Sunday, June 27, 2010

12th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 16th - 20th, 2010)

Perhaps I just selected my list of films well or got lucky, but out of the six years that I’ve attended the Provincetown International Film Festival, this year’s 12th annual festival seemed to have the strongest programming. Over the festival’s five days, I watched seven narrative feature films, eleven documentaries, and one program of short films. I also attended the Awards Ceremony, which honored several cinematic luminaries, some of whom I was pleased to have a chance to meet. I’ll share some in-depth comments about my four favorite films from the festival here, as well as some brief thoughts on two other films that I enjoyed almost as much.

Cairo Time, written and directed by Ruba Nadda (and already available on DVD in Canada), was my favorite film in the festival. Producer Christine Vachon introduced the film by letting the audience know that the script had found its way to her via Canadian director Atom Egoyan, and she also noted that the film stars Patricia Clarkson in her first major leading role. Clarkson has long been respected as a character actress in many excellent independent movies, beginning with her breakout performance as the hilariously deadpan Greta in 1998’s High Art.

In Cairo Time Clarkson plays Juliette, a New York magazine editor who’s traveling to Cairo for the first time to meet her husband there. He’s a United Nations official who’s been unexpectedly delayed for several days, however, by his work in Gaza. So Juliette takes to exploring the city herself, potentially dangerous for a middle-aged blond woman to do on her own. Crowds of men follow her lasciviously, and she learns to stay much closer to her hotel. Fortunately, one of her husband’s Egyptian friends, Tareq (portrayed with quiet charm by Alexander Siddig), steps in to act as her chauffeur and personal escort. The ancient city’s pyramids and continual snarls of traffic provide the backdrop for their love affair that never fully becomes an affair.

The film echoes Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), but Cairo Time is a more mature rendition of a very similar story, with an older woman playing the Scarlett Johansson role. Thanks to Patricia Clarkson’s attentive emotional exactitude, her Juliette is also more reserved and fascinating to watch. It’s a performance of the utmost delicacy that’s also fairly assertive; an implicit streak of feminism underlies the character’s intentions. Each subtly romantic move between Juliette and Tareq is carefully choreographed, respectful of the story and of women. This quality of tacit civility between its romantic leads and the film’s wonderfully languid pace make it feel like a movie from another era, the kind of film that simply doesn’t get made anymore. It's a very particular touch that has mostly faded from the world of cinema, which is part of what made Cairo Time a profound movie-going experience for me.

The festival’s opening-night feature, Howl, directed by acclaimed documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is about Allen Ginsberg’s epic 1955 Beat Generation poem, perhaps the most infamous poetic masterpiece in 20th-century American history. Part literary meditation and part biopic, the film imaginatively recreates the classic countercultural poem and pays sincere homage to it, while also resurrecting a young Ginsberg himself through the precise and rigorous performance of James Franco. A movie about a poem seems unlikely to gain much mainstream attention, but Franco’s reincarnation of Ginsberg should help to make him a bona fide star when the film is released later this year.

Franco’s performance is equally intelligent and brave. The actor has been studying film and writing in New York City for the past few years; in fact, I also saw his first short film, an adaptation of Anthony Hecht’s poem “The Feast of Stephen,” in this same festival. His investment in believably embodying a figure as monumental as Ginsberg is at once palpable and relaxed. And in our post-Brokeback Mountain era—when playing a gay character who interacts physically with other men no longer means career suicide for young male Hollywood stars—Franco’s scenes with the actors playing Neal Cassady and Ginsberg’s longtime partner Peter Orlovsky feel both undeniably sexy and authentically beautiful. (Yes, I was melting in my seat.) I commend Epstein and Friedman for making sure that these scenes were filmed honestly and realistically, and for knowing how to present them that way within the film’s broader context.

