Los Angeles Film Festival: State of the Revolution

A while back I wrote a rather hopeful blog post for Vanity Fair about the DSLR revolution -- basically, the fact that everywhere you look in L.A. these days you see scruffy-bearded, pork-pie hat hipsters running and gunning Godard-style with a boom mic, a Canon 5D and a monopod. I'm sure I'm not the only one drastically fatigued by the same old studio-offerings, 3D-shotgun blasted into theaters to shock and awe us into paying $25 for a ticket -- (remember when different multiplexes had different movies, rather than the same five movies playing everywhere? I do, barely.)

There's just a massive creative-fatigue-miasma hanging over the film business these days, a sense the establishment has sucked all the air out of the business (as well as the financing) and your options are limited to one mega-hit like The Avengers and 100 bits of re-hashed trashed that even the most generous of audiences are tired of. Everyone would rather talk Mad Men or Game of Thrones than what film they caught over the weekend, simply because there are so few films worth talking about. I wonder if this was what Hollywood was like when the old studio system, rotten to the core was ready to crumble a la Mrs. Haveshim's wedding cake -- we're just waiting for someone to tip it over, and give us an Arab Spring for indie filmmakers.

Anyway, I thought, if anyone's going to topple the Jenga tower of stale cinema, and breath new life into the corporately moribund Agency-Studio-Financing Industrial Complex like Peter Biskind's rebels on the back lot did in the '70s, it might be the DSLR-revolutionaries. Of course even as I wrote, the revolution was well underway, and the LA Film Festival's competition category has incidentally proven a good excuse to check up on the state of the revolution.

Now large budget productions are already using DSLR's to shoot -- famously the subway scenes in Black Swan and some House episodes when last I checked aeons ago -- but those are somewhat traditional modes of shooting, with crews and lights and all the massive apparatus that accompanies such undertakings. What's interesting about the LAFF selections are how they use the DSLR's small size and relatively innocuous look to open up creative possibilities.

Take Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag for example. You may know Karpovsky as a regular on Girls and Lena Dunham's peripatetic houseguest in Tiny Furniture, but he's also an indie auteur in his own right. While showcasing his film Woodpecker on the Southern Festival circuit, he brought along his DP/editor with a Canon and some radio-mics and stole footage from motels, parades and auditoriums all around the south.

As he mentioned at the Q&A after his film's premiere this weekend, Southern gentility allowed him to steal some impressive shots without the headaches and nightmares of permitting. More to the point, it allowed him to capture a vivid immediacy with his actors and script -- or rather scriptment, that quasi-script-treatment hybrid used for everything from Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes to Paranormal Activity. In this case, Karlovsky uses his DSLR to capture tiny moments and build a wry portrait of a confused character who seems kinda-sort-but-hopefully-not-too-much like Karlovsky himself.

Obviously, there's a mumble-corp feel to it -- if only cause Karlovsky couldn't use lights -- but it seems more slightly attuned to the harmonics of performance and story, which can only be a good thing. Certainly, the family feel of the film elevates it beyond the shoelace cinematography, which also elevated their Karaoke RV after party courtesy of RVIP in the parking lot from L.A. Live. There was plenty of Tecate and Commodores songs to be had by all. If nothing else, DSLR-revolutionaries know how to have a good time.

The family element plays a huge part of Pincus as well, director David Fenster's follow-up to his well-regarded Trona. Again, the small size of the camera allows Fenster to situate lead actor David Nordstrom as a stand-in for himself, and cast his own father in a film that charts a son taking care of a father struggling with Parkinson's. The intimacy and family-aesthetic make you feel like you're watching home-movies -- albeit particularly poignant ones -- yet you're clearly being guided along a subtle narrative.

Pincus takes over his father's contracting business, while caring for his father and their eccentric German employee Dietmar, and attempting to carve out a life for himself. Again, it's modest, tiny but authentic -- telling the kinds of stories millions of Americans are living out daily in the post-house-crash doldrums of our present economy (the stories, incidentally, studios wouldn't know how to process, even if they did touch them with 10-foot poles).

Of course, the most radical experiment with family, compact cameras and film festivals might be director Cory McAbee's film Crazy and Thief, his attempt to capture an honest portrait of those earliest, hazy days of childhood that you quickly forget but remain as primordial memories animating your soul. Casting his own daughter 7-year-old Willa McAbee and 2-year-old son John, Cory essentially follows them around Brooklyn and New York at their eye-level, getting down low and re-introducing us to the world of wonder that exists when almost everyone is taller than you. He stays tight on his children with macroscopic persistence, and that perspective alone is almost as transformative as a full lighting, grip and sound package. Fortunately, McAbee knows to keep it brief but this simple cinematic experiment has something that studios and marketing departments will spend hundred of millions trying to manufacture and still miss entirely: a sense of wonder.

Of course, the craft of filmmaking still has a magic of its own when done right and perhaps my favorite film at LAFF so far was Paperman the short that preceded Crazy and Thief. First time director John Kahrs merged computer 3D with hand-drawn black-and-white animation to tell a simple but beautiful story of a young office drone who has a fortuitous encounter with a beautiful young woman on his morning commute to work. If the two looked surprisingly like Disney characters that's because Kahrs, and the film are a product of Disney Animation (with the guiding hand of John Lasseter back there somewhere) and the short will run in front of Wreck-It Ralph later this summer.

It's simple, beautiful, elegant and magical, a throwback and a painful reminder of the days when studios used to be magic factories, instead of just factories. But the fact that super-corporate, John Carter-bombing Disney can still produce work like this, albeit on the smallest of scales, gives me hope that even in the most corporate of crevices lie cinematic revolutionaries ready to blow the whole thing apart from the inside.

If Alan Horn wants to make his mark on that studio, he'd be wise to take a sweep around the animation floor and look for the next-big-thing right under his own nose. After all, that's where John Lasseter was hiding.