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07.08.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GEARED UP TO GO: You can buy the equipment and make the film, but if no one sees it, what's the point?

Fade to Black

Filmmaker Alejandro Adams and the fierce and glutted world of indie movie-making

By Richard von Busack


Become an indie filmmaker! Earn big money! No experience necessary! That promise inherent in the rise of digital film and home-editing technology may be at an end. Blockbusters elbow out the offerings of small-budget filmmakers, who try to get a word in edgewise past this week's cinematic event.

The irony is thick. Even as theatrical features become cheaper and easier to make, they proliferate so quickly that it is harder and harder to find an audience for them. Intense competition for big-money features results in the release each week of as many as a dozen little movies you haven't heard of, with no budget for promotion and just one week to make it or break it—mostly in the name of garnering blurbs for the DVD release. And those are the films that have distributors.

Just ask area filmmaker Alejandro Adams about how many obstacles an indie film must surmount. Adams earned praise from Variety for his 2008 film Around the Bay. The trade paper's Dennis Harvey has called Adams "an arresting talent." Well-regarded indie-film blogger Karina Longworth and The New York Times' Phillip Lopate (so did I, for what it's worth) added to the positive press for Around the Bay, an impressionist tale of a Los Gatos businessman and the estranged daughter he hires to work as a nanny for his son, her half-brother.

Despite the praise and some well-received local screenings, Around the Bay continues to bounces around the film-festival circuit without a distributor. Not so long ago, the Woodstock Film Festival sent Adams a typical "thanks, but no thanks" letter.

"Again," Adams tells me, ruefully. "We're talking about a festival known to program scrappy low-budget fare. The festival made its name on DV [digital video] features with no light and bad sound. The rejection letter had a hand-written message in the margin: 'Too bad we didn't have room for this—the actors were good.'"

Adams' second film, Canary (2009), also turned out to be too strange for the alleged cutting edge. Canary is far less narrative-driven than Around the Bay even. This dystopic set-in-the-near-future story of organ harvesting was made with no blood, no gore and no sci-fi gadgets.

Adams concentrates on one strange cog in the wheel: a dark, solitary girl (Carla Pauli) who works for the biotech concern Canary International, capturing unwilling donors and recycling their guts. She connects the film's disparate parts: a focus group, an office full of chit-chatters and a few half-deranged individuals who have intuited what's really going on.


Saturday Film, Sunday Film

Adams is a creative writer who moved into the realm of film. As he works, he opens up his process, pushing hard, experimenting and working on budgets that couldn't even really purchase shoestrings.

"In Canary," Adams notes, "I was expressing nothing more than a notion, allowing the camera to articulate an idea that I hadn't allowed myself to fully formulate. I guess that's the ultimate form of organic or intuitive cinema, and I'm not sure to what degree it can be sustained in the context of an ostensibly narrative film. [I was] turning dreams into cinema, basically, as Wim Wenders dealt with in Until the End of the World."

And now Adams is editing his third film, Babnik, while working on two new films simultaneously.

"I get stuck in editing," he confesses, "and as in the case of my three previous longer films, I get locked in an in-depth process where communicating with human beings is not required. My films are heavily improvised, and it takes a long time to edit them. Doing two new films side by side is logistically simple; while there's no overlap of the cast, the crews are identical. There's no dramatic correlation—but one of the films is very emotionally difficult."

His two new films are titled Child of God and Amity. Adams is in the middle of his hectic side-by-side filmmaking marathon even as I talk to him. Before he began making these films, Adams promised, "Child of God will offend anyone who isn't offended by Babnik and Amity."

Adams is shooting the two films locally on weekends. "Child of God, the film I'm making on Saturdays, is not so emotional," he explains. "The Sunday film, Amity, is very much so. I should have scheduled the heavy one on Saturday and the lighter one on Sunday."

