Friday, December 06, 2013

I'm way behind #10: The Connection (Shirley Clarke)

If I were the religious type, I'd say that Milestone Films have been doing God's work for years. They restore and release great lost and/or previously unavailable films (Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles, Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, Samuel Beckett's Film, de Oliveira's I'm Going Home and Oporto of My Childhood) in theaters and on video, and they recently restored a trio of films (The Connection, Portrait of Jason, and Ornette: Made in America) by the overlooked and under-appreciated Shirley Clarke, a former dancer who transformed herself into a pioneering independent filmmaker in the boys club art scene of '50s and '60s New York. She also helped another great independent filmmaker get his start when she loaned her equipment to John Cassavetes so he could shoot his first film, Shadows.
Clarke had range. She made avant-garde shorts, fictional narrative features, and documentaries, but these weren't separate, static categories for her. Instead, each of her works contained elements of documentary, narrative, performance, and experimentation. The Connection is Clarke's 1961 adaptation of Jack Gelber's experimental theater piece about a group of junkies waiting in a loft for a member of their circle to come back with some heroin. The play was notable for having the actors break the fourth wall and confront audience members while still in character, and another actor portrayed the play's author who was forced into the action by his own creations. In Clarke's film, a two-person documentary crew (director and cameraman) films the junkies while they wait for their fix, but the addicts aren't the passive subjects the director expects them to be, and soon he, and to a lesser extent his cameraman, become part of the film.
Though Clarke sets the movie entirely in the confined space of the loft, The Connection never feels like a filmed play. This is a cinematic experience, and Clarke's camera moves constantly, gliding through the simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic loft, capturing faces and movement and lack of movement, sometimes aggressive, sometimes backing away in what feels like embarrassment or fear. The men who live in the loft never leave it and are there from the beginning, but other characters enter and leave, including a small jazz group with their instruments. The junk-sick musicians play compulsively while they wait, but each performance is a little different. Sometimes they're just killing time, sometimes a moment catches fire, sometimes they play because they're afraid to do anything else, sometimes the playing is a provocation, a way to interrupt conversation and close themselves off. A man who presumably lives in a different room in the building comes in twice to play a record, plugging the portable phonograph into an outlet on a light bulb fixture. The loft fills with sick junkies until the connection, Cowboy (Carl Lee), finally shows up with the drugs. One by one, the men enter the bathroom with Cowboy. The door closes, we wait outside the door with the relaxed, floaty faces of the newly high and the tight, nervous expressions of the sick men still tensely waiting their turn. An elderly crusader for Christ, Sister Salvation, follows Cowboy into the loft to preach the word of God, oblivious to why the men are there. She eventually gets the picture and leaves, and the other junkies slowly trickle out the door. The instruments are broken down, packed up, carried out. There's a strange camaraderie in the group misery and release of the waiting and the receiving, even when arguments break out and grudges are expressed, but as the high fades, the whole breaks down into scattered, individual parts. These are solitary, lonely people, going back out on the street to live desperate lives.

Monday, December 02, 2013

I'm way behind #9: Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

"Mumblecore" is one of those words, like "grunge," that's slightly pejorative and entirely ridiculous, an umbrella term lazy journalists and marketing types use to group together superficially similar work under the guise of a movement that doesn't exist until the word's constant repetition puts a frame on it, but it's also one of those words, like "grunge," that seems to fit its subjects anyway. You know mumblecore when you see it, like you know grunge when you hear it, even though there's really no such thing as mumblecore and no such thing as grunge, even though there is, and you know it when you see it/hear it, even though there's no such thing. 
The group of films lumped into the mumblecore descriptor do share a lot of superficial qualities. They are primarily low-budget independent films with non-actors, made by and focusing on lazy, inarticulate twenty- and thirtysomething "hipsters" (another one of those meaningless but packed-with-meaning umbrella terms) as they experience relationship, career, and/or artistic problems that are too mild or poorly articulated to be considered crises. I dislike a lot of these films and have a guarded enjoyment of others that never quite manages to congeal into respect. Some of these films look like garbage, with not much thought given to shot composition. There are a few gems buried in this movement-that's-not-a-movement, though, and most of them are Bujalski's.
Bujalski's first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, sound like nothing special on paper. The first is about inarticulate hipsters in Boston and their relationship problems. The second is about inarticulate hipsters in Brooklyn and their relationship problems. Bujalski, though, unlike contemporaries Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, has a real filmmaker's eye for shot composition, a knack for capturing organic unforced weirdness, and a sense of offbeat narrative driven by the characters and the visuals and the rhythmic possibilities of film editing instead of mumblecore's usual aimless narcissism and "eh, it's good enough" camera placement. And when most of his peers were shooting on crappy digital cameras, Bujalski shot on 16mm film. By the time of his third film, Beeswax, he'd become a more relaxed, confident, and visually accomplished filmmaker, and his characters were smarter, more articulate, less smug, and more complex. Beeswax is Bujalski's warmest film, both narratively and visually, and a more successful piece of slice-of-life realism than most of American film's given us lately.
Computer Chess is something else entirely. This is a film that doesn't belong to any movement, media-created or otherwise. It's a weird, weird movie, so full of humor and life and ideas and digressions and moments of unexpected beauty. Set in the very early '80s in a nondescript motel that doubles as the site of a computer chess tournament and a New Age self-help guru's retreat, the film was shot on black-and-white analog video that looks like old security-camera footage. The images created by this camera are simultaneously ugly and beautiful, and they create an atmosphere and tone I've never seen before. This is one of the most convincing period films I've seen as well. It feels like the early '80s, not people pretending they're in the early '80s. Instead of nostalgia, though, Bujalski is creating something new, a hybrid of documentary-style cinema verite, comedy, drug trip, experimental film, science fiction, character study, and exploration of artificial intelligence. Computer Chess is Bujalski's funniest and most disturbing film, by a wide margin, and it's a real leap forward for him. He's way outside his comfort zone, but he's brought all his strengths to the party. This is an original work by a filmmaker I thought I had pinned down, but the way he balances and combines contradictory elements here has changed my estimation of what he can do. I'm excited to see where he goes from here as he continues to move away from the mumblecore ghetto.

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