Monday, February 25, 2008

Short Stories

By Elise Nakhnikian

Now that “independent” films often cost nearly as much, feel nearly as slick, and grab nearly as many headlines as their mainstream cousins, it can take a little looking to find a movie that reflects one artist’s sensibility -- or explores the medium in creative ways. A good place to start is with the Black Maria Film Festival, a grab bag of some of the best short films released last year.

Run out of Jersey City, the festival is named for the movie studio Thomas Edison built on the grounds of his West Orange laboratory in 1892. Like Edison’s Black Maria, this one specializes in short, often experimental films.

The quality of the films is very high, says Princeton University professor Su Friedrich, who will screen offerings from the festival on March 5. Friedrich has admired the Black Maria festival for most of its 27 years, and festival director John Columbus and his jurors return the compliment, having selecting some of her films to show in the past. “The jurors are all people who are connected to serious institutions – places like the Sundance Channel and the National Gallery of Art Film Department – so they see a lot of film,” says Friedrich. “They’re a discerning jury.”

This year’s jury culled through about 700 selections to come up with a slate of 58.

Unlike other film festivals, the Black Maria doesn’t screen its own selections. Instead, Columbus makes all the movies available on DVD and invites anyone who wants to host the festival to do so at a place and time of their convenience, either screening all 58 films or choosing among them. As a result, many versions of the Black Maria Film Festival play all over the nation, sometimes even simultaneously. “It’s a traveling festival, democratic and free-form,” says Friedrich. “I don’t know of anyone else who does that.”

For Princeton’s version of the festival, Friedrich chose a dozen films ranging from 2 to 12 minutes in length. Her lineup includes two of the festival’s four grand prize winners as well as several that won jury choice awards or citations.

“Part of the excitement for me is getting to see the work of newer, unknown filmmakers,” she says. “There are a number of better known filmmakers on the list that I didn’t include, because part of the point of a festival is to introduce the public to new work.

“The first time I brought it here was three years ago,” she adds. “There were a number of pieces we showed that year that I purchased for the school to use in the classroom – films that I wasn’t aware of before that I really liked.”

She also chose a few works by established filmmakers this year, people like Marie Losier and experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon. Solomon often manipulates his film directly, “hand processing it and scratching it – very visceral filmmaking,” she says. “This is a departure for him because he’s apparently working from video game images for the first time.”

Friedrich likes the fact that the festival’s jurors, like her, are interested in all types of films. “They don’t just focus on experimental or documentary or narrative or animation – they give awards in all those categories.”

About half of Friedrich’s selections are animated films. “Some are personal or poetic or humorous,” she says. “One is political, about the war in Iraq, and one is a diary about the war in Vietnam. There are several narrative films. And there’s a 12-minute documentary by a filmmaker named Tony Buba from Braddock, Pennsylvania. He’s been doing documentaries about that same town for years. It’s an interesting continuation of a theme.”

Friedrich acknowledges that many people make short movies only as “a kind of exercise or calling card for doing a feature,” but short is the length of choice for most of the artists represented here. “I like to show my students short works, because that’s mostly what they’re making in class,” she says. “It’s good for them to see what’s possible in a short film – to see that it’s a worthwhile challenge to get something good in five minutes rather than to get something bad in 45.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

Diary of the Dead

By Elise Nakhnikian

In one of those weird plot echoes that often reverberate in Hollywood, two horror films now showing -- Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead -- go for realistic chills by posing as documentaries, rough assemblages of often shaky footage taken by young adults who clung to their camcorders as their worlds cave in around them.

We’ve long since lost the shock of the new that generated so much buzz for The Blair Witch Project, the granddaddy of these mock-shock-docs. But Diary writer-director George Romero doesn’t want to just mirror the YouTube generation’s obsession with documenting their lives: He wants to comment on it. The topic of his film is the information overload that, he argues, has lulled nearly all of us into a semi-zombified state of passive nonresistance.

