Sometimes for critics of critics, there's a desire for the critical to set aside the sniping and actually make something. Film critics and bloggers Andrew Grant of Like Anna Karina's Sweater and Aaron Hillis, a writer for The Village Voice, Premiere, and IFC News [pictured right to left] are doing something like that with the creation of their DVD distribution company Benten Films and the release of their first title, LOL on Aug. 28. As champions in print of often overlooked indie and international movies, Hillis and Grant will be attempting to make available for home viewing some of their favorite titles, starting with a few movies like Aaron Katz's Dance Party U.S.A. and Quiet City which have received some additional New York media attention in the last ten days by being featured at the IFC Center's series The New Talkies: Generation DIY. Gothamist recently chatted with the bespectacled Brooklynites about the now over-used moniker "mumblecore," film fandom and where to find a dosa that's like a $3 orgasm.
There's been a lot of chatter and discussion in the last week or so about this new genre "mumblecore." What common aspects of the filmmakers' efforts do you find to be the most exciting?
AARON: Let me first offer up a friendly disclaimer, since I think that word's starting to get a little more attention than the individual films: Mumblecore isn't really a genre, movement, aesthetic, brand or clique. I mean, it's fantastic that this new wave of DIY auteurs are gaining wider attention because of their similar resourcefulness and loosely overlapping creative/social networks, but to pigeonhole them is to wrongly dismiss their singular works as cookie-cutter or some trendy flash in the pan. Beyond that, the only comparison I'd make between any of these films is that they all avoid stereotypes and gimmickry in favor of character-driven naturalism and warts-and-all vulnerability. It's been really refreshing to see young filmmakers who are mature enough to critique the world, including and especially their own viewpoints, from such an impartial distance.
Do you think these directors and their works are about to breakout into the mainstream, or are they better suited for the festival circuit and word of mouth, fan-based promotion?
ANDREW: One key factor that draws people to a film is cast name recognition, so these non-professional casts will make for one of the biggest distribution challenges. We're hoping that the positive reviews of LOL and the strength of the material will encourage people to check it out. The festival circuit has been wonderful for many of these films, but part of our decision to release both LOL and the Aaron Katz double feature stems from a desire to reach audiences outside of that limited circle. This is why all of our releases, regardless of budget, will be given the deluxe treatment. These are great films, and while a simple slapdash release would be easier (and cheaper!), we want the finished product to express exactly how much we admire the film.
AARON: To that extent, I'd say Benten is a sort of fan-based promotion.
How did you first become aware of Joe Swanberg's work, particularly LOL, which you're now releasing on DVD?
ANDREW: In December 2005, I was invited to be on an indieWIRE panel about film blogging at the Apple Store in Soho. At the afterparty, Chris Wells (one of LOL's collaborators/actors) introduced himself to me, and we found an instant rapport over the films of Hong Sang-soo. He told me about this film he co-created with Joe Swanberg, and handed me a screener. Honestly, it sat on a pile unwatched for several months, but then I popped it in one night, and fell in love with what I saw.
What scene or part of the movie made you realize you had to be the ones to put it out on DVD?
ANDREW: The Chris Wells/Greta Gerwig relationship in the film, which consists entirely of one-way phone conversations, voicemails, and camera phone pictures – I'd never seen anything like that before, and I felt it beautifully captured the paradigm of the modern relationship.
AARON: I've seen plenty of films about online addictions and human disconnections, but the way Joe, Chris, and Kevin Bewersdorf satirize their real-life dramas through uncomfortable comedy (or dramatize the cosmic jokes against them, however you want to look at it) just seemed so witty, perceptive and unusual.
What has been the biggest headache (or triumph) of starting your own DVD imprint, Benten Films?
