The Seattle independent film scene may not exactly be the buzz of the festival circuit but it is making itself heard. This week, it echoed through the DVD new release rack, thanks to the simultaneous release of Lynn Shelton’s two recent films. But on a more personal (and much more self-serving) note, another Seattle fixture made his DVD debut this week: ME. Yes, I made my long-awaited (at least by me) DVD commentary debut on the Milestone’s superb two-disc edition of Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, a forgotten landmark of genuine American independent filmmaking at its most personal and authentic. All kidding aside, this is a remarkable film and a tremendous DVD release, and only my modest participation in the project prevented me from putting it on my upcoming “Best of 2009 DVD” list. More later. First, let me celebrate the home video invasion of Seattle director (and my friend) Lynn Shelton.
Before she hit Sundance with Humpday, Shelton explored the complications of male relationships, specifically the “break-up” of old friends and the desperation with which one man (played by Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson) attempts to reconnect, with My Efforless Brilliance (IFC), a slyly funny and wryly discomforting portrait. His motivations are less out of affection than ego—dude, he was dumped!—and Shelton is there to watch this relationship spins its wheels on Nelson’s glib, needy presence in all its understated humor. There’s not much narrative shape to the film but a tremendously authentic texture to the relationship. Nelson is a natural in the role, subtly establishing the sense of ego and vulnerability and self-aggrandizement in the character with brave intimacy, and Basil Harris is just as good as the old friend he attempts to woo back, resigned to Nelson’s pushy sense of entitlement and slowly falling into old rhythms of offhanded joking. Features commentary by Shelton with the stars and key members of her production team, a featurettes and deleted scenes.
Humpday (Magnolia) is Shelton’s third feature and her break-out production: it took home the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to a national theatrical release. Which isn’t too bad for a low-budget (well under $1 million) comedy about two straight guys who decide to make a porno… with each other! Mark Duplass (a filmmaker himself as well as an actor The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) is Ben, a happily, comfortably married man with a home and job, and Joshua Leonard (of The Blair Witch Project) is his old college buddy Andrew a world-travelling free spirit who shows up on his doorstep like the ghost of ideals past. Shelton has a way with puncturing male competitiveness and macho posturing but she crosses over from arthouse to multiplex with this comedy of friends who get into a pissing contest over, essentially, who is the least uptight and most free. When Andrew decides to contribute a film to the Humpday fest (a real-life amateur porno festival sponsored by Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger), a piece of art that will “push boundaries,” Ben proposes (in front of a crowd of artist-types) that the two of them – two straight men – have sex on camera as a radical performance piece. They essentially dare each other into committing to the project, like a couple of kids scoring points on the playground, and then play a nervous game of chicken to see who will back out first. This audience-friendly indie sex comedy features almost no sex but plenty of nervous male bonding and a whole new angle on performance anxiety. Features two commentary tracks (one with director Shelton and actress Delmore and members of the production crew, the other with actor Duplass and Leonard), a very brief behind-the-scenes featurette, seven deleted scenes and a collection of unused endings.
The Exiles (Milestone/Oscilloscope) is the archival release of the year. Kent Mackenzie’s independently produced 1961 drama (when independent cinema was the realm of mavericks and dreamers working in the margins, rather than studio subsidiaries and major actors looking for a challenge) chronicled the lives of urban American Indians (all of them non-actors drawing from their own lives) on the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles over one long, alcohol-lubricated night. There’s no uplifting message here and the internal monologues that accompany their wanderings speak of desires and anxieties and disappointments that appear doomed to repeat themselves. But there is also something singular and specific about these people and the culture they have created within the city: Mackenzie’s portrait may be fiction but this world is very real. Mackenzie developed the story and wrote the dialogue with his cast and they communicate an honesty and pain and devastating disconnection even while putting on a happy-go-lucky face. The two-disc set also features four short films by Mackenzie, clips from Thom Andersen’s documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (which brought new attention to the forgotten film), documentary shorts about the Bunker Hill neighborhood and a radio interview with Sherman and Charles Burnett among the supplements.
And then there is my contribution. Milestone’s Dennis Doros wanted Sherman Alexie’s commentary on the disc. The Seattle author and filmmaker (he wrote Smoke Signals, based on his stories, and wrote and directed The Business of Fancydancing) “presented” the film when Milestone restored the film and released to theaters around the country (the film’s long-awaited theatrical premiere) and had a unique perspective on the film. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, he had plenty to share about his experiences and observations and the screen representation of Indians in American films. I was asked to play moderator on the commentary and interview Alexie for an audio extra. I agreed. Ego aside, I had listened to and reviewed hundreds of commentary tracks and wanted to see what it was like from the other side. It was a learning experience. What I thought was good preparation turned out to be a mess of disorganized notes and thoughts when it came to actually engaging the film. Alexie proved to be a natural when it came to picking out telling details and talking about tribal differences and cultural specifics that fill the details of scenes. I, meanwhile, was rifling through notes trying to dig out a question or piece of production history to hold up my end. What I soon realized is that this kind of commentary, the part I was responsible for, needs to be scripted like a speech, even if it’s just a series of bullet points and notes for further discussion. The reviews (see below for a list of links) have been kind to the commentary and have correctly cited Alexie’s enlightening observations as a worthy complement to the film, and when I finally listened to the track I found that even my contribution turned out all right, no home run but hardly the foul ball I feared. But I do know that I’d love another shot at a commentary track. Next time, I’ll really be prepared.
One final note: It’s also a great week for The Stranger, the Seattle alternative weekly that I recently began writing for. Sherman has been a contributor to The Stranger, Sean Nelson is a former editor for The Stranger and still periodically contributes pieces and Humpday name checks The Stranger.
A few notable reviews of Milestone’s DVD of The Exiles:
New York Magazine (Richard Brody)
L.A. Times (Sam Adams)
Boston Phoenix (Peter Keough)
IFC (Michael Atkinson)
TCM (David Sterritt)
DVD Talk (David Walker)
Digitally Obsessed (Note to Mark Zimmer: not a Native American myself, pretty much German/Swedish stock with a little Dutch, Irish and English.
DVD Talk (Glenn Erickson)