Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Festival premiere, and time to reflect

It's been a busy week or two in the world of Saberfrog, but first another flashback:

Three years ago today, I met Liz Mariani, the Buffalo-area poet who played Laurel. This was the most difficult role to cast, and I'd sent casting notices out through my filmmaker contacts in Rochester and Buffalo. Liz responded, and also mentioned in her email that she would be performing some of her poetry at the Merriwether Library in Buffalo. This was a Sunday afternoon, so I decided to simply attend the reading to get a sense of what she looked and sounded like (though I think she'd sent some photos by email). She struck me as a good fit for the role, so I introduced myself and we arranged to meet at a future date to discuss the project and role in more detail. We met up at a couple weeks later at a restaurant called Kuni's To Go, where we went over the character and some scenes from the script and she said she was interested. And the rest is history.

Back to the present …

On Monday of last week, I got hit with a massive cold (possibly stress-induced) that laid me out flat. However, I was scheduled to be interviewed for the film for a public access show, and this had already been rescheduled several times, so I managed to suck it up just enough to take part. I tried hard to disguise my lack of energy as modesty and restraint, rather than the illness it was.

Saberfrog has been a huge part of my life for the last few years (I started working on the script around this time in 2006), so after all that time I don't have much trouble answering off-the-cuff questions about what the movie was about or how it was made. I must have performed well, because a member of the TV crew told me afterwards that the interview was good and that she was very interested in seeing the film.

Six days later, this past Sunday, Saberfrog was screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. This was the first festival to accept the film, and I'd been looking forward to this big event for two months. I had planned to do much more publicity this time. I'd even hoped to have merchandise to sell; I'd started to write the first of the fictitious books mentioned in the film, hoping to have it completed in time.

Once again, though, I completely ran out of time and energy. Although the film was finished, the workload at my day job prevented me from expending much creativity on anything else. Although this should have been the most important screening yet, I found myself doing less publicity than ever. I did at least manage to get news coverage, which is a first.

Attendance at the screening was modest – the people who came to see the film were all friends of people who'd worked on it. I'm fine with this, since this was the third showing of Saberfrog in the Buffalo area and anyone who really wanted to see it had probably had their chance. (And the couple other BNFF screenings I've attended so far were no better attended than mine.)

But every time there's a public screening of Saberfrog, it always seems to come at the end of a big struggle. As a result, the film's final scene always gets to me, because it marks a point when the protagonist has survived a painful crisis and is ready to move on.

About nine years ago, I had an unpleasant experience that forced myself to reexamine how important filmmaking was to me and whether it was worth jeopardizing other aspects of my life. At that time, I decided that the world of film was taking too great a toll on me and that it was time to focus more on the career path I'd stumbled into in my day job – a life in corporate America, developing software and other products. And for a while, I was happy, believing I'd escaped a life of instability and madness. Suppressing my old artistic ambitions eventually took a toll, though, and that's how Saberfrog started forming.

Saberfrog is about many things, but one of the big themes is the conflict between a worldview based on emotion and intuition and doing what you feel like, and a worldview based on knowing what the rules are and learning to work within them. On one level this is a conflict between youth and maturity, but on another level it's a conflict between my dreams of being an artist and my efforts to survive economically in the digital age.

I've felt myself shifting back and forth between these two states, like a werewolf. And Saberfrog reflects that internal struggle. But one side or the other has to win, and I'm starting to feel that history has made that decision for me.

As a filmmaker, I'm a 70s kid at heart. All of my artistic heroes saw art as a means of self-expression, a way to exorcise their demons and to communicate with the outside world. In their day, making art wasn't something that everyone did; it was something you had to go to school for (as a filmmaker, that might be the only way you could even get access to the tools). You had to get away from the boondocks and head for urban areas that had a better concentration of people who shared your interests. Art was put on a pedestal; you experienced it in galleries or darkened movie theaters, and people who were capable of artistic creation were regarded with admiration.

Obviously, the culture now is very different. For better and for worse, there's a much more irreverent attitude towards the arts nowadays – partly because the last twenty years have seen so many pompous snake-oil salesmen in the art world as well as in Hollywood, and partly because modern tools allow pretty much any self-willed person, anywhere, to make a film or self-publish a book or write a blog.

