A Great Lamp (2019)

This year’s New Orleans Film Festival was a 30th anniversary celebration, one that (in the social media marketing, at least) looked back at the festival’s gradual transformation from indie film & video showcase to increasingly massive Oscar-Qualifying institution. The no-budget feature A Great Lamp was an excellent programming choice for that occasion, then, as its sensibilities are evenly split between the early indie boom of the late 80s when the fest started and the radical earnestness of modern day. In look & texture, A Great Lamp feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.

A homeless, gender nonconforming punk named Max spends their structureless days wheat-pasting a flyer that memorializes their grandmother all over their sundrenched Southern town. Their aimless adventures committing petty, punk-af crimes like jaywalking, vandalism, and sleeping outside are interrupted when they meet a sharply dressed weirdo named Howie. Max is initially put off by Howie’s insistence that they attend a fabled rocket launch that will supposedly occur in three days’ time, but eventually the unlikely pair become incredibly intimate friends & collaborators. Their joint excursions around town frequently border on a mundane version of magical realism and are often interrupted by vignettes of a seemingly unrelated character suffering from the ennui of a much more privileged life, never truly coalescing into a coherent linear narrative. That aimlessness is intentional, of course, as waiting for that mythic rocket launch often feels like waiting for Godot. The unrushed, unfocused slacker vibe of this set-up might have been a patience-tester in any other modem return to Gen-X filmmaking, but Max’s exuberance & sweetness mutates the genre into an entirely new, exciting specimen. Max’s generosity toward Howie’s emotional wounds, their genuine eagerness for new loves & new adventures, and their exposed vulnerability as a grieving, lonely street kid are unusually earnest touches for this tried & true slacker formula. It’s like if Buzzard had a heart instead of a fart.

When director Saad Qureshi introduced the film at our screening, he said it was made during a particularly miserable summer for his social circle; making a movie just seemed like a great excuse to hang out with his friends. It’s likely that summer-bummer motivator and the crew’s total lack of production funds are what dictated the film’s throwback slacker aesthetic rather than any intentional exercise in 90s nostalgia. Still, they chose to accentuate that Gen-X patina by animating hand-drawn scratches & scuffs over the black & white digital images to simulate the look of a vintage 16mm cheapie. These meticulously applied “scratches” are fascinating to watch in a way that an editing filter approximating that same effect couldn’t be, as they often transform into crude animation artistry (provided by Max Wilde, who also performs as our eponymous hero), accentuating the film’s lowkey magical realist bent. This is a film that was made with no money and no real goal beyond making a film, any film, and so its existence is in itself a kind of minor miracle. Making any movie is always a triumph over frustration, logistics, and funding, so turning such limited resources into a work this heartfelt & nimbly crafted is a feat worth celebrating. Despite its modern earnestness, it’s the exact kind of D.I.Y. passion that’s been filtering through film festival lineups for as long as NOFF has been in existence – and with good reason. There’s apparently still new textures & sentiments to be mined from the time-honored slacker tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Buzzard (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Slacker culture is surely alive & well in 2015, but there was something unavoidably ubiquitous about 90s MTV slacker culture. Pretty much the definition of a low-stakes drama, Buzzard feels oddly old-fashioned in its portrayal of an apathetic underachiever, Marty, who feels like a cultural relic from a bygone lackadaisical era. Cheaply filmed and intentionally flat in style, Buzzard seemingly cares as little as Marty does, echoing his “It doesn’t matter” mantra with every fiber of its being. Buzzard portrays a world of petty victories & major losses where the odds are stacked so highly against Marty that he really has no incentive to try or care about anything and the movie itself has its own apathetic crisis in the same vein.

An angry, depressed loser with a go-nowhere job as a temp for a bank, Marty’s petty victories involve eating junk food, listening to metal, jumping on his bed, watching pornos while wearing a Halloween mask, and scamming suckers for small increments of cash. His half-assed scams typically pay off as long as the person on the other end cares as little about the transactions as he does. The problems that Marty faces only get rolling once the people he’s scamming start to care & take notice of his chump-change crimes. Marty amps up the damages of his mistakes as well when his most significant petty victory of all comes to fruition: a homemade Freddy Krueger glove that gives his “nothing matters” attitude some real-life consequences.

If Buzzard was intentionally looking to cultivate the 90s MTV slacker aesthetic it was astute in including outdated cultural markers like Nintendo NES, CD towers, and Freddy Krueger posters & merchandise. Although its ambitions & style feel like little more than a vintage throwback, its themes exploring the isolation of poverty, corporate culture, and poor mental health still resonate. Although it’s unlikely that Marty will ever approach anything that resembles a “successful” life, it’s still satisfying to watch him achieve short-term goals like the construction of his Krueger glove or eating a massive plate of spaghetti in a luxury hotel room. Due to Marty’s (and Buzzard’s) lack of motivation, regard, or enthusiasm for anything, it’s hard to celebrate too much of his life other than with surface-level observations like “Cool Demons t-shirt, dude,” but in a world where he has very little room to achieve much of anything, that line of shallow praise has considerable amount of significance.

-Brandon Ledet