“The author was compensated for writing this article by a third party. Nonetheless, it was written specifically for 366 Weird Movies, and we believe the information and opinions contained in this piece will be of interest to our readers.
“Taste Breakers” by Brandon Engel
It was recently announced that independent film production company A24, who have contemporary filmmaker Harmony Korine in their alum roster, has partnered with Direct TV for a new collaborative business model. Direct TV will help finance the production of A24 films, which will then premiere on Direct TV’s Video on Demand service one month prior to being released in theaters. The possible implications of this move for modern independent filmmakers are vast; Korine’s transgressive contemporaries at A24 and elsewhere could stand to benefit from the industry moving in this direction.
Thankfully, the world has always been populated by thoughtful, provocative artists willing to address societal ills and provoke public discourse through their work. The big question for these subversive artists historically has always been: “how do you secure funding for projects (let alone sustain yourself) without having to relinquish creative control of your content?”
Nowadays, as companies like Direct TV use “TV on demand” as a distribution vehicle for independent film and even begin to fund films themselves, and others use the distribution model that sites like Hulu and Netflix are establishing, where films can be streamed instantaneously, independent filmmakers may now be able to reconcile their financial needs with their creative ambitions more simply than ever before. What does all of this mean for contemporary filmmakers and present-day viewers? Here’s a look at three contemporary subversive filmmakers who just might provide some insight on that very question…
Lars Von Trier
The Danish filmmaker is reportedly plagued by phobias and anxieties, which isn’t the least bit difficult to believe if you’ve seen any of his films. There’s no disputing the fact that he’s an extremely important, and unique, presence in the world of international cinema. He helped establish the guidelines of the Dogme 95 collective, which are essentially a list of restrictions that filmmakers should abide by based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, while excluding the use of extraneous special effects.
His film Dancer in the Dark (2000) featured Icelandic pop star Bjork in the lead role of Selma. Selma is a blind Czech immigrant working in a factory in the United States in 1964. She is ultimately wrongfully accused of harboring communist sympathies, and perceived as a threat to the United States. The film is perversely celebrated for having one of the most upsetting endings in the history of cinema.
There is also Antichrist (2009), which received mixed responses from critics and audiences. The film tells the story of an unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) grieving the loss of their infant son, who crawled out of a window and fell to his death while the couple made love. The husband, a therapist, attempts to help his wife suppress her grief, which in turn magnifies it, and leads the wife to commit bizarre and bloodcurdling acts against both her husband and herself.
While Von Trier has managed to achieve some level of commercial and critical success in the states, there’s no question that he’s encountered difficulties with the traditional distribution channels and festivals in the past; he was even excommunicated by the Cannes Film Festival for bizarre comments that he made at a press conference which had many believing that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
This NYU alum first achieved notoriety with his film Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), which follows the story of Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo). Dawn is a socially awkward junior high school girl in New Jersey whose life is, in a word, hellish. She is routinely harassed by her classmates, and she is ignored at home. Dawn begins a strange courtship with a bully who repeatedly threatens to rape her. Later, her younger sister is abducted by a pedophile. The film is no Forrest Gump, but is not without its own idiosyncratic charms in spite of its disturbing content.
Solondz’ true masterpiece is the film Happiness (1998), an abysmally black comedy which features stellar performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a pervert who sexually harasses women over the phone, and Dylan Baker as a child rapist who assaults his son’s little league teammates.
Solondz examines the darkest aspects of life in a way that is sympathetic and humane. Because of the controversial nature of the content, though, Solondz struggled to win support from even major independent film backers; Sundance, for instance, would not accept the film at all. The MPAA gave Happiness an NC-17 rating, which severely hindered both its distribution and its advertising. Ultimately, the film was released without a rating.
Is he a provocative genius, or a mean-spirited hack? Part of Korine’s charm is that he manages to be both simultaneously. He became involved with the industry by writing the script for Kids (1995), a highly controversial film about destructive youths in NYC during the AIDS crisis. The film has become something of a cult classic, but was seen by relatively few people upon its initial release because of its NC-17 rating. Korine went on to write and direct Gummo (1997), a story based on the real town of Xenia, Ohio, which had been hit by a tornado in the seventies. In Korine’s fictional, futuristic interpretation, the town is still a dystopic cesspool decades later, where children amuse themselves by torturing cats, mentally handicapped women are pimped out by their own siblings, and all sorts of other grotesqueries occur. The film had a limited run in the festival circuit, where it was met with mixed reviews, and the distribution company First Line Features backed a very brief theatrical run of the film. Mainstream audiences, by and large, were having none of it.
Korine also wrote and directed Julien Donkey Boy (1999), which attempted to adhere to the creative restraints imposed by the Dogme 95 manifesto, and even though Korine did deviate in some cases (for instance, using non-diegetic sound in certain segments), Von Trier himself praised the film. The film was shot entirely on low-fi, consumer-grade cameras, and follows the exploits of a schizophrenic man named Julien who lives in an abusive household. It is also notable for featuring veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog in the role of Julien’s volatile father. But ultimately, the film had a very limited audience. The only US city where it had any sort of theatrical run was in LA over the course of a few weeks. After that, there were only a few screenings of the film in Europe.
One notable recent outing of Korine’s (and one that raises questions as to whether or not the filmmaker has crossed over) was the A24-produced Spring Breakers (2012), which tells the story of four college age girls who descend into a drug-fueled spree of violent crime during their spring break. The film featured James Franco and Selena Gomez in starring roles, and has grossed roughly $30 million.
In many ways, the medium of film is still in its infancy. The artistic properties of film have not yet been exhausted, and there is no way of knowing exactly how technology will reshape the distribution and exhibition of film. While transgressive filmmakers have struggled with the more traditional distribution channels in the past, we can hope that advancements in technology will continue to democratize the process by enabling makers to realize their visions with autonomy, and only a fraction of the overhead costs incurred. Viewers, too can also benefit by gaining even greater levels of control over what media they consume.
—Brandon Engel is a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.