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Can We Call It a Trend, Already? Micro Cinema Is Having a Moment

Micro-cinema is having a moment. This term identifies both small-scale theaters and actual movies. While having more spaces to watch films is always good, I am conflicted about these spaces where the screen can be equal in size or slightly smaller than the widescreen in your den. In the pre-pandemic world, I stumbled into one in Washington DC to catch a screening of Ash Is The Purest White (Jia Zhangke, 2019). While I was happy to see it, I could not help but wish for a larger screen. Or large enough to fit Zhangke's vision.

Now, if we talk about the actual movies that fall within this category, there is no doubt that their rise is a most welcome development. The latest batch challenges our expectations of what an indie movie is. Not to throw shade on CODA (Sian Heder, 2021), but the Best Picture Oscar winner is so slickly following the formula of a strain of inspirational indie cinema that it feels like a mid-tier Hollywood film. It is also a remake of a French drama, which also makes it fit within the big-studio tradition of scooping successful films from other countries and remaking them to reflect American culture and save audiences allergic to subtitles. 

CODA started its winning streak at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, hoarding four big trophies, including the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It looked like an epic next to two small gems of micro-cinema that also premiered at this edition of the Festival: We Are All Going to The World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021) and Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney, 2021). Both are perfect examples of this particular strain of independent cinema, marking a way for up-and-coming filmmakers.

Fans of Meet me in Saint Louis will be shocked. We Are All Going to the World’s Fair has nothing to do with the hallowed event that Judy Garland and her family hoped to attend in the Vincente Mine 1944 classic. We are in contemporary America, where a viral challenge on social media hooks Casey (Anna Cobb), a lonely teenager. After repeating the title phrase on her computer camera four times - echoes of Candyman come to mind - she pricks her finger and smears blood on the screen. The rules are never clearly stated, but the game, such as it is, involves filming videos of oneself performing dares, sharing them online with other players.

Many scenes are shot from the point of view of Casey’s computer camera. Whether in her room or rambling around town, she is always alone. It is a wasteland of highways, strip malls, and scrawny forests. The other character of significance is JLB (Michael Rogers), a middle-aged player who interacts with Casey, claiming to be concerned about her mental health. Like her, he is piercingly alone but living in a big house with all the charm of a 90s McMansion. Even being well-to-do looks dire.

Concept and form fold in perfectly. Very few actors, limited locations, and domestic aesthetics are manageable within the constraints of a modest budget, but more importantly, they are appropriate for the material. You do not feel the movie would be better if the filmmakers had more money or material resources. It is a fully developed work of cinematic art, not a lesser product. The movie also has some elements of horror, which also happens to be a savvy move. It is perhaps the one genre that can sneak some theater screens away from action blockbusters and animated films. We are all going to the World’s Fair currently roams around the country in limited theatrical release. You can also rent to stream on most platforms. It will be available on HBOmax late in the year.

In tone or style, Strawberry Mansion could not be more different. This whimsical social satire has the heart of a romantic comedy and the trappings of a sci-fi drama. Kentucker Audley, a recognizable actor with a long resume in independent cinema - his most recent appearance was in She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz, 2020) - plays James Preble. He is a dream auditor in the year 2035, scanning other people's dreams to check for the appearance of commercial brands and charge them for it. James visits elderly Arabella (Penny Fuller) to conduct an audit of her dreams, saved in old VHS tapes. While doing so, he falls in love with her younger self and discovers a dastardly scheme to insert advertising in dreams. 

Audley co-directs with Albert Birney. Together, they craft a charming romantic fantasy and social satire with sci-fi overtones. It is like a Charlie Kauffman movie or script, but gentler and warmer. While you can imagine it could benefit from a larger budget, you get the sense it would lose much of its charm in the process. Dream sequences and futuristic overtones are built with a simplicity that makes them, well, believable, possible. It is a projection of the near future that aims for the feasible, not the fantastical. It is somewhat familiar and strange at the same time.

The allure of the real is also alive in Joel Potrykus' work. The filmmaker based in Michigan has carved a niche for himself, directing and producing vivid character studies of young men suspended in the outskirts of the American dream. This year, he received a sign of recognition even rarer than a festival prize: his retrospective at the Criterion Channel, the streaming service founded by the hallowed home video editorial company. It includes four feature-length films and his latest production, a short film titled Thing from the Factory by the Field (2022). 

Perhaps the best introduction to his work is Buzzard (2014), a black comedy following the slow descent of an aimless young man into crime. Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burgue) is a temp worker at a bank, more keen on hustling extra bucks than advancing his career. We meet him closing up his checking account, just to open it up immediately and collect a 50 bucks promotion. Throughout the movie, he will escalate from pettiness to possibly homicide. 

Potrykus follows Marty through America at its most banal. Characters almost fade into their generic apartments, cubicles, and hotel rooms. The ambiance is so recognizable that you feel as if you are invading their private spaces.

Micro-movies can attest to how with limited resources, you can create great art and work within any genre you fancy.

This small sample of micro-movies can attest to how with limited resources, you can create great art and work within any genre you fancy. You could say that even without the usual trappings of big commercial cinema, your ideas take center stage, without glitzy stars or the trappings of big-studio filmmaking stealing the spotlight. 

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