Small form films:
the (non-)cinema of Mike Ott

by Robert Campbell

Since graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied, inter alia, under Thom Andersen and James Benning, Mike Ott has prolifically been making feature films as well as shorts and music videos on tiny budgets. Indeed, he has shot seven features in little over a decade, including

Between them, these films have won various awards, including at the Montréal Festival of New Cinema, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the AFI Fest and the Independent Spirit Awards. LiTTLEROCK, Pearblossom Hwy, Lake Los Angeles and Actor Martinez are all available on Amazon Video/Amazon Prime, while LiTTLEROCK is also distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber, and Actor Martinez by Breaking Glass Pictures. A short, Lancaster, CA (2015), was in 2016 distributed on MUBI. Meanwhile, at time of writing California Dreams continues its festival run after premiering as part of the Critics’ Week at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2017 and having its first screening in North America at the SXSW Film Festival in March—with esteemed film critic Richard Brody also naming Actor Martinez among his top films of 2017 in The New Yorker.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Making films set in locales about fifty miles from Hollywood, Ott uses the film industry and Hollywood style as an implicit reference in most of his films, but primarily in the sense that his own style is in a way counter-Hollywood. In addition, not being in Hollywood and not being “cinematic” have a metaphoric resonance across his work. His style is such that although he is prolific, having made numerous feature fictions, his films are largely unknown. His scripts are unobtrusively intellectual, usually wandering, and often emotional. He encourages fine acting from performers whom he uses repeatedly in his work, but does not give them the typically tight story arcs found in Hollywood scripts; rather, actors play out meandering narratives and often have speeches that seem to come from their own lives. As he puts it, he makes “small form films.”

Ott’s films typically tell the story of disaffected young men and women who have aspirations to leave their homes and achieve success, often in the movies. However, Ott’s protagonists regularly find themselves hampered by a combination of circumstances, including most often apathy, lack of talent, and geography. More important, nearly all are marginalized by their low income, meaning that Ott’s films present an opposition between labor/the need to work and cinema/a desire to “be cinematic.” This opposition is often played out through characters’ use of different media, including audio cassette and VHS video tapes, computers and videogames, and especially letter writing—all of which contrast to the characters’ talking about wanting to be in movies. The narrative decision to follow characters who aspire to cinema but regularly settle for other “lesser” media can be read as deliberate, given the name of Ott’s production company, Small Form Films.

Ott clearly places his work within an expansive history of cinema, making allusions and intertextual references to it within his films. But he also eschews spectacular narrative for an engagement with the mundane, unresolved and overlooked. Ott in this way embraces “small form.” On the level of style and also narrative theme, his films constitute a different, perhaps even “non-cinematic” type of film, one in which unconventional, imperfect and makeshift families replace the cinematic mainstream of families with strong fathers and beautiful lovers. In addition, these films mostly play out against the desert backdrop of Antelope Valley; that location is fifty or so miles north of Hollywood but remains conceptually further from cinema than its geographical proximity to cinema’s capital might suggest.

In embracing “small form,” Ott does not offer “new media” as a “more democratic” alternative to cinema. Rather he suggests that cinema and/as the American way of life is in tension with the non-cinematic, which Ott paradoxically renders cinematic through his (digital) filmmaking practice. To say that more simply, Ott’s cinema engages with ongoing issues of class in the contemporary United States. He uses the feature fiction medium against itself as a tool to critique the structuring role that media with “high production values” play in the U.S. class system. In people’s lives, socially and imaginatively, to “become cinematic” is to have a better life. Fiction film, especially from Hollywood, is partially responsible for planting “cinematic aspirations” in viewers while demonstrating to them how their own lives are not cinematic. Hollywood presents itself as a would-be escape from class difference while simultaneously being a medium that reinforces it. Thus as Ott turns to creating a “small form,” or perhaps even a non-cinema, he makes work that is both formally and thematically rich so that his is a rare if fragile voice in the U.S. fiction film landscape.

