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This is supposedly the golden age of American independent cinema, but that refers mostly to movies distributed (and sometimes even originated) by the “independent” subsidiaries of major corporations. Laboring in fields far from Disney-owned Miramax, actual independent filmmakers are still struggling to make and distribute their work. Now, inspired by such indie-rock traveling packages as Lollapalooza, four such filmmakers have devised the Fuel tour. From Raleigh, N.C., to Portland, Ore.but bypassing New York and L.A.the four are traveling by bus on a tour run by a veteran rock-band road manager. Washington is the second stop.
These, it must be admitted, are not the most disadvantaged of fledgling directors. Their tour is sponsored by Dockers, GQ, Philips Magnavox, and other companies, and three of the four films will subsequently be shown on the Independent Film Channel. (The tour also has a web page: www.fueltour.com.) Still, these “films that burn” would surely be extinguished in the mainstream. Banding together seems entirely sensible, even if only the most dedicated indie-filmgoers will be able to find time to see all four in their one-week run.
The package features two dramas that focus on a young woman, Suzanne Myers’s Alchemy and Hannah Weyer’s Arresting Gena, and two comedies that focus on a young man, Chris Smith’s American Job and CLC Films’ The Delicate Art of the Rifle. Despite that neat partition, Alchemy is in one sense the odd film out. While the other three take place in the bleak, lower-middle-class American province best described as Sundanceland, Myers’ unfolds in the world of Manhattan galleries and bookstores and New England artists’ colonies.
Divided into three chapters titled “Charity,” “Faith,” and “Hope,” Alchemy follows Russian-fairy tale translator and found-object sculptor Louisa (Rya Kihlstedt) through three low-key crises. In the first chapter, she discovers that her artist lover Ethan (D.V. DeVincentis) is still seeing his supposedly ex-girlfriend; Louisa dumps him and becomes friends with her. In the second, Louisa returns to her picture-postcard childhood hometown to see her ailing sister Jane (Marian Quinn), only to find that there’s little she can do to help. In the third, she takes up residence at an exclusive artists’ colony, where she befriends boisterous rap poet Justine (Maggie Estep) and decides she loves Duncan (Jeff Webster), a former co-worker at a used bookstore. With one exception, these characters suffer easier fates than the dark, deliberate tone suggests.
Although the film’s last scene echoes the epilogue of Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, Myers’ principal influence would seem to be Krzysztof Kieslowski. While Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan make burbling ambient music on the soundtrack (supplemented by Seam, Low, Fauré, Bach, and Nick Drake), Louisa contemplates the simple, unexplained powers of nature, art, and a Quaker service. Alchemy suggests the quietude, mysticism, and grace of Kieslowski’s later works, as well as their luminous natural-light cinematography and keynote colors. Indeed, if the film were named for the hue of its evening skies, Louisa’s skin on cold mornings, and her improbably vivid bath water, it would have to be called Blue.
Myers is not quite Kieslowski, however. Alchemy is austerely beautiful but less than magical. If Kihlstedt’s Louisa is lovely enough to be a Kieslowski heroine, she’s not as interesting. Ultimately, Louisa has to announce that she’s been transformed; Myers’ style is too constricted to express the change.
Although American Job and The Delicate Art of the Rifle are distinctly unpoetic, they’re not much more outgoing than Alchemy. Both comedies are studiously deadpan in a way that recalls Aki Kaurismäki, Jim Jarmusch, and especially Richard Linklater’s Slacker. In fact, The Delicate Art of the Rifle is loosely based on an incident that’s also invoked in Slacker: Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree from a University of Texas tower.
In the recasting of the incident by the Cambrai Liberation Collective (director D.W. Harper, producer T. Todd Flinchum, designer Alicia Kratzer, and writer/actor Stephen Grant), the shooter is named Walt Whitman and is very conscious of his family’s role in American history. (His ancestors are sharpshooters, not poets; he intends to write a book about them titled, of course, The Delicate Art of the Rifle.) The film, however, focuses not on Walt (Grant), but on his nerdy roommate Jay (David Grant). Chattering inanely as he leads the camera through the backstage area of the student-union theater where he works, Jay is discerning only about women and their scents. He seems to develop a powerful crush on every female student he meets and can identify what detergents and fabric softeners they use. Below the catwalk, a student fashion show is in rehearsal, and the aromas of Surf and Snuggle that waft upward are overwhelming.
