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).
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.
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.
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.
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.