07/28/14 3:31pm


Tonight at IFC Center, Alena Smith (writer for The Newsroom) will present the Peter Bogdanovich Depression-set classic, Paper Moon. She’ll also read from her new comic novel, Tween Hobo: Off the Rails, based on the Twitter character @tweenhobo. This melds the humor of anti-capitalist hobo romanticism (seen in movies like the hobo musical, Hallelejah, I’m a Bum! and many Joan Blondell movies) with the current capitalist marketing creation of the “tween.” I’ll be doing a Q&A after the film with Alena, and in anticipation of that, she answered a few questions about her new book.

The L: So first of all, where did the concept of tween come from? It’s a fairly recent invention, right?

Smith: Do you mean the concept of a tween in general or the concept of tween hobo?

The L: Tween. I hear Disney invented it!

Smith: [laughs] I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I’m pretty sure the term did not exist when I (we) were tweens. It feels very millennial to me somehow. The focus in the 90s was much more on TEENS. Now nobody talks about teens. Teens are old news.


The L: Ah, so “old hobos” grew up fast? (That comes up in your book a lot. Tell me, what those are.)

Smith: Tween Hobo’s friends on the road are a bunch of guys (and a couple gals) who she calls “the old hobos.” They are mostly in their late 20s/early 30s, which means they remember a time before the internet and social media, which for tween hobo might as well be the Great Depression, it seems so long ago.

The L: Is that why did you put this idea of the Depression era “hobo” with concept for the “tween?”

Smith: Well, I think the dissonance between “Tween” and “Hobo” operates on many levels, not least of which is the fact that a “Tween” is entirely a marketing contrivance, a way of selling stuff to kids with expendable income and indulgent parents, whereas a Hobo is a person who lives outside of the capitalist system, and who relies on nobody but himself. A Hobo is a kind of spiritual being, whereas a Tween is a materialistic being.

The L: And so from that comic dissonance, it’s evolved into a genuine character. (She gives perfect, inane award show live tweets!) How did the character evolve?

Smith: At first the character was really no more than a series of one-liners, pretty straightforward mashups of “hobo stuff” and “tween stuff.” But over time as I gained followers on Twitter the conversation naturally grew more complex. Tween Hobo grew as her audience grew—it was really a kind of performance piece, live, interactive, and improvisational. Then I took a big leap forward with the character when I started developing an idea for a Tween Hobo television show with B.J. Novak from The Office (who I’d met on Twitter). We came up with a fleshed-out backstory and set of real, grounded emotional needs and goals for the character. This served me well when I ultimately adapted the Twitter account into a novel. I relied on the character work that I’d done with B.J. and also delved much more deeply into “hobo literature,” like Kerouac and Steinbeck and books like Boxcar Bertha.

The L: So you turned the book even further into a real comic novel. Part adventure, part YA parody, part lifestyle guide… Or how would you describe it?

Smith: I describe it as On the Road written by a contemporary 12-year-old with an iPhone.

But I like your description, too.

The L: iPhone literature!

Smith: The book is a diary of Tween Hobo’s first year out on the road. It’s a record of her immediate experience, and also includes photographs, drawings, lists, how-tos, and tons and tons of jokes. But there’s a real serious story in there as well.

The L: And now that we’re moving past the worst of the recession (hopefully) and also long past Justin Bieber’s innocence, she’s become a bit of a time capsule for the last few years. Do you see her evolving to One Direction and Kim K games, or does she stay in 2011 forever?

Smith: That’s a great question. There’s new interest in adapting Tween Hobo into an animated TV show, and I imagine in order for that show to work she’ll have to evolve with the times. I just learned about something called “finger lights” that apparently the kids are into. Have to do some googling.

But the book will certainly continue to serve as a time capsule, and as evidence of how quickly culture moves and evaporates.

The L: Do Tweens rule the internet? I feel like they’re better at it then any of us. (Are we all living in the tweens’ world?)

Smith: I have no idea if Tweens rule the internet. Maybe Tweens are returning to playing with sticks and hoops outside. I’ve heard the internet is over.

The L: And did you have Paper Moon in mind, either for the character or the book? Or did you notice that connection later?

