Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Steve Martin, the Duplass Brothers, and who says what's good!

I remember watching Steve Martin on Charlie Rose sometime last year promoting his autobiography. Right away, I was on the same page w/ him as he mentioned he enjoyed reading biographies but was always frustrated that important details would be glossed over. Say, in the case of an entertainer, it would be mentioned about some huge break or opportunity but never the details of how said "big break" came about. This has always been my beef w/ these such endeavors and I'm w/ Martin 100%. It's almost as if these folks want us to believe they were struck w/ lightning on Mt. Zeus and came as fully formed demi gods!

Martin went on to say he's frequently asked the question, "What's the best way to make it in the entertainment business?" He explains his answer is always the same, however none too popular. He speculates people want to hear, 'it's about getting the right agent' or 'networking and knowing the right people,' etc. His response is, "you have to be so good, you simply can not be denied!" This is so obvious in way, but it's a statement that really packs a punch...

Along these lines, filmmaker Mark Duplass was recently on David Branin and Karen Worden's show Film Courage, listen here http://filmcourage.podbean.com/2009/10/19/filmmaker-mark-duplass-on-la-talk-radios-film-courage/. Again Duplass makes a statement very similar to Steve Martin's, "Filmmakers should put all their time and energy into making good films!" He goes on to state in his theory that there is such a lack of really quality material, especially on the festival circuit that, "you can leave you film in a drawer and eventually someone will find it". Duplass continues to say that many big festival programmers he's spoken with over the years say they have trouble filling their 60 slots w/ really good short films. He goes on to say that many folks create these labyrinthine conspiracy theories about how you have to "know someone" to get into a major festival like Sundance. In his words, it's just an excuse to massage the battered egos of filmmakers whose films weren't good enough to make the cut and hence rejected from said festivals. Obviously, Mark Duplass and Steve Martin are on to something. Make sure you're damn good before you start shouting from the rooftops! But, there is a slight caveat here and that is: Who says what is and isn't good?

In the case of Steve Martin, there's no question he is and has been a huge talent for decades. His first film The Jerk was a huge, bona fide hit as well as being LOL, piss in your pants funny! But what about pre-jerk Steve Martin? The dorky guy who'd come on SNL in the '70's w/ the banjo and stupid looking rabbit ears? I've gone back and watched some of that stuff on youtube 'cause I was too young to see it live. Piss in your pants funny? Not so much, at least not to me. And what if a guy just like me was casting or directing The Jerk? Ya know, Martin's okay but I much prefer Danny Ackroyd or Bill Murray for that part... Would Steve Martin still ending up being a star? Probably, if not the Jerk, then another chance would've come.

Now, what about the Duplass Brothers? As Mark makes clear their film This is John (about a hapless fella played by Mark who has almost a personal crisis leaving an outgoing message on his answering machine,) getting into 2004's Sundance film festival absolutely made their careers. I've seen the film a few times on the DVD of their first feature, The Puffy Chair. It's funny, my girlfriend laughed out loud a few times at Mark's antics, I liked it... at about 4 minutes... the problem is the film's 8 minutes, and the joke starts to get a bit stale. Mark D so much as said the film was poorly shot, poorly lit, and sound was very dicey. I'll throw in I thought the film would have been much better shorter. Not exactly so good it can't be denied. Another short on the DVD, Scrapple, I think is a much, much better film. Brilliant performances by the two leads, funny, poignant, and real. What about the feature film itself, The Puffy Chair? In the Film Courage interview Mark Duplass said repeatedly that distributors, "loved" the film but didn't know how to market it. The film had a DIY theatrical release and DVD was through Red Envelope and Village Roadshow. Every time I heard people "loved" the film I had to cringe a bit. It took me three times to get through the film, and then eventually w/ the FF working through a big chunk of it. Mark Duplass is a funny, charismatic guy, but like nothing happens in this film for close to 40 minutes. We spend a good chunk of the film staring at a guy with short buzz cut and long beard, who's staring at a nature show about a Salamander or lizard of some sort. I'm sorry but a bunch of people sitting around blowing bong hits talking about "life" unfiltered through any artistic precision makes for a difficult viewing experience. As a matter of fact, some 10 years prior this was the punch line for the type of crappy film that was flooding Sundance in the mid 90's... A decade later this type of film would be at the forefront of the whole 'mumble core' movement. Bottom line: The Puffy Chair and it's ilk are hardly the kind of films that are so good they can't be denied.

Furthermore, in my view Alex Holdridge's In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Ben Cocio's Zero Day, and Unica's Blue in Green are much, MUCH better examples of the minimalist, character based material that folks like the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg have vomited up over the years. (Sorry, Matt Dentler!) I'm willing to bet any amount of money that if the Duplass' put their DVD in a drawer and someone found it years later the reaction more likely would be 'oh, some guys just messing around w/ their camcorder' than 'oh my, I better rush this over to the Sundance, AFI, and MoMA!' As far as I'm concerned, an Oscar winning screenwriter from years ago said it best, "nobody knows anything" in this business. How true!

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