What’s most remarkable about Howl is that the screenplay is comprised almost solely of primary source materials: the actual text of Ginsberg’s poem, monologues from archival interview footage with Ginsberg (which Franco painstakingly re-enacts), and the court transcript from the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding the poem. This explains why we don’t hear much dialogue spoken by Orlovsky, Cassady, or Jack Kerouac during the film. The script’s various elements are interspliced throughout and linked together by the courtroom trial, with a roster of first-rate actors playing the lawyers and literary experts on the witness stand. Jon Hamm, of television’s Mad Men, is especially affecting as the defense attorney; his closing argument is a truly virtuosic piece of acting, in which his eyes alone convey vast measures of conviction, emotion, and professional restraint simultaneously. His final words urge the judge, and us, to consider that art — and the appreciation of art, by extension — should be in pursuit of “honest understanding.”

Howl represents the poem itself by re-staging Ginsberg’s early public readings, along with fantastical animated sequences designed by artist and graphic novelist Eric Drooker, who collaborated with Ginsberg on the 1992 book Illuminated Poems. The animation works well at various points in the film, especially during the darker “Moloch” section of the poem. After thinking about the film for a few days after seeing it, I came to appreciate the suitability of the animated segments even more when I realized that Ginsberg’s poem is itself much like a cartoon, a colorful, expansive exaggeration of the Beat Generation’s key figures and political views, of the many things that they loved about American culture (sex, drugs, liberty, the desire to be all-embracing) and the more oppressive, conformist things that they despised. I think that the film will come to be deeply admired with the passing of time, just as Ginberg’s poem has.

Two of the festival’s documentaries also stood out to me, out of the sizable number that I saw. My favorite was director Jeffrey Blitz’s Lucky, a captivating exploration of the various fates of American lottery winners in the aftermath of receiving their gargantuan cash prizes. The tales range from a humble married couple who won over $100 million and moved with their two teenage kids to a gated community in Florida (where they filled their garage with expensive sports cars and cemented the tiled letters “PB,” for PowerBall, at the bottom of their swimming pool), to a man who extravagantly spent all of his $12 million winnings and is now dying of lung disease while living in a mechanic’s shop, where he runs errands for a meager wage.

In the Q&A session afterwards, Blitz commented that viewers of the film are always most curious about the former lottery winners who lost everything or went bankrupt. Money is usually far easier to lose than it is to gain, so I found the intimate details in the film to be more intriguing. For instance, the story of a family of Vietnamese immigrants who barely escaped their war-torn country in a large wooden boat, and who’ve now built palatial homes for their family members left behind in Vietnam, moved me and many others to tears when they spoke about the struggles they’d faced. But the message of the film seems to be that no matter how tragic or triumphant your story, you still have to deal with your everyday life and thoughts, and all of the things that those might or might not amount to. Blitz also directed the amazing 2002 spelling-bee documentary Spellbound, and he’s quickly become a brilliant observer of the many joys and complications involved with being a citizen of the meritocracy known as the U.S.A.

Belgian filmmaker and NYC transplant Frederic Lilien’s The Legend of Pale Male was the other most engrossing and heartfelt documentary that I saw at the festival. Certainly, the red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male, who first arrived on the scene in New York City in the early 1990s, became a legendary news item after setting up house with a series of female mates by building a huge nest atop a swanky Fifth Avenue apartment building, where the celebrity residents include the likes of Mary Tyler Moore, among others. Bird-watchers and children from all over the world converged in Central Park to delight in seeing the aerial acrobatics of Pale Male on a daily basis. Disenchanted with his father’s law business back home in Belgium, Lilien decided on the spur of the moment to become a wildlife filmmaker right on the streets of New York, following the tale of Pale Male for the better part of a decade. Lilien’s own story gently bookends the documentary, and the film includes some of the most breathtaking photography of New York that I’ve ever seen in any medium.

