Friday, June 24, 2011

13th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2011)

Having attended the annual film festival in Provincetown since 2005, I found the roster of films at the latest festival in its thirteenth year to be as solid as previous years. In the spirit of this blog, I’ll focus my comments on the handful of films that I enjoyed the most at last week’s festival, all of which I very highly recommend seeing when they arrive at your local cinemas over the coming months.

The documentaries are almost always a bit more satisfying for me than the narrative features. This could be due to the whole “truth is stranger than fiction” phenomenon, or more likely, it’s because telling a fictional narrative in an engaging way is a more difficult task these days. Most stories have already been repeatedly rehashed from many possible angles, but even more problematically, a narrative feature film needs to present itself with a distinctive storytelling style that also doesn’t seem false to the viewer. Finding an individual style or voice is perhaps the hardest element for any artist to achieve, film directors included.

My favorite movie in the festival was We Were Here, a powerful documentary about the early AIDS years in San Francisco. The film had played at the gay film festival here in Boston last month, and since I missed it then, I was glad to have a chance to see it in Provincetown. The movie delicately intersplices memories and anecdotes of five finely selected interviewees: four gay men and one female nurse. The four gay men, some HIV-positive and some negative, have all done important work as activists and otherwise in San Francisco over time: a visual artist, a street-corner flower vendor, an AIDS hospice volunteer, and the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. They all speak with candor and quiet wisdom about witnessing first-hand, and from the epicenter, one of the most devastating (and ironically uniting) medical crises in American history, during which nearly 20,000 men in San Francisco lost their lives, the population size of many small cities.

I was most struck by the film’s seamless tone; the carefully interwoven interviews all felt contemplative, direct, and untampered with. The hospice volunteer movingly recounts how he never fit into the landscape of anonymous gay sex in San Francisco at the time, and once he began doing work as a caretaker, he realized that was how he could become close with other gay men. The visual artist tells a heartbreaking story of rushing his partner who was living with AIDS to the hospital, only to have him die before they arrived there. And the flower vendor recalls watching one man progress from riding around on his bike, to becoming ill and walking with a cane, to being very ill in a wheelchair; then, as new drug treatments were introduced, the man went back to walking with a cane, to walking past without the cane, and he finally returned to riding by on his bike again, older than before but back to his previously healthy self. That image is both instructive and life-affirming, just one of many moving examples from this profound and humane documentary.

Equally moving and profound is Buck, a documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life “horse whisperer,” who trained the actor Robert Redford for his role in the film of that title. While the documentary does explore Brannaman’s unique methods for taming and training difficult and unwieldy horses, it’s also concerned with the people who own those horses, and the people are often more in need of assistance than the animals to whom Brannaman so caringly attends.

Mainly, however, the film focuses on Brannaman’s own personal history and the reasons why he ended up in this unusual line of work. The scenes of Brannaman painfully remembering his early childhood he and his older brother were violently abused by their alcoholic father are deeply sad but ultimately redemptive. His memories of the foster parents who showed him the meaning of family and unconditional love after his mother’s death provide ample explanation of how he learned to have such insight into the horses’ behavior and his own. A frightening segment near the end of the film, when a wild horse that Buck is training brutally attacks its owners, culminates in a lesson which could describe both the vicious horse and Buck himself: “You can’t hold it against him for how his life has been.”

Errol Morris’s latest documentary Tabloid is also worth mentioning here. Far more offbeat than the other two documentaries that I enjoyed in the festival, it’s also original, bizarre, and hilarious enough that I was in tears laughing at several points during the film. It’s the story of former teenage Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney and her alleged late-’70s “kidnapping” of the young Mormon boyfriend with whom she eloped to London. Morris pieces together the tale and so skillfully arranges its manic details that the effect becomes nearly hallucinatory. I’ve never been on a drug trip, but about halfway through the film, I was sure that it must be similar to what one would feel like.

