Sean Axmaker writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and writes and edits the companion website Stream On Demand at Home (www.streamondemandathome.com), is a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Fandor, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org). He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years and a longtime home video columnist for IMDb and MSN Movies, and his work has appeared in Indiewire, Today.com, The Stranger, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Filmfax, Psychotronic Video, and "The Scarecrow Video Guide."
Michael Winterbottom’s checkered career has been inconsistent at best, misdirected at worst. The stylistic chameleon practically remakes himself for each film, from the handsome but chilly restraint of the Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude to the hysterical explosion of sexual obsession in I Want You. The result is a career of fascinating failures driven by moments of pure cinematic passion.
In Wonderland, Winterbottom has found a script worthy of his passion. Writer Laurence Coriat mines the British social realist territory of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach — the travails of working class Brits kicking around their grimy cities — but leaves out the politics for a portrait of characters over the course of a long weekend, grasping for love in a bustling but indifferent world.
This is not your father’s Hamlet. The present melancholy Dane is son of the deceased chairman of Denmark Corporation. His castle is a sleek but alienating New York highrise dotted with omnipresent surveillance cameras, his kingdom city streets lined with paparazzi and tabloid reporters.
Los Angeles, circa 1950. The mood is set with sharp b&w photography, kitschy Polynesian-tinged lounge music and salsa-laced jazz. The Capitol Records building looms large in the background of impeccably composed shots. Patrick Warburton (doomed to spend his life remembered as Puddy from the sitcom Seinfeld) strides onscreen, jaw locked in single-minded determination, voiceover narration dripping with matter-of-fact contempt for the chumps he’s about to fleece with his newly purchased used car lot. “Isn’t making money the reason for existence?” he explains with deadpan sincerity.
“Not another movie from an old TV show,” moans an airline passenger in the opening scene of Charlie’s Angels as T.J. Hooker: The Movie flashes on the screen as the inflight movie. It’s a cute bit of self-deprecating humor, but this is one sentiment that backfires.
Imagine an Armageddon where, instead of oil-rigger roughnecks, the fate of the world rests on four geriatric, long since retired Air Force test pilots. That’s the plot in a nutshell: a failing Russian satellite running on an archaic American guidance system must get back to full capacity, and the only man capable of correcting it is flinty former Air Force officer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood).
Time Regained, adapted by Chilean director Raul Ruiz from the final volume of Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrances of Things Past, is about the texture of memory. Set in the first decades of the 20th century, in the salon society of the Paris élite, the film begins with the aging narrator (a not-so-thinly veiled Marcel Proust, played by lookalike actor Marcello Mazzarella but voiced by Patrice Chereau) dictating his final novel from a sickbed: “Then one day, everything changes.”
That phrase describes the film nicely: nothing is fixed, everything is in flux. In this opening scene the camera glides through the bric-a-brac of his bedroom, which themselves take slow flight in a dance with the camera as the room expands and shrinks wildly from shot to shot. Far from mere cinematic acrobatics, this sets the stage for an exploration of the fabric of memory from a director whose films have traditionally reverberated with the tensions between reality, dreams, and perspective.
There may be no more sensual director in the world today than Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai.
His best films (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time) are rich in unconsummated affairs. The delicate shadow dances of would-be lovers and flirtatious courtships of couples that only fleetingly make contact are like a postmodern vision of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama shot in splintered glimpses and burning color.
Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow and director Lynn Shelton are in attendance at Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Film Festival on Saturday, September 26 to present a 35mm screenings of Shelton’s debut feature, We Go Way Back, the same day it makes its streaming debut on Fandor. It’s a preview of the tenth anniversary theatrical release that’ll occur early in 2016, presented by Fandor and Factory 25. – Ed.
Lynn Shelton made her debut feature, We Go Way Back, after a decade of honing her skills. With a master’s degree in photography and years of experience as a stage actress, the Seattle-based artist taught herself filmmaking by making experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers. She credits Claire Denis with inspiring her, at the age of thirty-seven, to have the faith to follow her muse and make a feature film. With financing from a Seattle non-profit production company, she made We Go Way Back on a tiny budget and with a cast and crew of professionals from her Seattle home. It won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006 and launched a career that, to date, has remained defiantly independent. Her budgets have since gotten bigger and her casts more famous (Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt in Your Sister’s Sister, Keira Knightley and Chloë Grace Moretz in Laggies) yet she has remained not only independent but local, shooting in Seattle with area crews. At least for her features. Between movies she, like many fellow indie filmmakers, directs episodes of TV shows, from Mad Men to The Mindy Project andFresh Off the Boat.
We Go Way Back is the story of a young actress in her twenties (Amber Hubert) who is in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as a professional actress at the expense of her own sense of self. But Shelton tosses in a high concept twist: her thirteen-year-old self, present in letters full of confidence and creativity and ambition that she wrote to her future self, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynch-ian bend in time and space and identity, however, is played with naturalistic calm. She’s not here to judge, only to heal and center her emotionally fractured older self.
I first interviewed Shelton in 2008, soon after her second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, premiered at SXSW. I had just seen We Go Way Back and was excited to discuss it with her. We’ve talked many times since but this is the only time we really delved into her first film.