Film at the margins

The following is an episode that demonstrates the small scale of one protagonist’s life and also Ott’s playing with intertextual cinematic reference. At the end of California Dreams, protagonist Cory (played by regular Ott actor, Cory Zacharia) gets into a taxi to catch a flight to Germany to be in a movie directed by real-world filmmaker Henning Gronkowski. (Gronkowski plays himself in Ott’s film though we only hear his voice over the phone; his forthcoming Jung (2018) is produced in real life by Mike Ott.) Driving the taxi is Mark Borchardt, a real-life horror filmmaker who is also at the center of Chris Smith’s cult documentary, American Movie (1999). As Cory explains that he is off to Germany to make a movie, we hear the taxi driver talk enthusiastically about German filmmakers from Volker Schlöndorff to Wim Wenders, and from Rainer Maria Fassbinder to Werner Herzog. “Werner Hertz-dog?” replies Cory, seemingly oblivious to the New German precursors of his future boss Gronkowski.

I interpret this sequence as would-be star Cory’s dream. Elsewhere in California Dreams, having been offered a part in Gronkowski’s film, Cory summarily fails to raise the $800 or $900 that would get him to Europe, but as the film nears its climax he miraculously finds money strewn across the desert. Since his taxi ride is thus funded by this miracle money, the scene with Borchardt seems a fantasy – a paradoxically cinematic fantasy that masks Cory’s failure to “become cinematic” by being in Gronkowski’s movie. That is, Cory may not know who his taxi driver is at the end of this film, but Ott surely does. And Ott’s casting Borchardt in that role is key, for Borchardt in Chris Smith’s documentary is shown as a filmmaker spending every last penny he has on putting together shoestring horror movies in and around Milwaukee. Borchardt is himself, then, a filmmaker associated with the idea of finding affirmation and/or validation in being or “becoming cinematic,” even though Smith’s film hilariously charts how Borchardt quixotically sets out on this quest with barely a clue and perhaps more courage than talent. Cory is in this way an unwitting successor to Borchardt; he aspires to become cinematic, but he is always an outsider to it.

As we shall see, Ott’s films regularly use these kinds of intertextual cinematic references (with Kid Icarus as a whole being something of a sister film to American Movie). The references add thematic depth and richness to his work and mark him as a focused cinephile director. However, using Borchardt as a character not only has thematic relevance to a plot also about a young man, Cory, seeking to be or to become “cinematic.” Using Borchardt also lets Ott situate his own work within the landscape of contemporary U.S. and international filmmaking. It is not that Ott follows Borchardt’s genre or style, but they do have something in common, in that Ott is something of an outsider to U.S. cinema – and unlike Borchardt perhaps wilfully so. Indeed, Ott is situated on the margins of even independent cinema, including the so-called mumblecore movement.

In fact, there are many commonalities between mumblecore and Ott’s work. Yannis Tzioumakis summarizes, for example, how

“only a handful [of mumblecore films have] secured theatrical distribution by one of the established distributors, and yet the majority have had substantial presence in some ancillary markets and alternative distribution outlets.”[2]

This kind of distribution strategy holds true of Ott’s work, which plays at selected festivals before relying primarily on ancillary markets to find audiences. Furthermore, Ott’s films to a certain extent resemble mumblecore by virtue of budget and theme. They are

“low-budget, digitally filmed feature films made by young, white, urban filmmakers about that privileged demographic’s struggles to find lasting personal relationships.”[3]

Indeed, LiTTLEROCK, Pearblossom Hwy, Actor Martinez and California Dreams all focus at least in part on single men looking for lasting personal relationships. In mumblecore films, as Aymar Jean Christian has defined a typical plotline, white male protagonists search for love and “the real.”[4] What is more, Ott’s films also share a concern for poverty with mumblecore, which Maria San Filippo defines as a “cinema of recession.”[5]

However, in other respects Ott’s work differs in key ways from mumblecore. First, with the exception of Actor Martinez, which takes place in Denver, Ott’s locales are not urban but rather set in the Californian desert. Second, only some of his films use a plot of the lonely male looking for love. On the one hand, repeatedly we see actor Cory Zacharia (called Cory as a character) looking for love in LiTTLEROCK, Pearblossom Hwy and California Dreams. In a similar vein, but not about love, Actor Martinez also features a would-be professional actor (Arthur Martinez) exploring his loneliness; in the plotline he acts in a film in which he plays a would-be professional actor exploring his loneliness as he acts in a film. But LiTTLEROCK is more about the pilgrimage being made by two Japanese siblings (played by Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto) to Manzanar, where their grandfather was interned as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. In fact, neither Pearblossom Hwy nor California Dreams feature Cory falling in love so much as learning in the first film to get along with his ex-marine brother, Jeff (John Brotherton), and developing a friendship/platonic romance (or “plomance”) with Japanese American woman Atsuko (referred often to as Anna, and played again by Atsuko Okatsuka). In California Dreams, he really develops no romantic relationships (although he flirts briefly with a woman at an acting workshop) even if he talks explicitly and at length about love and sex with various different people, including Asian American Patrick (Patrick Llaguno). In the complexity of his narratives, then, Ott is at pains to expand the world depicted beyond that of the white middle class male that defines mumblecore and to explore a much more racially diverse set of characters.

