Summer 2006 / Summer 2007 / Rob Nilsson / Wings of Desire

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Ray Carney advises and helps curate an annual program for the Harvard University Film Archive showcasing the work of new and emerging younger-generation American filmmakers. This is his second year of doing it. The headnote and film notes for the late June and early July 2007 screenings follow. The text was written to be read as an episodic but extended essay about this movement, a series of "views from the front" that survey the strengths and potential problem areas in the work of the younger generation of American independent filmmakers. All are worth watching. They are the important artists of the future. And of the present.

To read more recommendations from Ray Carney of young filmmakers whose work is worth watching, consult the final twenty pages of the "Mailbag Letters and Replies" section of the site. The Mailbag may be accessed via the blue ticket icon in the left margin of every page, and once you have arrived at that section of the site, individual Mailbag pages may be accessed via the blue page numbers at the top and bottom of every Mailbag page.

Independents Week: New American Independent Cinema 2007

The Next Wave
Emerging Talents
New, Unknown, or Unreleased American Independent Films

This is the Harvard Film Archive’s second annual survey of independent work that “flew under the radar” – largely unknown or neglected films that have not entered the distribution cycle, did not receive major press coverage, or have not won awards at important festivals. Notwithstanding the fact that most of these titles are unheralded and unknown, they are among the most important and interesting recent American films. These young artists, many of them first–time filmmakers with no outside financial backing, are, almost without exception, taking more artistic risks and pushing the envelope much further than better–known and more financially secure American filmmakers who have reputations to protect.

If we ask why many of these works are still lurking in the shadows or searching for a distributor, the reasons are not that hard to come up with. These films do not push dependable box–office ticket–sales buttons. Their characters are not “cute,” “charming,” or “sweet” in the Napoleon Dynamite way. Their stories are not “clever,” “crowd–pleasing,” or “feel–good” in the Little Miss Sunshine way. They do not feature big–name actors making “in–joke” cameos. Though most of these films are made by Gen–Y artists about Gen–Y characters, they don’t even fit the pattern of Gen–Y movies. Their male characters are not introverted and narcissistic; their female characters are not whiney or clingy; and their narratives are not reducible to the group–hug ethos that says everything will be OK if only you have friends. The films in this program do not pander to the prejudices or predilections of young viewers or attempt to flatter audience members of any age. They take the pulse of contemporary American life toughly and unsentimentally. They challenge the viewer to look at experience in new and potentially disorienting ways and, at their best, ask the viewer to think freshly about the untapped expressive possibilities of the art.

A note about a few notable omissions: Several extremely important American independent filmmakers whose work would deserves serious, critical attention have not been included in the festival, either because their recent films have already played at Harvard in the past year (the films of Jay Rosenblatt, Caveh Zahedi, Mark and Jay Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski, for example), or because they are already fairly well-known and consequently do not fall into the "under the radar" category (Jon Jost, Rick Schmidt, and Rob Nilsson, among them). Screenings of work by these filmmakers and others is planned for subsequent Harvard events -- most notably a world premiere presentation of Rob Nilsson's monumental "Nine at Night" series at Harvard in November 2007. Click here to read a description of his films.

This series was curated by (and the headnote and program notes written by) Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies at Boston University. Prof. Carney is the author of more than ten books on film and other art and manages a web site devoted to independent film at:

Prof. Ray Carney will be present at the Harvard Film Archive to introduce all screenings where visiting filmmakers are present. See the dates and names of the filmmakers and film titles in the list that follows. (Or go to the Harvard Film Archive web site to read the list of screenings in chronological order. Click here to go there.)

Dates Prof.Carney will be present:

July 1 (Sunday) 8:45 pm
Apart from That
Directed by Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 2 (Monday) 7 pm
Team Picture
Directed by Kentucker Audley, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 2 (Monday) 8:15 pm
Finally, Lillian and Dan
Directed by Mike Gibisser, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 3 (Tuesday) 7 pm
Apart from That
Directed by Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 3 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Frank V. Ross, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 4 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by David Ball, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 5 (Thursday) 9 pm
Shorts program
Directed by Francesca Rizzo, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney
Directed by Josh Safdie, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 6 (Friday) 7 pm
Directed by Mike Akel, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 6 (Friday) 9 pm
Finally, Lillian and Dan
Directed by Mike Gibisser, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 7 (Saturday) 9 pm
Quiet City
Directed by Aaron Katz, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

