With the Oscars just around the corner and “Paddington 2” getting stellar reviews, it seems like accolades are being handed out to just about everyone. But, for local independent films, reality is a little bit different. Exhibition and promotion can be tricky on a small budget, especially with all the competition around this time of year. Luckily, many spots around Greensboro can double as a DIY movie theatre, including Scuppernong Books.
Thursday saw local musician and filmmaker, Ben Singer, give a showing of his documentary, “Pam’s Great Gatsby,” in the back section of Scuppernong. The documentary captures the moments before and during a 1920s art-deco themed birthday celebration, thrown by an unnamed Ambassador for his wife, Pam. The night is centered around a performance by a Chinese jazz singer, Lulu, in which she is accompanied by a large band and troupe of dancers.
The film begins in cacophony; dancers and musicians warm up while a piano is slowly tuned in the background. At each cut, the piano jumps in pitch, creating the feeling of a rising effect. Midway through, guests start pouring in, and the performance begins. Bright lights, energetic jazz and vibrant dancers fill the screen. A large art deco cake is brought out and the guests sing for Pam as the film closes.
With no interviews or subtitles, the film offers a direct look into these performers’ lives, yet leaves a lot of information up to interpretation. The constant jump cuts and the slice-of-life approach to storytelling are similar to that of French New Wave films, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”
Adam Olson, a senior in UNCG’s Theatre department, was impressed by this style of filmmaking.
“It had a very relaxed and casual approach to filming this event,” Olson said. “It felt like I got to be a natural spectator of the performance process.”
Katei Cranford, an alumni of UNCG, was also pleased with the screening.
“I thought it was really cool of Scuppernong to let Ben do this,” Cranford said. “It was definitely a peek into an upper crust party [and] I’ve always wanted to know what that would be like.”
Coming from a background in music and computers, Singer started his path in film while live scoring films and stock footage as Modern Robot. As the shows became more complex, he began editing the footage together in iMovie. As he learned the process, he switched to more advanced software and began filming the bands he was recording.
“I’ve got everyone in this room and they’re all recording, I should probably grab my camera and record them doing this,” Singer said.
As his reputation for his performance video grew, Singer started getting opportunities outside of Greensboro.
“Andy Eversall had hired me to be a documentarian,” Singer said. “It was me and him just traveling in China. The point of that trip was to record an album and either short films, or a long film.”
For about a month, Singer and Eversall recorded in various living rooms, meeting new musicians along the way. On Halloween morning, the two separated. Eversall left for Hong Kong, while Singer decided to film a performance by Lulu, a singer he had met during his travels.
“She was like, ‘if you’re here this day, I’ve got this gig. Do you wanna shoot it?’” Singer said. “I showed up in the afternoon, expecting to do a performance video, and thought, this is fun, I’m gonna shoot everything.”
All of this happening in the heat of the moment adds to the warm and exciting mood. Birthday parties tend to be a little hectic, and even more so for live performances. There are so many ways this could go wrong, but thankfully, nothing does. If one thing is for sure, the ambassador must put a lot of time and money into this annual celebration.
Patrick Young, singer in the local band, Black Haus, admired the relationship between the ambassador and his wife.
“I think Pam is a lucky woman for having her husband do this for her every year,” Young said.
She sure is, Patrick. She sure is.