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Monthly Archives: February 2014

RYAN GRAIN FACE Awide

Saturday, March 1,7 pm will be screening Over Here for Millennium Film Workshop at the Brooklyn Fireproof Gallery.  http://millenniumfilm.org/2014/02/jon-jost-over-here/

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OVER HERE (Jon Jost, 2008) (Dennis Grunes, critic)

 

Jon Jost, who has said he is “independently poor,” is thus able, as he tells it, to make without interference or compromise the films he wants to. For a decade now he has been working in digital video. Last year’s Passages is, for me, bar none, the best film of 2006; this year’s Over Here is “a kind of companion-piece,” according to Jost, to Homecoming, which for me is the best American film of 2004. Both films were shot in Oregon, Homecoming in Newport, Over Here in Portland. Both revolve around George W. Bush’s self- and crony-serving war in Iraq, but from the vantage of the homefront. In the ironically titled Homecoming (the title refers also to Jost’s own return from Europe to the U.S.), a soldier has been sent home for burial from Iraq following his absurd drowning death; the returning veteran is alive in “Over Here,” but, shattered, he is lost both to himself and the parents who love him. Jason is as lost to America as America is to him. He ends up homeless, living with a companion under a bridge. His silent tenderness towards her—he caresses her head, gently awakening her to a new day—suggests the waste of his humanity that a mendacious, oil-mad administration has wrought. It also suggests Jason’s adaptability, the humanity he is able to bring to an alternative world apart from the America that Bush’s poisonous presidency has befouled. The title reverses the jingoistic geographical reference of the George M. Cohan song from World War I, “Over There.” Following film’s end, there appears Jost’s statement about the war, including his call for domestic impeachments and trials in the World Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is unlikely that there will be any more powerful movie than this one this year.

The pre-credit opening is poetic and poignant. It is the long-held tight closeup of a boy in his twenties. The image is in black and white except (perhaps!) for an elusive tinge of orange-pink in the boy’s “white” face. It is a degenerative image, a blowup appearing as a dark sea of dots, and its aural accompaniment is electronic discordance, science-fiction chords. The image itself—the boy—is mute. He speaks (to whom, we later find out, although a prefaratory snip suggests an answer); but his ordeal “over there,” which has rearranged his psyche, dissolving into dots his connections to reality, he finds himself at a loss to communicate. He covers his face with his hands. This pre-credit passage is subtitled Over There, as though that were the film’s title. Jason, the boy, has brought “over there” back home with him. It has taken over him as might an alien-something in a sci-fi horror film.

Post-opening credits, the first sequence takes place in a Portland café. There is a glossy shot of the clean interior. Jason is at the counter, and even when he is out of the shot or in the background, no matter what Jost’s camera sets in the foreground, we cannot take our mind off the boy. In effect, we have followed him from the pre-credit sequence and we want to learn more about him. Sometimes we see in closeup, in the foreground, some man doing business on the phone; for as long as the mise-en-scène allows, however, our eye is drawn to Jason in the background. At another time, a chessboard fills the front of the shot: chess—a board game based on a medieval battlefield. Finally, Jason leaves, and the brief stroboscopic shot of him outside in overcast weather conveys his agitation, which is further underscored by an unexpected cut back to the café, where all is calm and ordinary. Three brief static shots follow, the first two of which establish locale in the Ozuvian manner, and the third of which is similar except that Jason, in long-shot, walks into the frame, away from the camera, and leans against a parked car. This transforms the first two shots in the sequence, which now tell us that Jason has been walking a long way. A subsequent sequence of shots finds Jason walking into the frame, away from the camera, down a street. A subsequent traveling shot across a bridge suggests one of two things: Jason has hitched a ride to where he is staying; a merciful Jost has found a way to get us to Jason’s immediate destination more quickly than Jason has been able to manage. Somehow Jost succeeds in giving the combat veteran’s focused walking—Jason is proceeding to a definite place—a condition of aimlessness and passivity, as though Jason’s war experience has rendered him a will-o’-the-wisp.