In Amity, the title character, a young girl, is about to graduate high school. Her very estranged father, an Air Force officer, turns up unannounced on her doorstep with the surprise present of a limo. Amity wants no part of him. So the limo's driver (a former military man himself) and the officer head off together for a self-destructive evening. The potential for trouble in a night out for these two charged-up men accounts for the film's heaviness.

Adams notes, "Amity's father is based on my father—the irascible Air Force guy who's as charming and magnetic as he is dangerous. It would have been hard enough to face the film had my father not died three days before we started shooting. And, no, I wasn't expecting it."

Adams' Sunday film, Child of God, is "very unusual for me, it has the kind of broad ideas that aren't my cup of tea. I'm using the red-state, blue-state power struggle between a church and a variety show that's renting their building. It'll be the culture war in miniature; I'm still not sure how I'm going to be handle that in terms in tone—of comedy or drama."


The Hipster Hex

After the crunch time of getting these three films into viewable shape, Adams proposes a triple-threat attack on the film-festival circuit in time for the fall submission deadlines: "I want them to all come out of the hopper at the same time."

Meanwhile, Adams is watching his earlier films as they slowly rise in the world. This spring, Canary screened at the "Migrating Forms" program at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. This month, Canary will play at Fantasia, a Montreal film festival dedicated to science fiction and fantasy; "lots of European press there," Adams notes hopefully.

AFI in Los Angeles has agreed to look at Canary without an entrance fee. And there's a possibility that one of the key magazines about independent film will list Adams as one of the 25 directors to watch in 2009.

"Clearly, the brand is growing, regardless of how few times the film is screening," Adams says. "Now there's a backlash. I'm hearing the word 'hipster' used about me, probably because some very powerful people in the indie film community are giving me recognition."

Adams is a regular presence on Twitter, quick to reply to the critics and fans and to comment on the various feuds in the cinema world. There he can be found discussing the beyond-indie scene with intelligence or live-blogging a recent cable TV screening of The Magnificent Andersons.

I griped that it was abominable to be thumbing away when you should be watching the movie. Adams countered that he knew the film well. Certainly, the track of comments he and others left were intelligent, ranging from close looks at the compositions, the underuse of Agnes Moorhead and the strangely good performance by the usually mediocre Tim Holt in Orson Welles' second masterpiece.

Adams is and has been a provocative writer on the rise and fall of "mumblecore"—an indie rebellion that, like all indie rebellions, was co-opted fast.

Last winter, I watched Adams at work directing a scene for Babnik. I was there for two and a half hours, and mostly what I saw were people crossing the room. I sat on a spiral staircase behind the reflectors and the boom mikes. The improvised studio was quiet enough to hear the droning of a B-52 wheeling overhead from Ames/NASA.

The scene involved girls auditioning for what seems to be a legitimate modeling agency, doing the pony walk for a slightly sinister group of Russians. One girl posed, sitting, smiling prettily, on the edge of a three-legged stool. Behind me in the break room, the mother, a chaperone for one of the female players lounged in a conical chair. ("Only one minor in this picture," Adams says later. "I would have liked to have had more. It's more creepy that way.")

The scene was completely unexplicit but completely insinuating. A model entered, wearing high heels, rolling her shoulders in her tight, low-cut ultramarine dress; a Russian emigrant, Misha, newly in the sex trade looking her over, pantomimed to her how to thrust out her hip.

"Tip your head. I want to see your eyes."

Adams told Michael Umansky, the actor playing Misha: "You need to manhandle her more . . . harder, faster, whirlwind. Touchy-touchy. Be brutal. Make this clear to anyone watching that this is a kind of sexual manipulation."

Alejandro padded around on rubber sandals in a jersey and shorts. He took care of business, cutting the air-conditioning because of sound leakages. He instructed some Russian extras in the background to talk to each other so the sound would percolate in from off-camera.

Directing is much a matter of directing traffic as much as directing performances. "Your walk is a little campy, give me something more natural"—this was Adams' note to one of the Russians' security officers, who sported, for the part, a peroxided blond pompadour. Or pimpadour if you will.

