Pieces of Crap
Pieces of April, InDigEnt, and the future of cinema?
By Jeff Reichert
“It is an innovative digital filmmaking collective financed by IFC to produce ten low-budget digital feature films. InDigEnt is dedicated to the community of filmmakers looking to experiment and expand into digital filmmaking.”—InDigEnt mission statement
In 1969 Italian architecture critic Manfredo Tafuri issued a slight missive of modest intent entitled Towards a Critique of Architectural Ideology. In it he proposed nothing less than the destruction of the practice of architecture. Taking cues from Louis Althusser’s writings on ideology, Tafuri argued the position of the architect as creator was hugely privileged and inevitably compromised, completely bound up within a system of layers of avant-garde architectural flourishes only served to cloak. The more advanced the formal project, the more the fundamental contradictions were masked, the more disingenuous the structure. Tafuri argued the only possible escape from the underlying falsity of this arrangement was the abstraction of the architect from the position of designer and the agency that the term implies. It was (and still is) a radical stance, and perhaps may have been more a way to goose the critical establishment into doing their Marx homework than reflective of any real desire to see the profession flushed down the toilet. Let’s imagine for a second that Gary Winick’s (Tadpole) InDigEnt label is his attempt to take up Tafuri’s call in the artistic medium that has the most in common with architecture: cinema. If Tafuri thought questions of personal style were conceits compromised by their existence within particular socioeconomic boundaries and wanted to obliterate them from practice and discourse, InDigEnt has created an umbrella for this end to be executed, employed in a medium that seems to offer filmmakers entirely new, streamlined ways of making films, outside of the conflicting whims of multi-source investment capital. However, if Tafuri’s beef with the avant-garde architects of his time was their use of highbrow tactics to argue their oppositional bent, I’d argue that InDigEnt has proven an equally forceful aesthetic regression is just as disingenuous.
I doubt the creator of Tadpole reads much beyond Page Six and Faber & Faber paperbacks of lesser Woody Allen screenplays, but the InDigEnt films (including Final, Chelsea Walls, Tape, Women in Films, and the Reverse Shot-disapproved Tadpole) seem, at least at first, a body remarkably similar to what Tafuri advocated. InDigEnt’s “films” feature the muddy, coffee-stained imagery coupled with herky-jerky camera movement that have been the hallmark of films produced with DV technology. These limitations on the image and in-common camera movement work to erase the hands of their creators, replacing them with one simple signifier: video. The problem is that, unlike Hal Hartley’s Book of Life, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, or Michael Winterbottom’s lesser but vital entry In This World (inexplicably lumped with two unrelated films into a group of “horrible [DV] movie experiences” by one cantankerous New York critic), we’re not finding a filmmaking practice liberated by the possibilities of this new economic model—it’s mostly the same old shit. Only uglier and cheaper. (Let’s give Richard Linklater’s curious entry Tape a free pass). Wannabes the world over can salivate at the potential for the democratization of the filmmaking process offered by low-cost 24 fps handicams, but if the end results mean an army of Tadpoles, I’ll proudly wave the banner of cinematic fundamentalism. It’s still curious to me why the revolution is happening now—video’s been around and just as nasty for years, but it has always been a potent weapon in the right hands (witness Fassbinder’s little-seen, yet fascinating video curiosity Bremen Freedom, where he trumps all of today’s low-budget freaks, eschewing sets in favor of filling space around his actors with images of waves, cornfields, and sky).
But then, does talk of auteur directors “pushing” the digital video medium end up as just another dead-end aesthetics-in-ideology mise-en-abîme? Only to the degree with which one considers DV just celluloid-lite, which seems to be how most working in production feel. Sure, both feature instruments called cameras, which get pointed at objects to record their motion via the light bouncing off of them, but the similarities really end there. Everyone’s so caught up in striving for the moment when video will “look just like film”—but why, besides the economic question, does it have to? And even if we reach the magic resolution and projection settings at which point DV will look just like film, it still won’t be. If Hartley, Winterbottom, and Vinterberg were just using the medium to get their rocks off on stories that could have never been financed as 35mm features (or Super 16mm blow-ups), we’d be left with nothing. But in these works there’s a real sense that slips around the edges of artists fully aware of taking steps on new ground, with new tools at their disposal. Even if In This World is hung on a fairly conventional narrative, how do you quantify the pitch-dark apocalypse of the nightmarish Turkish border crossing sequence? DV-“film”making represents a host of possibilities to break out of economic structures that determine what movies get made currently, and by extension another host of new aesthetic and political avenues, but it’s up to those making the images to take up the mantle. Enter InDigEnt.
