Friday, May 6, 2011

A second big sigh of relief

I met Travis Betz a little over three months ago, when I was a guest on his podcast.

Since then, I've seen two features he's directed -- Lo on Netflix streaming back in February, and The Dead Inside, just last night at the Los Angeles United Film Festival, held at the classic Los Feliz 3 theater in Los Feliz.

And just as I sighed in relief back in February, I sighed in relief again last night.

See, I don't know many filmmakers. I'm a big film guy, I live in Los Angeles, and I have a lot of crossover with the entertainment industry. But actual directors who make actual films? Not acquainted with many of them.

So when I watch a movie, I can almost always be sure I won't know the people intimately involved with making it. This frees me up to be as scornful as I want to be, if it's a bad movie. Which is really important, if you're a critic. You need to say you hate a movie when you hate it. It's part of the job.

Enter Travis. If I hated Travis' movies, the part of the job I've always considered easy would suddenly become hard. I'd be caught between my critical oath of honesty and my need to soften the blow to a friend. In fact, forget softening the blow -- if you don't like your friend's movie, you pretty much have to straight-up lie, don't you? I guess it depends on how good a friend you are. If you've known the person for years and you have the kind of relationship where you can razz them for a sub-par effort, then maybe you're honest. But if you've just met them and are not even sure if the relationship has progressed beyond the level of Facebook friend, well, it certainly puts a crimp in the budding relationship if you tell them their movie stinks.

Fortunately, Travis Betz' movies do not stink. In fact, quite the opposite.


They could actually be forgiven if they did stink, because they were each made for so little money. I don't have the exact figures at my disposal, but let's just say that both Lo and The Dead Inside -- which can be described as horror movies with a healthy dose of comedy, music and romance -- were shot largely in a single location. In the case of The Dead Inside, that location was Travis' actual apartment. However, part of what makes each movie so great is how much Travis has been able to do with a limited set -- dress it, redress it, and use camera tricks to make it look much larger than it actually is. The most interesting filmmakers out there are problem solvers -- people who are forced by limited resources to spin legitimate-looking cinema from smoke and mirrors.

Adding to the potential complication was the fact that I've been given the green light to review Lo. It's one thing to lie to a person's face and tell them you like a movie you didn't like; it's another thing to lie professionally, and praise a movie just because you know the director and you know he'll read the review.

Fortunately, Travis makes it easy by being both a good filmmaker and a good film fan. A horror genre enthusiast -- that description may actually be under-selling it -- Travis knows both how to make a good horror film, and to pay homage to the good horror films he's seen and loved. Lo is about a guy who draws an intricate design on his floor and summons a demon to help him find his girlfriend, who was stolen by other demons. The Dead Inside is about a creatively blocked horror novelist who seems to be undergoing a transformation into ... "other." (I'll leave it at that.) Both films display a terrific sense of humor, but don't want to be "horror comedies" -- they have more on their mind than just that. Oh, and The Dead Inside is also a musical, to boot. (Lo has a song or two but would not properly be described as a musical.) Travis displays a keen ability to pack a little something for everybody into his movies -- there's plenty for genre fans (including great makeup and gore effects), but there's plenty for most other movie fans as well.

You could say that I breathed a third sigh of relief last night as well -- which is that the movie got out so late that I left before getting to congratulate Travis on a job well done. This isn't a relief because I thought I'd have to manufacture my congratulations. It was a relief because I find the whole dynamic of congratulating somebody on a performance you've just watched to be awkward and stilted at best.

I think this dates back to my own days in musical theater. After the show ends, there's this ritual of your friends and family meeting you outside to tell you how much they liked the show, and you in particular. The thing is, live theater delivers such a high -- especially if you think you've given a good performance -- that no one in the audience wants to rob you of that high. So even if they would ordinarily give you honest feedback, they especially don't want to do it here -- what a buzz kill. So you get these generic words of congratulation that feel sort of empty -- you don't know whether to trust them, but the ritual demands that they give these words and that you receive them. Those who recognize the stilted nature of this scenario will try to go above and beyond, as if to prove to you that they're being honest -- only someone who really liked the show and your performance would go to such lengths to come up with such specific, unique words of praise, or at least that's the logic.

I've never liked being on either the giving or the receiving side in this situation. Even if I did truly love the performance -- and that's certainly not a guarantee -- I immediately place this pressure on myself to prove to the performer that my affection is legitimate, by finding words of praise that are different from what they might have heard previously. Maybe I'd even come up with an anecdote or something, so that my praise stuck in their minds as not just me fulfilling my end of the obligation. And when I was the performer? I'd get overcome with guilt that these people felt obliged to praise me, even when I probably wasn't that good -- it was one of the slow realizations of my young adulthood that I'm not particularly talented at either acting or singing.

So yeah, I was just as happy not to have to prove to Travis how much I liked his movie last night at midnight, when I was overly sleepy from a beer at dinner and a 5:30 a.m. awakening with my son. I'll email him today. That'll give me time to compose the perfect words of praise. Which, in this case, are justified, thank goodness.

If you want to see Travis' films, Lo is still available on Netflix streaming. As The Dead Inside has not had distribution yet, its destiny has yet to be written. But, it could be coming to a festival near you. Travis mentioned upcoming screenings in Hawaii and Oklahoma, if that happens to fit the particular geographical needs of any of my readers.

And since you don't know him, your only post-screening worry will be whether the movie deserved your money or not.

Here's betting you won't have to worry about that either.


Thaddeus said...

I'll check these out. Good horror is always worth it.
And, btw, that's a great description of a common moment of formality that's laced with phoniness, but which we're all forced to repeat and sit through and even commit ourselves. Nice.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks, Thaddeus! Sorry for the delay in my response -- you must have slipped through one of my cracks. (That sounded dirty.)

Indeed, you've got some treats in store with Travis' stuff. He also made a horror I haven't seen called Joshua, which is supposedly pretty twisted. I'll prioritize that one soon.