If you're the kind of guy who loves Michael Bay films, there will be no word scarier than "Dogme95." Fortunately, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is not one of them.
This Film Has Been Designated as Dogma #15 By the Danish Film Group Dogme95!
Movie lovers like to debate the intention behind a film: why it was made, what it is trying to say or prove, what subtext colors the narrative to inform our viewing. This debate is usually lively, but often fruitless; for most films, we can never really know the intention or subtext behind the film. It is therefore refreshing to see a film where the intentions and goals are not only knowable, they are explicitly stated up front.
Camera is a Dogme95 film, which means it had to meet formalized specifications. The whole list can be found at the Dogme95 website. The gist is no artificial lighting, no made-up sets, no filters, postproduction, or sound mixing. The film must have been made in the moment with a handheld camera, using no props or trickery. The reasons behind these rules form the core of the Dogme95 philosophy, a promotion of avant-garde in the face of mass access to filmmaking equipment.
But its designation as an official Dogma film is not what I'm talking about. Camera's real goals come from director Richard Martini in the commentary track. He made Camera to demonstrate that a feature-length film could be made on a miniscule budget. In this case, he claims the only budget was the cost of the film media, a few hundred dollars. (The Internet Movie Database says that Camera was shot in DV. I have trouble believing that a film shot on digital video was transferred to 35mm film stock for a few hundred dollars, but I am not privy to the details behind Camera's creation.)
Camera manages to tell a coherent story without reliance on artifice. A camera continually switches hands, and we see its various nefarious uses. A seedy producer/director/Mafia-type guy wants to keep an eye on his wife, or an enthusiastic entrepreneur wants to put his beautiful gal in a secret webcam, or a stalker-ish tourist named Bob wants to stalk Carol Alt. Each step of the way, we see what the camera sees, and then see it switch hands. This framework is an engaging and understandable explanation for the haphazard collection of footage.
That is where Camera's greatest weakness comes in. Camera is a haphazard collection of footage. This is not to say that Camera is completely ad hoc. In fact, most of the scenes are clearly planned, even the ones that seem unplanned. It's just that the footage jumps from the camera's point of view to ours, with different aspect ratios, focus, contrast, and so on. The jarring handheld footage from the amateur cameramen zigs and zags crazily. Watching this film made me sick. As I was in the bathroom pondering the partially digested state of my lunch, I wondered how this had happened. I sat through The Blair Witch Project, a notorious spew-inducer, with hardly a lurch in the tummy. I dig those roller coaster DVDs. It took Camera to induce cinematic queasiness. There is a reason for tripods and the Steadicam, which is that handheld footage viewed on the big screen makes humans think their bodies are twisting in space. This little nugget of perceptual physiology makes Martini's approach unpalatable. To be honest, I'm kind of fuzzy on what happened in the last several scenes because I was fighting nausea.
The scenes I was cognizant of were a mixed bag. Many of them, such as the goodbye lover speech, went on too long. The "glue" scenes are repetitive. Some of the scenes just didn't fit in at all. However, goofy comedy crept in occasionally to add belly laughs, and it was fun to watch the actors relish the ad hoc scripting. Carol Alt, who looks fantastic even without the magic of postproduction, steals the feature. Her scene is so realistic that I was mad at Martini for hounding her (the outtakes show that I was not alone in this outrage). If nothing else, Camera has encouraged me to look up more work from this captivating actress.
Sitting through the commentary track brought back stomach flutters, but I just kept closing my eyes to listen. Richard Martini starts off strong, explaining to me exactly what I wanted to hear about his film: how it was made, why, whether he really pissed off Carol Alt, and other tidbits. Eventually he lapses into play-by-play, which is something virtually all commentators do at one time or another. I'm torn in my opinion after watching the film and listening to the commentary. On one hand, I think Martini has crafted an admirable work in the true spirit of independent cinema. There are many funny scenes, and even a thread of social commentary that wends its way through the disjointed narrative. I applaud Martini for promoting the idea that anyone with determination and a strong idea can make a successful film. On the other hand, Camera is damaged by hyperbole. I have niggling doubts whether Martini actually planned up front to make a movie with no budget, or whether it happened through necessity. Is the Dogma certification really indicative of the Dogme95 approach, or was it just a convenient tie-in? Consider this excerpt from the Dogme95 FAQ:
Isn't Dogme95 just a sleek, superficial, commercial gimmick?
Was Camera really made for $400? Isn't the prominence of high-profile celebrities such as Jack Nicholson against the spirit of Dogme95? Each of these questions may have a perfectly reasonable answer. But this reviewer's ears detect a note of hypocrisy, however mild, in the promotion of this film.
But wait—you also get the bonus feature Video Valentino! This amusing '80s film displays some of Martini's style, but does so in a more conventional manner. A would-be lothario fumbles his way through several video dates, assuming a different personality each time. I could guess the outcome of each date at the beginning, and it soon becomes clear whom he'll end up with, and the message at the end is way too obvious. Nonetheless, Video Valentino displays a goofy charm that is a more innocent version of Camera's.
Camera is not the kind of film you would watch for a home theater experience. The sound and video are bottom line efforts, as per the Dogme95 rules. It isn't a crowd pleaser either, unless your crowd is the coffeehouse crowd who can appreciate a non-conventional film. It offers film fans a good yardstick of what can be accomplished on a miniscule budget with modest equipment, and has several worthwhile moments. The inclusion of outtakes, commentary, and bonus feature makes this DVD a better value for lovers of avant-garde comedy.
Court is in recess while His Honor looks for some Pepto.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
• Audio Commentary by Director Richard Martini
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