Sunday, February 28, 2010

5 Questions for “Contact” director Jeremiah Kipp

Two young lovers. One mysterious drug. A close encounter of the “Twilight Zone” kind. Jeremiah Kipp’s “Contact” premiered here in NYC at last year’s final incarnation of annual Halloween horror film fest Sinister Six. Luckily for those who missed that screening the short film can be viewed online here. And luckily for me Jeremiah was gracious enough to discuss Lars von Trier, the horror genre, collaborating with actors, lessons learned and short-form filmmaking.

Lauren Wissot: I know you look up to envelope-pushers like Lars von Trier. I’m a big fan of his films – especially “Antichrist” – as well. What do you admire about the director? You said you wished you’d taken “Contact” even further in transgression. How so?

Jeremiah Kipp: Seeing a film like “Antichrist” reminds me of the possibilities of what movies can do. It shakes us somehow, breaks through barriers, and gets to the heart of the matter. A so-called provocateur like von Trier is, actually, being incredibly naked, honest, sincere and direct in his confrontation of primal fears and needs. The fact that a film like this exists makes me feel less alone. The movie might be his most personal; I wonder how close he is to the Charlotte Gainsbourg character. It’s funny, because the lead actress in “Contact” absolutely loathes von Trier, particularly “Breaking the Waves”, which I consider one of the most important films of the 1990s.

I love filmmakers who go for that kind of extreme cinema: Harmony Korine, Bruno Dumont, Andrzej Zulawski, Abel Ferrara. Their best movies go beyond what is polite, into a raw nerve. In comparison, “Contact” is more of a romantic film; like a Joy Division song about love that aches. But a part of me would rather have gone for the guts and innards of the human condition like von Trier does rather than into matters of the heart. Cinema can push further in terms of sexuality, horror, pain; I wonder if “Contact” could be remade as 60 seconds of pure uncensored physicality, like an emotional hand grenade.

LW: What attracts you to the horror genre? I remember asking the same thing of Larry Fessenden – who you’ve worked with – when I interviewed him for Filmmaker, and he responded that for him the genre itself is really secondary. For whatever reasons the stories he wants to tell end up taking that particular form.

JK: Larry Fessenden is one of the most important New York filmmakers working today, beyond even the scope of the horror genre. But what attracts him to this place, I think, is the way horror movies take something we are afraid of in real life and pushes it towards the metaphorical. Hansel and Gretel would be a tale of social realism documenting starvation, poverty and child abuse were it not for the imaginative leap it takes into the magical: a gingerbread house, a witch who cooks and eats little kids, and so on. Naturalism only gets us so far; horror delves further, and creates images for feelings we have a difficult time expressing literally. In “Contact”, two lovers kiss, their faces melt together, and suddenly we have an image fraught with possible meaning. Horror movies are like poetry in this way. If Larry were to remake his vampire film “Habit” now as a mid-life crisis movie, it might be incredibly powerful, since I think he is fed on by parasites, including myself, who pull his time away from what he should be doing, which is what he was born to do, which is to direct films.

LW: What I found particularly fascinating about Sheila’s interview with your lead actress Zoë Daelman Chlanda at The House Next Door was the window it opened onto your method of working with actors. What Zoë seemed to appreciate most was that for you it’s a collaborative effort that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. You build the characters together. How did you come to take this approach?

JK: I get excited about working with actors and crew who have a tenacious quality, or a charisma. There has to be something alive about them, something to respond to. And I believe in the rehearsal process with actors. You want to explore all the possibilities. It makes the picture feel more alive, and by going through this process the audience feels some kind of depth, something under the surface, because we’ve done the work. It can be as simple as that an actor and actress are playing characters in a relationship, and the time spent working in rehearsal affords them the opportunity to get to know one another, to get a frame of reference for how they relate to one another. And when you work with good actors like Zoë, they’re able to build from that direct experience. You push them, or stimulate their ideas somehow, and you love them, and they respond and push and inspire you right back. In fact, (DP and editor) Dominick Sivilli doesn’t even like to call it acting; he calls them filmmakers because their presence contribute so much to the movie, which ultimately is the vision we are all trying to serve.

LW: What did you learn from creating “Contact”? What was the best lesson and what would you have done differently?

JK: So many movies are filled with wall-to-wall dialogue; they might as well be filmed plays. We wanted to dare ourselves to strip away all the constitutive elements, to reduce the plot, the characters and dialogue, to pare down to the very essential until all that was left was pure cinema. It pleased me to see that the more we reduced the film, the more it heightened a sense of anticipation in the audience. There’s a great tension to be found in silence; it is like an ambush. That was a wonderful lesson. As for what might have been done differently, perhaps we could have gone even further with the graphic elements -- by that I don’t necessarily mean the nudity and gore, but the visual technique as an expression of feeling. I recently saw the films of Philippe Grandrieux and how daring he was with shots willfully out of focus, or stretched, or plunged into shadow, or relentlessly pursuing the actors to the point where they were rendered abstract; and his unnerving use of sound as a way for the viewer to comprehend these pulsating, amorphous images. If we aggressively chase our impulses this way, the possibilities of cinema expand, and new forms emerge, which is exciting.

