[16 May 2008]
Thursday and Friday
I sort of stumbled out of the gate this year. After my rookie season of covering the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2007—seeing and reviewing 14 diverse and mostly excellent films—I trained hard in the off-season, prepping myself to avoid the sophomore slump in 2008. This year I would see 15 films at least—no, 17! No, 20! This year I would hobnob with directors and actors, attend all the workshops, schmooze my way through all the parties. This year I would bat a perfect 1.000 as film-fester. This year would be the perfect season.
Alas, it was not to be. Prior obligations forced me to sit out Opening Night, missing Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian (but from all accounts, not missing that much). It wasn’t until Day Two, Thursday, that I was able to get to bat, and either through poor choice on my part, or poor quality on the fest’s part (or both), the first batch of films I saw were discouraging enough almost to sour me on the rest of the weekend. But you ride out the slumps as best you can, you don’t try to force the issue, and you wait for the ship to right itself. And things did get better (mostly) as the festival progressed, though it never quite reached the rosy glow of cinematic satiation that I felt last year.
So here, gentle reader, is how I fared with the fare (four narratives, eight documentaries) I saw, presented in matter of fact and unimaginative chronological order.
Director Lynn Shelton’s sophomore film My Effortless Brilliance is neither effortless nor brilliant, really. A loose shambolic portrait of two lifelong friends “breaking up” and then trying to reignite the spark (a great idea, but already done better in the first season of Seinfeld), the film coasts along, bumpily, on the presumed charm and wit of one Sean Nelson, whose prior claim to fame was as the lead singer of the band Harvey Danger. Nelson plays Eric Lambert, a smug, selfish, self-satisfied, self-conscious author in the Dave Eggers vein, an obnoxious lout who has driven away Dylan, the last of his friends.
Two years later the two reunite when Eric invites himself unannounced to Dylan’s woodland cabin in rural Washington. Nothing is ever explicitly said about what happened between them, or why, despite all the incessant yapping (mostly by Eric) but as the weekend progresses, with a lot of drinking, wood chopping, and a misguided midnight hunting excursion after a cougar (the big cat kind, not the other one), the two begin some sort of slow rapprochement.
I like what Shelton’s trying here, a female take on male bonding and the way so much is communicated between men despite nothing ever being said—or maybe not. Maybe nothing is said, despite the blather. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s a confused and confusing film, because neither of the leads is compelling or strong enough to really generate the sort of sympathy that could give the film some poignance. Perhaps with bit more effort, the brilliance would have followed.
Tight on time, I darted straight out of My Effortless Brilliance while the credits rolled (skipping the Q&A) and ran to catch Second Skin, which purports to be a sort of generalist overview of the intense world of online games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, but is really about male bonding, perpetual adolescence, and insecurity—I was two for two for the night. Second Skin is formless in the way that documentaries tend to be when they try to make too many points and tell too many stories, with no real overarching thesis to pull it all together and drive the whole thing home.
The main thread of the film follows the sad sack lives of a group of friends who play WoW for stretches of 12-15 hours a day. The game has become their whole lives, all else is secondary—work, friends, family, kids, eating—you know, the important stuff. I know this is not exactly news, but this caricature of the extreme online gamer—lost in an alternate online reality which threatens to supplant the good old mundane 3D world we live in—is not without validity. The problem with Second Skin is that, unlike other docs I’ve seen about people of a similar ilk (including Monster Camp and Darkon, both about LARPers), it never quite manages to portray its subjects in the sympathetic light it needs to, in order to bring the audience in. The online world of gamers remains distant and odd, an impenetrable mystery, and its acolytes look like just the pathetic losers our prejudices lead us to believe.
Which is a shame, because the remainder of the film is actually quite interesting in parts, especially when interviewing experts and academics on the wider, socio-cultural impact of online gaming, and the potentially adverse effects of gaming addiction. This latter hot-button topic is brought home forcefully by the inclusion of Elizabeth Woolley, whose son Shawn shot himself over Everquest, and who has since become a crusader against Internet addiction, and even opened her own rehab center. Alas, most of the film is content to lose itself in the imagined allure of the online world, and misses an opportunity for a more general understanding of what the online gaming world means to the wider population.
