Sunday, October 6, 2019

5th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 2nd - 6th, 2019)

There is probably no other art experience that I enjoy more than watching a marathon of finely made documentaries at a film festival. It’s the best way for me to feel connected to a multitude of places around the world and a diversity of variations on the human condition all at once. This year’s 5th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival, hosted by our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, offered filmgoers a chance to engage with an immersive and rigorous form of visual journalism. The stories collected and conveyed at venues around the city were thematically wide-ranging and meticulously arranged, curated by the festival’s Director of Programming, Lisa Viola, who’s one of the best film festival programmers in the country. Her roster of selections for this year’s festival was sequenced with the kind of care and planning that editors might give to a literary anthology.

One of the most memorable of the eight documentaries that I saw in the festival, and the one most primed for mainstream attention from the media and awards ceremonies, was Cunningham, which I saw and loved in 3D no less. Directed by Alla Kovgan, this intricate exploration of the career of the late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham is consummate and riveting, with ambitious dance sequences that rival any previously captured on film. The movie often reminded me of Pina, Wim Wenders’ superb 2011 documentary about Pina Bausch. Cunningham relies on some of the same aesthetic techniques, while raising them up to another level. The use of 3D as a way to heighten the viewer’s experience and highlight tiny details is reminiscent of the 3D approach in Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, though again, Cunningham actualizes that experience in a more overt, less subdued fashion.

At one point in the film, Cunningham mentions in voiceover that he doesn’t think of discipline as rules but as something private; it’s more like meditation, he says, and a form of dedication. Cunningham's lifelong artistic and romantic partnership with composer John Cage is foregrounded throughout the film, as is their friendship and association with the painter Robert Rauschenberg. All three artists took an avant-garde approach to their individual art forms, pushing toward absurdism and discomfort in both serious and playful ways. As John Cage argued, an encounter with art should be an arduous one that actually ends up making you happy to return to the ordinary world.

Yet the accessible present-day performances of Cunningham’s dance pieces in the film — spanning in the documentary from 1942 to 1972, and performed by the last troupe of dancers to be trained by him — can easily be admired even by audiences that may not fully appreciate dance as an art form. This is partly because a number of the dance pieces were filmed in real-world locations, from a seemingly endless subway tunnel, to vertiginous city rooftops in New York and Berlin, to a forest with trees bordering the edges of the stage. The most effective of these stunning dance sequences is also perhaps the darkest one, Winterbranch from 1964, a commentary on global violence that evokes images of war and mass destruction through the use of helicopter sounds, spotlights, and black militaristic uniforms.

At the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace from 1958, which is set against a pointillist, sloping backdrop of pastels originally painted by Rauschenberg that seems to totally surround the dancers, gently coaxes the spectators right into the world on stage. The dancers wear leotards that match the painted background, so as Cunningham commented about the piece, they’re forced to keep moving if they want to avoid blending in. I came away from the documentary understanding dance as a conscious art form in a different way, equally a manipulation of space as of bodies, and as spatially textural as it is kinetic.

It felt ironic to watch the fluid movements of Cunningham immediately after seeing a sneak preview of Matthew Orr’s Augmented, a half-narrative, half-scientific and medical documentary about robotic prosthetics researcher Hugh Herr, whose lower limbs were amputated at age 17 due to frostbite, after an ice-climbing expedition went awry in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in January of 1982. Herr and a friend, Jeff Batzer, got lost for three days in dense wilderness on the wrong side of a mountain while trying to find their way back to their cabin. Hiking through snow in sub-zero weather conditions caused both young men to lose their legs, during an era in which prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation techniques were still in more primitive stages of development.

Herr is now a biophysicist, engineer, and professor at MIT, a field that he entered specifically to develop more functional and innovative prosthetics for amputees. He and his doctoral students at MIT — in conjunction with Dr. Matthew Carty, a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital — pioneered and revolutionized the robotics behind “neural linking” with prosthetics. The resulting surgical procedure, which sixteen patients have undergone to date, is named the Ewing Surgery, after Jim Ewing, the first patient to receive it. This surgery restores patients’ use of their limbs by re-linking neural pathways via the nervous system and muscle tissue. The surgery does usually require further elective amputation, controversially, and a bioethicist interviewed in the documentary questioned whether the surgery might also be misused in the future by those seeking to reach beyond normal human physical capabilities.

During the post-film Q&A, alongside Dr. Carty, Jim Ewing, and the film’s director, Hugh Herr said that he and his colleagues do consider the ethical implications of their work all the time, but that the potential alleviation of physical, mental, and emotional pain suffered by amputees makes it worth the risk. Herr also mentions in the film that his initial decision to pursue a career in the field of biophysics following his double amputation was due in part to discovering that another young man, Albert Dow, had died in the search to rescue him and Jeff Batzer on the mountainside when a cornice of snow collapsed, triggering an avalanche in which Dow and another friend were buried; the friend survived, but Dow did not. Hugh Herr’s unprecedented work in his field also serves to honor and preserve Albert Dow’s memory.

