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Chair: The Complete First Season (plus Hollidaysburg and Not Cool), The
The contestants selected for the first season of "The Chair" are YouTube star Shane Dawson, and screenwriter Anna Martemucci. They are both provided Dan Schoffer's How Soon is Now, a script about a group of teenagers returning home for Thanksgiving weekend after their first three months of college, where high school sweethearts find themselves unexpectedly reconnecting. Both Dawson and Martemucci rewrite Schoffer's screenplay, Dawson with Schoffer's input, Martemucci without, with the one stipulation that the character names have to stay the same so the TV audience can understand the character analogs. Before long, they're casting their films, scouting locations, and crewing up for simultaneous shoots in and around Pittsburgh. The separate teams of Chris Moore and Josh Shader and Zachary Quinto, Neal Dodson, and Corey Moosa are set to serve as producers of both movies, and the filmmakers get final cut. There's a sense that the process of picking the pair of filmmakers could be explained a bit better (there is no explanation as to how Moore was directed to Dawson, and Martemucci is an acquaintance of Quinto's, which could both be viewed as a bit biased), but the core premise is excellent.
Dawson has come under fire (and rightfully so) for insensitivity when it comes to his portrayals of women, gay people, and minorities in his YouTube videos, for which he dons wigs, puts on voices, and appears in blackface. He perceives his comedy style as edgy, but it's mostly just immature, designed for an audience of 12 and 13-year-old girls who make up his millions of YouTube subscribers (poop and vomit, for instance, are staples in his gag arsenal). Despite having spent a significant portion of his life in the internet spotlight, Dawson is remarkably oblivious to how his actions make him look. When the experienced producing team in front of him tries to tell him that he should get to the heart of his story faster, he insists that "rules are meant to be broken", breezing right through Moore's reminder that he's speaking from actual experience. Production goes fairly smoothly (finding a black man willing to put his penis on camera is one of the production's only major hurdles), but when the editing process rolls around, he gets touchy and defensive. He tears into his loyal producer, Lauren Schnipper, when her first comment upon seeing a rough cut bears out Moore's theory, and ignores her (correct) assessment that he looks worse stubbornly refusing the note (something he also does during the touchy test-screening process) than he would acknowledging his mistake. Throughout the ten episode series, he casually cracks homophobic and sexist jokes (aside from the ones in his film, including repeatedly pantomiming jerking off into Schnipper's face in the first episode), and displays a remarkable victimization complex whenever his taste or judgment is questioned. Dawson believes he's under fire for embracing raunchy comedy and for being a YouTube star, but it's his stubborn lack of self-awareness that makes him obnoxious. The show, for its part, includes an owner of a location Dawson's film shoots at calling out his offensiveness, and the scene where Quinto explains his reaction to Dawson's film is one of the most satisfying moments of the season. That said, he is admittedly a gracious competitor, constantly making good-natured references to Martemucci's production, and there are a few moments, including his overall humility at being given such an opportunity, and a confession outside a gas station after the end of production, which humanize him to a degree.
Martemucci is a more complicated contestant. She's a 180 from Dawson in terms of charisma, but that doesn't mean watching her isn't often frustrating. As a female filmmaker surrounded by mostly male producers and crew, the question of sexism constantly hangs in the air. Martemucci obsesses over the screenplay, rewriting even after the script is in production. Her background in an ultra-collaborative process often appears to be slowing her days, bringing her producer Josh Hetzler and first AD Siena Brown down on her over budgetary and time constraints. Martemucci's husband, Victor Quinaz, also serves as a writer and producer on the project, and he frequently floats around her as she directs, offering advice that appears to oppose her own instincts. It can be incredibly aggravating to watch her fall prey to her own weaknesses and struggle to make decisions, but it's hard to gauge whether or not those feelings stem from a) the natural desire to see her succeed, b) the fact that so many of the other voices influencing her seem to be offering terrible advice, c) a bias toward the desire to see a female filmmaker succeed and / or holding her to a double standard, d) the show manufacturing a storyline for her, or e) some combination of all of the above. To that last point, many of the participants express these same concerns in the talking head interview segments throughout. Of the two productions, Martemucci's has more conflicts that are explored from all angles. One hopes that seeing her weaknesses from an objective standpoint gives her a better perspective on how to avoid falling into those traps, but the show has no "post-mortem" episode for after the filmmakers have watched the show, so that question remains up in the air.