Adams' work was efficient. He did not expend an enormous amount of time on retakes or reverse angles but insisted on constant momentum, both in the foreground and in the back of the frame.

He was working from a script outline. Earlier, Adams had sent me page describing the day's work. It was more suggestion than script, explaining "the elaborate but practical-minded flattery" going on in the scenes. Misha, the director of Russian Models Ventures, would be sweet-talking the girls, repeating the sales pitch he uses to sell them worthless vitamin supplements and beauty products.

Later, watching a rough cut of Babnik, it struck me that Adams' particular angle was the work-day world. Babnik is a film about the bad jobs of immigrants, bad for the sellers, worse for the sold.

The theme strikes me as consistent. Adams explores the solitude of a working-stiff repo-woman in Canary. The father in Around the Bay is at the breaking point from overwork in the field of venture capitalism. Adams might suspect such an analysis overemphasizes plot, when he believes that his form is more important than his content. It's easier to write about plots than about Adams' intense yet allusive focus, his intelligent sound design, his probing yet cooled-down use of inflammatory material and the pensive quiet force he lets loose in the actors.


The Sell

How does a filmmaker facing a series of artistic challenges change gears and learn to sell himself? Most recently, Adams held an online roundtable at his website BraintrustDV.com. The essays at BraintrustDV are both hopeful and ridden with informed pessimism. (A disclaimer: I'm a full-time critic, and I haven't heard of some of these films, either, which of course has nothing to do with their merit.)

Some comments:

Reid Gershbein (of Here. My Explosion ...): "I would rather have 1,000 people see my film for free than have 2 people pay me $15 for a DVD."

Noah Harlan, producer of The Vanishing Point and Plum Rain: "I believe that a performance without an audience is masturbation."

Clive Davies-Frayne, co-director of No Place: "The bottom line though is it's all just people shouting for attention to a world that hates being shouted at. There is an answer. Mutual-marketing or tribal marketing."

Tony Comstock of the erotica/documentary series Finding the Right Fit: "With all the hype around Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, whatever, it's hard to accept that there isn't any money in it."

Finally, Angelo Bell of The Broken Hearts Club weighs in: "Kill the Auteur. Long Live the Entrepreneur."

Where will these new entrepreneurs sell their films? The lineup at Tribeca this year was half what it was in 2008. The San Francisco International Film Festival runs at the same time as Tribeca and it's ruinous that the festivals overlap, given the limited number of filmmakers and cineastes in the world.

James Stern of Endgame Entertainment opened his conference keynote speech at the L.A. Film Festival this year with the numbers: there were nearly 10,000 films submitted to Sundance this year, of which 218 were screened, of which three were distributed.

Sundance isn't the only game in town. Moviemaker.com lists the 25 festivals worth the entry fee, including the Napa Sonoma Wine Country Festival. Still, Poppy Jasper's "Art in 30 minutes or less" motto is going to keep feature filmmakers out.

Of course, Cinequest in San Jose continues to be an outlet for international talents and a chance for indie filmmakers to get the attention due them. At Cinequest 2005, filmmaker James Ricardo played his film Sunnyvale. He retitled it as Opie Gets Laid and found a small DVD distributor.

Ricardo writes in: "There are all kinds of distribution these days, and I respect them all. But I guess I wanted to go with the more traditional distribution route and not just Internet only. Plus a distribution deal with a major distributor adds more street cred to your film, I feel. Maybe it's just me but I love seeing those studio logos on DVDs and movie posters.

"I still think at the end of the day people want to watch feature films on a big screen TV or on the movie screen, not on a PDA or a computer. It isn't the same experience otherwise. And it's not really fair to the filmmaker's vision either."

Tamara May Malone, producer of the Los Angeles–made indie film A Quiet Little Marriage, says an indie film needs "a long tail of distribution. How do you market and get your film out there, for the longest period of time to the most amount of people? The Internet is opening up uncharted territory—but we still don't know how its trajectory is going—how it will make money, how we'll get people to see this kind of material, and how to see it at home."