Smith: I have only seen Paper Moon once and it made a huge impression on me. (However I have seen Bad News Bears about five million times.) Tatum O’Neal is just the consummate badass kid. It’s so cool that she’s a girl and she gives no fucks. That’s the ultimate spirit of Tween Hobo.

07/24/13 4:00am

Blue Jasmine
Directed by Woody Allen

For as long as I can remember, each passing year has been marked by “the new Woody Allen movie.” Like a Christmas in July (not the Sturges), it comes with wild hopes of an ideal surprise, that someone will know you better than you know yourself. But also like that family holiday (at least since Deconstructing Harry), you brace yourself for disappointment, embarrassment, and a few laughs to offset the sad reminders of your own eventual demise. Allen has been working on his “late films” for at least 15 years. So that his latest film, Blue Jasmine, is a return to gnarly, emotional 80s Allen is a welcome surprise.

It stars Cate Blanchett as the titular character, born Jeanette and then self-created as Jasmine, the wife of an indulgent, dodgy finance baron played by Alec Baldwin. In a rare nod to current events in an Allen movie, it turns out Baldwin is a crook; both he and his wife lose everything in a huge public downfall. So Jasmine travels west to San Francisco to move in with her guileless sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who works as a checkout person at a grocery store and was once married to a contractor played by Andrew Dice Clay.

Allen hasn’t set a film in California since the memorable Christmas-in-LA bit from Annie Hall.  So it’s unnerving that Allen’s San Francisco seems as if it’s across the Hudson, filled with Guidos with Jersey accents instead of smug foodies and goofy tech billionaires. But nevermind; Woody’s cities have always been as much a harmless fantasy as Lubitsch’s Paris. (Except instead of Paramount footing the bill, it’s whatever city is willing to fork over a production grant.) 

While he shoots San Francisco as if he’s never stepped foot there, he does nail the weird privileged bubble of Marin County–where George Lucas built Industrial Light & Magic and where Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours. Jasmine and her sister each meet love interests here, respectively an aspiring politician and an audio guy played by Louis C.K. who perfects the excited, entitled and totally down vibe of the Bay Area (and Marin County in particular). His is the best and the briefest star performance in the film.

Blanchett is also good, even breathtaking at times as the shrill narcissist falling apart. (And thank goodness that Allen has updated his pill-popping neurotic references from Valium to Xanax.) She is at times too theatrical, though, and seems as if she’s performing a monologue final exam in Woody Allen Women 101. However, it’s excusable in this character who is herself performing, and whose self-delusions and stories have finally been worn threadbare. In a brief, revealing scene she replies lucidly to her nephews, when they ask if it’s true she went crazy, that there are only so many traumas one person can bear. 

Toward the end, it seems clear that Jasmine isn’t a version of Ruth Madoff, and that the entire plot of lost fortune is a red herring. The film is instead a complex, weighty view of a woman who is in a crisis of self-flagellation after living in denial for years. It’s about the guilt, trauma and retribution of finally accepting the obvious. And I think it’s his first film dealing head on with the aftermath of the Mia Farrow breakup. There were obvious signs of the problems to come years before their split, clear to anyone who has read Farrow’s autobiography. Yet his cold analysis of this character’s denial is presented with a fascinating artistic remove, accurate yet with no self-implication. So it makes sense that this film feels like a return to form of his great films of the 80s, because that’s when he was dating Farrow.

Opens July 26

02/13/13 4:00am

Some Call it Loving (1973)
Directed by James B. Harris
February 13 at BAM, part of its A Pryor Engagement

“I bought a Sleeping Beauty! I thought you should know,” says the obscenely wealthy jazz musician to his complicit concubines. He’s just returned to his stone palace from a carnival freak show, where he purchased a used and abused beauty who has been slumbering for eight years. Yes, it’s that kind of movie—whatever that kind of movie is. It’s pervy as hell, yet somehow tender and absurd while roughly challenging the taboos that cult movies like this do. It’s genuinely sexy rather than simply transgressive. The kinky-game of a plot is realized with a dreamlike tone about literally mixing up dreams and visceral reality. In other words, it’s romantic.

