Director Ronald Bronstein creates a stir in the theater with his film “Frownland”
Ahhh yes, the Starz Film Festival, Denver’s cock in the culturally aware city ring, our attempt to stake our claim as artistically relevant as other cities like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.
As I sauntered in this year, popping Adderall like sour patch kids, to ascertain whether it was the twelve mimosas I had for breakfast or the lack of interest that caused me to fall asleep during “The Red Elvis,” I realized that the motivation to go to this event says a lot about our interest and what one gets out of festivals such as this. People participate in events like these for different reasons: the parties, to be seen, or to get turned on to something new and exciting. But often we are just looking to attend an event, not participate in art.
Why we go to the movies and why filmmakers create movies have a direct correlation to the films one enjoys. This year at the Starz Film Festival I was afforded an interview with a filmmaker that believes one should walk into a film ready for a fight.
“Frownland” is a film by Ronald Bronstein, an NYU film school drop out who has spent over five years writing and creating the story for the film. He is one of a few new, break-through filmmakers that are leading the avant-garde into a new American film revival. His technique is to cast the actors before writing the script. He does hours of rehearsals and records them all, later transcribing the hours of dialogue, using the actors’ own words to tell his preconceived story.
As Bronstein says, “If you are married to the words in a script, and then you suddenly cast somebody that has no personal relationship to the words, you essentially try to squeegee those words out of their mouths. So I backed up and found people who weren’t actors but had very large personalities. Most of them are very eccentric people or unstable people. Every once in a while you run into these brains that just blow you away. You can’t understand how they can function because they are so much more extreme than you are…it’s like writing with somebody’s brain rather than writing with a pencil.”
That is the essence of “Frownland.”
It is a film about a weak, slobbering, self-loathing character that sells coupon book door-to-door. His roommate abuses him, and the only person he thinks is his friend wants nothing to do with him.
This is not a film you rent on a second date. This is not a film you watch with the whole family at Christmas time. This may not even be a film you watch with anyone. The experience is solely yours.
The film creates an almost narcissistic connection between how you deal with the awkward the obtuse and the ugly aspects of our culture, and what that says about you as an artistic purveyor and person. There is no out, no side door to understanding. As the viewer you are solely responsible for what you take away from the film. It is a 104 minutes of grading antipathy, and guilty humor that leaves the audience with a incendiary feeling of self doubt about how to react to the film and their own reaction to the lead character Keith.
Bronstein believes that it was this performance that induces these feelings. “The lead performance in the movie is the one I think is the strongest, and he expended himself, he turned himself inside out for this film.”
While filming on a budget most films use just on catering, Bronstein paid all expenses out of pocket. The actual amount was not specified; however he did say he got $50,000 from insurance after his apartment burned down. That is when he decided to start filming, while still working as a projectionist during the day.
This has not affected the recognition however. The film won a Special Jury Award at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival, had been an official selection at Maryland Film Festival, and there won the cognizance of film maker Lodge Kerrigan who in Bronstein’s words, “Became the patron saint of the project.”
As a result “Frownland” is getting theatrical distribution in France slated for the spring of ’08. From there the film was shown at the CineVegas Film Festival where it met its most reactionary audiences.
“It wasn’t like people yelling ‘your movie sucked’ or ‘the acting is terrible.’ It was more like people saying ‘why did you do what to me? Why did you make me spend time with that guy? I don’t like how I feel right now.’ What was cool about that is that one guy booed, and he would boo many times, he actual booed, empted the air from his lungs, then refilled and booed again. Then another guy got up and yelled at the booer and then third guy got up and defended the booer’s right to boo. It was this melee, and I really thought someone was going to get punched. It turned out the guy that defended the booer’s right to boo was a critic for Variety and wrote a killer review of the film.”
After the fight in Vegas the film went to the Harvard Film Archives in a program co-curatted by Ray Carney, the leading John Cassavetes scholar who is described by Bronstein as a person “whose staunch commitment to film making that is not sucking off the teat of Hollywood or commercial concerns is staggering” (if you don’t know who John Cassavetes is Google him, rent his films be instantly cool).
This led to a showing at the IFC Center hosted by Filmmakers Magazine, which sold out. This including a nomination for the Gotham Award for best unreleased Feature rounds out the Films run so far. There is this little business of a showing at the MOMA, but that’s nothing compared to our sultry little festival here in Denver.
At the showing that I viewed only a little over half the theater was filled. No one left during the showing, however there where many who did not stay for the Q&A after the show. Bronstein’s view of the festival circuit is one of casual indifference.
“I found that the movie views better when people go in with boxing gloves on…the festival circuit is a party circuit and often the films come second… its seems like people enter a movie theater and hang up there intuitive faculties.”
Four out of five festivals reject his film, including those that requested his submission, but he still continues to fulfill those requests. This negative reaction does not seem to discourage the avant-garde film community from bestowing hype on his work. Even though Bronstein does seem to have a dark streak in him, he does not want to write off mankind just yet.
“Friction and antipathy are part of every relationship. There are no easy relationships…I don’t want to be a misanthrope, or and anti-humanist, I am trying to keep that in check. But if it is not in me right now to make a humanist work that is really about caring for someone, then at least I’ve made a movie about feeling bad about not caring for some one.”
The future is exceptionally wide open for Bronstein. He does not want to climb the indie film latter, or go to the next level. He would rather make films that are compelling, even if that means he’s fronting all the costs out of his own pocket. He would rather have the freedom of creative control than work with a multi-million dollar budget. So what is next?
“This messed up, fucked up theater troupe that is led by this guy, you can’t tell, he is so full of ideas and so willing to rape his practices from the medical world. Is he making this stuff up or is there a master plan for this crazy, cult, hippy group trying to put on this psychedelic play? It is not as theoretical and heady as that sounds. It’s going to be a very visceral, ugly movie about these people bashing against one another in the making of this mess of a play…that is sort of what I am working on…ya and its going to be funny.”
It already is.