In between the two passages of Jason walking is an interlude in an advertising agency. It is Saturday, and only the head of the agency and one of his minions are in the otherwise abandoned place, the head in his private office, the employee, Chris, in his cubicle, and this arrangement, besides relieving Jost of the necessity to come up with a bunch of extras, intensifies the exchange between the two men. The claustrophobic nature of the shots that Jost devises also assists in this, as does the contrast between the office space and the outdoor scenes where Jason proceeds under an immense, darkening sky.

Clearly the agency head is distracted in his private office, which not coincidentally posits him up against a brick wall. Restless, he ventures out of his official space to needle Chris for his being distracted. (It is Saturday, after all, and Portland is famous for being a city where “people work to live rather than live to work.”) Chris is devising the front page of a Web site for a client, which the boss finds too busy, the implication being that Chris’s head is too full of irrelevant clutter that he is (as is his wont) projecting onto his work. “Boy trouble?” the agency head asks, reminding Chris that he is obligated to leave all that at home and concentrate at work to meet the looming deadline for the agency client. The “boy” in question is Jason, whom Chris has picked up off the street, in front of the county’s main library, and taken into his home. “He’s not like the others,” Chris remarks. Chris, it turns out, has successfully rationalized his exploitation of Jason as pure compassion, and he is attempting to enlarge the reference of his positive self-image by putting his boss into the picture. A Vietnam veteran, surely this man might talk to the house-guest. The boss won’t have any of Chris’s plan; he has spent a lifetime suppressing his identity as warrior and the after-effects of his tour(s) of duty. It may even be the case that his own level of distraction is part of these distant after-effects. Instead, he warns Chris not to play social worker and to turn Jason over to those who might really be able to help him. In effect, he is telling his employee to stop playing with fire. The two men are alike, each dressing his inclination to exploit in the garb of concern. Workplace politics prevail, and the agency head, standing, looms over Chris, who is seated in front of his computer.

The passage is fairly clunkish; indeed, the entire film lacks fluidity, is structured instead as a series of set-pieces with fadeouts and deep blackouts, which in concert with other techniques suggests Jason’s mental and moral fragmentation and the disintegration of his ego. Form expresses content.

Chris fails to take his boss’s advice; he cannot bring himself to give up the boy. But fueled by his boss’s derision and his own consequent humiliation, he compensates by confronting Jason. Have you really been looking for work? Why is your jacket on the floor? Where is my iPod, Jason? (Jason, we know, does steal.) Home politics prevail, and Chris, standing, looms over Jason, who is on the living room couch as a radio or television program proceeds. We hear the program, and hear it clearly, but the verbal exchange between the two men fluctuates in clarity and volume as Jost, as he does throughout the film, plays with sound levels in an effort to express Jason’s interiority—just how, that is, that Jason feels. This is one of the film’s most brilliant aspects. In any case, Chris keeps at Jason relentlessly, verbally spanking him again and again, and in a subsequent scene Jason explodes. He had been in agitated sleep in a living room chair, his mind back in Iraq, and an inaudible Chris, standing, looms over him pontificating about something or other. Jost cuts from the sleeping Jason, one of whose hands grips an arm of the chair, to Chris, whose annoying intimidation is captured by a low camera tilted upwards. At first we aren’t certain whether Chris at that moment is a part of Jason’s dream; but all of a sudden, accompanied by a rocketing into normal sound, Jason is on the floor attempting to break Chris’s neck. His nightmare flashback—what occupied his mind until Chris broke his slumber—has him, now that he is nominally awake, back in Iraq still. We know this because Jason shouts “fucking Hadji!” as he assaults Chris. Or does he kill Chris? A shot holds on Chris’s lifeless face as though to decide the matter; but what we see may be a Chris playing possum whom Jason leaves on the living room floor.