I was excited to see Tricia Regan’s Autism: The Sequel because I loved her previous documentary Autism: The Musical when it was released back in 2007. Twelve years later, the sequel gives informative updates about each of the five young people on the autism spectrum who were introduced in the first film — Neal, Adam, Lexi, Henry, and Wyatt — now that they’re all college-aged and becoming somewhat more independent of their families. Though Neal is still non-verbal, his segment is quite moving because he now “speaks” and shares his thoughts, with the help of his iPad and iPhone. During his interview, he types that he wants to date and feel love for someone, and since he now works for a local farm, he’s glad that the world doesn’t see him as a charity case. Lexi has moved into a group home and still loves to sing, and Henry (who’s the son of musician Stephen Stills) is pursuing a college degree in video and film production.

Adam and Wyatt — now college students at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Portland State University in Oregon, respectively — were both on the post-screening Q&A panel, along with a special cello performance by Adam afterwards. It was interesting to see how their personalities were both similar to and different from when viewers first met them in the previous film. They’re more mature now with the time that’s passed, of course, and the world has also changed since then, in terms of supporting young people with autism. Most “neurotypical” people are now more willing to accommodate and understand the special needs of those on the autism spectrum, and to help integrate them into their schools, social relationships, and workplaces with the necessary assistance. All five of the film’s subjects seem relatively content and well-adjusted to their individual pursuits. Hopefully, in the vein of Michael Apted’s beloved Seven Up! documentary series, more filmed updates on the progress of these inspiring young people will be forthcoming as they continue into their adult years.

Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo traces the 85-year history of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, home of the popular “amateur night” TV show Showtime at the Apollo, which helped launch the careers of many R&B entertainers over the past few decades. The documentary covers a formidable and spirited cross-section of African-American history, New York City history, and entertainment industry history, with vintage footage of performances by Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. The connective thread is a multimedia performance on stage at the Apollo of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, and though it importantly situates the documentary’s subject in a specific racial context, the film leans a bit too heavily on that material, rather than examining more deeply all the rest there is to say about the Apollo Theater itself.

As a longtime fan of R&B/soul music, I’d have loved to hear more about artists who got their start on the Apollo’s stage back in the 1980s and more recent decades, such as New Kids on the Block, Lyfe Jennings, and similar crossover acts, all of whom helped to usher soul and hip-hop into the realm of mainstream American pop music in a fairly revolutionary way. Still, earlier performers from Smokey Robinson to Leslie Uggams provide lots of fascinating memories of their days at the Apollo, and many speak of it like it was a school, where they learned by watching from the wings while such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin performed. The business side of how the theater was run back then also proves to be illuminating, including plenty of inside details about the cash flow during the years when the theater was managed by Frank Schiffman, and later by his son Robert, who’s interviewed extensively throughout the documentary.

Although The Pointer Sisters never performed on stage at the Apollo, Ruth Pointer was a fabulous artist to feature in the post-film Q&A, in conversation with Boston Globe culture writer Renée Graham. Ruth Pointer commented that even though she and her sisters didn’t play at the Apollo, she said that it was always their first stop as spectators whenever they were in the city, and that they loved the history and communal energy of the venue. Overall, The Apollo is a rousing documentary about a true New York City institution, a place that also happens to provide a prime gathering spot beneath its marquee whenever a celebrated figure from the world of R&B/soul music passes on.

Bloodroot, directed by Douglas Tirola, shares its name with a women’s collective vegetarian restaurant and bookstore in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Bloodroot is owned and operated by Noel Furie and Selma Miriam, business partners and life partners; for four decades, they’ve aimed to bring vegetarian cuisine from around the world to diners who come from far and wide to enjoy meals together at their establishment. In the Q&A following the movie, Selma mentioned that their main focus in maintaining the business has always been people, and much of the documentary recounts the diverse individuals they’ve met over the years, as well as the many women who’ve worked in their kitchen.

Selma and Noel first met at a local chapter's N.O.W. (National Organization for Women) meeting in the early years of the feminist movement, during the era of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, though the writers whom they admire most are lesbian-feminist authors like Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Audre Lorde, all of whom were connected to Bloodroot over time. Though Selma and Noel had both been married to men when they met, they discuss throughout the film their own changing identifications within the context of a changing culture, during the years when the LGBT liberation movement had only just barely begun. Because I’ve been vegetarian myself for the past 27 years now, I was glad when I saw all the images of delicious-looking food in the documentary that I’d eaten lunch just before the film started!