Indeed, although he never explicitly identifies himself as such, even Arthur in Actor Martinez is recognizable from his family name as coming from a Hispanic background, a milieu that is explicitly developed in Lake Los Angeles, which tells the story of illegal immigrants coming to California from Mexico, Cuba and other places south of the border. In its exploration of race, as well as in its exploration not simply of a newly-precarious white bourgeoisie but of a more precarious, multi-racial working class, Ott’s cinema goes much deeper than mumblecore into the theme of “recession,” signaling a deeper economic crisis in the 2010s than that depicted in the first mumblecore films of the 2000s.

While Ott’s films flirt with the tropes of hip masculinity that David Church identifies in both Bellflower (Evan Glodell, USA, 2011) and in mumblecore films as a whole, Ott’s characters are either critiqued for their desire to find “authenticity” in the “retro” or his characters use “retro” technology because it is all that they have.[6] In LiTTLEROCK, for example, Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes) seduces Atsuko through his hipster use of cassette tapes before turning out to be a cynical womanizer, while in California Dreams, Henning shouts at Cory for sending him an audition tape on VHS, even though it is the only technology that Cory has to provide Henning the performance that the latter needs in order to show Cory’s acting chops to his producers. In addition, whereas Jordan and his friends Brody (Ryan Dillon), Garbo (Matthew Fling) and Marques (Markiss McFadden) come and go from Littlerock and drive cars, Cory in LiTTLEROCK, Pearblossom Hwy and in California Dreams must generally walk everywhere, with a BMX representing for Cory a genuine mode of transport as opposed to the hipster, retro leisure vehicle that it does for Jordan. In other words, Jordan is a “retro” hipster out of choice (and his performance gets him the girl), while Cory uses outmoded technologies out of necessity (and is punished for it).

Rather than figuring simply a hipster performance of poverty, then, Ott’s films seem more genuinely to explore poverty, or what Anna Backman Rogers might with reference to contemporary U.S. independent cinema call the “crisis image,” one of people who are excluded from and who remain invisible to mainstream society. As Backman Rogers suggests,

“when you are not seen (when you are not rendered as ‘surface’), you cease to exist altogether.”[7]

This idea that being seen means existing chimes with Jonathan Beller’s argument that the contemporary workings of capital are cinematic. As Beller suggests, under capitalism only that which attracts our attention is considered real, and that reality is then defined by the possibility of turning attention into profit. The techniques that are used to attract attention are the same techniques as those developed in cinema. As a result, cinema becomes the measure of capital, which in turn becomes the measure of reality: if you are not seen, or if you are not profitable, then you cease to exist.[8]

In this respect, the increasing visibility of mumblecore directors like Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham and Jay and Mark Duplass signals the way in which the precarity and soul-searching seen in mumblecore films are indeed privileged and in some respects the acceptable, “cinematic” face of crisis. Ott’s films and the world(s) that they depict, meanwhile, remain significantly recessed from view. Not only has Ott stayed out of the mainstream, unlike the mumblecore directors mentioned above, but he seems to reject the mainstream, as per the dialogue of Actor Martinez where Mike (Ott playing himself) discusses with Arthur and co-director Nathan (Silver, also playing himself) how they do not want to make their film “marketable.” Small wonder that after having left Antelope Valley to make Actor Martinez, Ott returned home to make California Dreams, a much more modest project.

