The Best of 2012: Three Undistributed U.S. Independent Films
Originally published in Cinema Scope 53, Winter 2013.

The Hand You’re Dealt: Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail In Blue

Frank V. Ross is by no means an unknown on the American independent scene, but scenes are deceptive. Ross released his first feature film, the evocatively titled Oh! My Dear Desire, back in 2003. Since then, Ross has maintained a steady production pace, averaging about a feature film every two years. Assessing where Ross fits in to the “landscape” of contemporary cinema would be tricky, since one would inevitably have to decide whether or not to deploy the dreaded M-word. Ross has been a close associate of one Mr. Joe Swanberg, which is unfortunately enough to spell guilt-by-association for certain viewers. Joe’s unavoidably a lightning rod (personally I used to detest his films but have lately found them rather intriguing), but Ross’s work is miles away from Swanberg’s, aesthetically speaking. Same with Kentucker Audley, with whose NoBudge Films initiative Ross has partnered at various points.

Even in a relatively hazy work like Present Company (2008), we can see what distinguishes Ross’s sensibility from that of others in his ever-so-loose cohort. Despite technical limitations, and Ross still developing his own rhythm as an editor, the film takes seemingly naturalistic passages – an awkward encounter in a supermarket, or an exceedingly petty fight about a song in the car – and organizes them into a careful slowburn / dehiscence pattern. This approach became both more self-aware and more patently artificial in Ross’s next film, Audrey The Trainwreck (2010). Ross’s great leap forward in every way, Audrey finds its maker streamlining his approach and in so doing actually opening up a much larger, more variegated universe.

Ron (Anthony J. Baker, a Ross regular) is a bitter middle manager; Stacey (Alexi Wasser) is a parcel service driver. They meet through a dating service and begin a tentative courtship. In between, we see the two of them struggle with all the other moments of their less-than-satisfying lives (work problems; other social events; friends with whom they never quite connect). Audrey (named for an unseen, half-remembered acquaintance from high school) is a truly rare thing – a dialectical rom-com. Ross makes us feel the connection between these two very ordinary people by emphasizing the aching lack that exists when they are apart. What’s more, Ross displays life as a series of physical challenges and negotiation of obstacles (spilled water, a banana peel, a finale I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). More Harold Lloyd than Robert Bresson, Audrey The Trainwreck announced Ross not as a leader of mumblecore but a graduate of it, a major U.S. auteur on par with the likes of Andrew Bujalski and Aaron Katz.

Tiger Tail In Blue, which I was fortunate to catch on a brief preview on NoBudge, is less of a breakthrough than Audrey, but it is a full consolidation of Ross’s prior achievements. More accessible than the previous film without sacrificing one iota of intelligence or insight, Tiger Tail is a film that cuts a little closer to the bone than some of Ross’s previous work. Because of a few small torques in his prior maneuvers, the director may find himself in the unenviable position of having to fend off intimations that the film may be somehow autobiographical.  But this would be unconscionably lazy; beyond its immediate surfaces, Tiger Tail is a story far too capacious in its observation of relationship anxiety to be summed up by any local specificities. 

Yes, Ross himself plays the male lead, and his character Chris is a writer (and a waiter), rather than the usual middle-class working stiffs who populate the director’s films. But this “artistic” side does not exactly afford Chris any privileged insight into the film’s primary scenario. (Based on what we see, he may not be a particularly gifted writer in any case.) Chris is married to Melody (Rebecca Spence), a high school teacher; Chris works nights. Their opposite schedules result in intense marital strain, although as Tiger Tail builds steam Ross shows us certain fissures in the relationship that magnify under stress. In particular, Chris has had difficulty pulling his weight financially, and “type-A” Melody tends to over-direct Chris’s drift. Chris begins counterbalancing the relative absence of Melody in his life with a rather brazen flirtation with Brandy (Megan Mercier), a younger waitress on his late shift.

Tiger Tail exhibits customarily sharp editing from Ross, as well as warm, rich cinematography by filmmaker Mike Gibisser, working with Ross for the first time. However this is not a film of visual or spatial motifs in the same way Audrey was. Above all, it’s a film that affords room for its actors to inhabit a script characterized as much by pursed lips and silences as by direct speech. (Spence is particularly strong as Melody, a young woman flustered as she detects her inherent sexiness slipping away under a barrage of adult responsibility.) While Ross’s latest if far too subtle to be conventionally commercial, it does avoid excess stylization in favour of a direct examination of a male perspective that, while not completely deluded, is certainly too blinkered to see who he is and what he’s got. Chris is perfectly adequate, and Tiger Tail In Blue is, in part, a story about being grateful when you find that one person who was born to overvalue you, flaws and all.

