Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ellie Parker

Yesterday I watched the film Ellie Parker, a DV feature starring Naomi Watts. As a big David Lynch fan, this film is interesting because it's like another chapter in the story of Naomi's Mulholland Dr. character. If her friend Sam from this film got big, I could easily see their relationship segueing into the story of Diane and Camilla. I don't think this film is anywhere near as good as Mulholland, but it's not setting out to tell a story with that ambition, rather this film is concerned with reality of everyday life for an aspiring actress. It takes place in a world that feels very real, and I would guess is largely based on Watts' own experience as a struggling actress in L.A.

She's in virtually every scene, so the film pretty much is Naomi Watts' performance, and again she proves that she's one of the best actresses working today. Her work in the audition scene in Mulholland Dr. is one of my favorite all time acting moments, and here we get to see her similarly move in and out of different characters, shining above the subpar scripts she's sent. It's easy to see how a great actress can make even bad material work really well when she delivers the "I sucked Vinnie's cock" monologue with total commitment to the role. At the end, surrounded by coked out producers, she still gives her all and sells the script.

Being somewhat involved in the film industry, I feel like I can better sympathize with what Ellie goes through over the course of the film. I'm still in school, making films that may get some festival play, but not too much, and certainly won't make any money. Yet, when I held auditions for The Perfect Dose, we got tons of people, some of them who had traveled hours just to audition. I'd like to consider that a compliment to the script, but it's also about the fact that people are desperate for roles to put stuff on their reel and try to get cast in bigger roles. As an actress, she's totally powerless, forced to grovel to the producers because they hold the way for her to her name out there. Witness the scene with Chris after the car crash, in which she offers to appear in basically anything he does, just so she can get something on her reel.

I think the opening chunk of the film, depicting Ellie moving from audition to audition, does a fantastic job of drawing you into her world and showing what it's actually like for a struggling actress. It's only a glamorous world once you become famous, for the vast majority of actors, it's all about slumming it, trying to get that big break. I'd like to think that the people who ended up doing my film all felt it was a worthwhile experience, but ultimately they have ended up feeling like they were wasting their time because they're better than the material. Certainly, if you look at Naomi's IMDB credits list, roles in Tank Girl and Children of the Corn IV probably weren't the most fulfilling acting experiences. And I'm guessing that she poured a lot of that frustration into both her character in Mulholland Dr. and into the character here.

Ellie wasn't a particularly well reviewed film and I think a large reason for that is that people feel like films about film are too self referential and clever, and to some extent that's true. I really disliked The Player because it was about all too obvious gags about how stupid Hollywood thinks the audience is. So, the audience gets to laugh at the big wigs because of their calculated self deprecation. Ellie is a much more real film, the setting is Hollywood, but the feelings of degradation and loss of self could apply to a wide variety of jobs. The film is about the way that people sacrifice parts of themselves in pursuit of stability and happiness, never made more clear than in the discussion about using traumatic experiences as fuel for acting. Ellie is jealous of people who had awful things happen to them because she feels like it gives their acting a verisimilitude she can never match.

Take a look at books, we've all read some of the "Poor me" memoirs, like Angela's Ashes, that take a bad childhood and turn them into a best seller. If Frank McCourt didn't have an alcoholic father and an awful childhood, would anyone read his book? So, at this point in his life it would seem that those awful experiences were actually a blessing. A JT Leroy type scandal makes clear how envied these bad experiences are. Beyond just the fuel, I feel like Ellie wants an experience that makes her special, more than just countless other actresses at auditions. She wants gravitas, but for all her skill, can't find it.

I can definitely relate to her issues here, I often view social situations as experiments to eventually incorporate into films. I think part of being an artist is this distance from direct emotion, the knowledge that everything you do could potentially wind up spun into a film, performance or song. At the end, when Ellie rejects her acting career she tries to restart communication with a bunch of friends she'd lost touch with. The implication is pursuing acting disconnects her from reality and puts her in a bubble where her emotions are used only to service a performance, yet all the roles she auditions for are cliched and not worthy of her suffering.

The film was shot on digital video and I read a couple of reviews that really criticized it for the look. On the one hand, yeah, it could look better, but the actual shots and style are much better than a lot of films that look better aesthetically. I also saw The Illusionist yesterday and it was alright, but the compositions were so staid, I was waiting for the film to give me a big pop moment and got nothing, while Ellie was consistently full of innovative, exciting shots and moments. I feel like shooting on DV gives you a freedom to be much more experimental, I know I'd rather see a film that's shot in an exciting way than one that just puts the tripod down, sets up the lights and does wide, single, single coverage.

Doing a couple of days on a film set over the weekend really reinforced this. They would spend hours getting the lighting right on a shot than just do a boring conventional shot. Where's the handheld, where's the dynamic two shot? I like some well composed still shots, but very rarely is traditional coverage the best way to do a scene, and luckily Ellie keeps things interesting. I would consider the cinematography on Ellie Parker better than that of The Illusionist even though The Illusionist clearly has the aesthetic advantage. For me, cinematography is more about motion and creating energy than just making a pretty picture. That's why the best cinematography is stuff like The New World or Doyle's work on Fallen Angels, films that have tons of energy and crazy handheld moving work, but also are aesthetic marvels in every frame.

In terms of wielding DV, I feel like Lynch's new one is going to be a major achievement because this is a guy who's a master cinematic composer totally freed from the restrictions of traditional film, able to engage in a lot more experimentation. That's the thing that people don't consider when looking at the final product of a film, the fact that DV may not look as good aesthetically, but it gives the artist freedom to try a lot more shots, more movement, more depth, that will ultimately make a better looking shot than you would get with traditional film.

But, back to Ellie Parker. This is the sort of film I want to make, and have made with Ricky Frost and the upcoming All Good Things, films that a snapshot of a person's life, following them through a series of ordinary events that when looked at from afar, have a thematic cohesion not apparent in one's daily life. I love the style, I love the subject matter and most of all I love Naomi Watts' performance, totally becoming the character to the point that you don't see the acting at all. Definitely give this a look.

Related Posts
Mulholland Dr.: Some Analysis (4/11/2004)
My Favorite Actresses (1/17/2005)
The New Lynch Film and Digital Filmmaking (5/12/2005)


Mick Huerta said...

Even though free with a library card, I couldn't watch this... story telling that left me cold. Who cares about this character and her trials and flaccid tribulations. I didn't. From first screen a corpse. R.I.P..

Patrick said...

To each his own I guess. I think the movie's largely interesting as a companion to Mulholland Dr. You could even argue that troubled Ellie here is the same character Watts plays in MD. I liked the handheld DV aesthetic of the film, but I could just as easily see people not getting into it.

pdf viewer said...

I watched the movie only because of Naomi who is my favorite actress of all the time, to tell the truth, but I was very pleased on the whole - it was not only her performance that I loved, but also the plot, the atmosphere of the film at all and the feelings it aroused while watching.