In addition to the two films being made, the show has a wildcard in the show itself, which is also being made while these other two movies are being made. It's surprising how much of "The Chair" is also about its own production and the challenges that poses for the filmmakers, who find themselves being turned down by cast and crew members who don't want to work on a low-budget shoot where their actions will be scrutinized on television and where they'll constantly be working around another production crew. The filmmakers openly reference struggles that Moore is having raising money for the films and for the production of "The Chair", and occasionally interact with the camera crew. Martemucci struggles with the needs of the show when it comes to filming a sex scene, trying to make her actors comfortable while also allowing Moore and Shader to watch on a monitor. Later, Martemucci's brother-in-law / co-producer / co-writer / actor Philip Quinaz essentially stages an unspoken apology for the benefit of two crew members, and watching him act for their benefit translates to acting for the documentary cameras, because it would play as a believable apology had the camera not caught the sound of him whispering his plan to Martemucci in a bathroom. It's only a shame that the filmmaking of the show is so underwhelming, relying heavily on shallow depth of field as empty stylization and unnecessarily trying to find weird and unexpected angles for the interview segments.
Simply by getting into the nuts-and-bolts decisions that each director faces, "The Chair" also becomes one of the most revealing programs about the filmmaking process, essentially revealing the ways filmmakers can sabotage their own first-time projects. It reveals the way Dawson and Martemucci struggle with compromise and deal with the results of their separate styles -- any first-time filmmaker watching the show gets a crash course in not one, but two separate ways they might approach a project, and the pros and cons of both. On top of that, the producers are very candid about their concerns about what the filmmakers are doing, and what it is they hope to get out of the project, which is arguably just as valuable as the production chalenges. Editing-wise, the show does a fairly good job of trying to find ways to paint the filmmakers' separate struggles as similar, creating "topics" for each episode that center around some aspect of filmmaking. The series' 10 episodes track through pre-production all the way through the premieres and week-long engagements, before wrapping up with the audience's voting process and a brief amount of the filmmakers' reactions to the vote. Although this naturally means the struggles get more airtime than the successes, the program seems to provide a nice balance.
As mentioned, the one thing the show could potentially use is a bit more of a post-mortem episode, in which the filmmakers are given a chance to see the series and fully reflect on the experience of making the films and being on the show. One of the most interesting participants to hear from is screenwriter Dan Schoffer, who ends up in the awkward position of having two films being made based on his work that he doesn't seem to like very much. Despite helping Dawson through the rewrite process and acknowledging it was a valuable learning experience, he seems frustrated on set by many of Dawson's creative choices. Meanwhile, he outright angry at the way Martemucci has cut him out of the loop, diplomatically stating that he acknowledges it as her decision while feeling unwanted during his days on her set. The show never reveals his reaction to either of the finished films, which is a huge disappointment. There's also just the question of whether or not either filmmaker found the process valuable. Although there's a sense that neither would enjoy seeing the way "The Chair" reveals their weaknesess, the complete overview of the creative process, even accounting for the manipulation inherent in reality television, is what makes the show special.
"The Chair" comes in a five-disc set, featuring three discs for the show and two separate DVDs for Martemucci and Dawson's films. The art is very simple, a yellow-and-black caution-tape motif with two hands grabbing at a director's chair, and minimal pictures from the production compared to a lengthy summary. I would've liked to see the billing blocks for the separate movies, potentially printed on the reverse inside of the sleeve or in a short booklet with an episode guide or a leaflet, but there is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, the show looks okay and sounds fine. The main struggle for the video is the extensive use of shallow depth of field, which is not only a fairly empty creative choice, but also has the end result of looking kind of like a Netflix stream that's still loading sometimes, with crisp focus in one area and a mushy, faintly blocky mess outside of it. Color and other clarity appear fine, and it certainly doesn't make the program hard to watch, but it does mean these episodes can look underwhelming. Most of the soundtrack is devoted to talking head interviews, and when participants can not entirely be heard on crowded sets (or because they're literally hiding from the show's camera crew), burnt-in subtitles are used. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The two extra features on the set are of course separate DVDs of Hollidaysburg (Martemucci's film) and Not Cool (Dawson's film). The most fascinating thing about watching the movies after seeing the show is how easy it is to set aside awareness of what happened during filming and commit to looking at the story being told by each filmmaker. Since the show avoids showing the viewer footage from the films (just footage of the scenes being filmed), it's easy to approach the movies with a fresh eye.