This in-effect flashback to war is followed by an actual flashback that indeed may disclose the content of Jason’s in-chair dream of Iraq. It is a social scene whose centerpiece, out of focus and stroboscopic (and hence a projection of Jason’s own agitation), is someone singing the song “Hadji Girl” whose lyrics got their author, Marine Cpl. Joshua Belile, into such hot water. In the song, a U.S. Marine in Iraq foils an attempt to assassinate him by grabbing a girl’s “little sister” and having her take the lethal bullets meant for him from the girls’ father and brothers. In addition to making monstrous fun out of murder, the lyrics ridicule Islam. The song is also, of course, racist. We hear the soldiers in attendance laughing. Jost edits into this scene a montage of scenes, some of them snippets of Iraqi humanity that contest the song’s dehumanizing cruelty. The song, we understand, boosts the morale of the troops, like an old-time Bob Hope Christmastime show; its viciousness allows us to gauge the unhinged humanity of the U.S. warriors given the perilous situation into which they have been plunged. The song, then, encapsulates the horror of Bush’s war from which returning soldiers like Jason may never be able to escape.

This is the song’s refrain: “Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad/ Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah.” But another line is thematically relevant to Over Here: “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” The lyric refers to U.S. ignorance of Arabic; but it becomes meaningful in another way as well. Throughout the film Jost stresses Jason’s feeling that he no longer belongs at home, that he cannot connect with others at the very moment that he most needs to, because his war experience has discombobulated him, leaving him incapable of communicating what he has undergone and what his needs are. Ryan Harper Gray, who plays Jason, is deeply affecting disclosing enormous pain and sadness, a broken soul. This is a great performance.

After leaving his adoptive/adopted home, Chris’s house, Jason visits his parents, apparently for the first time since returning to Portland. This passage is massively moving, nearly intolerably so. Despite parental pleas, Jason cannot stay. He must move on, accepting his condition of homelessness much as Ethan Edwards at the close of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) chooses to wander between the winds.

The “conversation” among parents and son before Jason’s sad though perhaps necessary departure constitutes the part of the film I love most. (The entire film, incidentally, is 1¼ hours in length.) With darkness at the top and bottom of the screen, the face of each of the three characters occupies his or her own square in a row across the screen. Mother and Father flank Jason. (Bibi Walton and Jerry Carlton are excellent as the parents.) There is much silence and pain as Jason dissolves into sadness; what talk is there is inaudible. It is impossible for Jason to unburden himself. Each one is helpless. In the middle, Jason disappears entirely, leaving behind a black square—this, a projection of how he feels, and the loss to them of their son that his parents dread. When he reappears, his face now fills a square larger than the ones occupied by his parents, ironically indicating the attempts by his parents to hold onto him, but finding this impossible, and his own attempt to hold onto himself. The parents’ faces disappear into the darkness; when they reappear, Jason is out-of-frame, and their squares are adjacent. “Please don’t go,” we manage to hear the mother say. We hear the door close behind Jason. Now only the mother is visible; adjacent to her is darkness—a visual projection of the loss of her son.  We next see Jason underneath the bridge some morning. We know that time has passed from the presence of his companion. Amidst normal sound, his hearing goes into silence and comes back out. His haunted face visually frays. The girl with him makes no demands because she isn’t connected to his past. In his own way, Jason also may be wandering between the winds.

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SM ROXONMARFLOORENDMarshall Gaddis and Roxanne Rogers in SLOW MOVES

Following a very nice screening of Last Chants for a Slow Dance at Light Industry (155 Freeman, Greenpoint, Brooklyn), to a sold out house and very nice response, this weekend we follow up with screenings of four different films at Spectacle, 124 S. 3rd St., (near Bedford), Brooklyn, NY.  See this:   http://www.spectacletheater.com/jon-jost/

bd-baseballMarshall Gaddis in Bell Diamond

Films showing will be Slow Moves, Bell Diamond, Parable, and The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima.   I’ll be there for all screenings (hope there’s a good wi-fi cafe and/or bar nearby!)

