I watched 100 movies in 2015. Here are my favorites.

Last year, I resolved to watch 100 movies I had never seen before. Finishing off with an auspicious Netflix double-feature of The Last Unicorn and Christopher Nolan’s Following, I achieved my goal! See the full list here.

I feel like some sort of summation is in order, and so find hereinbelow my very own listicle!

The eleven best movies I saw in 2015:

Presented in ascending order. Asterisks denote movies I saw in the theater.

 "Primer" poster11. Primer (2004)

The first feature film by Shane Carruth and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Primer is a time travel movie that got me excited about everything that was possible on even the slenderest of shoestring budgets, and also gave me a massive headache. Drink a pot of coffee and take notes as you watch it. Special mention also to Upstream Color, Carruth’s beautifully dreamy and amorphously sinister second feature.

"Nightcrawler" poster10. Nightcrawler (2014)

I think the thing that I find most unsettling about psychopathic characters is that the modern world so often seems to be tailor-made for them. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is just one of those psychopaths, who speaks in business clichés and does nothing but exploit, exploit, exploit, never feeling remorse and always reaching higher echelons of success. It’s horrifying. It’s the American Dream.

"Whiplash" poster9. Whiplash (2014)*

There’s a lot to love about this stylish, tense psychodrama, which feels like a spiritual sibling of The Black Swan. It left me with a pounding heart and a vague sense of unease about all art, and about the often-toxic attitudes handed down by legendary artists to their apprentices.

Bonus: watch this music video for Bhi Bahaman’s “Moving to Brussels,” featuring Keegan Michael Key doing his best psychotic JK Simmons impression:

"Chef" poster8. Chef (2014)

Let me tell you a secret: this used to be a list of 10 movies. Then I remembered Chef, and I had to extend it to 11. Chef is a beautiful, simple, mouthwatering movie about family and food.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" poster7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)***

Fun. Super fun. I’m amazed by how improbably good this movie is, given its accelerated development schedule, script troubles, and the sheer number of directors who turned it down. Beyond the nonstop nostalgic wow-fest that Star Wars has always been (disregarding the three that shall not be named), the thing that impressed me the most about SW:TFA was how much J. J. Abrams has matured as a filmmaker, and how masterfully he has interwoven his own narrative and visual styles with the heritage of the series.

"Smoke Signals" poster6. Smoke Signals (1998)

This film, featuring a screenplay by poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, is far from perfect. It’s also smart, loving, and lyrical. Alexie’s script depicts likable, flawed, resilient characters set starkly apart from the hard edges and sharp corners of the world they inhabit.

"Inside Out" poster5. Inside Out (2015)**

Pixar seems to be a factory for technically-perfect tearjerkers, and although the broad commercialism of their products does make me a little uncomfortable, it’s hard to argue with a movie that’s as keenly observed as this one. I don’t know how well Inside Out (or many of Pixar’s properties) will age, but there in the dark, thinking about the turmoil and loneliness we all undergo as we grow up, reflecting on joy and sadness as inseparable and equally necessary emotions, it felt like Pixar was speaking directly to me. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the definition of good cinema.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" poster4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)*

An art film disguised as an action blockbuster, Fury Road is somehow equally successful at being both. I admire everything about this movie and how it was made. And it’s got some kickass explosions.

"Reality" poster3. Reality (2014)

This movie is not for everyone. The latest from writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer Quentin Dupieux (best known for 2010’s Rubber, about a murderous psychokinetic car tire) follows—among other characters—an aspiring filmmaker who works days as a studio camera operator for some kind of awful cooking show (hosted by John Heder in a rat costume), and who is rapidly losing his mind in the face of an unanswerable creative question. No, this movie is not for everyone. As near as I can tell, it was made just for me.

"The End of the Tour" poster2. The End of the Tour (2015)*

My brother gave me a copy of Infinite Jest for Christmas two years ago. I finally finished reading it just in time to catch The End of the Tour in its limited theatrical release. I had my doubts going in, but Jason Segel’s portrayal of David Foster Wallace is nuanced, gentle, and absolutely convincing. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, David Lipsky’s on-screen relationship with Wallace is beautifully constructed from strata of envy, cautious kinship, and mutual respect. I was at first disappointed to discover that, although The End of the Tour depicts Wallace around the time of Infinite Jest’s publication, the film really has little to do with the legendary book. It’s clear, though, that this is for the best: the film instead focuses on the hopes, fears, and insecurities of a practicing artist who has been blindsided by his sudden success. Because of this, it is accessible to anyone, regardless of their familiarity with Wallace’s work. My pick for the best movie of 2015.

