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2010 So Far, Part 1. Possible Narratives

The Auteurs Daily

Winter's Bone

Cannes will announce its lineup on Thursday and speculation as to what'll be in and what'll be out has been bubbling along nicely — see, for example, Cineuropa, indieWIRE, ioncinema and the Playlist. Before we're off to the races, though, we might take stock of 2010 so far by looking back with a bit of perspective on this year's editions of four headliner festivals, Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin and SXSW.

Here's how Film Comment editor Gavin Smith sees the state of things. He'd just returned to New York from Rotterdam when he wrote the letter that opens the current issue in which he sets out to list what "appear to be the half-dozen dominant stylistic categories that currently pervade the art-film sector, and their originators, best practitioners, and biggest popularizers. By far the most popular is Neo-neorealism. The current masters of this aesthetic are, of course, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Then there's Neo-modernism: Michael Haneke and Pedro Almodóvar, step forward. Neo-impressionism: nobody does it better than Claire Denis, but plenty try. For pious purists, there's Neo-minimalism: Pedro Costa, Eugène Green. Meditative Realism: Hou Hsiao-hsien. And last but not least, Neo-maximalism, the realm of enfant terribles such as Lars von Trier, Leos Carax, and Gaspar Noé." He reiterates his appreciation for "most of these stylistic approaches" but concludes: "Art cinema is really in danger of becoming narrow and predictable in its range of expression, and this is the aesthetic bind in which we find ourselves in 2010."

On the one hand, a cinema of austerity; on the other, a cinema of audacity. How fitting for these times. Granted, his focus is on "formulaic art cinema," but the bind begins to become undone once we widen that focus a bit. Let's put aside for the moment the remarkable ongoing expansion of the very idea of cinema brought about by a proliferation of screens of varied sizes and degrees of portability and the cross-pollination of formerly distinct media (Steven Shaviro calls our present moment "post-cinematic" but I wonder if "extra-cinematic" might be a more fitting term). One obvious question arises: Where are the Americans?

Gavin Smith has not set out in this letter to draw up a complete taxonomy of "art cinema," of course, and to be fair, he includes James Benning in a list of "lone wolves" who "remain committed to work that's hopelessly, gloriously sui generis" (the others: Wong Kar-wai, Lucrecia Martel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhangke and Arnaud Desplechin). Still, American cinephiles can and often do fall into the habit of overlooking unique or even visionary work going on in their own backyards — even as Judd Apatow remains a hot topic in France (Cahiers du Cinéma, Independencia) and the German magazine Cargo carries on addressing the work of David Simon, despite the fact that The Wire (never mind Treme) has never been broadcast in Germany and is available only via imported DVDs. Not that either name necessarily deserves a slot on that illustrious list above (though I personally would look for places on it for David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and possibly Steven Soderbergh); but if the "aesthetic bind" is beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, we may not have to search all that far or long for relief.

Having missed it in Berlin, I caught Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (above image), winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance in Austin and found it worthy of the prizes and the praise. Granik's a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program, but her harrowingly authentic portrayal of tooth-and-nail poverty in the Ozarks (certified in a post-screening Q&A by music consultant Marideth Sisco) brought to mind an era Andrew Tracy describes in his review of The Whole Shootin' Match for Cinema Scope: "There remains a tinge of folk art about the notion of 'regional filmmaking,' an artisanal as opposed to artistic intimation, with the audience as privileged voyeurs being allowed a look inside an enclosed community creating culture primarily for themselves.... [I]t was upon seeing and being impressed with this film that Park City resident Robert Redford determined to revamp the [US Film Festival] to showcase precisely this kind of independent, regional filmmaking — leading, of course, to that much-beloved annual event whose name we dare not speak."

Cinephiles love to dread each January's spate of "Sundance movies," but from the distant vantage point of this "coverage of the coverage" aggregator, this year's edition seemed, at the very least, not at all dreadful. The documentaries, led by Restrepo, were evidently particularly strong and "the blurring of the documentary/narrative line," a trend San Francisco Film Society director of programming Rachel Rosen spots as ongoing in a recent interview, is going on in lively and debate-sparking ways in Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop.



Lovers of Hate

As for the narratives, let's back up a moment. "Mumblecore is dead. Long live mumblecore." That's the title of an excellent entry at Indie Eye by Vadim Rizov in which he argues that "it seems safe to say mumblecore's historical moment is dead." He's right (even if the Brits are just now catching on it). The filmmakers themselves have moved on, and the title of Eric Kohn's final look back at SXSW 2010 for indieWIRE, "The Genre Jig Beyond Mumblecore," pretty much sums up one of the major storylines coming out of Austin this year — see, for example, last month's SXSW roundup on Aaron Katz's Cold Weather. Neither Jay and Mark Duplass's Cyrus nor Bryan Poyser's Lovers of Hate (executive produced by the Duplasses; pictured above), both premiering at Sundance before screening in Austin, are straight-up genre pieces (though both might be classified as distant cousins to the rom-com), but the filmmakers behind these comedies of discomfort seem to be testing to see just how far they can lean in towards the mainstream while retaining their personal voices — without falling over.

