"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Saturday, April 10, 2010

AIFF Day Three: Calvin Marshall; For the Love of Movies; Greenlit

PS: I've revised these reviews umpteen times since I first posted them. Not sure why I can't quite get it right faster. Not sure I have, yet! Good thing I'm not boxed in by a daily deadline!

For Day Three of the festival, I had three screenings at the Historic Ashland Armory. I was a little nervous about finding parking - the Armory is the biggest venue for the festival, seating 500 people. The first screening wasn't sold out, but still, it's all on-street, in-neighborhood parking there. Just three blocks south of the Varsity theatre, midway between downtown and the Railroad District - all walking distance - but also a rather blustery morning. So I left home about 45 minutes before the film was scheduled to start and there was parking everywhere. Nobody else showed up for at least another fifteen minutes. Note to self: next time remember that and don't worry so much about parking!

Then waiting in line and hearing what films other people had seen. One that everyone seems to love - real enthusiasm there - is Entre Nos, one of the feature films. [PS: this won the audience favorite award for best feature, and a jury award for best ensemble cast] Another one everyone is talking about is The Adults in the Room, which is felt to be be highly original and well written, and though the production values don't stand up too well (first film; no budget), still worth seeing. I don't have tickets for either but will try to see them later.

Lining up at the Armory on Day Three - from AIFF page - by Rory Finney

Today's menu: first, a fine documentary on the history of film criticism in the US, For the Love of Movies.  I was a little surprised this wasn't sold out, since it was the only showing and I would have thought AIFF would show up in droves for this one. And it comes at a time when professional film criticism is almost gone (few paid positions at newspapers anymore; people like me on the Internet making the old intellectually elitist system obsolete). Still, it was a very respectable crowd, a near-sellout, and afterward the filmmaker (in Q&A) commented that he'd been travelling to festivals with his film for a year and this was the biggest audience he'd had - and then he said our questions were better than those of other festival audiences too. He probably says that to all the audiences, but it was nice to hear. I know I always enjoy the Q's as well as the A's. 

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this one as it put my own lifetime of reading film criticism into a linear context and it was fun to revisit basically my own intellectual history in a movie about it (a form of naval gazing I guess but what the heck, a festival is about self indulgence). He caught just the moment, for example, when I went off Pauline Kael. The film was very well put together and entertaining. This was interesting - in the Q&A the director talked a bit about copyright and fair use - everything in the film was fair use and he got around paying any licenses. This is a must-see movie for anyone who loves movies and reads criticism; I don't know if it would be equally interesting to a more casual film fan - but maybe; I hope so. It's a piece of our shared culture, nicely served up.

Then back outside and into the line again to be readmitted on the next ticket, more talking in line and meeting up with three friends. The next film was Greenlit, a short documentary, followed by a good panel discussion on sustainability with the filmmakers and two local sustainability leaders inclucing the lady from the Co-Op who discovered Bag It (and this film?) at some other festival (Toronto?). The film is about the challenges of greening the film industry, one of the top polluters in Southern California and one of the least green of all industries. Or more specifically, an early attempt to conduct a location shoot in a greener manner than usual. The film was The River Why. (That's also on the AIFF schedule but I have to miss it - even had a ticket, but couldn't get there.)

The film itself kind of put me off at first with bratty, sarcastic humor in the form of cheap shots at Al Gore (this always pushes my buttons; the man deserves better and he's on our side, for Pete's sake)... where was I? Still, if that's what it takes to make the mouthbreathers and marching morons in a prospective audience comfortable with the subject, okay (even the self-effacing Gore would probably lend his own image for this use if it served the greater good and who knows, maybe he even did, in this case!)... but anyway, the tone alienated me personally. Let me add that this was only at the very beginning, so if it hits you that way too, my advice is to stick with the movie; it gets better - and much funnier and more substantial as it goes on.

The River Why, the film shoot serving as context for Greenlit
At first, the narrator poses as someone too impossibly backward in knowledge and consciousness to be believed - I know, it's for humor, and she does grow in stature through experience, but still... the more accessible heroine to me is the contractor who is making a living greening-up film shoots; she is very engaging, and open in her attitude. Maybe they deliberately set her up as a shining beacon of sincerity among all the attitude that everyone else hides behind. I liked that. As the narrative of the attempt to green-up the filming of The River Why - and the personal journey of the young filmmaker - progresses, there is plenty of good humor, emotion, and information. Greenlit is quite entertaining and original and witty in a hip, mashup kind of way. I did like it in the end, and would recommend it to a wide audience. It's a very interesting and truthful look at a sustainability path in its infancy, full of mistakes and facing much hostility and even sabotage - basically what we used to call "a learning experience" - so I think Greenlit is valuable for that glimpse into this moment in history, especially.

During the panel discussion that followed, more details emerged, such as union rules that get in the way (requiring plastic water bottles) and unnecessary contract requirements (agents who insist that stars not share a vehicle) - showing the many interlocking areas where changes need to be made, each a new effort in itself. The tangled mess of things as they are, that you always run into when you try to change something. But they also said that the film industry is already doing much better, two years down the road - at least on the studio front; location shoots remain more problematic. Hearing that, it occurred to me that I'd like to see a Part Two of Greenlit - showing how it's done when things improve. That would make a nice feature-length documentary that would be entertaining and inspiring. I'm imagining a future when this new/ancient sustainability ethic has become the norm (again), and we look back at when there was so much resistance to doing the right thing because it wasn't "convenient" and wonder at how fast things changed for the better once the ball was started rolling, by people like these filmmakers.