KATSU1_22smThe Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima

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Parable

Yesterday I went to MoMA’s documentary series to see my friend Peter Snowdon’s film, The Uprising.  I’d seen it in a rough form 3 years ago, and at the time he was very discouraged and said he was ready to stop and give up on it.  I found what I saw very strong and encouraged him to carry on and figure it out and finish.  He says my little nudge helped, and after all this time he finished it.  The film is composed of YouTube and other internet uploads of materials shot by people in the ”Arab Spring,” often rough things shot with cell-phones, i-Pads, DSLRs or whatever people had that they could shoot with.  Peter amassed a huge amount of this, and after his editorial labors I think he’s come up with a really strong and amazingly good film – can I say a kind of “masterpiece”?

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Eschewing voice-over and explanatory materials, the film dives directly into the visceral reality which shifted from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Yemen and Syria, as the populist demand for change, for an end to corruption and dictatorships, spread like wild-fire across the middle-east.  Seizing on this emotional roller-coaster, riding from the delirium of massive crowds to the grim deaths of unarmed civilians in the face of military power, The Uprising seems to me orchestrated as a symphony, using the shifting tonalities and qualities of the various images used – blurred, jagged shifts of light, sometimes shifting into solarized simplicity – and cuts them with an internal aesthetic which verges often towards abstraction, but without ever lapsing and losing the emotional intensity of the situation.  Indeed, I think it is just this abstract infrastructure which makes the film work so powerfully.  Equally, the sound is used in this abstract sense, building into musical crescendos, and then going silent, shifting in concert with the images to orchestrate exactly as do the abstract sounds of a symphony, coaxing, enticing, shifting one’s inner world through pure aesthetics, yet ones which touch deeply inside us.   I know it was a lot of work, but I am glad Peter stuck to it and found (one of) the films which was in his material.  Powerful stuff.

Here’s a listing of upcoming screenings:

February 20, 2014 – 6pm : Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (NY), USA
not a screening, but a talk + Q&A with Peter Snowdon and Bruno Tracq

February 23, 2014 – 5:30pm : Images Cinema, Williamstown (MA), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

February 26, 2014 – 7pm : Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, New Orleans (LA), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

March 3, 2014 – 5:30pm : University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (NC), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

March 7, 2014 – 7:30pm : The Center for Middle East Studies, New Brunswick (NJ), USA
followed by a Q&A with Peter Snowdon

March 27, 2014 – 7:30pm : Université Populaire, Brussels
followed by a talk with Bruno Tracq

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The Cinemateca Portuguese will be mounting a partial retrospective of digital work only, this coming week, February 10 – 15, screening 9 films, including two screenings of Coming to Terms.  Other films showing will be as follows:

Nas correntes de luz da Ria Formosa

6 Easy Pieces

Passages

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Homecoming

Over Here

Parable

Oui Non

Coming to Terms

For the program, dates and times, see:

http://www.cinemateca.pt/Programacao.aspx?ciclo=335&page=1

 

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I have been coming to the Rotterdam festival since 1978, within a few years of its founding.  Way back then it was a small, very filmmaker friendly matter, set in a small building, cozy and comfortable, and a good place to meet other filmmakers in a close way.  I think back then I was here with Angel City, though I am not sure.  The city then was a drab and slightly depressing place, with ugly 50’s and 60’s architecture done on the cheap after the place had been flattened during WW2.  The grim winter weather didn’t help the impression given of a desolate urban realm.

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After that, once the Berlin festival – where I had been a “regular” from the 1977 to 1993 –  declined, in the mid-90’s, to accept digital work on an equal basis with celluloid film, I shifted and came rather regularly to Rotterdam, which had accepted electronic work without hesitation.  I recall a visit back then, and on arrival looking in the catalog to see which department they’d put my film – a digital feature that had cost me a few hundred dollars.  Looking in the avant-garde and whatever sections I did not find it, but then discovered it in the main program, which on the next page had some million plus dollar film.  I liked that attitude.

