Monday, June 20, 2016

18th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2016)

Before a film screening halfway through this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, one of the festival’s programmers who was introducing the film was happy to let the audience know that it would be a light movie, and she also mentioned that filmgoers at the festival sometimes ask why so many movies in the festival feel sad or dark. I thought it was great to hear this acknowledged, and I’m also someone who’s quite glad that the films in the festival are often sad and dark because the world itself is often sad and dark. While escapism at the cinema clearly has its advantages, good films tend to reflect our culture and society directly, facing difficult truths head-on and bravely exploring the more intractable or mysterious aspects of human experience. Almost all of the seventeen films that I saw in this year’s festival fit that description, and I’m grateful for it.

I was fortunate to have already seen my favorite film from this year’s festival, Aaron Brookner’s moving documentary Uncle Howard, at the Wicked Queer film festival in Boston just a few months ago. I absolutely loved the movie then, and it definitely rewarded me further on a second viewing, giving me a chance to notice lots of clever interconnections that hadn’t been apparent to me during my first viewing. Last summer here on my blog, I reviewed Smash Cut, Brad Gooch’s terrific memoir about the same subject, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, Gooch’s boyfriend of ten years who died of AIDS in 1989, just before his 35th birthday. This documentary about Howard’s life and times was produced by Jim Jarmusch, a film school classmate of Howard’s at NYU and the sound man on Brookner’s first film, a mid-’80s documentary about William Burroughs. But what makes Uncle Howard so special is the personal perspective bestowed upon the film’s subject by its director, Howard Brookner’s nephew Aaron.

We see plenty of footage of Aaron as a little boy in the film, growing up with his uncle Howard and beginning to idolize him over time. Howard’s early death made him enigmatic to Aaron, understandably, a huge loss to be pursued and a kind of puzzle to be solved. One striking image late in the film shows the adult Aaron pacing around a large circle of all of the archival artifacts that he’s collected from his uncle’s life: photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, reels of film. The movie’s ultimate message is that memory is the only thing that really makes our stories, along with someone’s willingness either to preserve the memories or piece them back together again. Uncle Howard is pretty much the most gorgeous re-assemblage imaginable, and its closing scene, composed of perfectly selected and placed found footage, is my favorite ending of any movie so far this year.

The documentary that I’d been anticipating most in the festival, David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, certainly did not disappoint. Farrier, a bisexual journalist in New Zealand, has made a career of finding offbeat slice-of-life and human interest stories, and Tickled began when he came across “competitive endurance tickling” fetish videos online, which feature cute athletic guys tickling each other fully or partially clothed. Of course, these videos have a massive following among tickling enthusiasts as a kind of very soft-core pornography. Though it seems like those videos will be the focus of the movie, the tickle torture turns out to be just a lure into a much deeper exploration of power, money, and control, all via harassment and humiliation of the videos’ participants at the distant hands of a manipulative quasi-genius whose identity remains a secret until nearly the end of the film. Farrier’s masterful shift of tone into truly suspenseful territory is what makes this film so watchable.

Farrier himself quickly becomes the target of homophobic taunting and harassment just after he discovers and contacts the makers of the tickling videos, produced by a nebulous entity called Jane O’Brien Media. The documentary’s filmmakers gradually learn that Jane herself doesn’t exist at all but is merely an avatar in a long line of assumed identities for a mastermind with an addiction to hot (and financially vulnerable) young guys tickling each other, as well as a relentlessly vindictive streak whenever he’s even slightly crossed by anyone in his path. The psychological motivations behind these behaviors surface briefly late in the movie, and its one weakness might be that Farrier gives us only a sad glimpse into our antagonist’s childhood, yet isn’t really able to explore it further. Nevertheless, the rest of the film gathers its suspenseful energy from delving as deep as it does into the darker side of human (or inhuman) nature. Farrier’s courage and tenacity in pursuing the story to its twisted end are highly commendable.

Another film that I was quite excited to see in the festival was Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye, my favorite narrative feature in this year’s festival. I reviewed Kirkman’s earlier film Loggerheads here on my blog several years ago, and that film remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Like Loggerheads, Lazy Eye also quietly follows a gay storyline, this time in a finely crafted two-hander that’s solidly built from its resonant screenplay and dialogue. Dean, an artist turned graphic designer, lives in Los Angeles and owns a weekend home in the desert near Joshua Tree. One night he receives an out-of-the-blue email from Alex, with whom he was romantically involved 15 years earlier when both men were living in New York City, until Alex disappeared from Dean’s life without a single word of explanation.