The delicate skirting of tones succeeds in great part thanks to a lead performance by the epically schnozzed, future soft-core emperor Zalmon King (director of 9 1/2 Weeks and The Red Shoe Diaries) as the pensive, studly star. “What’s wrong with him? Is he a cop?” asks one of the circus assistants when King becomes obsessed with rescuing—or purchasing—the lovely lady in repose. “No,” the creepy, carny auctioneer answers very seriously. “I think this one’s a dreamer.”

Though screening in a Richard Pryor series at BAM, Pryor’s appearance as the wino-philosopher best friend is brief. Yet it also somehow gets closer to the surreal, subversive pathos of Pryor’s brilliant standup performances than his later, negligible, middle-brow comedies (The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, for example) that are best avoided. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to see this print, though, with its blurred and bright carnival lights, odd framing, and disorienting shaky still shots.

12/12/12 4:00am

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Directed by John Cassavetes
December 15 at Anthology Film Archives, part of its Ben Gazzara retrospective

“They hated it. It broke my heart,” Ben Gazzara once said about the first screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. “I was using angry expletives about what do they know, what do they know… [Cassavetes] was calming me down: ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.’ It was his money, all of it, and he’s calming me down—wonderful.” Cassavetes was a son-of-a-bitch saint, immoral for the good of cinema, but Gazzara was a mumbling mensch. When he—with that gravelly purr, those smiling eyes, that bitter grin—died earlier this year, it felt like a certain style of quiet 20th-century manliness died with him.

Even when you see him in the 70s, when he was in his prime, he seems like a throwback to a different generation. It’s never what he says that matters, but that he never says what he really means, like when gross, bushy-browed Mr. Sophistication—the emcee of the tawdry strip show at the center of the film—explains his freakishness is the key to show’s appeal. “Straight-laced,” is Gazzara’s one-word retort. Gazzara’s Cosmo is the owner of this club, The Crazy Horse West, and while tragically going under thanks to mob debt, he still offers a nightly oasis of red-filtered lights, pastel nylon chiffon, tits, ass and cheap champagne as an alternative to the lowlifes with no style that surround him on the Sunset Strip. His is a gorgeous and heartfelt fall, accompanied by multiple, rollicking versions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a song best known previously in film for the time Cary Grant, in drag, sang it to a leopard. Grant was Gazzara’s only competitor for suave, prickly sensitivity—and perhaps also for the title of the best male actor in cinema.

09/20/12 1:35pm


The academically programmed Giallo Fever! series at Anthology Film Archives, apparently the first major Giallo series in New York, illustrates the style-based genre of mystery-horror films that came primarily from Italy in the 60s and 70s (but which sometimes also includes Brian De Palma in the 80s). So, rather than collect all the greatest hits of Giallo, which would contain all of Mario Bava’s work and more of Dario Argento’s, this series illustrates the definitive tropes of the genre: black raincoats, eye-liner, jet-setting tourists, models & artists, knives, Morricone S&M (in giallo-outlier A Place in the Country), prog rock, and buckets of red paint blood (Deep Red). “My colors, my colors, they erase everything else,” begins the narration in The House of the Laughing Windows, which is a good description for an expressionistic style of film that contains collectively, totally objectively, The Greatest Framing and Colors in the History of Cinema. If Fritz Lang made more color films (and worked super speedily or took more drugs, perhaps) it would look like these.

So it’s interesting that except for a few more obscure standouts (What Have You Done with Solange? and Don’t Torture a Duckling), the film most worth seeing in the series is atypically black and white, Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, from 1963, described as the first giallo. When kohl-eyed cutie American Nora Davis arrives on the jet plane to Rome reading a detective novel (which often came in yellow book-jackets in Italy, which is where the genre got its name), it sparks an overactive imagination that sees danger in every shadow. Nora witnesses a knifing by the notorious Alphabet Murderer, but the body has disappeared by the morning. Bava remarkably creates constant tension, almost never fulfilled, in every single shot of this film. It’s a masterpiece homage to Hitchock, which takes the irony in the Master’s work a little more playfully and pushes the tension/irresolution further until the whole film becomes a wonderful, titillating joke. It should also be seen on film, and there’s a rare chance to do so in this series.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much screens tonight at 9:30pm, and again on September 23 and 29. More info here. The Giallo series begins today and continues through September 30. More info here.

