The Independent Film Festival of BostonDirector:
he Independent Film Festival of Boston—awkwardly worded, presumably for easy translation into a number of languages, and perhaps as if to imply its foreign selection without explicitly stating it, a la something unwieldy like “The Boston International Independent Film Festival,” and thereby also implicitly encouraging implicitness, i.e. subtlety, i.e., subtle movies, and if this was the intent, then good job encapsulating both the fest’s multinational outreach and its aesthetic values in a rather unassuming six-word phrase, festival programmers—is foremost a profound inconvenience, if you’re a college kid within days’ distance of both finals week and Going Back Home, and an abruptly dissipating social life, plus unprecedented cramming, equals enough neuroses for one weekend, thank you very much. But, alas, I’m one of those, and I do choose to sift through the fest’s bag of sundry docs and narratives, if only to find one or two treasures with limited publicity or distribution prospects (N.B.: there were two). The festival itself is run as well as one could ask for in its relatively nascent, three-year age, with only the kink of films starting an average of 10 minutes late a major distraction. The staff is lively, particularly a couple of deadpan volunteers introducing films, at least one of whom had the balls to follow “This woman yesterday complained about animal violence in this movie…” with “… and then we made out.” The milieu is urbane, at least sufficiently enough that festival buddy and Emerson classmate Nick McCarthy was able to satiate the craving for Korean grub In Between Days gave him within just blocks of the Somerville 5 in illustrious Davis Square. And the festival is equally warm to its press and filmmakers, always encouraging the two to mingle, which I abstained from not on ethical grounds but because, jesus, was my life hectic at the time.
The films? Pre-fest, the IFFB (pronounced “if-buh,” by the lion-hearted) looked like two things: a game of Six Degrees of Andrew Bujalski, and a reckless search for documentary authenticity. I don’t like many narrative films, but knowing that indie god Bujalski dug the Duplass brothers of The Puffy Chair, who in turn dug Joe Swanberg of LOL seemed a fairly infallible chain of approval. (Seemed.) And I don’t like many documentaries, but I’m drawn to Sundance competition leftovers like a fly to picnic scraps. (Implications of that analogy fully intended.) Nonetheless, this coverage is taking into account the fact that I skipped such high-profile festival selections as Down in the Valley and The Proposition to see Chantal Akerman’s preciously rare and impossibly great Jeanne Dielman, not to mention neglecting to re-watch the terrific opening night film, Half Nelson, because I’d already seen it a couple times. Bottom line: I’m hopelessly skewed; away we go.
Florida-based Cocaine Angel director Michael Tully hosts his own blog, and therein exudes a blind voracity for contemporary art cinema of near-Knowlesian proportions; Tully : film festival :: kid : candy store. Tully’s favorite film of last year, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, lingered in the mind as I approached Angel, but for mostly the wrong reasons. I marginally liked Puiu’s movie upon seeing it several months ago, even if I was a bit baffled by its almost uniformly positive reception by the mainstream press, which is known to routinely dismiss attenuated, rigorously naturalistic, utterly exhausting highbrow favorites. (I was sleepy…) But just some hours prior to seeing Angel, my appreciation for Puiu’s film increased considerably, as an impromptu visit to the emergency room proved a veritable The Death of Mr. Hirschkron as envisioned by Michael Snow or perhaps the latter-day Gus Van Sant, shot in fixed frame from inside a hospital waiting room wherein myriad figures traversed across—notably a cute, thirty-something nurse with big, chipmunk eyes and a hip-looking young med student with thick-rimmed glasses not unlike a hybrid of Doogie Howser and Rivers Cuomo.
Funny thing was, the running time of my stay was roughly the same as Puiu’s film—two and a half hours—and the symptoms were eerily alike; in my case a scarily intense migraine that slowly faded as the festival progressed, and in his, one that… yeah. It’s appropriate, then, that the prominent theme of the festival was mortality, but also that Angel’s digressive, sardonic tone echoed the experiences of myself and Mr. Lazarescu, at least one of which Tully was privy to. But Tully has yet to fit comfortably into structure-free roughness, and as a result, his debut feature is stylistically indecisive, at its best when it grungily goes for broke, and most phony when it feigns movie-movie elegance. The lighting is so minimal I once wondered whether one character had a nose, but Tully shows promise when his setbacks become strengths. In the film’s opening sequence, the titular cokehead, as played by screenwriter Damian Lahey with a Gollum lurch and Terret’s mumble, is caked in foreboding silhouette, his movements by turns ritualistic and scraggly but always movements, never informed by a friendly face. But Tully’s overbearing use of non-diegetic music (Elton John?! Dude…), and his alternation between nakedly wobbly handheld camerawork and almost defiantly meaningless forays into shot-reverse-shot convention, just don’t gel with his attempts at bona fide grit. Tully has even stated an eagerness to work with professional actors in the future, so one gathers, he must be aware that some of his non-actors often spill over into caricature.
So Much So Fast
So Much So Fast is a hell of a tribute and not much of a documentary, celebrating the resilience of ALS patient Stephen Heywood and the efforts of his brother Jamie to further ALS research. I consider myself a pretty conscientiously stunted guy, best exemplified by the guilt-free sensation I got as I refused to applaud this artless movie. (Truffaut asked, “Cinema or life?” Not sure, myself.) But the sight of Stephen was so viscerally moving I began reflexively grabbing my sleeve every time he appeared onscreen, and he certainly makes some critics’ distress over professional actors playing real-life victims in United 93 seem petty by comparison.