Anyone who’s ever visited MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the former industrial mill-town of North Adams, knows very well what a unique and special place it is. Museum Town, directed by Jennifer Trainer, once a longtime employee of MASS MoCA, tells the story of how this sprawling museum, the largest of its kind in the world, came into existence, and how its mission has been shaped and shepherded since its inception. Expertly converted and restored from a complex of abandoned mills and factory buildings, the museum has hosted impressive exhibitions from major artists like Sol Lewitt and Anselm Kiefer, alongside multimedia exhibits and concerts by musicians such as Laurie Anderson, David Byrne of Talking Heads, the band Wilco, and most recently, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics. Various museum personnel — including an elderly woman who volunteered at the museum for years after having worked on its site at the former Sprague Electric Company since the 1940s — take the viewer on an in-depth guided tour through its rollercoaster history of political skirmishes, local skepticism, socioeconomic duress, and struggles for government funding that finally paid off.

African-American artist Nick Cave’s exhibition Until structures the documentary as we watch it develop from a cavernous empty space into a vast warehouse spangled with carefully arranged kitsch and glittery iconography. Cave addresses how his work bridges the gap between low and high art forms, found objects like controversial African-American lawn jockeys and assorted ceramic knick-knacks that take their place comfortably beside one another in a major museum space. Trainer’s film argues that Cave’s exhibition is a kind of metaphor for what MASS MoCA itself has tried to do over the years, bringing challenging contemporary artworks to an American audience in the rural foothills of the Berkshires.

By far the most difficult film to watch in this year’s GlobeDocs festival was Feras Fayyad’s harrowing National Geographic documentary The Cave. The entire film takes place in a secret underground hospital — really a maze-like bunker of tunnels and primitive operating rooms — in Ghouta, a war-torn area outside the city of Damascus in southwestern Syria. Warplanes routinely strafe the area with missiles and chemical attacks, seriously wounding and killing hundreds of civilians who are unable to escape or find safe shelter. These devastating attacks are perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has been supported by Russia in continuing the destruction. The documentary’s unflinching heroine is the courageous Dr. Amani, who bravely and tirelessly manages the underground hospital despite her young age; her 30th birthday takes place during the timeframe of the film.

Dr. Amani and her fearlessly diligent team try to save as many civilians wounded by the air-strikes as possible, both children and adults, though of course saving them all is impossible, and the number of casualties escalates throughout the film as the attacks grow more brutal, encroaching at several points on the makeshift structure of the hospital itself. What we witness on screen is a total humanitarian crisis, and we should not have to live in a world where this happens to other human beings. The film, a sure Oscar contender and frontrunner, puts you right there, feeling as shell-shocked as the young doctors who work in the hospital. By the film’s end, even Dr. Amani decides that she can no longer continue her work there, slowly making her way through the rubble, on a difficult journey back to her parents’ home and, hopefully, a new and different life.

The last documentary that I watched in the festival was also one of the most moving: Tom Shepard’s Unsettled, which follows the tenuous lives of four young refugees in the LGBT community, who are seeking asylum here in the United States. The subjects include Junior, a gender non-conforming gay man from the Congo; Subhi, a gay refugee from Aleppo in Syria; and Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola. All four of these young people faced violence and persecution in their home countries, though trying to settle in a city as expensive as San Francisco proves to be more challenging than they’d anticipated.

Junior, who struggles with alcoholism and depression due to his feelings of social isolation as a refugee, has trouble finding work and a stable place to live, eventually going through a period of homelessness before regaining his footing and starting to attend a community college. Cheyenne and Mari successfully apply for asylum through the long and painstaking immigration process via the court system, later resettling in Las Vegas, where the cost of living is more affordable, allowing them to make ends meet financially. Subhi finds a slightly easier path due a spoken testimony that he gives at the United Nations, resulting in a sudden wave of media interest in his status as a gay Syrian refugee, although he, too, struggles to feel fully at home as a gay Syrian refugee in the United States. Later in the film, he’s able to help his sister immigrate from Syria to Vancouver, through a refugee program in Canada as well.

Despite the gradual successes that all four of the film’s subjects eventually attain as refugees, the statistics highlighted in the documentary are very disheartening, to say the least. Only 30% of refugees are granted political asylum in the United States, a figure that the current government administration is attempting to reduce to zero. Internationally, seventy countries still punish LGBT people by law, and four of those countries still punish LGBT people by death. Early in the film, Mari says they flew away like birds, an image that the film also ends with beautifully, as a flock of birds ascends in flight through a technicolor sunset. I wonder how any government official, if they’d take the time to watch such a documentary, could fail to see the human importance of granting asylum to individuals who were refused a safe home and a life free from persecution back in their own countries?