Over the years I returned – I don’t know how many times, but many – and watched as it grew into a major festival, yearly showing 300+ films, with new cinemas blossoming to accommodate it, and I worried it would lose its friendly manner.  It didn’t.   And I prized it as a festival that actually had an audience, a local one, which would come to any kind of film and usually provided a good house for them.  My screenings were always 2/3rds or more full, Q&A sessions were lively and intelligent.  It made coming to the festival seemingly worthwhile, even if I knew my work was not “marketable,” a matter which seemed increasingly to come into play as the years went by: they established the Cinemart, for filmmakers to make contacts with producers and buyers; they set up the Hub Bals fund (named after the festival’s founder) to help 3rd world filmmakers get on their feet; and it did what it could for those entering the business.  It was one of the best festivals I had been to for independent filmmakers.

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Last time I was here, 3 years ago, I attended Nathaniel Dorsky’s retrospective and saw him sell out a 100 seat theater five nights in a row with different programs, and the festival scheduled some repeats.  We – Nick, Marcella and myself – had a great time.  And my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida, also drew good audiences and responses.   Three years ago.

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This time around has been a completely other story:  while a touch late in the festival, it immediately seemed  to me that there were far fewer people here – the professional kind and spectator kind – than in the past.  Inquiries with some regulars confirmed my sense of this.  And when it came screening time, at 7pm – a good hour – in a good cinema (Cinerama) I secured an audience of around 30 people, mostly older (my age, more or less, and understandably so as it is a film about/for my generation).  During the screening a handful walked out, only 3, younger, stayed for the Q&A.  Well, yes, it was by then a bit late for oldies, but not that late.  I would have liked some to stay so I could get an inkling about what older people see/think about the film.  No dice though.  The second screening at 10 pm drew 15 people, of which 7 left.   3 again stayed for a Q&A.   And, last day of festival, at an 11 am screening there were 10 people.

JAMES BAG 2SMComing to Terms, coming to a terminus

What happened?  I accept I don’t make audience grabbers, or films that work commercially – I make no effort to do so, and accept my very much minority status.  And I know well the world of fashion and style is fickle and changing, and that by most measures I am now an ancient fart.     But…    I’d like to say it was towards the end of the festival, or have some simple explanation like that, but my off-the-cuff reading is something else.

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Entering the communal spaces of the festival I noted that nearly everyone younger was either working as staff for the festival or eager newer filmmakers.  Almost everyone else was older – the pro’s, the critics, and the audience.  Aside from a cohort of younger filmmakers, these festivals feel like geriatric conventions.  As my friend Mark Rappaport told me a few days ago, having come up a week before to install an exhibition of his film-based photo-collages, everyone of the old friends he met all said something that between-the-lines read, “Oh, you’re still alive!”   I think these festivals, along with the cinema in general, is in the midst of a profound social shift, expressed in myriad ways – from attention spans to hard fiscal matters to shifts in tastes and interests.  Younger people prefer video games, texting, whiling the time away on-line with one thing or another.  They seem hardly to notice the distortions of wrong screen ratios, or have a tolerance for slow pacing, or lack of plot-as-core function of a visual medium.  And, for the most part, whether with the specifics of film or art, or the broader matter of society and politics, most seem to have almost no grasp of history.  Of course there are exceptions – even a cluster of a seeming counter-movement of those who do acquaint themselves with history, see meditative work, whether Benning or Dorsky and others, as a palliative to the frenetic pace of the times (though I observe that some of those young friends of mine seem avid users of Facebook and other fragmenting social media.)

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Over the decades I’ve noticed, as have others, that the cinema seems to go through local cultural waves – rising, collapsing, rotting inside in one place, while refreshed in another:  the focus of creative interesting work seemed to culturally shift like some kind of social Rorschach test.  Italy in the postwar period to the mid-60’s; France a touch later; then Germany and elsewhere, and in a spotty manner many other places in a handful of individual filmmakers.  These days in various Asian settings and South America.  (The same phenomenon could be seen in other arts, high and low – whether painting, music, theater.)  My impression is that the cinema is limping to a kind of death, its myriad avenues explored and exhausted, and then in the embrace of pure commerce, delivered a mode of a Mafia kiss.  To paraphrase Ingmar Bergman’s metaphor, it is like a snake-skin filled with maggots, producing movement giving the illusion of life in the throws of death.

