City by the Sea: Provincetown 2012 Film Festival Recap

Austin Dale
Leslye Headland's Bachelorette

P-Town a fairly isolated village on the very tip of Cape Cod, making it the home of America's easternmost film festival. It's the happiest place on Earth.

Provincetown changes something in you! Ask anyone who has spent a day or two there. It might be the salty air. It may just be the Planter's Punch, the town's longtime unofficial drink. Perhaps it was just the fact that the Provincetown International Film Festival, now in its 14th year, is a well-curated, intimate, and refreshing respite from everything else on the festival circuit. P-Town a fairly isolated village on the very tip of Cape Cod, making it the home of America's easternmost film festival. It's people are friendly -- honestly, I can't say I met anyone who wasn't a saint -- and respectful of the town's queer legacy. It's the happiest place on Earth.


One reason I was thrilled to come to Provincetown this year was the premiere of the new cut of Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, a film I fell madly in love with this January in Sundance. Headland has produced a vastly different cut. It was met with reserved acclaim at Sundance, but as Provincetown's Opening Night film, it brought down the house. It's cleaner, quicker, funnier, and slightly more audience-friendly, but it loses none of its bite and spite. John Waters, who has vacationed in Provincetown for decades and is heavily involved with the festival, was in attendance.

At Headland's Q&A (which was briefly delayed when she was mobbed by young women heaping praise), Waters asked a question about the response from the MPAA, because, of course, he's John Waters. Tom Quinn, co-president of TWC's Radius off-shoot, stepped in to confirm Bachelorettehad received a "soft R", with no controversy. "It's funny," Headland added, "because I hear they're really weird about sex scenes that women actually enjoy." Nonetheless, Waters called the film "totally brilliant", which caused Headland's knees to buckle. Surely, Waters' approval is a great compliment for a first time filmmaker, and, yes, it's totally deserved. If it's true that every festival has an unofficial it-girl, Provincetown's was Leslye Headland.


Provincetown also held an anniversary screening of Swoon, the still-shocking modern classic that helped launch the New Queer Cinema movement of the early '90s. Writer/Director Tom Kalin and producer Christine Vachon held a breakfast discussion about the contemporary meaning of queer cinema. Neither of them considered it an ongoing movement. "Subgenre is limiting," Kalin said. "My work took a backseat to politics." Vachon: "Queer cinema was a place and time. Now, gay characters on television are taken for granted."

Never have I felt the influence of New Queer Cinema more profoundly than at this festival. Many of the major films at Provincetown veered heavily towards queer subject matter, and not all of it is anywhere near as dark as what we saw in Swoon and Poison. For example, Friday's showcase film was Jonathan Lisecki's conception comedy Gayby. It's about as deep as a tablespoon, but it has some tremendous situation comedy and funny-as-hell performances by Jenn Harris, as a neurotic Brooklyn yoga instructor who wants a baby, and Matthew Wilkas, her gay best friend, who agrees to father the child the natural way. It premiered at SXSW and has been taking the festival circuit by storm, making Lisecki not just a filmmaker to watch, but a filmmaker to root for.

The widely-acclaimed AIDS activism docs Vito and How to Survive a Plague were also screened. If for no other reason, these films are important because time has moved ACT UP even further into the margins than it was in its time. Any resurgence of interest in the movement is to be welcomed. And also, these are both extremely noble and powerful films.

I had a opportunity to speak briefly with Kirby Dick, who was at the festival with his excellent new doc The Invisible War. It's a harrowing documentary about the silent epidemic of military rape, and the institutionalized cover-up that prevents its victims from prosecuting their attackers and speaking out. We spoke about the amount of people he interviewed, because I was most struck by the sheer number of survivors on screen, as well as the military's immediate response to the project. “The thing that's so astounding about this is the numbers, Dick said. “We wanted to convey that by showing how broad it was, not just using four or five people. Every time we talked to these people, the emotional devastation was so profound, and I would just come out feeling incredibly angry.”

The military's response to the film was swift: “Once the film premiered at Sundance and won the Audience Award, we knew we had something powerful. One thing we wanted was for the military to change policy. We had these private screenings with high-ranking retired members of the military and officers' wives, just to get it seen and discussed widely within the armed forces. So many people saw it that it got to the Secretary of Defense, who held a press conference and announced some significant changes. And of course, we were really pleased and proud.”

The festival brought together Dick and two other deserving honorees on Saturday afternoon, for an awards ceremony and a series of discussions. Filmmaker on the Edge recipient Roger Corman was interviewed by John Waters, who called Corman "one of my all-time heroes". Of course, this discussion between the two B-movie masters was filled with insight into Corman's legendary career. The man might have influenced postwar American cinema more than any other filmmaker. After all, he gave Scorcese, Bogdanovich, Nicholson, Coppola, and Demme their first chances. Corman was slightly more humble about his legacy: "I was also the first producer/truck driver."

And, of course, the Acting Achievement recipient, the fabulous Parker Posey spoke with her BFF actor Craig Chester, who introduced her aptly: "People just love Parker. Everywhere I go, everybody loves Parker Posey." She was her typical buoyant self, chatting about her long career, spent hopping between tiny independent projects and Hollywood supporting roles. Craig didn't seem to like the direction the conversation was going, joking: "I spent all night watching Barbara Walters. My goal was to make you cry." Parker responded, "Oh, I can cry. Give me a second, Craig. I'll just think of the scripts I've been getting."

There was one tense moment during Dick's discussion with filmmaker Mary Harron. He had said that male victims of military rape had faced more trauma than its female victims. Towards the back of the auditorium, a woman stood up to confront Dick about that statement, to applause. Dick did, however, reiterate his statement with more clarity, as he felt that women have more resources for dealing with the trauma of rape, whereas men must also confront the stigma associated with male rape victims. His response wrapped up the discussion, which was followed by a standing ovation. I overheard Dick speaking with someone later that evening, discussing that moment, and he seemed excited that his movie was provoking such necessary debate and discussion.

The festival's official parties veered towards the tame, but Provincetown's party scene is nothing to sneeze at. After the opening night party, I and some friends ended up at the brilliantly-named Fag Bash, packed with a diverse crowd of Provincetown's younger queers, some really creative drag queens, cheap draft beer and amazing music. It might sound run-of-the-mill, but it was the most fun crowd I've seen at any film festival.

All in all, the Provincetown Film Festival is an exhilarating mash-up of the best of Sundance, a round-up of contemporary and classic queer cinema, and a nonstop circuit of cocktail parties and fascinating talks. Come for the terrific film selections, stay for the sunshine and Provincetown's one-of-a-kind joie de vivre.

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