If that sounds like a lot for a zombie movie to bite off, you don’t know Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead kicked off a whole genre in 1968. Romero puts zombies in his movies for the same reason Deb (Michelle Morgan), the level-headed student who edit her dead boyfriend’s footage to create the film-within-a-film in Diary, sometimes adds music to the soundtrack – they want to get our attention. “I’m hoping to scare you ... so that maybe you’ll wake up,” says Deb.

Just as Godzilla was birthed by the Japanese experience with the atom bomb in WWII, Romero’s zombies bring us news about how we’re destroying ourselves and each other, serving their gore with a generous side order of metaphor. That news changes with every decade, giving us what the director, in a recent interview with the New York Times, called “snapshots of North America at a particular moment.”

This time around, Romero is mainly interested in how we’re affected by the barrage of media we’re constantly exposed to – and, increasingly, producing ourselves. He wants to explore the way that holding a camera turns us into passive observers rather than participants, even when we’re filming our own lives. And he wants to look at the way all the violence we’re exposed to has desensitized us to death.

All true, no doubt, but these aren’t blindingly new insights, so a little of this kind of talk would have gone a long way. After the second or third time Deb says: “if it isn’t on camera, it’s like it never happened, right?” you’re practically rooting for a zombie to shamble over and shut her up already.

But try telling that to Romero. Like an anxious mom with medicine to dispense, he keeps tapping your shoulder and handing you yet another dose of earnest social commentary. You know he means well. You may even think he’s right. Still, it’s a real buzz kill.

That’s not to say that Romero has lost his sense of humor or his talent for putting us right inside a scene, with his handheld cameras and his guy-next-door feel for how regular people talk.

The movie starts on a light foot, with Deb’s boyfriend, film student Jason (Joshua Close), making a mummy movie in a dark woods that could be straight out of one of Romero’s own movies. Romero good-naturedly spoofs his own work as the lead actress complains about the treatment of female victims, Jason pontificates about making “a horror movie with an underlying thread of social satire,” and Deb, the voiceover of reason, informs us that Jason really wants to make documentaries.

Then the zombies stumble back to undeath and we’re off. Jason, Deb, a disillusioned retired professor of Jason’s, and a handful of his fellow film students commandeer what looks like a film school van and head off in search of a safe haven in the fast-spreading chaos. We’re along for the ride, watching it all unfold through a combination of Jason’s omnipresent lens and the footage he gathers from sources like Youtube, MySpace and the surveillance cameras he finds everywhere.

Ironically, Romero creates the very condition of passive semi-engagement that his movie critiques. I never rooted for any particular person to survive, aside from Deb and a feisty Amish farmer the group encounters on the road. Everyone else was so underdeveloped I barely learned their names before they were gone.

Of course you want the humans to prevail and the zombies to die, preferably in showy and imaginative ways – like the one whose brain fizzes into oblivion when acid eats through his skull. But that generates about as much emotional investment as you’d get from playing a video game, along with a similar pattern of long patches of low-level tension dotted with adrenaline spikes.

Romero may have outsmarted himself this time, going so meta he lost sight of the main storyline. After all the mini-lectures were over, Diary of the Dead taught me one new thing: Too much talk about how filming something deadens its impact can really deaden a movie’s impact.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fool's Gold

By Elise Nakhnikian

Unlike that perpetually intense ping-pong player in the Movie Fone ad, I’m usually in the mood for just about any kind of movie. But lately, after a long run of deep-dish year-end art-house movies, I’ve been longing for a light romantic comedy.

So when I settled in for Fool’s Gold, diet Coke and popcorn in hand, I was hoping against hope (I’d seen the trailer) to be transported to that rom-com fantasy island where the lead characters are gorgeous, the sidekicks are a hoot, the endings are happy, and the dialogue crackles with barely sublimated sexual attraction.

But the aptly named Fool’s Gold, it turns out, isn’t a romantic comedy at all. A herky-jerky action-adventure story, it uses a romance run aground as the MacGuffin to set the overstuffed plot in motion, then keeps throwing in distractions in a desperate attempt to maintain a brisk pace.