08/29/12 4:00am

Bell Book and Candle (1958)
Directed by Richard Quine
Friday, August 31, at BAM, part of its American Gagsters series.

Charm. Mesmerize. Ensnare. Beguile. What is it about witches that has always made them the perfect metaphor for the power of seduction, the fear of feminine wiles, and the temptation to burn scary bitches at the stake? “A witch?'” responds Jimmy Stewart’s jilted fiance about his new lover, Kim Novak, in this enchanted mid-century Christmas romance. “Shep, you just never learned to spell.”

Made the same year as Vertigo, this is a mirror image sorta-sequel with the same stars, with light-hearted, kooky occult explanations for the unexplainable instead of Vertigo‘s vortex of cynicism.Stewart’s and Novak’s chemistry continues uninterrupted from Hitchcock’s spinning kiss. Director Quine flailed at comedy, but few have done romance so well. Notable especially are scenes of entwined bare-feet on a coffee table, the way the hypnotic draw of a new lover’s place is depicted as a form of summoning, and also the elliptical editing of a first evening spent together, when only the intruding dawn can interrupt time that’s been frozen since the moment of first touch.

Most ingenious is the way Quine used sound, amplifying a hum mixed with an extra-loud purr at the moment Stewart becomes hooked. It is a delight to see Stewart’s passion gently satiated here: he’s (literally) pussy-whipped instead of twisted into rankled obsession. This movie is also of historical note for inventing the basic sound effects for magic, used later in Bewitched and countless cartoons: “a low frequency organ tone which is sped up after five seconds, a piano chord apparently played back at double speed, and chimes or bells that go into a fast feedback echo loop.”

07/12/12 1:55pm


This Sunday, July 15, Joan’s Digest, a feminist film quarterly edited by the L contributor Miriam Bale, and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art present “Mirrors: Experiments in Portraiture,” a film screening and panel discussion at the Brooklyn Museum. The experimental filmmakers Amy Granat, Leslie Thornton, and Marie Losier will be on hand to discuss their experiences as experimental filmmakers, and the representations of themselves and other artists in their shorts. Thornton, the pioneering video and media artist, talked to us about a highlight of the Brooklyn Museum program, a rare 16mm screening of her first film, the groundbreaking structuralist short X-TRACTS (Thornton is pictured in the still from the film at right), as well as her history in painting, and the hard-to-shake habits of experimental film exhibition as it was established in the 1970s and continues today.

So you made your first film X-TRACTS in 1975, with Desmond Horsfield. How did you come to make this film, from your background in painting?
I was painting these grid-like things, tending towards white, many layers, quite deep canvases, in a way that combined aspects of a gesture with a kind of pushing back of that gesture, burying the gesture. The gesture would be seeping out around edges. It was reductive, and moving more and more towards an absence of paint. I hadn’t planned on going to graduate school, but after I left Buffalo, I got a letter from Paul Sharits, who had become a friend and a mentor, and he was impressed by the school and said apply—so I ended up at the Hartford Art School.

For an MFA?
Yes, an MFA. Which was a really good thing! Because it made possible to teach. Because I really thought I was just going to be painting, when I left undergrad. So I enrolled at that school, and was expected to be “the painter” in a small group of grad students, in what was at the time considered a conceptual art school, along with Nova Scotia. I was very involved with avant-garde cinema, as a spectator, at Buffalo, and I was taking all the courses with filmmakers, and hanging out with them, because it was the early 70s and there was a kind of breaking down of hierarchy. I took courses with Hollis Frampton, and Brakhage and Peter Kubelka—in fact, that was one course that all three of them taught. And even in high school, I was watching experimental films: strangely the minister of a Unitarian church in Schenectady, New York was showing these films for the community on Sunday afternoon in the church. So I was seeped in this. And when I got to Hartford, I already knew that if I kept painting I was going to end up at this zero point, if I was honest to this trajectory that I established aesthetically. I had to empty the painting out completely. And also, it was a very private activity, and I was a very shy person.

So if you kept painting in the way you were, eventually you’d have to stop painting?
Yeah. And I started making films because it was the opposite, this funnel that would open on the world, that it had endless possibilities. That it required me to be more aggressive and outward-oriented was part of the appeal. Recording in the world meant there was endless potential.

