28 September 2006

On the Trail with Boris and Natasha

Next week, in my never-ending, unintentional quest to have the oddest filmography possible[1], my trusty camera and I will board a plane for the great state of Maine to document a real, live moose hunt and, hopefully, the culture that surrounds it.

Certainly, moose hunting is an odd choice for a film, especially for someone like me who tends to keep his distance from firearms and isn't exactly Grizzly Adams. My family, on the other hand, is littered with hunters and fishers and other various types, so much so that it effectively defines a large portion of who they are. Hell, half of my extended family has either been a game warden, tried to become a game warden, or majored in wildlife management (which is how you become a game warden, I think). Suffice to say that if I were to become a vegetarian, it wouldn't sit well.

According to the State of Maine webpage, the moose population is estimated at 29,000, which qualifies as a slight over-population problem[2] that's potentially of danger to the surrounding community, since in a battle between a car and a moose, both the car and the driver inside will likely lose. So, the state holds a lottery every year for moose permits (2,825 issued in 2006), and the lucky winners get their shot at an animal that can yield 1,000 lbs. of meat. Naturally, that amount of food will easily last the winter, so pretty much every hunter in the state applies. Once you get a permit, you're ineligible for the next two years, and every year you don't get picked, you get an additional entry for the following year.

This brings us to my father, the Susan Lucci of moose permits, a man who'd faithfully entered 27 years in a row before finally seeing his name drawn this year. Friends of his had been drawn multiple times, but this year is the first he's ever won and, as he puts it, he may not ever get drawn again, assuming this pace holds.

In my family, this qualifies as a big deal, so when Dad asked if I wanted to come along on the hunt, it seemed like the natural choice to say yes. It was actually his idea for me to film it, reasoning that this is exactly the sort of rare opportunity that makes for a good documentary subject. So, film it I will, even if I really don't have any real sense of what exactly I'll want focus on or how I'll want to film it. There's no opportunity for a crew, so effectively it'll just be me and the camera and what I can carry, a definite limitation, but one I've dealt with before.

If anyone has any suggestions, fire away.

Oh, and my cousin is getting married the day we leave for the hunt, as in we're leaving directly from the wedding and changing in the car on the way north. Rumor has it he's actually going on a moose hunt (not ours, a different one) the day after his wedding and no one finds this strange, which should tell you a lot about how people think up there.

[1] Thus far: yesterday (2001): a short student film about suicide, window shopping (2003): an odd, risky short that attempts to be poetic and fails completely, Reclaiming Our Past (2003-2005): three documentaries about the civil rights movement, guard duty (2003): a verite short about old men cooking potatoes, L'Attente (2006): a french film about coffee, Il Matrimino (2004): a sort of wedding video on steroids that I don't officially claim, some corporate HR videos, and various other aborted projects.

[2] Partly because the moose's natural predators are now rare in the state.

23 September 2006

a review is in...

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"The longest and strongest of the three and perhaps the only one that's really a play...The tall Shawn Smith plays Frances with comic presence and a tumult laced with bewilderment. It's a treat to watch him turn a cell phone into an object of emotion. Todd Betker is the hapless Galvin, more aware but less explicable. Lucas McNelly directs briskly for Cup-A-Jo Productions."

Considering this is the first play I've ever directed, I'll take anything that isn't negative. It's so easy to say "oh, I don't care about reviews" until they, you know, exist.

21 September 2006


Sven Nykvist, Academy Award winning cinematographer, died today. He, of course, is best known as Bergman's chief collaborator who worked with him on Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), Viskningar och rop (1972), Persona (1966), and Nattvardsgästerna (1962).

No one did natural light better. He will be missed.

19 September 2006

directing a play, for better or worse

Some of you may be aware that over the last month or so I've been directing a play for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, a showcase for one-act plays from around the country that has the dual purpose of hi-lighting local theatre talents. I am not local theatre talent, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was asked to direct, partly because I am a local film talent, and partly because I had an opening in my schedule[1].

I'd never directed a play before, but I was happy for the opportunity because it allows me an chance to get better at directing actors as well as direct something I didn't write, which I believe is an important step in the maturation of any director. Being a writer/director is all well and good, but I think to truly become a filmmaker, you have to be able to interpret someone else's script just as well as you can interpret your own. Speaking strictly in terms of directing, it's harder, as you only have what's on the page as reference. You know little to nothing of the backstory or genesis of the work beyond what you can glean from the script and whatever extra information you can get from the playwright himself.

Also, there's a rather large chance that the script may be below your normal standards of writing, especially in a format such as this, where the pool of available plays is limited and largely mediocre.

Thankfully our play, Lucas Levya's Death on Flagler, was better than most of the plays in the festival. Brimming with coarse language (by our count, one character says "fuck" 136 times in less than 30 minutes) and a cameo appearance by a buffalo, it fell out of favor with certain directors (one of whom is also in our cast) and fell to us with the 12th pick. Not bad for the play we had ranked 5th. At least, that's what we thought.