Poor young, precocious, Alice in Wonderland-obsessed Phoebe—stressed at home, stressed at school, unsure of her place in the world, starting to evince signs of OCD, or maybe Tourette’s, or maybe just an overactive imagination. She is prone to little rituals involving twirling and stomping up the front walk, and washing her hands excessively till they bleed, and having vivid visions of Alice leading her down rabbit holes and tea parties on her front lawn. She’s driving her classmates crazy, her teachers crazy, her parents crazy. What oh what will save her from herself? Could it be the school play? Yes, that’ll do quite nicely. And lucky, then, that the school is putting on Through the Looking Glass. Does Phoebe land the role of Alice? Does she overcome her problems and ticks? Are valuable life lessons learned? What do you think?
Phoebe in Wonderland is a confused little movie, which, if I were being charitable I would say complements its young heroine’s confusion. I don’t think it’s that clever, though. It wants to be an earnest and heartfelt family drama, but is hard to take seriously, even for all its seriousness. It also wants to be a whimsical fantasy, but the occasional fabulism it lapses into seems forced and intrusive.
The performances are all uniformly efficient, even quite good at times—Felicity Huffman’s harried mother is the rock that anchors the whole mess, even when Elle Fanning (Dakota’s sister) threatens to take the whole thing off to Wonderland with her screechy hysterics and occasional scenery chomping. Patricia Clarkson, regal and prim as the teacher who teaches Phoebe to believe in herself, is the quiet eye of the storm. They all do their best, but the film bests them all in the end.
The New Year Parade
See, this is what I like about these small indie film festivals: catching a film that I’d never otherwise have occasion, or be inclined, to see outside of a festival setting. A film that probably won’t be picked up for distribution, or maybe not even home release, that will travel the festival circuit for a bit and then just vanish.
Which is a shame, because the film in question, The New Year Parade, deserves a better fate. A small film about a family falling apart over the course of a year, it is nothing I’d call remotely groundbreaking or exceptional, but I found myself lost in it very quickly. It was partly the voyeuristic vérité style, peering in on quiet moments, intense moments, intimate moments; partly the lived-in feel the actors (all amateurs) bring to their parts (the filming took at least three years, which I guess goes a long way to creating a surrogate family); and partly the real feel of a place (South Philadelphia) that the film almost effortlessly captures.
Bookended by the bizarre spectacle of the New Year’s Mummers Parade (father and son are members of one of the bands in the parade, which is gaudy and ornate and wonderfully bizarre, and which was completely foreign to me, and which I now desperately want to see in person), the film is loose and free flowing, with no real narrative and no definitive conclusion and no grand revelations, just the drifting apart of people who love one another but can’t escape the inexorable drift of time and circumstance.
Do we need another teen movie? Do we need a reprise of the histrionics, the navel gazing, the cruelty, the heightened joy and tragedy? It must all be pointing to something, right, since we are perpetually awash in teen-centric programming. Whence this fascination with the high school years? Do we seek to reclaim that fleeting moment when we honestly believed that we were the center of the universe? Do we want reassurance that our experiences of those years were no less, and no more, vicious and cruel than what others go through? Do we want to relive that fleeing glory, or revel in relief that those years are forever gone?
These are the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head in the wake of Nanette Burstein’s mostly entertaining but mostly unnecessary documentary American Teen. While I don’t think that these are questions that Burstein is explicitly addressing, I don’t know that her film is some meta-comment about our fascination with teenagers and the films that focus on them. American Teen might be just exactly what it appears: a straight-up, fly on the wall documentary following four teens from four different cliques and socio-economic backgrounds through their senior year at Warsaw High in Indiana. There’s the rich popular queen bee Megan; Colin, the affable jock; Jake, the nerdy reclusive band geek; and Hannah, the artsy, troubled free spirit.
