Kris Rothstein's Blog

In Search of Indie Films

Kris Rothstein

Despite the proliferation of technology, I find it's often harder to discover or seek out underground and experimental film (and culture as a whole) today than it was a few decades back. Mainstream offerings are delivered to so many more people through more and more platforms, creating the perception that ‘everything’ is available. But as indie video stores and cinemas shutter, many films that would have reached an audience in the past remain unseen.

Many of my favourite films have been shown briefly and then disappeared. For a brief period many of these were easily available on DVD, often even through my local library system. Libraries don’t seem to have the budgets to buy obscure DVDs anymore, and I’m not sure distribution channels are as extensive, as the DVD is phased out by streaming. I’ve found a few community-run streaming sites for film, but it is rare that I find what I’m looking for. And while more indie festivals exist, most of the films they show will never screen again.

Young American director Jay Alvarez won the Slamdance Special Jury Prize in 2014, and his film is similarly difficult to track down. I Play With the Phrase Each Other was shot entirely on cell phones and is also completely comprised of phone conversations. Not surprisingly he uses some of these parameters to engage with ideas about technology and isolation. In this way it reminded me of Denise Calls Up, a truly charming American film from 1996. It is interesting to reflect on the changing position of the 'phone' as a personal device and link to world. Denise Calls Up takes place in the early days of the internet and portable or wireless phones when it was not yet unusual for people to be involved in long personal conversations for much of the day.

I Play with Phrase Each Other also reminded me of the stagnating atmosphere of isolation in Gary Burns hilarious waydowntown, in which a group of Calgary mall workers have a bet to see who can stay indoors the longest. They are all going stir crazy, and this is manifested in various ways (magazine perfume sample sniffing is my favourite). Every year I look for Gary Burns's first feature, The Suburbanators, which I reviewed for Geist in the '90s. I remember it hazily as raw and funny.

Gary Burns latest films are pretty weak, but one Canadian hero whose most recent work harkens back to a golden age of simple, droll indie films is Bruce MacDonald and his new film Weirdos. I wrote about it during VIFF this year but I highly recommend this downbeat, evocative road film about a couple of Nova Scotia teens in the1970s. Its strengths include a profound sense of place, a dash of whimsy and crisp dialogue. Quebecois film You’re Sleeping Nicole (made by Stéphane Lafleur) played in 2014, and was shot in gorgeous black and white and positively thick with atmosphere. Nicole is literally not sleeping in the film, kept awake by a palpable heat wave, as well as the confusion and lack of direction that comes with being on the cusp of adulthood.

I was lucky enough to grow up near a fantastic rep cinema, the Ridge theatre, (now of course demolished for condos) which curated the best classics, new underground films, world cinema and cult favourites. I discovered filmmakers like Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater and Wim Wenders when their films were released there. The Vancouver International film Festival still shows wonderful and strange films which are never heard of again. I keep my old programs to remind me of things I've loved and am always looking for a way to see them again. One of these is a Chilean film called Play (by director Alicia Scherson in 2005), in which several people wander the streets of Santiago—a light and witty film with a slim plot but strong ambience.

I now struggle to find theatres which show new or even older films in this breadth. So I often peruse festival program from other cities online. New Directors/New Films festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art, has turned up some good leads, and I scour the internet for places to see items from the program. Sophie Latourneur, who made the wonderfully irreverent film La Vie Au Ranch about girls behaving badly, has a couple of new ones, including Les Coquillettes about three women at the Locarno film festival, which showed as part of the MOMA series. It is definitely on my list but impossible to find so far. La Vie Au Ranch takes its cue from the best films of the '90s—the idiosyncratic spark of the auteur, abandonment of plot and explanation—and injects a fresh sensibility of chaos and humour.

Andrew Bujalski and Aaron Katz are still perhaps the strongest voices of American quirky cinema of the last ten years. Bujalski has had an impact and influence and now makes films with big stars. I still love his first feature, Funny Ha Ha, more than anything that has followed. Bujalski’s totally wild and bizarre film Computer Chess did actually play at a cinema for a week or so. Almost documentary in style, shot in b&w and filled with amateur actors, it depicts early attempts at chess-proficient robots and then moves to surreal territory. Weird and wonderful.

And I highly recommend Katz’ mumblecore detective film, Cold Weather. It’s set in Portland and is as quiet and subdued as a thriller can be, while also being hilarious. The best newcomer is director Ted Fendt who made Short Stay, which played at VIFF this year. Short Stay is very rough around the edges but by the end of the film I was in awe of the way Fendt edited together these succinct scenes about a hapless and fairly unappealing hero who never says no to a social encounter, even though he isn’t great at small talk.

My most recent search of the margins turned up Appropriate Behaviour, a genuinely funny urban romantic comedy made by Persian-American Desiree Akhavan. Akhavan also stars in the film and manages to take topics like inter-generational misunderstandings and very bad dates to new heights of awkwardness and allure. I am happy to report that Appropriate Behavior is on DVD (yes, I love DVDs) and I found it at the library. It's a few years old and I'm really surprised I didn't encounter it sooner, as Akhavan is a bright creative light and definitely worth following in the future. OK, so I guess you can watch this one on Netflix, but most of these aren't available there.



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