Wednesday, April 18, 2012

2012 Florida Film Festival - Highlights, Day 4 & 5

The beginning of the week often provides a brief respite from the busy weekend of movies at the start of the festival and Monday and Tuesday were no different, as I attended only three screenings--all features--during that time. Two of those movies, Dog Years and The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, were not only among the best of the fest so far, but also emblematic of what I think this festival and probably many others represent.


When we first meet Elliot (Brent Willis) in Dog Years, he is recently-arrived in Tokyo on business. He doesn't like it there and refuses to conform to any sort of custom. The subway system seems to confuse him. He only speaks English and only eats American food (his apartment is filled with McDonald's wrappers). But to say he's merely a fish out of water doesn't fully describe him. He's an isolationist. He shuns contact and human connection. Even if it's with other fellow Americans. Even if it's with his younger half-brother, Ben (Warren Sroka), from whom Elliot's been long estranged.

Similar to Elliot, musician Alex (Ryan O'Nan) is also in the dumps when we first see him in The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best. His bandmate dumps him after a gig (the first words we hear in the movie are him calling Alex, "Garfunkel") and the note he always carries in his pocket is a breakup letter from his ex-girlfriend. His day job in a middling real estate office is demoralizing and his other day job as a pink, singing moose is no better. It's only after he meets (or, more accurately, is stalked and then punched by) Jim, with the offer of forming a duo, does the promise of something better arrive.

Ben and Jim in the two movies are the polar opposite of Elliot and Alex, respectively. Each are socially receptive, aggressive even. And each of them are there to pull Elliot and Alex out of their doldrums. Like anybody else, all four of them carries some measure of baggage. Some just handle it differently.

Aimlessness is not a new subject in independent cinema. They often seem to mirror the struggles of the young filmmakers trying to tackle the subject in their movies. But where so often many of them fail is that the films usually themselves are aimless. It isn't the case with either of these movies. Despite their limited means, each are guided by the assured hands of their filmmakers.

And I guess that's what I mean when I say that both these movies embody the ethos of the film festival. Small budgets and short shooting schedules aren't a deterrent to making your movie, they are an incentive to making the most out of what you have. The stars of each film--Willis and Sroka in Dog Years (which had its world premiere that night), and O'Nan in Brooklyn Brothers--are also the writers and directors of those films. Each of them also attended the screening and did a Q&A afterwards discussing the difficulties of putting a feature together. But even if they hadn't, each was clearly a labor of love for their filmmakers. There is a do-it-yourself philosophy to a lot of these types of movies in this type of setting that you rarely find in the everyday process of watching movies.

Halfway through Brooklyn Brothers, Jim turns to an exasperated Alex and asks, "What if this is it?" They're playing music on an empty street to a crowd of no one. Sometimes these movies find larger audiences, sometimes they don't. And for myself (and I suspect for a lot of festival-goers), there is that thrill of discovery, the excitement of finding the little gems you didn't know were out there. If this indeed is it for the movies themselves, I think their makers can hold their heads high.

(Dog Years will screen again at Enzian on Friday, April 20, at 4:30 pm. The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best will not screen again but O'Nan mentioned it will tour along with the actual band the movie formed later in the year.)

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