Sunday, January 30, 2005

One Note Wonders

There is a group of filmmakers popular among cinephile audiences in America that I now classify as One Note Wonders.

Films made by One Note Wonders have a distinctive style and sensibility—imprinted on every single frame of every single film they make—that is immediately and recognizably different from mainstream Hollywood movies. The major problem with these filmmakers is that their distinctive style and sensibility is really all they bring to the table—shot after shot, movie after movie—and, unfortunately, what was fresh, new, and interesting about their style goes stale after about 5 minutes, let alone 5 movies.

Whether or not they went to film school, One Note Wonders tend to make movies that have a film school aesthetic. In order to get noticed at film school, an aspiring filmmaker needs to do more than show that he’s a solid, anonymous craftsman: he has to make an impression and make it stick. There are a couple of ways to make this kind of impression. One involves spending a lot of money on the production. Another requires coming up with a really great story idea. But the most impressive (and often the best) film school films are made by filmmakers who are talented enough to develop their own unique style. A short film is the perfect showcase for a young filmmaker’s style, partly because there’s not too much else a short film by a young filmmaker can do.

The One Note Wonders make feature length versions of the kind film school films made by talented young filmmakers. Most movies made by One Note Wonders would be a lot better if they were only 10 minutes long. These filmmakers are “Wonders” because they tend to be more visually gifted than straightforward storytelling filmmakers, but they’re “One Note” because they’re able to use their talent to do only one thing, over and over.

The One Note Wonders are celebrated by filmgoers who place a high priority on seeing “something different” from most Hollywood movies. At the same time, the One Note Wonders are able to build a small audience of fans who want to see them do the same kind of “something different” in movie after movie. It’s a kind of branding that should be familiar to anyone who follows the modern art or indie music scenes.

Before I name names, I’d like to emphasize that I do think that these filmmakers are talented—in each movie made by a One Note Wonder there’s usually a scene that, on its own, is kind of magical—and I do understand why people are drawn to their work—a lot of cinephiles feel that film art exists in opposition to or in tension with the kind of straightforward storytelling that I value so much. Part of my argument is simply that these filmmakers aren’t really served all that well by the feature format and that their gifts are better suited to making short films (which is of course completely impractical for any working filmmaker).

Here’s a few of the most prominent One Note Wonders:

Jim Jarmusch is the Godfather of the One Note Wonders—the King of Quirkiness, the Popularizer (if not the inventor) of American Indie Minimalism. Jarmusch’s movies are filled with beautiful, yet low-key visuals, and there’s quite a few frames in them that would make wonderful still photographs in the tradition of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” or Robert Frank’s The Americans, not to mention one image—of Johnny Depp on a train in the beginning of Dead Man—that’s as striking as any shot in a Murnau film.

However, any emotion and feeling evoked by these images is drained away by the movies’ hipster affectations—their deadpan acting and their glacial pacing and their wearying, droning irony. But what truly makes Jarmusch a One Note Wonder is that in scene after scene, movie after movie, these affectations don’t change. It’s more than simply revisiting the same material over and over—in fact, Jarmusch has “branched out” in the sense that he’s made a western and a gangster movie: it’s that Jarmusch hasn’t changed the way he’s treated what he’s filming since Stranger Than Paradise.

Wes Anderson is perhaps the most popular of the contemporary One Note Wonders, as his audience reaches beyond die hard film buffs. Anderson is a gifted visual stylist and his movies have a unique tone of half-serious, half-ironic melancholy. But that’s really Anderson’s only trick. It’s not a bad trick, necessarily, and when it works, like in the pool scene in Rushmore it can be quite affecting, but it’s hardly something to build a career on.

One of the things I’ve always found exciting about watching movies made by talented young directors is the inventiveness they bring to their filmmaking. Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows, Before the Revolution, and Mean Streets aren’t perfect movies by any means (Citizen Kane is the most superficial of the great movies and The 400 Blows too readily and uncritically embraces its adolescent protagonists point-of-view), but part of what makes them so wonderful is that they were made by guys who wanted to try out everything they thought they knew about filmmaking, who were still young enough not to care about doing it the “right” way, and who were talented enough to actually pull it off. These movies are overflowing with their filmmakers’ inventiveness—so much so that they’re almost overwhelming to watch and the technique they’re made with often overwhelms the slight stories they’re trying to tell. But Wes Anderson’s one trick, by itself, isn’t enough to impress an audience for more than a few minutes—which leaves nothing but the slight story and Anderson’s disaffected adolescent’s worldview.

Wes Anderson’s movies would be better off if they were made “straight”—without Anderson’s quirky, off-balance style. The script to The Royal Tenenbaums seemed like it was made up of trimmings from a conventional comedy of manners—its scenes stopped right before they’d start in most movies. This was certainly an intentional choice, but there’s nothing inherently impressive or interesting in choosing unconventionality for its own sake. And watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I couldn’t help feeling the material would have made a lot more sense if a solid craftsman like Ron Shelton had filmed it like an elegiac Howard Hawks-like action comedy.

