Tuesday, June 24, 2014

16th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 18th - 22nd, 2014)

I’ve always said that Provincetown is the ideal place to host a film festival.  During this past week’s 16th annual festival, I watched 17 movies total (nine narrative features and eight documentaries, as well as some short films), all of which were of excellent quality.  This year the weather happened to be perfect, too, making many people ask how I could spend so much time inside a dark theater, rather than heading to the beach.  I’ve often contemplated feeling guilty about that, but films are soul-regenerating experiences for me and therefore justify missing out on a bit of sunshine.  Plus, with a diversity of festival venues in easy walking distance of each other, and with stunning ocean views as one travels between venues, I saw nearly as much sun as I did movies.

The documentaries in particular at this year’s festival felt uniformly strong.  I think this has been a trend in recent cinema over the past decade.  Reality can often be more visceral and unsettling than fiction, though fiction is almost always drawn from reality, so reality and fiction mutually reinforce one another.  Startlingly, my two favorite documentaries in this year’s festival were about criminal cases, both of which received significant media attention during their own times.

Captivated:  The Trials of Pamela Smart
was, I’m proud to say, directed by a former student of mine, Jeremiah Zagar.  The film’s subject was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1990, having been involved with a trio of students from a New Hampshire high school where she was a media technician.  Pamela Smart’s husband was caught having an affair shortly before the murder, so it was thought of and subsequently depicted as a revenge killing.  Although one of the teenagers testified on the courtroom stand that he had pulled the trigger, the jury didn’t buy it.  As an accomplice Smart was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and she remains behind bars at a New York state maximum-security prison today.

Smart’s case was the first televised murder trial to receive widespread media attention and continual coverage.  Many have argued that the media coverage had a direct effect on the jury’s verdict and the final outcome of Smart’s sentencing.  The case’s most famous media treatment was Gus Van Sant’s film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; the case also spawned a made-for-television courtroom drama with Helen Hunt in the central role.  Smart’s beauty queen looks and fixed, stoic gaze in nearly every existing image of her caused her to be dubbed “the ice princess.”  As Maynard perceptively comments when interviewed in the film, there’s no bigger cultural thrill than the archetype of taking down a beautiful woman.  The female professor who worked with Smart on her degrees earned in prison also notes that Smart was the brightest student she’d ever worked with in 34 years of teaching.

The film’s greatest strength is that it’s about so much more than just the trial itself.  It’s a fascinating and finely constructed exploration of how we (and the media) shape narratives, and how those narratives shape and misshape us, until the narratives themselves are all that we see.  Reality gradually becomes a fiction that bears little relation to reality in the end.  One of the film’s interviewees mentions that humans in televised situations lose their humanity, instead taking on the audience’s perceptions.  Truth gets upended and subjectified from every angle.

In a brilliant directorial move that seems influenced by the innovative interview techniques of celebrated documentarian Errol Morris, Zagar often films his commentators’ reactions to archival footage of the Smart case through projected images of the vintage television footage itself, so that we see both the archival images and the interviewees’ facial expressions simultaneously.  It’s an ingenious device that suggests how we ourselves have become overlaid by streams of images placed before us by the media.  Zagar also resizes the footage for a variety of vintage TV screens at various stages of the film, even using a curtained theater stage as a visual framework to bookend the movie.

The Dog, a documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, was my favorite film from this year’s festival.  It tells the bizarre and fascinating tale of John Wojtowicz, who rose to infamy almost by accident in the summer of 1972, when he decided to rob a Brooklyn bank with two acquaintances to fund gender reassignment surgery for his boyfriend Ernie (later known as Liz Eden).  If the story sounds familiar, you’re correct:  it was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s popular 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as Wojtowicz.  Bank employees were held hostage, cops surrounded the establishment, and the would-be robbers had the audacity to have pizzas delivered to them at the bank at the height of the media buzz outside.

As usual, the best documentaries delve into the oddest material, and each figure that’s featured in this film is a full-fledged character.  From Wojtowicz’s first wife, Carmen, who’s as animated as a round pink cartoon cut-out come to life, to Wojtowicz’s wispy yet domineering mother, their personalities are all arresting because they’re all so unassumingly and unavoidably themselves. Wojtowicz commands attention throughout every scene in which he appears.  He’s a charismatic, fast-talking, self-proclaimed “pervert” who seemingly became gay when he woke up to find a fellow military officer giving him a blowjob earlier in his life.  Well-intentioned and also somewhat confused, he makes it easy to see why not one but three people (Carmen, Ernie, and John’s prison boyfriend George) were drawn into his romantic orbit and never able to leave it.

