Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009

I was worried – I was worried that, with the shaky state of the economy, sponsorship, so vital to the life blood of running a nonprofit independent film festival, would be down. And with sponsorship down, I was worried that maybe the number and quality of films would be down. And if the number and qualities of films went down, I was worried that the audience numbers would go down. And with audience numbers down, I was worried that maybe there wouldn’t be a festival next year.

I’m happy to report that my worries about the health, both artistic and economic, of the seventh annual Independent Film Festival of Boston proved to be totally baseless. Attendance seemed to make a quantum, exponential leap from previous years, and final tallies have 25,000 people going through the ticket lines. This sounds about right from what I saw: every screening I attended was sold out (or very close to it), and lines were continuously wrapped around the movie theaters, regardless of time of day, or even the weather (you’d think an unnatural spate of beautiful summer weather in late April would kick people out of doors – you’d be wrong).

Though initially underwhelmed by my pre-fest perusal of the schedule, the 2009 edition actually turned out to be the best of the five of I’ve attended, at least in terms of the merit and quality of films I took in. Only one bust, out of nine films – a significant percentage uptick from previous years, though perhaps goosed a little bit by seeing less films this year (down from 12 last year, and 15 the previous, which means I guess next year I’ll be lucky to crack six).

Though I missed both the opening and closing night films due to non-swinish illness, I made a good go of it over the weekend, taking in three films on both Saturday and Sunday. The weeknight offerings were tougher to double or triple up on, and I was only able to take in one film on Thursday, Friday and Monday nights, but they were good enough that I did not care. Quality, not quantity, was the watchword this year, and it paid off.

Director Gerald Peary confers with actress Patricia Clarkson during the narration recording of For the Love of Movies.

For the Love of Movies dir. Gerald Peary

I’m going to start at the end, with the final film I took in at the festival. Not only was For the Love of Movies the most purely enjoyable film I saw, it was also the most germane, not only to my interests and reasons for attending, but to the whole purpose of the festival itself. With For the Love of Movies, Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary has created a fascinating historical survey of film critics and criticism that doubles as an apologia for a profession whose relevance and necessity is being challenged and changed by new media.

Starting pretty much with the birth of cinema itself, Peary traces the careers of the great critics and the influence of their words on the appreciation and evolution of film. Rolling along at a breathless pace, the film highlights the work of the great stylists – Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael — the voices whose influence on, and love for film infected audiences and future critics, encouraging discourse that unspooled over decades. A film junkie’s dream, For the Love of Movies is a celebration of why we love movies, of why they matter, and of how they thrive on reasoned, literate debate and criticism.

And yet, there’s almost a eulogistic tone to the film as well, especially as it winds down closer to the future. From the highpoint of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the turf wars between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, film criticism is presented as having gone into if not decline, then at least a severe paradigm shift. With the ascent of the Internet and its inherent democratizing (or leveling, if you are being less generous) tendencies, the voice of the amateur reviewer, the armchair critic, the fan, has infiltrated the domain of the professionals, threatening to usurp their power and influence. It’s an old debate, the old guard versus the new, but now, with the acceleration of the decline of print – cuts to arts reporting, and the disappearance of dailies and magazines — it’s a problem that is now more relevant than ever.

For the Love of Movies is slanted slightly pro towards the old guard, but there is a bit of contradiction contained in its very thesis. From the get go, the film asks perhaps the most pertinent question: What qualifies one as a critic anyway? Why do they have the job? Throughout various current critics – A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Lisa Schwarzbaum, among others — are posed this question, and their answers usually reduce to some combination of love and luck (with literary acumen thrown in as well). The overall impression is one of a film lover – a lifelong fan, an amateur writer – who just happened to stumble in to doing exactly what they love, and eventually doing it well by dint of experience, dedication and craft.

But does their pulpit, the sanctity of appearing in print dailies (or weeklies, or monthlies) give their words any more sway, any real significance, over a blogger, an online critic writing on his/her own site, or even just a viewer clattering away on IMDB message boards? Movies are still the great, perhaps last, populist, art – everyone has an opinion on them, everyone thinks they are a valid critic. And now that there are myriad avenues for broadcasting these opinions open to virtually everyone, the playing field is suddenly significantly leveled.

Critics may cry: “Whither rational discourse? How can we appreciate, interpret, film above the clatter of a million voices?” But the very circumstance that got professional critics into the business are now almost universally available and applicable.

What does this mean for intelligent appreciation of film in the end? For the Love of Movies does not reduce to a Luddite rant, to its credit. It sees the future, and sees that adaptation is necessary. We are at the end of one mode of discourse- – the one way street — and now find ourselves in a new exciting world of instantaneous access and dialogue. The internet opens up avenues of discourse and immediacy that were previously unthought of.

