First off, a numerical series of disclaimers:
2) Based on the first nine minutes of IFBRT, which Ekanayake has posted for free online, and which I will embed right now, I was convinced that my reaction to the completed film would be less than enthusiastic.
3) Because of reason number two, I decided that it would be better for me to simply abstain from watching IFBRT.
4) Five hours before the world premiere screening at Anthology Film Archives, a nudge of a text message from an out-of-town friend made me reconsider number three and decide that the most professional thing for me to do would be to watch the film with as open a mind as possible and post a review on this very site.
5) Hours after that text message, while riding the train from Brooklyn into Manhattan to accomplish number four, I was overcome with a nervous, sinking feeling, something akin to walking face-first into a meeting with a girl who I knew was going to dump me.
6) I told myself that even if my reaction was unfavorable, I was going to write about it no matter what (contradicting my typical stance of only writing about work that gets me excited in a positive way).
6) At 8pm, unlike oh-so-many others in this tiny NYC indie film blogosphere (where were you guys, huh???), I put my money where my mouth was and took the plunge. (Note: I should change “money” to “press list ticket,” which Mr. Ekanayake was kind enough to provide for me.)
7) Enough with the disclaimers, it’s time to review this thing.
At its best, Sujewa Ekanayake’s Indie Film Blogger Road Trip is certain to go down as one of the more bizarre time capsules of life on early-21st Century Earth. At its worst, it is a shamefully, inarguably inept attempt at movie-making. If one didn’t know the director’s background, it would appear that IFBRT was a blogger’s first attempt at making a film, not a film about blogging by a self-professed experienced DIY filmmaker. Not long into IFBRT, an admittedly snarky thought arose: Ekanayake needed to add a D to the DIY for his own unique brand of cinema, Don’t Do It Yourself.
IFBRT is Ekanayake’s casual, breezy attempt to investigate the current state of indie film blogging: what it means, who does it, and why. Full confession: I am a film blogger. To prove it, I am posting this review on my film blog. Fuller confession: if pressed to come up with an idea for a feature-length documentary less stimulating, engaging, and worthwhile than one about film blogging, I genuinely don't think I could do it (I told Mr. Ekanayake this when he asked me to be in his film). Fullest confession: having seen IFBRT, I now know that I was right.
To the subjects interviewed in IFBRT, I am passing no judgments on you. You all did your part to answer the filmmaker’s questions, which you did with grace and candor. It is not your fault, Brandon Harris, that you were interviewed while wearing dirty socks with holes in them; it is Mr. Ekanayake’s fault that he framed you so widely, and didn’t notice when your foot kept brushing into the foreground of the frame (it took a few sweeps to figure out what was going on here—a trick in perspective—but when I realized that this furry presence in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame was indeed your sock… wow). It is not your fault, Paula Martinez, that Mr. Ekanayake set you up in a wide two-shot with co-Atlanta Film Festival compatriot Gabe Wardell, but then proceeded to have what appeared to be a one-on-one conversation between himself and Mr. Wardell (a late-inning attempt at redemption was much too late). It is not your fault, Anthony Kaufman, that Mr. Ekanayake chose to place you at the beginning and end of the film, causing the panicked thought of “does this mean we have to go through another round with everyone again?!” before realizing that you were being used as a mere bookend. No, it is none of your faults, and for thoroughness’ sake, I will list your names here: Tambay Obenson, Chuck Tryon, Erica Ginsberg, Brian Geldin, Noralil Ryan Fores, KJ Mohr, Armando Valle, Melissa Silverstein, and last, but not least, Stu VanAirsdale (who I wanted to be ferocious and obnoxious and blunt but who instead came off as intelligent and thoughtful and delivered the film's best line: "Good journalists work all the time"). Some of you might feel embarrassed in hindsight by having participated in this project. Coming from someone who performed a similar on-camera anti-spectacle in a "web series" called Butterknife, I can say that I feel your insecure pain. But it’s really not that bad, for the fault lies not with you, it really doesn’t.
