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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Watched Shadows and Funny Ha Ha last night

The Potomac Video near Chevy Chase Circle (DC) is awesome. Pretty much any hard to find or rare indie/foreign movie I want, they have. Huge collection downstairs - a lot on VHS, & a lot on DVD. Last night I picked up two movies I've been wanting to check out for a while: John Cassavetes' Shadows & Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha.

Watched Shadows first. As a historical artifact, it is fascinating. As entertainment - it is OK. But, like Citizen Kane, to some it must have been something awesome at its debut period. The music in Shadows was good, jazz. Also it was brave of Cassavetes to tackle an "interracial"* romance related storyline in his first feature, made in the mid to late 1950's, a conservative time that was also cooking up, in the basement, massive social changes that would erupt above ground & shake & re-arrange life in the US in the 1960's & after. The film foreshadows some of the conflicts & changes - the sexual revolution, "race" relations/desegregation, that awaited the nation. Shadows tells three main stories: the core one is about a young light skinned African-American woman & the young "white" man to whom she loses her virginity. The other two stories are about the woman's brothers: one a professional singer with work difficulties and the other who spends most of his on screen time hanging out with a couple of friends picking up, or trying to pick up, women. One of the pleasant treats in Shadows is being able to observe streets of NYC in the late 1950's through black and white cinematography. Also clothing & hair details, slang, & character mannerisms that must, to some degree, reflect late 1950's hipster/creative lives. Even if it feels like that Cassavetes sometimes fails in fully achieving whatever goals he may have had for various scenes in the movie, the project has an epic & electric quality to it. There is a lot to see & absorb in Shadows. Another viewing of the film maybe necessary to fully appreciate that unique film. I am looking forward to checking out all the extras that came on the DVD. I am also looking forward to watching the movie in a theater at some point in the future - the movie feels too big for a television screen.

I have often noticed that distribution company press & publicity material, reviewers, critics and fans often compare certain new indie filmmakers to Cassavetes, as in so and so is the next Cassavetes, blah, blah, blah. After seeing Shadows, I can confidently say that I have not yet seen a work by ANY of the several dozen important & much publicized post-Shadows US indie filmmakers that would warrant its maker the honor of being called the next Cassavetes. Which leads us to Andrew Bujalski, a filmmaker who sometimes has been falsely annointed (so far, & well, its all opinion I guess, so that's a soft false :) the next Cassavetes.

After recovering from Shadows, I watched Andrew Bujalski's 2001 film Funny Ha Ha. Full disclosure: Andrew is an acquaintance, seems like a cool dude, sometimes we exchange brief & pleasant e-mails re: indie film matters. And I really liked his recent movie Mutual Appreciation (now screening in various theaters). But, for me, Funny Ha Ha is no Mutual Appreciation. Unlike Funny's DVD label, I would never use the adjective "hilarious" to describe the movie. Funny is basically a good re-enactment type film that tells the story of a recent college graduate & her very minor dramatic & comic moments related to romance, friendship & employment. Funny is relatively well made for a first time low budget 16MM color feature. The characters in Funny are the kind of people I would find to be nice but dull in real life. The characters in Mutual are similar to some of the people I have hung out with over the last couple of decades: creative types who are into indie rock, often very interesting & colorful, entertaining people. So that could be one of the reasons why I like Mutual but am not a fan of Funny. The first time I tried to watch Funny it was perhaps a year or so ago on cable (IFC?), after 10 mins or so I changed the channel. But after seeing & liking Mutual I wanted to give Funny another chance. I am not really sure what A. O. Scott & other reviewers who are quoted on the cover of Funny's DVD saw in the movie which warranted the glowing praise, but, for me, THE Bujalski movie to watch is Mutual Appreciation. Funny provides very little entertainment, almost no comedy & almost no drama. But, even if Funny Ha Ha is very overrated by some reviewers & critics, at least it led to the much better Mutual Appreciation. So, as a recent indie film historical artifact, Funny has some value.

Overall, as an indie filmmaker & a fan of the genre, I am glad I saw both movies. Their entertainment value is debatable (specially in the case of Funny), but both movies do make reality, actual existence, some major (reflected in Shadows) or some very minor (reflected in Funny Ha Ha) obstacles & joys in life more special & sacred. Shadows is a must see for most indie filmmakers working in America - to get a glimpse of the genre's heritage, foundation & often unfulfilled possibilities. Shadows is also a must see for all scholars of American indie film.

- Sujewa

* note: the word interracial in the Shadows plot description is in quotes because I do not believe in the theory of race or grouping people based on external features, geographic point of origin of families, & assigning an Indian caste system type roles & expectations to the said groupings as it was done under segregation & apartheid. visit here for more on that.

2 comments:

andyhorbal said...

I did find Funny Ha Ha to be "hilarious" at moments. It's a different sort of humor, to be sure: akin to overhearing someone else's conversation on a bus or a train that makes you laugh because it reminds you of yourself.

Mitchell's painfully awkward passive-agressive attempt to assert himself with Marnie by dropping a beer bottle off her balcony, for example, reminded me of all the miscommunication in all of my past relationships. And thinking about what I was thinking, about what prompted such behavior, made me laugh.

I don't know how well Funny Ha Ha works for people not living the post-graduate, self-indulgent, angst-ridden lifestyle of its characters. But as someone right in the thick of that part of America it was quite an experience to see myself up on that screen. Bujalski's distantly "objective," yet knowingly sympathetic portrayal of this way of life was a reminder to me that I am absurdly privileged, that I am living in a unique time and place in history.

And most importantly it drew my attention to the comedy of miscommunication in our open, share-your-feelings society. His characters talk, and talk, and talk but they still can't say what they mean: I share their frustration, and I felt like I was laughing with them and with Andrew Bujalski the whole time.

I found Funny Ha Ha a celebration, then, of our joint fortune/misfortune perhaps? That's an idea that's hilarious in its own right!

Anonymous said...

Might want to read my comment on Mutual.

http://www.notesoncinema.com/?p=72

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