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Young filmmakers refuse to play it safe

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"Think of the 1920 masterwork 'The Golem,' from which less challenging features like dumbed-down 'Frankenstein' evolved," he says.

Still, it's worth noting the healthy number of unconventional features now playing. Examples include David Gordon Green's dark "Undertow," about a Southern man on the run from a murderous relative; Jonathan Caouette's documentary "Tarnation," a confessional account of the filmmaker's life; Shane Carruth's fantasy "Primer," a prizewinner at the Sundance Film Festival last winter; David O. Russell's philosophical "I * Huckabees," about "existential detectives" and their clients; and Alexander Payne's happy-sad "Sideways," a superbly acted comedy-drama that cements Mr. Payne's reputation as a skyrocketing directorial star.

A big asset of individualistic filmmakers like these is newfangled technology, which allows them to sidestep cookie-cutter effects without raising their budgets too high.

"I * Huckabees" has visual moments as dreamlike as anything in a "Matrix" movie, but you rarely get the sense that Mr. Russell is relying on exotic (and expensive) images for their own sake.

The amount Mr. Carruth spent on "Primer" was $7,000 or so, less than pocket money for the average Hollywood production. And that's untold riches compared with "Tarnation," which Mr. Caouette reportedly made for an absurdly low $218.32, using the iMovie computer program to organize film and video snippets he'd been saving since he was 11.

What makes directors like these not just clever but audacious is their willingness to "monkey with structure," as film essayist Phillip Lopate puts it.

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