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in Filmmaking
on Mar 18, 2007

I sat on the Narrative Feature jury at SXSW last week. As you know, we gave the Grand Jury Prize to Itty Bitty Titty Committee, Jamie Babbit’s riot grrl riff on Lizzie Borden’s early ’80s feminist indie classic, Born in Flames. In addition to its spirited run through the history of late 20th century feminist political action, from Angela Davis through the Guerilla Girls, the film contains a set of relationships — the Latina lesbian protagonist, played by Melonie Diaz, and her accepting family; Melanie Mayron’s power lesbian and her psychologically enabling lover/rent girl (played by Nicole Vicius) — that add complexity and casual nuance to the movie’s pop storytelling.

But many of the press reports failed to mention the two Special Jury Prizes we gave out, so I want to say a few of words about these films.

We awarded a Special Jury Prize to Ry Russo-Young’s Orphans for “its personally crafted visual aesthetic.” The film, which placed the story of two sisters attempting to reconcile after the death of their parents amidst a textured collage of pastel backgrounds and flowing party dresses, has its share of Bergman references but it also shares something with the experimental melodramas of Peggy Ahwesh and Ronnie Abate.

We also gave a Special Jury Prize to Ron Bronstein’s Frownland (pictured, above) for its “uncompromising singularity of vision.” I was particularly happy about this award, because Bronstein’s first feature is the kind of outsider cinema that deliberately pushes an audience’s patience and thus is easy to dismiss by those unwilling to approach the film on the terms it lays out for itself.

In a festival in which many films dealt, ostensibly, with “problems of communication,” Bronstein’s film explored this theme to its fullest and most painful degrees. Frownland follows for a few days the psychologically impaired Keith Sontag, a self-described “troll from under the bridge,” as he quarrels with the arrogant musician roommate, tries to console a suicidal female friend, and hopelessly attempts to make money by door-to-door coupon selling. Bronstein’s camera fixates itself in long takes on Sontag (played by Dore Mann, an ex-Pathmark deli clerk who currently mans the night shift at a suicide hotline) as the character lurches way below the social safety net in particularly hellish ring of outer-borough New York. In long scenes Sontag stammers and grimaces his way through awkwardly circular dialogues that never once achieve any moments of catharis, closure or just basic conversational clarity. There’s a stunning sequence at the end in which Sontag stumbles into a deafeningly noisy hipster party, and a bold digression in which we follow roommate for fifteen minutes or so as he bizarrely tries to scam his way through an LSAT test. (It was at this point in the film that I realized I had no idea where it was going and how long it would take to get there.)

Frownland reminded me a bit of Lodge Kerrigan’s recent Keane,, but where Kerrigan’s handheld camera and jump-cut style (and his protagonist’s narratively-attuned psychological issues) created storytelling drive, empathy and audience involvement, Bronstein resets our inner movie clock. Disoriented, we are forced to wonder about his — and our — attitude towards his characters. Should we feel sorry for Sontag or, like pulling off a piece of chewing gum stuck to our shoe, try to get him out of our lives as soon as possible?

Bronstein’s day (or, often night) job is projecting films at places like MOMA and the American Museum of the Moving Image, and, in person, he evinces the passion of a true cineaste. At the SXSW Closing Night party he enthused to me about screening Jacques Rivette’s 12-plus hour Out 1 earlier this month, and in his press notes Bronstein (pictured above right) hails great influences: Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May and Bleak Moments along with films by Monte Hellman, Alan Clarke, Cassavetes and Mad Magazine.

Like I said, Frownland‘s sludgy miserabilism can be a tough watch, but now that the festival is over, it’s the film that has resonated with me the most. Some of my affection towards Frownland is no doubt due to the underground tradition it salutes. Bronstein told me at SXSW that he wanted to make a film with “no narrative center” and at the awards ceremony in his brief remarks, he acknowledged the difficulties of his approach, noting that some viewers had told him that they wanted to “mark both a ‘1’ and a ‘5” on their Audience Award ballot. (At my screening, the first post-screening comment Bronstein got from an audience member was, “Your film reminded me to keep taking my meds.”

Ultimately, though, Frownland may be one of the few pieces of anti-commercial cinema that is best described by its creator. Here is Bronstein, excerpted, from his director’s statement:

[Frownland is] a jagged little pill of a movie, in turns scary and strayed, honest and threatening, funny, frustrating and frazzled. A crummy window into a world where not just its creators but everyone feels rootless and displaced.

More succinctly, Frownland is my own small contribution to the sinking barge of the 16mm indie model; both an overripe tomato lobbed with spazmo inaccuracy at the spotless surface of the silver screen and a mad valentine to the craggy tradition of unadulterated cheao-o-independent expression. Its inelegance is its spirit. I hope you dig it.

Here’s the trailer from the film’s MySpace page:

Frownland [trailer]

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