What you have to understand about the New Works Festival is that of the 50 or so scripts available, there were only eight or nine I would have even considered doing, so to be ranked 5th in that group isn't as impressive as it first sounds. The problem with Death on Flagler, besides the title, is that it works very hard to undermine itself multiple times in the third act, something that wasn't readily apparent on first glance[2]. So, it took some work to maintain a dramatic build in spite of these roadblocks, but that's precisely the type of challenge I was looking for: working with actors to find an optimal way to present a script, even if that meant tweaking lines for a better effect. Thankfully, our cast is probably the most talented in the festival.

What's a little scary for me as a director is the lack of an editing process. I'm so used to being able to tweak things in post-production that I'm a little flustered at times when that isn't an option. Take, for example, something as simple as the lights up at the beginning of the play. We have music[3] playing over house lights, which go to black, then the play lights come up and the music fades out. This would take me maybe an hour to do on film and I'd get the exact effect I wanted every time, but now I've got to rely on two people in a booth. For a perfectionist like myself, this is not an easy adjustment. There's also the tendency of actors to do things differently from one performance to the next, which is part of the appeal of theatre, but again not something you can fix in post.

But the most important adjustment? Yesterday I'm in the booth for a tech run and after a minute or two into the run yell "cut!", only to find myself looking at several bewildered stares. Turns out in the theatre you don't say "cut", you say "thank you". My response? "Check the gate and run it again."

Anyway, all of this is to say we open on Thursday and run through Sunday downtown on 9th street. So if those of you in Pittsburgh want to see a play with a motherfucking buffalo, feel free.

[1] More the latter than the former, I think.

[2] To be fair to Levya, this play hasn't been performed before and the problem is the type of thing that often doesn't manifest itself until the play is on its feet. This is all part of the organic theatre process that those of us in film find hard to understand at first.

[3] Mostly the Roots, which will be a surprise to people who watch my films. When in Rome.

11 September 2006

current cinema: Lü cao di


starring: Hurichabilike, Dawa, Geliban, Badema, and Yidexinnaribu
written by: Ning Hao, Xing Aina, and Gao Jianguo
directed by: Ning Hao
NR, 102 min, 2006, China

It's difficult for an American audience to imagine a place as remote as the grasslands of Mongolia--a land so vast, so barren, that one can travel an entire day in one direction, stand on the highest point, and still see nothing but miles upon miles of grass. A place so isolated that the difference between it and the Gobi desert is the color of the ground. A place where the nearest city is roughly the size of a small town in Arizona. To us, the middle of nowhere is a place where the towns are forty miles apart. In Mongolia, they might refer to that as being too crowded.

Such is the setting for Ning Hao's Lü cao di[1], a quiet little film in which three small children find a ping pong ball floating down the river, and never having ventured far from their home, haven't a clue what it is. They know only that it must be special, a theory confirmed by Bilike's (Hurichabilike) grandmother, a senile old woman who tells them it's a glowing pearl sent to them by the gods for good fortune. Sadly, it isn't, and when they eventually discover the identity of their treasure, they also learn that ping pong is the national sport and the ball--their ball--is the national ball. The mind of a six year-old being what it is, they assume the nation must be worried about the whereabouts of the national ball, so they head to Beijing to return it, oblivious to the fact that Beijing is hundreds of miles away.

Like many Asian dramas, Lü cao di operates at a pace decidedly slower than your typical Hollywood fare. It develops slowly and organically, seemingly unconcerned with theatrics in the goal of drawing an audience into this deceptively simple story. Hao is content allowing his camera to linger on a shot, as if it has all the time in the world, and while the film could probably benefit from a some small cuts, the overall pace is a good one. When you live in a hut far from civilization, life moves at a different pace, and Lü cao di reflects that without crossing into boredom.

Part of what holds the audience's attention in scenes where nothing is happening is the cinematography of Jie Du, who does a masterful job filming landscapes with what seems like nothing but a tripod and the sun. It's hard to image he's using anything other than natural light and the camera moves perhaps four times in the entire film, but Du makes the most of it, creating some beautiful static shots full of contrast and drama where otherwise there would be none. There's a shot near the end of the first act where Du casts the actors in silhouette against a bright orange sky in a frame that's exactly large enough to hold the pertinent movement of the scene. Hao wisely holds this shot for the entire scene and just lets it play. If there's any justice in the world, Du's work will get bandied around in the Oscar discussion, but unfortunately there's a better chance of the film becoming a blockbuster.