Sean Axmaker: You came out of theater, and you had edited some features before you directed We Go Way Back, including Hedda Gabler. In We Go Way Back, the main character, Kate (Amber Hubert), is cast in the lead of ‘Hedda Gabler’ and it’s a production that is going right off the rails. Is there anything autobiographical in that, or is this just your nightmare of the worst possible theater experience that you could think of?
Lynn Shelton: [Laughs.] The director is an amalgamation of many acting teachers and directors that I’ve encountered. I started acting when I was about eleven and kept on acting through my twenties and it was like an addiction. I was always in a show, so I encountered lots and lots of different personalities through the years. None of them were quite as misguided as poor Bob’s character but there is also some practicality to it. I needed a role in western classic theater that might be recognizable to a certain set so that it would be a big deal—because this is her first big role, so she needs to be offered this great part, and I needed to write the script in five weeks and I knew that play really, really well. I knew the lines by heart, so it was expedient. But there are a lot of interesting challenges to playing Hedda anyway. This is obviously very condensed and exaggerated but the kernel of the story is totally autobiographical.
[I interviewed Lynn Shelton in Seattle on May 17, 2008, to talk about her then new film, My Effortless Brilliance, and her debut feature, We Go Way Back. This interview was originally published on GreenCine on May 24, 2008. Since this interview, Shelton made Humpday, which was chosen to play in the exclusive competition at Sundance 2009 and was quickly scooped up as the festival’s first film sale, and won the Acura Someone to Watch Award for My Effortless Brilliance at the 2009 Spirit Awards. I revisited the interview for Parallax View in 2009.].
Lynn Shelton is part of a hardy breed: the regional filmmaker who creates feature films within a community far outside the L.A.-centered base. That means casts, crews, locations, post-production and even financing is all locally based. Her debut feature, We Go Way Back, made after a decade of honing her skills on experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers, won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006. Her second film, My Effortless Brilliance premiered at SXSW in 2008 and gets it hometown premiere during the opening weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival.
Both of these films are small, intimate, character-based pictures. We Go Way Back, the story of a young actress in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as an actress at the expense of her own sense of self, tosses in a high concept twist – her 13-year-old self, present in letters written to her future self full of confidence and creativity and ambition, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynchian bend in time and space and identity, however, is played with naturalistic calm. She’s not here to judge, only to heal and center her emotionally fractured older self. My Effortless Brilliance shifts to male relationships, specifically the “break-up” of old friends and the desperation with which one man (played by Sean Nelson – singer, songwriter, former frontman for Harvey Danger and, in the interest of disclosure, my friend and colleague), a novelist struggling to repeat the success of his first book, attempts to reconnect. His motivations are less out of affection than ego – dude, he was dumped! The film’s reception was mixed, which may have as much to do with the seeming lack of narrative drive and plotting and its undeniable similarities to Old Joy as with the discomforting portrait of male relationships. Yet I found the texture of the relationships and the sly humor winning and was impressed with the performances, especially Nelson, who’s a natural in the role, subtly establishing the sense of ego and vulnerability and self-aggrandizement in the character with brave intimacy. Shelton’s observations of male relationships and the rhythms of old friends falling into old patterns are spot on, helped immensely, surely, by the collaboration of the cast, who played the scenes without a script, only an outline.
I met Lynn Shelton for breakfast at Mae’s on Phinney Ridge (a great little breakfast spot near both of us) and, starting out over cups of green tea (“I love it,” she said – our first connection made), she launched into the history of how she started making features and where My Effortless Brilliance came from.
“We Go Way Back is the quintessential chick flick and My Effortless Brilliance really is the quintessential guy flick,” she began. “I’ve yet to meet a guy who does not like my new movie. And there are a lot of people who like it, but there are some who just can’t find a way into it. They just can’t relate to it, basically. And We Go Way Back is the exact opposite. Every woman has a very homogeneous sense of love for this movie. A lot of men love it too, but sometimes men are just like, ‘Whatever.’ It’s really, really interesting. So I like that dichotomy.”
The history of television is full of great crime shows, from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues to Homicide: Life on the Street to The Wire and beyond, but small screen noir is a rare treasure indeed. Let’s face it, TV rarely embraced the visual style or hard-bitten, world-weary, often cynical attitude that defined noir as much as subject matter, setting, and iconography.
There are a few classic shows that embraced the sensibility, at least as much as network standards and practices allowed, and, in the past couple of decades, crime TV has allowed itself to slip into the heart of darkness of modern noir. And thanks to the voracious need for streaming content, many of these shows, past and present, are now readily available on major streaming services. ane double life” married to both Joan Fontaine and Lupino.
Amazon Prime Video
Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn (1958-1961), starring Craig Stevens as TV’s most debonair private-eye, presents a veritable digest of B-movie film noir conventions and a striking visual style on austere, often abstract sets filled with fog and smoke and lit with bold shadows cutting through a twilight haze, distilling the noir look into a stripped-down style for the low fidelity of late-1950s black-and-white broadcast TV.