While I've been chasing the dream of being a filmmaker since I was a kid, up until recently my dreams were always based on the old standard – get the film shown in theaters, and get a distributor to pick it up and make you famous. I've known for the last couple years that the distribution part of that dream is dead, but I'm started to think that the theatrical part of it might be dead too. Showing the film to an appreciative public audience is the filmmaker's dream, but I'm no longer sure how interested people really are in the theatrical experience when it comes to indie films by unknown directors. People seem content with watching films at home on their computer. And the love of full-length indie features may not quite be there anymore either. Maybe shorter work is the way to go.

Also, to make yourself stand out in a crowded marketplace, you really need to be a relentless self-promoter, which I really haven't been so far. Digital tools allow the indie auteur to be a one-man band, but sometimes you do need help from other people whose strengths are different from your own. Any future project I embark on will have to be more of a team effort.

Which brings me to one other challenging aspect of the modern digital culture. When I first started to go to indie film conferences and hear about “transmedia”, I understood this as a fancy term for “franchise.” But I've read essays and blog posts from people disputing this; the sexy aspect of transmedia seems to be that it is interactive. It's not just an artist dispensing material from on high; the audience is invited to take part as well. That's where my old ways of thinking break down – for me, creating art was always an alternative to being social, not a means of being social.

I have plenty of ideas left in me about Saberfrog and the world it takes place in, some of which seem to suit the new digital world fairly well. I have other stories and concepts in me that might have similar potential. But I'm thinking that the time has come once again to reevaluate my priorities. I can't do it alone anymore.

I have few regrets about making Saberfrog. I learned a lot, I raised my game enormously as a writer-director, and I made several new friends who are eager to work with me again. But I need to rethink, and recharge, before I embark on such a challenging creative project again.

Catching the Express, an RIT film I acted in recently, will be in the SOFA Emerging Filmmakers program at the Rochester 360|365 film festival. The show is Saturday April 30, at 2:30pm at the Little, screen 5. So life goes on.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Reviews: Enter the Void and The Empire Strikes Bank

On Saturday, I had one of the most incredible moviegoing experiences of my life.

About a year ago my friend John Karyus sent me a YouTube link to the strikingly seizure-inducing opening credit sequence for Enter the Void, a film by Gaspar Noe, a director I have to confess I wasn't familiar with.

I finally got to see the film myself this past Saturday, when it played at the George Eastman House. I went in still knowing nothing about the film or its director.

I was completely blown away.

To tell you what the film is about (and this is more than I knew going in, so it is possibly a spoiler), Enter the Void is about a 20-something white American teenager named Oscar, living in Japan with his sister, and becoming a drug dealer in order to support her. On his way to a delivery, he is accompanied by a friend who talks with him about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which states that when you die, you re-experience the past events of your life, then are able to observe the continuing lives of your loved ones before you finally reincarnate.

This idle conversation turns out to be exposition; Oscar is shot and killed when the delivery goes wrong, and the remainder of the film depicts the events of Oscar's past life as well as the continuing lives of his sister and friends, presumably as Oscar observes them.

What makes this film striking is that is filmed entirely from Oscar's point of view, including drug trips, flashback memories, and the wanderings of Oscar's disembodied soul. I would describe the film as being like a combination of Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Requiem for a Dream. And if those sound like awfully big shoes to fill, for me the film lived up to those comparisons. For most of the film's running time I felt that I was watching the greatest film ever made.

I might have reacted differently if I'd known more about the film and its style ahead of time, but I was completely engrossed. I had no idea where the film would be taking me next. I'd never seen a film that captured the experience of dreams and memories in such a vivid and visceral way, in which haunted childhood memories actually felt like haunted childhood memories, rather than just scenes in a film.

After the movie ended, some filmmaker friends and I briefly discussed what we'd seen, and they observed what an epic technical achievement the film was. This was the understatement of the year – Gaspar Noe makes the most of the garish, neon-lit Japan setting, while distorting scene after scene with eye-popping CGI enhancements – yet even this fails to give Noe's achievement justice.

We live at a time when admiration for artists in general, and filmmakers in particular, is at an all-time low. The spiteful, venomous culture of the Internet is more interested in holding amateurs and also-rans up to ridicule than in seeking out anything that might be worthwhile. Any emotion other than hatred or sarcasm is considered wimpy and lame. Being “cool” (which means only doing what other people like) has become more important than having a unique vision. Hollywood movies, more than ever, are pre-packaged product based on established brands. And I was getting to a point where I was starting to go along with this, to think that maybe it's okay for most major movies to be based on comic books or board games, and that being profound is less important than being popular.

