REPOST: American Independence
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 24/03/1999.
Of the six directors represented in this season, Steven Soderbergh's had the best subsequent career: the loosening up that Schizopolis demonstrated, combined with his discovery of George Clooney, made for big bucks. Tim Blake Nelson continues to direct, but is probably best known for his role as third banana in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Spike Lee is still putting out those joints, and his second documentary for HBO - When The Levees Broke, about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans - is a monumental piece of work.
Jill Sprecher only directed one more film, 13 Conversations About One Thing, then moved into TV with a stint on HBO's Big Love. Bob Gosse only directed one more film, Julie Johnson, then moved into production. And Hilary Brougher only directed one more film, Stephanie Daley, then went quiet again.
The most badly dated sentence in this piece - "Four Little Girls is doubly cursed, as it's a documentary, and who goes to see those at the cinema any more?" 1999, there.
It's always been my theory that there's far too much media space out there, and not enough people creating anything worthwhile to fill it. We now have an infrastructure in place in the UK to broadcast 200 digital TV channels simultaneously, and the vast majority of them are crammed with stuff that makes Live TV's Topless Darts In Space look like Brideshead Revisited. Our Sunday newspapers are getting bigger and more unreadable by the second, and end up giving valuable column space to people like Michael Winner and Tara Palmer-Tompkinson just to fill in the gaps between the Stannah Stairlift adverts.
And yet, in the UK at least, one medium seems to be bucking that trend: cinema. New gigaplexes are shooting up all over the country almost weekly, but there's still not enough screen space out there to show all the new films that come out. It's a fairly well-known fact that the distribution of non-English language films in this country is in a real mess at the moment, but things are nearly as bad with the non-Hollywood end of American cinema. Magazines and web sites like Film Threat document all the small, low-budget stuff that's being made over there, but huge amounts of it never make it over this side of the pond at all, except sometimes as a low-profile straight-to-video release, or the odd festival screening.
The Feature Film Company have taken an extraordinary step to try and change this situation. They've got together six low-budget American indies (some made by total unknowns, others with some surprisingly heavyweight names attached, none of which have ever been seen in this country before), collected them as a package called American Independence, and are taking all six films out on a tour of the arthouse cinemas of this fair land, grabbing a screen for a week or so and showing one film a night.
The advantages of this approach are obvious. Films that would normally end up squashed onto video are allowed to briefly stretch out over the full width of a cinema screen. Viewers who are drawn to the programme by names like Spike Lee and Lisa Kudrow may end up seeing another film that doesn't have quite the same level of star power. And by selling the six films as a package, it ensures that there'll be some anal types out there who'll end up seeing all six.
Like me, for instance.
Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis was made in 1996, at the tail end of a career slump that started just after his 1989 debut sex lies and videotape, and ended last year with his hit Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out Of Sight. It feels like the work of a director who can throw in any idea that comes along because he doesn't have anything to lose any more: but as a result of this approach, it's his most relaxed and entertaining film for quite some time. Soderbergh himself plays Fletcher Munson, who's told at short notice that he's got to write a big speech by the end of the week for his boss, the thinly disguised L. Ron Hubbard clone T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone). Munson really doesn't need the pressure: he's getting strange threatening phone calls at work, the office is rife with suspicion that someone's leaking information to Schwitters' enemies, and his marriage has broken down to the point where he greets his wife (Betsy Brantley) with "Generic Greeting!" and she replies with "Generic Greeting Returned!" What he doesn't know is that his wife is having an affair with dentist Dr Korchek, who curiously looks exactly like Munson. What she doesn't know is that Korchek is trying to start an affair with one of his patients, Attractive Woman #2, who curiously looks exactly like her. And none of them know about Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), a crazed insect exterminator who ransacks people's houses and seduces women with total and utter gibberish ("Nose army. Jigsaw. Smell sign.") until the day he's headhunted for a bigger part in the movie...
