Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Posts Tagged ‘films

Is Gil Reyes Banging Jennifer Chiba?

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Because that’s the only possible explanation for why Searching for Elliott Smith, a documentary that premiered at this week’s CMJ Music and Film Festival, got made.

The film, directed by Reyes, was one part retrospective on Smith’s life and career, one part did Smith’s former-fiance, Chiba, kill him?, and all parts one of the most poorly-made documentaries I have ever seen. From extreme-close-ups on grainy year-book photos rendered horribly out-of-focus to superfluous illustrative graphics interspersing the interview scenes (thank you, yes, I did need to see an illustrated New York subway map when someone talked about Smith moving to Brooklyn), the quality was just extremely, extremely bad. Shots of Smith’s album covers were seemingly downloaded from Amazon.com—for one cover, Reyes forgot to edit out Amazon’s “50% off” graphic.

Unable to secure rights to any of Smith’s music or performances (“I emailed the record labels, but they never wrote back,” Reyes said after the film), it lacked what seems a pretty crucial element to documenting a musician’s life and work. It did, however, contain an illustrated segment on the similarities between Smith and Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting character: a blank-screen with the words “Strange Parallels” across the top, accompanied by a picture of Matt Damon that said “math genius” and one of Smith that said “musical genius.”

And then there was Chiba. This was the first time she’s appeared on film explaining what happened the day of Smith’s death. Reyes interviews with her were handled pretty well, but any points that may have garnered for the film were pretty much ruined by a Michael-Moore-esque stunt Reyes included at the end to “disprove” a 2004 police report saying Chiba refused to talk to detectives. Reyes and Chiba show up unannounced, cameras rolling, at the L.A. police precinct years later, brandishing the original report and asking to talk to a detective. The police sergeants are thoroughly confused, and ask Reyes to turn off his camera. This is offered as some sort of proof that their allegations against Chiba were all wrong.

Asked after the film why Reyes wanted to make this movie, he could offer no personal connection to Smith or motivation other than clearing Chiba’s name. Nevermind the fact that the film really did nothing of the sort—anyone who sees her on film, sees her face, hears her story, has to know she didn’t do it, Reyes explained. People never lie on film.*

This, however, may have been one of the most coherent answers Reyes gave during the post-film Q&A. In explaining a shot near the end where he interrupts Smith’s former-roommates somewhat powerful emotional breakdown talking about Smith’s death with a shot of windy bushes, Reyes went on about how the wind seemed to signify that Smith was their with them, how they all felt a presence while making the film, how one time he read about a bar where Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting hung out and it turned out he had been there 2 days earlier, how sometimes Smith wore white suit and, you know, oooh, ghostly.

Hardcore Smith fans (of which I count myself one) will probably still find the film interesting—it does include some funny Smith stories told by former friends and colleagues, and clips from a weird Smith-made experimental film. Just don’t expect anything enlightening or inspiring. I’m still hoping that someday a much better film about Smith gets made.

P.S. Two movies I saw at CMJ that were good? The Men Who Stare at Goats (Clooney, Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor???) and The Messenger, starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Samantha Morton. For what it’s worth, I recommend both.

* For the record, I’m not a weird suicide conspiracy theorist, and I have little opinion on whether Smith’s death was a suicide or not, though I’m inclined to believe it was. I’m just saying that Reyes claims about his film “clearing Chiba’s name” are sillily overstated.


Written by ENB

October 24, 2009 at 5:24 pm

What Was Lost: Netflix vs. Rubber Snakes & Dress Slacks

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RKO Albee, Downtown Cincinnati, from vintage postcardMorning coffee with my dad, we’re discussing all the lost businesses, factories and other establishments in our hometown of Reading, Ohio (the conversation is prompted by the fact that my great aunt just gave me the key to the city’s historical society building, and, boy!, am I psyched). He starts talking about the movie theater on the main street of our town that he used to frequent as a kid. All the little cities and towns surrounding Reading (itself one of the nearer suburbs of Cincinnati) had their own movie theaters, he said, and you only went to the neighboring town’s theater if you’d already seen what was playing at yours—a rare occurrence, because even though they only showed one or two pictures each, they switched frequently. He remembered all these great and silly special effects and theatricality, the kind of old-matinee lore—rubber snakes on the ground, or plastic spiders dropping from the ceiling, during horror flix; one movie with a “shocking twist” ending, for which kids were made to sign a waver upon entering that they wouldn’t tell anyone the surprise. There was another theater they sometime went to, and it was a little bit in decline already—the owners had closed down the concession stand and replaced it with vending machines. This was perfectly all right by my dad and his friends, however, who thought the soda machine—which dispensed not cans but little styrofoam cups that soda was then leaked into, like the automatic coffee machines you sometimes see today—was a marvel in and of itself, a sign of the future.

Later, when he started dating my mom (he was 17, she was 15, which would make this 1972), they would sometimes go to the big, old movie palaces in downtown Cincinnati—this was where you took a date, instead of one of the neighborhood theaters, if you wanted to impress her, he explained. In just a year or so, cultural norms would start to change, but that year, you would still put on a dress shirt, a tie, some slacks, to see an evening show.

I listen to these stories jealously. For movie going to be an event! For the awe, the clothes, the red velvet, the smoke! For the community nature of theaters, before they all became National Amusements, or Showcase Cinemas, or Loew’s. For the names—the Emory, the 20th Century, the Gaiety the RKO Albee, the Vogue—of the theaters themselves.

And then I think about Netflix. And how I can get 3 movies at a time, unlimited times, for under $20 per month. How I can find almost any movie I want—foreign films, indie films, those made 20, 40, 60 years ago. That I can have these movies delivered directly to my house, that I can watch them in my own home, or really anywhere, from my laptop, that I can send one back and a new one will arrive in a day or so. Would I trade all this for plastic spiders falling from the ceiling?

It’s easy to romanticize some things. “Oh, it was corny,” my dad says of those matinee theaters of his youth, but he gets kind of animated when he talks about them, nonetheless.

I’m sure, given the choice, most people would take the choice and convenience of services like Netflix (or of online movies, or of DVDs) over the spectacle of movie-viewing past. I think I would, too. But it’s still hard not to feel a little regret about what’s been lost. If I could somehow collectively erase our knowledge of how we watch films now while simultaneously bringing those days back: I would.

Written by ENB

August 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Relative Obscurity

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Check out all my amazingly talented friends in amazingly talented writer/director Jeff Rosenberg’s film, Relative Obscurity:

Pay attention; they’re all going to be massively famous someday. [And, yes, that is Alex Mack there].

Written by ENB

April 27, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Gen Y

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