Jay is our bemused, barely comprehending guide to such campus curiosities as the student doing a sleep-deprivation experiment on herself, the systems professor who helped code the school’s most-played computer game, the mass suicide of the members of the Philosophy and Self-Knowledge Club, and a student cult dedicated to the film Altered States. He’s so clueless that he doesn’t get the connection when he hears Walt’s voice calling to him from the same roof from which a sniper has just started firing.
Although Jay and Walt’s subsequent encounter on the roof is the film’s centerpiece, CLC seems more interested in how university studentsand by extension all people overwhelmed by large institutionsdevelop mythologies to try to explain the inexplicable workings of bureaucracies. This would be funnier, though, if it weren’t all processed through Jay’s barely functioning consciousness. The Delicate Art of the Rifle has some trenchant moments, but Jay wears out his welcome well before the film has spun all its conspiracy theories.
The protagonist of American Job could be Jay a few years laterout of college and untrained for a professional position. Randy (co-writer Randy Russell) takes an increasingly alienated tour of the possible employment opportunities in an anonymous mid-American landscape of strip malls and industrial parks much like that of Linklater’s Suburbia. Based on the experiences of director/co-writer Chris Smith and some of his friends, the film provides an inventory of jobs that Randy has every reason to flee in a matter of days: machine operator in a plastics manufacturing plant, dishwasher at a fast-food chicken joint, automated-warehouse worker, motel-room cleaner, telemarketer. It’s enough to make a guy climb a tower with a rifle and start shooting.
As with The Delicate Art of the Rifle, the filmmakers seem to think their protagonist is some sort of everyman figure. But Randy’s reaction to an intolerable job is less universal than simply blank: He just disappears. The film has some fun with officious bosses (one makes Randy fire himself), eccentric co-workers (one marvels at all the things that could be made from plastic Pepsi bottles), and corporate procedures (like hosing down day-old sandwich buns to make them inedible). Randy himself, however, seems to have little perspective on his plight. The film’s protest against treating young workers as cogs in the post-industrial machine would be more stirring if Randy ever seemed capable of being more than a cog. Still, the final gag is a suitably mordant commentary on life outside the supposedly booming American economy.
Like Fuel’s two comedies, Arresting Gena takes place in an unidentified location on the outskirts of the American dream. Unidentified, that is, except by the trains that occasionally hurtle through, which bear the logo of New Jersey Transit. The Jersey backdrop promises that this will be the grittiest and liveliest of the four, and director/co-writer Hannah Weyer delivers.
Although no more tightly plotted than the other Fuel films, Arresting Gena is considerably less chilly and abstracted. Gena (Aesha Waks) has all the conflicts of a typical 16-year-old, plus one: Her mother is in a coma, and her Uncle John (Paul Lazar), to whom she is clearly not close, has come to look after her. Under his lackadaisical supervision, Gena is spending more time on the streets, where she meets Jane (Summer Phoenix), a runaway from a halfway house. The two girls quickly form a close bond, but Jane is less than reliable; Gena spends a lot of time looking for her new friend, which takes her deeper into the world of Jane’s brother Sonny (Sam Rockwell).
Although she plays the grown-up’s role in her relationship with a foundering adult neighbor, Caroline (J. Smith-Cameron), Gena’s out of her depth with Sonny and his friends, whose activities include drug dealing, armed robbery, and (perhaps) male prostitution. Intrigued, Gena flirts with one of Sonny’s gang, Caller (Kirk Acevedo), and starts tying up her shirts to show more midriff. But what she really wants is to sustain her intense friendship with Jane, who has a tendency to disappear. Like Gena’s mother, Jane may not return to Gena’s life.
As an open-ended tale of a young woman’s emotional education, Arresting Gena has a few things in common with Alchemy, including the music of Yo La Tengo. (Small world, indie-film and indie-rock.) It’s more robust and affecting, though. Weyer doesn’t measure her characters’ emotions by the film’s limited budget. The other Fuel films have their virtues, but this is the only one that can really be said to burn.CP