Monday, June 22, 2015

17th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 17th - 21st, 2015)

If someone was new to our planet, the annual film festival in Provincetown would be an excellent introduction. Seeing nineteen movies over five days is kind of like a primer for life on earth. The diversity of subjects in the films that I watched spanned from a son visiting his elderly parents in the English countryside (Tom Browne’s contemplative Radiator) to documentaries about Marlon Brando, Tab Hunter, Peggy Guggenheim, and pioneering punk promoter Danny Fields, from playful criss-crossing of gender lines (François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend) to the somber tale of an ex-gay publisher turned pastor (Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael).

Having known relatively little about the subject of The End of the Tour, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, I’m somewhat surprised that it turned out to be my favorite film in this year’s festival. Featuring a career-changing performance by comedic actor Jason Segel as Wallace, the film recounts the handful of days that David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent staying and traveling on a promotional book tour with Wallace while interviewing him for a Rolling Stone article. The visit later resulted in a memoir by Lipsky, which was the source material for the movie’s screenplay, adapted by playwright Donald Margulies. It makes sense, therefore, that The End of the Tour is totally a writer’s movie, in the guise of a road movie with lots of intellectual sparring.

In this case the sparring partners could not be more suitably matched. Segel captures Wallace’s brooding yet laidback nature in a way that seems genuine and likeable. Even Wallace’s diehard fans who are most protective of his legacy should be pleased by Segel’s tightrope walk of a portrayal, although it’s the kind of understated performance that deserves much more attention than it will probably receive. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is an ideal geeky foil to Wallace’s hulking nerdiness. The scenario of the Rolling Stone piece gave both men plenty to mistrust about each other, yet as the director James Ponsoldt worded it during the post-screening Q&A, the film is “an unrequited Platonic love story.”

Lipsky’s last-chance, whirlwind list of details as he describes the interior of Wallace’s rural Illinois home to his handheld tape recorder (with some expert help from Danny Elfman’s subtle electronic score) was the most moving moment from any film that I saw at the festival. And despite Wallace’s ongoing resistance to “selling out” to such a mainstream publication like Rolling Stone, the Alanis Morissette poster on his living room wall — along with his boyish crush on her — is evidence that he didn’t have too much of an objection to becoming a sort of rock star himself. The film doesn’t dwell on Wallace’s suicide but instead lets the fact of it linger quietly in the framework of the movie, a decision that seems right to me.

The most outright entertaining film that I saw in the festival was Paul Weitz’s Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin as a fabulously blunt lesbian poet, a character that’s slightly inspired by my writer friend Eileen Myles. Another road movie of a kind, though the trip doesn’t stray too far from the character’s California town during the course of a day, it’s the sort of crowd-pleasing film that filled every single seat in Town Hall, the festival’s largest venue. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a former academic who’s gone broke just as she’s broken up with her much younger girlfriend, in the wake of Elle’s longtime partner Violet’s death from a costly cancer. Elle’s granddaughter, Sage, shows up right when Elle’s edge is sharpest, asking her grandma for money so that she can pay to have an abortion.

Mayhem and dark humor ensue, of course, as Elle and Sage go door-to-door in search of a handout. Along the way we meet tattoo artist Deathy (a wonderful Laverne Cox), café owner Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña in one of her final roles), Elle’s long-ago husband Karl (Sam Elliott, still sexy at seventy), and Marcia Gay Harden having a riotous time as Sage’s no-nonsense, business executive mother. Some might complain that the storyline feels a bit too thin, but the film is more focused on developing its characters than the action of the plot. Tomlin has waited forever to play a role like this, one that’s probably closest to who she is in everyday life.

Among the documentaries that I saw, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack was easily the most thought-provoking. In fact, I found it impossible to stop thinking about the film in the days following the screening, mainly because the story itself is so bizarre and the territory is so unfamiliar. The six teenage Angulo brothers were raised and home-schooled in their apartment at a public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Throughout their childhood, they almost never left the apartment. Their mother, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest, met their Peruvian father, a Hare Krishna, when she was hiking a trail to Machu Picchu on which he was a tour guide. Their goal for the Angulo tribe was ten children, far more than their apartment could accommodate, so they only made it to seven kids. The brothers’ younger sister is rarely seen on screen. Their father’s entrance is also intelligently delayed. As the story unfolds, we imagine him to be a frightening figure, and he’s definitely scary when he eventually surfaces, but he’s also quite cowardly in the way that he’s sequestered his children and his wife away from the world.

