Wednesday, December 14, 2011

AIFF 2011: How Could A Zombie Musical That Cost "a lot less than" $50K Win Best Feature?

[We saw the last part of the movie again Wednesday night (after seeing the winning shorts).  The visual and audio quality of the movie was significantly better, and the story was clearer.]

This blog is called "What Do I Know?" because a basic theme is the question that underlies everything we know - "How do we know what we know?"  A variation of that theme is:  "How do what know what is true and what is good?"   These are questions that people ask themselves too seldom.

So, when we talk about 'the best' film, there are lots of underlying assumptions about what each of us means by best.  In 2008 I outlined my criteria, as best I could, and related them to movies in that festival.  Let me pull the four headings out now and see if they help me explain why this film is a worthy winner.

Example of Interesting Lighting
    Ink diffusing across the screen

  • Technical Quality A continuum from.. problems..very good..innovative. 

Some films have a combination of more than one of these which makes it harder to judge.  In a movie, good sound makes up for poor video.  Think of Blair Witch Project or home-made YouTube footage of police confrontations.   Dead Inside had a few technical issues I noticed - the voices in the musical numbers were sometimes too low compared to the instruments and the music itself might have been a bit louder.  There were a couple of spots that seemed unintentionally out of focus.  But there were also many great shots throughout.  They played with the light and dark and color.  With spaces and shapes.  The make-up of the zombies would have been good for a high budget film, but was incredible
Max and Harper
for this very low budget movie. I'm not sure what the spreading inky images signified, but I like them.  They told us, in the opening scenes, that something supernatural was coming.  (Good, Steve, you don't think we got that from the zombies walking through the desert in the opening scene?)
And I like the editing.  The transitions worked for me and the background music and sounds helped a lot.
  • Content -
    Content is probably the most variable issue, since what interests me may not interest you.  But any story, done really well, no matter the subject, will capture any one. And while for most movies the narrative is key, great  movies that intentionally leave the narrative fuzzy or have no narrative, can offer important alternative ways to use film.  (And if you want to push this further, not having a narrative becomes itself another narrative.)  But this is far riskier to pull off. 

    There's a vague continuum for me that roughly goes from bad to good:
Disrespectful ...Boring...good story....original...currency...high positive impact

Writing The Story As Part of the Story
This film has a narrative and themes, though after one viewing there are still  loose ends for me.  I saw the overarching theme as a variation of the Orpheus story. A lover (Wes) goes to extremes to get his love (Fi - pronounced Fee) back. In this case a ghost takes over Fi's body and Wes has to figure out how to oust the ghost and help Fi reclaim her body.  Another theme is the difficulty of creating a work of art/literature.  Fi is a writer with writer's block.  We watch her sit, fingers at the keyboard, writing, then erasing.  But the story she's writing seems to be the script in the movie.  Emily (the ghost who takes over Fi's body) tries to write Fi out of the story.  I think that basically Fi was writing a zombie script and I'm still not sure about the relationship between the zombies (Max and Harper) and Fi and Max [Wes. See I'm still a bit confused.]  They are the same actors and sometimes we have Max with Fi.

I haven't thought through all the possible themes, but I'm sure with enough time I could come up with half a dozen that the film makers never even thought of.  In some cases that's part of what good art does - allows, even pushes, the audience to think and to gain insights into their own lives reflected in the art.  

  • Use of Medium. Movies combine sight and sound and movement, verbal and non-verbal messages.  The best movies are those that take advantage of the medium completely.  They tells stories you can't convey as well in other media.
Three photos on wall
This is a very visual movie, but it's also very auditory. After all, it is a musical. This is not an adaptation of a book.  This was conceived as film (or the digital components that make up film today.)  One device I liked was the use of three photos on the wall.  When we first see it, we see Fi in the left hand frame reaching out, Wes in the right hand frame reaching out to Fi, and the two hands not quite touching in the middle frame. (Symbolic of the main theme.)  Throughout the film we see these photos, but sometimes they change or the characters move into the frames and act out the story in the background on the wall. 

[Note:  The photos are saved frames from clips of the movie taken during the showing.  I didn't have the dvd to carefully pick my examples from.  You'll see them again in the video.]
  • Whole Package. Even with weaknesses here and there, a film could pull it off by doing some things so well that the problems don't really matter. 
It's the whole package that had audience members smiling in amazement at the end of this.  This was truly an independent movie, the kind that film festivals are all about.  It is ridiculously ambitious.  It's conventional enough to be accessible to most viewers, yet it breaks rules to make a film that's not your every day cookie cutter film.

And one has to acknowledge that one of the wonders of this film is that its budget would have been used up in less than a minute on a major Hollywood set.  The  budget factor is something I've written about before in evaluating movies.  Just as in diving and skating, where you can get more points for trying something more difficult, film makers, in my scoring system, get more points for doing more with less.  It's like including miles/gallon in evaluating a car.  One could argue convincingly that Kinyarwanda or The Wedding Party or Inuk should have been best picture.  They were all good movies.  And they each had their emotional tugs to claim the prize.  And with different judges any one of them might have won.  And people might criticize the selection of The Dead Inside.

But I give the judges  a lot of credit (as did others I talked to) for recognizing how much this film did through improvising with almost no money.  (I said to Travis after seeing the film, "This was great for a movie under $100K."  He laughed and said, "Way under."  I then said, "This was great for a movie under $50K."  He laughed and said, "Way under.")

I don't want anyone to think this wasn't a very good movie that got the award because it cost so little.  It was a very good movie.  The film makers had to be creative.  It was all done inside their apartment, with the exception of the opening scenes in the desert.  There were five people involved in the production. (More in post production.)  They found ways to tell their story with the budget they had.  And I haven't mentioned the music much.  There's a whole musical in here - a very credible one.  As I listen to bits of it on a couple of clips I took during the showing Saturday, I realize how good it is and how important the music and sound is to the movie.

I don't think I exaggerate when I say that most people (pretty much everyone I talked to) were surprised that The Dead Inside won best picture, but happily surprised.  It's the kind of thing that should happen at film festivals.  One could make a movie about this.  This is an important film maker, early in his career.  Whether this is the peak or just the early signs of greatness remains to be seen. 

Here are some clips from the film.  These are intentionally crooked and include much more than the screen so no one will think I'm trying to bootleg the film.  And since I only took a few random shots without knowing what was coming, it's, well, random.  But it gives you a hint at the film that's different from the trailer which you can see here.

The video offers some illustration of the points I made - that this is a musical with good music, there are good visuals, the inky blobs, the zombie makeup, and bit of how they go in and out of the three pictures over the bed. 

The actors - who sing the original music themselves - are Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching.  The music is from Joel Van Vliet.  The film has a strong website that gives some background of the characters.

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