May 15, 2011

USA Network's Character Project

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to to the exclusive LA premiere of the USA Network's Character Project short films. It seemed pretty legit - eight new short films produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, a discussion moderated by Elvis Mitchell, non-transferable invitations, and free hors d'oeuvres. I immediately assumed that I had received this email for one of the following reasons:

1. By mistake
2. As part of an elaborate murder plot devised by someone who knows I am unable to resist free hors d'oeuvres

I ruled out the first reason pretty quickly, since I have a pretty unusual name and the person inviting me was citing my blog in some detail. The second seemed more accurate, but since the screening was at the Arclight (10 minutes from my apartment), I figured it was worth a shot (but I brought along my boyfriend for security).

I am happy to report that there were no murder attempts - at least as far as I could tell. Rather, I was treated to a delightful evening of entertainment courtesy of a network that I must commend for trying something different.

For six years now, "Characters Welcome" has been the slogan of the USA Network. In recent years, the network decided to move past it as a mere catchphrase and actually use it as a springboard for a concept, and thus the Character Project was born. Last year's incarnation was a photography exhibit, where 11 renowned photographers took to the streets to capture the character of America. This year took it a step further, as the network commissioned eight short films about interesting characters, both real and fictional. I'll admit that I'm totally oblivious to the world of short films - it's such a huge, uncurated mess that I tend to ignore them entirely. Technology like digital cameras and YouTube have provided great platforms for shorts, but they've also chipped away at the legitimacy of the form - after all, doesn't a Funny or Die sketch or a montage of your dog technically count as a short film? But I have to give kudos to the USA Network for reminding its audience of the prestige and quality that shorts can have. Below is a rundown of each film, accompanied by my thoughts.

Duck (dir. Jakob Daschek): Duck features no quacking animals but instead tells the story of 10-year-old Emmanuel, who suffers from an extreme fear of being touched (haphephobia, as it's apparently called). Now, it's normal to not be a touchy-feely person, but Emmanuel goes to great lengths to avoid even brushing by someone on a crowded bus. Fearing for his development and facing complaints from teachers, Emmanuel's mother signs him up for boxing lessons. Now, I know this is a short, but the film offers no explanation as to why his mother chose this strangely specific course of action - she just suddenly drops him off at a gym. There, Emmanuel discovers that his supposed weakness could work for him in a way he never knew. The film was well-acted, especially by the surprisingly soulful boy in the lead, and aesthetically confident except for a bit of an over-reliance on the handheld camera. Daschek did say in the Q&A, however, that a lot had to be cut to keep it within the time limit, and there was somewhat of a pervading feeling that the film was fighting against its short length.

Fish (dir RJ Cutler): Cutler is best known for helming the documentary The September Issue, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at editor Anna Wintour's efforts to assemble said issue of Vogue. He provides another entry in the people-doing-their-job genre with Fish, which documents chef Jon Shook's efforts to get his new seafood restaurant off the ground. Now, Shook isn't just any chef - with partner Vinny Dotolo and virtually no experience, he opened Animal, which quickly became LA's hottest restaurant. Shook is a fascinating contradiction because on one hand, he's a dudebro from Florida who opened the restaurant because he "never really felt like working for anybody else," and on the other hand his skills and expertise have made him one of the top chefs in the world. The seafood restaurant Son of a Gun is his latest venture, and in keeping with his dedication to providing fresh and local food he goes out fishing and sees what he can make from his catch (which ends up being some bizarre fish I've never heard of). Cooking, like nuclear physics, is one of those disciplines that I am completely unable to wrap my head around. And I get frustrated by recipes - cooks have to invent their own, and unlike other art forms the result has to look AND taste good. My boyfriend lamented that the film seemed a bit "reality show-esque," but for all the junk on Bravo and TLC these days, their earlier shows like "Project Runway" are truly compelling displays of professional skill and creative problem-solving. That kind of problem-solving also creates suspense and drives a narrative - hell, it's basically the meat of the Bourne trilogy. Plus, Cutler resisted the urge of many documentarians to crowd the film with intertitles, graphics, and over-editing, letting the story tell itself organically. Coming from someone who can barely boil water, I have to say that I quite enjoyed Fish.

Love Without Regret (dir. Tomás Peña): This film was listed in the program, but not shown. So yeah. The only explanation I can think of is that the synopsis seemed to prominently mention the use of a Lexus CT Hybrid, meaning perhaps it was more of a commercial...?

Monster Slayer (dir. Caskey): This film is a narrative that tells the story of Ben, a young man suffering from an unspecified psychiatric disorder. It opens with his girlfriend calling him out for avoiding his medication, the outcome of which becomes apparent as Ben starts seeing a host of fanciful characters. It begins innocently enough in the form of a cute little girl with wings (who, it should be noted, appeared in costume at the premiere), but the characters intensify in size, aggression, and construction, eventually putting him face-to-face with menacing stop-motion beasts. Somewhat reminiscent of an indie A Beautiful Mind, the audience starts out wondering why on earth Ben wouldn't take his medication, but we come to see how much a part of him these characters are. On paper, this film sounded obnoxious - the combination of stop-motion animation and mental illness sounds like a student film gone wrong. Turns out, however, that it navigates a tricky subject well and avoids the obvious pitfalls. The characters are sympathetic and real, the creatures are imaginative, and it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Perfect (dir. Amie Steir): Of all the films, Perfect was the most traditional narrative and seemed the likeliest candidate for expansion into a feature, but without feeling abridged. It's also the most star-studded of the bunch, featuring Carla Gallo (recognizable for having a kooky bit part in almost every Judd Apatow production) and Tony Hale ("Arrested Development"), as well as talented newcomer Maria Blasucci in the lead. Unless you're an only child, you can probably relate in some way to the story, which concerns Anne (Blasucci) being overshadowed on her wedding day by the arrival of her beautiful, perfect sister Sara (Gallo). Steir mines some great comedy from Sara's hyperbolic achievements, amplifying them in the context of the small-town setting. Events take a hilarious and rather touching turn as Sara hogs more and more attention...but not for the reasons you'd think. I'd also have to say that this film was the most confidently directed of the night, possibly because Steir was, surprisingly, the only director to have helmed other shorts (also featuring some big names, which would explain her ease with actors). 

The Dude (dir. Jeff Feuerzeig): Everyone knows the character of the Dude, immortalized by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. But did you know that he was based on a real person? Indeed, film producer Jeff Dowd served as the inspiration to his friends Joel and Ethan Coen in creating the character. Unfortunately, Feuerzeig has so much faith in the appeal of his subject that he slacks in the director's chair. There are many aspects to Dowd's personality and life, and Feuerzeig tries frantically to touch on all of them in the film's short running time. We hear about his political activism and involvement in the Seattle Seven, his film career, his friendship with the Coens, follow him to a Lebowski Fest, and even see him re-enact the beginning of Lebowski shot-for-shot, all while being drowned in excessive camera angles and other stylistic choices. For all of that, the film barely touched on what about Dowd led to the creation of the Dude - there's little more than a throwaway sentence about the Coens picking up on some of his mannerisms. Now, it may seem harsh to say that Feuerzeig mismanaged his subject, and I might not lay all of the blame on him if I hadn't seen Dowd in person. He was the rock star of the premiere, liberally distributing hugs and being trailed by an ever-expanding pack of groupies. Even before we knew who he was, my boyfriend and I could just tell that he had to be somebody famous. In a way, I learned more about Dowd from just seeing him mill around than I did from the film. Although I was the most excited for this film coming in, I found it to be the most disappointing.

The Fickle (dir. Bryan Poyser): There's not much to say about this one other than the fact that it's a simple concept done incredibly well. Expanding on the conceit that all your insignificant sexual and romantic encounters kind of blur together, the film is a SINGLE SHOT depiction of a morning with a nameless hookup, as portrayed by about two dozen different men. The choreography is so seamless that I didn't even realize until the director mentioned it later that it was in fact a single shot. It's the very definition of short and sweet, and truly embraces the form.

Wyckoff Place (dir. Lauri Faggioni): Based on a highly unscientific assessment of buzz, this seemed to be the crowd favorite. The film is a documentary chronicling several children of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds living in harmony in a Brooklyn apartment building. I know that sounds like a cheesy 80s TV show that exploits kids of different backgrounds for laughs and "awww"s, but it didn't play that way at all. I can't stand children and wince whenever they're used for cuteness or comic relief, but Faggioni seemed genuinely interested in discovering what makes these kids tick. She explained in the Q&A that she expected the kids to be more aware of each other's differences, but said that their primary concern was the impenetrable Berlin Wall of boy vs. girl. That isn't to say that the boys and girls didn't play together and get along, but they were constantly aware of that insurmountable divide. As someone with a great interest in psychology and sociology, I loved watching the scenes of the kids playing together and seeing the complex social and power structures that formed. Special mention goes to scene-stealer Clark, an eight-year-old with the vocabulary and awareness of someone three times his age. In all likelihood, based on his behavior and speech patterns, he had Asperger's or ranked higher than average on the autism spectrum, but he was still liked by his peers and had apparently captured the hearts of all the girls. For all this rich material, Faggioni seemed a bit overwhelmed by the task of editing, and mentioned that she had hours and hours of footage she regretted having to leave on the cutting room floor. Indeed, this could easily be a feature, and seemed to struggle against its length. Consequently I also had some trouble keeping the kids straight, since the editing made it unclear who the "main" kids were supposed to be and other kids meandered through without so much as an introduction. Ultimately, however, Faggioni's hands-off approach provides a good (if somewhat uneven) platform for the great material.

Lucky for you commoners who don't get invited to premieres, you still have a chance to catch these films. If you live in LA, Chicago, or San Francisco (or New York and you have access to a time machine, since it was this past weekend), you can attend a touring roadshow that apparently takes place in tiny, state-of-the-art screening rooms made from shipping containers WHAAAT?! True story, folks. If you do not live in the aforementioned cities, you can check them out online. Although that may seem like the more appealing choice, those tiny magical screening rooms sound pretty sweet. Anything and everything can be found at the Character Project website. Support USA Network's effort to be more than "that channel with the Law and Order reruns!" (I'm not being facetious - I think it's really cool of them.)

Check out the films and let me know what you think!

(Special thanks to Emily Garvey of 360i for inviting me to this event. All images courtesy of USA Network.)

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