Enter the Void rekindled my faith in film, and in art. It showed that it is still possible to do something different, to express a vision, to be unironic, to capture something profound about life.

Enter the Void is not for everyone. Several people walked out well before the end. Almost stereotypically for an art film, there is a heck of a lot of sex and nudity (much of it caused by the fact that Oscar's sister works at a strip club).

Its biggest flaw is that it goes on far too long, particularly in its final section. I kind of guessed what its closing scene would be – and you might be able to guess too, based on my brief description – but it kept straying into irrelevant tangents long before getting there, including a random scene on an airplane and another lengthy, quasi-redemptive subplot that turned out to be only a dream. (The cut I saw was the longer foreign version; Noe allegedly trimmed the film for the American market simply by taking out a reel or two, and I hope that the excised reels were from the last third or so from the film.)

I'm sure many people – especially nerds – will take great satisfaction in bashing this movie. People who don't admire artistic ambition, or lack the capacity to be moved or impressed, or have no insights about life except to say that it sucks, will attempt to define their own smallness of spirit as some kind of superiority. They may regard the film's indulgences and imperfections as proof that the film should not have been made and that its director lacks talent. Perhaps if I, like so many others, would only spend my life wearing the cowardly armor of constant negativity, I too could have shielded myself from the influence of this movie.

But for me, Enter the Void took me on a journey unlike anything I've ever experienced in a theater. It did what great art is supposed to do – put you inside someone else's vision, and cause you to see the world in a new way.

My apartment has gotten messier than usual in recent months, largely due to busyness and work-related stress. When I came home from Enter the Void, I began cleaning my apartment. I began getting my life back in order. Enter the Void was a cleansing, rejuvenating experience. It made me feel that life is precious, and if there's a greater artistic achievement than that, I don't know what it is.


I wasn't planning to see another movie for a while, as Enter the Void seemed like a tough act to follow. But on Sunday, Buffalo filmmaker Jason Lee Klinger – who I've bumped into a few times while promoting area screenings for Saberfrog – had a showing at Buffalo State College of short films by himself and his friends, and I didn't want to miss it.

The program began with several trailers. Perfect House, a low-budget horror movie, looked pretty slick based on its trailer, and I look forward to seeing the actual film. Binary Samurai, a cyberpunk film that seemed to be combining stylistic elements of The Matrix and Avatar (there were dreadlocked blue people in the trailer) was harder to judge by its trailer alone, but the production values were good and I'm kind of a sucker for cyberpunk, so I will probably check this one out as well. Just to round out the subgenres of low-budget SF/horror, Decayed by Emil Novak made sure that zombies were represented; I've come to know Emil as the owner of the Queen City comic book store as well as through the Buffalo film community, so I don't plan on missing that one either.

Some short films were screened too. Homage, a 2004 film directed by Tim Riley, was an ultra-low-tech production whose lead actor, Michel Sunteman, got huge cheers from the audience who presumably knew him personally. Zombie Loves Vampire, a horror comedy by Klinger, was entertaining despite the obviously post-dubbed dialogue being frequently out of sync.

Finally we came to the main attraction: Klinger's latest film, The Empire Strikes Bank (note that's Bank, not Back). Before the screening, Klinger explained that the film was inspired by a funny-but-true news story about a man robbing a bank while wearing a Darth Vader costume. In Klinger's filmed version of the story, the man in the Vader costume is robbing the bank in order to get his hands on a rare Star Wars-themed Burger King glass that the bank is keeping in a safe deposit box. The hapless hero's epic quest brings him into contact with characters whose names, clothing or dialogue paralleled the Star Wars films in various ways, an approach not unlike that of the famous short film George Lucas in Love.

While the world needs another Star Wars parody like it needs another tsunami, The Empire Strikes Bank was a fun movie created with clear affection for its source material. Though deceptively simple and silly, the film was well-paced, performed with enthusiasm, and consistently entertaining.

After the screening, many of the film's props were available for viewing in the lobby. These included a vintage 1977 newspaper article that gave the original Star Wars a mixed review, including quotes from various authors who were in the area for a convention (Ed Bryant was the only name that rang a bell with me).

Buffalo was hit by slushy snow/rain at the end of the screening, which made for a grim drive home. But the journey was worth it. Sometimes I get jaded and start to wonder whether filmmaking is still worth the trouble, so it's always inspiring to see work from different communities, created by people whose passion remains undimmed.