"It's Such a Beautiful Day" poster1. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

This is a bit of a cheat because I saw the first two of the film’s three installments (Everything Will Be OK and I am So Proud of You) in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I watched them assembled together, with the final chapter in place. The animation, with its picture-in-picture-in-picture mix of drab grayscale interrupted by vivid flashes of color, and its depiction of stark and sometimes-indecipherable images, is so formally daring that it could easily overshadow and utterly sink the story. It is to animator Don Hertzfeldt’s credit, then, that he is able to balance these stylistic choices against a simple, bittersweet story of a lonely man coping with an illness. That this film had me howling with laughter in one moment and weeping in the next is a credit to Hertzfeldt’s absolutely beautiful writing. In the end, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a movie about being human, and all the strengths and beauties and joys and frailties that entails.

The five worst movies I saw in 2015:

I don’t like to be a Negative Nancy, but not every movie I saw this year was a winner. Here are a few that made me sad/angry/aggressively ambivalent:

"Radio Free Albemuth" poster5. Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

Philip K. Dick adaptations are a crap shoot. They tend to be either devastatingly excellent (Blade Runner, Total Recall) or inexcusably terrible (Paycheck, Total Recall). Radio Free Albemuth, though, suffers from a somewhat different disease: it’s just an utterly unconvincing movie. Mark Duplass recently equated the independent film industry with Wal-Mart, and movies like this were exactly what he was talking about: bland, uninspired knock-offs of blockbuster-style epics. I’m willing to forgive the sort of problems in production quality and scope that are inescapable in low-budget independent science fiction. I’m even willing to cut the filmmakers some slack as they toil vainly to make the movie look more expensive than it was (rather than, oh, say, just trying to make a good movie). But it’s unclear whether Radio Free Albemuth was made on purpose. Actors, director, production crew, editor… it feels like the entire production crew sleepwalked their way through the movie, and when it was over, it was as if it had never existed.

"Rocky" poster4. Rocky (1976)

I know that Rocky wasn’t made for me, or anyone like me, but I have a hard time understanding what anyone sees in such a relentlessly bleak story. Apart from a couple excellent moments from Burgess Meredith, I found that I had very little sympathy for any of the characters, who always seemed to make the same bad decisions over and over, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing—seemingly at random—but never changing. This may be a fairly realistic depiction of real life, but it sure is depressing. Side note: Rocky has the worst sound production of any feature film I have ever seen. I find it utterly inexplicable why movie sounds as bad as it does.

"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" poster3. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012)

I find myself more or less alone in my fondness for Tim and Eric: Awesome Show Great Job!, but the fact stands that I’m absolutely tickled by analog glitches and intentionally-awkward timing. I know I shouldn’t have expected much, but have you seen Eric Wareheim’s music videos? Have you seen Ham? He’s a genius!  It was with great disappointment, then, that I finally sat down to watch T&E’s BDM and found it to be soulless, stylistically bland, and deeply unfunny.

"Goodbye to Language" poster2. Goodbye to Language (2014)

My excitement about this movie—the promise of Jean-Luc Godard’s triumphant return to form, the introduction of a new cinematic vocabulary for the Internet age—was surpassed only my disappointment upon finally seeing it. There’s a woman. She has a relationship, it might be a bad relationship. There’s some shaky home video of a dog by a lake. There’s some voiceover. It’s directionless, pseudo-philosophical bullshit, filled with world-weary pretentiousness in the truest sense of the word ‘pretentious.’ There might be something genuinely interesting about the idea that our language—written, verbal, cinematic—is insufficient for our contemporary needs. But… whatever Goodbye to Language is… is not the solution. I’ve always been smitten with the French New Wave and Godard in particular, but I had such an intensely negative reaction to this film that it has forced me to reevaluate whether I ever actually liked Godard in the first place, and I just don’t know anymore. I just. Don’t. Know.