And then there’s Guy Maddin, the filmmaker who’s One Note Wonder status most annoys me. That’s because, as a big silent film buff, I really want to like his features, but, in practice, I can hardly bear to sit through them. In fact, I think his 6 minute film The Heart of the World is a kind of masterpiece, but his longer movies all seem to have the same weakness: his perfectly executed mock-early film style simply doesn’t redeem his movie’s arbitrary quirkiness and weirdness-for-weirdness’s sake. His movies are filled with non sequiturs masquerading as meaningful symbolism. You could probably cut up all his features into individual scenes and rearrange them in any order and the result would make as much sense as any of his actual movies. The best you can say about them is that they work like Rorschach Tests, but the problem is that they fulfill that function just fine in under 10 minutes—after 90 minutes the surrealism just gets tedious. (David Lynch was smart enough to make Eraserhead just once).

Luckily, Maddin continues to make short films, which are often featured on the DVDs of his longer ones. But this leads to an interesting question: what are talented and visually gifted filmmakers who just aren’t suited for or interested in making narrative feature-length films to do in today’s moviemaking world? Fiction writers who don’t have a novel in them can always turn to the short story and still find an audience. But few makers of short films are able to find an audience apart from the festival circuit.

Of course, there are more One Note Wonders, but Jarmusch, Anderson, and Maddin are three of the more interesting and enlightening examples. You’d never mistake a frame of one of their movies for one from anyone else’s, and their distinctive styles have allowed them to build up dedicated audiences and to attract talented people to work with them. In some ways, they remind me of Pop Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, but at least those guys switched the one note they were playing every few years.

Saturday, January 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#24: The Buddy Bradley Stories, in Hate! and elesewhere

by Peter Bagge

I'm always fascinated by artists who become the victims of their own success. When an artist's audience is made up of people who subscribe to the fallacious folk ethic or its progeny this victimhood can play itself out as tragedy (especially if the artist also subscribes to this kind of ethos, as in the case of Kurt Cobain) or as an opportunity for a triumphant rebirth (as Greil Marcus chronicles in his Bob Dylan book Invisible Republic).

Like the overly earnest hero of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, who reads literary criticism instead of literature because he thinks it's more useful to know what the important people think about a book than it is to actual think about it yourself, indie scenesters are usually more concerned with the conversations going on around the latest totems of hipness than they are of coming to terms with actual cultural artifacts (the academic version of this phenomenon was illsutrated for me by a former cinema studies colleague who explained he wasn't really interested in movies as much as he was in the idea of film).

To a certain extent, RAW, an anthology of vital comic strips, was eaten up by RAW, the sterile concept of comix as art. There's a similar dilemma facing Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories: the early issues of Hate! captured so perfectly the milieu of grunge-era Seattle and, in Buddy, depicted so thoroughly the uber-slacker of the early 1990s, that the full range and scope of Bagge's achievement is usually ignored. Hate!'s reputation as the funniest satire of this cultural moment is certainly deserved, but it obscures the fact that it is also the greatest bildungsroman in comics.

The Buddy Bradley stories are one of the few works of comics art that can rightly be called Dickensian (although more in line with the early, comic, episodic Dickens of The Pickwick Papers than his later melodramas): they are a catalogue of social stereotypes brought to life by Bagge's limpidly exaggerated big-foot style and the generosity of his imagination.

The characters in Hate! come to life in the same way as the characters in Carl Barks' Duck comics or E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater: we know enough about them to visualize what they would do in any number of hypothetical situations, yet they are at the same time capable of surprising us with the kind of inconsistencies that, paradoxically, define their character.

Bagge was criticized for the supposedly deficient cross-hatching of the early, black-and-white issues of Hate!. Later, when he switched to color, readers complained that they missed the cross-hatching, and that the change in format was an attempt to "sell-out" and reach a bigger audience. These criticisms point to the underlying psychology of the indie-scenester: they have a pathological need not only to prove that they are more knowledgeable than the uninitiated but they must also show that they know better than the artist himself. They cultivate and trade opinions not for the sake of discussion or debate, but to one-up each other in escalating displays of hipness. The echoing of these empty opinions throughout their incestuous scene and beyond leads to the phenomenon known as backlash.

Bagge's response to this backlash was, fittingly for the best satirist in comics since Harvey Kurtzman, to make fun of it, to expose the scenester for the poseur he is. But Bagge extends even to the frauds and hypocrites something that is not quite dignity, but closer to the internal integrity of holding their place in the world the best way they know how. And when they give up their place, as with Stinky's ambiguous suicide or when "Pop" Bradley's ticker finally gives out, the comic evokes the sense of loss that can only come out of a long narrative, carefully built and expertly shaded.

For these reasons, Peter Bagge's story Buddy Bradley is among the few comics that can be called a graphic novel, without doing damage to the term itself. But whatever you call it, Hate!, with its stories of daydreaming losers and compromised ambitions, redeemed in the end sometimes by the narrowest of margins, is both the funniest and saddest comic of the 1990s, and, for me, sums up, better than any other work of art, that fast-receding decade.