Of the two, Hollidaysburg is the better picture, but much like watching Martemucci on the program, being the more likable of the two candidates doesn't mean Hollidaysburg is without problems in and of itself. Although the film captures the quiet authenticity of small town living, the film's conversational tone can become a bit monotonous. The characters, while having clearly defined arcs with individual conflicts, have a tendency to blend together tonally, with the same style of wit and observation. Similar to the idea that Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, or Diablo Cody's characters can end up all sounding like one writer's voice, the characters of Hollidaysburg suffer from this phenomenon, with the added drawback that said voice is very low-key and subtle. She is also a bit too fond of the casual way former high school acquaintances can toss off half-refences to names and places as a shortcut to familiarity or an allusion to past events -- these garbled comments about who's dating who and what happened when are slightly headache inducing.
That said, Martemucci's got a good cast, who imbue the film with a certain amount of charm. Rachel Keller plays Tori, whose unrequited crush on popular boy Scott (Tobin Mitnick) is unexpectedly rekindled in the wake of his break-up with his high school girlfriend Heather (Claire Chapelli). Meanwhile, Heather starts hanging out with Scott's friend Petroff (Tristan Erwin), setting the stage for a collision course of friendships and romance. Keller has a certain sardonic charm that works well for the character, and in his best moments, Mitnick has a goofy charm (sometimes undercut by the affected awkwardness of the dialogue). The film gets a ton of mileage out of the fact that they have great chemistry with one another, and both are able to capture something authentic in their characters. Co-writer / co-producer / actor Philip Quinaz is also a huge asset as Scott's brother Phil, scoring most of the film's laughs.
The one aspect of the TV show that does stand out watching the film is the question of whether or not the film's opening break-up sequence is confusing as to who the movie's protagonist is. Schoffer and the producers all seem to believe opening the film the way it does is one of the project's big moments (in either version), but it would fully center the movie on Tori to begin with her narration and learn about the break-up later in the film. That said, the rest of the film's editing is surprisingly successful -- the ending is far more successful and emotionally satisfying than one might guess considering how mild the rest of the film comes off.
What's more surprising is that Dawson's movie is gross and tasteless, but not nearly as gross or tasteless as the show (or the humor Dawson displays throughout production) suggests it is. The film absolutely trots out a myriad of unfortunate gags, including Dawson dressing in drag to play a couple effeminate caricatures, there's gross-out gags including shit-eating and pants-shitting, and at least a few dispiriting rape jokes, but what's interesting is how compartmentalized these moments are. They're one-liners and sight gags that could've easily been lopped out of the movie had someone with less tasteless comedic instincts wanted to. Who knows how much "personality" (heavy air quotes) the film would have left after chopping out these elements, but it could certainly be done. There are even some admirable qualities to the script: a blind character (Lisa Schwartz) serves as the butt of some broad, slapstick-style jokes, but Dawson (and Schoffer) also hand her a pivotal dramatic moment that helps ground her character, and Joel (Drew Monson) accepts a rejection from his dream girl Janie (Michelle Veintimilla) gracefully -- hard to believe a teen comedy as offensive as this one has no gags about the mythical "friend zone."
What makes Not Cool as tolerable as it is can mostly be chalked up to Cherami Leigh as Tori, whose comedic timing and energetic humor really give the film some spirit. It's a shame she's stuck reacting to a wild gay caricature, or Monson poorly mimicing cunnilingus, but she weathers these moments and comes out looking great. Even Dawson acquits himself decently as an actor; he's lacking in energy, but he manages to shed the sad-eyed defensiveness he displays so strongly on the show to make Scott different from himself. Some of their scenes together capture something authentic about teenage life, which, to Dawson's credit, is exactly what he intended to bring to the table. More than a few necessary plot points are lost in the edit or totally glazed over (the scene where he and Veintimilla, who play brother and sister, form a bond for the first time is the very definition of pat), and Scott's grand dramatic gesture falls painfully flat (surprisingly, it seemed more effective on "The Chair" than it does here). The film is needlessly offensive, and follows a fairly familiar template. Yet, it's not quite the utter trainwreck viewers might be expecting.
The disc for Not Cool also features a single extra: a reel of deleted scenes (8:46), which consist of more of the bad stuff, not the good stuff.
I loved "The Chair." I'm thrilled to see that despite the sense of struggle behind-the-scenes on its production, Moore is already in motion on a second season, because it's one of the best programs about filmmaking I've seen. Not only does the viewer get a real look at the day-to-day on a movie set run by first-time filmmakers, but it has the unique and fascinating outcome of being able to see two radically different films based on the same screenplay. It'd be worth buying for anyone looking to find out more about directing, and yet the set currently retails for under $15. It's a no-brainer. Highly recommended.
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