In Appreciation of Adam Yauch: Six Films from Oscilliscope

May 5, 2012

As we mourn the tragic, too-soon (would it ever not have been?) loss of the multi-talented Adam Yauch (aka MCA) of the Beastie Boys, I think it’s important to remember what I hope to be his lasting legacy in the film world, Oscilloscope.  An independent film company with both production and distribution wings (amongst other areas), it has become in the last five years one of the most treasured imprints in American cinema.  In recent years, as major studios tighten their funding for their arthouse subsidiaries – championing mostly established names and (hopeful) crossover fare – it has come down to genuine independent companies like Oscilloscope to pick up the slack and give voice to unestablished or perhaps the more idiosyncratic works produced in the US and elsewhere.  This no small feat, considering the long list of short-lived and defunct independent companies the last two decades have witnessed.  Oscilloscope has become a haven for music (Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour) and political (the exquisite and important Burma V.J.) documentaries as well as a place for exciting talents like Kelly Reichardt.  None of it would have been possible without the love for the artform and the enthusiasm of Adam Yauch, a longtime cinema devotee who notably directed a number of the Beastie Boys videos under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower.  Jumping early on the Theatrical Release VOD model, as well as streaming services like Netflix, Oscilloscope has allowed for a much broader audience to find these intriguing works.  I haven’t seen all of their releases, but whether it’s good or bad, I know when I watch a film they’ve produced or distributed it will certainly be interesting.  Here is a list of six of those ‘interesting’ films – some are magnificent, others merely intriguing, but all are worth your time.

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Dir. Stephen Kijak

I’m biased towards this, as Scott Walker is one of my favourite artists, but I would like to think that his story is interesting beyond just the fans.  From his days as a teen idol with The Walker Brothers to his UK chart success as a solo crooner, through to a series of commercial disappointments and finally his reinvention as a reclusive, avant garde musician, Walker’s journey is as much a part of his work as the music itself.  Kijak’s documentary features interviews with the man himself, always sporting an awkward baseball cap, as well as footage of the recording of his nightmarishly beautiful The Drift (including his punching of a side of raw meat for percussion).  There’s great footage from throughout his career, as well as a tantalizing glimpse at his truly bizarre warehouse orchestra (employed for his score of Pola X).  It’s fairly hagiographic – The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon all but disappears from the interviews after Scott 4, presumably because he hates his later work – but the interviews are enlightening both of his character and his process.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Dir. Banksy

This featured on my end of year list for 2010, and my love for it hasn’t subsided.  Certainly the best of the crop of pseudo-documentaries that came out that year, Exit documents (or doesn’t) the rise and (in a fashion) fall of the street art movement in the US and Europe.  Culling footage (supposedly) from Thierry Guetta, an entrepreneur in LA who fell in love with the leading lights of the movement, it slowly but surely becomes the story of Guetta himself, as he is (supposedly) convinced by Banksy to make art himself, which eventually (supposedly) sells for absurd amounts of money at a very popular art show.  Examining the definitions and expectations of art as well as the prevalence of trends and the class of people who follow them, there’s a pranksterism to the entire affair.  By the end we’re not entirely sure what was real and what wasn’t, but in examining the quality and the lasting value of the street art movement, it perfectly captures the spirit by both documenting and destroying it.  Graffiti is almost by nature temporary, after all, and once you’ve enshrined it in permanence, it ceases to lose its power.  Rarely do we get such a nuanced and funny encapsulation of a movement like this.

The Exploding Girl

Dir. Bradley Rust

Twenty-year old Ivy (Zoe Kazan) comes home from college for a summer in New York with her parents, and during her stay finding herself attempting to sort out her feelings for her longtime best friend Al (Mark Rendall) and her boyfriend back at college.  Ivy also suffers from epilepsy, with extremely violent fits resulting from stress and anxiety.  It’s easy to take a quick glance at Bradley Rust’s debut and write it off as just another New York mumblecore snooze, but it rises above many of its contemporaries through smart, sometimes beautiful cinematography and shooting, as well as having a keen, sympathetic eye for its characters.  None of this would be possible without Kazan’s performance, and why she isn’t at least a Greta Gerwig sized star yet is beyond me.  The Exploding Girl is hypnotic, tender, and moving.

Meek’s Cutoff

Dir. Kelly Reichardt

I found Wendy and Lucy to be much more immediate and, in fact, I liked it a lot more, but Meek’s Cutoff is crucial because of the status it had on its release and the discussion (Dan Kois’ infamous “cultural vegetables” article in the New York Magazine sprung from it) as well as the heaps of praise from its ardent fans.  I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it when I did, but over a year later and it still sticks with me.  The desolate beauty of the Oregon Trail, the sound of the wheels rolling and rubbing and crunching on the hard rocks, Bruce Greenwood’s bearded untrustworthiness, and Michelle Williams’ tightening eyes as she fills with resolve are truly resonant experiences.  I’m happy to concede that I wasn’t in the mood to watch it, and when you’re not in the mood for this sort of thing you’re in for a long, tedious ride.  Still, my appreciation for it grows every time I think about it, and I can imagine watching it again in the right frame of mind in the not too distant future and feeling I should revise my thoughts on the best of 2011.  Either way, it has firmly established Reichardt as perhaps the most exciting young talent in American cinema.


We Need To Talk About Kevin

Dir. Lynne Ramsey

Ramsey’s long awaited follow-up to Morvern Callar was picked up for distribution in the US by Oscilloscope, and though it was somewhat divisive amongst critics and audiences – and failed to picked up the awards nominations it deserved – it is beautiful if heavy-handed work that should not be cast aside lightly, even by those who don’t care for it.  Tilda Swinton’s central performance is wracked with guilt, sadness, and hatred, and as we learn the story of her son and the horrific acts he eventually commits, we never feel we have a full understanding of the why.  The ambiguity comes from the rather narrow perspective from which the story is told, but it is clear that she was a terrible mother just as much as he was a bratty kid.  The red motif is beautiful but possibly overused, and its languid demeanour feels a little too deliberate, but there is strong, amazing stuff here.


Dir. Evan Glodell

A big hit amongst the festival circuit in the US, I have to say I really almost-hated Bellflower.  Incredibly divisive among critics – some naming it one of the best of the year, others crying bullshit – it is an exceptionally interesting and involving watch, even if I don’t think it succeeds in transcending itself in the areas it probably should to be truly palatable.  The story of a guy obsessed with preparing for a post-apocalyptic future (the film even begins with a quote from Lord Humongous of Mad Max 2 fame), he falls in love while simultaneously developing a homemade flamethrower and preparing an old muscle car for imminent road battles.  When the relationship goes sour, he goes off the rails.  Some view it as a metaphor for the pain of a break-up and how it can feel like the end of the world, while others see it as an exploration of the point where damaged masculinity becomes violent misogyny.  The demographic breadth of its defenders (Christy Lemire loves it) makes me think it’s solely down to personal interpretation, but I personally found it nauseating by the end.  Still, it’s a confident debut feature with a very distinct visual style (Glodell developed the lenses himself), and no matter how you feel coming out of it, I doubt you’ll find it was a waste of your time.

 Adam Yauch 1964-2012


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