July 8 (Sunday) 7 pm
Directed by Ronald Bronstein, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney
Starring Dore Mann, Appearing in person with Prof. Carney

July 8 (Sunday) 9 pm
Quiet City
Directed by Aaron Katz, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney
Produced by Ben Stambler, Appearing in person with Prof.Carney

Shots from the "Under the Radar" Harvard Indie Film Festival. Left to right and top to bottom, starting on the top left: Ray Carney and Ted Barron, Senior Programmer for the Harvard Film Archive; Mike Gibisser (Finally, Lillian and Dan) and Jennifer Shainin (Apart from That); Kentucker Audley (Andrew Nenninger); Randy Walker; Kentucker and Ray Carney; Ted Barron and Mike Gibisser. (Photo by Randy Walker)

Screening on July 7 (Saturday) 7 pm:
Hannah Takes the Stairs
directed by Joe Swanberg
US 2007, video, color, 84 min.
With Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski

Joe Swanberg is one of several directors in the program who is not a first–time feature filmmaker. He has made two previous movies – Kissing on the Mouth and LOL. His third film is a triumph of ensemble (and largely improvised) acting. Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Mark Duplass, and Andrew Bujalski (the latter two are accomplished independent screenwriters and filmmakers in their own right) turn in stunningly relaxed and poised performances. Swanberg’s film demonstrates a dramatic truth many Hollywood films would benefit from. By minimizing external actions, events, and plot, and building scenes around a series of leisurely, extended conversations, Hannah Takes the Stairs makes time and space for emotional revelations. The interactions between the characters coruscate with shifting, subtle flickers of feeling that a more plot–heavy narrative would only have obscured, blurred, or rushed.

Director in Person
Screening on July 8 (Sunday) 7 pm, July 10 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm:
directed by Ronald Bronstein
US 2007, 35mm, color, 106 min.
With Dore Mann, Mary Wall, Paul Grimstad

No matter what their flaws, the main characters in mainstream movies are almost always appealing in some way. If they are nebbishes, their klutziness is endearing. (Look at the work of Woody Allen.) If they are lonely, their alienation is grand and alluring. (Look at the work of Orson Welles.) If they are evil, their villainy is sexy and rakish. (Look at the work of Christopher Walken.) Ronald Bronstein strips away the Hollywood idealizations and asks us to spend time with genuinely unromantic characters leading genuinely unromantic lives. He creates characters we don’t want to see ourselves as, characters we refuse to identify with. There is much lip service paid to the importance of depictions of “otherness” in film; Frownland reveals that the concept of otherness as redemptive and transformative is a romantic myth. He gives us otherness we want to cross the street to avoid; otherness without sentimentality. Or is he just giving us ourselves with our self–deluded idealizations removed?

To read an exchange between Ronnie Bronstein, the director of Frownland, and Ray Carney, click here to go to Mailbag page 79. There are other mentions of his film on other site pages as well. Use the search engine to find them.

Bronstein has a fascinating interview with Aaron Collins in the FilmBuzz section of describing the resistance original and unconventional work always experiences. I recommend checking it out at this url.

Screening on July 2 (Monday) 7 pm:
Team Picture
directed by Andrew Nehringher (alias Kentucker Audley / alias Andrew Nenninger)
US 2007, video, color, 62 min.
With Andrew Nehringer, Timothy Morton, Amanda Harris

Who says drama has to be dramatic? Andrew Nehringher’s Team Picture presents a view of experience close to the flatness and banality of off–screen life. Rather than being organized around dramatic conflicts, confrontations, and resolutions, Nehringher’s narrative consists of evasions, delays, and deferrals of dramatic significance. The main character, Dave (played by Nehringer himself), drifts and dawdles for most of the movie, and most of what matters to him and other characters is never verbalized. These may sound like merely negative virtues, but Nehringher’s studious avoidance of rhetorical heightening reveals a complex world on the other side of the programmatic conflicts and patterned intensifications of mainstream filmmaking.