Matthew Szymanowski, who is heading for film school at San Francisco State this fall, emailed me out of nowhere to ask if I could look at his film. He had worked as a volunteer at Cinequest but didn't get his film accepted.

He had just finished History of Solitude, an intriguing 32-minute film he made at the renowned Polish film school at Lodz, the school of Polanski and Kieslowski. Szymanowski had a film playing at 2009's San Francisco International Film Festival Narrative Short in competition for the Golden Gate Award, but he didn't have the money to get from Poland to San Francisco to screen it. Any suggestions?

I hear from him again later. Somehow he got to San Francisco, and I make a quick pass by the festival to pick up a screener.

The IMBd description, used word for word in the festival's catalogue: "The ache of a relationship slowly disintegrating is honestly and vividly captured in this road movie with no clear destination." While I'm certainly ready for that, my experience is that there'll be others who will just roll their eyes; who wants to see aching, who wants to see destination-free filmmaking?

He tells me that I will be able to recognize him because he has the starving-artist look. Maybe not, since there's a lot of it going around these days. Szymanowski tells me, "The whole festival process is in itself a big hassle, because after you're done with a film, and it's all edited and mixed and ready to be screened, you kind of imagine that people will just gather around and see it. But then you realize you have to actively send it out and get press on it and do marketing and continue to do so, until finally someone sees something worthy in the film. Because you know that the film is good but it's a matter of finding the festival that agrees with you. That takes time. I continue to send the film out to festivals, but eventually I'd like to put it online and focus solely on the next projects."

This determination is essential. Filmmakers have to demand attention. Still, I'm getting my own bitter on listening to these stories: the rare successes, the plentiful defeats. People ask why critics get hardened. Maybe it's because we have to do a bit of bulldozing to try to make some room for talents who need it.


Indentured Talent

I can remember when an old-time film critic published an article about his experience of watching five films in one day, and how that seemed like wretched excess. I'm sure there are dozens of bloggers who do this every day, every week.

There are people I know who are on the film-festival circuit almost full time, and their source of income is an utter mystery to me. They're not getting rich from the money they're not making at blogs. Perhaps they live in their van? Around us are the growing pains of new ways to show alternative film: what we have now is a system that burns out and indebts talent.

New film societies create new fests, occasionally with celebrities responsible, such as Tilda Swinton's Anti-Film Festival in Nairn, Scotland. It's made to be a Scottish answer to Telluride (which itself is held at an aerie in the Colorado Rockies; it might be harder to get there than to the Scottish Highlands). The particularly remote Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylš, Finland, last month brought John Boorman and Samira Makhmalbaf to the caribou-haunted tundra.

If viewing context is all, seeing films so far from the centers of opinion, like New York or L.A., must offer a fresh perspective. On the one hand, this is cinema appreciation free from status-seeking. On the other hand, it's like Versailles with theaters: so very far from the crowd, celebrities can re-create the experience of group movie watching without having their shirtsleeves tugged by the wrong people.

Meanwhile, festival selection committees and what's left of the film watching press—in the ether or on paper—all have something in common. That is: a stack of DVDs next to the television, slippery and tottering. Small as they are, each one is as heavy as a manhole cover when it comes time to pop it into the player. If you have a mate, they moan like the burn victims they are at the suggestion of spending an evening taking a chance on a raw indie film talent. And in the for-us, by-us indie film milieu, the actual open floodgates have meant that the "universal language" aspect of film maybe on its way out.

I fear that a collaborative art made for an audience of all kinds fades into the hermetic quality of the poorly attended poetry reading and hoot night at the Gilded Turkey Pub.

I'm haunted by Tony Comstock's comments on BraintrustDV. The New York director of Finding the Right Fit, profiles a series of different couples, not traditional beauties (one couple is maybe in their 60s); Comstock's focus in these serious and tender documentaries is explicit lovemaking.

My point is that when you have a director complaining he can't get an audience to watch people having sex, the scene is glutted and in trouble.


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