Screenwriters John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, who previously collaborated on the sequel to Anaconda and They Nest, a made-for-TV horror movie, appear to have conceived of Fool’s Gold as an update of The Palm Beach Story, a Preston Sturges screwball comedy. So far, so good; if you’re going to steal, by all means steal from the best. But Claflin, Zelman, and director Andy Tennant (Fools Rush In, Hitch) dumb the story down at every turn, substituting character-based humor and witty dialogue with violent slapstick and making the search for money the movie’s subject, not its subtext.

The actors playing all the major characters are also a lot more clayfooted than those in the 1942 release. The wife who’s divorcing a husband she still loves because he’s broke was a tartly enchanting creature, as played by Claudette Colbert in Palm Beach, but Kate Hudson’s Tess seems merely peevish. The rich man the wife hooks up with is a comically effete milquetoast in the original, but Nigel Honeycutt, his counterpart in Fool's Gold is given far too much gravitas by an actorly Donald Sutherland, who looks about as comfortable with a stiff upper lip as he would in a rainbow-colored Afro. He can’t even quite make the man’s speech sound human, resorting at one point to the Yoda-esque query: “Married, are you getting?”

As for the husband, the steak tartare of Joel McCrea has been traded for the McDonald’s all-beef patty of Matthew McConaughey. The actor takes off his shirt every few minutes, as if hoping that the sight of his tanned and toned flesh will distract us his surprising dearth of charisma -- not to mention chemistry with his costar.

Tess gets a job on Nigel’s yacht and McConaughey’s Finn follows her there. Setting up and then playing out the estranged couple’s cat and mouse courtship as they play tourist in the land of the rich is the sum total of The Palm Beach Story, whose characters are slyly named Tom and Gerry – and it’s more than enough to keep us entertained.

But Fool’s Gold is as flatflooted as Palm Beach is fleet. While the people in Palm Beach are constantly talking, inserting innuendoes at every turn, Fool’s Gold alternates expository speeches with long stretches of near-wordless action. As if they knew their dialogue needed propping up, the filmmakers pile on too many subplots, too many guns, and too much violence, even a couple of deaths. There are also boy toys galore: fishing boats, a sleek yacht, jet skis, a helicopter, a sea plane – and, of course, Hudson and a juicy Alexis Dziena in skimpy swimsuits and tight diving suits.

Hudson looks good, all right, and so does McConaughey, but together they have all the appeal of oatmeal. We’re supposed to think they had a world-class sex life – Tess is always talking about it. But it’s hard to imagine, since they look and act like brother and sister, two hard-bodied members of some lost Kennedy-esque clan.

In the great screwball comedies, the couples always fought right up until the moment when they got together. But their mostly verbal swordplay was a game they both enjoyed – and a sign of how well matched they were. They may have sometimes doubted that they should be together, but the audience never did.

When Hudson slugs McConaughey, you just wonder why one of them doesn’t take out a restraining order already and put us all out of our misery.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Etgar Keret: Whole Worlds in a Handful of Pages

Fifteen minutes into our interview, Etgar Keret is apologizing again. He is, he explains, doing last-minute preparation for a trip to the States. “Would you mind – could you call me back in half an hour?” he asks. “My wife needs some help.”

Keret may be one of the most critically acclaimed writers in Israel, but he seems refreshingly free of ego bloat. He’s also exceedingly considerate – which, he says, is part of the reason why he loves to write fiction. “If you’re a considerate person, whenever you want to do something in life, you think about how it will affect other people,” he says. “But you can break all the windows in your fictional house, you can burn the walls down, and nobody gets hurt. If you’re rude to your characters, they don’t get hurt because they don’t exist.

"So you can connect to your inner emotions and fears – all those things that you don’t want to express because you don’t want to hurt people or get in trouble, you just want to be nice.”

Keret's short stories generally crystallize one thing – an emotion, a certain type of relationship or personality, a stage of life – while reverberating with many other echoes. Part of a seriocomic Jewish tradition that includes S.J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers, and Woody Allen, he punctures hypocrisy, pomposity, and other human weaknesses without wagging fingers. Funny, poignant, wildly imaginative, and shot through with surrealistic absurdism, his stories are intelligent but never weighty, dark but never depressing. The best contain whole worlds in a handful of pages.

