29 December 2009

Great World of Sound.

Fire up your own Great World of Sound dvd. Put it on in the background, chapter thirteen, 1:25.32 in. If you begin to watch it instead of reading this you're making the right decision, I won't take it personal.

Because Great World of Sound doesn't require qualification. It doesn't require familiarity with contemporary American independent cinema, conditions of society in the southern states, the bland disillusionment of stagnation, the frustratingly misleading dimensions of success, love between friends, between spouses, or between strangers. The film is a tour through a place and time, an introduction to its people, and shrine to the feeling of being there.

There isn't a single sentence which can describe the film. That's why I missed it in the theater. There's no angle. By the time of its release its distributor, Magnolia, was already a well-known independent; the director, Craig Zobel, had been the producer of DGG's George Washington (and here DGG is his producer), which implied certain recycled tendencies it seemed; partly because the trailer was, I think, misleading, because of the classic problem: Magnolia (or maybe even the director, what do I know), didn't know what it had. It wanted to fit Great World of Sound into this popular conception of independent cinema, and it made it seem like either a boring drama or an only slightly funny comedy. It made it seem like a 500 Days of Summer type movie, without the youth appeal. If you think I'm overstating this condition of indie branding which is brainwashing and neutering the market, please take a moment to glance over this year's Independent Spirit Award nominations. Please, take a moment.

Though you don't have to give a fuck about any of this. It's my theory on what happened to this film, from a personal perspective, but it doesn't matter. What I mean is, Great World of Sound doesn't give a fuck. It's liberated. It doesn't make an effort to belong to any movement or be a certain type of film, but, and this is very important, it also doesn't make any effort to be different. It allows its jokes to be fully expressed, its drama to be fully explored, its characters to learn and react, its story to evolve, and it does all this without an imposed cinematic frame. I heard the name Robert Altman thrown around at the time of its release, but I disagree with the comparison. Altman has a unique style, a strong voice, and pronounced features, all of which distinguish him from other filmmakers and imprint a worldview on his films. And I don't feel that Zobel is borrowing from or mimicking Altman. If they have common virtues, it's that they both allow their characters space, and subordinate the plot. Certain attributes are shared between two places off the map.

What delights me about Great World of Sound is the precision of the film. Zobel is a craftsman with a traceless touch, and he reserves cinematic punctuation for impacting moments. Songs work like dialogue, appearing briefly, stating their intentions, and then vanishing (including the auditioning characters). This is different from the bloated use of music in many contemporary films, which drift songs over multiple scenes and entire sequences, making their meaning ambivalent and their presence unmissable. So too does the story creep in the background. When done poorly, a story instructs and leads an audience. In Great World of Sound, the audience's knowledge of the film's circumstances expands as the characters move forward, and it's ultimately the characters who make the decisions that power the narrative. We learn about the reality of the Great World of Sound company through the experiences of the lead characters, and as their perspective changes, so too do their characters' hearts, which alters their decisions. The narrative tension, and the struggle, is generated as they begin to respond to shifting conditions while remaining consistent to their personalities.

Pat Healy and Kene Holliday are the perfect leads because they're comfortable playing the characters. They never feel like they're acting. They're so skillful, so unassuming and natural, that I assumed they were non-professionals or first-timers. Pat Healy and Kene Holliday, it turns out, are professional actors who have been at it for a long time, with many credits to their names. I apologize for my surprise at learning this, but it is of course a compliment, and their performances are commensurate to the accomplishments of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, or Philip Baker Hall, etc, actors who fill their roles with such capability, commitment, and detail that you can't even believe they exist somewhere off screen. Zobel's characters have a completeness, like in a Mike Leigh film.

It's not required of a film to contain the key to its own lock, but I never mind when they do. Great World of Sound does. There's a business meeting, the boss is up front discussing the objectives of the company, and he tells the new-hires: "Most people that make it in this country today just do it on volume. They come up with a simple idea, but yet something everyone can use. Like a bolt, or a slightly different bolt. Or a bowl that holds just a little more cereal. A slight change, small innovation." The message of this speech and its hilariously dead-end delivery enforces the absurdity of the company within the film, and also the treasures of the film itself, which is far more than just a slightly different bolt.

03 December 2009

Coven (and by extension, American Movie).

Here's the thing about Spinal Tap: they're a real fucking band. I've seen their 2007 Live Aid performance, and this year I saw them on Conan. They're real people playing real instruments and writing real songs, and it's only their story and context that is fictitious. If they had never left the movie, if their characters hadn't exited the film, they wouldn't have the conceptual legitimacy that they do. Their continued existence is a laceration to the rules of their conception. I love that.

Here's the thing about Coven: the plot is fictitious. Fictitious? The plot is nonsensical, ludicrous, and etc. It's somehow about real feelings though, and I know this because I know Mark Borchardt, and I know him because of Chris Smith's film American Movie. The parallel existence of these films allows a bilateral comprehension of the man and movie. Coven the film is the coded token of a man's soul, and American Movie is the decoder.

This relationship is essential to me. Ross McElwee competently and sometimes impressively attempts this within a single film, but he makes personal decisions about what he exposes about himself. As honest as he can be, he still operates under a narrative shield, and that inherently creates distance. Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is an emotionally infectious testimony to success by way of complete filmic candor. His film offers total honesty and achieves this because Caouette mines his own gut, but then that's all there is. The closest it comes to Coven-like mystification is the sequence that ruminates on the creation of a rock opera. If that rock opera had been included, it would have been Caouette's Coven.

Less you think I'm ascribing too much meaning to these films, American Movie and Coven, let me be clear: I'd love this concept with every opportunity. I achieve it to lesser degrees when I watch special features, biographical documentaries, read essays, etc, but the connection, it seems to me, has never been stronger than it is here. You can name for yourself other examples which near this effort, but the core and distinctive feature is the amount of information which it is necessary to receive from American Movie in order to understand Coven. Coven requires American Movie for its efficacy.

After American Movie, the alcohol motif in Coven makes sense. The language is understandable. The passion is detectable. Beyond that, the narrative's mysterious interruptions of supernaturally deleterious entities become bizarrely meaningful (absurdly relevant and metaphorical), and this meaning is the beginning of comprehending the function of horror films in general. If I sometimes want to attribute metaphysical, spiritual, or existential qualities to horror films, it seems to me that American Movie/Coven represent a golden bridge for a validation of that effort. Borchardt's personality is splashed across Chris Smith's documentary, and in turn it is splattered through the Coven narrative.

And here's what blows my mind: Coven becomes a real film. I fucking love that.