And it’s almost like Burstein picked them straight out of teen movie central casting, and their respective dramas during senior year play like countless generic subplots from any teen movie (the pressure on Colin to win the Big Game; Hannah’s improbable romance with a popular jock). At times the film flows too well, like it’s all contrived, the action artificially manipulated, a contention Burstein strenuously denied during the post-film Q&A.
But so what if it is. So what if the kids chosen for the picture are aware of the camera and play up to it, and so what if Burstein exploits this. Are we ever going to actually see what goes on behind the curtain, when the camera isn’t on, when the kids aren’t aware someone is watching? Do we even want to? Would we be horrified, or just bored (probably the latter)? And if it’s not a comment on society’s obsession with teens, than what are we to take American Teen as except as another in a recent parade of generic teen comedies, long format docs (PBS’ brilliant American High, the less successful High School Confidential), and the faux docs in between (The Hills, Laguna Beach). I want to give Burstein’s film the benefit of the doubt (she co-directed the excellent The Kid Stays in the Picture, one of the best docs of the past decade)—to be sure, American Teen is a very good film, solidly entertaining and very well made—but if it is only on the level, and really aspires to nothing else, then, like its peers, the film simply vanishes in the chatter.
In the Q&A session that followed the screening, director David Modgliani said he studiously wanted to avoid personal political polemics with his film Crawford, but rather wanted to let any politics that entered the film be filtered through the personal stories of inhabitants of the small Texas town, which skyrocketed to fame when it welcomed its 706th resident in the late ‘90s.
And he articulated exactly what I was thinking while watching Crawford, which views George W. Bush and his presidency from afar, through the prism of the effects of his residency on this small town. It’s the smart way to tackle it, avoiding any sort of partisan editorializing in favor of letting the residents speak for themselves in a collection of interviews remarkable for their frankness and intelligence. In fact, even if you swapped out Bush completely from the equation, Crawford would still present as a fairly interesting portrait of a sleepy rural town with no prior claim to fame, until one day fortune (both good and mis-) shoots down like lightning out of the sky.
But of course Bush is unavoidably the main constant of all conversation—he forever looms in the background, a hero to some, a specter to others, forever inextricably linked to the town, now more of a force of nature than a political object, someone—something—that must be dealt with because it’s inevitable and unavoidable.
So it’s not the partisan film that it might have been, and I admire Modgliani for taking this tack, for going the less obvious route, for avoiding easy cheap shots at the “ignorant podunks from Crawford” (which I think is what the audience I was watching it with wanted) and for staying true to the title of the film.
As a film, Jump! offers few if any surprises. It hews closely to the standard template of a certain mini-genre of documentary made popular in recent years, following ordinary (if sometimes eccentric) people who engage in odd, extraordinary and/or marginal hobbies, sports, or Quixotic quests. Having seen and mostly enjoyed films like Spellbound, Wordplay, Word Wars, and Murderball, I pretty much knew
exactly what to expect from Jump!, almost to the point that I probably could have accurately reviewed the movie without actually having watched it.
But boy, I’m glad I did. Jump! is an absolute joy to take in, a visual spectacle unrivaled by anything else I saw at the festival, and was exactly what I needed to kick-start my waning enthusiasm after a series of mostly low-key films to start the fest.
The film follows the travails and triumphs of a group of teens pursuing glory at the National and World Jump Roping Championships. Part sport, part performance art, high level competitive jump roping is somewhat akin to figure skating—it assumes an extremely high level of innate athleticism, takes an enormous amount of training, and requires a rare combination of strength, agility, and grace. The routines these kids pull off with such seeming ease are rigorous and highly choreographed, full of seemingly impossible jumps, twists, flips, and whatnot, and yet flow so beautifully that they become nearly hypnotic.
It’s wickedly infectious, and I couldn’t help but get crazy legs and start bouncing around in my seat as the competition kept ramping up. Credit director Helen Hood Scheer on keeping the attention focused on the jumping throughout—the back stories of the kids, while they do filter through and occasionally compel, never overshadow the action. But credit even more the remarkable editing of Scott Morgan, who assembles all the footage in a kinetic fugue of overlapping layered routines, split screens, and jump cutting, which all combined, seems like a natural extension of the jumping itself, its perfect on-screen representation.