Monday, September 2, 2019

Some Thoughts on Record Stores

I’ve adored record stores for my whole life, or for at least as far back as I can remember, and I miss record stores more and more as they continue to disappear year after year. Ani DiFranco’s song “Fuel,” from her 1998 album Little Plastic Castle, traces the etymology of our word “record” when DiFranco semi-raps, “People used to make records / As in a record of an event / The event of people / Playing music in a room.” Records, therefore — at least in physical formats — are living history re-capturing an original performance, recorded musical documents that allow the documented event (as well as its sonics and lyrics) to be disseminated far and wide, into the rooms and automobiles and earphones of listeners all over the world.

This weekend while I was traveling in New Hampshire and Maine, I stopped in to browse at a couple of record stores that are still around, actually the last real record store chain that exists up in northern New England, which is called Bull Moose. The location in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a standard downtown storefront, while the one located in Scarborough, Maine is closer to being a superstore, a massive warehouse of CDs and DVDs, situated in a sprawling strip-mall alongside the interstate highway. I fully realize that almost nobody else but me cares at all about physical media like CDs and DVDs anymore, and that’s why I want to say something about all of that right now, while physical media of all forms are clearly in their twilight years, no doubt destined to fade away gradually, or perhaps quite soon.

I’ve collected music for over 30 years, and throughout those decades, I’ve amassed a sizable library of compact discs, neatly shelved and alphabetized. Searching for music in record stores was always (and still is) a kind of deep therapy for me. I can just zone out and work my way straight from A to Z, looking at everything that’s in stock…and I’m not kidding when I say that I browse the entire store because I often scan through every aisle and every genre. Why? Because record stores are carefully curated catalogs of humanity, and I’m someone who prefers to encounter other human beings via the things they create. I listen to music pretty much every moment of each day, and more than anything else that I love in pop culture, music is the one art form that has kept me alive. Even more than I think about what music and songwriters and musicians have done for me, I think about what I can do for music.

Finding and purchasing music at record stores (probably way too much of it, honestly) was my main way of giving back to the people who created it, in addition to buying tickets to attend their concerts, as well as writing reviews of their music now and then. Paying my hard-earned dollars to hold a multiform physical artifact of that music in my hands, along with the album art, liner notes, and lyrics in most cases, has always felt to me like a sort of friendly exchange or handshake, as if something was made just for me, and other people can buy and enjoy it, too, if they want to do so.

Obviously, online streaming and downloading of music files have mostly killed those special qualities of the physical format, swiftly sidelining it to obsolescence, while also changing the profit game for music creators, who now rely mainly on ticket sales from concert tours to make their living, as everybody already knows. I’m not suggesting that digital music formats are totally without advantages. I really love my iPod Touch. It’s also far healthier for our planet and for our environment if we reduce the amount of unnecessary oil-based plastics used in the largely wasteful production of compact discs and the jewel cases that house them. Plus, discs get scratched, jewel cases crack, CD booklets crease and tear, just as physical objects of any kind deteriorate over time, in spite of how well we might try to take care of them.

Even those scratches on a disc and cracks in a jewel case might serve some type of purpose, however, because they personalize and mark as unique what is essentially just one of thousands of identical mass-produced products manufactured for global consumption. In his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin argues that reproduction causes the original work of art over time to lose its perceived authority and aura. Benjamin famously proposes that “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” Only a limited number of people can watch an actual live musical performance, even one that plays in a huge arena. “Above all,” Benjamin continues, the mechanical reproduction of the work of art “enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record.”

It goes without saying that records as physical artifacts can also get destroyed or lost, whereas digital music files (at least those stored in digital cloud networks) are “lossless.” The real problem is that, when compared to the experience of browsing for actual objects in record stores, streaming or downloading music also feels soulless. Record stores, despite their often jaded, under-compensated employees and blatant capitalist aims, also open up the possibility of community, of potentially meeting like-minded music admirers who share very specific interests and enthusiasms. Though who knows? Maybe one day when music is streamed directly into our brains by some vast governmental/corporate entity, even downloaded digital files might seem more personalized and quaint somehow then.

I’m aware that record stores can be seen as totally soulless, too, just empty commercial spaces that we fill up with wall-to-wall merchandise to sell and then eventually vacate. Yet at least record stores used to make it possible to be in the presence of other people while looking for music, rather that sitting alone in a room staring at a computer screen, the exact opposite of how Ani DiFranco describes musical “records” getting made. I wish that I could trace my way back to the hours upon hours that I’d spend wandering the aisles of Tower Records overlooking Newbury Street in Boston, HMV in Harvard Square, Virgin Megastore in Times Square — right in the pulsing heart of New York City — and all three of those same record stores within a few strides of each other in London’s Piccadilly Circus. But sadly, those days are long gone now.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Spinnaker (dir. Nadine Licostie, 2019)

Last week I attended a special screening at Waters Edge Cinema in Provincetown of a new short documentary titled Spinnaker, directed by Nadine Licostie. Thirteen minutes in length, Spinnaker tells the story of (and is named after) a female humpback whale, whose entire lifespan was tracked by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, in order to gather data about the whale’s everyday activities and behaviors, as well as to understand more deeply the routines and changes in Spinnaker’s marine environment. The free screening was co-hosted by the Center for Coastal Studies and the Provincetown Film Society, and on a sunny midsummer afternoon, it was quite well-attended, followed by a panel discussion with the director and interviewees from the film. The cinema will also continue screening Spinnaker throughout the month of August.