It's interesting to note that Hao's decision to employ static shots with little editing is primarily used by filmmakers who have a great deal of trust in their cast. A prime example would be a film populated by actors with strong theatre backgrounds. But Lü cao di is a film with three children in lead roles who don't appear to have any acting experience whatsoever. All three of them are playing characters given their actual names, and there are moments early in the film where the acting ability of the children is mediocre at best. Consider, though, that these are children who have likely never acted before in their lives, who may very well be natives of the Mongolian grasslands, and the end result of their performances becomes impressive. Add to that the fact that Hao is unable to cobble together a better performance in editing, that the characters play the majority of the scenes without interruption, and both the performances and the direction veer on remarkable.

By the end of the film, Lü cao di transforms itself into an enjoyable little drama--poignant at times, comedic at others--that knows exactly what it wants to do and strives for exactly that, nothing more. Hao shows himself to be a Chinese director with a great deal of potential for showing the poetry of everyday life. That he has the restraint to not just use a single, static camera but also never show us the actual sport of ping pong, is the sign of a director with maturity and confidence.

As for the all-important national ball, it never does make it to Beijing[2], but it accomplishes something much more important. It exposes the children to the larger world around them while conveying the importance of a small, fragile object. Honestly, how many small children could carry a ping pong ball around for an extended period of time without destroying it?

[1] According to the IMDB message boards, this translates to "green pastures", but is being released internationally under the title Mongolian Ping Pong, probably because ping pong is much cooler than pastures.

[2] If by chance you think this is a spoiler, then you must be insane.

06 September 2006

current cinema: Little Miss Sunshine


starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Alan Arkin
written by: Michael Arndt
directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
R, 101 min, 2006, USA

Six family members, all with their own quirks and foibles, embark on a road trip in a VW van. Such is the premise of Sundance favorite Little Miss Sunshine, an endearing indie comedy where bickering relatives learn to come together as a family, despite their differences. It sounds like the theme to any number of films because, well, it's a story as old as the art form itself. Dysfunctional people have been learning to get along on screen from the days of W.C. Fields to the modern-day epics like National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums (2001). Along the way, it's been done poorly, it's been done exceptionally, but above all it's been done. So, to paraphrase my old writing professor[1], if you're going to tell that story, you have to find a way to put a different twist on it and make it your own.

In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, much of the responsibility lies with first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt, who takes a cast of characters fraught with potential pitfalls--including a suicidal gay Proust scholar (Steve Carell), an aspiring motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear), a heroin snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin), a teenage son (Paul Dano) who's taken a vow of silence thanks to Friedrich Nietzsche, and a little girl in a beauty pageant (Abigail Breslin)--and very nearly avoids all of them. With so many ways this could collapse under its own weight and become the sort of trainwreck sitcom that gets cancelled after three episodes, it's impressive that Arndt simply pulls it off. That he makes it actually work, that the end product will likely be on the fringe of the Best Original Screenplay discussion is a feat that's not to be overlooked.

In accomplishing this, Arndt employs an economy of words, eschewing the long, angry tirades that tend to surface in these types of films and allows the actors to do most of the heavy lifting through a litany of raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and piercing glares. Beyond that, each character has their own unique and competent voice, which gives the screenplay a feeling of authenticity. In other words, Arndt has an ear for honest, believable dialogue that keeps the film's more ludicrous moments from absurdity. But it's the choice to make the sullen teenage completely silent in pursuit of a life's goal that's the most inspired. Too many films resort to showing a teen's intelligence by giving them an "adult" book to read[2] as some sort of poorly conceived prop. However, Paul Dano's Dwayne is silent in response to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), the work in which Nietzsche began to lay out his famous "Will to Power"[3] philosophy, as a means to achieving his goal of enrolling in the Air Force Academy. Of course, this makes Dano's role one of the film's more difficult, and his performance is one of the most nuanced of the year. Dano, who came to prominence in Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. (2001), does more with a small notepad than most actors can wring from the complete works of Shakespeare.

The film's other breakout performance belongs to Abigail Breslin as Olive, the little girl chasing a Miss America dream. She effortlessly holds her own in numerous scenes with her more experienced co-stars, but its in the talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine competition where she shines with a dance routine that's at the same time horrifying and hilarious, but made all the more sweet when viewed in context of the pageant, which the film portrays as something akin to all nine of Dante's levels of Hell[4]--combined.

It's a harsh commentary on the culture of pageants, to be sure, but it isn't exactly the most difficult thing to ridicule, especially in a society recently reminded of the JonBenét Ramsey tragedy. It's an easy target, a symptom of the film's main flaw. At points, Little Miss Sunshine only bothers to scratch the surface, skipping over what might contain some real depth in favor for an easy answer, quick joke, or convenient resolution. Thankfully, such moments are brief, and often composed so well by first time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris[5] that few, if any, audience members will notice. Probably because they're too busy laughing.

