By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IF YOU PULL UP THE GROUP 101 WEB SITE, you are immediately met with the slogan "The first two or three were fun; now it's some kind of sick compulsion fueled by God knows what." Other maxims that seem to have arisen directly from experience include "Tape is cheap and inertia is expensive," "You have 30 days -- get off your ass" and the concise, T-shirt-ready "Freedom to suck." In fact, the entire site is tinged with the sort of breezy insouciance and lack of self-importance that is crucial to the world domination that Group 101 clearly has in mind. In the members-only area, under "Instructions," there is the admonition "Play fair. All I want is for you kids to get along." Elsewhere, a list of standing rules is labeled "Our Bible: Learn it. Love it. Do it."
The obvious comparison is to Dogma 95, the seven-year-old Danish film movement that produced a handful of native features by Lars von Trier (The Idiots), Thomas Vinterberg (Celebration) and others, and whose Vow of Chastity -- a refusal to cohabitate with Hollywood or play along with its conventions -- was subsequently taken up by filmmakers worldwide. With Group 101, the only constraints on artifice are budgetary. But also, the demands of a compressed running time and adherence to a common theme result in a very different approach -- elliptical narrative, technical flash, MTV-style editing hijinks, a high level of abstraction or formalism, bite-size blackout humor -- i.e., one that seems more attuned to Madison Avenue's agenda than to that of Group 101's Dogma 95 forebears. Between the carrot of a compelling theme and the stick of a short-term deadline, it's also far easier to bypass the pretensions and perfectionism that so often leave creative efforts stillborn. And by adjusting the themes to their own strengths and weaknesses, members can force themselves to use creative muscles they might not have otherwise -- short-circuiting their natural skills as editors, for example, by mandating that one month's films all be shot in a single take.
Very quickly, Group 101 formalized a workshop approach to its monthly screening sessions: The films are shown without apology or caveat, everyone present has to comment, and no one besides the filmmakers themselves can attend the first screenings. ("It's hard to say 'Your actor sucks' if he's sitting there, or 'Who shot this piece of crap?'" explains Maureen, pickup talent and cinematographers-in-training being, by definition, hit-or-miss affairs.)
The ghoul-couple shoot is Dina's, and is competing for a place in a program of Group 101 shorts the AMC cable network intends to broadcast over Halloween weekend. Titled "The Witching Hour," the one-minute opus is the story of two couples -- one living, one dead -- who, unbeknownst to each other, occupy the same house. Kind of The Othersmeets The Honeymooners.
The living couple is played by Group 101 mainstays Pip Newson and Cristo Dimassis. Pip is the undisputed queen of Group 101 actors, having appeared in an estimated 30 shorts, including four for Dina, at least one apiece for Jeff and Maureen, and a whopping 10 for Aaron. Originally hailing from New Zealand, she has chosen to adopt a credible American accent for as long as she's here. "You give casting agents any excuse, and they'll use it," says this softer-edged Ashley Judd. "So I just stay more or less permanently in character while I'm here. Whenever I go back, it starts to slip out."
Cristo, a square-jawed Bruce Campbell type, has done half a dozen Group 101 films, including several by Michael Medaglia (available on Mike's own Web site, www.prettypictures.com; "Danse Mediocre" is particularly goofy). Opposite them (in ghoul makeup) are Gregory Macdonald, who identifies himself as one of the two white guys in Ice Cube's The Players Club("Not the old white guy in the hot tub, the other one"), and Alex Grant, who was last seen as a leather-clad dominatrix in Dina's spec commercial spot for Coleman's Hotter Mustard.
Indeed, once you start navigating the Group 101 film universe, at least as reflected in the 40-odd films posted on the Web site from the first and second waves, you discover the early rudiments of a star system: Newson in Jeff's "The Exchange" or Aaron's "Terminal Illness" (which both use the same dialogue to radically different effect), Michelle Featherstone in Dina's "A Dog Story" or "Wiggly Man," Michelle Carr in Jeff's "Falling Prey" (alongside Featherstone and Newson). And the closer you look, the more self-references and in-jokes you discover, the more you're drawn into this insular society. Which is no doubt the point.
IN AUGUST 2000, THE FIVE PARTICIpating members of Group 101 organized what was to have been a one-time screening for actors and intimates. Commandeering a weeknight at Club Fais Do Do (on West Adams between Fairfax and La Brea), they showed an hour and a half of homegrown cinema, sans air conditioning, to what turned out to be a rapturously enthusiastic crowd of 250.
"They applauded. They loved it," says Jeff. "And then, afterwards, people were just crazy about the idea, so we made the challenge. We stood up at the end of the screening and said, 'If you want to do what we did, come join us.' And about 15 people stood up and said, 'Yeah, I want to do it.'"