MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Camcorders Without Borders

I remember when Dogme95 was going to be the next big movement in cinema, when films like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots were supposed blow up the cinematic landscape. I remember reading about Vinterberg and von Trier reading their “Vow of Chastity” aloud in public square in Denmark. I vividly remember taking the train into Manhattan with a buddy in 1999, skipping school to go see the opening day ofHarmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy at the Angelika because I truly believed that it would change the way movies were made and viewed. This was coming on the heels of the internet boom and suddenly, anybody with a camcorder could make a film, edit it with cheap software and the idea was that it could be seen. As a young man who was at the time aspiring to make films, I was convinced that this would be the road that would take me there.

When I eventually sat down to watch Julien Donkey-Boy in that empty theater, I looked around and saw that I was with only two or three other people who actually paid to see this. It was like being at the first Sex Pistols concert, only a small handful of people, who all later became rock stars themselves. I knew that perhaps this movement would start small, but I thought maybe there was a hope that all of us in that theater would go on to be inspired to make great films.

Needless to say, I was completely disappointed by the film and by the movement. In theory, it’s a wonderfully democratic ideal to believe that we’re all capable of making a movie, but the truth of the matter is that not all of us possess the skills to make a truly interesting film, especially with the constraints imposed by the Dogme95 rules (which, to refresh your memory, included no artificial lighting, no script, the camera must be handheld, no genre films, etc.).

I shied away from the idea that this would be the next big movement and I ignored the fact The Blair Witch Project, which had been released earlier that summer, might just have been one of the best examples of a Dogme type of film. It broke all of the rules of Dogme95, but isn’t rule-breaking the whole point?

Which brings me to two films that were released in the past month that break the rules of Dogme95, but also make differing attempts to bring a kind of purity back to the cinema or a democracy. These films are Cloverfield and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.

The only thing the films have in common is the use of handheld cameras, but both of them attempt to strip away the so-called artifice that has pervaded cinema in recent years, yielding big-budget blockbuster films with no soul. I’m not saying that both of these films are successful, but at least the intent is admirable.

Let’s start with Cloverfield, which breaks one of the biggest Dogme95 rules of both a) having a script and b) being a genre film. It probably owes a lot more to Blair Witch than Thomas Vinterberg, but it is definitely an attempt at making a purer version of a monster film. It tries to tell the story with the exclusive use of a camcorder, wielded by a jokester, as he and his friends rush through a New York City that is being ravaged by a giant monster. I don’t think this is what Lars von Trier had in min, and I don’t think it’s a very satisfying film, but I do admire the way it tries to strip some of the bullshit away from the typical big-budget sci-fi film.

The biggest difference between Cloverfield and the average monster film is that we spend most of our time with a group of young people that have no idea what is going. We never get the moment where the President debates with his aides about whether or not to drop the bomb, or the scene with the pissed-off fighter pilot who knows that he can stop the monster if he gets one clean shot, etc. And I am thankful for a lack of those genre conventions… However, instead we’re given a different set of conventions that include the boy who loved a girl his entire life and finally tells her he loves her at his going-away party. I mean, if you’re going to eschew most of the conventions of this type of film, it probably would be better to not import the conventions of a romantic-comedy.

But a case could be made that much of the dialogue seems to be on-the-fly, consisting of a lot of things like “oh my God,” which aids the verisimilitude greatly (mich needed in a film about a giant monster) and there is definitely a lack of Hollywood lighting. There is a scene in the subway tunnels that is incredibly dark and realistic, with light only coming from the camera.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned director Matt Reeves … simply because the film doesn’t feel like it has the stamp of a filmmaker on it. It feels as if it was designed by committee, which is both democratic and saddening. I’m a believer in the “auteur theory” and an admirer of any filmmaker who chooses to view their profession as an artist would. It seems with this film that the filmmakers see their work as a product, from the actors to the clothes to the structure. It is too conventional in every respect except for the way in which it is filmed.

The whole point of the Dogme movement was to add realism back to the cinema, and whileCloverfield has too many implausible moments to qualify as a “realist” work, it is still infinitely more realistic than most films of similar subject matter. The scenes immediately following the party scene are incredibly tense, taut and very familiar to most New Yorkers. The shots are a little too well-composed at times, the actors are a little too made-up, and the logistics make no sense (downtown to Central Park in like ten minutes? Please.), but it is an attempt at something that we have not often seen in the movies. It is trying incredibly hard to bring a little realism to an unrealistic situation. It fails, but admirably so.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, on the other hand, feels incredibly real for all of its running time. The fluid camera, which is not from a first-person perspective, makes us feel like accomplices as the two leads struggle to obtain all the necessary amenities (including the man wielding the tools) required for an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. Director Cristian Mungiu appears to follow a lot more of the Dogme95 rules, including a lack of artificial lighting and much of the film is handheld. There is a script, but it really is about the way the actresses in the lead roles bring that script to life in such a vivid way, which is another staple of Dogme films; the focus is on the actors and the story and the director is not the star (Dogme95 films do not credit the director).

Mungiu’s style, however, does not draw attention to itself; he simply places the camera in the best possible spot for the good of the story. Notice the scene where the lead actress,Anamaria Marinca, stares into space for ten minutes while fun and frivolity dance around her. A lesser director might have moved the camera to follow the action of plates being moved across the table or the other actors moving in and out of the room, but Mungiu’s camera stays still and silent, allowing us to judge while the main character judges herself.

I believe that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of the best films I have seen in the past year and it’s also the best film ever that resembles a Dogme95 film. It takes all of the useful tactics promoted in the “Vow of Chastity” and all of the techniques of most regular films and blends it into something truly transcendent. I’ve watched so many films at this point that is quite rare for me to have a difficult time watching something; whereas in Cloverfield, I might have felt a little seasick watching the camera sway in all different directions, the story and the technique and the acting of Mungiu’s film made me seasick without moving the camera nearly enough.

What it ultimately comes down to is that Dogme95 films were cheap, and with an austere budget true artists blossom because it facilitates creativity and that is what Vinterberg and von Trier were trying to accomplish. With a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, it might seem like Matt Reeves and his crew didn’t have to be very creative; but his budget was significantly less than something like Godzilla and the idea of filming on a camcorder from the perspective of a random person in the midst of a tragedy is indeed a stroke of genius. It’s just a shame that there weren’t many more brilliant ideas to go with the premise. Cristian Mungiu, on the other hand, never seems to run out of brilliant ideas as he tells his sad, tragic story where far fewer people lose their life than in Cloverfield, but the impact is much greater.

That should be a lesson to all filmmakers that it isn’t always about sheer numbers, it’s about the talent behind the camera. Perhaps things are more democratic in this world of affordable digital cameras and YouTube, but one thing that will never change is this: true talent always finds a way to the top, whether you’re making a Dogme film or Godzilla.

Now that I’m a bit older, I’m not really excited for any particularly new fad in the filmmaking world, I just want to be told a good story and have that story be told well. If you want one, then I suggest that in this winter of mostly garbage films, you rush out to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.

Noah Forrest
February 6, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon