Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Josh Bernhard's THE LIONSHARE

As always, spoilers.

Features running between an hour and an hour-ten, maybe hour-fifteen, incredible rarities since the B pictures flourished and faded (and by "B" I mean of course the second-half-of-a-double-bill other-side-of-a-record "B", I mean Mexican Spitfire's Elephant coming after Citizen Kane and not, you know, a modestly-budgeted genre picture), are making a sort of comeback-- if not exactly as a part of the mainstream filmgoer's experience, at least not yet, then as a part of the cinephile's. Digital video, the great democratizer, has allowed non-traditional people to make non-traditional films with non-traditional running times.

Having seen (and made) a few films that run skinny, I can say that the shorter running time isn't exactly automatically a cause for excitement. I've seen (and, uh, made) a lot of films that are still far too long at seventy minutes. The filmmaker, wanting to chase the "legitimacy" of feature film, extends a premise that would have been more at home at, say, twenty minutes, maybe thirty, forty at the most, far past the breaking point (I should note, in the spirit of "please buy one of our DVDs", that we're not trying to sell any of the over-extended films Tom made before he met his Mary). Some filmmakers even go as far as to lie about the running time, with the disc face itself proclaiming that it's 80 minutes when we know full well that it's only (yet, strangely, excruciatingly) 65.

But every once in a while, there's a film that packs its 65 minutes with ideas, explored fully yet obliquely-- a film that makes you wish there was another half-hour to look forward to, yet leaves you feeling satisfied. One such film, peering a few decades back, was 1967's The Firemen's Ball, the delightful sociological comedy that is still one of Milos Forman's best films. Another is Josh Bernhard's The Lionshare.

I do not make this comparison lightly; to my mind, the two films have more in common than the slim running time. Both films are comedies that explore sociological phenomenon with a light but occasionally biting touch; both come at their respective subjects a little sideways, making points in such an oblique and organic way that they don't feel like points at all, that they only register on a subconscious level-- which ensures that the films will last beyond the current sociological climate, that they have things to say about life when their subjects have been regaled to relics.

Granted, those subjects aren't exactly equal: Forman made a film about communism and Bernhard about file-sharing. Forman's film is "banned forever" in his native Czechoslovakia, and he was nearly imprisoned for doing "economic damage to the state". Bernhard's film will never be quite so contentious. And so we'll bid that particular comparison adieu.

Bernhard's treatment of his subject is more complex and subtle than it first appears. The film's first scene follows a first date that quickly becomes a search for a copy of the film Ghostbusters. The male half of this heterosexual pairing, young filmmaker Nick (Mike Pantozzi), has seen it but the distaff half, Eva (Jessi Kneeland) has not. Blockbuster's copy is in use; Nick says that he'd buy another copy for this occasion, but where would they find a copy to buy?; Eva suggests using the titular (and fictional) file-sharing network, the Lionshare, to download it. And so, they head back to her place and, as they wait for the film to download, they drink, they kiss, and then they do some file-sharing of their own, if you know what I mean.

At this first glance, the film seemed decidedly pro-file-sharing; after all, it got the guy laid. Moreover, it seemed to go to some lengths to excuse its characters from any culpability for their piracy; after all, they went to Blockbuster like law-abiding citizens, and they were thwarted! He had intended to buy another copy-- another copy, so he already owned it!-- but may have been thwarted as well! File-sharing was a last resort, and if the film had been available when and where they wanted it in the first place, there wouldn't have been any problem. Of course they wanted to do it legally, but they were really left with no choice.

Does this line of reasoning sound familiar? It should. It's behind the obnoxiously stupid argument that all art should be free, and that for an artist to seek some kind of monetary compensation is some form of gaucherie, if not a crime. It's the justification I used to seek out and download ROMs of old Nintendo games. The justification you used, perhaps, to burn a copy of a friend's DVD. A justification that, frankly, doesn't hold water, but that we use to make ourselves feel okay about our theft.

And so, ten or fifteen minutes in, I was more than a little worried about where this was going, a worry that was in some ways deepened by the knowledge that this film was being distributed through a Creative Commons license. That is, a film that is meant to be freely distributed. Not that that in particular bothers me-- as someone who makes freeware games, and as someone who got a free copy of this film from the filmmaker, I have nothing against such a spirit of generosity-- I just got the feeling, that's all, that because this film is being put out there for free, that the film was also advocating putting everything out there for free.