Pale Male sired a number of young hawks over the years, until conflicts arose and the apartment building’s owners decided to evict the hawk and his family by dismantling and removing their carefully constructed nest. For those unfamiliar with the story, I won’t give anything else away. Let’s just say that Lilien finds an impressive amount of suspense and humor in the events as they unfold, and his film champions a true avian hero that you can cheer for. It’s rare when a film can make you fall in love with a metropolitan cityscape and the wonder of nature all over again, but given its unique intersection of urban and natural themes, The Legend of Pale Male easily accomplishes that.

As for my two “runner-up” films from the festival, Undertow (Contracorriente), a Peruvian film written and directed by Javier Fuentes-Léon, deserves mention here for its stunning oceanside cinematography and its clever twist on a traditional romantic tale. Miguel, a fisherman, has been secretly involved with Santiago, a visiting bohemian painter, unbeknownst to anyone else in his village, including his pregnant wife. With the help of some deft magical realism, an unforeseen turn sets the plot in motion and forces Miguel to face up to ghosts that he’d rather not confront. And it surely doesn’t hurt that the actors playing the two central characters (Cristian Mercado as Miguel, and Manolo Cardona as Santiago) aren’t at all difficult to look at! This film also received the HBO Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the festival.

François Ozon’s Hideaway (Le Refuge) fits snugly into his ever-growing body of work. The French director’s recurring themes and fascinations are all amply evident here: alternative families, bodies, death, and blurred lines of sexuality. Tonally subdued and deliberately paced, this contemplative story concerns Mousse, a young woman portrayed with calm assurance by Isabelle Carré. Her boyfriend Louis, a heroin addict played by Ozon veteran Melvil Poupaud in the first few minutes of the film (note: viewers made squeamish by needles should be aware that those early scenes are hard to watch), dies of a drug overdose and leaves Mousse behind to discover that she’s pregnant with their child. Louis’s gay brother, Paul (played by the gorgeous Louis-Ronan Choisy), looks after Mousse at a secluded country chateau in the wake of their mutual loss. Ozon has already proven his worth as a serious director with a recognizable style, and Hideaway impressively adds to his prolific filmography.

I’ll close with some remarks about the festival’s Awards Ceremony, which took place before a packed house at Provincetown Theater on the Saturday night of the festival. Each of the festival’s honorees participated in a conversation-style interview on stage with a noteworthy member of the film community. First up, Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell (who’s totally adorable in person) interviewed Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, recipients of this year’s Faith Hubley Memorial Award. Two-time Oscar winners for their documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, Epstein and Friedman have also directed such celebrated documentaries as The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175. The pair of men were down-to-earth, generous, and disarming, qualities that one finds in liberal supply in all of their films. They insightfully responded to questions about the making of Howl, and about how each of them got their respective starts as filmmakers. I was fortunate to speak with Rob Epstein for about fifteen minutes at the festival’s closing-night party, and I can say that he was just as smart, kind, and personable with me during our talk.

Tilda Swinton, who was seated right in front of me at the Awards Ceremony — wearing a fabulous pair of custom-made pumps specially hand-crafted for the occasion . . . with wooden bananas for heels, no less! — accepted her Excellence in Acting Award following a spirited and often hilarious discussion with the renowned film critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich. It’s no surprise that Derek Jarman’s most famous muse would feel quite comfortable in Provincetown; she said that she welcomed the sandy dunes and beaches after traveling from her home in northern Scotland. Several of her other comments were surprising. She mentioned that she’s never liked referring to her job as “acting,” for example, but rather views it as collaboration (“I think of films as conversations”). She also admitted that she’d initially planned to become a writer when she started her undergraduate career as a student at Cambridge University, until she got involved in theatrical productions and eventually became part of Jarman’s ensemble, or “Derek’s children,” as she affectionately called their group in retrospect.