"The Greatest Show on Earth" poster1. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This movie is two and a half hours long, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have a plot. It features Jimmy Stewart as a clown, plus something about a love triangle involving a trapeze artist, and subscribes wholeheartedly to that old saw, “When your movie is a mess and nothing makes any sense, throw in a train derailment.” It’s an incoherent, story-less mess, is what I’m saying. It may indeed be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1953.

Special mentions:

"Tangerine" posterTangerine (2015)

Tangerine is unlike any movie I have seen before. I can’t really say that I enjoyed watching it, but it’s definitely stylish, smart, wickedly funny, and it deserves to be commended for centering around the types of characters who are rarely—if ever—taken seriously in mainstream cinema. It just missed my top ten, but Tangerine will forever change the way I think about narrative and character.

 

"Cinderella" posterCinderella (2015)*

I have seen this movie. It’s in my list. I have the ticket stub. And yet I have no recollection of Cinderella whatsoever. So it can’t have been that bad, right? I’d remember being furious about paying to see a bad movie in the theater… but it also can’t have been very good. Right?

"Jem and the Holograms" posterJem and the Holograms (2015)*

Jem and the Holograms was mysteriously hated with a scalding viciousness that I don’t understand. It certainly wasn’t a great movie, but I thought it was pretty good. Recognizing that I am very far removed from the film’s target audience, I thought that the way it referred to YouTube and the Internet was quite smart, and the way it addressed how fame and its pressures are sometimes heaped on young performers who are ill-equipped to handle them was fascinating. All the stuff with the robot was super dopey and I have no basis by which to compare it to the Hasbro property from the 1980s, but I thought it had some not-inconsiderable merit.

I was surprised how easy it was to accomplish this viewing goal. 100 movies may seem intimidating, but all it took was a steady diet of Netflix and an occasional weekend at the movies. More than anything, it forced me to be a little more adventurous, to avoid constant rewatching of comfort movies in favor of the unknown. It was a beneficial process, and I will absolutely be renewing my resolution for 2016. Another year, another 100 movies I’ve never seen. I can’t wait to see what I discover.

Double Exposure

16mm: 1R vs. 2R You can get 16mm film perforated one of two ways, 1R or 2R.

Most cameras can use either type of film. All you need to know is that the older, less-common 2R is symmetrical, while 1R is not.

This spring, I was introducing my cinematography class to the use of 16mm cameras. Before they shot their own projects, I wanted to give them a chance to run some film as a group. I knew I had a hundred-foot roll of black-and-white Double-X that had been sitting in my freezer for years, and it seemed the perfect occasion to use it up. I took the film to class one morning and loaded the roll into our beautiful, state-of-the-80s Arriflex SR2 Highspeed—noting with some concern that the polyester base was quite old and brittle—and we went outside to shoot some footage. I stood in as the subject, and my students operated the camera.

• • •

It was four years earlier, almost to the day. I had been out of college for nearly a year, living with my parents, seeing little success as a freelancer. Kathy, my film school friend and former ill-conceived love interest, had invited me on a road trip with a mutual friend, a talented but similarly-unsuccessful illustrator. The purpose, she said, was to force us back into some level of creative productivity. I couldn’t afford to go. None of us could. Of course I said yes.

When Kathy arrived, she brought along several hundred feet of Double-X. She was sick of the film industry, and so she gave the film to me. I shot some of it on the trip, and kept the rest in my freezer for some unspecified future project.

The trip was, for reasons that I haven’t really been able to articulate, one of the most significant events in my creative life. Something about the shared hardship of three underemployed artists traveling across the country for no reason and sleeping on an air mattress in the back of the car shot me through with an urge to make art for the first time since film school.

Hand-processed 16mm, hanging in the shower to dryWhen I got back to Colorado, I stuffed a towel under the bathroom door, turned out the light, and developed the film in my bathtub. It was a tangled mess, sloshing around those pungent-smelling chemicals in total darkness. Fun. A couple weeks later, energized by the whole experience, I sat down and wrote what would later become the feature film Branches.

• • •

Last week, we got the film back from MovieLab, along with a hard drive full of transfers. I plugged it into the classroom TV and we gathered around to watch our footage for the first time. The first file on the drive was our camera test.

The first shot was something I didn’t recognize. Moreover, it appeared to be upside-down. A few seconds in, it became clear that the footage was also running backwards. Some sort of lab error? Then there was another shot. On top of the first one. It was me, walking away from the college. And upside-down beneath me, the Golden Gate Bridge: this was a double exposure.