So, when I was studying painting at Hartford, I met another graduate student, Desmond Horsfield, who was a British sculptor, and he was already making films. So we made X-TRACTS over the course of the first year. And I don’t remember what his interest was exactly, except, Let’s make a film. But we wanted to establish a structure for organizing the shots ahead of time. We weren’t in any way talking about a script, but we were talking about how the camera would relate to the subject. And the subject would be a person in the world. So we made this grid and worked out time intervals, and the way the camera or the subject could move in relationship to one another. We would have six shots in a row—I don’t know why six, that was fairly arbitrary—in which the same kind of movement would occur. And we wanted also to work with sound, so I had a high school journal of embarrassing writing, and I thought why don’t I destroy this, but I’ll read from it, and then we’ll cut that up and make another score or grid for handling sound. We started with longer shots at the beginning of the film, and shorter sounds, and then we moved in the opposite directions. And that was the structure. So then we thought, well, we’ll just shoot me around the house. Because Desmond was the one who knew how to shoot, and I was more excited about editing.

For me, it was a translation of what I did in painting, in that it was a combination of structure and excess flourishes that just happen. It was a combination of form and content. Partly because of this exposure that I’d had to so much good work from the early days of American avant-garde cinema, I just thought of it as another medium for practicing art. I wasn’t happy when it got separated from the art world—by these men, actually—into its own ghetto. It was separated from the art dialogue, and it was done deliberately.

Well, my perception of it was Mekas had a lot to do with it, but he’s not the only one. From what I saw, these people, and it was Brakhage in particular, could be quite exclusive about it. There was a sense that it was a new art form, and that it needed special consideration. It wasn’t something that people had gotten yet; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t think it would live well, was my understanding, in the already established art context. They wanted to create another place for it, so they started film centers, like Anthology. Which, it was my understanding, would grow into a museum of experimental cinema, separate from art museums. Also, this first generation, the founding sages, were—well, the egos were big, and they had a lot of support, and they really did like to talk about their work. So the formula set into place at these new film centers involved the filmmaker always being present to talk about the work. And that also meant that usually it would only happen on a single night. So all of this was set into place fairly quickly in the 70s, and as a model it dominated. And it really held things back.

06/22/12 1:45pm


Ry Russo-Young’s subtle, smart and sexually charged new film, Nobody Walks, which she cowrote with Lena Dunham, is about Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a young artist from New York who comes to stay in the pool house of a Los Angeles therapist and sound designer (Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski) to finish the sound mix on her film. Her alluring presence alters the loose and open energy of this liberal household, with permanent reverberations for all involved. The film screens at 6:50pm this Saturday, with Russo-Young, Dunham and Thirlby in person.

So, where did the idea come from?
One of the initial things was that I had just made You Wont Miss Me, which is half inside a character’s head. Shelly Brown is the anchor of the movie, and literally we hear her voiceover within her mind. And I had been living in this person’s head for so long, that I really wanted to make a movie that fractured the perspective among many different characters, where you were aligning yourself with one person and transferring your alliance to a different character, and so the perspective and loyalty of the audience was shifted.

How did you do that?
I think that Lena [Dunham, co-writer] and I created characters that we love. We loved each and every one but we had them all fail in some way, we had them all win and then we had them all fail. So we gave them traits that were both appealing and disgusting. And so there was no specific villain. It was diverse in that sense. And that to me is the essence of our lives, you know? You watch yourself fuck up, and then you watch yourself do something good. And you are always navigating that push and pull.

So we start out focused on Olivia Thirlby’s character, Martine, but you don’t think the audience stays on her towards the end. At what point…?
I think it goes though different incarnations, and I think it shifts for different people. I think that after she has sex with him, I think a lot of people, that the tendency is to feel protective of the family in some way: “What is this girl doing? Why is she doing this? Why is she betraying this family?” But then by the time she says, “I have to get my shit done,” you shift again. You wonder, well, was she pressured into this? Was she cajoled? Did she feel like she didn’t have an option? How helpless is she? How much control does she have over her own choices and actions? And how much of a victim is this person?