Soderbergh obviously doesn't take this too seriously - in an opening speech to camera, he assures us that "no expense has been incurred in the making of this film" and that if there is anything we don't understand, we should keep going back and seeing the film again until we understand it. In fact, the movie isn't that hard to follow, although you do need to pay close attention to pick up some of the more subtle connections between the scenes. With the scattershot approach taken by Soderbergh, some bits work, some don't: generally the shorter gags are the best, such as a scene consisting of a panning shot around a park that comes to rest on a sign reading "IDEA MISSING". The longer eccentricities are more problematic, such as a third act where earlier events in the movie are revisited from the point of view of Munson's wife, while Soderbergh does all his dialogue in badly-dubbed foreign languages. But the funny lines and situations, combined with the gloriously complex interweaving of the characters, all make Schizopolis a worthwhile proposition. If nothing else, it's worth seeing just for Soderbergh's deadpan reading of a love letter to Attractive Woman #2: "I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I'm standing near an air conditioner."
One of the few title cards seen on screen during Schizopolis claims that "No fish were harmed during the making of this film," a subtle dig at Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It that probably killed any chance it had of appearing at Redford's Sundance Festival. Eye Of God, on the other hand, did get to Sundance, appearing in competition in the 1997 Festival. Jack (Kevin Anderson) has just got out of prison, and his first act on release is to travel to Kingfisher, Oklahoma and meet up with Ainsley (Martha Plimpton): the two have been corresponding during his time in the nick, and this is the first time they've met face to face. They grow to love each other and quickly get married, although ominously Ainsley still has no idea of the crime that Jack did time for. Intercut with this is the story of Tommy (Nick Stahl), a local teenager first seen in a near catatonic state wandering down the road while covered in blood.
The two stories eventually converge, carefully moving backwards and forwards from a central event that's never actually shown. However, this is achieved with some slippery tricks with timeframes that show tremendous skill in editing on the part of writer/director Tim Blake Nelson, but ultimately feel like cheating. From the ponderous opening voiceover by the sheriff (reliable old Hal Holbrook), it's fairly obvious that Jack and Ainsley's story will end in tears. And the title is made to do a lot of heavy symbolic work throughout the story, most notably in the way that much is made of Ainsley having a glass eye even though it's bloody obvious that she hasn't at all. But the performances are great: Martha Plimpton (one of the great underused American actresses) and Kevin Anderson effectively convey the subtle changes in their relationship over the six months covered by the story, and Nick Stahl is tremendous as Tommy, the teenager who holds the key to the whole mystery.
The theme of a small town holding a dark secret is, of course, a staple of American cinema. The road movie is another, and it would be surprising if American Independence didn't include an example of the genre. Having said that, the director and writer of Niagara Niagara (Bob Gosse and Matthew Weiss respectively) have gone to a lot of trouble to make it as unconventional a road movie as possible. Seth (Henry Thomas) is an incompetent shoplifter with negligible interpersonal skills. Marcy (Robin Tunney) is a pill-popping boozehound with Tourette's Syndrome. The two of them are driving up to Canada to buy a black Barbie head. (I told you they'd gone to a lot of trouble.)
It's a little hard to warm to this dysfunctional pair initially, but you start liking them once Marcy acknowledges their mutual screwed-upness with the line "I always find when I've got something important to say to someone, I can't look at their face, and I think it's great that you're like that too". But as they drift into crime, robbing a pharmacist to get Marcy's Tourette's medication, it's fairly obvious that it can never work out. Henry Thomas (who was ET's pal fifteen years earlier, although he hasn't worn anything like as well as Drew Barrymore) is kind of hindered by not having a character to work with, just a series of historical incidents he can reveal every so often - he used to live in Japan, his dad only ever eats cornflakes, and so on. Robin Tunney, on the other hand, has a full-on Big Illness to play with, and she tics, jerks, swears and compulsively touches everything in what is presumably an authentic fashion. But in the end, it's just another example of the kind of disease-of-the-week performance that's crassly calculated to win awards (Best Actress, Venice 1997, since you ask). Niagara Niagara passes the time pleasantly enough, thanks to a quirky script and a nice country score by Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins, but in the end it's only distinguished by being the first Tourette's movie as opposed to any other reason.
