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October 30, 2014
Vice and Rogers are partnering to bring a Vice TV network to Canada
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Film Friday: Tower
Scott MacDonald on micro-budgeted movies and the rise of "loser" protagonists


I try to avoid reviewing tiny indie films when they’re bad; it’s no pleasure panning up-and-coming filmmakers, and I don’t see much point in warning readers off movies that they’re probably not even aware of. But Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s Tower, which opens at the Royal this weekend, perfectly encapsulates a wearisome trend that’s been plaguing micro-budgeted movies of late, and I think it merits discussing.

Tower is about Derek (Derek Bogart), a 34-year-old man who doesn’t have a job, lives in his parents’ basement, and is just generally useless and adrift. But unlike the funny man-children in Judd Apatow comedies, who are carefully focus-grouped to be appealing, Derek is hugely off-putting, and not just because of his strange Bullwinkle-like voice and balding-page-boy haircut. The guy is both socially inept and tiresomely self-absorbed–he seems genuinely unaware of how boring and irritating he is. (He might have Aspergers, but no one ever says so.) If you’ve seen more than a handful of low-budget indies lately, you know that aimless “loser” protagonists have been showing up a lot (The Comedy, Jeff Who Lives at Home, whatever mumblecore movie hit VOD last week), and I’m not convinced there’s any dramatic justification for them. The filmmakers behind these movies don’t seem to be asking themselves the most basic question: why would anybody want to watch a movie about a tedious waste of space?

To an extent, I get the “appeal” of such characters. They’re nightmare reflections of the way many of us–at least us under-40 types–feel now: confused about the nature of adulthood, economically insecure, uncertain how to make meaningful lives for ourselves. But surely we don’t need entire features about unbearable drips to illuminate this–isn’t it enough to make such characters secondary figures in someone else’s drama? Tower doesn’t just make Derek its lead, it focuses exclusively on him throughout, to the point that barely anyone else appears onscreen. (The camera sticks so close to him it might almost be affixed to his head.)

When Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, he made sure his weirdo loner was a charismatic one, roiling with resentment and suppressed violence. In modern indie movies, the weirdo loners are timid nobodies who embrace stasis. I suppose there’s a good argument to be made that stasis is a defining modern condition, what with societal and technological advances making our world feel increasingly circumscribed, but that doesn’t change the fact that stasis is inherently dull. It’s a paradox, to be sure: how to dramatize undramatic lives? But filmmakers like Radwanski perversely pretend there is no paradox, that non-characters like Derek are not only compelling but worthy of intense, almost forensic scrutiny. Tower runs only 80 minutes, yet it feels like an eternity because everything we see is mundane: Derek’s lonely nights perving on ladies at dance clubs, Derek’s routine visit to the dentist, Derek’s droning, one-sided conversations with strangers in coffee shops, etc. I like to think everybody has a story worth telling, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, no?

It might’ve helped if there were some interesting cinematography, but it’s all ugly hand-held stuff. (Because, as everybody knows, ugly and un-composed is more authentic.) It also might’ve helped if there were a story–ha, “story,” how square of me!–but the best we get is a recurring bit of business about Derek attempting to trap a raccoon that’s been messing around in his garbage bins. Rest assured that this raccoon scenario goes nowhere, even though it supplies the random, possibly metaphorical “climax.”

Again, I don’t like slamming a local movie that reportedly cost a mere $50,000 (and lord knows I’ll probably make enemies for doing so), but I worry what will happen to filmgoing if critics keep recommending movies like it. (Several local critics have already given Tower a big thumbs up.) In the past, before technology made cameras and editing equipment so cheap, there were barriers to entry for wannabe filmmakers, which kept the truly amateurish stuff out of theatres and off of TV screens. That may not always have been a good thing, but more often than not it was. I look at it this way: when critics send readers to dreary little experiments like Tower, they’re helping to foster an audience that’ll be less willing to see something small or unknown in the future, not more. When people remember how bored they were, they’ll either stay home next time or head straight to the latest Die Hard sequel.


Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @scottpmac. He just started tweeting, so be gentle with him.

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