Somewhere along the line, I had mislabeled a roll of film from my trip as UNEXPOSED, and had never developed it. So it had run through my camera once, head-first, and wound up with the end of the film on the outside of the roll. Because it was symmetrical 2R film, I didn’t notice the issue four years later as I loaded it into the camera a second time. Furthermore, the two scenes wound up overlaid head-over-tail, meaning that one scene was running upside-down and in reverse relative to the other.

I was transfixed. Occasionally the two images would interact in unexpected and delightful ways. Here I was, walking away from the college—over and over, as the setting sun rose in reverse behind me, silhouetting trees and brightening the sky.

Jason is a former student and current collaborator of mine, a member of the first class to graduate from our film program. He happened to be in the classroom when we watched the footage, and he made a comment that stuck with me: Imagine how much of your life is trapped between these two points, he said. It was a lot:

  • Failure. Adventure. Disaster. Bad love.
  • Success. Excitement. Frustration.
  • A relentless bedbug infestation that marked the most hideous six months of my life.
  • Good love, and the exhilaration that comes with it.
  • Success that becomes stagnant, that merges with frustration and becomes another day, on top of another year, until I don’t even know what this is anymore, this success that I wear around my neck and allow to define me.

You’re not trapped anymore, Jason said. And I believed him.

After three exhausting, thrilling years running the film program, I’m leaving my job. Today is my last day. My time here has been a long string of successes and failures and some very good times. I’m proud of the work I have done here, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. But I have become comfortable, and that is the death of art. I haven’t made a film in three years. That’s horrifying. Branches still sits unfinished. I need to do something about that.

I don’t know where I’m headed next, and I am terrified. But I’m not trapped between those two layers of film anymore, and anything is possible.

The five best movies my students made me watch

It’s been a year since I moved to Sioux City and started teaching film… well, “teaching” is a strong word, let’s just say that I go to work every day and talk about movies to a group of mostly-interested-but-somehow-underwhelmed college students. Which is basically what I’ve been doing for the last eight years of my life, only now I get paid for it.

When I first met my students, I told them that I’d be assigning them a lot of movies to watch, and I invited them to assign me movies in return. I haven’t been as good about watching those movies as I’d hoped, but I’ve been doing some movie-watching, and here are the five best films my students have foisted on me, in ascending order of greatness:

5. The Artist

The Artist

I was intrigued with the idea of a modern silent film when this first came out, but I passed on seeing it in the theater and never thought about it after that. Good thing Nick made me watch it, because it’s really a beautiful, artful film…although rather oddly similar to Singin’ in the Rain. I mean, Jean Dujardin even looks exactly like Gene Kelly—what’s up with that?

4. Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods

To be fair, this had been on my to-watch list for a long time, but it was ultimately Chris who lent me the movie and so I’m giving him the credit for this. Such a perfect skewering of the horror genre. Beautifully self-aware, if perhaps a little predictable. Still, any movie that takes the piss out of deeply-ingrained writing clichés and fascist genreism and also features Bradley Whitford, that’s a net gain for the world of cinema.

3. Funny People

Funny People

I don’t know why, but I always think that I don’t like Judd Apatow, and then I watch one of his movies and it’s like OH WOW. What can I say? Dude’s got a mind for character-driven dialog and plot. Funny People is probably his best work, at least of what I’ve seen—and made even better by the fact that it wasn’t at all the movie I was expecting it to be. Despite having the word “Funny” in the title (or because of it?) this really isn’t a comedy in the conventional sense. More like a great, well-observed drama with some jokes thrown in. And totally not depressing, which is I think sort of the reputation it got when it first came out. This and Punch-Drunk Love make up for all that other nonsense that Adam Sandler does. Thanks to Jason for this one, but OH NO JASON HAS MORE MOVIES FOR ME TO WATCH AAAAAAAA!

2. Rubber

Rubber

Another one from my long-term “I must watch this” list, but after I mentioned that I had seen Quentin Dupieux’s latest film Wrong and still hadn’t seen Rubber, Nate and Jason tied me to a chair and propped my eyelids open with toothpicks and made me watch it. Joyful, exuberant, utterly ridiculous, and way smarter than you’d expect a movie about a murderous car tire to be. This is what Salvador Dalí would be doing if he was alive today.