Quickly becoming the Roy Rogers (the New Jersey Turnpike fried chicken favorite, not the cowboy) of cinema, InDigEnt’s latest attempt at helping filmmakers “experiment and expand into digital filmmaking” is Peter Hedges’s completely traditional upper-middle-class-family reconciles-on-a-holiday film Pieces of April. As with other InDigEnt productions we’ve got a bunch of established actors (Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt) slumming it for two weeks in front of a Sony camcorder for better profit sharing and added indie cred. Winick would have us believe that these are films by directors with “stories to tell” that give actors more “freedom” than working on larger, longer productions. It’s the kind of rhetoric that always attempts to link back to the films of John Cassavetes, but without actually demonstrating any sense that those eviscerating his corpse have any sense of his work. If April is supposed to be exist somewhere in this lineage, I’d challenge one to find those odd moments of discomfort, strangeness, and off-handed poetry that marked Faces, Husbands, or Love Streams. You won’t because they’re not here—Hedges’s script is airtight, and the narrative and cast feels hermetically sealed inside, struggling to get out.
Hedges himself may not buy into the Cassavetes talk, but it’s not hard to imagine the author/screenwriter behind What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? believing this to be an attempt to really “get risky.” Consider all the rough juxtapositions between Joy Burns (Clarkson) struggling with cancer and her punk(y Brewster’ed) daughter April (Holmes) struggling with cooking. Laugh as April drops her huge uncooked turkey on the floor (isn’t that always the way?), but prepare to get the wind knocked out of you by the maudlin exhibition of arty B&W photos of Joy’s bare chest pre- and post-mastectomy. It all feels as measured as a drink prepared by a Japanese bartender—each element is carefully proportioned, balanced, shaken, and stirred, though what we’re left with in Pieces of April is far from a perfect cocktail. I’d call it almost admirable if it weren’t so inert. Disclosure: though I found sitting through the first 76 minutes of April borderline intolerable, the last few I found inexplicably moving. The expected reunion occurs after a red herring of a false ending, and it’s even sweeter than any of the film’s characters could have imagined, involving as it does a Chinese family, two bikers, and other assorted neighbors who’ve helped April during the course of the film. As April opens the door to find her mother standing there, music by Stephin Merritt (perhaps the only pop musician who can be more affecting with only four nylon ukulele strings than Timbaland can with an entire studio arsenal) fades in and the film intercuts a series of still images representing photos taken by brother Timmy (Jimmy Gallagher Jr.) with video footage of a utopian New York Thanksgiving where cultures, races, classes intermingle. It’s perhaps the most contrived sequence in the film, but gains intimacy from its sheen of DV anonymity, feeling as it does more like a sequence cobbled together from the best of Hallmark than the Writer’s Workshop 101 narrative that we’ve just been treated to. As such a marked contrast, it hits like a breath of fresh air. Maybe I’m just a sucker for ukuleles.
Were Tafuri a present-day film critic, he’d find much to discuss in the disconnect between the possibilities of DV filmmaking (which I think he’d approve of) and the end results that audiences have been offered. So few seem to recognize this moment as crucial, seismic, and potentially powerful as the one over a century ago involving an oncoming train projected on a makeshift screen. Aside from short flashes of genius to be found among the rising mass of streaming Mpeg and Quicktime artists on the internet, the only film I’ve seen that seems to fully embody the promise of this moment (let’s call it for what it is: the true digital moment) is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, which isn’t even shot on DV. Managing simultaneously to abstract himself from the basic elements of the film and reinscribe himself all over every combination of them, Tarantino’s somehow managed to sidestep the thorny questions of authorship to create a free-floating sea of cultural appropriations in the form of an “action” movie. I think what affected me so much about Hedges’s final frames works in a similar fashion—both the Burns family reunion and Kill Bill reach beyond the identities of their creators into accumulated banks of cultural residue to probe at larger, lasting deposits. That Tarantino can channel this impulse for an entire film is a miracle. That Hedges manages one grace note makes Pieces of April almost redeemable.