Finally, mainstream cult-comedy director Kevin Smith accepted his Filmmaker on the Edge Award from John Waters, who’s a seasonal Provincetown resident and himself the longtime king/queen of cult comedies. Though I’ve never seen any of Smith’s popular slacker generation films like Clerks, Mallrats, or Dogma, I did enjoy Chasing Amy and have watched clips online from some of his “stand-up” gigs, for which he’s become equally famous over time. Dressed in his trademark outfit of baggy calf-length blue jeans and a sports team hoodie, Smith was sweating buckets throughout his extremely lively conversation with Waters, constantly ratcheting up the outrageousness, while testing the mannered New England audience’s limits with swift, manic, profane, free-association humor. Eventually, everybody gave in to Smith's witty rants and storytelling, and the whole place (including Tilda Swinton) was laughing uproariously.

The big finale of the evening came when Waters hesitantly asked Smith, “Can’t you afford to fly first-class?” The audience took a collective gasp, since he was clearly referring to the recent, widely publicized incident in which Smith was ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight, purportedly because he was too large to fit into a passenger seat in coach. Smith’s rambling but seemingly well-rehearsed reply went on for nearly twenty minutes, and every single minute was worth hearing. He explained that he refuses to fly at all now, and drives everywhere around the country in a big tour bus.

The most revealing moment of the night, however, was when Waters summed things up by saying, “So it sounds like you turned the whole situation into comedy! What else can you do with pain?” That remark provides perhaps the best explanation of why both directors have made the kinds of movies they’ve made, though as many of the films in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival abundantly prove, not all pain results in comedic art. I’m very grateful for that, and for the infinitely dazzling mosaic of human stories represented by these films.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Loggerheads (dir. Tim Kirkman, 2005)

In anticipation of this week's Provincetown International Film Festival, I was thinking back to some of the best films that I’ve seen at the festival over the past five years. The film that stands out the most in my mind is Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, which screened at the festival in 2005, the very first year that I attended.

The attributes that make Loggerheads so memorable for me are its narrative style, its tone, and its performances (though its writing, direction, and cinematography are just as commendable). Kirkman’s screenplay is structured around three separate but interlocking storylines, which take place at three different locations in the filmmaker’s home state of North Carolina during three consecutive years: Kure Beach in 1999, Eden in 2000, and Asheville in 2001. The brilliant intricacy with which Kirkman interweaves these stories throughout the film, jumping back and forth in time and space, never calls attention to itself, feeling perfectly natural and unimposing in each successive scene.

This ease of movement is reflected in the film’s unique tonal quality. I originally saw the film in Provincetown’s cavernous, echoing Town Hall, which has been closed and under renovation for the past two years. I sat in the back row to give myself some extra space, far from the screen and the sound-speakers. The distance and the immensity of the venue accentuated for me just how dramatically even and uninflected the tone of the entire film is. Although the narrative tension gradually builds throughout the film’s ninety minutes, the actors’ voices never rise above normal speaking volume. Only once or twice in a key scene does a character sound momentarily stern. That level evenness of tone — while keeping the audience’s attention thoroughly engaged at every moment — is extremely difficult to achieve.

The film’s intertwined plotlines are all centrally concerned with mothers, and the story is based on actual events. Grace, played with understated elegance by Bonnie Hunt, has long mourned the loss of the son to whom she gave birth out of wedlock as a teenager, and who was immediately placed with an anonymous family by an adoption agency. Because North Carolina laws stipulated (until very recently) that all adoption records must remain permanently sealed, Grace has been unable to find her son, Mark, who’s subtly and movingly portrayed by Kip Pardue. Those same laws also prevent Mark from initiating any sort of contact with his birth mother. By the time she locates him via the services of Rachel (Robin Weigert), a woman who relies on covert networking to make such connections happen, Grace is tragically about a year too late.