Over the course of her 11-year lifetime, Spinnaker’s health and life were threatened when she became entangled on four separate occasions in various kinds of netting, rope, and fishing gear that were aquatically submerged or abandoned by humans working in the marine industries. The most damaging instance of entanglement left Spinnaker dragging fifty lobster traps behind her during her journeys through the Gulf of Maine. The weight of the ropes and lobster traps gradually wore through the exterior of the 1,300-pound mammal and split her skull into two pieces. Her carcass was found on the shore of Acadia National Park on the coast of northern Maine in 2015. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, which had led marine missions to disentangle Spinnaker on the first three occasions, preserved the whale’s fully articulated skeleton, with the fishing gear that killed her still intact. Her remains are now suspended from the ceiling of the recently renovated Center for Coastal Studies in a permanent exhibition there, in hopes that her suffering and death will draw attention to the growing problem of marine entanglement faced by Spinnaker’s increasingly endangered species.

Licostie’s documentary features both footage from marine research expeditions and interviews with Center for Coastal Studies staff members who worked on Spinnaker’s case. One of those staff members, Stormy Mayo, an expert on right whales in the north Atlantic, comments in the film that Spinnaker’s skeleton on display is like a metaphor for the current crisis that’s plaguing our oceans, and during the Q&A after the screening, he said that he thinks the problem will continue to escalate in future years. With tears streaming down my face by the end of the film, I felt like the blunt truth of the situation was too stark even to be a metaphor. It’s simply the terrible reality of what human beings have so irresponsibly done to our oceans and to our shared planet and its wildlife in the name of commerce.

Because none of the scientists interviewed in this short documentary openly addressed the deeper underlying cultural issues, I’ll say it myself here: the cause of Spinnaker’s suffering and death is the greed and selfishness of capitalism, in a society that no longer has the capacity to grasp its own lack of compassion or any mechanism of clarity to control its own cruelty and excesses. It made sense that I watched this short documentary in Provincetown, a place that I love almost more than any other place on earth. Since I first visited Provincetown on my 21st birthday nearly 25 years ago now, the cost of a room for one night at a guesthouse there has skyrocketed from $35 to over $350, and the price of an ordinary dinner at a nice restaurant has spiked from $20 to over $100. In a town that makes its living from the tourism industry (accommodations, hospitality, and restaurant dining), that level of greed is a direct reflection of how out-of-hand the looming environmental catastrophe has become. It’s also a reflection of the wider global financial catastrophe; soon, only the wealthiest people on the planet will be able to afford to enjoy places like Provincetown.

Later in the evening after the film screening, I stopped by a row of cottages on the beach to take a photograph of a beautiful sunset over the harbor, and the man who owns a general store across the street told me that I couldn’t because the beach is private property. As someone who’s never owned property and probably never will, I walked away politely without saying what I should have said right back to him: our world and every natural place in it belongs to everybody.

Monday, June 17, 2019

21st Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 12th - 16th, 2019)

Amazingly, this was my fifteenth year attending the annual Provincetown International Film Festival, and it was my tenth year reviewing movies at the festival. I always look forward to returning to Provincetown for the festival every year in mid-June, and it’s easily my favorite week of the year. Whenever I show people my schedule for the festival, they ask how I select the movies that I watch for my reviews. I tend to aim for a balance in my line-up both thematically and stylistically, dictated somewhat by timing, and I also strive for a blend of independent and mainstream fare. Deciding on which films are most important for me to see is like fitting together a puzzle based partly on the festival schedule itself. This year I fit in fifteen films (eight documentaries and seven narrative features), as well as one program of short films, in addition to attending various parties and events held all over Provincetown throughout the week.

While all of the movies that I watch each year at the festival turn out to be totally fine and quite frequently better than fine, I always anticipate the films — usually those somewhat outside of the mainstream — that either surprise me in some way or quietly settle into the mind and present themselves as art. What’s interesting is how the films that feel most artful to me also feel so readily identifiable as such. They always have a true integrity of structure and allow the audience lots of room for thought as well as mystery. Because the medium of film is distinguished by sequencing images to convey narratives and emotional states, I find that the most special films rely less on familiar codes or formulas and more on their own intuitive and innovative frameworks.