His resignation brings us closer to death, but more affecting is his physical inertia, replete with eh-who-cares smile, a transparent veil shielding a naked soul that acts as a heightened metaphor for the human condition on one level, and a searing fact on another. He’s an astonishing human being who husband-and-wife team Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan can’t begin to fashion into any kind of art, because they are understandably too sensitive and incomprehensibly too naïve to understand that he is quite enough. Interviews with Stephen’s wife, chronicles of his brother’s staggering efforts to fund a fledgling research center and noxious bookends of a picture-postcard beach are all geared toward instilling a false and deeply redundant sense of hope—look closely enough, and you’ll find all the hope you need in his face. It sounds cruel to say so, but as Stephen’s speech slurs and communication becomes a lengthy hassle, the film becomes good by regrettable accident, as Ascher and Jordan are forced to slow down, take it easy on the tangents, and cherish what nerves are left in his body, recording distended conversations and leaving nothing out as if in preparation for a future memorial. Well, Stephen thrives, and was present at the festival screening, and it’s sad to observe that audience members heralded the nondescript filmmakers while virtually ignoring their miraculous subject. Then again, what do you say to someone who achieves greatness just by living?
Craig Lucas and Mike Nichols have tried, among others, but applying conventional filmic vocabulary to living life in front of a computer screen—e.g., “Insert of AIM message reading, ‘i’ll see u l8er.’ / Cut to smiling protag, mouthing ‘yes!’”—is rarely adequate, especially at conveying the emotional torpor of the medium. So what makes Joe Swanberg’s LOL so appealing, not to mention funny and sharply observed, are its formal innovations, its near-effortless ease at translating the language of online interaction to cinema. Rather than posit technology as a dubious alternative to flesh-and-blood chillin’, Swanberg pointedly integrates the two, mining them for their respective limitations and blessings, best seen in a rare resort to superimposed text wherein a typically blunt instant message, “Do you think she’s mad?” is juxtaposed with the poker-faced glare of the presumably cranky girlfriend in question. The lesson: online chatting is an opportune repository for transient observations—and, well, an ideal venue to gossip about someone within hearing distance, as I recently discovered ranting about my uber-hip ex-roommate whose good taste in music somehow isolated more than welcomed me (if you’re reading this, remember when you had Neko’s “Hold On, Hold On” on infinite repeat? so did I, until you did…)—but can never live up to the ineffable depths of the living.
Now, I’ve just twice ended two capsules with the word “living,” but have not even yet addressed the fest’s most glaring struggle with imminent mortality, Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways. Watt got her start in animated shorts, which surface here in protag Meryl’s (Justine Clarke) recurring death fantasies, and act as a kind of obstinately thanatotic take on Lizzie McGuire, manifesting Meryl’s psyche when and only when peripheral bits of business could conceivably precipitate her demise. She meets cancer-stricken photographer Nick (William McInnes), they make thorny love, and it all rather contrivedly works out for the best. Ways is best taken as a tonally unstable tragicomedy, wherein if somebody laughs and throws up their arms at death we’re not required to laugh along with them. Its stabs at humor are, blessedly, the product of characters, rather than an everything-to-everyone filmmaker, compensating for an overabundance of grief. But I could do without those Everybody Hurts-type musical montages, not to mention the borderline-sitcom glibness of a few supporting performances.
The Guatemalan Handshake
The Guatemalan Handshake is the mutant offspring of Jared Hess and David Gordon Green, so often breaching into self-parody that it’s nearly a spoof. (Indie Movie?) Fascinatingly awful, it’s perhaps the most visually expressive film I’ve ever hated. Nary a composition passes without an eye-catching piece of production design, or an intriguing discrepancy between foreground and background action. The relative newcomer of a cinematographer, Richie Sherman, has a future, and I’d advise him to ditch the one-off indie projects and send a highlight reel to 50 Cent’s agent. But director Todd Rohal’s facility with evocative images is roughly equivalent to his ineptitude with story or character. Every other actor is instructed either to scream like a maniac or mumble like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, and the effect is numbingly inorganic. No trouble discerning why, at least: Rohal says the screenplay is the result of years spent scribbling down ideas and anecdotes, and building a structure around details, as opposed to vice versa. Which reminds me of this talking dolphin I met once, who I just realized is connected to this one Albanian midget who entered into a hula-hoop competition. It was sad when he rode off on that dolphin, into the sunset. Look at that tree.
Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch once told someone, “you can’t trust anyone, ‘cause you’re untrustable,” and unknowingly gave a précis of the fragile bond hospitalized anorexic women share with their warm-blooded, tough-minded clinicians in Lauren Greenfield’s exceptionally moving documentary, Thin. There’s nothing easier or crasser than pasting Kate Moss next to a skeleton and calling it art, but Greenfield keeps it small and then some; there’s nothing here to overtly suggest these women couldn’t have existed centuries ago, save the absence of medicinal leeching or witchcraft trials. Thin succeeds as an outraged polemic against a standardized body image precisely by not trying. Emphasis is on the people, and not just the overt victims: there’s an emblematic cross-cut between the plump, garrulous staff and two patients taking a secret, forbidden venture to a tattoo parlor, when we realize Greenfield isn’t just making a bold commitment to documenting both sides but potentially damaging her subjects by holding up to a steadfast confidentiality agreement.
It’s hard to fathom a directorial choice more directly tied to Truffaut’s struggle with cinema and life, or one as definitively devoted to the former, albeit for the purpose of addressing a very real and marginalized disease afflicting the latter. And as someone often berated by those preoccupied with Life and all it entails—Success, Happiness, Balance—it served as a nice capper to my festival to again use beloved cinema as a platform to effectively destroy those ideals through the imagined prospect of Nothing, of Non-living. Greenfield let me do that, fixing her empathetic lens on one subject who insisted being thin is everything, and so be it if death came early. Replace “being thin,” with “seeking truth,” and you’ve got a rather startling epiphany of self-recognition for this cinephile.