Reluctantly (and not so reluctantly from a sexual standpoint), Dean invites Alex to join him for a reunion weekend out in the desert. The tension escalates and wanes in ways that I won’t divulge here, though I can say that I related to the two men’s situation on an immediate and sometimes heartbreaking level. I think most gay men have lived through the kind of relationship and loss of a relationship that Dean and Alex share; Kirkman’s ear and eye are attuned to every small detail, in a way that’s reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s wonderful film Weekend from a few years ago. I think Lazy Eye speaks to my own generation of gay men just as well as Weekend did, perhaps even more fittingly in our current era of gay marriage. What do we lose if we opt out of that new social privilege? Will our memories of former boyfriends and potential husbands transform over time into a long line of regrets, and if so, then what should we do with those regrets?

Long Way North, an animated feature film by Rémi Chayé, was just as emotionally affecting as Lazy Eye, but in completely different ways. The movie, voiced in English, has the look of beautifully hand-drawn Japanese anime in the tradition of Studio Ghibli. Set in the late 19th-century, the story follows a 15-year-old Russian girl, Sasha, whose grandfather is an Arctic explorer who doesn’t return home from his latest expedition. His great ambition was to plant the first Russian flag at the North Pole, so Sasha is able to figure out by studying Arctic maps that he left behind what her grandfather’s approximate location might have been when he went missing.

The rest of the film is a gripping adventure tale, one that could convincingly be told only through the medium of animation. The climate of the Arctic is too inhospitable and treacherous for a live-action film crew to take on, and since CGI is basically animation anyway, why not just go with a full-on animated feature? The film’s payoff is in its extended action sequences: the Russian ship breaking its way through Arctic ice, nearly running aground, the sailors digging and blasting through the entrapping sheets of the frozen sea with dynamite, triggering an avalanche that even further endangers their ship. These scenes and images escalate the genre of animated film to a new and different level. I found myself anxiously shouting “No!” aloud at least twice during that segment of the movie, something I’m certain that I’ve never done before while viewing a cartoon. It’s best to leave the film’s ending undescribed here; I will say, however, that the movie’s climax and resolution are elegantly conveyed, while also remaining understated and Zen-like, despite Sasha’s intensely dramatic circumstances.

One of the documentaries that tied for the HBO Audience Award at this year’s festival, Jonah Markowitz’s and Tracy Wares’ Political Animals, is also well-worth mentioning. The film traces the careers of four lesbian legislators in the state of California: Sheila Kuehl, Carole Midgen, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg. Collectively, these women were on the vanguard of gay rights and totally ahead of their time, boldly and tirelessly advocating for legal protections for LGBTQ students in public schools, as well as passing early domestic partnership bills. It addition to compiling compelling footage of their impassioned and movingly personal arguments presented before often homophobic and pro-religion fellow legislators, the film is also an informative vehicle for demonstrating how the legislative process actually works. We watch as bills fail to pass by being as little as one vote short of a majority, and then we see how these women change their uncooperative colleagues’ minds by presenting skillful logic in the context of our evolving culture, just as leaders of the civil rights movement courageously did in previous decades. I teach a course called Sexuality and Social Change at the university where I work, and I will definitely plan to show this film in class when I offer the course in future semesters.

Finally, I really enjoyed one short film in the festival, which screened alongside Uncle Howard, Brandon Cordeiro’s poignantly nostalgic ribbons. Cordeiro is a young filmmaker who was raised in Provincetown, so watching his 8-minute short at this particular film festival, in a town that I’ve visited frequently for many years, made it even more special. Based on one of Brandon’s own memories of his mother taking him to an oceanside AIDS memorial at the beach in Provincetown back in 1997, the short sweetly recreates a young boy’s (and future gay man’s) entirely innocent response to the social tragedy of the AIDS crisis, while also providing a snapshot of the LGBTQ community’s wide-ranging strength at a particularly painful and devastating point in our history. The title image of long, colorful ribbons streaming in the wind on the beach, inscribed with handwritten tributes to loved ones lost to AIDS, has been a feature of the annual Swim for Life fundraising event in Provincetown since its inception; just as memorable is Cordeiro’s luminous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” at the end of the film, sung by the director himself.

At the ceremony for honorees, Excellence in Acting Award recipient (and lesbian icon) Cynthia Nixon gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, in which she spoke of how much she’d loved her first visit to Provincetown to attend this year’s festival. She also mentioned what a relief it was to be in such a peaceful, accepting place after last week’s tragic shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, and lamented that such a catastrophe could still befall us now. Her closing words about Provincetown and this pivotal moment in LGBTQ history will be my closing words, too, because they’re abundantly evident in the films that I’ve chosen to review: “How good it is to be here, and to see how far we’ve come.”

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