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Indie jones (continued)

Related Links

Hal Hartley's official Web site

Cannes Festival's Web site

Mutual Appreciation's official Web site

Peter Keough reviews Elliot Greenebaum's first film, Assisted Living

Does this club reflect Bujalskiís own ambitions? "Thereís very little autobiography in either film. But one thing that is an accurate reflection of me is that, much like Lawrence, I tend to be skeptical of clubs for clubsí sake. Although, that said, at least half of the cast Mutual Appreciation is filmmakers whom I have met along the way. A lot of things do come out of those situations and . . . networking is such an ugly word."

So is solipsism. One of the critiques of Bujalskiís films, and independent movies in general, is that they ignore the world outside. Bujalskiís films lack any overt reference to politics. September 11 took place while he was editing Funny Ha Ha, but though he recalls a sense of futility in making a film in such circumstances, thereís no hint of the terrible events in the finished product. "The kind of films Iím doing, everyone ends up being a type for myself. That said, I think that one of the things about Funny Ha Ha is that itís a film in which almost no one talks about art or practices art. I think I did that on purpose. I kept that stuff out of the film because I wanted to avoid that certain glib self-reflexivity."

Some independent filmmakers avoid that self-reflexivity by making documentaries. Nina Davenport has been applauded for Hello Photo (1994) and Always a Bridesmaid (2000). On September 11, she was working for hire on a set in San Diego. Her apartment in Manhattan was in view of the Twin Towers. Stunned, she decided to make the cross-country trip home by car, interviewing ordinary people she met along the way. The result, Parallel Lines, was completed in 2003. It received a rare theatrical screening at this yearís Independent Film Festival of Boston. I found it the best documentary yet about September 11, and one of the best films ever about life in America. Why has it been seen by so few Americans?

"I really have no idea!" she says. "When I compare the film-festival route now with Hello Photo, itís gotten so much more competitive and so much less professional, and jurors who donít know about filmmaking . . . I donít know this for a fact, but it certainly seems like it. So itís harder to stand out than it was before. And I guess there must have been some sort of resistance to it, because of September 11 and people wanting to move on."

Davenport herself has moved on, but she hasnít turned away. Her new project, funded by non-American sources, looks at the Iraq War. "Itís a long crazy story of an Iraqi filmmaker, this guy called Muthana Mudher, who was on the MTV show Real Life that a friend of mine produced, where he described how his school was bombed by the Americans. Liev Schreiber happened to see the show and got MTV to invite Muthana to work on his next movie, which was Everything Is Illuminated, based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel. Itís basically a metaphor for American-Iraqi relations, because it was a very rocky road between Muthana and Liev and also with me because everything was sort of a power struggle. Itís going to be a great film. Iím really excited about it."

Perhaps this new film will benefit from the recent popularity of hot-button documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me. But Davenport has mixed feelings about the new vogue. "Itís always great when any documentary does well. But I think that it means that this kind of reality-TV culture is seeping in, corrupting and co-opting the medium. Maybe in the long run, it would have been better if it had remained marginalized."

Elliot Greenebaum is an ambitious young filmmaker who shares Davenportís concerns about independent filmmaking and the future of reality in movies. How does one reconcile the narrative nature of movies with its power to reflect real life? These two aspects of the medium come together in his debut feature, Assisted Living.

He got the idea in film school ó by defying his teachers. "I had written a movie about a woman who gives her son an airplane and then years later she gets a call from him. Heís an astronaut lost in outer space, and sheís in a nursing home, and she sees a plane fly over and apologizes to the janitor for giving him an airplane. NYU, where I was attending school, thought that was a bad movie. I disagreed. They said they wanted three acts. And I said that that was crappy. They said you have to learn how to do crappy stuff before you can do good stuff. I said Iíll make a 15-minute film this summer . . . and follow their formula very briskly so they couldnít say, ĎYou donít have mastery over conventional narrative.í But I decided to drop out of school instead and make a totally weird movie thatís experimenting with the boundaries between documentary and fiction. That short film, which I filmed in a real nursing home with real residents, evolved into this weird film, which is Assisted Living."

You canít blame the profs at NYU for steering their students away from anything this unusual. They couldnít have foreseen that a film about a slacker finding solidarity with an Alzheimerís patient, shot with a non-professional, mostly post-septuagenarian cast, would become the indie equivalent of a hit. Maybe if theyíd seen the 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude, but that was so long ago . . .

For Greenebaum, the story was secondary to the tension between the real and the made-up. "In fiction films, everything is more controlled, and in documentary, the idea is youíre not exerting artistic control over the material, and in this environment, the fiction scenes have this eerie, uncontrolled quality to them. You canít direct elderly people in the way that you can direct actors, so I got interested in making a movie that was in the gray scale between fiction and documentary. Itís sort of documentary, but thereís fictional characters, and the result was that I came up with a lot of interesting material but sort of a story that wasnít big enough to support it."

There was enough story to get the support of independent distributor Cowboy Pictures. So does Greenebaum see himself as a role model for independent film directors? "What does Ďindependentí mean?" he asks. "It can be used to market a film pretty well, it means less money usually and less genre. I donít know what it means. Whatever it means definitely applies in my case if your readership wants to see a genuinely independent film where no one knew it was being made, no relevant companies had any idea who I was. This just was a film done in Louisville, Kentucky, by a young filmmaker."

Greenebaumís probe of the frontier between reality and fiction in cinema has been an issue with filmmakers at least since the documentaries of Robert Flaherty. What did he see as the outcome of these cinematic explorations and the future of movies?

"Video games," he says, ruefully. "And reality TV." And, of course, blockbusters like Star Wars.

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Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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