Monday, September 29, 2008

Port Townsend Film Festival '08

I enjoyed the Port Townsend (WA) film festival last weekend, even though I waited too long to book a hotel and had to settle for what was possibly the last room within a 50 mile radius, in a low end place that just barely met my wife’s minimum standards. PT is a charming Victorian seaport on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, fifty miles northwest of Seattle.

The four PTFF founders were veteran attendees of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which served as their model. The Port Townsend festival showcases new work and emerging filmmakers, and offers a variety of film education programs, symposia, and training offerings, including a film camp for kids. The Festival organization also maintains a film and book library in Port Townsend, available to members. See www.ptfilmfest.com/participate

The highlight of the festival for me was the first film I saw on Friday night, The Exiles, a 1961 documentary drama by writer and director Kent MacKenzie. It tells, or rather shows, the lives of some working class Native Americans in downtown Los Angeles, over one long Friday night in 1960. The hybrid film is part interview, as the characters soliloquize over gritty black and white scenes of themselves, and part documentary, as the camera just follows them around home and town, and part dramatization, as the characters play out little scenes in bars, on the highway, in their apartments.

The film was shown at the 1961 Venice Festival then immediately fell into obscurity. It was recently restored at UCLA and re-released, and it looks good. There is no story or character development. Rather, the almost nameless characters just hang out, existing for the sake of existing. The men drink beer in a bar, smoke and play cards. Two of them go searching for a poker game. Two others pick up girls and go for a joyride. One of the men’s pregnant wife goes window shopping and then stays overnight at a friend’s house.

The air is saturated with dead, heavy time. All the characters endure it without hope or ambition. One of the men says that he can “do time” in prison or out. It makes no difference to him. Relationships among the men are caring, but without adequate modes of expression become ritualistic. Women are not taken seriously at all. Yvonne, the pregnant wife, talks about how she used to pray every night for some change in her life, but after years of disappointment, stopped praying and going to church.

The film was introduced by Native American author (and recent National Book Award winner) Sherman Alexie, who also provided Q&A afterward. I asked him to comment on the sense of time portrayed in the film. On the reservation, he said, time is poetically cyclical. You live with the land and the seasons. There is always a sense of renewal. But in the city, the cycles of time are just crushing repetition. And poverty is boring. “I was poor,” he said, “and when you’re poor, it is the same shit every day. The same fears and worries and problems. It’s like being in prison.” I was stunned by the honesty, force, and depth of his answer.

He also pointed out examples in the film of androgyny among Indian men. “Indian guys are androgynous,” he insisted. “We are the ones who wear the red feathers and sing. And we cry a lot. It offers a choice for women. What do you prefer, a white guy grinding diamonds in his ass or a drunk Indian crying?”

You could see Alexie authentically struggle with his identity, a process obviously painful for him, but he seems to realize that struggle is also the source of his power and wit. He referred to an earlier time in his life when he could go places without “having to answer questions about Indians.” Now, he appears at festivals like this one, as “The Indian.”

I met him again the following morning and thanked him for his honesty, and asked him this time about the lack of ambition portrayed in the film. I told him I could not get inside it. “Don’t forget,” he said, "to have ambition means to accept the world of the people who destroyed you. In a way, lack of ambition, even drug addiction and suicide, are acts of rebellion.” “Are people really thinking that way,” I asked? “Subconsciously,” he answered. Again I was thrown into silence by the depth of his remarks. My wife came to the rescue and told him how she had read and enjoyed all his books. “Well, thanks,” he said with a smile. “You are helping pay for my car and put my children through college.” But what was on his subconscious mind, I wondered?

We shook his hand and let him be, and we talked about what he had said for hours.

Fix (2008) is another fictionalized docudrama, this time the story of a young man (Tao Ruspoli) and his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde), who try to get his wild, drug addicted brother (Shawn Andrews) into rehab before a court ordered deadline, to avoid a prison term. They also must raise $5,000 to pay for the rehab. The three of them buzz around Los Angeles trying to raise the cash, stopping to hit up acquaintances at Beverly Hills mansions, East LA, and in the Watts projects.

