Comments on watching and making films.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Comic Book Lady

Being an independent filmmaker is harder than ever, these days. Most people would say that, with the advent of digital technology, it's become easier, but that's a lie. 10 to 15 years ago, you could make a film on your own and sell it to a smaller, independent distributor, or the indie wing of a major studio. They were gobbling these films up because, at the time, there weren't that many of them. Now, however, with High Definition technology making major advances, and standard definition Mini-DV becoming just as acceptable as 16mm as a filmmaking tool, films from all over the world, by every man, woman, or child who can afford a digital camera, have flooded the market. Even with the increase in film festivals, there are about 300 to 400% more films competing for spots in film festivals, in theaters, and, eventually on the shelves of Blockbuster or you Netflix queue, than when the independents were re-born in the early to mid-nineties with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and others. What does this mean? Well, it means you have to try a lot harder to make something that catches the people making the decisions at the festivals, for the distributors, and for the DVD market. But can you make something great, without compromising completely. I think you can, and I think Shayne Barker did exactly that with his debut feature film The Comic Book Lady.

The film concerns a comic store owner, played with incredible insight by Kathleen Jackson (who, in real life, owns the comic shop the film is set in, and was Barker's inspiration for the film). The comic book lady's life is filled with routine - wake up in the morning to a husband who is only interested in loving himself, go to work, deal with weird customers who often times try to connect with the unassuming Kathleen, either out of sheer loneliness or bold stupidity, then close up shop, and go back home to her hateful, obnoxious, and selfish husband. As the film goes on, we meet an interesting cast of misfits that walk through the doors of the shop, constantly looking for some relationship with Kathleen, but she is either unable or unwilling to give it to them. Their attempt at interaction with her is always met with a minimum of response - a nod, a stare, or sometimes she will come out from behind her counter and show someone what they're looking for, but never a word. In fact Kathleen doesn't talk at all through out, almost, the entire film.

What The Comic Book Lady does is take this woman's private pain and deliver it to the audience the same way that the comic book lady interacts with her customers - through little moments. The film is set up as a series of vignettes, all of which take place in either the comic book shop, or in her home. We see her, consistently, being used by everyone around her to achieve their own needs, whether it be companionship, to make themselves feel better about themselves, or just to get some dinner.

Through these little vignettes, Barker drives home the redundancy and quiet desperation of this woman's life. Like Lars Von Trier, Barker is uncompromising in his push to make the audience FEEL what his character is going through. You don't just look at this woman and say "Yeah, she's got it bad", you actually feel the desperation of her life as she deals with idiots in her store, and a self-hating husband who consistently berates her at every turn. At times, as an audience member, Barker can drive you to the brink of insanity with this constant deluge of hopelessness, but ultimately, he's accomplishing a huge feat. Most directors get you to understand what their characters are going through, but very few actually make you feel what their characters are going through.

The Comic Book Lady is NOT an easy film, but it is quite an experience. Like Dancer In The Dark, I left the theater feeling like I had experienced this woman's life. It took me to places that were uncomfortable to be in. It lifted me up, turned me upside down, and shook out everything I had, and I feel like I have some slightly better understanding of humanity for it. 

The Comic Book Lady IS, however, the reason that independent cinema exists. I love a great popcorn and soda movie just as much as anyone does, but in the end, the reason we go to movies, to plays (and, to a much lesser extent, watch television), or read books, is that we are trying to find some way to connect, some way to feel things that we aren't feeling in our everyday lives. The Comic Book Lady gives you that chance. It may not be the kind of feelings you thought you wanted to feel at that moment, but it may be something you need to feel. It may be a catharsis you didn't even know you needed. Barker and Jackson weave a tale that needs to be told. It is both hilarious and heartbreaking, just like real life, and for that I have to salute both of them.

A few other random reasons to see this film - 

- It's shot on beautiful Kodak Double X 16mm black and white film.
- Toby Radloff and Harvey Pekar both make hilarious guest appearances.
- Jackson's performance is the definition of saying everything, while saying nothing.

After the screening at the San Antonio Film Festival, I talked to Shayne about the film. Here's a little video of it - 

Interview With Shayne Barker from Stewart Schuster on Vimeo.

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