If anything the leveling out — the plurality of voices — can only bolster the appreciation and debate of film. From the chatter of the internet, a new criticism will emerge and evolve. I think Peary’s chief message is to encourage up and coming writers to reconnect with the old writers, to tap the vast well of the past, the words of the great stylists and tastemakers, as a resource to forge a new future. New writers are encouraged to get drunk on film, like the old critics did, to fall in love with the movies, to overdo it, to reassert the primacy of film as the last central universal art form.

And so, onward – or backward – to the films…

Children of Invention, Beeswax, Prom Night in Mississippi and Of All the Things

Children of Invention

Children of Invention dir. Tze Chun

Children of Invention, the debut feature by Massachusetts native Tze Chun, is set in the early ‘90s, but it could just as well take place in the present. A ground level, child’s eye view of economic marginalization, its parallels with the current state of America are eerie in their prescience, so much so that you wonder if Chun had some sort of crystal ball next to his camera while shooting the film.

Semi-autobiographical, the film tells the story of a young Chinese mother trying to stay afloat fiscally while raising her two young children. Enamored by the lure of an easy buck, she keeps running afoul of cheap get rich quick schemes – selling dubious vitamins, cheap real estate, getting involved in Ponzi pyramids. The family is evicted from their suburban townhouse and left homeless and penniless.

Later in the film, the mother disappears, and the children are left to fend for themselves, falling back on their own resourcefulness and imagination. Tender and heartbreaking, the relationship between the brother and young sister evokes the pathos and desperation of Nobody Knows and even Grave of the Fireflies (though never reaching the traumatizing depths of those two masterful films). The conclusion is melancholy but hopeful, pointing to tough times to come, but also resolve in the face of those challenges.

Children of Invention is a small film, with relatively small ambitions, but it has its heart in the right place, and the young actors are very winning, adorable and capable. Overall, a promising debut, and a promising start to the festival (this was the first film I saw after missing the opening night film).

Children of Invention would go on to with the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature, marking the first time in the five years of attending this festival that I actually saw a film that won a jury or audience award (for whatever that’s worth).

Tilly Hatcher as Jeannie in Beeswax – Photo by Ethan Vogt

Beeswax dir. Andrew Bujalski

I think I figured out what the cryptic title of Andrew Bujalski’s new film is all about. It’s like this:

Question: Mr. Bujalski, what does the title of your film mean?

Answer: None of your beeswax.

Question: Okay, fine. So, could you just tell us what it’s about?

Answer: None of your beeswax.

That’s as good an answer as any, right? Bujalski glibly describes his third film as a “legal thriller”, which I guess is as good a description as any you are likely to get. His films don’t conform to easy plot synopses, mostly because anything resembling plot simply does not exist. It’s not really accurate to call them character studies, either, though that’s closer – the people populating his films exist in tangent to what we see (if that makes sense), but we suspect that most of the vital stuff is happening off camera, or hiding in plain sight. It’s a trick he perfected in Mutual Appreciation, and continues here.

Thus, Beeswax is not exactly the breakthrough film, the quantum leap I expected, and hoped, it would be. But neither is it a regression. It’s a bit of a retrenchment, a bit of a consolidation, a bit of a maturation. Perhaps this is a function of the characters’ ages. Whereas in Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha the characters were wayward 20 something, adrift in urban hipsterdom, here they are in their 30s and moving out into the suburbs. Instead of art, their concerns are commerce – instead of hooking up, it’s about settling down, or at least getting on with the business of being an adult.

Again, Bujalski deploys a winning aesthetic of verite amateurism – the acting is organic, lived in, decidedly nonprofessional and all the more alive and real for it. Beeswax’s appearance of improvisation spontaneity belies a rigor and strategy that is all the more impressive for how it is basically invisible, never gives itself away. How does Bujalski do this? How has he pulled this off for the third time in a row, what’s his secret? … None of your beeswax.

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi dir. Paul Saltzman

“Tradition is one thing – idiocy is another.” — Morgan Freeman addressing the school board of Charleston, Mississippi in 2008.

Is my shock a function naivete? I mean, I should be appalled – but I shouldn’t be surprised, right? That it’s not 2008 everywhere – that in some places it’s actually 1954 – or like 1954 didn’t even happen. That was the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, which forced the integration of American schools – except everywhere it didn’t happen. Like Charleston, Mississippi, which couldn’t be bothered to allow black students to go to school with white students until, oh, 1970. And as a concession to the irate white populace, the school board, with the urging of “concerned” parents, decided, for some reason, that it would still be okay to hold separate proms.

I mean, the mind reels, right? And this became a tradition not only accepted, but one that persisted down to the immediate present.

Enter Charleston native son Morgan Freeman, who issues a challenge to the 2008 senior class – force integration, force one prom, and he will pay for the whole thing, straight up. He had tried this before, and it failed, but maybe this time common sense and justice would prevail.

