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No Country for Old Ways: On the new normal in American indie cinema

Eloise Grills

The 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival features work from a new crop of independent American filmmakers who take on the craft in conflicting, compelling and often unruly ways: Ben Russell (Greetings to the Ancestors) uses handheld camera to simultaneously immerse and detach; Nathan Silver (Stinking Heaven) defuses the fuzzy nostalgia of analog home video; Sean Baker (Tangerine) uses an iPhone 5s to create luminous, expansive shots; and Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What) have a method that shifts along with the madness of each of their films.

But what’s common between them, weirdly enough, is their lack of commonality; there is no shared vision, no one-size-fits-all shape that will stretch across the whole bunch.

In their latest feature, Heaven Knows What, the Safdie brothers blend fact with fiction, love with addiction, all on 16mm. The quasi-biographical film follows heroin-addicted and love-obsessed Harley (Arielle Holmes, who wrote the memoir that the film is based on) through New York City. To challenge the conventions of the junkie film, the brothers established a ground rule: “Don’t use a gritty handheld for a gritty feature,” Benny Safdie says. Instead, cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who also filmed Queen of Earth and the brother’s short The Black Balloon) shoots the film with long lenses, often from across the street. The effect is one of zooming in and out of proximity, like the semi-detached gaze of a passing voyeur.

The brothers also challenge themselves for the heck of it. In a scene where Ilya grabs Harley’s phone and throws it, it appears to explode, becoming a firework that streaks through the night sky. Rather than faking it in post-production, the film crew actually blew one up in the background of the shot. This elaborate set-up fits into their loose process, which consistently flirts with failure – or even budgetary ruin. “If it was easy and perfect, it wouldn’t be good,” Safdie says.

While Heaven Knows What’s shots are planned to look as though they arise spontaneously, Ben Russell infuses Greetings to the Ancestors, the third instalment of his trilogy The Garden of Earthly Delights, with a dreamlike, shapeless energy and a detached gaze.

Filming in Swaziland, Russell illustrates the dreams and rituals of its people, blending elements of the experimental art film and the removed ethnographic study to create a psychedelic experience, ripe with hypnotic, illusory visuals and rich tones. Knowing we are hyperaware of the frame, he doesn’t try to hide it: in an early scene, we peer as if over the shoulders of men as they stand in darkened circles, singing in a haunting, hymn-like chant; we see cropped backs of heads turned away, robed arms linked in a communion we’re not part of. Russell draws out, rather than shying away from, the uncomfortable voyeurism the ethnographic form connotes.

Later in the film, the screen blushes with the red of a filter that is pulled on and off, while the camera zooms over zebras and rolling hills; the sun rockets and shudders along with the rhythm of the holder’s footsteps, like a boat on an ocean of fire. The filter becomes a surreal threshold between the watcher and the image, which gives the effect of being thrust into the waking moments of someone else’s dream.

Tangerine, filmed entirely on an iPhone 5s tricked-out with lens attachments and filters, could easily have been dismissed as a gimmick. Instead, director Sean Baker and his director of photography, Radium Cheung, play artfully off the medium’s contradictory qualities: its capacity for low-budget vérité and its growing capability to create impressive, cinematic shots.

We first meet the two buddies Sin-dee-Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) sitting face to face in the fluorescent garishness of a Donut Time restaurant in an LA strip mall. The interior shots capture the actors as though we are sitting across from them, with the immediacy of an Instagram, or a Vine.

Outside on the streets, the focus is surprisingly deep – the flat, scorched geography of the city and its seemingly infinite stretches of strip malls are etched in stark detail. The camerawork is fluid, energetic and even; it skates, glides and twirls balletically along with Sin-dee-Rella and Alexandra as their heels clack along the cracked, bleached pavement. The filters on the cameras create a syrupy, oversaturated feel, which are often as sickly as they are sweet.

Where Tangerine drips with luscious citrus notes that make its darker moments shine, Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven undercuts the wistful undertones that are intrinsic to the Betacam video. Set around 1990, the film tracks the intimate chaos, awkward interactions, and forced and strange healing rituals of a group of ex-addicts in a New Jersey sober-house.

Compared with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (MIFF, 2014), in which the 1:1 ratio was used to echo the character’s chaotic, violent movements and their melodramatic acting, Stinking Heavens’s similar proportions (at Academy ratio) are much more restrained. The taut compactness of Silver’s shots intrudes on his actor’s space, bringing to mind Cassavettes’s awkward and enduring close-ups.

Silver is obsessed with the periphery of a scene: the camera zooms in on pale, anaemic faces as they avert their eyes from the drama with mouth-biting anxiety; downcast stares are framed straight-on, in close-up. These shots are edited together into a scatterplot of sharp and arrhythmic cuts; we flit around the edges, but rarely dive in to the central action of the scene. Adam Ginsberg (director of photography) and Silver’s aesthetic reflects the bleakness and alienation of its characters, making a more honest evocation of the era than the medium’s innate nostalgia implies.

Each of these filmmakers knows a lot about us because they came of age in the same conditions we did: we’re hyperaware of how films are constructed, we know we’re probably well-resourced enough to make them too, and we’re used to – maybe even tired of – seeing things shot in a certain way. What’s innovative about these visionaries’ techniques may not be how they use them, but the way in which they dance, tweak and play with our expectations – slashing and burning the old modes of seeing to blaze a path for the new.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features