Which, in some ways, is appropriate.  Though some few persist, for example, mosaics are not exactly the state-of-visual arts, nor in reality is oil painting.  Mediums technologically arise, are worked, and then are replaced by newer ones.   And both human and broader biological records show the same is true for any culture.

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My grimmer sense is that the cinema is a diversion from the rising avalanche of far more serious matters confronting our species, and in some highly oblique manner, the larger turning-away signals a kind of recognition, for better and worse.  The cultural reality of people buried in their electronic toys – texting, playing a video game, watching some lame TV or movie – which one can see on any subway from Seoul to New Delhi to Paris to New York, all betrays a profound disconnect, a desperate collective effort to be distracted from the obvious calamity we are already immersed in and which we do not want to see or acknowledge.  The old cinema, Hollywood’s dream factory, and all its off-shoots of “serious” work, still holds a mode of internal coherence which represents a negative challenge.  Better in these times, ironically, the short bursts of Twitter, of utterly fragmented habits, which render the world into a fractal and unreadable social cubism – seeing everything simultaneously from all possible angles which leads not to enlightenment, but total obfuscation.  The better to hide and evade the tsunami of the future, which is writing itself ever more clearly and requires ever more frenetic modes of avoidance.  And in which, in our desperate lunge to outrun it, we hasten its arrival with the very tools and toys we use.

The last time I was here in Rotterdam, I spotted Raul Ruiz wandering the area reserved for the professionals, his face betraying that death was nearing him.  He was alone, walking as if lost, among people who in the movie-biz manner all knew him, and he looked for all the world to me as if he was wondering what the hell he’d done with his life, making films, one after another, as if trying to outrun his own death.  He died a few months later, I suspect feeling empty as one of his convoluted films which tended to be formalist exercises absent any real content, much beloved by film critics if few others.

Perhaps it is a good thing that cinema is dying or dead.

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On a more pragmatic level I did manage to see a few films:

Til Madness do us Part – a four hour documentary by Wang Bin, showing the daily life inside an insane asylum in a poorer area of China.   As the inmates are, the spectator is trapped in a closed courtyard, endlessly circling, entering barren and squalid rooms where 4 or more share the space and sometimes the same beds.  The doctors are harsh, delivering up the daily doses of drugs to pacify the inmates; there are those clearly off-the-beam, and others who seem not so crazed, though living in this setting would tax the most sane.  Never boring, the film catches the viewer in a cross-fire of thoughts: sometimes events seem almost orchestrated, sometimes the inmates seem wise to the game and appear to be “acting” for the camera.  One feels a voyeur, violating the space, complicit with the filmmaker.  At the conclusion some suspicions are obliquely answered as title cards indicate that those committed range from violent criminals who have murdered someone, some committed by family, some for “extreme religious belief” (it is the area of China adjacent muslim regions) or political problems.

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Japon – apparently a re-cut of the Reygadas film of some years back.  I have never seen one of his films. I took an hour of this one and left both a bit bored; annoyed with the aesthetics (extreme wide-screen, scruffy DV or some other relatively low-res medium which seemed counter to the wide-screen and landscape images); and I figured where it was headed – sex and gore.  It didn’t warrant the hour I gave it, and certainly not another.

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Bella Vista – shot in and around Missoula, Montana, a first film from Vera Brunner-sung.  An interesting and good, though flawed film, but worthy and good for taking a shot at skipping conventional modes and instead using a rich mosaic approach with the thinnest narrative thread.  Long shots, no explanations, but it held together well despite the minor problems.  Much more interesting  than the numerous American indies who imagine a “hip” sit-com in old-fashioned movie/tv cinematic syntax is worth doing.

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And I think I saw another but it must have left no impression since I can’t recall just what.  Or did I even see another one?

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