Through Mark’s story, we learn that he ran away from home at age 17 and has lived an itinerant life since then, due to fallout after his adoptive parents, a conservative minister and his reluctantly devoted wife, discovered that Mark is gay. Veteran screen actors Chris Sarandon and Tess Harper play Mark’s parents, Robert and Elizabeth, in a pair of impeccably detailed performances. In fact, all of the actors’ portrayals in the film are so delicately calibrated and finely crafted that they make award-winning performers seem nearly histrionic by comparison. Equally remarkable are Michael Kelly as George, the seaside motel manager with whom Mark becomes romantically involved, and Ann Owens Pierce as Ruth, Mark’s childhood neighbor who keeps in touch with him and eventually helps him overcome his estrangement from his adoptive mother, despite Elizabeth’s anxiety about the apparently gay male couple who’ve moved in across the street.

The opening image of Mark’s storyline is one of the most beautifully photographed introductions I’ve ever seen in any movie: the camera slowly pans across the sand to find Mark’s tousled blond hair and handsome, unshaven face in a sunlit close-up, just as he wakes from a night of sleeping on the beach. The image is also symbolic, as we find out later when the film’s title is explained during one of Mark’s monologues. He’s come to Kure Beach to see the rare loggerhead turtles; the place is a sanctuary for them, especially the female loggerheads, who return to the same beach where they were born when it’s time for them to lay their eggs. Grace, Mark’s birth mother, appears on this same beach in the film’s closing scene. The loggerhead symbolism lightly underscores the film, never feeling too blatant or heavy-handed.

As Mark begins his relationship with George, who finds him not long after he’s woken up, it becomes clear that Kure Beach — its name is no coincidence — will also be a protective sanctuary for Mark himself. He reveals to George that he tested positive for HIV on his 21st birthday, and that he’s decided not to treat the virus with medication. Pardue and Kelly are both believable and unexaggerated in their portrayals, refreshing to witness in an era when gay male characters are still too often presented in stereotypical ways. Cinema needs more gay male representations like the characters in this film: everyday, matter-of-fact, sexually open but not overly sexualized.

The most impressive and effective element of Kirkman’s film is its use of intelligent transitions. When juggling three storylines simultaneously, segues from scene to scene need to be seamless and sensible. Kirkman accomplishes this by poetically creating connections through both imagery and dialogue. One such instance occurs when the camera first gazes down a staircase to where Grace sits contemplatively, then cuts to an aerial perspective shot of Mark and George standing beneath a hotel balcony, and then finally cuts to Elizabeth staring down from her bedroom window as we hear her husband ask, “Are you spying on the homosexuals?” In a later scene, a shot of Mark's sky-blue bandanna fades into a gently revolving blue sky, with sunlight sifting down through white clouds around the borders. At every turn we can feel Kirkman’s sure directorial hand, even if we’re not aware of it at every moment. Ultimately, the film's trajectory is heartbreaking and restorative at once, like a long summer afternoon that I wished would never come to a close.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the film’s soundtrack music, which features three strategically selected and precisely placed songs by contemporary folk performer Patty Griffin: “As Cold As It Gets,” “Rowing Song,” and “Forgiveness.” Given that Griffin didn’t write these numbers in relation to the film, it’s stunning how appropriately the lyrics of these tracks fit their respective scenes, both emotionally and thematically. I’ve been a fan of Griffin’s music for many years now, and hearing these songs again in the context of Kirkman’s film deepened my appreciation for her talents as a singer and songwriter even more.

Next week, I’ll be posting a full report about the 12th annual Provincetown International Film Festival here on my blog, including some critiques of my favorite films from this year’s festival.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An Oak Tree (Soho Theatre, March 4th, 2007)

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree might be the only theatrical production I’ve seen for which the actual date that I attended made a difference. The performance that I saw — the closing night of the play’s run at London’s Soho Theatre — has lingered in my mind throughout the three years since that evening. Crouch’s play is experimental theater at its finest and most compelling: haunting, profound, and endlessly thought-provoking.

An Oak Tree is comprised of only two characters, one of whom, the Hypnotist, is played by the playwright himself. The other character, the Father, is portrayed by a different actor or actress at every performance. The true innovation is that the second actor has neither read nor seen the play before. Throughout the performance, Crouch hands the other actor pages from the script to read from, or gives the actor brief instructions or lines of dialogue through a set of earphones. So the play presents, in the rawest sense, what goes into the creation of a theater piece, how exactly actors elicit the gestures, expressions, and emotions that they conjure up during a performance, and the amount of courage, trust, and openness that truly responsive acting requires.

