New features, documentaries, and shorts descend on Beantown for the 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston. The lineup for Saturday 4/26 - Sunday 4/27 includes a lived-in portrait of a family falling apart, yet another teen movie (well, technically, a documentary), feedback from the denizens of Bush's hometown, and an antihero's slow unraveling following the disappearance of his cat.
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.