Spike Lee's Four Little Girls features the best-known director of the six showcased here. Mind you, Spike's "joints" have had rather poor distribution in this country over the last few years. Four Little Girls is doubly cursed, as it's a documentary, and who goes to see those at the cinema any more? Your loss. Lee tells the story of the black teenage girls of the title, using interviews with family and friends to illustrate what it was like for them growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early Sixties. Birmingham was one of the strongholds of racial segregation at this time, mainly thanks to the policies of Governor George Wallace. Nevertheless the integration movement began to grow, led by the example of Martin Luther King and helped enormously by the efforts of local pastor Fred Shuttlesworth. As the movement gathered momentum, the 16th Street Church became its focal point. On September 15th 1963 the church was bombed, resulting in the death of the four little girls. Their murderer would not be brought to justice for another 14 years.
Lee uses a selection of articulate and emotional interviewees to bring to life an incident that, according to veteran newsman Walter Cronkite, finally made white America realise the depth of the hate felt by the segregationists. Despite being made for television, Lee still manages to display his trademark visual style, notably in the brilliant use of artfully shot and lit old photos which almost appear to come to life on the screen. There's some neat juxtapositional editing: a statement by a white attourney about how things weren't so bad for black people in the fifties is accompanied by archive footage of kids in KKK uniforms on a family outing. And Lee's treatment of George Wallace is hilariously cruel: the former Governor is now totally gaga, has to have all his interviews subtitled, and even manages to breathe new life into the cliche about one of his best friends being black. Four Little Girls is filmed with all the passion and commitment you'd expect from Spike Lee's best fictional films. Sure, catch the inevitable TV screening if you must, but you're missing out if you don't see it during this brief cinema outing.
The inclusion of Four Little Girls in this collection points up the fact that it's difficult to identify what an "independent movie" means - after all, it was made for HBO, part of the Time Warner organisation. Eric Cartman famously summed up the common themes of American independent cinema in the phrase "a bunch of gay cowboys eating pudding". You get the impression that he wouldn't like Hilary Brougher's The Sticky Fingers Of Time, which can best be described as being about "a bunch of lesbians travelling through time". After witnessing one of the H-bomb tests in 1953, writer Tucker (Terumi Matthews) has become, in Kurt Vonnegut's phrase, "unstuck in time" - condemned to live the events of her life in a random order. She doesn't realise this until she sees her recently disappeared friend Isaac (James Urbaniak) in the street, runs after him and suddenly leaps forward forty-odd years into the future. It turns out that Isaac has engineered this to try to prevent Tucker's subsequent death in 1953, if you see what I mean. In the nineties, Tucker strikes up a friendship with Drew (Nicole Zaray) which begins to blossom into something deeper. But as the timeline of her life is already predetermined, can Tucker really avoid her own murder? Or can Drew do something about it?
With no more complex effects than a fade to black and white to signify a journey backwards through time, Brougher has crafted a nifty science fiction story, which after a labyrinthine series of twists and turns reveals itself to be a tale of jealousy and betrayal stretching over three separate eras. The logic is carefully worked through, as huge loops of cause and effect resonate throughout the movie. But Brougher's always careful to ensure that the characters aren't overwhelmed by the mechanics of the plot, as you come to like Tucker and Drew and get to be intensely irritated by Isaac (an amusingly finnicky performance by James Urbaniak). The ending probably breaks a couple of the natural laws of time travel and time travel movies, but by then you enjoy being with these people so much that you don't care.
Of course, another good working definition of an American independent movie is "anything with Parker Posey in it". Sadly, there's still no sign of her splendid performance as a Jackie Kennedy obsessive in The House Of Yes getting a proper screening over here. In the meantime, we have the last movie in the collection, Jill Sprecher's Clockwatchers. It's the story of Iris (Toni Collette), following her time working as a temp in a credit company. Feeling isolated and lost on her first day, she's taken under the wing of Margaret (Parker Posey), a fellow temp who's been with the company long enough to develop a serious attitude problem. Giving out ill-informed advice to a caller on the phone, she points out to Iris that "by the time they've found out who you are, you'll have left anyway". The four temps in the office - Iris, Margaret, aspiring actress Paula (Lisa Kudrow) and the soon to be married Jane (Alanna Ubach) - quickly become good friends, banding together against the permanent staff in general, and new secretary Cleo (Helen FitzGerald) in particular. But when a wave of petty thefts sweeps through the office - the first moderately interesting event ever to have happened there - the friendship starts feeling the strain.
To read some reviews of Clockwatchers, you'd think that it was a real-time reconstruction of the tedium of office life, which of course it isn't. It's partly a sharp comic analysis of office politics, particularly in the way boundaries are drawn between temporary and permanent staff - the temps immediately come under suspicion as soon as the thefts start. Set as it is in the Office From Hell (bland decor, disinterested staff, continuous piped Muzak courtesy of Joe Altruda and his Cocktail Crew), the film spends a lot of time looking at the little things people do to stay sane at work, and what happens when they can't do those things any more. But it's also a fine study of a group of female friends and how their friendship holds under pressure. The atmosphere becomes surprisingly tense as suspicion for the thefts bounces around between the four: there's an incredibly sad shot of Iris lying on her bed fully dressed at 8.30 in the morning, unable to drag herself out to the office. It's a beautifully observed script, well acted by Toni Collette (repeating her trick from Muriel's Wedding of appearing to actually grow up on camera), Lisa Kudrow (as a less daffy, more self-aware version of Phoebe from Friends), and Parker Posey as the loose cannon of the bunch. There's very little plot to speak of, but the tiny victory Iris pulls off against the system makes for a suitably bittersweet ending.
American Independents has a pretty impressive strike rate for a collection of six movies whose only real link is their lack of British distribution. And for once, this isn't just confined to London. After a two week run at the Curzon Soho starting on March 12th, the package goes on tour with one-week engagements at Sheffield Showroom (week commencing March 19th), Newcastle Tyneside (March 26th), Brighton Duke of Yorks (March 26th), Oxford Phoenix (April 2nd), Irish Film Centre (April 9th), Cambridge Arts Centre (April 9th), Bristol Watershed (April 16th), Exeter Filmhouse (April 16th), Derby Metro (April 23rd), Bradford Pictureville (April 23rd), Chapter Cardiff (April 30th), Edinburgh Filmhouse (April 30th), Nottingham Broadway (May 7th), Manchester Cornerhouse (May 7th), York Film Theatre (May 14th), Norwich Cine City (May 21st), Glasgow Film Theatre (May 21st), and back to London again to finish off at the Prince Charles from May 28th. None of which is any use to Spank's recently acquired American readers, but hey, you've had your chance to see all these films already.
And yes, I'm perfectly aware that the whole thing about "too much media space and not enough content" applies just as well to mouthy australopithecines filling 3000 words of web space by babbling on about how they've seen six movies in the past week. I'm not completely devoid of irony, you know. Being a monkey, and all.
The Internet Movie Database has info on all six films: Clockwatchers, Eye Of God, Four Little Girls, Niagara Niagara, Schizopolis and The Sticky Fingers Of Time.
HBO are a big enough organisation to give Four Little Girls its own official site.
Bugjuice [dead link], a zany webzine set up by BMG Entertainment to show how hip they are really, has an official site for Clockwatchers [dead link] to promote their release of the video.
The Shooting Gallery [dead link] aren't all that big, but they still have a Niagara Niagara [dead link] site anyway.
The Sticky Fingers Of Time [dead link] even has a site of its own as well.
Empire Online are sponsoring the whole tour, and have an American Independence [dead link] page on their site. Like the magazine, the website is so far up the rectum of Mrs Mainstream Hollywood Cinema that it's wearing her teeth as a hat, but I suppose we should be grateful that they put up the money for things like this now and again.
Amazon.com give you the opportunity, if you're really lazy and have an NTSC compatible video deck, to have the videos of Clockwatchers, Eye Of God, Four Little Girls, Niagara Niagara and Schizopolis sent to your home. But that's kind of missing the point, really. [VHS? Bloody hell. For DVD purchasing links, see below.]
Film Threat, as mentioned earlier, is the best place to go for information on the latest American indie releases. I'd tell you about their weekly email bulletin, but I'm saving that for a feature on mailing lists that's coming soon.