16 July 2008


Watch enough of any kind of movie, and you're going to start seeing a lot of flaws crop up over and over again, and within the American indie cinema, the biggest problems are mostly related to the tininess of the productions: when too few people are divided between jobs that they're no good at, when ambition runs hard up against budget. Basically, I'm trying to say that I was at a very good point to enjoy T. Arthur Cottam's Carbuncle, which comes up with just about the cleverest solution I can imagine to those towering problems with the microbudget scene. Rather than ignore those problems (as so many do) or bend his production to his abilities (something rarely done, and it usually ends up making for really damn dull movies), Cottam indulges in all of the horribleness you can imagine in a clich├ęd low-budget drama, and then boxes it up inside a framework that sets it apart from the audience, all -style. It is, frankly, one of the smartest films about filmmaking I have seen in many, many days.

Like Fellini's meta-masterpiece, Carbuncle is a work of gnarled layers that get more confusing the more you dig into them, but basically, the film is presented as the video documentary produced during the making of a film called "Carbuncle", written and directed by the egomaniacal eccentric T. Arthur Cottam, played by Carbuncle's writer-director, T. Arthur Cottam. About half of the film - our film, not the film-within-the-film - is made up of full-frame taped interviews with the cast and crewheads, and half is widescreen footage (still tape, I think, but filtered to look film-like) of "Carbuncle", which in the grand tradition of overreaching small-time art, has at least two apparently disconnected plotlines, involving a drunk social worker who falls in love with his developmentally disabled client in a trailer park, while a divorced father tries to hide his son from his ex.

It's hard to describe the film without giving away some late reveals, but it's safe to say that its best moments revolve around the arrogant, obsessed visionary who wants to make a film without seeming to know what that film is about, and the creative team that gamely follows him into the mouth of madness, assuming that since he's so unpleasant, he must be a genius. This despite his overwhelming lack of social skills, made manifest in his repeated attempts to find out what retarded people (his words, not mine) think of sex. It doesn't take us very long to note that his behavior is very characteristic of Asperger's syndrome, and that he either has that disease himself, or like so many irritating hipsters, wants to have the disease, to explain away his personal failings.

I have no idea whether Cottam-in-reality is at all like Cottam-in-the-movie, but either way I salute with some awe his willingness to pitch headfirst into a role that makes him seem like such a colossal dick. In which he is not alone: as much as it's a fairly clear-eyed study of the frustrations of mental impairment, Carbuncle is also a bloody-minded satire of the vacuousness of Film People. An actress proclaims, late in the film, that she thinks "Carbuncle" is going to be pretty great, despite all the evidence we've seen and her own testimony about how awkward the shoot was; that's just the most straightforward expression of a theme running through the movie, that nobody on a film set wants to admit that they'd be better off elsewhere, no matter how painful things get. The whole thing is ultimately a commentary on self-unawareness, both the kind that your brain forces on you and the kind that you adopt as a defensive mechanism, and a very honest (sometimes unto meanness) picture it paints.

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