Monday, August 27, 2012

Me and my big mouth, huh?

It's been a frantic few months since my last post, when I boasted about being back in the saddle. Of course, my day job and personal stuff ended up occupying my time and energy. Well, it sort of gave me time to think about some bigger issues.

When urgent priorities need to be dealt with, I tend to get very single-minded and deny myself the little pleasures in life. I'm starting to realize that this is not the best coping strategy, and that one needs these little perks and pick-me-ups in order to stay balanced. So I've been letting myself go to the movies – particularly independent movies – a little more often lately.

On August 16 I drove to Buffalo for an animation festival in Buffalo River Fest Park, hosted by the fine folks from Squeaky Wheel. It was a good mix of comedies, dramas and experimental work, and it also reminded me how much I love seeing films in non-traditional venues, especially outdoors on a nice night.

This past Sunday, I saw a couple of the films in Project 5, the Little Theatre's mini-festival of films in limited release. The Color Wheel was a smartmouthed comedy-drama about the dysfunctional relationship between a struggling twentysomething actress and her slacker brother. It was shot on old-school grainy black-and-white film, which made it seem like a nostalgic throwback to films like Clerks and Stranger Than Paradise ... but with the more fluid shooting style of a modern movie, instead of the camera being nailed to the floor in a medium shot. I can only assume that titling a black-and-white film The Color Wheel was an act of conscious irony.

There seems to be a mini-boom in indie writer-actresses recently. To the club that so far includes Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) can now be added Carlen Altman, who not only plays the female lead but also co-wrote the script with Alex Ross Perry, who (it gets better) plays her brother in addition to directing the film.

I enjoyed the snarky machine-gun bickering between Altman and Perry, when I thought that it was a reflection of the strained life-long relationship between two siblings. It seemed to get a little one-note once I realized that all the other characters in the film (especially Altman's professor ex-boyfriend) talked in the exact same manner. There is also a Neil LaBute-worthy shock twist at the end that left me more disgusted than amused by these two characters. It's the kind of twist you almost expect in an indier-than-thou movie like this, despite writer-star Altman's character constantly expressing her worries about doing something cliché. Despite these quibbles, the film was funny and a breath of grungy fresh air. I enjoyed seeing a film that felt real, rather than slick and packaged.

The other Project 5 movie I saw was the Canadian sci-fi/horror film Beyond the Black Rainbow. I've been wanting to see this one ever since a friend posted a link to the trailer, which made clear that the film was a stylistic throwback to 1983, the year in which it was set.

Imagine if Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento had teamed up in 1983 to do a remake of THX 1138, and you might have some idea what this movie is like. Artfully shot and deliberately paced, and designed with lurid reds and yellows, this is basically a film about a teenage girl trying to escape from a futuristic research lab/psych ward, with some cutaways and flashbacks depicting the Alvin Toffler-esque guru who's been trying to control her.

The film's claustrophobic setting and relatively small cast, plus its uncanny retro atmosphere (the vast sets and lurid red-and-yellow color scheme give an uncanny sense that this was really filmed in the 70s or early 80s) combine to create an overpowering feel of dread and menace.

The pacing sags a bit in the middle, and the tone of extreme melodrama had the audience openly laughing at some points. A 1966 flashback, seemingly meant to provide an origin-story, left me utterly baffled (though it was gorgeously – and appropriately – shot in extreme black-and-white). A lowbrow scene with two horror-movie-victim hick campers was so hilariously out of sync with the Eurotrashy art-house tone of the rest of the movie that I genuinely don't know whether it was meant to be as funny as it was. Overall, though, I found the film mesmerizing and mind-blowing. I can't imagine how such a strange and unique film got made (and it can't possibly be as expensive as it looks), but I'm sure glad it did. And I hope to hell there's a soundtrack album of the score.

I've always liked it when indie art films and dramas have a sci-fi or fantasy element. That might be my favorite type of film, and I'm glad that subgenre seems to be making a comeback. I guess I have to mention Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and Ruby Sparks again, since they seem to be part of this recent trend, along with Safety Not Guaranteed and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Speaking of sci-fi and fantasy, some weeks ago I finally joined the rest of the world and saw Joss Whedon's The Avengers. Like many people I find superhero movies a bit played out (and many indie film buffs are coming to loath them – check out almost any IndieWire article or editorial in recent months), but Whedon's film put the fun back in the genre.