It really does have reverberations, that moment of, “I’m just trying to get my shit done.” You look back and realize how subtle her performance is during the sex scenes. She does such a good job of communicating, in that moment—once his attraction to her starts—that she realizes she’s fucked if she does and fucked if she doesn’t, basically. She does such a good job of communicating that sense of, “Might as well. This might be worse if I say no.”
It’s really subtle, is the truth, her performance. Even the way it’s written is really subtle. There’s this moment when she’s going to have sex with him where she kind of pulls away and says, “This house is full of people.” And therefore we shouldn’t do this, is the subtext of that line. But it’s subtle. She doesn’t pull away and say, “Well you have a wife!” But it’s in the essence of, there are other people in this world besides you and me. But he ignores it and kind of swoops her up. I think there’s a lot of hesitation there.

When I was 23 and when a lot girlfriends of mine were 23, it’s something that we experienced in all kinds of ways, that ambiguity of these complicated relationships: “Oh, am I doing something sexually that I’m not quite comfortable with yet? Have I just had a drink and am doing it now?” And I think that line is really interesting, and not quite seen often enough, maybe.

Those are such basic things about the sexual dynamics from that perspective—about power and also accidentally realizing a power you don’t want, and work—in your film, and I realized, “Oh, I’ve never seen this before in a film.” That’s so crazy. It’s so basic, for women, but it hasn’t been shown before. It just makes you realize how little of real, complicated female sexuality is actually on film.

It also really does a great job of showing the tunnel vision men can get in that moment. I feel another key line is when Julie’s patient tells her about the dream he had of her, when she was “dressed to fuck” but was resisting, and he says he took off his pants just so she knew he was hard. As opposed to Martine’s “I was just trying to get my shit done.” I feel like those counter such different male/female approaches in that situation when there’s an inappropriate attraction.
I’m attracted to you, therefore, what are you gonna do about it? Yeah. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I think the movie also shows all these different levels. You have everyone from Dave the assistant who is just kind of into Martine and is there if she’ll have him, to those two characters, the patient and then John K., who’s kind of more of an active player. So hopefully there’s a spectrum there.

06/21/12 12:15pm


In The Comedy, from writer-director Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker (of the Tim and Eric comedy duo) plays Swanson, an idly rich Williamsburger who lives on a boat and bides his time until he inherits his legacy. In the absence of anything better to do, he behaves abhorrently to a vivid cross-section of fellow-New Yorkers, trying to engage or enrage any reaction to break through his dulled malaise. He has a close group of similarly useless aging hipster friends (including the other half of the comedy duo, Eric Wareham, as well as Neil Hamburger and James Murphy) who all behave alternately in ways naive, crude, joyous, jaded and hilarious. It also features a small role by Kate Lyn Sheil, and was shot by Larry Charles/Borat veteran DP Mark Schwartzbard. Screens Saturday, June 23 at 9:30pm; and outdoors, in the parking lot on Lafayette Ave and Ashland Pl, on at 9pm on Wednesday, June 27.

What are you setting up by calling this film The Comedy?
Rick Alverson: The title, for me, is a blatant sarcasm that feels consistent with the voice of the protagonist of the film. It functions very much like his antagonisms, and even his flirtations with sincerity.

I’m glad we’re doing this interview because I think it’s good to give this film context. It was really interesting to see a screening of the film, after watching a screener, and see the audience start to laugh, and then suppress it… because it’s not a comedy.
It’s a frightening and exciting thing to watch. You’re always curious about the effect your film will have on an audience anyway, but this is a really weird experience. There are some screenings where no one’s laughing and some where everyone’s laughing.

It will be interesting to see it at the BAMcinemaFest’s outdoor screening.
Well, I think that will be the one of the most interesting, because of the casual atmosphere implicit in that sort of thing, relaxed and on a nice summer night. It seems like [with this film] the temperature of the room and different environments really have a lot to do with an individual’s experiences watching the movie. So I imagine that will be different outdoors, the acoustic response to laughter, or lack thereof… it’s interesting.

How was it at the first screening when people had less context for it?
At Sundance? Well, I think it had a particular kind of potency. Some people were very angry, and I think that anger comes less from the subject matter—in the 21st century the subject of provocation is nothing new—but I think the thing that irked people, and made the film feel like it had some potency for some people but was also engaging for people was that it was destabilizing. I think there’s an emotional response and an intellectual response to not just the content but also the framing of it. I think that the text is a little bit in flux; it isn’t safely tucked away inside a particular category or genre or something. It deals with a little bit of uncertainty in a person’s belief in the sincerity of it being a drama or a comedy or something like that. All of that is in flux, and I think that’s kind of exciting. And I think that worked when there was less context, but it also closed some doors.

