Monday, May 10, 2010

Short back and sides

There are low-budget independent films and then there are miniscule budget films. Miniscule has its charms, as in The Village Barbershop (2008), which had a minimal release after being seen at the Toronto Film Festival.

It belongs to the hopeful-young-person-joins-up-with grumpy-old-man-genre as exemplifed by Gran Torino and Up. So you know the success of the film is going to hang on the quality of the company, because there really isn't anything new to say. Everybody finds out that they need a new start, they need to find a way toward hope. With the young, it's natural; with the old, it needs to be re-learned.

The extreme low budget of this film forced economies upon it which actually add to its quality. For example, most scenes play out in two- or three-shots, so that the actors have control of the performances instead of the editor and director. Frequently, multiple actions are played out in single shots. If comedy is tragedy plus time, it is also misfortune plus distance. Keeping the camera a little farther away lends the kind of dispassionate distance that makes everything a little funnier.

I can prove this. Imagine you are viewing a performance of Oedipus Rex. You hear and see what Oedipus hears and sees and you feel for his terrible misfortune with him. Catharsis and all that good stuff. Yay tragedy. Now--put Oedipus on his throne very far away from you. Let's put him half a football field away. Then he summons the seers or whoever and says to them, "Tell me why the city of Thebes is so afflicted." Then one of the seers walks up to Oedipus and talks very quietly to him, so quietly we can't hear him. We can sort of see Oedipus's face scrunching up. Then we hear him scream:"I did.......WHAT???!!???" The world's most famous tragedy is now funny.

This is one of silent comedy's built-in advantages, that everything in that world takes place behind a large window that prevents sound from reaching us, and thus we are always a bit separated from the world of silent film, which is one reason the comedies have lasted, while most of the serious drama has not (and in fact, often looks funny).

Back to Village Barbershop. John Ratzenberger will lose his barbershop if he doesn't snap out of his widower funk and face reality. Shelly Cole helps him do that. Both go from sad to happy. They have a good, believable chemistry. It all takes place in the working-class "backstage" areas of Reno. [I have a warm spot for stories that take place "behind the scenes" of a place or a milieu which seems glamorous to outsiders, but which is workaday to its own denizens.] Novice writer-director Chris Ford exhibits decency, some comic chops and a proper sense of scale (small). The villain is a bit cardboard, but that may have been due to the limitations of his casting pool.

Mr. Ford could do a lot worse and so could you.

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