Saturday, June 15, 2013

What, and give up show business?

The noxious barrennes of the San Fernando Valley
Just caught up with two small films set on the margins of show business that have a surprising amount of common ground, given their different milieus.  In both cases, the corrosiveness of dreams of fame give way to the pull of new and deepening friendships, friendships formed to almost deliberately spite the bitch goddess of showbiz.

Starlet (2012) by Sean Baker approaches its story from one direction, that of a seemingly aimless young woman befriending a very old woman who appears to be harboring secrets.  The irony is that the young woman has a much greater secret, namely, that between bouts of getting high and shopping she is a porn "model," an occupation which seems to mean nothing at all to her.  Certainly not as much as her friendship with Sadie and her dog Starlet, the first Chuahuahua I've ever seen that actually seemed more like a companion than vermin.

Sadie has a different secret than her young friend thinks, but it's worth your time to watch this mostly quiet, contemplative (and not sleazy, despite ts frankness) film.  One of its most striking aspects is Radium Cheung's anamorphic cinematography, which captures the burned-up, burned-out grey-green-greasy littered sterility of the San Fernando Valley, its oppressive openness and lack of landmarks or even directionality.  It is the most densely inhabited physical and spiritual desert in the world, and Cheung seems to have captured life near the bottom of this languid and rancid bowl.   

Clarence explains the music biz as if he knew something.
It makes a startling contrast with the virtually artless photography of Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound (2007), a semi-improvised dramedy about song-sharking, the art and science of taking money from people based on their hope of having a music career.  Where Starlet is set in the airless open sky of the Valley, Great World is shoved into cramped motel rooms, chain restaurants and airport lobbies, all lit by seemingly radioactive flourescent light radiating cancer into the souls of those who would feed on the hopes of others.

Martin and Clarence, having failed in other fields, wash up in a conclave of hopefuls summoned by a set of hucksters straight from Glengarry Glen Ross, substituting recording contracts for real estate deals.  Their job is to blow into town, advertise that they are looking for recording talent, let the folks sing a song or two, then get them to put some earnest money down towards a recording session, which will lead to a record release.  Whether the session or the release happen is no concern of theirs.

Martin is a well-meaning milquetoast who would like to be an artist, or at least involved with artists.  Clarence is a man who would to like to eat regularly and will say, well not ANYTHING, but a lot of things in order to make that happen.  After the expected friction, they arrive at a good cop-bad cop routine that gets the hopefuls hopeful enough to plunk down a few hundred or even a few thousand of the ready.

But for all its virtues, it is a film aesthetically at war with itself.  The engine that drives the movie is this Odd Couple relationship.  But the raison d'etre of the film is the prank at its heart.  The filmmakers really did advertise for hopeful musical artists, really did film their auditions and the sales talk.  (The last part was actually sort of brilliant, since it forced the actors to do their best to close the deal.)  After the "scenes" were finished, the situation was explained to the auditioners and the filmmakers got the releases, so there were no surprises when the film was released -- but two problems remain.  The scenes we are seeing are not really not part of the story -- they are honest-to-goodness pranks.  And secondly, the auditioners were rarely at a laughable level of awfulness.  Most of them are very good amateurs, not ready for a professional arena but not suitable for ridicule.  I suppose the message here is how very nice and decent people with some talent, if not blinding talent will let their ambition and naivete and belief in themselves will let them be tricked by cruel and ruthless hucksters.  Including the hucksters who made the movie.

Here's a roughly typical example of the level of talent that appears in the finished film:

What do you do with this? You're not overwhelmed, yet you can't dismiss it, either.  And that painful ambiguous knife-edge, resting on the line between competence and genuine art is a self-inflicted wound at the heart of Great World of Sound.

See it anyway, because the experiment was worth trying and nearly everyone in the film provides good company on the journey.

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