From a cultural standpoint, Morris is invested in examining how any story becomes “the truth,” since Joyce McKinney’s "manacled Mormon" jaunt-gone-awry was sliced up, devoured, and dramatically reconstructed by the British tabloid press. Her own retelling of the situation is enthusiastically counterpointed with memories of the dueling tabloid editors who greedily bought and sold her story to a public hungry for vicarious thrills and sordid revelations, a predilection which our culture has obviously never outgrown. And neither has Joyce McKinney. She returned to the United States with thirteen suitcases filled with tabloid clippings of her own story, and today she’s still obsessed over the man she fell madly in love with so many years ago.

Keeping with the theme of crazy love, the narrative feature that I enjoyed most in the festival was Weekend, a downbeat gay romantic film from the UK. Two young guys in Nottingham, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), meet at a club and get to know each other over the course of a couple of lazy weekend days. Drinks, drugs, intense dialogue, and frequent sex are all involved, and it doesn’t hurt that both men are gorgeous in an unassuming hipster way. The film is at its most authentic when it delves into issues that resonate with many young gay men today: questions of dating, relationships, monogamy, marriage, loneliness, and self-fulfillment.

Glen is the more “out” guy in the pair, and also the one who’s more willing to interrogate social norms, while Russell is comfortably open but enjoys hanging out with his straight friends more. Who are we in relation to those around us, and how does intimacy with another person affect all of that? Wisely, Weekend avoids providing any clear-cut answers, but instead presents a genuinely intriguing and open-ended double-portrait. The cinéma vérité style of the film brings us in closer proximity to the characters and their situation, making the entire experiment feel naturalistic and true. The movie also demonstrates how gay couples all have to deal with problems that are both similar to those faced by heterosexual couples and different from them in key ways at the same time. Growing up with a sense of ourselves as “outsiders” gives gay men a greater need to connect, and it also often prevents us from being fully able to do so.

A straight and even younger outsider, Oliver Tate, has an equally tricky time connecting with those around him in Submarine, another UK romantic flick that’s set in Wales. The debut feature by director Richard Ayoade, Submarine puts a fresh and vibrant spin on the misfit’s coming-of-age tale. Craig Roberts is pitch-perfect in his performance as Oliver; he sustains the audience’s interest as thoroughly and intently as Holden Caulfield did in Catcher in the Rye. The lovelorn Oliver pursues his sullen classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) throughout the film, catching her but then losing her to a less frenetic sort of guy.

Visually and structurally innovative, the film goes a little over the top with a revenge subplot involving an affair between Oliver’s mother (Sally Hawkins) and a quirky New Age motivational guru (Paddy Considine). Yet we never really lose sight of Oliver’s hilarious and tortured journey into early manhood, which manages to be both wrenching and endearing. There’s more than a dash of Bud Cort’s title misfit from Harold and Maude laced throughout Roberts’ portrayal of Oliver, and the cinematic appeal of his character shows the potential for having a similar endurance. At one point late in the movie, Oliver muses that every person has a “sub-aquatic” mental and emotional life that makes it impossible for us ever truly to know what somebody else is thinking. The stunning fantasy sequence that follows Oliver’s break-up with Jordana, during which he curls up on his bed and literally floats away on the ocean, is alone worth the price of admission.

Perhaps the most exciting moment of the festival for me came when director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) gave a brilliant answer to a question of mine at the festival awards ceremony. Aronofsky was the recipient of this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge award, so during his Q&A session with the audience, I asked him about an interesting comment that Natalie Portman had made when accepting her Golden Globe for Best Actress in Black Swan earlier this year. Portman remarked that she appreciated how, after pushing her through many exhausting takes for a scene, Aronofsky would tell her, “Now do this next take for yourself.” I asked Aronofsky how he knows, as a film director, when it’s the right moment to offer that to an actor. He responded that it’s like deciding whether or not to go for the fourth blue ghost when playing the Pac-Man arcade game! I’ll plan to see any future movie that’s directed by someone who can offer such a flawless ’80s video-game metaphor right off the top of his head.

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