Ott deliberately keeps his cinema “small,” as might be implied by his regular collaboration with David Nordstrom, who edited Kid Icarus, LiTTLEROCK and Pearblossom Hwy, before going on to edit Adam Rifkin’s Giuseppe Makes a Movie (2014), a documentary about radical trailer park filmmaker Giuseppe Andrews. Like Andrews, Ott works on the margins of cinema, in a realm even where cinema stops being itself and paradoxically but necessarily becomes non-cinema—necessarily because this is not a cinema made for money nor intending to make money. Ott’s films are not amateur (and certainly not amateurish, even if they feature many non-professional actors). A non-capitalist project, Ott’s films also critique the workings of contemporary capitalism. His is non-cinema.[9]

As a possible further marker of his outsider status in contemporary U.S. cinema, we might look at how Pearblossom Hwy was produced and Lake Los Angeles executive-produced by Athina Rachel Tsangari, whose contributions to the Greek “weird wave” take the form both of her own films Attenberg (2010) and Chevalier (2015), and those of director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose Kinetta (2005), Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009) and Alpeis/Alps (2011) she produced and/or associate-produced. All these films trace the underside of the European Union in crisis-hit Greece. So, too, do Ott’s film trace the underside of the United States now equally in crisis. Far from being a cinema in which hipsters seemingly never have to work, as per mumblecore and Bellflower, Ott’s films involve much work and/or searching for work in a bid to survive, with his characters’ dreams of and attempts at “becoming cinema” marking not so much their privilege as precisely their outsider status in relation to mainstream “cinematic” society.

If mumblecore indicates a kind of gentrification of poverty, loser-dom and hipness, its exploitative performance of poverty can ultimately be accused of complicity with rather than a critique of neoliberal capital. In contrast, Ott offers a deeper and more pointed critique of contemporary U.S. society than mumblecore does by dealing specifically in his films with film’s social role (capitalist society as cinematic) as well as by regularly investigating a more clearly lower class milieu. This is true especially in Lake Los Angeles, where Ott focuses on illegal immigrant workers who are otherwise “not seen” and thus usually “non-existent” to the world of cinema-capital. Outside of representation, Ott’s characters seek often-imperfect and/or quasi-obsolete ways to represent themselves, including via smartphone, VHS cameras and in writing. In fact, Ott’s characters understand the importance of and need for images, as is fitting for someone who studied under Andersen, director of Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Without families, Ott’s characters forge makeshift and imperfect bonds with the unlikely others whom they encounter. Without transport, they catch rides and/or move at a pedestrian rate.

Walking through the desert, characters become fused with the landscape rather than experiencing nature simply as a backdrop (perhaps fitting from a former student of James Benning, the director of numerous movies that explore relations between landscape and cinema). Being in and of the desert, Ott’s characters, like his films more generally, signal the growing emptiness that surrounds cinema and capital alike, suggesting an alternative world in which alternative bonds and relationships must be made as his characters do not perform struggle but struggle to survive, even as they want impossibly to be or to become mainstream/cinematic so as not to have to struggle at all. That is, Ott reveals in his very self-consciously cinematic films that cinema itself is an illusion that allows us to pretend to escape from the desert of the real. In an era of economic and ecological crisis, in which the desert literally grows all around us, Ott’s films in this sense present us not just with images of an American present that otherwise lies outside of mainstream representation, but perhaps also a vision of the United States’ and the world’s future.

As per most of Ott’s movies, his debut Analog Days deals with a group of youth, here in Newhall, a town which like Littlerock, Lake Los Angeles, and Lancaster lies about thirty miles outside of Los Angeles. In Ott’s words it is “not exactly a real city.”[10] The main group of characters are disaffected and have no interest in politics until one of them, Tammy (Ivy Khan), begins to document with her camcorder violence towards migrants around there. If her images bring with them a sense of political awakening, it is perhaps significant that these images are digital. Gone are the “analog days” in which one dreamt that life would work out like in the movies. Here instead are the days are digital, and deeply political in nature. Ott’s “small form” cinema as well is politically nuanced in its digital construction, suggesting a “minor cinema” in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s sense of the word. Within the Californian context his minor cinema traces experiences of minority populations, particularly Latinos, as he also explores in Lake Los Angeles.[11] Before looking in more detail at that film and the rest of Ott’s œuvre, though, let us start with a consideration of Kid Icarus, Ott’s often hilarious documentary about student filmmakers, who see cinema as a means of escape from their otherwise non-cinematic lives.