Not that it’s always that simple. During the burgeoning gay movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wojtowicz came under scrutiny by the gay rights organizations with which he was involved.  Members of the early Gay Activists Alliance felt that he was totally crazy, a diagnosis that seems increasingly possible as the documentary progresses.  He’s a hard figure to know whether or not to trust, yet he convincingly argues that Hollywood made $50 million from his crime via Lumet’s film, while he received only a couple thousand dollars worth of compensation.  His life is an interesting example of how people who follow the rules rarely make for intriguing storytelling.

Even more compelling is the unique cross-section of queer history that the film provides.  Wojtowicz lived through the closeted 1950s and early 1960s, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and the beginnings of recognition of transgender identity in the 1970s and 1980s.  We sadly watch his startling physical decline over the decade that the documentarians recorded their interviews with him; he dwindles from a happily rotund raconteur to a haunted but still spirited wraith of a man who’s dying of cancer, as his mentally challenged brother rolls him around the Brooklyn Zoo in a wheelchair. Wojtowicz died in 2006.

My favorite among the narrative features that I saw at the festival this year was Ira Sachs’s beautiful and languidly paced Love Is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.  I’d really been looking forward to seeing this film in the festival because so few mainstream movies focus on middle-aged or older gay male couples.  In this case, the characters have been living together in New York for 39 years.  Ben (Lithgow) is a painter, while George (Molina) is a musician and teacher who loses his job at a Catholic school after administrators see photos of the couple’s marriage ceremony on Facebook.  As a result, Ben and George also lose their apartment and are forced to move in with friends and relatives at separate locations in the city.

Although the movie’s central conflict feels a bit unlikely, it also seems totally plausible in today’s economy.  I admired how the film directly addresses a theme that almost never gets discussed:  how artistic or bohemian gay men of a certain age get left behind by the culture, financially and otherwise.  That element of the film is tempered by another key aspect.  The movie is a rich love letter to New York, or a specific version of New York, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a good amount of time there; a soft-focused, burnished light suffuses many of the scenes.

Alongside this distinctive visual tone, the lead performances are totally pitch-perfect as well.  Somehow, Lithgow and Molina convey the close intimacy of men who’ve lived together in very close quarters for nearly four decades.  After they’ve been displaced from the comfort of their home, there’s a very moving scene that takes place on the small lower mattress of a bunk bed, where the pair of men snuggle face to face, gazing at each other with a long familiarity that only actors of this caliber can evoke for an audience.  I’ve enjoyed all of Ira Sachs’s films, and I think this is his finest film so far.

The Two Faces of January, an epic-scale thriller that’s set in Greece and directed by Hossein Amini, adapts Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel as high-gloss Hollywood fare that should actually fare rather well with the art-house crowd instead.  This sweeping period piece is propelled by a love triangle between a wealthy American couple played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, and a handsome American traveler/translator played by Oscar Isaac.  As the two men compete for the affections of the same woman, a good deal of homoerotic tension builds between their characters, something that Highsmith clearly intended and that Mortensen and Isaac subtly portray.

I love the feeling of watching a movie and not being sure exactly where I’ve seen an actor before, and I love even more the feeling of finally realizing who that actor is.  I was mesmerized by Oscar Isaac’s face throughout this entire film and figured out by the end that he’s the guy who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis.  Shaving off his little beard has made all the difference; Isaac now resembles a young Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, along with the acting chops to merit those comparisons.

Isaac’s character, Rydel, becomes involved with Mortensen’s and Dunst’s married couple when he witnesses the aftermath of an unintentional murder.  For unexplained reasons, Rydel attempts to help the couple undo what can’t be undone, and with each step of their improvised escape plan, he only gets himself more deeply embroiled in their situation.  Although some may find the characters a bit too caricatured and the story’s abrupt plot twists a bit too jarring and clich├ęd, it’s important to keep in mind that Highsmith was a genre writer.  Sudden plot turns that might feel clunky and obvious in other movies are appropriate decisions here; moments of blunt violence fall like hammer blows.  I found the film to be thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.