As for the nuts-and-bolts of Ekanayake’s endeavor, it is difficult to know where to begin, and is perhaps better left at one example; otherwise, a book might begin to bloom. Let us simply address the Case of the Mysterious Music Placement. Quickly into IFBRT, Ekanayake’s overall narrative pattern emerges: get to a new subject, place them in a static frame (when that frame isn’t being shaken and readjusted mid-interview, that is) and interview away. But this leads into another, stranger pattern. It becomes clear that Ekanayake has a Bela Tarr-esque aversion to cutting away from a shot mid-take, something he only does when necessary. Since his interviews are filmed from one position without any semblance of coverage, in order to soften the blow of a jump cut (I guess?), Ekanayake does a quick dissolve to black, at which point he reintroduces the jazzy, finger-snapping score in a quick burst. When the same frame reappears immediately and the subject continues to speak, Ekanayake fades down the score until it disappears completely. As the film wore on, cracking this mysterious code became my true calling in life, and though I never landed upon a logical explanation for something that was done with such conscious precision, I sure noticed during the KJ Mohr interview when a mid-interview jump-fade-cut-whatever-thingy did not, in fact, summon that jazzy, finger-snapping score. Did Ekanayake forget to apply his method to this particular cut or did it not seem to warrant it like all the others? And if not, then why not? If I think too deeply on this question, I might never sleep again, and so, for sanity's sake, I am going to leave it behind and move on.
In a storytelling sense, IFBRT is so devoid of any momentum or purpose that it becomes nearly impossible to point out where it goes wrong. It just is wrong. Digressions with interviewees pop up throughout. Perhaps the intention was to give a little breathing room and let these people come to more fully formed life, but in the context of a feature-length documentary about film blogging, it felt like raw footage that had somehow snuck its way back into the finished film. Or if one is going to take that casual approach, there should be some sort of groove that establishes this. In this film, Ekanayake stops to eat at a diner and has his girlfriend—who we haven’t seen before and who doesn’t get her own title card (or does she? I can’t remember now)—point out on a map the arduous journey the pair has taken down 95 from New York City to South Carolina. At which point Ekanayake sloppily pans from the left to the right to reveal… a parking lot. Later, we meet ShortEnd Magazine’s Noralil Ryan Fores as she walks her dog in an Atlanta park and explains how she ended up living there. A quick fade-out, and we’re with Gabe Wardell and Paula Martinez. Since Ekanayake hasn’t employed the technique of introducing someone before visiting them again later, this makes us think that this is all the footage of Fores that we’re going to see. And it makes no sense. It’s not “mixing things up” when it’s executed in this fashion. It’s distracting.
Some general musings…
— Watching a movie that makes your brain cock in a strange direction and has you so dizzy that you start to question just what exactly is happening up there on the screen is an unsettling enough experience, but to all of a sudden have one of the people inside the frame say your name—and actually be referring to you—is an absolute MINDFUCK.
— Speaking of mindfucks, a truly Cronenbergian moment occurred when Ekanayake videotaped himself being interviewed for a ShortEnd Magazine podcast by Ms. Fores. Answering questions asked by Ms. Fores, who was sitting directly to the right of him, and speaking into a microphone directly in front of him, Ekanayake nonetheless played directly to the video camera that was set up... on the opposite side of the room. I'm sure I'm not conveying just how strange—and genuinely creepy—this mise-en-scene actually is.
— Midway through the film, when I realized we still had a long ways to go, I tried taking a different perspective and pretended that I was watching this film in 1995, when none of this shit would have made any fucking sense.
All humor aside, the blunt reality is that it appears Sujewa Ekanayake means well with his Indie Film Blogger Road Trip project, but if we are to treat Ekanayake as a legitimate filmmaker, which he constantly reminds us that he is on a multi-daily basis, then the days of polite acknowledgment must cease and we must confront the harsh truth: when it comes to IFBRT, there is no legitimate filmmaking to be found. No attempts were made to draw parallels, to explore certain particularly valid points raised by the interviewees—both Gabe Wardell and Anthony Kaufman astutely mention a most important difference in the print-to-blogging world is the lack of an editorial presence, Noralil Ryan Fores digs into the allure of Karina Longworth’s feisty female voice at Spout—there is no narrative rhythm, there are no signs that the person behind the camera has ever seen or made a movie before. While one feels bad about being so critical of someone whose heart appears to be in the right place, the question remains: what place is that someone's heart actually in, filmmaking or self-promotion?