1. Yojimbo

Yojimbo

My secret shame that becomes not-so-secret whenever I walk into my classroom is all the movies I haven’t seen. I was teaching a FILM HISTORY CLASS, of all things, when Nate asked me if I had ever seen Yojimbo. When I confessed that I hadn’t, he shook his head in disgust and I could tell I had dropped at least three notches in his estimation. So I actually bought the durn thing and watched it one day while I was suffering from some sort of evil 24-hour virus, and, well, it’s Kurosawa. Of course it’s like jaw-droppingly good and mathematically precise, because what the hell else is Kurosawa going to do, particularly when he’s got Toshiro Mifune to work with. Also, I think this is the first black-and-white film I’ve watched in HD. OH MY GORGEOUS. In the same sitting I watched the sequel, Sanjuro, and I think I liked that one better. Not sure. I’ll have to go back and watch them again to decide. So there, now I’ve seen Yojimbo. Now as long as I don’t let it slip that I’ve never seen Throne of Blood, I’m golden.

My resolution for the coming semester is to put myself on some sort of a movie-watching schedule, and to really get serious about seeing the films my students ask me to. Here’s to another year of good movies that I either missed or was too much of a snob to watch on my own!

THE TAPE travels again: Missing

THE TAPE has been inactive. It was last seen covered in golden runes, bearing a message of warning. Those warnings were not heeded. The journey of the tape continues. In the second installment of this two-part series (read part one here), I will outline the process of creating the latest film.

THE TAPE, as you may know, is an ongoing correspondence between myself and Vvinni Gagnepain. Since 2009, we have been mailing a VHS tape back and forth in packages of ever-increasing complexity, each time adding an experimental short film to the tape. For the full background, you’ll want to read up on this collaboration in the archives: THE TAPE and on Vvinni’s blog: A Complicated Web of Paper and Lies. You can read Vvinni’s reaction to this latest film here: Missing.

Amgrot Gimnsp: MISSING

Vvinni’s last video ended with a photograph of me and the caption “MISSING.” That was three years ago. The reason I couldn’t respond was because, in fact, I was missing, and I still am.

Powerful Magics was the logical terminus of the conversation we seemed to have established. The montage section functioned as an editorial symphony, beginning with a remix of a scene from The Room and passing through a series of movements comprising a survey of my extant work and others’ reactions to it. It left me with some complicated emotions. For one, it demonstrated a level of mastery in non-diegetic montage that is so far removed from my own work that it almost seems like a different language. Also, it’s flattering to know that somebody—anybody—has paid close enough attention to my work to be able to analyze it and pick it apart in such detail, but it bothered me to have my work so cleanly summed up in a few minutes of screen time. In one sense, Vvinni was right: there are certainly conventions that my films follow pretty consistently. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that Vvinni’s analysis was superficial, and ignored the stark, genuine honesty that I have been able to bring to my best work, justifying the existence of some otherwise pretty stylistically unremarkable movies.

I had begun to understand the overall arc of our dialog. It, to this point, had gone something like this:

  • Andrew (I Got the Poops): Let’s have a conversation!
  • Vvinni (In Fridge): Okay!
  • Andrew (Happy Birthday, Murderer!): YOU.
  • Vvinni (Powerful Magics): No, YOU.

I had two options: I could either deflect the conversation from myself and back at Vvinni (“Nuh-uh, YOU!”), or I could say “Okay… me.” I chose the latter approach, meaning that I would have to make… AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. I’d never before considered doing an autobiography, because it seemed self-centered and indulgent. But what was THE TAPE if not self-centered and indulgent?

I knew I would have my work cut out for me, because every single volley in our conversation had grown more sophisticated and complex. We were speaking to each other in a coded language, and as we traded films, that language had begun to develop its own peculiar syntax. It was clear to me that this film, in order to be successful, would need to be deeply, almost inaccessibly personal.

My original plan involved a much more traditional narrative. Not long after receiving Powerful Magics, I began to write. But as I wrote, I found myself banging my head against the same old conventions that Vvinni had so easily identified in his montage. The script petered out, but I found myself intuitively shooting and collecting material for what would ultimately become Missing: a series of nesting episodes reflecting of the many ways in which I am both literally and figuratively lost.