Let My Baby Ride: Alejandro Adams’s Amity

The increasing availability of low-cost, professional level digital filmmaking equipment has yielded more dreck than revolutions. Any film festival from SXSW on down the echelons will confirm this very quickly. But San Jose, California’s Alejandro Adams is the rare exception. He’s just the type of under-the-radar DIY auteur that the pro-digital prognosticators promised, and if he has yet to reach his full potential, that’s just cause for great hope. There’s not some secret, burgeoning filmmaking scene in San Jose, although there’s more activity there than one might expect. (Adams’ collaborator and former wife Marya Murphy, for instance, is a filmmaker in her own right.) But the fact that Adams has accomplished what he has, drawing from a predominantly Northern California talent pool, working mostly on weekends (his day job is running the Camera 7 Cinema, San Jose’s multiscreen arthouse), proves that there is life and talent in the grassroots.

Northern California is avant-garde and documentary territory, which has made it tough for Adams to break through on the festival circuit. Most of his features have premiered at Cinequest, San Jose’s own local festival. But these are the most interesting narrative films to have emerged from NoCal since Rob Nilsson blasted out of San Francisco with Signal 7 back in 1986. Adams’s debut film, Around the Bay (2008), was a family drama with an extremely astute visual rhythm and colour palette. The story of a workaholic father (Steve Voldseth) caught in a bind when his latest live-in girlfriend walks out, he must call in his estranged daughter to babysit for his younger son, by a much later marriage. Around the Bay was a highly accomplished debut by any measure, but it was Adams’s sophomore feature Canary (2009) that brought the director to wider notice. Becoming a cause celebre among Internet critics and screening at several high-profile festivals, Canary was Adams’s glimpse into a near future when corporate organ donorship is a going concern. A centrifugal narrative operating with multiple threads that pointedly do not sync up at the end, Canary is mostly filtered through the point of view of a silent agent (Carla Pauli) charged with repossessing the organs of those who have violated Canary Industries’ terms of service. With its fluid, almost Cubist editing and dense polyvocal sound design, Canary is an object lesson in how to accomplish great things on a shoestring.

Like many, I have not yet seen Adams’s third film Babnik (2010), a Russian-language feature about human trafficking that premiered at Cinequest and traveled very little after that. (It could well be that a lo-fi American indie in Russian was too much of a niche-buster.) But Amity, his latest, is a determinedly small film in the mould of Around the Bay. It finds Adams moving into mode less defined by overt formalism and instead organized around a single damaged character and those pulled into his toxic orbit. Some early responders have drawn parallels to early Neil LaBute, but I think that’s more than a bit offbase. The dialogue in Amity is sculpted and delivered not in order to generate some sort of vulgar poetry of male prerogative but to enframe a misplaced sense of entitlement, the sort designed to elicit cringes of recognition.

Greg (Greg Cala) is introduced in close-up; he’s at a party in a hot tub, puffing a stogie and delivering crass racist pronouncements. Eventually someone else in the group makes a move toward checking Greg’s boorish behaviour, whereupon he unleashes a belligerent tirade. We soon learn that Greg’s a career military man, estranged from his kids, and has decided to surprise his daughter (named Amity, who we never see) on her graduation day by showing up with a rented limo. This ill-advised maneuver – needless to say, she’s got other plans – leads the wounded Greg to tool around in the paid-for limo, treating its taciturn driver (the excellent Michael Uimari) as his captive audience and rent-a-buddy.

Greg is a classic type. He becomes more obnoxious the more vulnerable he feels. Adams really gets cooking once the limo “journey” (around suburban San-Jo) begins; visually, Amity makes use of its cramped quarters to tell its story through tense, claustrophobic close-ups. A from-the-underbelly companion to Anderson’s The Master in this regard (although I doubt Adams will appreciate the comparison), Amity frames faces as though the pixels themselves were going to push discomfort and aggression right out of the actors’ pores. The key scene of the film, in which Greg tries to impress a gaggle of drunk party ladies (including Marya Murphy) in the back of the limo, is an extended workout on the dynamics of shifting power, tension accumulating and finally boomeranging onto its macho source. Recalling the fine early work of Bruce Sweeney, Amity is perhaps too subtle a machine to connect with audiences as diverse as those who embraced Canary. But it’s without a doubt one of this year’s most assured “minor films,” in the Deleuze / Gunning sense – a Carveresque short story about bombast giving way to pitiable frailty.


