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Faint praise for Alexander the Last in the New York Times (But, critical responses really don't matter to DIY film - or to some DIY films & makers)

But hey, on the bright side - it's The New York Times! :) Check out Manohla Dargis's review of Joe Swanberg's latest Alexander the Last here. From what I've seen in the trailer, the visuals look pretty awesome in Alexander. I skipped Nights & Weekends (looked too raw in several ways), but am somewhat looking forward to checking out Alexander (even if I get bored with the story & the characters - which usually happens with me & Swanberg movies - I hear it was shot in Brooklyn, so that might be interesting to see).

On to somewhat related things: maybe the kind of thing Swanberg is doing is more like blogging, and most film critics & reviewers (and movie watchers, including myself), having grown up in the age of Hollywood & indiewood are not ready/not able to comprehend or appreciate it for what it is - like most critics who complain about bloggers - & critics who want "legitimate art/entertainment in films" that looks & feels like what they/we are used to seeing - & made even more legitimate when the work features name talent or are distributed by known, experienced distribution companies. Most people view DIY film in relation to Hollywood films - with Hollywood films & works closer to that in form, production methods, & distribution as more legitimate & all else as less legitimate - this is a largely useless approach to thinking about & reacting to filmed art/entertainment. It's like saying that McDonald's is more legitimate of a restaurant business than Tastee Diner in Silver Spring, MD because McDonald's makes billions of dollars & is known world wide. Back to something that I've said several times before - all films are legitimate - whether it's The Dark Knight or a film featuring two people talking for an hour and a half in a small room - each offers different things to audience members, that's all.

Perhaps older music reviewers & audiences felt the same way about the initial wave of punk rock (something like "no talent kids making music badly" :) & I am sure definitely hard core punk rock ("no talent kids screaming" :). But, over the years, things changed, punk & hard core created the field of activity that gave rise to indie rock & the whole lifestyle & world view that is pretty much a part of popular entertainment world wide at this point (kind of lifestyle being lead by at least one of the characters in Alexander - being in an indie band, touring - so I hear). So what does all this mean to Swanberg: he is definitely a pioneer. Even though I don't dig a lot of his movies & am at present disappointed a little (alleviated by the Barry Jenkins/Medicine for Melancholy story) that the same career-development breaks most of the "white" Mumblecore directors get don't seem to apply to minority filmmakers who work in a similar style & approach (granted, this is a part of an older & bigger problem than DIY filmmaking or the film business in general, & things are changing as far as equal opportunity/access to coveted jobs/careers goes - Obama is President at the moment for example) - Swanberg's productivity & the ability to ignore critics & keep doing his thing is very impressive. And other DIY filmmakers (Princeton Holt, myself, as mentioned Jenkins, Amir Motlagh - to name just a few) are taking care of the diversity thing, for the moment - when it comes to both ethnic & gender diversity (Ry Russo-Young, Kris Swanberg - just a couple off the top of my head). And the number of those directors are bound to grow in the coming years (quite possibly inspired by Swanberg).

So, ultimately, is what Swanberg is doing good for indie film? Yes, I think so. If nothing else, it will show that there is a possibility - regardless of choice in craftsmanship & story telling style - if you keep at it you might develop a small following & will be able to keep making movies, in a slightly bigger & more refined (from a traditional perspective) scale after a while. This is something that has always been true for DIY filmmakers - before Swanberg Jon Moritsugu was doing the same kind of thing in his own way, plus no doubt dozens of others that maybe even I haven't heard about. But it is always nice to have very visible reminders such as Swanberg's career to remind people exactly how much is possible through DIY filmmaking & a lot of networking.

So, congrats to Swanberg & Team Alexander for getting the movie done & out. Go here to find out about when & where you can see it. When I watch it I am going to approach it with the same expectations I have when I start reading a personal blog - maybe there will be some interesting things in there, related to the life of the author, but I am not gonna be looking for an epic or even entertaining narrative or colorful, well defined characters as I would expect from a traditional novel. And since there is no wrong way to make a movie, it's totally cool that a DIY film is a lot different in what it offers than what a given Hollywood or indiewood movie will offer - whether it works or not for a given audience member will depend on the taste of that audience member.

- Sujewa



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Ryan said…
"Alexander.." is GREAT! I've seen it twice already. Now, I understand I go into the film as a huge supporter of Swanbergs work, previous and forementioned, And I also approach art very subjectively. The film is a really great leap from his previous work and I think his ability to challenge himself as a filmmaker and to challenge the audience, is what makes him so prolific and important to the cinema scene. I think you will find that
"Alexander" is a mature work, with a stronger narrative thread but Swanbergs ability to set aside traditional form for sake of creating a great emotional arc and character, still remains.
It's his most fluid work thus far.
Check it out, and don't approach it with pre conceived notions about the director or his work, but as a first time viewer to a story.
Even as a supporter, I tried to do the same.
Jerry said…
Hey SE,

Nice posts re your thoughts on Swanberg & Co and the aim of DIY cinema.

One crucial note Dargis struck is the line about "social netwotk filmmaking" which despite its problems, seems to work in the DIY approach. Friends and neighbors and all that.

Your comparison of McDonalds and The Tasty Diner does not hold water however, as both are selling hamburgers and the market place will decide if they warrant business (or viewers :) And if enough folks decide that The Tasty Diner is not a good value for the product, then goodbye Tasty Diner, hello beastly chain.

If a DIY filmmaker can sale his work of two people talking in a room, he should.

Why not?

If he can't sale it, then maybe he should give it away. There is always a market for free hamburgers no matter how they taste!

The Sujewa said…
Maybe a better comparison would be between McDonald's hamburgers & ones made in someone's back yard :)

But, in Silver Spring, both the Tastee Diner & McDonalds exists - about a block from each other - & both are busy.

So I guess that's a good thing.

- S

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