This past week’s Provincetown International Film Festival was the fest’s 15-year anniversary celebration, so I’m happy to report that the fifteen films that I saw (plus a couple of shorts programs) were perhaps the strongest in all of the years I’ve attended the event. All of the movies that I selected to watch this year were engaging and well-made, with topics ranging from Bauhaus architecture on Cape Cod to the acting career of Harry Dean Stanton to sexual hi-jinks on a doomed airline flight helmed by Pedro Almodóvar. As usual for my annual retrospective of the festival, I’ll consider more closely the handful of films that I enjoyed the most, the ones that will leave me thinking about them during the weeks and months ahead.
My favorite film from this year’s festival, Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision, was also the film with the most unusual subject among the movies that I saw. It’s an in-depth study of the Canadian/British film animator Richard Williams, most famous for his Oscar-winning work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the live-action animated comedy starring Bob Hoskins and the cartoon creature of its title. Much lesser-known is The Thief and the Cobbler, the unfinished and perhaps unfinishable film to which Williams devoted over 25 years of his life. Williams and his dedicated crew of animators aspired to make it the most accomplished, detailed, and mind-blowing hand-animated epic in film history, and had it been completed as Williams envisioned, it almost certainly would have been.
The Thief and the Cobbler, a fantasy that follows a silent cobbler named Tack as he’s pursued by an evil Grand Vizier named Zigzag, was short on story and even shorter on dialogue, concentrating instead on optically complex, almost hallucinatory imagery. The footage from the original film that’s featured in the documentary is staggering in its dynamic level of intricacy and motion, prompting audible reactions from other audience members at the screening I attended. One interviewee who was hired by Williams to work on his film recalls that three months of intensive drawing by the entire animation team would amount to just five seconds of screen time.
Of course, Warner Bros., the financers of the film, eventually pulled the plug on its funding, immediately terminating Williams’ work on the project. The film was then acquired by Miramax, who transformed it into a more cheaply animated, Aladdin-like movie-musical titled Arabian Knight, released to very little fanfare in 1995. Williams, truly a master of technique, refuses to discuss the film to this day. While obviously tragic, the documentary is actually about artistic determination. The story proves just how individual real art is, how much commitment and singularity of vision it requires, and how creating something for merely commercial ends can be ruinous.
More overtly crowd-pleasing but equally enjoyable was Twenty Feet from Stardom, which carefully traces the history of female background singers and won the HBO audience award for Best Documentary Feature at the fest. Finely directed by Morgan Neville and filmed in warm tones that seem to match the singers’ harmonies, the movie tells a rousing tale of talented women who are so often overlooked in the music industry, yet who always give both live and recorded music its spirit and its backbone. Some very renowned musicians — Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder — offer their thoughts on collaborating with and being the beneficiaries of such powerhouse back-up vocalists.
One point that’s made clear early on in the film: the overwhelming majority of these women, most of whom are African-American, started out singing in the church. Whereas musical success is usually defined by the star-system of being a solo artist, background vocalists reach back to their musical roots by focusing on singing as a form of community. Sometimes lightning strikes and one can become famous as a background singer, like the wonderful Lisa Fischer, who has toured with The Rolling Stones for two decades, or ’60s Phil Spector protégé Darlene Love, whose “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” remains a holiday standard half a century later. Startlingly, Love found herself on the outs and cleaning homes for a living not too many years after that 1963 classic became a hit. One of the film’s most moving moments occurs when she remembers telling herself that she needed to find some way to return to singing professionally and the music world that had meant so much to her in her younger days.
Despite its undeniable value as entertainment, Twenty Feet from Stardom contains some political and feminist messages as well. Claudia Lennear, who sang background for Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and Stephen Stills, insists that her work as a back-up vocalist in the politically charged era of the 1970s was her way of being an activist, both as a woman and as an African-American. Táta Vega, a veteran session singer for everyone from Elton John to Madonna, laments that her career as a solo artist was stalled because she’s a larger-framed woman in a business that’s fixated on body image, but also says she’s grateful that staying out of the limelight probably kept her from dying of a drug overdose. And a fixture in the current generation of younger background singers, Judith Hill, mournfully recalls Michael Jackson’s sudden drug-related death that happened just before she was set to embark with the celebrity on his final world tour.
Turning to the narrative features from this year’s festival, I feel compelled or even obligated to comment on Reaching for the Moon, a biopic about the prominent 20th-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop has long been one of the authors whose work I’ve admired more than almost any other writer’s. She’s known as a kind of perfectionist and a poet of great restraint; she often subtly evoked her emotions in her writing rather than expressing them outwardly in her life. Because of my own image of her and my own relationship to her work, I knew in advance that my views might not always align with what the film presents. There are some embarrassing moments when the screenplay falters or strains, but overall it represents quite successfully a woman whose enigmatic life and reticent persona are difficult to render in any medium.
