The Dynamic Duo Come Through
As digital video has arisen, there has been much talk about the differences between film and video, and what sort of project can be suitable for shooting on video instead of film, as well as the different lighting needs and the difference in depth of field between cameras and so on.
The Anniversary Party largely pushes those questions aside by inundating us with what's really important - highly developed characters and a rich story unburdoned of the needs of a dominant plot.
If you've not heard the history already, here's the short version. Alan Cummings and Jennifer Jason Leigh scrounge together the money themselves for this low budget DV feature, starring themselves and their famous friends, and writing/directing it as a team.
And, as is so often suggested out there, they stick to what they know, being people involved in the entertainment industry, as well as each other. The difference here is that their characters are married to each other, and guess what, they're having a party here on their sixth anniversary.
The inside comments on the industry are littered through our landscape. Within the first ten minutes, we have Alan's character squawking on the phone about how they couldn't make a scene "filmic" - which doubles as a joke about the movie being shot digitally.
Our industrious pair's friends start filtering in, among them Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Beals. And those are just the folks I recognize.
So, yes, there are times when you can tell this wasn't shot on film, generally from bits of fast movement a litle close to camera or glimpses of high contrast blow outs (when too much light enters the camera). They're not big flaws, but they're noticeable. With the advanced shooting schedule of the film - there were only nineteen days when all the actors were available to work - it was inevitable to have a few less than ideal shots. But what's amazing is how well this work looks overall. For the most part, they treat the DV like a film camera, being deliberate about any moves they do, and thinking through the lighting for each shot.
The story meanders, as we flit about between all these characters surrounding our celebratory couple. The tone walks a line between serious and comic, and manages to build up both to a surprisingly strong ending, one that fits thematically with all that's come before. They never hit you over the head with anything, just letting the words settle in, the actions wash over you. It's up to the audience to put things together, which is a tremendous deliberate choice, and rewards us for paying attention. There's definitely more material to soak in from additional viewings.
I saw this finally on DVD (oh, if I hadn't had to go home from Sundance early that year). The main menu is a lovely design, incorporating bits of the movie over parts of the house, as seen from outside. The scene slowly changes from day to night and back again, with an appropriate soundtrack. It's pleasant enough to just leave it there as you do other things, but it's worthwhile to explore the rest of the disc as well. The commentary by Cumming and Leigh is very informative and entertaining, given the level at which they developed the script, and how well they know all their friends who starred in it. There is also a moderately interesting documentary that appeared on the Sundance Channel analyzing one of the scenes in the movie.
This one certainly isn't for everyone, but it's a showcase for character and talent, and happens to prove that digital video is a viable medium for at least these sorts of projects now, and the future is only limited by imagination.
Full profile for The Anniversary Party
Offsite info: Internet Movie Database
Review: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cummings Project 6/10 mastadonfarm
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