indeed (though I'm sure that some varieties of horror fans would deny them the name "horror," given that there was no actual blood in them). The two horror films I really liked were both from Scandinavia. Go figure.

  8. I tended to be really nice with my comments and ratings. I think I only rated one film below the middle rating. I think I still wound up with a bell curve and the best films still matriculated to the top, but I was told that the filmmakers themselves would receive my comments and I really didn't want to be a bitch about it to filmmakers who are doing it for love rather than money. I mean, each of these films represents some filmmaker's dreams, and who am I to stomp on that, eh? It's kind of a tightrope. I don't know that I have it in me to adapt Flannery O'Connor's dictum that the universities aren't suppressing enough young writers toward young filmmakers. Can you do this job without going for the jugular? I don't know. Only one film got a rise out of me, mainly for pointless sexism. The rest were trying really hard, and you could see that even in the films that didn't have many resources or, really, any talent behind them.

In any event, this was a great experience, and I hope to do it again next year. All told, I think I watched about eighty films. It was fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a transgender actress who is on my list of Facebook friends. She wanted to know if I would review her film. I said, sure, but I warned her that I have serious issues with most TG-themed movies. She sent it to me anyway (perhaps foolishly) and it arrived in the middle of my festival work. The name of the movie is Lexie Cannes (2009, directed by Tom Bertling), which is a pretty bad pun. The film follows a deaf transgender photographer who is being stalked by two men--one harmless, the other less so--and who is having issues with her girlfriend. Oddly enough, it looked a LOT like some of the festival films I've been watching: filmed on lower-end digital from the looks of it, it compensates for less than high-end equipment by including in-movie video footage from the point of view of the camera of one of the stalkers. This is a familiar technique to anyone who has seen, say, The Blair Witch Project. It's more or less silent (appropriate given the main character's disability, so it makes an asset out of a limitation), and has lots of extraneous footage (establishing shots out the wazoo toward the beginning).

I've said this before: when you're dealing with movies from this sector, you make allowances. In spite of the obvious limitations, the filmmakers make good use of their resources and Portland, Oregon locations. There's even a fair competence when it comes to suspense filmmaking. It's well-edited. I'm a little bit uneasy about the exploitation elements of the film. In the conversation I had with Courtney O'Donnel, the film's lead, she mentioned both the pressure for such elements from the film's backers and a desire to make a film that gives a positive depiction of its transgender heroine. It's a bit of a knife's edge the filmmakers are trying to negotiate. It's a conditional success with this. The film is set in a world mostly populated with sex workers even though its lead character is not one, so the exploitation elements tend to sexualize the movie (and, by inference, its lead character). But then the movie bends over backwards to present Lexie as a quasi social worker, who takes battered women to a women's shelter and who follows a man she suspects of being a serious creep to get the goods for the police. This last part is the most interesting storyline in the film, and I wish it had occupied more of the movie, but that's the fan of horror movies in me talking. The refusal to make Lexie a victim is laudable, even if they take it to a kind of extreme.

The movie does have a big structural problem, though. It contains, basically, three stories, but fails to integrate them. It's episodic, almost a picaresque. This is not an uncommon problem for super-low budget films. Could it have managed a feature length with any of these stories? Probably. Certainly, the central episode with the second stalker could have been greatly expanded. It probably should have been, but there may be a budgetary limitation at work here. Or the film might have been able to integrate them with some chronological reshuffling or judicious cross-cutting. Be that as it may, the whole isn't bad, but it's also kind of a curio.

No comments: