U.S. Micro-Budget Indie Cinema
(This one's for Matthew.)
Last summer, Dan Sallitt posted this startling tweet: “Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now.”
Sure, I had seen a handful of recent U.S. indies in the last couple of years, but I had no idea if a larger phenomenon was afoot. Since then, struck by Dan’s tweet, I’ve sought out and watched about 50 of these films. While I did not stumble upon a trove of “hidden masterpieces” (that would be an unreasonable expectation), I was nevertheless surprised to discover an awful lot of good, worthy, solid – and occasionally excellent — cinema.
Here, to start, is a list of 15 or so filmmaker discoveries I made during my immersion. For each, I note what struck me as their strongest work — and thus, highly recommended. All films below were made in the last 5 years or so.
Josephine Decker: Butter on the Latch; Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Gina Telaroli: Traveling Light
Khalik Allah: Field Niggas
Jenni Olson: The Royal Road
Amanda Rose Wilder: Approaching the Elephant
Joanna Arnow: Bad at Dancing
Bingham Bryant & Kyle Molzan: For the Plasma
Joe Swanberg: Marriage Material
John Magary: The Mend
Kentucker Audley: Open Five; Open Five 2
Stephen Cone: The Wise Kids
Nathan Silver: Exit Elena
Amy Seimetz: The Sun Don’t Shine
Charles Poekel: Christmas, Again
Joel Potrykus: Buzzard
Sean Baker: Starlet
Let me add a second, smaller list of directors to whose work I’ve had only limited exposure — but what I’ve seen by them has strongly sparked my interest. I file them, like Andrew Sarris once did, under “Subjects for Further Research”.
Robert Greene: Actress
Matt Porterfield: Take What You Can Carry
Paul Harrill: Something, Anything
Frank V. Ross: Tiger Tail in Blue
A note of disclosure. I’ve left out two filmmakers I admire — and whose work I strongly recommend! — because they are friends I have known for almost a decade: Dan himself (The Unspeakable Act) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Ellie Lumme).
Finally, I’m not sure what level of budget qualifies as “micro”. I have simply followed the usage of the word as it has attached itself, in Internet film culture, to the work of a certain, ever-expanding group of filmmakers. I have also used “low-budget,” “small-budget” and “micro-budget” interchangeably.
Below are brief observations on approximately 10 filmmakers — followed by some general comments.
1. Josephine Decker
Decker makes intense, visionary films. Her two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, are lyrical, but this is not a calm, contemplative, conventionally “poetic” cinema. Instead, it is full of disorientation and surprise — narrative, formal, stylistic. Every single element of film form seems to get a playful workout in her hands. Both movies are driven by female characters, and are strikingly shot by her regular cinematographer Ashley Connor, who makes free and exhilarating use of out-of-focus images. Sound, similarly, gets distributed between onscreen and offscreen in unpredictable ways. Both films imaginatively draw upon the natural environment: Butter is mostly set in a Balkan music camp in the California mountains, and Mild and Lovely is a black-comic take on the Southern gothic genre that takes place at an isolated farm. Butter is sprinkled with thrilling moments that erupt into mystery, oneirism and plain opaqueness; this disruptive quality is integrated wholly and completely into Mild and Lovely, into its every moment, making it (for me) the slightly greater film.
2. Gina Telaroli
Telaroli is a protean and fascinating figure in film culture; I wrote about her recently, including links to several pieces by or about her. Her Traveling Light is a non-narrative film that documents a train trip from New York City to Pittsburgh. Initially conceiving it in narrative terms, Telaroli decided, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that disrupted and altered the train journey, to strip the film of its narrative elements. This resulted in a more abstract and avant-garde version of the intended movie. Her thoughtful comments on “train films” are worth quoting here:
… trains are the perfect, preassembled set. You don’t need to light them, they’re already decorated, and because they’re moving, they’re always interesting … It’s like my love of courtroom movies, this miniature mockup of society as a movie set, with everyone playing the roles they’ve been assigned from outside, even though they’re in a self-contained world … For research, I was watching movies like Human Desire, Class Relations, and Mission: Impossible, and it’s always the same thing: every seat carries a token citizen of a different class, and the train is this collective space where they have to confront each other and reestablish their roles through the simplest gestures …
3. Khalik Allah
Allah’s hypnotic Field Niggas is an hour-long work of documentary portraiture. Its subjects are the poor people, mostly of color, many of them drug addicts, who hang out near the intersection of Lexington and 125th in New York City. It is said that there are 8 methadone clinics within a 5-block radius of this spot; the iconic Velvet Underground song “Waiting for the Man” is set at this location. Over the images we hear the voices of the subjects — but they are out of sync with the images, which are in slow motion. As Ashley Clark writes of these unfortunates, many of them are addicted to K2, a monstrously debilitating synthetic weed, an epidemic of which is now sweeping the city. The title of the film refers to the distinction Malcolm X once pointed out between the “house Negro” and the “field Negro” during the time of slavery: the former lived in the house with the master and largely identified with him, while the latter was part of the majority of slaves who lived and worked in difficult conditions outside. Allah says that he chose the film’s title as a deliberate act of insurgency: “I kind of wanted to come into the industry and get blackballed from the beginning, and the title Field Niggas would be a shortcut to that. However, the opposite happened: I was accepted, and loved! … The people that I am documenting are the unrepresented; these are the field slaves of today.”