Hand-processed 16mm, hanging in the shower to dryI cut and recut. I shot a bunch of really great material, then my hard drive died and I lost most of it. By the spring of 2011, I felt close to a finished cut. Then everything changed, and I had to re-cut. I decided to add in some 16mm. More cutting. Everything changed again when I moved to Iowa. Finally, in December, I redoubled my efforts to finish Missing and mail THE TAPE once again. The film was too good to languish, mostly-finished, on an external hard drive. At its best, it goes farther towards explaining my creative impulse than anything else I have ever made. At its worst, it is an insulting caricature of the person I am trying very hard not to be.

The long process of producing this film coincided with a pivotal period of my life. I received Powerful Magics a few short months before graduating from college. I spent the next two years as an underemployed and personally unfulfilled freelancer, struggling with my own identity. I traveled across the country for no reason. I got a front-row seat to an awful tragedy. I wrote and directed a feature film. I had my heart broken more than once. I finished Missing a few short months after landing a steady job and moving to Sioux City. The years 2010 through 2012 were perhaps the most eventful, formative years of my life, and the ongoing production of Missing bears that out. Much as erosion eats away at soft stone to expose the intricate latticework of harder elements beneath, Missing now stands as a testament to my transformation over the course of these three sometimes traumatic, sometimes exhilarating years.

Showing Missing to anyone is frightening to me, let alone putting it up online. There are things in this film that I do not want anyone to know—sections that carry a great deal of personal meaning for me, but which nobody else—not even Vvinni—will ever understand.

But if you want, you can watch it below:

The film ends with a call to action—or perhaps a reckless dare?

Dear Vvinni,

What are you going to do?

I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out.

THE TAPE travels again: How to Eat a Film

THE TAPE has been inactive. It was last seen covered in golden runes, bearing a message of warning. Those warnings were not heeded. The journey of the tape continues. In the first installment of this two-part series (read part two here), I will detail the construction of the package.

THE TAPE, as you may know, is an ongoing correspondence between myself and Vvinni Gagnepain. Since 2009, we have been mailing a VHS tape back and forth in packages of ever-increasing complexity, each time adding an experimental short film to the tape. For the full background, you’ll want to read up on this collaboration in the archives: THE TAPE and on Vvinni’s blog: A Complicated Web of Paper and Lies.

I was in quite a pickle!

My package for Happy Birthday, Murderer! was one of my favorite things—and perhaps the only bit of physical media work that I made at MCAD which I would actually consider art. It would be a difficult act to follow.

The one element that I felt had been really lacking in any previous iteration of THE TAPE was a sense of narrative. I hoped with this epistle to fold in a bit of a story. I also wanted to continue the theme of food which seemed to have become a constant in our volleys, and since my film was not very food-related, I would need to do something culinary with the packaging. The title of the package, I decided, would be How to Eat a Film.

The first thing you need for a story is a good central character. I found mine in a one Mr. Vedislav Andreyushkin, an experimental filmmaker and Russian immigrant to Iowa. The package would center around a series of letters he wrote in 1959.

What do I do? I was amazed, but is it enough to merely be amazed? I have hope, at any rate, that my research will at last provide me with some real insight. It really is a remarkable mechanism. It would be unwise if me to reveal in writing the true nature of its mechanics. You do understand, don’t you? It would be very technical anyway, and truth be told, I don’t understand some pieces of it, that once belonged to Cecil. He’s getting worse, spreading himself too thin. His doctors don’t know the real extend of the damage. I’m afraid it won’t be long now, although he himself can’t see it. but his eyes are dull. His latest has been too much, on top of his work with the Machine… When are you coming back to Iowa? I want to see you again. I was in California for the year, but I’m back now, and with my latest project in turn-around, there’s nothing to do but hunker in my laboratory and tinker with the Window. Please come and visit me. I miss you.

Vedislav's second letter, February 1959Vedislav's willVedislav's will – reverseVedislav's will – detail – witness signatures
Vedislav's doodles
Vedislav's doodles – reverseVedislav's listVedislav's list – reverseVedislav's list – detail – cake schematicVedislav's list – detail – cake diagram

The letters narrate Ved’s exploits with some kind of device (“the Window”) that allows him to meet and speak to other filmmakers from various different times and places, and the death of his friend Cecil. Ved’s research becomes more dire and he is forced into an existential crisis, before he suffers a mishap with the Window and accidentally transforms himself into a cake.