Prom Night in Mississippi follows several students in the wake of Freeman’s offer, as they organize and prepare for the big dance, pressuring the school board into holding one single prom, and rising to meet the challenges of entrenched racism. And despite some setbacks, the prom eventually goes off without a hitch (I hope this isn’t a spoiler – it was all over the news).

It almost seems too good to be true, like the rousing climax of sundry teen movies – the triumph over adversity, the jubilant dancing, the celebration of young love. Except, here, it’s the real deal, it all means something beyond youthful indulgence.

And while in the end it’s certainly encouraging that the good fight was won, it’s still disheartening that, at this late date, over 50 years after integration was written into law, it was a fight that still had to be fought at all. We still have a long way to go.

Of All Things

Of All the Things dir. Jody Lambert

You may not have heard of Dennis Lambert, but you’ve definitely heard his voice on the radio, wafting over the speakers at the grocery store, on your TV. One of the most prolific and successful songwriters of the ‘70s and ‘80s he, along with his writing partner Brian Potter, wrote a string of ubiquitous and excellent hits across all genres of popular music, including “Baby Come Back”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and “Ain’t No Woman”. Now in his late 50s, he’s left the music business behind, and leads a quiet family life as a real estate agent in Florida.

But then, quite unexpectedly, he was given a second shot at fame and success. Unbeknownst to him – or almost anyone outside of South East Asia — his lone solo album, Bags and Things, released in the early 1970s, had become over the years an enormous hit in the Philippines. In fact, one ballad – from which the film takes its name – had become the unofficial love song of a whole generation of couples, played as first dance songs at weddings, and soundtracking Valentine’s Day. Of all the things, indeed.

So, when 35 years after the album’s release, Lambert is offered a chance to tour the Philippines, he shakes of the dust, cracks his knuckles, and gets back behind the keyboard. What follows is one of the more improbable tour films you’re likely to ever see, by turns touching, funny, and just plain odd. The whole thing – the fans’ sincere love and devotion to Lambert, the sundry travails of the tour, the sheer weirdness of it all – seems often to veer in to Spinal Tap territory, like this all has to be a put on, it’s just too good to be real.

And it’s all so rich and improbable that you wonder how it can not be a joke, but maybe that’s just the cynic in me. We’ve seen this “one last shot at a dream” trope played out so many times, it’s so tired by now, that maybe it’s hard to truly appreciate it even when it’s staring you in the face. But Lambert at least seems to treasure this remarkable second chance he’s been given, and treasures the realization that music he made over 30 years ago still touches so many people down to this day. We should all be so lucky.

I Need That Record, Blood, Sweat and Cheers, Mine and The Escapist

I Need That Record

I Need That Record dir. Brendan Toller

A screechy, overly talky, off-puttingly amateurish jeremiad about the death of the American independent record store, I Need That Record has a worthwhile central thesis, but states it so poorly as to push one over to the other side. Advancing the point that local, independently owned record stores are a vital lynchpin of the creative health of a community — serving as a stronghold of integrity and individualism in the face of corporate homogeneity and fascistic taste making — the film’s intentions and heart are in the right place.

However, there’s a certain smugness at work here — a distasteful self-righteousness burbling up in the interviews with record store geeks and militant indie rockers — that immediately dispelled all my good will, and had me nearly celebrating the closing of these bastions of self-satisfied myopia. Surely this was not filmmaker Brendan Toller’s plan, to have us rooting for the closing of indie record shops?

Though the film’s shoddy, ADD-addled execution – a jumble of ranting interviews with indie rock luminaries and cut-and-paste animations — made the actual watching of the film unpleasant, I take more umbrage with its hermetic elitism, the a priori assumption that what is “indie” is qualitatively better than what is mass produced, de facto better than what is “corporately” sanctioned.

It’s an old argument, a boring argument, and one that has become increasingly untenable and mostly irrelevant in the wake of the massive changes to distribution and dissemination of music in the wake of digital technology. Though the film acknowledges the game changing influence of the “rise” of mp3s and Itunes and file sharing, and how much they destroyed the previous paradigms, it still wants to champion the overriding necessity of a model that is no longer economically viable. There’s wistful nostalgia, and then there’s encasing yourself in amber.

Blood, Sweat and Cheers

Blood, Sweat and Cheers dir. Al Ward

Blood, Sweat and Cheers is a fairly standard — and fairly fun — documentary following the training and tournament travails of the Burlington, Massachusettes Junior Midget Pop Warner Cheerleading Squad, competing in the Advanced Small Squad division (got all that down? Because there will be a quiz). Focusing mostly on the girls and their families during the 2007 season, the film closely follows the team as it competes in local, regional, and then national tournaments.

Burlington, for whatever reason, has been a perennial powerhouse on the national cheerleading stage, rattling off wins with startling regularity. However, recent years has seen the team fall short of the brass ring. So expectations for 2007 are high, as is the drama and stress.