My favorite movie at this year’s Provincetown Film Festival was the mesmerizing documentary Honeyland, directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. Honeyland won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s clear why the movie has received such high praise. Remarkable on numerous levels, the documentary is set in a remote mountain encampment in Macedonia, a semi-abandoned village that’s stuck in time and poverty, but where life is being vividly lived. The film follows a 55-year-old woman named Hatidze, who shares a tiny primitive hut with her ailing 85-year-old mother, tending to her needs despite having no electricity or running water. Hatidze is a beekeeper and an expert at collecting honeycombs teeming with bees from steep mountainside ledges and crevices, so that she can harvest and sell jars of raw honey to local merchants, providing her and her mother with just enough money to survive. Her one rule is to leave half of the honey for the bees themselves, pouring it out on a large boulder, and then keeping the other half for herself. The beekeeping scenes and the landscapes that Hatidze traverses are often mind-blowing, widescreen sequences that rival anything that’s ever been filmed in the region.

Throughout the documentary, there are distant but prominent glimpses of a globalized wider world: vapor trails of jetliners ascending into the sky, at which villagers of all ages give the same bemused look, and multiple attempts to get reception on a small outdated radio that seems to be playing the same song whenever the signal comes through clearly enough to hear. Tension mounts and continues to escalate with genuine suspense when a nomadic family, including lots of small children, become Hatidze’s less-than-friendly neighbors, killing off her bees and losing a shocking amount of livestock to starvation and lack of care. The filmmakers regard these tragedies with the same steady eye that they’ve maintained up to that point in the documentary, an approach that makes the cumulative impact and our investment in Hatidze’s heartbreaking predicament all the more affecting. Transporting and multi-scale, Honeyland should certainly be a frontrunner for awards attention come Oscar season.

At the other end of the documentary spectrum and much closer to home is Chris Moukarbel’s new HBO film Wig, a riotous before-and-after exploration of drag artists through the lens of two long-running New York City drag festivals, Wigstock and Bushwig. Moukarbel has previously directed documentaries about Lady Gaga (2017’s Gaga: Five Foot Two) and YouTube phenomenon Chris “Leave Britney Alone!” Crocker (2012’s Me at the Zoo), and here Moukarbel’s camera chronicles an equally colorful array of subjects via an intergenerational cross-section of drag queens and performance artists, from the legendary Lady Bunny and RuPaul to Kevin Aviance and Flotilla DeBarge, alongside younger sensations like Willam Belli and Charlene Incarnate. They all offer thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious) commentary on cross-gender and trans issues, much of which responds to the current climate that’s precipitated the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. As one commentator remarks in voiceover early in the film, regarding the importance of drag queens’ celebration of their own femininity, “The world is sick with masculinity.”

Even Neil Patrick Harris and his husband David Burtka make a fun appearance in the documentary, with their kids running crazily around their house in the background, since Harris was involved in the return of Wigstock in 2018, after the festival had taken a lengthy hiatus following the September 11th attacks in New York City in 2001. Harris, who portrayed the title role in the Broadway debut of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, explains that his fascination with drag is directly related to his work as a stage magician, and how exactly drag artists pull off their gender-based illusions through make-up, costuming, and detailed sleights of hand (among other anatomical parts).

Moukarbel’s documentary also gives room for some playful drag community shade-throwing, when Lady Bunny tells the spectators at the rebooted Wigstock that she hadn’t yet appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race so she could read all of the drag queens who had, resulting in a live song-and-dance takedown of those contestants to the tune of Madonna’s “Vogue.” Reflecting back on 1995’s original Wigstock documentary, it’s obvious while watching this new Wig how relatively mainstream drag has become over the past 25 years. When Moukarbel was asked by an audience member during the post-film Q&A in Provincetown if he was old enough to attend the original Wigstock festival, he answered that yes, it was definitely a vital memory of his own queer generation, and he said that the original Wigstock film had been very important to him and his friends back then, before the cultural spotlight on drag had gone more fully global.

The narrative feature film that lingered with me the most from this year’s festival was Argentine director Lucio Castro’s End of the Century (Fin de Siglo), the unique and cleverly rendered story of two men, Ocho and Javi, who meet on a beach in Barcelona, hook up for sex later (quite memorably), and then re-enter each other’s lives in unexpected ways at irregular intervals through several twists in time that don’t neatly align or allow the audience any simple resolutions. All the accoutrements of contemporary gay relationships are on the table throughout the movie’s timespans: casual flings, bisexuality, PrEP, marriage, children, loneliness and separation, co-dependency versus independence. Several symbols link the two characters’ arcs together as a way of guiding the audience through the movie’s timeframes associatively: a certain aerial view from a balcony, a re-appearing KISS t-shirt, a recurring illness, sexual tropes of new partners and familiar couples.