4. Jenni Olson
Containing gorgeous landscape photography and shot on 16mm by cinematographer Sophie Constatinou, Jenni Olson’s essay film The Royal Road mixes documentary with personal narrative and an experimental impulse. Like nearly every good model in its genre, this is a digressive, associative work that is driven by reflection — in this case, on history, romantic desire, the landscape, nostalgia, and even the lives of libertines. Olson’s big subject here is California’s colonial past; the film’s title is a translation of El Camino Real, the highway that stretches from Sonoma in northern California to San Diego in the south. In Olson’s words, “Practically everything [in California] has a Spanish name. San Francisco. Los Angeles. And yet people tend to be either unaware of or not deeply aware of the fact that this all did belong to Mexico for a long time and was forcibly taken in a war that was very clearly not an honorable war.”
Melissa Anderson writes in the Village Voice: “Though Uninvited [Patricia White’s book on classical Hollywood cinema and lesbian representation] isn't mentioned in The Royal Road, Olson's film shares a deep affinity with White's book in that both are invested in mapping out lesbian cinephilia.” Olson is lesbian, and has been married for 20 years and has 2 children. But the layer of the movie that forms its first-person, romantic-seducer narrative has a remarkable convincing “autobiographical” feel. In interviews, she has spoken of how she consciously created a “persona” for what feels like a direct, confessional story. This speaks to an interesting aspect of her film: there is an unadorned, unfussy, prosaic, matter-of-factness about her voiceover delivery that is at odds with many of her forebears in the essay film genre (like, most prominently, Marker). This directness has led to some unfair criticism of her film as patronizing and “talking down” to her audience. Instead, I see her tone as pedagogical and anti-mystificatory — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just seems unusual because it adopts an approach that is not closely derived from the films which have now come to define the “essay film canon”.
5. Amanda Rose Wilder
Wilder’s documentary Approaching the Elephant chronicles a year at a radically anti-hierarchical “free school” in New Jersey where all children and adults get an equal vote on how to spend each day. The first such school was founded in 1901 by a group of anarchists in Barcelona. Today, there are over 200 of them around the world; among the most famous is Summerhill in the UK, which Wilder visited as a child. The director shot her documentary solo, operating both camera and sound.
I've always thought of cinema that foregrounds the body (like Cassavetes, Pialat, Ferrara, etc. — all those totemic figures of the "Movie Mutations" canon) as a thoroughly adult cinema, so it comes as a shock to see those same qualities erupt with visceral effect in this documentary about children. (Cassavetes first leapt to mind as I was watching — and then I learned in interviews that he was an explicit inspiration, along with the Dardennes’ The Son.)
It is also a film that yokes together disparate elements: corporeality but also ideas; formal intelligence but also nonstop, narrative micro-incident; immersiveness but also distance (the latter helped by B&W). Robert Greene edited the film, and it was shot on digital video, but I was almost fooled because it looked very film-like in B&W in its 4:3 aspect ratio.
The intersection of poetry and cinema was a formative interest for Wilder. She cites a love of William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore because they wrote
about real life, but through a subjective, artful eye … Williams was a neighborhood doctor, and he’d go into people’s homes and then write about that, so to me William Carlos Williams and the Maysles had a lot in common. I immediately took to the idea of being able to have an intuitive, poetic eye behind a camera, and using it handheld, so when you’re watching the film, you’re almost watching my thought process or you really feel like you’re in my body as I go through the school…
She places her work in a lineage not of “school films” but of “those about children in other situations where they’re able to make real decisions for themselves, which tends to happen for the most part outside of school environments. Films [about kids who are “free” on the streets] such as Pixote, Streetwise, Children Underground.” She also suggests viewing it in a different but productive context: films about alternative communities such as Warrendale and Asylum which document mixed, uneven results for the methods of care employed.
6. Joanna Arnow
Arnow’s feature I Hate Myself :) is an uncomfortably candid first-person documentary in the tradition of Caveh Zahedi and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) — but goes further in its frankness and transgression. Dan Sallitt has a perceptive take on it here that I recommend reading. As much as I admire this film’s bravery, I’m a bigger fan of her most recent work, the 15-minute short Bad at Dancing, a stylized, surrealist-absurdist comedy in B&W. Two women share an apartment, and one of them has a male lover; the other one, played by Arnow, walks in repeatedly on the couple having sex. This recurring device becomes a way to lay bare the tensions in the relationship between the two women. Arnow has cited distant, by no means obvious (and thus, intriguing) influences: Fosse’s All That Jazz and Tsai’s Vive L’Amour respectively for her two films. I can't wait to see what she makes next.
7. Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan
A “digital-pastoral”: this is how Bryant and Molzan describe their enigmatic feature For the Plasma, which is set in a cabin and the woods around a seaside town in Maine. A woman watches a forest with closed-circuit TV cameras, looking for fires, and hires an assistant to help her; she also uses her surveillance data to (mysteriously) help make stock market projections.
There are lovely touches of the Rivettian here: a mood of low-key but constant paranoia; strange or fantastical moments that erupt in the midst of a firmly “documentary” context and setting; the predominantly female presence (the actresses Anabelle LeMieux and Rosalie Lowe); striking images that are sometimes uncanny in their emptiness (e.g. cameras arranged in precise configurations in the middle of a forest); the warm and inimitable feel of celluloid (it was shot on Super 16mm); the verdant images (this is a memorable landscape film); and the fact that it never succumbs to demystifying its enigmas.
Bryant says in an interview: “[There were] innumerable inspirations, but three models: Raúl Ruiz’s The Territory, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Charisma, and Ermanno Olmi’s The Scavengers. Very different films that have their individual significance to us, but all ones that move modernism out of the cities and into settings usually monopolized by naturalism.”
8. Joe Swanberg
Swanberg’s history as a key figure of “mumblecore” now dates back to almost a dozen years. I will admit that I’m not a fan of the earlier work — such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — that many Swanberg fans think of as high points of the period. But his more recent output has made me sit up and take notice. Of this (and there’s a lot of it since he’s so prolific), my clear favorite is Marriage Material. Happy Christmas and All the Light in the Sky are also well worth seeing.
In Marriage Material, a couple (played by actor/director Kentucker Audley and his real-life partner Caroline White) spend a day babysitting, and this causes them to take stock of their future. The film’s centerpiece is a riveting, 15-minute scene in which they talk in bed. Shot mostly with a static camera and long takes, there is a patience and attentiveness here that is not attenuated by the restlessness of handheld camera or by a surfeit of characters. (The latter is a problem for me with some of Nathan Silver’s work, like Stinking Heaven or Soft in the Head.)
Swanberg’s career and methods are worth studying because of their creative response to financial constraint. This interview with him at Filmmaker magazine is a useful case study on the financial life of a micro-budget filmmaker. He tells a story about discovering in 2010 that he and his wife, the filmmaker Kris Swanberg, were going to have a child — and throwing himself into shooting six (!) films during that year, so that he could edit those films while he was home with the baby once it was born. On the special difficulties of making a living as a micro-budget filmmaker, he says
It’s unfathomable to imagine any other industry where the lag time between when you do the work and when you get paid for the work is three, four, six or 18 months … For Kris and I, our dream right now is just to get out of debt — the hundreds of dollars a month in credit card debt from movies that I put on a credit card years ago. And that doesn’t even start to tackle student loans and stuff like that. Our family debt is $80,000 or $90,000. If we got to a point where we were at zero, that would feel like a major accomplishment.
9. Kentucker Audley
Audley is a versatile and boundary-spanning figure in US micro-budget cinema — actor, director, writer, online distributor/exhibitor (he runs the site No-Budge), and social media voice. But he’s also underappreciated in these roles. He doesn’t have the visibility of Joe Swanberg or Alex Ross Perry but instead – and his performances are the most notable site of this quality – there is a mystery to his presence, the sense that he is holding things back that might be interesting to discover. His dry presence also comes through in a great satirical manifesto/petition he authored a couple of years ago, in which he called on mediocre filmmakers to stop making films (he was the first to sign up) so that the problem of small-budget movie “overproduction” could be brought under control.
His Open Five and Open Five 2 (an hour long each and available to watch for free at Vimeo) are lovely films: narratively loose but with formal intelligence and a documentary weight that comes from an attentiveness to people and place. What a shame that the New York Times dismissed Open Five in a brief and clueless review.
10. Stephen Cone
The Wise Kids (2011) is a genuinely sweet and warm ensemble film that, like Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Cone’s most recent work, nicely splits its time between teens and adults, male and female. One of its protagonists is a 14-year-old boy who is coming to the realization that he is gay; he is played by Tyler Ross, in a lovely, open performance; we vividly see a new identity being born over the course of the film, the changes manifesting on his face and body. Both in this and Henry Gamble, Cone depicts ensembles of Evangelical Christian characters with great sympathy and generosity — something rarely if ever seen in cinema. According to Cone, the latter film has resonated with non-Christian audiences — especially Jewish cinema-goers — more than the former, and he wonders if it is because The Wise Kids shows the church itself while in the latter film it’s offscreen; it's an intriguing theory.