LW: You’ve been directing critically acclaimed shorts for quite some time now (as well as producing features). Do you find there’s more freedom in the short form, more of an opportunity to take risks without that bigger budget hanging over your head?

JK: I wish there were more of an outlet with the short form. Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Carver could build entire careers based on their short stories (well, maybe not Poe, who is a starving artist like myself). Robert Frost and Ezra Pound were short form poets. But sadly, one cannot make a true living on short form filmmaking. However, the short film is financially less strenuous than a feature if you make films like “Contact”, which cost almost nothing and turned out far better than other movies I made that cost twenty times as much. I wonder if sometimes music videos and commercials can be more expressionistic than features -- if they’re made as true artistic offerings. Mark Romanek’s music video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is more resonant than almost all of the films I saw last year. Again, think of the haiku, which is pure imagery. Short form cinema can operate very powerfully on the same level. Larry Fessenden made an animated Christmas short last year that tapped into magical feelings of childhood wonder and horror. But I do feel ready to move on to feature filmmaking, as long as it retains the qualities of being well crafted, honest and daring.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Art of Stealing from Errol Morris: The Art of the Steal

Don Argott's suspenseful “The Art of The Steal”—which delves deeply into the government and corporate takeover of a beloved private institution, the Barnes Foundation, by the city of Philadelphia and the Pew Charitable Trusts among other "charitable" organizations—is propaganda at its finest. The film follows the gripping saga of the art collection of the visionary Albert C. Barnes, who had the foresight to buy up the best of the best by iconoclasts Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse among other masters while the rest of the stuffy art world turned up its collective nose. In turn, Barnes gave the finger to the rarefied museum establishment by founding a school in Merion, Pennsylvania where the artworks—now estimated to be worth $25 billion—would hang above the faculty and students with limited hours open to the public. This didn't sit too well with Barnes's arch-nemeses, the Annenberg family, and the rest of Philly's notoriously corrupt power brokers.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"North Atlantic" at REDCAT

“North Atlantic,” the latest production from stalwart avant-garde troupe the Wooster Group, is a sexed up “Catch-22” that follows the travails of an international, Cold War-era peacekeeping force confined to an aircraft carrier while on a classified mission in the North Atlantic. James Strahs wrote the piece for the company way back in 1982 and it's now being revived not to draw any modern political parallels, but because, well, according to highly practical director Elizabeth LeCompte during a Q&A after the show I attended at the REDCAT theater in L.A., the play fits the space that's available for the NYC run. And Frances McDormand wanted to work with the group. While it's refreshing to hear a director candidly embrace limitations and ignore politics, it requires more than that to create great art.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?

As a freelance critic who is one of the few female voices at many of the sites I write for I found “NY Times” bigwig film critic Manohla Dargis’s run-up to the Oscars rant at Jezebel (see "Fuck Them": Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, & Why Romantic Comedies Suck, a follow up to her more staid “Times” lament Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera on the dearth of female directors in Hollywood) delightfully ballsy. For how often do you hear Grey Lady journalists explain why romantic comedies are so cringe worthy in the following terms?

“One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don't know what's happening. I think it's depressing that Judd Apatow makes the best romantic comedies and they're about men.”

But Dargis’s swinging cojones are also the problem with the piece. As a longtime fan of both Dargis and her own object of fandom, action director Kathryn Bigelow, I wholeheartedly agree with Dargis’ assessment of the shameful state of Hollywood with regards to female filmmakers. What’s more interesting, however, is why I’m a fan of both these talented women – and not, say, Nancy Meyers, a Hollywood player in the rom-com genre who I like even less than Dargis does. The simple truth is both Dargis and Bigelow (as opposed to Nancy Meyers) create their art from that very same male POV that Dargis herself seems to blame.

For let’s face it. This isn’t a matter of Hollywood not trusting women – it’s a matter of Hollywood, like society, placing a higher value on the white, hetero masculine gaze. It’s the same reason a filmmaker like Douglas Sirk would never direct a western like John Ford. Sirk just didn’t direct from a typically straight male point of view. Both Dargis and Bigelow, not to mention the many women execs in charge of those big bad studios, have been let into the good old boys club simply because the male honchos recognize them as one of their own. (That Bigelow eventually got kicked to the curb for low box office receipts unlike some of her under-performing male colleagues could be attributed to a million other factors besides gender, as Dargis dubiously hypothesizes.) Dargis and Bigelow write and direct, respectively, like their male counterparts, from a very comforting and familiar, masculine point of view.