Poets’ lives and careers tend to be relatively uneventful, so the trick here is how to capture the viewer’s attention without sensationalizing the more biopic-worthy aspects of Bishop’s biography: her alcoholism, her lesbianism, and her reserved approach to her longtime friendship with fellow poet Robert Lowell, who occasionally showed an unrequited romantic interest in her. Lowell (portrayed by Treat Williams in the film) plays a limited and functional role of support in the movie, in two scenes that somewhat flatly bookend the story. Miranda Otto’s Bishop is capably performed, by turns brittle and wild. Her inevitable voiceover readings of several of Bishop’s most famous poems are skillfully delivered, if also a bit uncomfortable to hear recited in this particular context.
The narrative centers on the years in the 1950s and ’60s when Bishop wound up living and loving in Brazil, almost by accident. Glória Pires is superb as Bishop’s Brazilian partner, the self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares. She endows the character with a feisty directness and gravitational pull towards Bishop that seems authentic to what recent books about the couple have suggested about her. The film picks up its pace when Lota decides to break off her previous relationship with another woman to pursue Bishop, after Bishop’s admission that she’s often mortified when reading her own poems. It’s as though Lota realizes that Bishop needs her in order to survive, which becomes a cruel irony by the time the film reaches its dramatic climax.
The scenes during which Bishop enters into a kind of imaginative fervor while writing poems like “The Shampoo” are effective enough, even if they’re a romanticized cinematic version of the rather dry realistic process of writing poems at one’s desk. I’m not quite sure what Bishop would think of seeing herself involved in such a grand, widescreen production, but I wonder if some of the aforementioned mortification would factor into her reaction. Although this biopic is a commendable effort in many regards, in a sense I think that Bishop’s poems themselves are all we really need, unless the film can help to introduce her work to a larger readership.
Finally, the best mainstream film that I saw in the festival, The Way Way Back, couldn’t be any further removed from the world of Reaching for the Moon. A sensitive teen comedy written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for co-writing 2011’s The Descendants), The Way Way Back is a distaff version of ’80s John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles, with Liam James in the Molly Ringwald role as Duncan, an awkward misfit teenager just waiting for something to shake up his everyday world of home and family. The movie is more genuinely offbeat than similar teen comedies that merely claim to be, and it’s also closer in tone and spirit to those timeless John Hughes movies than other attempts at approximating them. Some ’80s songs by REO Speedwagon and Mr. Mister on the soundtrack early in the film even tricked me into thinking that the movie is set in the ’80s, until I noticed Duncan’s iPod.
Duncan’s on a beach vacation with his mom Pam (Toni Colette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, embodying a caddish jerk like nobody else can), and Trent’s older and far more popular blond daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Bicycling away each morning to avoid the dysfunctions of this makeshift clan — not to mention a hilariously inappropriate neighbor played to campy perfection by Allison Janney — Duncan lands a job at Water Wizz, the local waterpark (and an actual attraction near Cape Cod). More importantly, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the park’s freewheeling, bohemian manager, Owen. Sam Rockwell’s performance as Owen is an award-worthy comedic gem, layered with playful irreverence, slapstick physicality, and palpable touches of humanity as he bonds with Duncan over his feelings of outsiderdom.
Situated at the film’s gentle heart is Duncan’s wish to find somewhere that he can belong and be himself. Among the other misfit employees and denizens of Water Wizz, he tells Owen by the film’s end that it’s the only place where he ever feels happy. When it’s revealed that Trent’s having an affair with a friend’s wife, chairs have to be re-arranged in Duncan’s summer household, bringing the getaway and his beloved summer job to a premature close. I’ll leave the movie’s concluding twist undisclosed here and simply say that it’s poignantly conveyed, and that it explains the film’s title in a couple of different and meaningful ways.
Overall, the festival’s films were mostly well-attended by diverse audiences. Because this was an anniversary year, the various parties and special events, especially the closing-night block party on Commerical Street, saw even higher turnouts. Harmony Korine, the quirky and groundbreaking filmmaker who got his notorious start at age 19 by writing the screenplay for Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids, received the Filmmaker on the Edge award for directing at this year’s festival. During the conversations with honorees at the festival’s awards ceremony, when interviewer John Waters asked him if making edgy films requires living an edgy life, Korine said that it’s more about the life of one’s mind. From a similar standpoint, I hope that in the festival’s future years, the focus of the discussion among filmgoers continues to be the films themselves.