Cone is prolific (unlike most of other filmmakers here, he already has 7 features behind him), and his next project sounds fascinating: a film about cinephilia, inspired by Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, about a young woman who is a projectionist in a small town in the North Carolina mountains.
11. Nathan Silver
Exit Elena, for me, is far and away Silver’s best film, mainly because of the way it handles a vital and timely subject: the challenges of “emotional labor.” The transition from a manufacturing to service economy has meant that many Western workers today don’t produce goods but instead (in large part) “produce” emotions. In other words, they are charged both with “displaying” positive feelings and also inducing such feelings in their customers. If manufacturing work invades and occupies only a part of the worker — the physical body — service work seems to take over the worker completely, both physically and emotionally. Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart (1983), was one of the first scholars to study “emotional labor” and analyze the resulting “commercialization of feeling.” Her work — and the stream of research she has since inspired — speaks urgently to our present moment.
Exit Elena is about a young woman (played by co-writer Kia Davis) who, as a nurse aide, moves into the house of a suburban Boston family. Her ostensible assignment is take care of an elderly relative, but she soon — against her will — becomes intimately embroiled in the everyday lives of her neurotic and demanding employers. Invisibly hovering over every scene is the differential power relation between her and everyone else in the family, young or old. For fear of being fired, she finds herself acceding to escalating daily demands coming from every direction. There is a precise, comic absurdism at work here that is worthy of Buñuel. Silver’s own mother Cindy — not a professional actor — turns in an indelible performance, and the director plays her son.
And now, a personal confession: I’ve grown a little weary of films that immerse themselves with great relish in detailing “male bad behavior”. Cinema has so overwhelmingly and disproportionately been by and about men that it feels like I’ve seen, by this point in my cinephile life, far too many films on this subject. Now, few subjects are exhaustible in art, I understand this, but nevertheless my level of interest in this one has never been lower. Thus my slight impatience when approaching a film such as The Mend (John Magary) or Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).
That said, The Mend is impressive. Its abrupt, chaotic movement has been compared usefully to that of Arnaud Desplechin, and it consistently foregrounds the vulnerable human body in a way that few contemporary, American non-genre films do. But Listen Up Philip is more than I can handle. Philip has received rapturous reviews; I’m glad it has found a wide audience for micro-budget cinema; I admit: the film gives the sense of a demonic intelligence behind it. But it makes me uncomfortable that it dives with such undisguised glee into the relentless, everyday cruelties perpetrated by two men who are pure, unadulterated pricks. It is this glee — this strong enjoyment of their pathology on the part of the film — that I cannot abide. Perry’s follow-up, Queen of Earth, is for me a better movie: it places its focus on women’s experience, and it doesn’t use close-ups as insistently as Philip, thus better showcasing Sean Price Williams’ stunning and versatile cinematography. But it is still too beholden to the Perry formula of fetishistically constructing a spectacle of educated, privileged people being assholes to each other.
Let me now conclude by singling out an element that is common to most of these US micro-budget films — and is a not inconsiderable source of their power. I am referring, very broadly, to documentary presence — of various natures and degrees — that is crucial to their effects. The best of these films lean on, and draw nourishment from, something large in the world, something weightier than a single individual’s perspective or experience. In addition to the fictional worlds that they elaborate, they also contain a wide “documentary channel” through which the world at large manifests itself to us — movingly.
To cite a few examples: Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant and Allah’s Field Niggas are explicitly documentaries. Most of Decker’s Butter on the Latch takes place at an actual, non-recreated Balkan cultural festival in Mendocino, California; the music and dance in the film, along with most of the non-actors who happened to be attending the festival, provide an authentic and compelling context within which the drama unfolds (the film would be unthinkable without its setting). Telaroli’s Traveling Light started out in conception as a fiction film but the finished product is an avant-garde documentary — of a train, views of the world through its windows, and the weather. Bryant and Molzan’s For the Plasma and Olson’s The Royal Road tell stories and have characters (of a sort) — but are, equally, vivid records of landscapes urban and pastoral imprinted upon celluloid. Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again is an unambiguously fictional work, but the attentiveness to labor (the selling of Christmas trees on a sidewalk) is so careful and detailed that it transcends the function of “workplace context”: it is most of the movie. (In fact, the set doubled as a real-life Christmas tree business to raise some money: now, that’s a micro-budget cinema story!) And every time I think of Sean Baker’s Starlet, which is a strongly narrative- and character-oriented work, what I picture first in my mind is the California sunshine that floods its images. In the words of Matthew Flanagan: it’s prime “Vitamin D cinema” ...
Any thoughts on or recommendations of micro-budget cinema, American or otherwise? I would love to hear them!