Director in Person
Screening on July 4 (Wednesday) 7 pm
directed by David Ball
US 2004, video, color, 84 min.
With Anthony Leslie, Laura Flannagan, Christopher Michael Bauer

It says a lot about the state of independent film programming and distribution that David Ball’s film was completed eight years ago but has yet to find a distributor or be screened in a major venue. Perhaps that is because Honey violates most of the conventions of Gen–Why filmmaking. While the vast majority of recent indie films take their inspiration from the coolness and cerebralism of the work of Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Hal Hartley, Ball takes his from the shouts, fights, and life–and–death romantic battles that roil and shake the films of John Cassavetes. Honey focuses on the intertwined lives of two twenty–something couples, but rather than being cool and reflective, they and their interactions are hot–blooded, high–stakes, and more than half out–of–control. Honey’s characters don’t stare at their navels and take their own pulses, but fight and argue and jockey for romantic dominance. Ball's brilliantly nervous staging, irritatingly jerky shooting, and disorientingly twitchy editing reveal things about Gen–Y that the Time magazine cover story left out.

To read a letter from writer-director David Ball to Prof. Carney about his film and a "Honey Manifesto" describing the movie, click here to go to page 2 of the Mailbag section of the site.

Director in Person
Screening on July 2 (Monday) 8:15 pm, July 6 (Friday) 9 pm:
Finally, Lillian and Dan
directed by Mike Gibisser
US 2006, video, color, 97 min.
With Gretchen Akers, Jason Kean, Lucy Quinn

Finally, Lillian and Dan is almost a silent movie. Mike Gibisser’s awkward love story is presented less in words than through the characters’ facial expressions, gestures, and movements. Gibisser gets extraordinary performances from two first–time actors: Gretchen Akers’s (Lillian’s) face is more expressive than a thousand lines of dialogue. She makes even standing in a checkout line exciting. Lucy Quinn (who plays Lillian's grandmother and is played by Gibisser’s real–life grandmother) is just as terrific, and just as non–verbal. Her dancing and singing are as expressive as Akers’s face. Gibisser’s reliance on body language to tell his story is his way of staying true to the inarticulateness of his characters and to the reality of a love story that refuses to get sentimental.

To read thoughts about film by Mike Gibisser, go to pages 64 and 67 of the Mailbag, or click here and here.

Screening on July 4 (Wednesday) 9 pm:
Afraid of Everything
directed by David Barker
US 1999, 35mm, color, 80 min.
With Nathalie Richard, Daniel Aukin, Sarah Adler

David Barker is a minimalist. He pares away every non–essential detail, event, and line of dialogue in his three–character drama about a couple who have to cope with the disruption of an unexpected, Boudu–like visitor. Coinciding with the austerity of the visuals and the spareness of the narrative, the emotional content is almost entirely suppressed, pushed downward, swept under the rug, and left unspoken. These characters cannot even admit their emotional problems, let alone discuss them or work them out. The question Barker asks without asking is which character does the title most describe? And what is he or she afraid of?

Screening on July 5 (Thursday) 7 pm, July 9 (Monday) 9 pm
directed by
Nick Peterson
US 2006, video, color, 97 min.
With Eric Schopmeyer, Nora Ryan, Nico Izambard

Nick Peterson's Yellow is that most unexpected thing – a Gen–Y musical! Amid the grainy, the gritty, and the grim – in contrast to virtually every other indie "first film" out there – Peterson brings the lyricism of song to his characters’ interactions and the lusciousness of primary colors to his visuals. Peterson has the most sensuous “eye” of any recent filmmaker. Yellow is visually delicious, acoustically sumptuous, and completely original in its sensibility. It doesn't hurt that it is also deeply perceptive and penetrating – an eye- and ear-opener of a movie. It is the first installment in a planned “color trilogy;” Blue will be next.

Director in Person
Screening on July 1 (Sunday) 8:45 pm, July 3 (Tuesday) 7 pm:
Apart From That
directed by Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin

US 2006, 16mm, color, 120 min.
With Alice Ellingson, Kathleen McNearney, Kyle Conyers

Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin have created a work that, both in its form and content, is organized entirely differently from a conventional film. Their universe is a fragmented, cubistic one where characters’ identities won’t be reduced to cinematic sound bites and their relationships with each other keep shifting and changing. Characters move through a half-comical, half-absurd dreamscape of crowded gatherings, surprising parallels, uncanny linkages, and altered perspectives – as if the shape–shifting of the masks we wear and identities we assume on Halloween were able to liberate the magic in the mundane.