I think people become very uncomfortable with feeling as though they’re being fucked with. They take it as a kind of offense, but the very responsibility of art is an intellectual or emotional provocation of some sort, right? And I think we’re just not used to seeing that.

I was very aware of how the reaction shots in your movie—in contrast to comedy—are of characters not reacting. That dynamic came up again and again in this film. Could you discuss that choice and its relationship to the way that comedy is traditionally shot?
That is a very important and repetitive event in the film for me. The passivity of everyone and the collective indifference and desensitization of a progressive culture. The American dream is a dream of uselessness, of complete passivity and inertness, arrived at indifference through a disproportionate well-being. Our protagonist is in some ways desperately attempting to initiate a meaningful interaction between himself and those around him or those at the mercy of his antagonism, whether that interaction is forced to an inevitable violence or an inevitable compassion. He achieves neither.


Is it significant that the people who Swanson is trying to get to react, who remain still, are often working class, trying to do their jobs (or not lose their jobs)?
It is, for me, ultimately a movie about a loss of utility and sense. A literal loss of the body’s meaning in the world. When one no longer has to farm or hunt or, in the case of Swanson, even work, what is the sense to one’s body or the personality that co-exists with it? This is something indicative of first-world western culture, or what I have known or seen of it, but it is not modern. It seems in concert historically with every empire’s unbalanced prosperity, every unsustainable utopia on its eve of something awful.

What qualities about Tim (besides his very expressive stomach) made him seem like the right choice for the lead, Swanson? There is a truly unmoored sadness to his scenes where he’s alone or with women, very much in contrast to the joyful or resigned chaos in the scenes with his friends.
Part of the complexity of Tim & Eric’s work is a dynamic of discomfort, whether physical, emotional and psychological. Both the movie as a whole and the character of Swanson needed to be saturated in that kind of thing. Tim’s work, whether with T&E or his stand-up, is so straight that it seemed a natural leap to reframe it in a dramatic sense. I could see a bit of the character of Swanson in him, as I see it in myself. I’m not speaking of the cruelty, that’s a particular manifestation of the fiction of the character, but the curiosity and even some of the disgust; a boredom with a lot of contemporary entertainment and the increasing irrelevance of certain norms. I think we both share that with Swanson.

Where did you intend audience’s sympathies to fall? With the lead character?
I am increasingly uninterested in sympathy in the arts. It is a saturated mechanism in movies that fuels an interest only in one’s immediate, personal sympathies at the expense of a larger world that is at discord with our narrow view. We are taught by movies, media, and tailored-to-the-individual internet advertising to believe in the superiority of our own perspective. It seems consistent with this construct of manifest destiny, and a kind of capitalist credo of satisfaction of one’s desires at the expense of comprehension of the larger community or environment.

I think a lot of films are designed in a way to induce sympathy in the viewer, as a way to let the viewer in. It’s a mechanism that’s outdated to me. Because we see hundreds of people every day, that we don’t feel anything about. But we feel more sympathy for we people that we recognize, that are like us. I don’t know, I think it’s interesting to play with a construct that plays around with that, that maybe works against it a little bit.

06/20/12 11:05am


This is the first of several planned interviews with filmmakers featured at this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which begins tonight and continues through July 1.

In Tchoupitoulas (screening Thursday, June 21 at 9:30pm), brothers Bill and Turner Ross document the sights, sounds and wonders of the New Orleans night, soaking in all the music, lights and half-naked bodies through the eyes of three young brothers who take the Canal Street ferry in from the West Bank. The film is sporadically narrated through the youngest brother Wiliam’s inner monologue, and so through his eyes it becomes about the inevitable disappointment of lassoing a limitless imagination. I had the pleasure of speaking with both Ross brothers about the second feature they made together. I first spoke with Turner in Santa Fe.