After appropriately aging them (green tea and an oven yield pretty good results), it was time to consider the rest of the package.

I let my students in on the work in progress last fall. They had worked with Vvinni when he came to Sioux City for the production of Write In 2012, and they were quite taken with his surreal intensity. Two of my students wanted to make their own short films to include in the piece (I may or may not have offered some extra credit for such an endeavor), and I decided to include those films as solid-state appetizers to the analog main course.

I put one film on a stripped-down USB drive, coated it in a thick layer of wax, and froze it in a jar of beet vinegar, along with the page from Vedislav’s will. I put the other film on a MicroSD card and baked it into a cookie. I baked one of Vedislav’s letters into another cookie.

USB drive and will in beet vinegarCookie with document

Furthermore, it was my students who gave me the best idea for the whole package: I had to bake the tape inside a cake. Brilliant! How could I not have seen it before? Of course, this raised a few logistical quandaries, not the least of which being that the Curie point of videotape (the temperature at which it becomes demagnetized) is roughly 266 ˚F, so actually baking a tape into a cake was not a realistic option.

As an aside, I should mention that I have some experience with cakes. I have eaten a lot of cake in my life, and last summer I was shanghaied into taking a cake decorating class. It’s a long story.

I solved my melting/demagnetization problem by sculpting an already-baked cake. After concealing the tape inside, I gave the cake a generous icing of tempered chocolate and inscribed it with the lovely, heartwarming sentiment “I AM DEAD.” Finished off with a trio of black roses and a couple calligraphic swirls, the end result was downright beautiful.

Cake: "I am Dead"Tape concealed inside cakeCake writing practice runA beautiful hard shell of tempered chocolateI remember how to make roses!Cake in shipping crateI knew that the long silence between Powerful Magics and How to Eat a Film obligated me to make a grand gesture of some kind. I settled on destroying THE TAPE and transplanting its brain. The original tape was a Kodak T-180 containing a home recording of the SciFi miniseries Earthsea. It was quite recognizable due to some messages and runes that had been applied to it in previous epistles.

So what I did, see, was I dubbed the contents of the original tape onto a copy of Home Alone 3 along with my new film, then I smashed the original tape with a hammer. That new tape was what I had concealed inside the cake.

Aside: Did you know that you can record onto a write-protected VHS tape by placing a strip of Scotch tape over the square indentation on the tape’s spine? Apparently Vvinni doesn’t!

My care package was almost complete: a cake, cookies, and pickled paper were all packed up and nestled with care into my handmade shipping crate. But it still needed one thing.

It needed a Jello mold.

I took the pieces of the destroyed tape and suspended them in a cloudy yellow aspic, molded in place in a compartment directly above the cake. I actually didn’t use gelatin, for two reasons:

  1. Vvinni is a vegetarian. If he decided, in some fit of rage, to actually eat part of the aspic, I didn’t want him violating his own moral code.
  2. Gelatin melts at room temperature.

Instead, I opted for an agar agar solution. For those of you not in the know, agar agar is a powder derived from seaweed that can be combined with water to produce a gel that remains non-liquid in temperatures up to 87 ˚F – hopefully just enough leeway to prevent the package from becoming a wet, gooey mess in transit.

The smashed tapeThe smashed tape, reassembledFirst pour of agar. Orange juice added for color.Solidified aspic, complete with title.

The package was, at last, complete.

To see how it survived the journey, see Vvinni’s unboxing below:

And read Vvinni’s analysis of the package on his blog, right here.

My next post will take a look at the film component of this project .

Stay tuned on election night

Remember in 2008 when Exploding Goldfish Films did Third Party ’08?

Yeah, check back here on Tuesday night.

Web site reboot

EXGfilms.com is relaunching, with a new design and a (finally) repaired database! In the coming weeks, old posts will trickle back into the archives.

A peek behind the curtain

I’ve been carrying a little pocket video camera around with me on the set of Fallen Branches. Here’s some of what I recorded:

We just had our last day off. Six more production days and then we are wrapped. Want to know where we’re shooting on Thursday?

Do you?

Well, I’m not telling.