On the night that I attended, I was very fortunate, and thrilled, that the actor playing the role of the Father was Janet McTeer. The audience wasn’t aware of this until we stepped into the theater and received the evening’s program. McTeer is a celebrated English actress who was nominated for Academy Awards for her roles in the films Tumbleweeds and Albert Nobbs, and she’s appeared more recently on stage in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Other actors who’ve played the Father in the London and New York runs of An Oak Tree include Joan Allen, Laurie Anderson, Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, Adam Rapp, David Hyde Pierce, Tim Blake Nelson, Christopher Durang, Sophie Okonedo, Eve Best, even Mike Myers.

Before the show began, Tim Crouch briefly prefaced the play by explaining that he hadn’t met Janet McTeer until a few hours beforehand, when they got together to discuss the evening’s performance over coffee. From my seat in the front row of the tiered, black-box auditorium, sitting on the same level as the stage itself, I was excited to be able to observe the actors’ performances in such close proximity. Often, they were standing only six or seven feet from my seat. Something about McTeer’s posture and demeanor conveyed both strength and gentleness. Her voice was husky and warm, her eyes large and alive and curious. She was casually dressed in jeans, boots, jacket, and scarf, and she reminded me somehow of a deer, with a poise at once earthy and elegant.

The premise or plot of this one-act, hour-long play is somewhat intentionally arbitrary, and it could perhaps be swapped with any number of similar storylines. Prior to the time in which the play is set, the Father’s 12-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a car being driven by the Hypnotist. This is revealed early in the play when the Father attends a comedy-style performance that the Hypnotist is doing “upstairs in a pub near the Oxford Road,” for which the play’s actual audience is the stand-in audience. The middle portion of the play finds the two characters grappling with the aftermath of the tragic accident and their respective attempts to overcome their sense of loss and guilt. The emotional undercurrent has the right amount of gravity. It’s a fairly clear-cut and “easy” situation for an actor to respond to, even without having seen or read the script in advance. The second actor's unfamiliarity with the play's text also reflects how abrupt and bewildering the impact of grief can be after the sudden death of a loved one, providing a way for the actor to tap into that particular well of emotional complexity.

Despite its often poetic language, the play’s plot is secondary to the intricate method via which that plot unfolds. Crouch interrupts the story at regular intervals—to supply the second actor with further instructions, to ask how she or he is feeling, to get the actor a glass of water — and all of this is written into the play's printed script. Crouch remains in control as the playwright and primary actor (and he incorporates some clever jokes in relation to this), though it’s clear that the two actors are mutually dependent on one another, and at various points in the play, they feel somewhat interchangeable. It’s a study in how a person can magically become someone else before your very eyes, similar to the idea behind a famous 1973 art installation by British artist Michael Craig-Martin, to which the play’s title refers, and which insists that it’s perfectly possible to “change” a simple glass of water sitting on a shelf into a full-grown oak tree. Transformation is powered by imagination, and vice-versa.

An actor standing onstage is many people and one person. The same goes for each of us in our own daily lives. We know we are singular creatures; we are born, somebody gives us a name. We have an individual place in our families, an individual citizenship in our societies, an individual job or a series of jobs over time. We perform these roles and tasks as we’re told and as we’re taught; sometimes we break away and attempt to live our lives on our own terms, if we’re rebellious or inventive or resourceful enough. Regardless, someone continually hands us pieces of a script. Ideologies, ceremonies, expectations. Yet at the same time we know (and know well) that there is no script at all, a source of terror and freedom for every human being.

Just as the Hypnotist instructs the Father, and himself, during the play’s spellbinding final scene: “You’re driving forward in space and time.”