To read comments by Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin about the difficulty of screening and releasing a challenging film in America today, go to page 69 of Ray Carney's Mailbag pages, or click here.

Screening on June 30 (Saturday) 9 pm:
In Between Days
directed by So Young Kim
US 2006, video, color, 82 min.
With Jiseon Kim, Taegu Andy Kang, Bokja Kim
English and Korean with English subtitles

American film is so dominated by male central characters and masculine cinematic points of view that it's all the more exciting to see a young woman’s consciousness represented this deeply and sensitively by a female filmmaker. How different Aimie’s way of encountering life – and director So Young Kim’s way of presenting it – is from a man’s. Kim crafts a cinematic style that parallels the way her quiet, passive female character moves through life. Like Aimie, In Between Days quietly observes, refusing to point-make, editorialize, or judge. Aimie refuses to raise her voice or make a scene, and Kim similarly refuses to stoke up the drama for dramatic effect. The entire story is told in shy sideways glances, pregnant pauses, and silences.

Director in Person
Screening on July 6 (Friday) 7 pm:
directed by Mike Akel
US 2006, video, color, 85 min.
With Troy Schremmer, Janelle Schremmer, Chris Mass

One of the tests of satire is whether it can, at least at moments, be mistaken for reality. Mike Akel’s Chalk passes the test. There are many scenes in Akel’s film where someone not in on the joke would not be able to tell that the film was a parody. In fact, I’ve shown the movie to school teachers who didn’t realize until the final credits that they were not watching a documentary. The reason is that the reality almost exceeds the possibility of parody; things are already comically unbelievable enough as they really are. Akel’s schoolroom version of The Office or This is Spinal Tap will ring bells and bring back Sunday night panic attacks for anyone who has ever worked in a school – or attended one. An educational film in more than one sense of the adjective.

To read an email exchange between Ray Carney and Mike Akel, go to page 65 of the Mailbag, or click here.

Click here to read an interview with Mike Ackel where he talks about his work.

Screening on June 30 (Saturday) 7 pm:
Great World of Sound
directed by Craig Zobel
US 2007, video, color, 106 min.
With Pat Healy, Kene Holliday

In many respects, Great World of Sound is the most conventional work in the series. We’ve seen the main character, his female companion, and his sidekick many times before, and we’ve seen a similar plot in many previous movies. Nothing new there. But Emerson said we have to read for the glimmers, and Craig Zobel’s film is saved from being a Thank You for Smoking knock–off by its “grace notes” – the oddly touching moments the two main characters share, and the nutty audition scenes, which seem too bizarre to have been scripted and acted. Only reality could be this weird.

Director in Person
Screening on July 7 (Saturday) 9 pm, July 8 (Sunday) 9 pm:
Quiet City
directed by Aaron Katz
US 2007, video, color, 81 min.
With Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau, Sarah Hellman

Quiet City seems so simple, so spontaneous, and so unstructured – as if Katz had merely followed his central couple around the city with a camera for a few days and recorded what they did; but the simplicity is deceptive. Much of the dialogue was indeed improvised, but the film is beautifully constructed to culminate with the scenes in the art gallery and the dance party, where the romantic issues that were suppressed in earlier scenes are finally brought to the surface. Katz also beautifully modulates the film’s tone from scene to scene, glissading from clumsy tenderness (e.g. Jamie and Charlie’s meeting), to broad comedy (e.g. the scenes featuring Adam and then Kyle), to romantic meditativeness (e.g. the scene in the bedroom where Robin talks to Jamie about her need for love), to intimacy (at the end of the film). A point of interest: Joe Swanberg, the director of Hannah Takes the Stairs, also showing in this series, plays Adam in the comical coleslaw scene.

To read an essay Ray Carney wrote for the DVD release of Quiet City, click here.

To read a seven-letter exchange between Aaron Katz and Ray Carney about Katz's work (both Dance Party and Quiet City) and other issues, click here.