One of the most popular living writers in Israel and the only Israeli author to have been published in the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the latest intifada, Keret also has plenty of fans abroad. He’s been featured in magazines like The Believer and Tikkun and invited to contribute to papers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian. “I’m much more successful in the US than I ever expected to be,” he says. “As a foreign writer who writes short fiction, I’m not playing in the main court.”

His stories have also made it onto the global film circuit. Wristcutters: A Love Story, a smart, English-language black comedy based on a Keret novella, hit a string of film festivals before landing in a few U.S. and U.K. theaters last year.

Foreign publications often ask Keret to write about the political situation in Israel. He finds those requests “completely legitimate” – and, at the same time, a little absurd. “I think it’s strange that people think writers should have some kind of answer,” he says. “In my mind, people who write are not usually very good at dealing with reality in the first place. I always say, if people ask me for a recipe for cheesecake, I’m happy to give them one, but they may find a better recipe on the Internet.

“Usually when I write about a political situation, I don’t want to write from this reductive point of view that says: ‘This is the way that we should go to lead us to the Promised Land.’ I like to be in a slightly more Socratic position, trying to challenge existing views or to show things in a different light. What you usually do in fiction is the opposite of simplifying the situation. You write about ambiguity, you write about character, you write about this wonderful life that is so difficult to contain and to articulate.”

Keret works in many media, writing children’s books, graphic novels, plays, screenplays, TV shows, and skits for a popular TV comedy he calls “kind of the Israeli equivalent of Saturday Night Live.” He has won significant awards as a filmmaker, most recently sharing the prize for best first feature at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with his wife, writer Shira Geffen. The two (pictured above) won for Jellyfish, a surrealistic film written by Geffen and co-directed by Geffen and Keret.

“I love experimenting with other mediums and genres,” he says. “The thing I am mostly interested in is basically telling stories. The more I shift between the mediums, the more I learn about storytelling, and many times I can transport strategies from one medium to the other. It’s kind of like a continuous education: you learn new things, and you experiment with them. For example, I’ve learned from working with film to look at a story I’m writing in terms of not just how it occurs in my head but thinking about mise en scene and other things outside the character’s reality.

But short stories – especially very short stories – are “always the home base for me,” he says. “You can write from so many places – from your brain or your heart – and I always say I write from my gut,” he adds. “And this kind of instinctive writing, it’s very difficult to write long fiction from it. My stories are like explosions, and it’s very difficult to explode slowly.

“I think basically for me, writing is an act of losing control. When you write short fiction, you don’t hold back; you just try to go as hard and as fast as you can. You’re trying to go somewhere, and you don’t know where that place is.”

So how does he know when he’s gotten there? “For me, writing is a place of honesty and sincerity, and it is always easy to know when I’m not honest. Sometimes I see I am just trying to look smart or trying to impress people or whatever. The moment I know that is it sincere, the only thing I ask myself is if it is interesting. Sometimes it can be very sincere and very boring.”

While he hasn’t been consciously influenced by any other writers since Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut inspired him to write his first story, during his miserable obligatory stint in the Israeli Army, Keret feels a kinship with contemporaries like George Saunders, Miranda July, and Nathan Englander. “I really love their stories,” he says. “I feel like they’re the same species as mine, the same kind of animal – more at the core than in the style.”

That sense of kinship, he adds, is “a wonderful thing. As a human being, you don’t want to be lonely. You don’t want your stories to be lonely either. You want them to have some friends out there.”

At 40, Keret has been writing steadily for about two decades. “I’m developing as a writer as I’m developing as a human being: I don’t necessarily think I’m becoming a better human being, and I don’t think I’m becoming a better writer,” he says.

“It’s like looking at yourself in a photo album when you were ten years younger. For some people, it would be very clear that these were the good years or the bad years, but I think for most people, you think of some things you miss from those years and some things that you have now that are better – like your family. So I don’t think I get better; I think I just change.”