Telling the truth with movies

I started Fallen Branches as an exercise in generating pages, but as I dug into the plot, I discovered that I was writing what would become the most personal movie I have ever made. I’m fond of saying that every character I write is autobiographical in some way, but that’s especially true of this script. And when I was finished with the first draft, some of the things I saw shocked me. For a long time I had no desire to show the script to anyone. I kept telling myself that when I revised it, I would work harder to be less personal, to obfuscate and invent. I thought I would rewrite the whole movie, but when the time finally came to do a second draft, I found that there was very little I could change about the fundamental story.

Over the course of 125 pages, I had painted an unflattering self-portrait—and yet, I had to grudgingly admit, it was sincere. It was a movie about love and resentment, two emotions that are never far from my mind. It was a movie about the pressure I feel to live up to the expectations of others—and my own expectations, too. It was a movie about doubt, about regret. It was me when I was a bastard and me when I let people take advantage of me. More importantly, it felt like it was other people, too.

I’m a collector of great quotes, particularly about the nature of art. Here is my current favorite:

“The desire to avoid embarrassment is the death of art. To be human is to be embarrassing.”

~Young Jean Lee

So, after fighting with my ego for months, I told myself to let it go. When I released the final draft into the wild to be read by dozens of actors and crewpeople, I had made peace with allowing myself to be vulnerable.

I’ve been surprised at the response the script has received. It’s a little movie, after all, about a family. Grandma has died. They’re losing the farm. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before. But we have amassed a scarily impressive cast, and it’s in large part by virtue of the script. The word that gets thrown around a lot is “honest.” I don’t say this to brag, my point is that a movie like this doesn’t get made unless the script connects with people. I don’t think that what I have done is particularly remarkable, I just set aside my ego and wrote down what was in my head, but… I guess maybe there aren’t many movies that do that. Maybe that honesty has resonated with others.

It used to be that I was loath to explore love or resentment in my films (or doubt, or regret, or fear, or… anything else, really) in any meaningful way, because I was afraid of what people might think of me. Or sex. Noooo, certainly not sex! Talking about sex was anathema to me! And yet here I was, writing about it in a way that was… honest. Not funny, not freaky, not titillating, just… honest.

I’ve never written a sex scene before. I’ve always let my embarrassment get the better of me. But I knew I needed to write one in this movie, precisely because it made me uncomfortable. Sexuality is too big a part of the human experience to put it out of mind or couch it in euphemism (as Hollywood is so fond of doing). There are a number of independent filmmakers now producing what amounts to art-house porn, and although I find their goals politically admirable, I think that they’re missing the point: sex in movies tends to focus on the ways in which the characters are different from us. In this way, it is a microcosm of a bigger problem: movies often otherize their subjects. That’s not something I have any interest in doing.

This otherizing is a symptom, I think, of our tendency for ironic detachment. Ironic detachment is easy. It lets us say things without meaning them. It lets us rely on cliché without seeming too earnest; to wink at the audience. See as an example every look-how-quirky-this-person-or-situation-is independent film ever made, the message of which is always: these people are not like you.

I recently saw an interview with the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He was talking about how astounding it is to realize that the atoms that make up you and me and everyone else in the world were formed in the crucibles of distant stars—how that one piece of knowledge ties us to the universe (and to each other) like nothing else.

That’s the kind of movies I want to make: movies that are predicated not on the idea that we are different from, but the idea that we are the same as. That’s how I wrote Fallen Branches, and I find that through that process, I have become—possibly for the first time in my life—comfortable in my own skin, and capable of taking these lessons with me to my next movie, and the next one, and the one after that.

I rarely do anything other than make movies, because I don’t like to do things that I’m not good at. Like telling you that I love you. But I vow to do things I’m not good at. I vow to tell stories that are not easy, stories that are honest. Going forward, I will never make a movie unless I believe that it deserves to be made, and that I can stand behind the film as an extention of myself. That is a director’s job. I don’t always know what I mean, but I promise that from now on, I will work hard to figure out what I mean and then say it. No excuses. No detachment.

 

Andrew Gingerich
January 28th, 2012

Our production board

One entire wall of our production office has been sectioned off as a giant February calendar. Each of the strips of paper pinned to the wall represents a different scene that we need to shoot.

Fallen Branches production board

Yikes.

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