It was such a relief to see a superhero movie without the “society won't accept me” subtext that's been kind of bringing the genre down recently. I get that there's a big chunk of the comic-book audience that can relate to the idea of being considered a social outcast. But if superheroes really existed, why would they be persecuted? Wouldn't they be considered pretty awesome?

Fortunately, Whedon felt the same way. His Avengers aren't being beaten down by the Man – their biggest enemies are themselves and their own egos. Well, that and the alien armada they have to fight off. As one might expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this was a film about characters who are empowered – which superheroes really ought to be anyway.

Seeing all of these movies – after a long drought when I wasn't keeping up with movies at all – really refreshed my love for the medium. And it also helped me to realize where my passion lies.

There seems to be kind of an internet rivalry recently between nerds and hipsters – between the kind of guys who are into sci-fi and cosplay, and the kind of guys who are into garage bands and vintage clothing. I've heard it argued that nerds are sincere in their interests, whereas hipsters are ironic and mocking and therefore fake. But I'm not sure I see it that way. Nerds seem to be sarcastic and angry a lot of the time, and highly obsessed with the pop-culture of the past (because it represents their childhood). Hipsters, on the other hand, seem to be genuinely seeking out what's new and not-yet-mainstream.

I used to feel the opposite. When I had to read Waiting for Godot back in college, I was coincidentally reading a different book for fun: Medea: Harlan's World, an unusual book that resulted from Harlan Ellison gathering some fellow SF writers together to collaborate on an invented universe, then write some short stories taking place within it. While my college-age self considered Godot a pointless exercise in ennui and defeatism, Medea represented intelligent and creative people pooling their geek talents to actually accomplish something.

The geek/nerd world and the arty/indie world each have aspects that appeal to me. As at least one columnist has put it, the two culture are yin and yang. But I used to think that the two cultures kind of overlapped. 2001: A Space Odyssey was admired by hard-SF engineering types and pot-smoking hippies alike. David Cronenberg has horror fans as well as arthouse fans. Monty Python, Doctor Who and Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy were as appealing to PBS-watching Anglophiles as they were to LARPers. Even George Lucas was influenced as much by Akira Kurosawa as by Flash Gordon.

But in recent years, the two cultures have split away from each other, like the Skeksis and Mystics in The Dark Crystal. I'd rather not have to choose between them, but if I must, then I'm afraid that these days I side more with the hipsters. Whereas nerds are largely concerned with group loyalty (everything always has to be pleasing to “the fans”), hipsters are at least trying to be individuals, and I guess that speaks to me more.

I want to have my mind blown. I want to see and read things that expand my horizons. I thought science fiction was by definition about that – Captain Kirk exploring strange new worlds, Duke Leto saying that without change, something sleeps inside us – but maybe that's changed. Nerds like to see already-established worlds and familiar characters. That's why there are so many sequels and remakes nowadays. Nerds like to explore, and master, the worlds that are created by others. Which is fine. But as a writer and filmmaker, I'd much rather create worlds and characters and stories of my own, as all of my cinematic heroes have done.

I still like superheroes and aliens and so on, but not to the exclusion of everything else that movies are capable of. It seems the media is always arbitrarily deciding where the most important culture currently lives – from the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, to the punks at CBGB's, to the grunge rockers in Seattle – and now they've settled on Comic-Con as the epicenter of everything. In a few years it might move on to something else. But in the rush to cash in on these subcultures, it can get forgotten that there are other cultures and other tastes that shouldn't be overlooked.

The blessing and curse of the Internet is that every kind of culture is out there, but you won't find it if you don't think to look for it. It's too easy to get stuck in a rut, visiting the same handful of sites and listening to the same trollish arguments, because you don't know what else is out there. You can lose touch with other cultures that could expand your horizons. It's easy to complain about the culture you find on the Internet when you haven't even looked around to see what alternatives are out there. Lord knows I'm guilty of this.

I feel like, after far too many years trapped by nostalgia, I'm finally opening my eyes to the possibilities that are available in life. Maybe I'm reaching an age where things seem clear, after years of things seeming to get foggier. You have to let go to move forward.

I've continued to work on an itinerary for my road trip of screenings, and I'm very close to announcing it. I hope to have it up before the end of the week. Stay tuned ...