What do you think the difference is—in a documentary—between having a story and a narrative arc?
Turner Ross: I think a narrative arc implies a traditional structure, which has the basis of literature or a stage play. And it’s become something I think we’ve all grown to anticipate, and maybe there’s a feeling of unease if it’s not apparent. And while what we’re doing doesn’t necessarily have an overt narrative arc, it certainly has story. Whether it’s disjointed scenes, which are moments within their own stories, or whether we look at these films as slices of an ongoing stories that existed before or after. I think that’s an interesting conversation and one that I wish we could have more often, because we’re more often relegated to the art film category, where it’s just this sort of ambient experience. And it doesn’t mean it’s without context, or an emotional barometer.

You said we’ve begun to anticipate that sort of play-based arc in a documentary. So in going into making this movie, you wanted to react against that expectation?
It’s not so much a reaction as it is just a natural extension of our life experience. I guess what’s more important to us is not the story that’s onscreen but the greater subtext, which is our story in terms of capturing these experiences. We’re creating artifacts; we’re creating documents of a time and a place. And giving people a chance to experience something they may otherwise not. But really, in the greater subtext, these are our stories, these are our experiences: these are the people we found in this time and this place. Behind these stories are our stories capturing them. The stories of these people began before we got there and they continue far after. I guess if there’s any reaction to what we’re doing it’s because we’re steering away from the forced didacticism of creating a story out of someone’s moment. That just seemed dumb, I think.

But what was the impetus to focus on these kids? Did you discover them or did you go into it expecting a story like that?
It’s pretty much both. There were a lot of motivators that brought us to New Orleans. We have an affinity for that town and spent a lot of time there, and a big part of that was growing up as little kids. So we had our own experiences and in a way these kids are surrogates for those experiences. But in the way we’re doing these this, we’re trying to capture what really exists. You can have all the preconceived notions that you want, but if you want to really be open to the experience then you have to allow what exists and what happens when you turn on your camera, and just allow it to unfold. So we went down there remembering this wide-eyed wonderment that we had experienced as kids, the ghosts and colors that you still experience there, the sensory overload. And knew we wanted that perspective but we weren’t going to cast the film, we weren’t going to force that. So it was really seven months into creating that environment [and shooting every night] that we found that—we didn’t even find it, they just walked past us one day. And they had such a beautiful dynamic that we just started filming. So it was really an act of serendipity I guess.

We’re these corn-fed boys from Ohio, so there are going to be some dissimilarities too. But being little kids going into an adult world like that, you’re going to have some of the same reactions: “New Orleans, man, it’s everything I want: music, clubs, naked women.” I’m sure we had that conversation, too.

TCHOUPITOULAS poster with painting by Turner Ross.

  • TCHOUPITOULAS poster with painting by Turner Ross.

Are these Mark Twain Americana river adventures a continuing interest? I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard about this riverboat adventure you shot, when you all went down the Mississippi from Ohio.
We did take the river trip. But really all of this shit is adventure. You know, going to New Orleans and creating this film, it wasn’t trying to be some intellectual asshole and convey the “zoo” of New Orleans, it was to have an adventure, and see what kind of lifestyle we could find, and see how much we could fall in love with a place. It’s an extension of our personal lives. There’s really no barrier in between. So, yeah, this fall we took a dilapidated tool shed down the Mississippi river, so while we made home videos it’s not something we want to use for artifice, to make a movie and make money. There’s also life. We should also just be living. So we cut out a little corner for ourselves… But the film Tchoupitoulis, those kids are on their own odyssey. So I guess adventures and odysseys and Lewis and Clark and all that shit, I’m sure that inspires us.

That’s good that you prioritize life. I feel like real world vitality can be last on the list of many films that feel sort of in a vacuum from life. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do. So we try to throw ourselves in the world.

Are you thinking about narrative films for these docs, or mostly other docs? Or fiction stories? Are there genres in the back of your head?
Lots of references. I mean inspiration comes from a lot of places. I wouldn’t say we’re stringently evoking film. A lot of time we get our inspiration from music, and most especially literature and history. And painting, especially with this film. Painting and photography. I mean, I trained as a painter. Bill went to film school. But I had to teach myself how to do all this stuff. Fluid images and colors and just allowing things to not be static, to be full of movement, a lot of that comes from the art of New Orleans.