Secrecy also offers few surprises, which feels a bit off and ironic, especially considering the subject—classified government information and the elaborate labyrinthine bureaucracy designed to keep this information well hidden. It’s a meaty subject, even a sexy one, and it’s especially topical and timely, as more and more of what we are allowed to know is further circumscribed by powers that seem beyond our ken.
So, I reasonably expected some grand revelations, or a pulling back of the curtain in Oz, or at least a paranoia-fest that would confirm my worst fears. Instead, I got a soporifically tedious parade of talking heads making obvious, only occasionally interesting, points that never strayed too far from either common sense or common knowledge. Lacking for any sort of hard archival footage (and how could you really have any, given the amorphous nature of the subject), the film is punctuated by out of place, repetitive animations which seems to be little more than padding to extend the film out to feature length when it would have worked better as an hour-long Frontline special or something.
Secrecy is not entirely without merit, and it does raise interesting and salient points at times, especially when it focuses in on how constant failure to share and disseminate information so often leads to critical failures that would otherwise be avoidable if things were just out in the open. And there’s this suggestion throughout that secrecy and classified knowledge have become some sort of epidemic running rampant through the government, coursing through all channels, incurable and corrosive. Or maybe I just imagined this, trying to will the film down a path it didn’t want to take.
Goliath was the third film I saw at the fest dealing with the withering frayed ends of the male psyche—I was starting to sense a theme, or at least, maybe an explanation for why this year’s slate feels mostly deflated and lackluster. Or, again, maybe I just made poor decisions.
Of the three, Goliath is the only one that really succeeds—the film follows the slow unraveling of its nameless antihero (director David Zellner) following the disappearance of his beloved cat, the titular Goliath (and what a great name for a cat!). This is just the terminus of successive traumas that have included his wife walking out on him, and a humiliating demotion at work. The man has had enough and he’s not going to take it anymore!!
Playing like a super low-budget version of Falling Down, Goliath‘s strengths, an engaging whimsy (a running gag of our hero wandering around town, trying to lure the cat back with an electric can opener works best), and droll black humor, curdles, in the end, to all black, with an especially brutal climax that almost comes out of nowhere and pretty much undermines the goodwill the film had built up. I still don’t know how I feel about this moment of grotesque violence, and the shocked reaction of the audience backed me up in this. It can be seen as a logical endpoint of the unraveling of our hero, as the director explained in the Q&A, but it torpedoes any sense of triumph we might feel for our hero’s ultimate redemption in the film’s cuteoverload-esque final frames.
The Linguists wasn’t the best documentary I saw at the fest, but it’s the one I’ve thought about the most afterwards, and will probably continue to fascinate after everything else recedes. The film follows the far-flung treks of globe-hopping linguists Greg Anderson and David Harrison, who track down and preserve as best they can the remnants of isolated languages, all hovering on the verge of extinction. They are in a race against time, politics, and nature, hoping to capture these strange obscure tongues before they vanish from the planet forever. We never think of this, in the Western world, that a language could become extinct, and what that could mean, and what we could be losing.
And I don’t know that the film itself, or Anderson and Harrison, really explain it adequately, why it is so imperative that these languages be preserved, outside of academic or aesthetic interest. Perhaps this is just the course of nature and necessity, these marginal tongues eroding much as the land or a species. But there are hints that Anderson and Harrison might be on to something profound here. Their trips, and their immersion in the isolated outposts where the languages are found, seem to take on more of an anthropological, and even humanitarian, bent. These languages are generally found among impoverished and politically and socially marginalized native populations who have been overrun by dominant migrant populations (e.g. the Chulym people and language of Siberia). Perhaps awareness of these dying languages will give rise to awareness of these dying populations, and by saving the one, they can save the latter.