Well-acted (by Juan Barberini as Ocho and Ramón Pujol as Javi), intelligently conceived, and finely executed, End of the Century works best as a way of comparing the different paths that a gay relationship can take. To what degree do our current and future relationships overwrite our past relationships? What do we remember of them and carry forward with us? Are we always essentially alone, even when sleeping beside the same person for years? Do the heat and intensity of an initial sexual encounter ever really leave us, or do they continue to live inside us, both physically and in memory? An exhilarating scene midway through the film, set to the beat of A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song,” probably answers that last question best, and a few of the movie’s dialogue-based scenes resonate on deeper levels and feel almost like stage pieces, reminiscent at times of Andrew Haigh’s brilliant Weekend.

Tom Harper’s Wild Rose was the most enjoyable of the narrative features that I saw at the festival, with rising Irish star Jessie Buckley in the title role of Rose-Lynn Harlan, in what’s sure to be one of the most lasting performances of the year. The film begins just as Rose-Lynn is being gleefully released from a year in prison for drug charges, returning with her white cowboy boots and ankle monitor to the home of her mother (Julie Walters) and her own two young children in Glasgow, Scotland. Although Rose-Lynn finds work as a housekeeper for the family of a well-to-do woman (Sophie Okenedo), Rose wants to move to Nashville to pursue a career as a country singer and eventual songwriter, a dream that her vocal talents uphold, persuading others in her life to help her get there.

What’s excellent about Wild Rose is the indirectness of that journey. Instead of finding herself in a corridor full of open doors, Rose-Lynn faces a daunting series of setbacks and obstacles, from Glasgow to London to Nashville, meaning that the film unfolds in a fashion opposite the standard reach-for-your-dreams Hollywood formula film. The storyline skitters away from melodrama and towards the real thing, in ways that gradually steady Rose-Lynn’s ambitions and heighten her determination. Jessie Buckley’s unwavering portrayal and precise songwriting in the movie’s original numbers are fully embodied (especially in the film’s big finale, “Glasgow”), despite the glare of Julie Walters’ stern mother figure, who finally softens when her daughter needs her the most. Wild Rose earns its gently family-centric denouement, which most other movies of its kind unfortunately don’t these days.

Throughout the festival, I was lucky to see a wonderful selection of documentaries about celebrated American pop culture figures: singer Linda Ronstadt, actor Montgomery Clift, and film critic Pauline Kael. The one animated film that I saw in the festival, Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, re-imagines in cartoon form the making of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1933 documentary Land Without Bread. One short film that I watched on the festival’s opening night also haunted me for days afterwards, Lovell Holder’s spellbinding You Say Hello, in which a young gay man retreats to his family’s California beach house in Ventura planning to commit suicide, only to have that plan undone by a sweet straight hustler he hires online for the night.

Perhaps the most timely and relevant moment of the festival for me came when I attended a conversation with Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman on the final morning of the festival. (Their new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice also won this year’s HBO Audience Award for Best Documentary at the festival.) While discussing the historical roots of their films, which have examined subjects ranging from the legacy of Harvey Milk to the AIDS memorial quilt to LGBTQ images in cinema, Rob Epstein described how our culture now is beginning to lose interest in history because everything in daily life and social media is so fast-paced and focused on the present moment. Plus, he added that after the AIDS epidemic, there’s a missing generation that would have been teaching that history to us. Restoring and continuing those kinds of historical learning are just a couple of important goals that many of the films I watched during this year’s Provincetown Film Festival generously seek to achieve.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Patty Griffin, Patty Griffin (Thirty Tigers, 2019)

The latest self-titled album by celebrated singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, her tenth studio album, is her best in fifteen years. Griffin’s albums are always superb, and each one is filled with songs that add depth and character to the American songbook, but her new effort for me is her consistently strongest record since 2004’s Impossible Dream, which is an album that I still love and listen to frequently today. Over the past few years, Griffin dealt with a cancer scare (in her new album’s liner notes, she thanks “the Docs and their magic”), and given just how solid these songs are from start to finish, I almost wonder if being faced with such a frightening situation had some effect in that regard. Receiving any serious medical diagnosis — one that’s now been successfully treated in Griffin’s case — would probably prompt something of a re-boot for most artists, or a re-examination of their approaches to their own art form. There’s a sense of purity and distillation in these thirteen new original tracks, as well as power and daring, performed with Griffin’s reliable players in styles ranging from folk to blues to near-classical balladry, endowed with Griffin’s distinctively rough-hewn vocals and lyrical dexterity.

I’ve listened to this album continually since its release a couple of weeks ago, and many of the songs feel tied for me to the last time I saw Griffin in concert this past summer on a warm night in early August, at the opera house in the picturesque oceanside town of Boothbay Harbor in midcoast Maine. Patty is a native of the state of Maine; she grew up in Old Town, a small town located mostly on Marsh Island, just about 100 miles inland from the harborside opera house where I heard Griffin perform. She mentioned during the show that she remembered from her childhood passing by those kinds of buildings throughout Maine while driving with her parents in their family car, venues that were often in states of neglect and disrepair back then, and how wonderful it is to see so many of those buildings restored today for community and performing arts purposes.