Off in a half hour for my third outing, Calvin Marshall. [See below for review] This is the only feature film (as opposed to documentaries) that I a have ticket to so far, but I've been wanting to see this one for quite a while. For one thing, I used to be a huge baseball fan and still have an appreciation for the game. For another, this was shot in Ashland (including in the park down the street from here - I actually drove by when they were shooting there, and thought it was a real baseball game, duh) and around the Rogue Valley here, and two years ago AIFF had a panel discussion that I saw, where the filmmakers showed clips of the movie in progress and talked about making the movie locally. This one is sold out.

Tomorrow's another day with three events. It always happens, that with close to 100 films being shown nonstop for the five days, even if you see five films a day you're still going to miss a lot. And my limit seems to be three; more than that and fatigue sets in and I don't enjoy it so much. It's a crying shame that there isn't a better economic situation for independent filmmakers because they make the best ones, and get the least back. Some of the best films of recent years never did make it into distribution. But Internet viewing might be changing that situation; I just hope the filmmakers benefit as well as the viewers.

Oops - there's my ride - gotta go! Forgot to mention the great food at the Armory - Water St. Cafe! Great cafe cup for lunch, and espresso brownies to drool over.

Below: review of  Calvin Marshall. You can see the video trailer at the link here.

Post script: So I made it through Calvin Marshall, and woke up this morning with more cold symptoms. Hit the Airborne, smoothie, coffee, Excedrin, and went back to sleep for an hour. Now up and feeling better! Verdict on Calvin Marshall: not the kind of movie I usually like, but that said, it was very well done. Good editing, music, acting, direction, and, with one exception, scripting. It was an odd combination of sweet (the main character, Calvin, who wants to be a baseball player but doesn't quite have the talent to make it to the next grade, college ball) and disgusting (Coach Little, an abusive alcoholic with what I guess passes, for some audiences, mostly male I assume, for an intrinsic lovable humanity, shown through his soft spot for Calvin).

Here's where I didn't like the movie, and I know, this is just my individual taste, but for me, the intended humor around alcoholism just wasn't funny, whether it was high schoolers just getting started with drinking by running into trees and breaking their noses, or the awful coach destroying his liver night after night in a bar and the odd female characters he seduces (are there really women that stupid?). And then the language - why, oh why does it have to be so foul in so many movies? I really thought he went way over the top, especially since he was supposed to be coaching community college students. Do coaches in educational settings really get away with that much bad language, much less all that outright abusive behavior?

I know, I keep hearing that people use a lot of profanity in some situations, like sports or Hollywood studios, but really, even apart from personal taste it's just so wasteful of language. To me profanity is another form of violence and when overused is just a cheap and easy way to strive for effect and my inner editor gets in the way when it's overdone. So that was very distracting and distancing for me but otherwise, the story was tight and economically told. Considering this is an indie on a low budget (1.5 million) it's a very successful film.

Two things I liked most about the movie: First, the mise-en-scene. For some reason, they decided to set it in what looked to me like the late Eighties or maybe early Nineties. This was shown in many ways and the consistency was interesting. Seeing this in 2010, the era was clear mainly on account of the technology shown: old keyboards and answering machines, clunky telephones, older cars... and what wasn't shown: Windows, little cell phones and texting! (All this about technology is clear now, but I wonder how it will look to the next generation; they'll probably think it's anywhere from 1940 on... just a thought that amuses me.) Anyway, all this - and the small town architecture of Ashland - gave the film a retro feel and maybe it was in this context that they felt the excessive profanity, drunkenness, etc., were fitting. Anyway, the details were consistent and grounded the story in a strong sense of time.

And the other thing I really liked, of course, was the sense of place. It was filmed during the fall and winter in this area and they made good use of the local scenery and people. They used several fine local actors (Ashland is full of them on account of the OSF and the rest of the lively theater scene here) and Ashland looked like Ashland, and even Medford (what they showed of it) looked like Ashland, and they made very good use of our local scenery. I think all the baseball playing was shot either at Safeco Field or down the street from here in the North Mountain Park.

So I watched the whole movie with my mind in an odd sort of reversal of figure and field: with some distaste (for the coarseness) and a distanced appreciation for the technical aspects of the film, and a liking for the theme of the movie, which was about finding the true meaning of life within our limitations, and also what sports ought to be about, and, thank goodness, occasional warmth for some of the characters. But all the while my real focus was on the background stuff, watching the familiar street scene, the park grow autumnal in color and the hills become snowy, reading the local business signs on the fence at the big ballfield, and trying to identify locales that looked familiar. At the small ballfield (the one in my neighborhood) I even got a glimpse of some of my neighbors' houses.

The friend I went with didn't like this one, hands down, because the drunkenness so put her off it. I can understand that; I was just able to disengage from that and look at other aspects and enjoy them apart from the parts I didn't warm to. Though the movie wasn't entirely to my own taste, I have to commend the filmmakers for pulling off a very professional, technically successful, and goodhearted movie on a small budget, and I hope it finds the intended audience and does well and that they make more movies.

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