A fun and related side-note:  at the festival’s press luncheon, I talked with superstar producer Christine Vachon’s assistant and asked him what the director Todd Haynes has been up to lately.  I was excited to learn that Haynes finished filming an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian-themed 1952 romance The Price of Salt earlier this year.  The movie, titled Carol, will star Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  It was shot in my childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, with the city’s famed Over-the-Rhine neighborhood standing in for old-school New York.

The most mainstream film that I saw at the festival this year was John Carney’s Begin Again, which retains the director’s popular formula from his Academy Award-winning movie Once.  Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo turn in energetic performances as a songwriter and a music industry rep on the skids, respectively.  I was literally flipping out in my seat at the back of the theater when I saw the words “music by Gregg Alexander” appear on the screen.  He’s always been one of my favorite musicians, so it’s great to hear such awesome new material, often sung by the character played by Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5.  (I wrote a long blog post about Gregg Alexander’s byzantine career back in 2010, so please feel free to check that one out, too.)

Finally, I want to comment briefly about one short film that I saw at the festival, a documentary by Austin Bunn and Robert Hazen titled Lavender Hill.  I’ve taught a college course on queer history and identity for the past 13 years now, and this film provides a wonderful missing link in the evolutionary chain towards LGBTQ liberation.  Lavender Hill, located in the Finger Lakes region near Ithaca, New York, was founded in the early 1970s as an 80-acre commune for gay men and lesbians, among the very first of its kind.  The film features thoughtful retrospective interviews with the core group of its living members, as well as hosting a reunion dinner for the commune’s original group 40 years later.  They reminisce about the magic of free love in that bygone era, which helped lead to the benefit of living the much more open lives that many LGBTQ individuals enjoy today.  The film’s vintage footage and overall vibe reminded me in some ways of the Radical Faeries gatherings that I’ve attended in Vermont for several years now, though the people in the film seemed closer back then, if only because their survival required it.

I thought about community a lot during the course of my past week at the festival.  Of course, film festivals are essentially about community, and not just artistic and commercial communities, but human community.  During a number of films, a feeling overcame me of being somehow at one with the audience, despite how individuated our own minds are whenever we’re watching anything.  What makes our perspectives of a film different while we’re viewing it?  What makes other viewers’ perspectives overlap with our own when we discuss a film afterwards?  It’s ironic and also a bit sad, admittedly, that I often feel closer to other people through movies than I do any other way, a commentary on the mediated times in which we live.  Images of other people and their stories can start to seem more real to us than the people on whom those stories and images are based.  The difference at a film festival is that you meet the actual people behind the images and start knowing them better, as well as meeting other filmgoers who feel inspired to do the same.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Heights (dir. Chris Terrio, 2005)

As I begin preparing to review some films at next week’s annual Provincetown International Film Festival, I’m also recalling some films that I enjoyed most in the festival’s previous years.  Back in 2005, I remember loving the festival’s closing night selection, Chris Terrio’s Heights, which also received the festival’s HBO Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature that year.  Terrio has gone on to great acclaim in the decade since then, winning an Oscar for writing the adapted screenplay of Ben Affleck’s Argo.  Earlier in his career, Terrio also worked as an assistant to James Ivory of the production team Merchant Ivory, so he was offered the opportunity to direct Heights because the late Ismail Merchant was producing it.

A fast-paced, stylish story of the intersecting lives and loves of an enclave of artsy, upper-crust New Yorkers, Heights is a finely balanced ensemble piece that focuses closely and intelligently on its characters.  Having watched the film a few times since originally seeing it in 2005, I’d say now that the movie is actually about its performances.  The film’s screenplay was adapted (and expanded) by Amy Fox from her 2000 one-act play of the same title, which centered on a rooftop confrontation between its three main characters.  For the film, Fox constructed the story leading up to that climactic scene, adding a number of characters to enliven the story along the way.  Terrio then gave the movie’s actors plenty of leeway to help craft and integrate those additional characters, and in some cases the actors even made decisions that altered the various directions of the plot.