At that same concert, Griffin also performed one of her new album’s finest songs, “River,” for the very first time before an audience, with her skillful accompanying guitarist David Pulkingham. It happened to be former President Barack Obama’s birthday, so she dedicated the song at that show to him. The song feels especially relevant in the wake of the #MeToo movement: “Isn’t she a river? / She doesn’t need a diamond to shine… / Arms made out of silver / Moving in a crooked line / Carrying some dreamers / Off into the end of time.” This seeming aerial view of the river’s topography creates a kind of cumulative portrait of the unbendable force and endurance of all women over centuries and landscapes (“‘Cause you can’t hold her back for long / A river is just too strong… / You don’t need to save her / Or teach her to behave / Just let her arms unwind / Ever-changing and undefined”).

The image of rivers also plays a central role in another of the album’s strongest songs, “Where I Come From,” a vivid homage to Griffin’s memories of her hometown of Old Town, Maine. “Where I come from / Is a land of many islands,” Griffin sings, “Two rivers run / To the east and to the west.” Looking at the map of Maine, I was surprised to see that it’s true, even 100 miles inland; Old Town is formed by numerous small islands, and you can even clearly see where the land has separated as those islands have gradually been surrounded by waterways over time. Despite how Griffin mentions that “I wanted to run far away as I could / As fast as I could get,” her rural hometown is also a place she finds impossible to forget (“No matter where I’ve been / I can’t escape who I am”). The people and struggles of Old Town stay with Griffin, too: “The veterans of all the past wars / Sit outside on a Sunday afternoon / The mills closed down long ago and so / We’re way past unemployment / Like a bad joke somebody told on our town / For their enjoyment.”

Midway through the album is its emotional centerpiece, the piano ballad “Luminous Places,” already among my top five favorite songs by Patty Griffin. I recall when she told the audience at her show in Boothbay Harbor that she’d asked her booking manager to take her only to the most beautiful places for the concerts on that particular tour; some other stops included Truro on Cape Cod and Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Her comment made me wonder if this gorgeous, classically inflected song (with cello and guitar accompanying the piano) grew out of that concert tour. The song begins and ends with the delicate lines, “Love flows out of these luminous places / Love lies down in the deep of the sea / Falls out of the sky in millions of pieces on me.” The rest of the lyrics reflect largely on Griffin’s cross-country travels throughout her career as a touring musician, a common subject for folksingers, but she elevates it to another level: “I’ve been over these highways for years in the dark / Criss-crossing the land like a stitch on the wound / Rolling through the night while millions were sleeping / Under every phase of the moon.”

What’s most impressive is the metaphor for how live music can bring people together despite these divided times in the United States, “like a stitch on the wound.” Too often these days, it’s a belabored topic even in the creative realm, but Griffin knows not to belabor that theme, instead making it only a single necessary stitch in the song, albeit a mournful one. She’s also able to connect the years of her music career movingly back to the early days of her youth: “All that I am is a dream that I had / One morning so early and blue / It flew over the river and the freezing bus stops / On a song that I sang to you.” Dreamers are invoked often on this album, so frequently that it becomes a dreamer’s album; its songs are part of a cycle crafted to revivify lost and forgotten dreams.

Elsewhere on the album, Griffin weaves in an allegorical murder ballad from the age of maidens and pirates (“Bluebeard”), a harrowing tale of her ancestors’ immigration from Ireland (“Boys from Tralee”), as well as upbeat meditations on time and change (“Hourglass” and “The Wheel,” which offer stark commentaries on issues from the corruption of the political machine to rampant police brutality). The album is bookended and threaded through with a handful of jazz-inspired numbers (“Mama’s Worried,” “Had a Good Reason,” “What I Remember,” and “Just the Same”), and the great Robert Plant also contributes memorable vocal assists on two of the album’s tracks (“What Now” and “Coins”). Similar to the album’s mystical cover art — which depicts Griffin and her two little dogs surrounded by sunshine, the moon and stars, waterfalls and fields of wheat and sunflowers, symbolic pomegranates at her feet, a phoenix rising from the fire and ashes — the songs on the album create a complex and living tapestry of America.

I remember the very first time that I heard Patty Griffin perform live in concert, opening for Ellis Paul at Somerville Theater here in the Boston area in 1995. She walked out on stage shyly, with big crocheted flowers and daisies stitched to the legs of her blue jeans, and commandingly launched right into one of her best early songs, the hardcore blues belter “I Write the Book.” She sang with such forthright conviction that it was clear to anybody in the audience that Griffin’s art would be her way of claiming her place in the world. Nearly 25 years later, I feel grateful to be still in the audience, receiving and appreciating her art.