But that's not true; as I said, the film's attitude towards its subject is actually fairly complex. It's neither pro-piracy or anti-piracy, pro-free or anti-free. Shortly after Nick starts using the file-sharing network, he discovers that he has to maintain a certain uploading-downloading ratio; that is, he needs to put some files on the network before he can take any more. He grabs the music of his friend Bracey (Bracey Smith) and puts it online.

Bracey discovers this and is less-than-pleased; that music wasn't finished, in his opinion, and he didn't want it getting out there for anyone to download. But before you can say, "Aha, now Nick knows how it feels" or otherwise impose some sort of morality on this little photo-play, Bracey is signed to a record deal... because of someone who downloaded those files.

But that doesn't mean the film is "ultimately" coming out in favor of file-sharing, nor does it mean that the film is simply and stupidly reporting "both sides" like a spineless nightly newscaster or a "teach the controversy" idgit. I would say, in fact, that the film's concerns go beyond something as small as file-sharing; it provides, instead, a nuanced look of the notions of ownership in general, whether we're talking about art, friendship, love, or schtick, and how networking-- whether by computer or face-to-face-- changes those concepts.

A couple of examples, to better explain what I mean by all that arty-farty gobbledygook.

The girl, Eva, introduces Nick both to the file-sharing network and a band called Apple Curry, and through the former he listens to the latter. Later in the film, he comes across one of the band's songs on the radio, and this upsets him: the band has sold out, the radio chose the worst song from the album, et cetera. But what's really irking him is that the band doesn't "belong" to him anymore. He's no longer the cool insider, privy to some obscure piece of musical magic.

And note the double standard here: when Nick's friend Bracey is brought to the attention of a record company, Nick is of course very happy for him, even feeling a bit proud, if not vindicated, about his role in bringing that about. Bracey hasn't sold out; if Bracey's songs dominate the airwaves, if the stations pick the "worst" song, Nick likely wouldn't be irked. That's because Bracey still "belongs" to Nick exclusively as a friend. Others might have access to the music, but Nick is still part of that special in-crowd.

And if it sounds like Bernhard is simply scoring points about this particular psychological mechanism, one that's in no short supply among film buffs and music aficionados, then I've done him and his film a disservice; more than simply making points about ownership and exclusivity, he registers the emotions, the sense of loss, that accompanies the growth of any meme. Nick and his friends have an in-joke of sorts, a pet phrase: "Bear Fact." What starts as facts about bears morphs into something completely different, something that has nothing to do with bears.

This is something that happens with any group of friends. For example, at my place of employment, whenever somebody drops something, we say "Paris Hilton". There was a reason for this-- trust me, it did, at one time, make sense-- but we don't have way of explaining it to new coworkers or onlookers in a way that sounds reasonable. My wife and I have a number of phrases and rituals, but I'm not going to share them; they're ours.

The fact that they're ours and only ours makes them special; it deepens the bond between us, and their regular usage, these pet phrases and rituals, are expressions of love and affection. If someone else were to spy on them, we would feel violated; if someone else were to use them, it would be crushing.

And this is what it feels like for Nick when Eva, the girl who started it all, having been transformed (in the movie's cruelest and yet gentlest, most absurdist, joke) into Bracey's girl, uses "Bear Fact." In fact, she uses it incorrectly ("polar bear fact"), and Nick's rage is sudden and chilling. Both "his" girl and the pet phrase he "co-owned" have been "stolen". Sharing, whether it be of physical things, of art, of moments, or of people, can create both opportunities and sadness, sometimes in the same click of the mouse.

Why not click here and see what happens?


Miles said...

Thanks for this review.
After watching the movie, I felt very unresolved. I knew I was missing something. It chewed at me enough that I took a while searching out some commentary to help me figure out what I was missing.

Now the pieces fall into place regarding the idea of ownership, and the myriad faces of it that occur in the film. And now, I appreciate this movie even more. So far that, thanks for contributing to the experience.

Chris H said...

Super stellar write up. The only thing missing was the additional theme on creative constipation.