The film ends up being a fairly typical portrayal of dedication and team spirit, doubling as a slice of the community pride and spirit that energizes small town America. If Blood, Sweat and Cheers is by necessity a bit provincial, it is all the more refreshing for it, too.

My only wish was that the film had included more footage of full length routines and practice sessions. The cheerleading on display here is far beyond simple rah-rah pompom waving and chanting — it is a bizarre and hypnotic mixture of high level gymnastics and elaborately choreographed group dance routines. It’s fun and intense, a joy to behold, but it’s hard to assess what separates a great routine from a good one, or even follow the action sometimes.

I wish there had been more of it, and that it had been better explained, if only to better comprehend what all the drama, and tears, and exultation is about. But this is just a minor quibble, and the film in its final form is riveting enough. Go team!


Mine dir. Geralyn Pezanoski

By turns heartbreaking and heartwarming, Mine revisits and re-views the tragedy of Katrina through the prism of the relationships between human survivors and their pets. Beginning with a look at the immediate, post-hurricane rescue efforts by a small band of volunteers who go combing through the ruins to rescue lost and abandoned dogs and cats to safety, the film turns into a whole other film entirely in the quick aftermath.

Once unclaimed pets are sent to shelters — some in the immediate vicinity of New Orleans, some far flung all over the country — the documentary becomes an often heartrending story of loss, separation, and reunion, as owners struggle to try to locate and reclaim their beloved dog or cat.

The clue to where Mine goes with its four or five individual stories is right there in the title – the stress put on the word, and whether it’s meant to be used in the possessive, or rather is to connote more of an affectionate, familial bond. It’s a gateway to a densely tangled morass of moral and legal questions and quandaries that are often impossible to disentangle: questions of how we as humans regard animals, as property or as actual family members; who gets to decided the legal status of pets, who actually have no real status; who gets to say what’s in the best interest of an animal, who decides what is abuse, what is abandonment; and where does the true affection of the animal lie, with the passage of time, in the wake of relocation and adoption.

Though it’s not hard to see where the film’s sympathies lie, it does withhold sweeping judgments, and balances out the arguments on both sides of the issues. There are no true villains here, everyone involved has, or at least begins with, the best interests of the animals at heart. What the film calls for is a reassessment of what these interests are, and to make the difficult jump to not conflate the humane with the human, since they are not necessarily always the same.

The Escapist

The Escapist dir. Rupert Wyatt

Solid, gritty and slightly eccentric, The Escapist unfolds at first pretty much like every other entry in the prison break genre… until it doesn’t. And, given that this “break” with convention occurs during the opening scenes, I guess that means that it isn’t much interested in being a standard genre film at all. Except, well, when it is – which is for most of the film. Follow?

The Escapist suffers too much from wanting to have its cake and eat it too – it’s hardscrabble and heavy on action, and yet also wants to drift off into a free floating meditation on suffering, and loss, and redemption, and do triple duty as a heavily stylized art film. It works, mostly, but uncomfortably.

Brian Cox stars as the ringleader, who is trying to bust out of the clink (shot on location in the famous Kilmainham Gaol, also used to great effect in In the Name of the Father) to save his wayward, drug addicted daughter before she kills herself. He assembles a crew, they hatch an improbable plan, meet and overcome sundry obstacles, and execute the plan with some difficulty.

There are no surprises, especially since the film actually kicks off with the beginning of the escape in action. This is a clever, but a bit misleading, disruption of expectation. The great joy in prison movies (or heist movies) is all the careful build up, the accretion of details, the revelation of the master plan, and then the methodical execution. The Escapist throws us right into the mix, before we can get our bearings, and I applaud it for this.

The film then cycles back on itself, focusing in flashbacks on the build up to the escape, on character and narrative exposition, on the shards that will come together to make the whole. It’s a bit fugue-like, except none of the various pieces seems to comment on one another except superficially. There’s no inherent obvious reason the film should be proceeding thus, though it helps keep things off kilter.

With the final gimmicky reveal at the end of the film, the reasons for The Escapist’s narrative and stylistic choices become a bit clearer. It’s a neat trick, though I don’t know if it’s the right one or not. Where you come down on it, whether you buy it, depends on whether you buy Brian Cox, and whether his soulful, craggy performance sells it.

Luckily, Cox himself was in attendance at the Q+A session afterwards. Loquacious and erudite, his explanations for what happened in the film, and what the end all meant, actually redeemed it, at least for me, when I was ready to dismiss it as cheap. He also told several wonderfully detailed and riveting stories about the production, and especially about shooting in the haunting, cavernous abandoned portions of the London underground, which formed much of the backdrop for the latter part of the film.

Though a minor entry into the genre, The Escapist comes out in the end a worthy one, a film whose strength lies in the details.