Screening on July 1 (Sunday) 7 pm, July 3 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm:
directed by Frank Ross
US 2007, video, color, 72 min.
With Allison Latta, Anthony Baker, Joe Swanberg

Although Hohokam recognizably belongs with the other films on the program, the characters appear to be five or ten years older and considerably more battle–scarred and world–weary than those in the other works – and that changes everything. Ross’s couple hold jobs they don’t enjoy; they have money problems and past due MasterCard bills; their relationship has unclaimed emotional baggage; and some nights they bicker and argue about nothing. In short, the bloom is off the rose. Hohokam is not set in the enchanted, magical, romantic land of young love, first love where most of the other films the current generation of filmmakers is making take place. Possibilities of magic still survive – in the strangest places, like at the zoo – but magic is the decided exception and its presence is all too brief. Life is not a romance, and neither is Ross’s film. Is this the future the characters in the other works have to look forward to? If so, is it enough? Or, to ask the question these filmmakers ask themselves on a daily basis: Are these lives and careers sustainable?

* * *

Shorts Program

Screening on July 5 (Thursday) 9 pm, July 9 (Monday) 7 pm:


directed by Nick Peterson
US 2004, video, color, 26 min.

directed by Nick Peterson
US 2003, video, color, 10 min.

Split Pea Soup
directed by Nick Peterson
US 2004, video, color, 4 min.


directed by
Nick Peterson
US 2006, video, color, 3 min.

The influence of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu is everywhere in Peterson’s work, but never more obviously than in “Contingent.” The story is told almost entirely through a series of carefully composed static shots, in which, as in Ozu’s work, Peterson’s painterly photography creates a series of emotional spaces that function to compare and contrast each of the film’s characters and interactions.

“Two” and “Split Pea Soup” are both about states of isolation, missed connections, and failures of communication, recurring themes in Peterson’s work, but the first film treats the subject seriously and the second comically.

“Frenesi,” the final Peterson short, was made strictly as a jeu d’esprit. It was planned, shot, and edited in ten hours on a single day, simply for Peterson to have something to do to pass the time and calm his nerves the morning and afternoon preceding the first public screening of Yellow. Even in its off–hand joking way, it shows what a magician of shapes and forms Peterson is.

Director in Person
Sullivan's Last Call
directed by Fran Rizzo
US 1996, 16mm, b/w, 18 min.

There's always a difference between the kind of movie an actor makes and the kind of movie a non-actor makes. Fran Rizzo is a veteran film and stage actress and teacher of acting. Her film about the accidental reunion of former lovers reveals an actor's awareness of the emotional slip-slidingness latent in every living, breathing relationship. Her characters play out their identities and their continuously adjusted relationship in a dance of shifting beats, tones, and moods that zig-zag, collide, and bounce around almost too rapidly for a viewer to keep up with. Rizzo is older and more experienced than most of the other filmmakers included in the program. In this respect, she does not really fall within the "emerging talent" talent category, but her movie deserves inclusion with the others as an "undiscovered gem" of low-budget indie filmmaking.

Director in Person
We’re Going to the Zoo

directed by Josh Safdie
US 2006, 16mm, color, video, 14 min.
With Mickey Sumner, Giacomo Sumner, Josh Safdie

Josh Safdie’s movie was made while he was a university film student – perhaps as a rebellion against the rules his teachers undoubtedly drummed into him about how movies should be scripted, lighted, and shot. In this comically zany, free–wheeling work, which clearly affiliates itself with Beat Generation values, Safdie (who himself plays the main character) celebrates the virtues of a life of impulse and a cinematic style that honors spontaneity and improvisation.

* * *

Ray Carney would like to express his gratitude to Alex Lipschultz, John Gianvito, Andrew Bujalski, Donal Foreman, Kristen Lauerman, Nina Avedon, and Ted Barron for programming advice and assistance.

Summer 2006 / Summer 2007 / Rob Nilsson / Wings of Desire


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Text copyright 2007 by Ray Carney. But reproduction and reprint rights are hereby not reserved. As long as Ray Carney's authorship is indicated, any or all of the material on this page may be used by anyone interested in publicizing these films. Ray Carney also hereby gives written permission to the filmmakers listed above to use these statements, in whole or in part, on their web sites, in press releases, on video boxes, or wherever they can help bring attention to them and their work.