The reasons for trapping the family indoors are specious, a combination of quasi-religious and philosophical beliefs and a general fear of New York City and the dangers of American culture. What the boys lacked in social interaction, they made up for through watching movies. Their favorites are all manner of horror films and anything directed by Quentin Tarantino; they are, after all, a gang of teenage boys. Just watching the films repeatedly, however, was never enough. They re-enacted their favorite scenes on video camera for years, transcribing the scripts on a word processor, designing their own costumes, and hand-crafting weaponry with pieces of cardboard cut from empty cereal boxes and painted black. (An intricately assembled Batman suit is especially impressive and looks nearly authentic.)

After one of their makeshift guns caught the eye of a neighbor in their building, an entire SWAT team busted through their door, handcuffing every member of the family and pinning them up against a wall. Finding nothing but toy guns in the apartment, the cops congratulated the boys on their craftsmanship and left them alone, until the oldest brother decided to venture outside wearing a homemade Michael Myers mask while their father was out buying groceries. That episode ended with an arrest and a stay in a mental institution, but the barrier between their claustrophobic apartment and the world outside had been breached at long last. Running up an avenue on their first day out of the apartment together, the Angulo brothers met the film’s director. She followed them with her camera from that point onward.

Their mother mentions being happy that now the boys can finally learn how movies “are both real and not real” in the context of the actual world, a phrase that could also describe the surreal qualities of The Wolfpack itself. Although the almost identical members of the clan, after years of being kept indoors together, are bound to be visibly awkward on the subway and on an excursion to the beach at Coney Island, the film suggests that movies, at least when they’re the sole outlet for the intense imaginations of young male siblings, might provide just enough socialization to build a bridge to the culture-at-large.

Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! is about as different from The Wolfpack as two documentaries can get, but I found this overview of Saturday Night Live’s forty-year history to be equally as interesting on other levels. While I’ve never been a massive fan of the show, I’ve followed it sporadically and sometimes more faithfully over time, depending on the individual cast and the quality of the writing team. To keep a weekly live show going for so long is a tremendous accomplishment in itself, and it’s one that deserves this type of closer examination.

The film’s overview is mostly chronological. Because there’s so much to cover, everyone who sees it will feel like something was left out. The cast members’ commentaries offer the most useful insights because they’re inside views from the people who actually made the show, or as Will Ferrell calls it, “a living, breathing time capsule.” Original cast member Laraine Newman mentions that what sets the show apart is that it’s a meritocracy: “If a sketch is good enough, then it runs.” More recent cast member Andy Samberg remarks that it’s the perfect show for the Internet generation because everything’s done in short clips. Head honcho Lorne Michaels draws on the controversial examples of Andrew Dice Clay, who was thought to be too crude to host the show, and Sinead O’Connor, who tore up a photo of the pope on the air, to explore the show’s tension between censorship and freedom of expression. Other examples highlight how issues of race and gender have proven to be challenging in the studio, just as they are in American society. The documentary’s director wisely chose to take a serious approach, one that investigates how Saturday Night Live has both reflected and influenced the climate of our culture.

Speaking of culture, I want to close by considering a shift that I’ve noticed in many facets of American life lately. In the aftermath of the (so-called) Great Recession, there’s a desire to appease the masses that’s gradually seeping into all aspects of art and commerce. The anxieties are understandable as the global economy continues to get a foothold and gain traction. A certain sense of tameness and safety is widening its reach, nevertheless, affecting even my college teaching, a job that was once about challenging students to think but is now being forced into the mold of customer service representative.

This shouldn’t be happening to art and film as well. Sure, it’s commercially important to have popular movies that are created for the mainstream. But it’s artistically important for films and other art forms to incite discomfort, bend the boundaries of genre, and propel their creators and their audiences toward the edge, both aesthetically and emotionally. The annual film festival in Provincetown showcases a variety of films each year that satisfy the need for edginess and experimentation, and I hope this trend continues in future years of the festival.