November 30, 2006

Wins and Losses: Live From the Gothams

Half Nelson's hat trick rescues long night, raises hard questions

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Half Nelson brain trust of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden accepting one of their film's three Gotham Awards Wednesday night (Photo: STV)

To me, anyway, the most symbolic moment of Wednesday night's Gotham Awards ceremony occurred around 9:30 p.m., when Babel had just been announced as the winner of the year's Best Ensemble Cast award and star Rinko Kikuchi crept to the stage to accept the trophy. The audience reacted with subdued applause. Humbly, in heavily accented English, Kikuchi asked the film's director, Alejandro González Iñárritu to join her and speak on behalf of his primary cast -- Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal and Adriana Barraza, none of whom were in attendance.

Meanwhile, circling a table about 15 feet in front of stage right was another nominated ensemble: the cast of Shortbus, celebrating what were likely the final hours of their storied four-year journey, congregating one last time in the city to which their sex-and-relationship opus signaled both a love letter and -- perhaps, just perhaps -- prodigal offspring.

After all, they were shut out. The Independent Feature Project's Gotham Awards favored flashier, more cosmopolitan companions -- so flashy, in fact, and so cosmopolitan that they couldn't even be bothered to show up.

In fairness, that hardly tells the whole story of the Gothams; not that I (nor anybody, for that matter) even know what the whole story really is in 2006. The brilliant, ambitious New Yorkers behind Half Nelson won three awards, including the evening's Best Feature prize. Director Ryan Fleck, claiming the first of what will hopefully be his many prizes this awards season, exulted with typically dry cheer as he accepted his Breakthrough Director hardware. (Fleck and co-writer/editor Anna Boden also accepted Shareeka Epps' Breakthrough Actor award, which she shared with Kikuchi.) Englishman Steve Barron expressed gratitude for the recognition of his excellent film Choking Man, filmed almost entirely at a diner in Jamaica, Queens. Directing nominee Ramin Bahrani and star Ahmed Razvi represented their stellar Man Push Cart. Accepting her Gothams tribute award, cinematographer Ellen Kuras praised the city's below-the-line industry veterans. "Here we are truly a film community," she said. "We've known each other for 20 years, we've seen each other grow, we've worked on each others' films. ... I know that everybody out there who's behind the camera freezing their butts off at 6 in the morning waiting for everybody to arrive -- they also appreciate (this)."

But then there were the inconsistencies -- the glaring opposites that sunk the room into a hush that could most generously be described as irreverent. Raw, 60-second shorts defining what it meant for filmmakers to be independent preceded speeches by the likes of Edward Norton -- another tribute recipient who freely (and only somewhat self-effacingly) acknowledged that up to 18 months ago he was essentially a mainstream fish.

Norton emphasized the point by recalling the time author Peter Biskind approached him during the writing of the ostensible indie-film chronicle Down and Dirty Pictures. "He called me and he said, 'You know, I'm working on this book and I really need to talk to you' " Norton recalled. "And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well, because you've been in so many of these kind of seminal independent films.' And I said, 'Which ones?' And he said, 'Well, you know: American History X, (The People Versus) Larry Flynt, Fight Club -- these kinds of movies.' And I said, 'Well, unfortunately, those are big studio films that just didn't make very much money. Which, I'm sad to report, are not the same thing.' But he quoted me a lot in the book, and for a while I felt like I had sort of a borrowed indie cred that I didn't really deserve. And it inspired me to get involved in independent films, which, in the last year and a half, I did for the first time."

This is an important point. If, as IFP executive director Michelle Byrd has been at pains to stress of late, "independence" is more abstraction than brand name, awards like Babel's and Norton's and Kate Winslet's likely confused the relative values of each quantity beyond calculation. Such ambiguity does more than make the room safe for majors, however; it imposes an authority vacuum that makes the organization's primary fundraiser an essentially irrelevant event. Worse yet, beyond the tide of unlikely red-carpet walkers (except that the carpet was blue, natch) like Bahrani and So Yong Kim, the Gothams "experience" itself isn't even that interesting. As more than one attendee asked me during and after the show, who can you root for in a rigged game? Half Nelson won three prizes not only because it's excellent, but because it had to -- for the same reason Babel couldn't leave empty-handed. IFP cornered itself into the unadulterated disgrace of stiffing the Shortbus cast, which staked its careers on a movie (a New York movie, by the way) that literally had no precedent before sitting and watching the derivative, deep-pocketed globe-trotter González Iñárritu walk away with their rightful recognition. What's left after that but a shrug and a yawn?

Moreover, as desperately as we all want to support the microbudget likes of Half Nelson and Shortbus and Man Push Cart and IFP's undistributed nominees (Lord knows I've done my part, and not necessarily at the studios' expense either), why do it here, amid identity crises and backbiting and the thick, $25,000-per-table fog of disinclination? Even some of its own honorees couldn't determine why they were selected, and as overheated as I've been on the matter in the past, I think it's a genuine enough concern that some guests walked out actually pining for the days when cherished local figures like Dan Talbot would give 25-minute speeches. At least it wasn't Edward Norton defending his honor for three minutes.

So where to? Are Kuras and the rest of us going to have a community event to come back to in 2007? Are such celebrations just naturally entropic, or can they be restored to reflect the sustainable warmth and efficiency that powers New York cinema as we know it the other 364 days a year? Or, again: Do we even care? What IFP has invested in the Gothams -- namely, its entire mission (don't forget that Half Nelson was a No Borders project participant at the 2004 IFP Market) -- is overshadowed by encroaching ambivalence that it can't continue to ignore. Or can it? All I know is what I see and hear: A long night with long faces and the unmistakable SOS of an institution in trouble.

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Comments (5)

Well put and perfectly observed - the Shortbus loss is near-tragic. Babel is perhaps the most over-stuffed movie of AGI's career; diminishing returns, basic black & white characterizations, sensationalist and simple-minded, it tells us nothing new but plows a very worn field of politically correct incorrectness and to what end? SHORTBUS, on the other hand, is a triumph in every sense, and most of all, in the audacity and bravery of its cast, it's brilliant ENSEMBLE, who, to be fair, are not the best actors across the board, but is that really the point? They expose a human truth in the most human way, with tenderness, compassion, and love - it's all there. The true spirit of our city,our people, a spirit that, sadly after the Gotham Awards, seems under threat of total extinction. Please people, take up arms, FIGHT THE POWER.

The problem with the Gotham Awards points to the problems in the "independent" community itself: this crisis was highlighted earlier in the year by the closing of AIVF. But it's a crisis that is symptomatic: cleaving to the remnants of "independence" becomes more and more difficult in an economy increasingly embedded in a rigid structure of haves and have-nots, and no organization can survive without financial input from "the industry" and recognizing that fact compromises the integrity of independence. It's a vicious cycle, but does anyone have any other solutions?

Great piece, Stu. I think it's a travesty that Inarritu's cast doesn't seem to want to help support the movie. I'm sure he could have found some fine unknowns to play Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's parts but the point of getting known stars is to have their support when the film starts generating interest. I guess they felt their festival appearances were enough.

Great piece, Stu. I for one hope that independence is still something more than an abstraction :)

Second that from B.Clark and others. Would just add that of all the articles on this ongoing issue, this was the most thoughtful. Let's hope such pressure turns the tide from ambivalence to true support of indies. I think it's needed now more than ever. All that said, kudos to Half Nelson.

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A hard look at the Gotham Awards from Stu VanAirsdale at The Reeler: If, as IFP executive director Michelle Byrd has been at pains to stress of late, "independence" is more abstraction than brand name, awards like Babel's and Norton's... [Read More]