Through A Lens Darkly: The Uniqueness of a Movie Watching Experience
When we watch movies, it’s always filtered through our own experiences. I never had pets growing up, so violence against animals never bothers me. But for some folks, it’s a deal breaker. I like depressing relationship “comedies” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Lars and the Real Girl and Blue Valentine, but for folks who like sunshine and rainbows, it’s a dreary experience. We all watch movies differently, based on how we’ve lived our lives, and so our reactions are different. But even more so than that, it’s how we watch the movies. A comedy watched in a theater full of an appreciative audience might be funnier than when we watch it alone at home during the week. The first film you see with your father or mother in a theater is going to resonate much differently than if you are watching it with a group of friends, or even with your own children. If you take your friend who hates romantic comedies to a romantic comedy, they might poison you against a flick you might otherwise have appreciated.
I’ve seen horror movies with an all black audience in a rowdy theatre on the outskirts of Philly, with people shouting and screaming at the theatre. The first time I ever saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the live accompaniment was at the Lehigh Valley Mall after our junior prom, pulling up in the limo in our tuxedos and gowns. The next time I saw it was with members of the football team and some girls, and we all crossdressed. I’ve been to press screenings and studio premieres and personal couch screenings of friends’ films. How we watch and who we watch with and what we are bringing to the table changes how we view the final product.
Where the fuck am I going with this? The Independent Spirit Awards are Saturday. Slowly but surely, they’ve been becoming less independent and more about smaller studio films. I direct you to the best actor categories. For females we’ve got Natalie Portman, Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Williams, and Greta Gerwig, because there’s a requirement that if you are making an indie film, you have to put Greta Gerwig in it. It’s in the SAG doctrines. In the back. 3 Corinthians. Greta Gerwig is the Steve Buscemi of Phillip Seymour Hoffmans. Otherwise, that’s the same list of actresses nominated for the Academy Awards. Which is disappointing. But it’s the Best Leading Male Category to which I would like to draw your attention: Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart, James Franco, John C. Reilly, and Ronald Bronstein. You recognize most of those actors. But a scant few folks even know who Ronald Bronstein is. He’s nominated for his performance in Daddy Longlegs, a film nominated for the John Cassavettes Award because it was made for under $500,000. Personally, I think you shouldn’t qualify for an Independent Spirit Award if you made your film for more than $1 million dollars. But me, I’m a purist.
When I went to see Daddy Longlegs, I was going to a screening at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. I was going to attend with my friend Amy Liebermann and her new husband Jonny. They had just gotten married less than two months. Amy’s the one who convinced me to move out to Los Angeles, we lived down the street from each other all through middle and high school. Amy’s an actress as well. She was in the movie Yeast which was written, directed, and starred in by Mary Bronstein, Amy’s best friend and her maid of honor. Their co-star? Greta Gerwig. Mary’s married to Ronnie Bronstein. I met Ronnie at the wedding, but didn’t get a chance to talk to him much, as he was caring for their newborn child. I swear to God, that baby never left Ronnie’s shoulder. He doted on the sweet girl. But I knew him from reputation because Ronnie is also a filmmaker. He made a maybe mumblecore flick called Frownland, which pissed off a whole lot of audiences.
Anyway, I was excited to see Daddy Longlegs because it was written and directed by two of the actors who popped up in Yeast, the brother duo of Benny and Josh Safdie. The Duplass brothers get most of the cred for being the forefront of the mumblecore movement, but the Safdie brothers have done their fair share. The reason I was excited was not because of their previous film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, which I didn’t care for at all. In fact, I kind of loathe or love most mumblecore unequivocally. No, it’s because while I was a T.A. at Boston University, I taught Josh Safdie. And he almost got kicked of our class for not turning in his work. But I begged the professor, I said, “You’re out of your mind! Josh is one of the few kids who lives film. He’s gonna make a goddamn movie! He’s who you want to keep in the class! You don’t let him go!” And now that professor is hustling to try to scrape together movie to make a second feature while Josh and Benny are nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Suck on that.
Josh was juiced to see me, and that felt good, because it had been a few years and I didn’t know if he’d remember me. So in we went, and took our seats. The Silent Movie Theater is a wild theater, full of chairs with pillow on them and couches at the front of the room, with occasional intermissions for people to drink and smoke on a back patio. Karina Longworth stepped to the front of the room to moderate and introduce the filmmakers. Josh looks exactly like you’d expect a mumblecore filmmaker to look: hipster homeless. Benny looks like Hayden Christiansen in Shattered Glass. Before they showed Daddy Longlegs, which had started life at Sundance called Go Get Some Rosemary, they screened a couple of the short films the brothers had made independently. Overall, I preferred Benny’s films, but they were still cutesy and bespoke exactly what kind of work they’d do with features. I think with Benny’s influence on Josh, they work as only the best brother duos do.
Then we watched the feature. It’s the story of a misanthropic projectionist in New York who has to take care of his two twin sons — played by the real life twin sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo — while trying to eke out a living. It’s a damn fine film, but it’s mostly Ronnie’s performance. He’s a fucking monster. He screams and rants and rages like the finest Angry Young Man. It’s magnificent. And mostly because I never expected to see such a hateful and selfish performance from a quiet filmmaker who I had only known to peacefully dote on his wee daughter. He was a raging, sniveling fiend, and it was a jarring film.
How jarring I didn’t realize as the lights came up on the last reel and there stood Josh and Benny — and well, to her credit, Karina — raging and fuming and sick with fury. Apparently, the company that had sent the print of the film had not included the fourth reel. We were missing an entire twenty or so minute chunk of the narrative. And the weirdest part was, the film still played without it. Ronnie’s performance was so strong we missed pages of the story and it still fucking made sense. They managed to find a DVD copy and cue it to the right spot so we watched the missing twenty minutes, and everyone kind of went, “Ahh. So.” But they were mortified.
I desperately wanted to review the film and get the word out, but honestly, through all those filters, how the hell could I be objective? No one else in that theater, with maybe the exception of Amy, was having the same experience that I was watching that film. So, I couldn’t. But I really loved it. And apparently, I wasn’t alone. Ronnie got nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, and he’s here in LA to join Joel McHale on stage so they can do some schtick about the “who’s THAT guy?” jokes. But the sad part is, he’s the only independent performer up on stage. It’s bad enough the Golden Globes have become the drunk fingerbanged cousin of the Oscars, but we expected more out of the rebellious pierced and tattooed teen that is the Spirit Awards. Ronnie’s probably going to lose, which is a shame, because I’ve seen all five of those performances, and Ronnie’s was clearly the best.
ADDENDUM: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that The Silent Movie Theater is programmed by the wonderful Cinefamily, which is a remarkable part of the Los Angeles film community. I wouldn’t get to see things like Daddy Longlegs if not for them.