As opposed to Nancy Meyers who, in Daphne Merkin’s profile of her in the “Times” magazine, is constantly reminding her crew that she wants things “soft” – right down to digitally eliminating spiky plants. Meyers isn’t just a female filmmaker, but a very feminine filmmaker, and one whose viewpoint greatly appeals to a lot of other female-gaze oriented folks. (This is also why she doesn’t direct like Dargis fave Judd Apatow – and Hollywood’s hiring a talented rom-com director who happens to be female with the same masculine gaze as Mr. Apatow would merely be an exercise in redundancy, not equal rights.) Personally I find Meyers as boring and predictable a director as Guy Ritchie, yet I’m also willing to admit that for all I know Meyers could be the next Douglas Sirk, lambasted in his own day for being soft. Perhaps her reputation will be rescued a few decades from now by a female-gaze oriented critic more insightful than I who recognizes the filmmaker’s petal pushing in a Hollywood world of bomb throwers as a radically subversive act of art.

And like the art establishment, where women’s work often makes up less than five percent of a museum’s collection, the business of Hollywood reflects America’s binary patriarchal society – it doesn’t determine it. In another century Georgia O’Keefe “suffered” from her affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz in the sense that his male gaze was forever being placed on top of her paintings. Once Stieglitz had eroticized the artist herself via his photographs her pictures were seen only through a sexual lens in the public imagination. O’Keefe’s artwork could no longer be expressions of a female sensibility. They had to undergo a masculine eroticization to be valued. Yet altering (mis)perception isn’t up to MOMA or Warner Brothers, but to the grassroots artists on the ground, including the gender-neutral gaze, indie filmmakers who elicit change. Only then will a studio call on Kelly Reichardt, or Ramin Bahrani for that matter, to direct the next superhero flick.

My Favorite Performances of The Past Decade

Film reviewing like life itself is a subjective experience. So when I started thinking about which actors stood out as the “best” of the decade I inevitably thought of which performances became seared into my own mind with the visceral force of a hot iron. And that in turn has led me to these five thespians that with the slightest gesture, with a single syllable raised the powerful films they were in to a shamanistic level.

Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood

Daniel Plainview is no Bill The Butcher. The always-mesmerizing Day Lewis plays obsessed oilman Plainview equal parts camp and pathos in a performance to rival that of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Day Lewis is ready for his close up and his milkshake – forcing us to swallow it whole.

Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men

Rather than downplay his steamy looks Bardem taps into the darkness of his innate sensuality to turn in an edge-of-your seat performance as the assassin Anton Chigurh. In spite of the Coen brothers’ crazy hairdo idea he keeps us watching with an attraction-repulsion effect, forever wondering if a hint of warm-blooded impulse will break through that stone cold exterior. Without any help from theatrical makeup or prosthetics Bardem transforms that leading man face into a chilling inhuman mask.

Michael Fassbender – Hunger

As the real life (IRA) prisoners’ rights activist and hunger striker Bobby Sands Michael Fassbender announces himself as the next Daniel Day Lewis. Fassbender’s dignified and nuanced portrayal of a man whose body physically deteriorates while his mind and soul spiritually grow is nothing short of astounding. Christian Bale should take note.

Isabelle Huppert - The Piano Teacher

Gainsbourg at the beck and call of Von Trier is no match for Huppert under Haneke’s strict hand. As the piano professor Erika whose sexual repression leads to a sadomasochistic spiraling downwards Huppert doesn’t create a character so much as stage a slow-motion, human car wreck. By the film’s shocking end we view the heroine’s suicide as a mercy killing.

Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Even if it weren’t Ledger’s last completed film watching the dark blockbuster you fear for his life the whole way through. The Joker takes over the actor like something out of “The Exorcist.” This is less a performance than a channeling of a sociopath, as if Ledger instead of embodying a role emptied his body of his own soul. Whereas an actor like Sean Penn might disappear into the character Harvey Milk, Ledger just disappears. Wipe away all the clown makeup and, even more terrifying, still not one trace of the actor will be glimpsed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Suspended Cirque’s “Speak Easy”

True artistic discoveries—relatively secret revelations that unfold before one's eyes—are few and far between, even for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time watching and thinking about theater and film. But every once in a while a group like Suspended Cirque, an under-the-radar band of aerial performers, all heart but no budget, comes along to remind us of art's very purpose. The young company's latest show, “Speak Easy,” like their first three, had a blink-or-you'll-miss-it run over at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO. Some high-flying patron needs to give this troupe a permanent home or artistic residency before the bloated Cirque du Soleil scoops them up.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

“Filmmaker” magazine’s winter issue now playing at a newsstand near you!

Oscar-winning director James Marsh (“Man On Wire”) tells me about his latest “Red Riding: 1980,” the second film in a three-part neo-noir based on David Peace’s novels that revolve around the infamous “Yorkshire Ripper” of the 70s and 80s. A must-see series – and a must-read interview!