The main connecting point in Heights is Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a young photographer who’s experiencing some frustrations over her work and romantic life.  She’s engaged to be imminently married to Jonathan (James Marsden), a handsome attorney who’s also clearly experiencing some frustrations of his own.  Early in the film, it’s revealed that Jonathan had some past professional involvements with a famous photographer named Benjamin Stone.  A museum retrospective of Stone’s work is about to be mounted; many of its images are of beautiful young men, in the style of fashion photographers like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber.  Stone has sent his boyfriend Peter (John Light) from London to New York to track down and interview the photographs’ subjects, most of whom are Stone’s ex-boyfriends, for a Vanity Fair article that will promote the exhibition.

The intrigues only deepen from there.  A struggling young stage actor named Alec, played by Jesse Bradford, happens to live in the same apartment building as Isabel and Jonathan.  Years ago, when I first saw boyish Jesse Bradford starring in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent 1993 family drama King of the Hill, I knew that he’d grow up to land a mesmerizing role like Alec someday.  Alec auditions for a new play that’s to be directed by superstar actress — and Isabel’s mother — Diana Lee, portrayed as just over-the-top enough by Glenn Close, in full-on diva mode.

Post-audition, Diana admits to Alec that she thinks he’s adorable and invites him to her Macbeth dress rehearsal that afternoon, as well as to a party that she's hosting at her home later that evening.  She justifies her interest in Alec due to her husband’s infidelity with her own Lady Macbeth understudy, effectively opening their marriage.  Diana’s consoled by her Macbeth director and longtime friend Henry (Eric Bogosian), who’s more interested in the hunky stagehands himself.

Heights is obviously a tricky movie to synopsize.  Terrio’s use of split-screen diptychs in a few select scenes highlights this complexity.  A handful of secrets are also divulged as the film unfolds, though some viewers may predict its plot twists long before they’re unveiled.  While I was engaged enough by the characters and story to be surprised by the turns when I first saw the film, I once showed the movie to a date who had figured out everything less than halfway through it.

But again, the performances for me are the film’s real focus.  James Marsden’s brooding Jonathan needs to be more gorgeous and transfixing than the women in the movie for several key reasons, and he and his tireless cheekbones unassumingly rise to the occasion.  Elizabeth Banks also feels just right to me as Isabel; she’s the character whose interior life matters the most to the audience in the end, and she believably embodies a wide range of emotional states and subtle changes that would be difficult for any actress to inhabit.  In an especially powerful scene when she makes the mistake of taking an impromptu subway photograph of a woman who’s gently stroking her daughter’s hair, Banks gradually builds up to the moment in a way that reveals how much her character is longing for a life that’s different from the one she has.

Many of the film’s smaller performances and cameos are equally riveting.  What a fun little bonus the musician Rufus Wainwright is as Jeremy, one of Benjamin Stone’s many exes.  Rufus has no problem whatsoever slipping into the role of a jaded, chain-smoking young queen — and one who hilariously hits on Peter (without success) while being interviewed by him.  Screen veterans like Isabella Rossellini, as the no-nonsense editor of Vanity Fair, and George Segal, as Jonathan’s patient and supportive rabbi, make colorful appearances, too.  Even The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons shows up briefly as Alec’s chatty gay sidekick at a nighttime catering gig.

New York City, and its vast yet close-knit underground of interconnected subcultures, becomes an important character itself as the film progresses.  I’m peripherally familiar with the New York art and theater worlds, and the film’s representation of them feels dramatically heightened but also fairly accurate:  everybody knows everybody, or knows somebody who knows everybody.  The lapidary structure of Heights plays around with that notion quite adeptly, so it’s clear that Fox and Terrio were both at ease with and critical of that social terrain; the big party scene at Diana’s ritzy penthouse probably illustrates this best.  Jim Denault’s subdued yet dazzling cinematography also offers some sweeping views of the city at dusk, dawn, and in between.

As for the aforementioned plot twists, I’d rather leave those undisclosed here, since they were certainly surprises for me on an initial viewing.  Let’s just say that the riddle of sexual identity in contemporary metropolitan life threads itself skillfully into the tale, and that the ever-complicated figure of the closet won’t be disappearing anytime soon.  Nevertheless, characters both younger and older are left with potentially reassuring resolutions and hopeful futures.