[1] Dr. S.S. Hanna, author of The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publisher.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut is a popular choice, especially Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969).

[3] Wikipedia describes it thusly: "living things are not just driven by the mere need to stay alive, but in fact by a greater need to wield and use power, to grow, to expend their strength, and, possibly, to subsume other "wills" in the process." The Nazi's took this idea and ran with it.

[4] As outlined in Dante Alighieri's epic poem The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1321. While none of the circles are places you'd want to vacation, the ninth one seems to be the worst.

[5] They're best known for commercial work, specifically the Volkswagen ad that famously featured Nick Drake's "Pink Moon".

A note on the formatting tweaks:

Loyal readers may notice a slight change in the way titles are now presented. The answer is that several members of the film blog community got together and have decided on a standard by which we'll all try to adhere. Details can be found here.

01 September 2006

100 films: ostre sledované vlaky


starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Jitka Bendová
written by: Bohumil Hrabal and Jirí Menzel, from Hrabal's novel
directed by: Jirí Menzel
NR, 91 min, 1966, Czechoslovakia

Latest in a long history of people who's chief ambition is to get through life by doing as little work as possible. young Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) prepares for his first day working in a railroad station by recounting his family's heritage, from his father's penchant for laying on a couch all day and collecting a pension to his grandfather the hypnotist and his futile attempt to stop the German troops through hypnosis. At the station he befriends Hubicka (Josef Somr), the resident Cassanova, who advises him on the process by which he can lose his virginity to his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendová), a conductress on one of the trains. His attempts in that regard prove to be far too eager, and a distressed Milos, thinking something must be wrong with him, tries to kill himself.[1] Meanwhile, Hubicka's latest seduction comes under scrutiny from the German military.

Despite the ongoing war, director Jirí Menzel portrays Czechoslovakia as a country obsessed with sex. War is but a minor inconvenience. Even when a bomb destroys the photography studio of Masa's uncle, it has little impact on the characters or the narrative and Menzel spends as little time on it as possible, opting instead to move immediately to Milos' suicide attempt. And why not? When you're in a remote railroad post in the middle of Czechoslovakia, where nothing happens except the passing of trains, it's easy to find the terrors of love much more troubling than the horrors of an abstract war. It's only when the war comes a little closer to home, when the bombs actually destroy the building you're in, that it even warrants a mention.

That's not to say Milos and Hubicka are ambivalent about the whole thing. On the contrary, when the resistance comes to their door, they are more than willing to help out, even if that means blowing up one of their closely watched trains.

But ostre sledované vlaky isn't about war, it's about Milos coming into his own as a man. Václav Neckár plays Milos as a boy who's sexual inexperience informs everything about him, from the way he does his job to the way he relates to people around him, both male and female. Neckár's Milos is timid and unsure, an innocent terrified of the world around him. He so wants to become a man that when he fails on his first attempt, he assumes the failure to be a sign that he will never be able to perform and goes to a bordello where, instead of employing a prostitute, he cuts his wrists in the bath. He is so despondent that it isn't until a doctor informs him that premature ejaculation is perfectly normal--a symptom of being "too healthy"--and that he should practice with an older woman of ill repute and think of football.[2]

When he does find one, finally and after asking nearly everyone he encounters to set him up, he emerges a new man, composed and assured and confident. Suddenly he fills the screen. Jirí Menzel enhances the transformation, equating him to his mentor by evoking shots early in the film where Hubicka enjoys the memories of his latest conquest. No longer does Menzel continually put Milos in the bottom of the screen where he can be easily dominated by the other characters. Instead, Milos is given equal billing, existing on the same plane as everyone else--a sure cinematic sign of maturity.

What Menzel does in his Academy Award winning film[3] is infuse every frame with a virginal eroticism that mirrors the preoccupation of his hero. Seen through Milos' mindset everything is sexual, yet nothing advances past a certain point. There is no sex education for Milos, who is continually stymied in his quest for knowledge by a hastily closed curtain or an urgent telegraph or some other interruption. But it's not just Milos who sees everything as sexual. There's Hubicka, to be sure, but also their boss, Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorská) the telegraph operator with whom Hubicka has a particularly explicit fling, and virtually every other character in ostre sledované vlaky. This begs the question: why is everything sexual in Menzel's film? Is it because Milos is preoccupied with sex, or is it because Menzel is trying to make a certain statement about the futility of war? Or is it a combination of the above?

[1] Naturally, this is a foolish thing to do, but is even more so when you consider how beautiful Masa is. With a girl like that, you try again.

[2] I'm no expert on the medical profession, but I imagine this isn't what they tell people to say in medical school.

[3] Winner of Best Foreign Language film in 1968, where it beat out Claude Lelouch's Vivre pour vivre (1967), Chieko-sho (1967), Skupljaci perja (1967), and El Amor brujo (1967).