ANDREW: That's easy—the LOL cover. As this was our first release, I felt the cover simply had to pop. We went through three designers and countless concepts, but nothing made the kind of statement we were looking to make. With only days to go before we had to deliver print materials to Ryko, Aaron and I had the idea late on Friday night to ask photographer Jennifer Loeber if she would shoot something new for the cover. Early the next morning, we were on a Brooklyn rooftop with Chris Wells shooting the wonderful image that graces the cover. My gratitude to her is eternal—I couldn't possibly be happier with the way it turned out.
AARON: Full disclosure: Jennifer's so ridiculously talented that I married her last October.
In the recent Pixar movie Ratatouille, the food critic Anton Ego writes in his review of Remy the rat's cooking: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new." Do you think that's true, and how do you each see your work as film critics in relation to your new efforts with Benten to support "overlooked gems that deserve greater recognition"?
ANDREW: With the occasional exception, my blog (www.filmbrain.com) usually focuses on films that are either lesser known, forgotten, or simply not available in the US. I regularly receive emails from people asking how they can see these films, which became one of the reasons I started Benten. Aaron and I made the decision to put ourselves on the front line—to stand behind each release as both critics and cinephiles, and I think we're unique in that regard. Some of the films we'll be releasing will be from unfamiliar names, and I'm hoping to leverage my exposure as a blogger/critic such that people will eventually know what to expect from a Benten release.
AARON: Substitute Andrew's blog above for the publications I regularly write for and I'd say he pretty much said it all. Behold, our critical reputations lie naked before you.
Where's your favorite place to see a movie in the city?
ANDREW: I love going to the Ziegfeld, especially when it's crowded. The energy in the room is almost enough to make a bad film (eg. any of the Star Wars prequels) tolerable. In the early '90s, I went four times in two weeks to see the restored Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, it was that great.
AARON: The Walter Reade is always worth the schlep from Brooklyn, especially during my favorite event of the film calendar: The New York Film Festival.
Best cheap eat in the city?
AARON: I'm rarely in Union Square these days, but sometimes I get random cravings for Republic's spinach noodles with soy-lime sauce (#41 on the menu, it's very filling).
ANDREW: The Dosa Hut in Flushing, Queens. It's worth the epic ride on the 7 train. The Special Butter Masala Dosa is like a $3 orgasm.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
AARON: At the risk of losing points with my wife by not taking the easy answer: I most admire whoever wins in a demolition derby between Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Ken Jacobs.
ANDREW: As a born and raised NY'er, I feel I have to pick a fellow lifer. No matter how much this city occasionally gets me down, watching a Woody Allen film makes me fall in love with the place all over again.
What's your idea of a perfect day in New York?
ANDREW: An overcast, autumnal Sunday. A northern chill in the air, the wind blowing fallen leaves around my ankles. Cold enough to sip a hot chocolate while staring at Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights promenade. Brunch at some sleepy bistro with a group of friends, followed by a Gene Tierney double feature at Film Forum. Wait... now I think I'm living inside a Woody Allen film.
AARON: The arrangement still needs to be worked out, but it involves lots of coffee, brisk weather, a film I can't get out of my mind, the restaurant that finally convinces me New York has fantastic Mexican food hiding somewhere, a B-list celebrity spotting, an amazing find at a stoop sale, and the MTA is on time.
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you in New York?
AARON: How about some quick fun facts? Since moving to New York in early 2001, I've been held up twice, once by gunpoint and once by knifepoint. Between those two incidents, I was forced to kick a very large, muscular man in the testicles (after throwing my pommes frites in his face—it's a long story!) to prevent him from brutalizing me in the middle of the afternoon on East 1st. And last year, Andrew and I were suckered into being contestants on a reality-TV game show, for which we won $1100.
ANDREW: I once spent an entire night in Central Park with a girlfriend whose dream it was to lie in the Sheep Meadow and stare at the stars. Shortly before dawn, we met a couple who invited us back to their swanky apartment on Central Park West for breakfast. In hindsight, both were incredibly stupid things to do, but at 17, you tend to live on your impulses. Breakfast was great, by the way.