Or maybe they are onto something more arcane: High in the Andes, the two pursue Kallawaya, an ancient tongue used by traditional healers, and handed down over generations. The knowledge of healing methods and the medicinal properties of thousands of plants are so bound up in the language itself, it is impossible to extract the one from the other. Here is the most intriguing point of the film, this idea of an inextricable fusion of language and knowledge, and how the disappearance of the former will lead inevitably to the loss of the latter. It seems like a simple idea, but it points directly to the latent and immense power of words and language, and how much they shape the progress and experience of humanity.
As much as the audience for Eleven Minutes seemed to enjoy the film, there was a perceptible restlessness that began to manifest itself about halfway through, like they wished a reel would go missing or some other technical mishap would speed things along. The buzz and chatter, at a high pitch standing in line and sitting in our seats before the lights came down, reached a crescendo as the film ticked down its final moments. I think everyone liked the film, but I don’t think they were there for it—rather, it was the initial ordeal to get through before the triumphant appearance of the man of the hour, the flamboyant, outspoken, outsized, and hilarious Jay McCarroll, star of the film and winner of the first season of the popular Project Runway.
And indeed, the Q&A session that followed the screening mostly lived up to the excitement. It was the real main feature of the night. The banter back and forth between McCarroll and the audience was loose and breezy and supremely entertaining. McCarroll was rambunctious, funny, all over the map, improper, profane, and the audience ate it up and spat it right back. It was great fun.
Would that the film were so entertaining, though it had its moments. Following McCarroll during the year leading up to his first runway show during New York’s fall fashion week, Eleven Minutes follows a standard path of the various travails and trials, and triumphs and setbacks, McCarroll endures to get his vision onto the runway. Though the film strives to focus entirely on the “work” rather than the fabricated drama of reality television, there’s an appropriate amount of fashion porn, screechy bitchiness, and hysterical meltdowns to satisfy fans of Project Runway.
Eleven Minutes’ only real point of interest to non-initiates were the many references made to the show that “launched” McCarroll, and his own self-awareness of his media-created identity, and what that has done to his credibility as a designer, and his critical reception in the elite fashion press. It’s a route I wish the film had explored more, this bleeding of media into one another, the sanctity of the cloistered world of high fashion being invaded by the barbarians, and McCarroll’s own exhaustion at being caught in the middle of it all. It might have made for a better film for a general audience, instead of an offering to the acolytes of Project Runway.
Despite the fact that Werner Herzog told his funders, the National Science Foundation, that he “would not be making (them) a movie about cute, fluffy penguins” in Antarctica, there smack dab in the middle of his film are none other than cute fluffy penguins. But of course, the ever-morbid Herzog chooses to focus on one stubborn, wayward penguin, who turns his back on his flock to pursue a foolish and probably fatal solo mission to the mountains in the far-off interior. What is he running from, what is he running towards?
This is the central question Herzog asks of the transient inhabitants of McMurdo Station, the largest settlement on the Antarctic continent. A scientific hub that looks more like a poor, blasted-out coal mining town, it is the locus for a colorful collection of wayward souls and drifters from all over the globe, who somehow end up at the bottom of the world to do odd jobs and find themselves. As one worker muses (who Herzog humorously titles “philosopher/forklift driver”), those who “leave the margins of the map, they all meet up in Antarctica”. Herzog has made a career of finding and filming the most eccentric of eccentrics, especially in his recent documentaries, and here, at the end of the world, he finds them aplenty. His interviews with them are wry and humorous and form the true heart of the film.
The other half, which feels like an entirely different film grafted on, is a straight-up nature documentary, with breathtaking photography of divers swimming under the ice (underwater cathedrals they call them) and the lava lake inside active volcano Mount Erebus. It is all quite stunning, but after awhile all sort of the same, Herzog hypnotizing us with long takes under the ice but then letting the shot run just a bit too long. Some tightening up and economy would have done wonders.
So I really don’t know what to do with Encounters. It’s not an especially great film, but it is compelling and chock full of great moments. It’s schizophrenic and feels incomplete, like Herzog wasn’t sure exactly what kind of film he wanted it to be. It’s a collection of miscellanea about a place that is outside the normal flow of the world, a place that is unclassifiable no matter how much order you attempt to bring to it. So perhaps this is the best of all possible films one could make about such a remote alien place.