"Get Low" and "Countdown to Zero": Indie-Gestion
By Tim Grierson
Jul 30, 2010

The two films below are perfect examples of the types of art-house cinema that I find massively overrated. So if I come off a little grumpy, it's only because I want audiences to see through their flaws a little more readily.

Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics)

Idealistically, some people think of "American independent cinema" as a bastion of smart, sophisticated storytelling designed for grownups who can't tolerate the banality and childishness of most Hollywood movies. It's a noble idea and an inviting one: Who wouldn't want to watch something that's entertaining and doesn't insult the intelligence? But in reality, "American independent cinema" can turn out like Get Low, a sincere but gamey mixture of cornball sentimentality and faux-period (not to mention faux-regional) detail that's so boringly "grownup" that it gives you almost nothing. You'd be better off watching Salt.

Get Low is so quaint and quirky you'd swear it was based on a short story, but in fact its origins come from real life. In the 1930s in rural Tennessee, a misanthropic old recluse named Felix "Bush" Breazeale decided he wanted to throw himself a funeral while he was still alive, inviting people far and wide to come and eulogize him, thereby allowing him to know what others thought of him before he died. From that story, director Aaron Schneider and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell have crafted a simple story about redemption and regret in which -- unlike in a Hollywood movie, where a happy ending is guaranteed -- a predictably poignant and bittersweet finale is assured almost from the beginning.

In Get Low, Bush (Robert Duvall) enlists funeral-home proprietor Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to organize the so-called "funeral party," attracting the attention of Mattie (Sissy Spacek), a widow who shares a complicated past with Bush. That past is complicated because the filmmakers withhold all the pertinent background information until the end, which is when Bush will speak at his funeral and unburden himself of a dark secret that has left him a recluse for most of his life.

While Get Low never succumbs to cutesiness -- and all three of its leads do strong, minor-key work -- Schneider makes the mistake of assuming that a small-town story is best served with an overly gentle and reflective tone. And while art-house audiences might interpret such an approach as intelligent and tasteful, the sad truth is that the film's meager pace only highlights Get Low's inherent hokeyness. This is not a film in which everyday activities are elevated to the level of universal truths. Rather, Schneider's less-is-more style makes a virtue of the quiet nothingness of the film's themes. The entire cast embraces the beaten-down, melancholy tone, fitting for a rural community in a country still pulling itself out of the Great Depression. But with so much of the dramatic payoff tied to a Big Reveal at the end of the story, Get Low is a lot of beautifully-shot and -costumed tastefulness without much reward.

If Schneider had really tackled the economic and cultural forces at play in his story, Get Low could have been a more memorable experience. Instead, he drapes the movie in a folkloric glow that keeps the characters from cutting as deeply as they're meant to do. As for the Big Reveal, I didn't entirely guess it, but I wasn't far enough away that I was surprised. What's worse, I don't think the ending is supposed to be that big of a shock. Get Low congratulates its audience for rolling with its muted rhythms by giving them a comforting, unshocking finale that holds up the safe, trite messages that the film has peddled throughout. In that regard, Get Low is absolutely an American independent film, which is not meant as a compliment.

Countdown to Zero (Magnolia Pictures)

At this year's Sundance, documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker had two films, only one of which I saw. Waste Land, a simplistic merger of environmental commentary and forced inspirational uplift, went on to win the Audience Award for documentary in the World Cinema section, which didn't surprise me but sure disappointed me. Her other film is now out. And while I prefer Countdown to Zero, it has some of the same problems as Waste Land did. But in reality, my problems with Countdown to Zero are really the issues I have with what's considered proper mainstream documentary filmmaking these days.

Countdown to Zero explores the continuing threat that nuclear weapons present to the world. With a breathless pace, the film first shows the evolution of these weapons during the Cold War, then switches gears to demonstrate how widespread they are now around the globe. It's a structure and strategy that should be familiar to anyone who saw An Inconvenient Truth, which like this film was produced by Lawrence Bender. In both instances, the filmmaker presents a complex, but important issue in a breezy, bite-sized manner, complete with flashy graphics that make the information easier to digest. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, though, Countdown to Zero doesn't have a central character, thereby allowing this anti-nuke documentary to focus solely on scaring the hell out of you before eventually inspiring the hell out of you.

By any objective standard, Countdown to Zero "works." It's fast-paced and engaging, and at 91 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome. But as with Waste Land, Walker follows the documentary formula with such maniacal fidelity that it's like watching a magician perform a trick that you already know the secret to. For such a troubling subject, Countdown to Zero doesn't really challenge your preconceptions. Sure, it wants to freak you out with its fancy computer demonstrations of a destroyed New York City, but it doesn't dare, for instance, make you feel the slightest amount of guilt that America's decision to bomb Japan at the end of World War II started this deadly escalation of nuclear weapons. And while I'd hardly consider myself a hawk, the lack of contrary views to the film's no-nuke stance only heightens the feeling that this is a movie preaching to the converted.

This isn't to suggest that Walker wholly lacks subtlety. A discussion of America's real-world Cold War strategy shows the frightening similarities to Stanley Kubrick's satire Dr. Strangelove without hitting you over the head. It's a nicely chilling moment, and I wish there had been more, although a later revelation of how close we actually came to nuclear annihilation is pretty effective, too. Countdown to Zero is largely an enjoyable film about the need to reduce nuclear weapons -- but should this film be enjoyable? Shouldn't we be too numb or enraged to talk after it's over? But those reactions wouldn't mesh with Walker's strategy. Like too many other documentary filmmakers, she wants you to feel proud of yourself for being hip enough to see her movie. Nuclear weapons may be a menace to humanity, but smug self-satisfaction goes on unchecked.

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