Thursday, April 21, 2005

“Making Movies Outside the Matrix” was the name of the panel discussion this morning in the Pine Lounge at the Illini Union. I was hoping to learn Kung Fu and how to bend spoons with my mind, but I think the topic had more to do with independent and low-budget filmmaking. Panelists included: Dana Shapiro and Henry Rubin (co-directors of Murderball), Richard Leskonsky (cinema professor at University of Illinois), Jonathon Rosenbaum (film critic for the Chicago Reader), actor Jason Patric, Jonathon Sehring (President of IFC Entertainment and producer), Guy Maddin (director of The Saddest Music in the World), and Shane Carruth (director of Primer) Shane Carruth is hilarious in his newness to this whole thing. Talk about getting hit with success like a deer in the headlights. It’s rather endearing as he seems quite humble. When he was introduced on the panel, Roger was confused as to which one was Shane as he said, “When I said your name, you looked at me as if you didn’t know who you were.” After explaining that all of the panelist would give an opening statement (a “manifesto”) at the podium, the first of which would be Shane, he looked at Roger and said, “I’m sorry. What are we doing again?” It didn’t take long for him to catch up though. After getting comfortable at the microphone, he went to great lengths to express that he felt lucky and confused. His first feature film shot for $7,000 won the jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film. Carruth said that the reason he plays the lead in Primer is because he couldn’t get another actor to do the part. “I wasn’t able to pay anyone.” Considering the film took roughly a year, it seems playing the part himself was the only option, even after five casting calls. He said “Dallas isn’t exactly a Mecca for actors.” He also said that there’s no way he could make another movie the way he made Primer. He said the amount of work that went into making Primer was just “wrong”. “People shouldn’t work that hard for something as trivial as film . . . That type of work should be relegated to Peace Corps and things like that.”

The star of the panel was of course Jason Patric. He’s playing the Anson Mount role this year. What is it about actors that make them look like actors. Is it the fashionable stubble? Is it the toned biceps? Is it the charismatic baritone voice? Is it the hot girlfriend? Patric’ an interesting guy. Roger made a point to emphasize Patric’s dedication to only doing scripts he cares about and not doing two movies a year, back to back, good or bad, like a lot of other actors (John Travolta comes to mind). Commenting on this Patric said, “I wasn’t one of those guys who thought I would always act; that it was something beating in my heart . . . I always figured I would act as long as it meant something to me.”

Guy Maddin is a remarkably fun with his self-deprecating sense of humor. He seems to have a reservoir of relevant one-liners: “I’ve always made my films with kind of a pendulum swinging between hubris and self-loathing . . . I figured my films wouldn’t be appreciated until after I was dead.” He also said that a lot of his early films were based almost exclusively on his dreams. That was certainly believable after seeing his short film “Heart of the World” last night. It played like a Fritz Lang silent film in fast-forward. Roger said that Maddin fit more into 30-minutes than most filmmakers can fit into 2-hours.

I can’t help but feel that panel discussions, like movies, have genres. The whole of this particular panel reminded me of one of the ones from last year. Everybody talks about how hard it is to make movies, how artists are important, how the studio system is a travesty, follow your dreams, you can achieve your goals, I’m living proof, etc., etc.
Nonetheless, there are always those brief moments of insight. Jason Patric talked about the tendency of the film industry to rest on instant gratification. He said that the movie business is not even a weekend business anymore. It’s a Friday night business. To me, that’s the biggest problem with the whole system. It’s set up to where studios don’t even have to make movies that you enjoy. They just have to get you into the theatre. The art then is not in the movie itself, but in the advertisement. I once worked at a movie theater in the early days of college and I remember once asking my manager if we ever gave patrons their money back because they did not enjoy the movie. He looked at me like I was stupid. I think people should get their money back if a movie is terrible. If the studios want to treat movies like a product, I think we should be able to treat movies like a product. One might argue that then anybody could ask for their money back whether they liked it or not. Sure, but the same could be said for restaurants or any other product of immediate consumption. If a vacuum cleaner doesn’t work, you return it and get your money back. Of course, you can’t give the movie back, but then again you also can’t get your two hours back. If a trailer makes a movie look better than it is, isn’t that false advertising? Bottom line. Mortal Kombat II promised great things with their trailer and that movie sucked. I want my eight dollars back.

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