Throughout, the protagonist (Ruspoli) runs a video camera, recording their adventures. The filmmaking is good, individual scenes interesting, editing excellent, and acting more or less convincing. Unfortunately, all the characters encountered are stereotypes, even the three main characters, and little is revealed about them. I never did believe that the brothers were brothers or even that the videographer’s girlfriend was really his girlfriend. The whole thing was emotionally flat, just scenery.

There was a thin theme about helplessness. The younger brother is helpless to change his drug habit; the older brother helpless to control his brother; the girl helpless to affect anything. There is a transient segment about an urban farm in downtown LA that was once lush with food and greenery but is now desolate because of legal maneuvering: helplessness on a community scale. It is a good theme, but since the characters have no inner life, the theme seems didactic rather than organic to the characters’ experience.

There might have been a very subtle commentary about making documentaries, as if the story device of a character carrying a hand-held was the only way you would ever see “the truth” about the inside of a chop shop, an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, a marijuana purchase, or a heroin shooting gallery. But that seemed more an epiphenomenon than a conscious theme. Overall, the film is visually strong and technically solid, intellectually interesting and worth seeing, but not emotionally engaging. As a zero-budget indie, I don’t know how you could see it anyway, but I think it is good enough to eventually find some kind of commercial release.

Petals: Journey Into Self-Discovery, was yet another documentary, this time about the book, “Petals” by photographer Nick Karras (www.nickkarras.com). The “petals” are the inner and outer labia of female genitalia. Karras photographed over a hundred women to get the pictures in order to demonstrate the beauty of the female body (at least that part of it). Most of filmmaker Beck Peacock's documentary is given to reactions of women, and clips of various sex educators, such as Betty Dodson. The photographs find a line between pornography and medicine that could be construed as art.

The film itself is the mildly interesting story of the book’s creation, but its main point seems to be simply desensitization. All the slang words for the female genitals are discussed and women talk frankly about their sex education and early sexual experience. The film is thus like the Vagina Monologues in desensitizing a taboo part of the body. However, unlike the Monologues, the desensitization is not directed to the audience. Instead it shows other people being desensitized, one step removed. Consequently, I thought the whole project was a weak effort. However, in line for another film later, I heard a woman behind me describing “Petals” to her friends in enthusiastic terms. “It made me want to rush home and get a mirror,” she exclaimed. “I have no idea what I look like, and everyone is so different!” So, maybe my evaluation of the film is not correct – maybe it is powerfully cathartic for women viewers. What do I know?

A longish, 35-minute “short” film was Al’s Beef, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the spaghetti western by writer and director Dennis Hauck. Shot in Arizona, it successfully captured the colors, the heat, and the dry open spaces of the spaghettis. A taciturn and mysterious woman (Persephone Apostolou) rides into town and after belting back her drink, pays for a hooker. She immediately throws the hooker out of the room so she can get some sleep. Later, in the bar, she shoots a guy who hassles her, but it turns out she really just wanted his boots. She is searching for somebody and through a series of flashbacks, we learn why. There is the mandatory showdown gunfight.

The film captures the spaghetti idiom to a large extent, although the acting is too obviously comic. Unlike Eastwood’s nameless stranger, the woman seems more goofy than menacing. A lot of that is because most scenes were subtly off tempo. The camera lingered too long on the wrong scenes, and not long enough on others, and was too jumpy overall, so we did not get a sense of the woman’s emotional slow burn.

Toward the end, the narrative moved from a droll but mainly realistic style, to surreal farce. The woman takes five bullets in the chest and the result is only that it makes her limp a bit. The sheriff (Dean Stockwell) empties his pistol into the preacher, lifting him off the ground, soaring backward in slow motion. These elements refer broadly to the spaghetti style, but in parody. The sound of the gunshots was not right, although the music, consisting mainly of a tom-tom, was a fair approximation to Marricone’s austere style.