In The Family: Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act

At the very end of Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, the director dedicates his film to the memory of Eric Rohmer. Those who have followed Sallitt as a film writer and critic over the years would be in no way surprised to learn of the director’s admiration for Rohmer. But the dedication provides an ideal way to retroactively consider the film, as well as everything that’s so unusual about Sallitt’s filmmaking. Rohmer was a social and political conservative, although we must recall that the precise meaning of such a designation has gone through a lot of redefinition over the years. Rohmer’s worldview was patrician, even aristocratic, but above all devoted such ideas as restraint and civility. Nevertheless, Rohmer the director was a radical. His formal means of articulating our position in relation to one another, and the broader social order, exhibits an advanced thinking that exceeds the mere opinions of Rohmer himself. His cinematic system followed its own imperatives.

So it is not altogether surprising that Sallitt has succeeded throughout his filmmaking career to apply Rohmerian lessons to distinctly progressive ends. His 1998 feature Honeymoon examined the toll that marriage (in particular, a spur of the moment one between former lovers and longtime friends) could exact on a relatively functional couple. Sallitt bucked the norm of American cinema by refusing to make a pointy-headed stereotype of his academic woman protagonist (Edith Meeks), allowing her to actually bring her critical insights to bear on the problems at hand. Sallitt’s subsequent featurette, All The Ships At Sea (2004), reflects a deeper development in his distinctly evenhanded approach to society’s most unassuming oddballs. It details a reunion of sorts between two estranged adult sisters. Evelyn (Strawn Bovee) is a theology professor and relatively traditional Catholic; her younger sister Virginia (Meeks) has recently been returned to the family in slightly damaged condition.

Through the conversations that comprise the bulk of All The Ships, we learn that Virginia has recently left a religious cult. She tries to explain to her sister why she left, but also why the experiences she had there represent a valid form of spirituality. Evelyn, for her part, tries to keep her skepticism at bay, listening and learning but also respectfully arguing with her sister from her own more doctrine-based point of view. Miles away (and ahead) of Sean Durkin’s similarly themed Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), All The Ships isn’t about the vagaries of an unstable psyche. Rather, Sallitt is genuinely intrigued by questions of belief and metaphysical longing. This film was dedicated to Maurice Pialat, incidentally, and displays the French master’s knack for relocating drama from overt action to the simmering will.

We may as well get it out of the way. The “unspeakable act,” in the title of Sallitt’s latest and by far best film, is incest. The film makes no secret of this; it isn’t held back like a thrumming energy, as in Alex Ross Perry’s contemporaneous The Color Wheel (2011). In fact, there is no “act” at all, only confused, agonized longing. Jackie (preternaturally gifted newcomer Tallie Medel) is 17 and has been sexually fixated on her older brother Matt (Sky Hirschkron) almost as long as she has possessed a coherent sexual identity. Sallitt stages Jackie’s crisis around Matt’s return home following his first year at college. He brings his girlfriend home, and this sends Jackie into a tailspin. She is forced to confront her feelings for (and with) Matt, and at the midpoint of the film, begins intensive therapy to overcome her inappropriate attraction.

As with all of Sallitt’s work, there is a still, limpid treatment of mise en scène that appears negligible at first glance. His even lighting and white / beige Northern suburban interior motifs look dull and matte until, through their very light absorbency, they begin to smother, as if only human thinking could pry one out of the dollhouses that engulf us. And again, Sallitt takes a profession that “the movies” have cast in a disreputable light for no particular reason – the therapist – and made her something of a heroine. Played by Caroline Luft as the consummate professional listener / guider, Jackie’s therapist Linda is a talker, like everyone in this highly literate film. But she is a highly conscious talker, someone devoted to building new connections, forging new tools with Jackie through language.

Given the importance of words in Sallitt’s art (and Rohmer’s), it’s not entirely surprising that therapists and academics would get a fairer shake in his films than in most others. But more than this, The Unspeakable Act is a film that helps recode what constitutes cinematic action. When talking about their incest problem, Matt jokes to Jackie, “for an unspeakable act, you sure do talk about it a lot.” But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In cinema, as well as real life, we exorcise our taboos by turning them into speech acts, and then follow them up with additional speech acts (apologies, confessional, therapy, art). But in Jackie, Sallitt has created a particularly stark, and beautiful, sign of our times: someone who hangs onto her pathologies with both hands because she believes that they alone are what make her special.