In retrospect, Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) seems to have been mumblecore's last roll call — and the opening shot for all associated with it to race off in their own directions. "[W]hat's interesting about 'mumblecore' is that it did focus around a certain age cohort — demographically slimmed down to the white, young and post-collegiate, to be sure, if that's something to be apologetic about — in a way that hadn't been done before," writes Vadim Rizov. "Independent films up to that point had treated youth in a somewhat abstract and/or self-ghettoizing fashion: Jim Jarmusch's hipsters (by any other name, but what else to call someone striding through the neighborhood to the self-broadcasted tune of Screamin' Jay Hawkins), Richard Linklater's abstracted slackers, Kevin Smith's self-aggrandizing men of low expectations."

These icons of 80s-era American Independent Film play key roles in John Pierson's Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, a tale of helping to turn a bottom-up cultural phenomenon — by this point, "regional filmmaking" had become "independent film," thanks in no small part to Sundance — into a viable business, and then making an exit when that business became an industry (thanks again, in no small part to Sundance). Just as Vadim is not suggesting any sort of cause-and-effect influence on mumblecore from Jarmusch, Linklater and/or Smith, I wouldn't want to make too much of the fact that it's now Janet Pierson who's running things at SXSW, the festival that is every so often proclaimed "the next Sundance," the mumblecore incubator back when Matt Dentler was the festival's producer and now such a popular attraction the theaters can hardly contain the crowds. The year in American cinema has been not so much a matter of things coming full circle as a progressive spiral with recurring elements and characters. Not to get too woo-woo about it, of course.

"Any major film festival is really many festivals," blogs David Bordwell in a recent dispatch from Hong Kong. "You meet someone who tells you about all the films they've been seeing, and the overlap with your dance card is virtually nil. You've both been in the same town, and probably hit the same venues, but you've been to different festivals." Anyone attending Europe's two sprawling winter festivals knows exactly what he's on about. We covered Rotterdam pretty thoroughly here in The Notebook and saw many fine films but came away with no sense of any overriding trends in global cinema; instead, this year's edition was likely most notable for its outreach initiatives. Daniel Kasman has written about the implications of IFFR's digital library and Rotterdam@BAM.

"With this year's Competition lineup, the Berlinale has, for the time being, knocked itself out of the ranks of Cannes and Venice and landed somewhere in the league of Locarno or San Sebastian," growled Michael Althen in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in February. While his disappointment was shared by many in the German papers and by attendees bumping into each other on Potsdamer Platz, Dennis Lim wrote for Artforum, "Those who took the time to stray from the Berlinale's designated high-profile premieres would have found some first-rate retrospective offerings (Fassbinder's rare sci-fi TV movie, World on a Wire [1973]; three films from Yasujiro Shimazu, a Shochiku-studio mainstay of the prewar years) and an entire parallel festival unto itself in the ever-evolving form of the experimental showcase Forum Expanded."

Which is terrific and all, but retrospectives — even when they include one as eventful as the premiere of the reconstructed Metropolis — and a sidebar to a sidebar do not add up to one of the world's most prestigious festivals, a status that Althen suggests is slipping away from the Berlinale. This year's Competition offered a handful of strong entries (The Robber, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, Caterpillar), high profile premieres (Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, Greenberg) and pickings from Sundance, but also way too many stinkers. Many of the programming decisions are simply baffling; just as one example, in the place of one of the feeble European "comedies" (A Somewhat Gentle Man, Mammuth), why not Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, which screened as part of the Berlinale Special, a program perceived by many as a string of films no one in Berlin knows what else to do with. Festival director Dieter Kosslick may remain popular in the press and industry, but I reiterate my call for a separate artistic director to program the Competition.

Coming up in Part 2: "Random Roundups" of films that somehow escaped the "coverage of coverage" treatment while the festivals at which they screened were still on. That'll clear the desk in time for Cannes. Bring it on.

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Thanks for this. Worth noting, possibly: if my back copies of Sight & Sound are to be trusted, the first British “mumblecore” movie (in the most conventional, widely-understood senses) emerged last year, Alexis dos Santos’ “Unmade Beds,” which may partially explain that belated article you link to. A lot to chew on here, thanks.
Thanks back to you, Vadim. Actually, that link was kind of a cheap shot on my part, completely unnecessary (and doubly naughty since Kaleem Aftab is often terrific), and I’m sure there’s been some British coverage. I guess I was just a little taken aback at the Independent’s angle. At any rate, thanks again.

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