I ran into writer-director Hauck later that evening in one of Port Townsend’s charming bars and talked to him about the film. In contrast to my conversations with Sherman Alexie, I was unable to communicate with Hauck. After complimenting him on the film, I asked him if the timing was difficult in spaghetti scenes. His reply was about how tough it was to edit the film down to 35 minutes. I asked what was next for him; if he was he committed to westerns. He answered by talking about all the film festivals he had been attending to promote Al’s Beef. I asked him about the transition from realism to farce in the film. He said he thought there was a lot of humor in the spaghettis. I complemented him on the strong story idea, and he replied that it was inspired by Eastwood’s (1985) Pale Rider (an influence only microscopically evident).

It was a strange conversation. I was not anybody who could do anything for him so I guess I did not warrant a genuine conversation. He is from LA, after all. I did learn that he would like to make Al’s Beef into a full length feature, which I don’t think is a good idea, although I said nothing. I suggested he take a look at The Legend of God’s Gun, another recent spaghetti homage, but he said he never heard of it and expressed no interest. The guy is only late 20’s, early 30’s and I give him credit for gumption and a pretty good start to his career with this short film. I wish him well.

Off Off Broadway is a scathing satire of avant-garde theater production and a parody of Waiting for Guffman (1996). I never saw Guffman, so I took “Off-Off” on its own terms, as a satirical comedy, and it was successful. The aspiring but clueless and egomaniacal director hires a cast of na├»ve New York acting students to stage his 6-hour long play, which has only pre-recorded voices while the actors move about the high contrast stage in crypto-meaningful gestures, expressing the director’s commitment to “specific conceptualism”. The result is so far beyond bad, it is hilarious, perfectly skewering so-called “avant-garde” performances I have endured. Off stage the actors, crew, and director squabble and strut while the pretentious “making-of” video camera rolls. The humor is subtle and for that reason deeply tickling. Audience members, many of them obviously filmmakers, squealed in delight at the subtlest of inside jokes. The writer-producer is Jeff Huston. I think this one should find commercial release at least as an art house film.

Fashion Victims is a German project (subtitled) released in 2007. A middle aged salesman of “classic” women’s clothing is threatened by competition from a younger salesman who has a younger line of clothing that the older man disparages as “cheap fabric from North Korea” that no woman would ever wear. But in fact he is being out-sold. He cannot accept that times are changing, as he adopts a Death of A Salesman combination of bewilderment and denial. As the pressure mounts, he is mean to his wife and cancels his son’s vacation abroad to make him be his driver on the sales rounds. Meanwhile, the son falls in love with a slightly older man, who turns out to be the father’s competitor. The comedy develops as a blend of Marx Brothers and Keystone Cops as the “misadventures” continue. Secrets and rivalries are separated only by coincidental doors closing in time, crossed paths, and overheard conversations, conventions too hackneyed to be funny, although some audience members were hooting, so maybe I am out of touch. The gay romance between the two young men is also a well-worn theme, no longer the least bit shocking, but at least it is handled respectfully and is well-woven into the story. Strong acting and directing lift the film above mediocrity and the Blake Edwards-Peter Sellars kind of storytelling buffoonery will amuse many people. Co-writer and director is Ingo Rasper.

I also enjoyed the “2880” event at the festival. That’s the number of minutes in 48 hours, which is how much time the filmmakers are given to create a 10-minute short film after the constraints are announced. This year the constraints were that the film had to use the phrase, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings;” the required prop was a live animal, and the theme was “trust.” The top 6 entries were shown and although they were highly variable in quality, the scope of creativity was astonishing. They were remarkably well produced for such a short time frame, although they all seemed strained and contrived, which they were, of course. I thought that was because the three constraints were incommensurate. But I guess having them be utterly random can promote creativity as well as contrivance. It was a lot of fun to be in the audience with the screaming, whistling, and hooting crews who made the six shorts.

Well, that’s enough. I saw and heard other things too numerous to describe. Overall, I was impressed with the quality and scope of PTFF. It was awfully long on documentaries and docudramas, and short on feature length, fictional, dramatic work (compared to Seattle’s SIFF, for example). Still, the small town atmosphere is a lot more fun and the offerings well worth the effort. I’m sure I’ll go next year to the 10th annual, September 25-27.

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