Monday, June 19, 2017

19th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 14th - 18th, 2017)

A frequent refrain at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival was a reaction to the current political climate. From filmmakers to programmers to award recipients (and sometimes even in the festival films themselves), numerous artists, producers, and collaborators expressed their concerns about what artists and audiences may have to endure over the next few years, as the arts come increasingly under threat by a government administration that’s been defunding arts initiatives and vital forms of support for creative work. Whenever someone voiced their trepidation from the microphone, the sentiment was always that we in the room would have to keep our art forms alive and carry them forward, both as creators and as spectators. One of the most memorable festival documentaries that I’ll be returning to below, Spettacolo, directly addresses this issue through the citizens of an Italian village who’ve kept their annual tradition of shaping and performing their own original, collaborative theatrical production going strong for the past five decades.

One of the narrative features that I’d been most looking forward to seeing, writer/director Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, also ended up being one of my favorite films from this year’s festival. The film follows Frankie, a young working-class guy in Brooklyn who covertly cruises on gay webcam sites online and starts to act on desires that he’s barely begun to articulate to himself. Whenever men online ask him what he likes, he’s unsure how to respond, especially since he’s also pursuing a relationship with a girlfriend whom he meets on a boardwalk under summertime twilight fireworks early in the film.

Frankie’s portrayed by newcomer Harris Dickinson, in a bold, star-making performance that’s multi-layered and undeniably sexy. The rowdy bunch of guys who roam around town alongside him provide colorful company, but Frankie is always the movie’s focus; the camera closely studies him in every scene as the other characters go about their business, a demanding role for any actor to take on. It’s even more demanding in the sense that Frankie is often taciturn and elusive, understandably so given his circumstances. What we learn about him gradually throughout the film is conveyed mostly beneath the surface, through brief glances, quick changes of expression, and tiny looks of exasperation or empathy. I was never bored for a second while watching this actor inhabit the role and found him to be totally transfixing.

As any viewer may predict about a film that features a group of young male upstarts at its center, I wasn’t surprised when the movie swerved into more dangerous territory. I’m sure that some in the audience were also disappointed with the direction in which the film ultimately headed. Although Frankie’s predicament is not approached unsympathetically — he’s trying his best to connect on a deeper level with other men (mostly older guys who won’t know any of his friends) in a social setting that seems to limit his set of options drastically — he also gives in to peer pressure and familial expectations, in an attempt to fit into the masculine constructs that have been presented to him. Even in our post-Brokeback Mountain era, I think this particular narrative is still under-told and underrepresented, both in film and literature. I remember being involved for about a year with a guy who grew up in working-class Boston, and so much of Frankie’s character reminded me precisely of him and how conflicted he felt about being bi, or maybe gay, or maybe straight. Beach Rats deftly demonstrates why our cultural and sexual categories can also become somewhat less reliable in the actual context of individual people’s lives.

Beatriz at Dinner, the latest film directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White, who previously made both Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl together, will surely be seen as a timely response to the current class and race divisions in America. Beatriz (an excellent Salma Hayek) is a holistic healthcare worker at a cancer clinic in California, who winds up as the unanticipated guest at a dinner party held by one of her female massage clients after a massage appointment at the client’s swanky mansion. Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner when her car won’t start in her client’s driveway, and also in part because she became close to her client’s family when their teenage daughter received treatment as a patient at the clinic where Beatriz works.

Another guest at the dinner, Doug Strutt (an outright villain played with relish by John Lithgow), is a glowering and powerful real estate developer whose business tactics are widely known for being mercenary and unethical. He’s clearly an analogue for any number of contemporary political and business figures whose greed remains unchecked and unchallenged due to their wealth and their influential positions. Beatriz, a legal immigrant from Mexico, instantly sees Doug Strutt for exactly what he is, and she also feels certain that she recognizes him, even confusing him for a real estate mogul who built a tourist resort in her Mexican hometown and displaced many longtime residents of the community.

As expected, the dinner dialogue unfolds at a measured pace with steadily escalating tension, as Beatriz and Doug initiate their verbal sparring match and trenchant arguments heat up. Hayek endows Beatriz’s outlook with a moral gravity that drives the story and pulls the other characters forward. On the surface the film feels fully realistic, though I think it’s equally an allegory, a combination that proved perplexing to some audience members. After the screening that I saw, I overheard some viewers saying that they didn’t really get the film’s ending, which operates as a metaphor for what Beatriz is up against and perhaps shows how she feels about the future. The movie’s final images also connect back to its dreamlike opening scene, framing the film within a context that’s rooted in nature, and also making the movie feel as timeless as it is timely. For all of those reasons, I thought that Beatriz at Dinner was smarter than it seemed at first glance.

My favorite documentary from this year’s festival, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, is a phenomenal follow-up to his 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, which powerfully explored the ACT UP movement during the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City. His new documentary examines a very different subject that’s just as fascinating: the life and suspicious death of Marsha P. (for “Pay It No Mind”) Johnson, one of the transgender people of color who courageously stood up and fought back against the police that raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in late June of 1969. In the ensuing years, Marsha became one of the key figures in the legend of the Stonewall rebellion. Tragically, she was found drowned in the water of the Hudson River off the Christopher Street piers one morning in July of 1992, and while police dismissively ruled the cause of death as suicide, Marsha’s case was never truly investigated or fully resolved.

The film’s star and tenacious hero is Victoria Cruz, another trans woman of color from the Stonewall era, who was born and raised in a family of eleven children in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Working for the Anti-Violence Project in Manhattan, Victoria re-opens Marsha’s case, which had remained cold for 25 years, in order to dig deeper into its details and determine the true cause of Marsha P. Johnson’s death. When she calls retired police detectives who worked on the case in 1992, she runs into dead ends and refusals to cooperate, but she keeps pushing ahead tirelessly. Upon finally receiving Marsha’s autopsy report, sure enough, “possible homicide” is listed as a potential cause of death. Ominous threats that had been made to Randy Wicker, Marsha’s longtime roommate, also seem to support that possibility.

What makes David France’s film brilliant is its intricate and engrossing storytelling. The movie functions as a true-crime thriller, detective tale, compelling mystery, and history lesson simultaneously, in addition to its activist stance, which offers an important social justice message about the unfair treatment of trans people in our society. Sylvia Rivera, another trans community icon who led the resistance during the Stonewall Riots, becomes an equal focus during the film’s latter half, as the documentary traces her rise from living homeless on the Chelsea Piers to receiving the wider cultural recognition that she deserved from the LGBT community. I was fortunate to have lunch with Victoria Cruz during the press luncheon on Saturday at the festival, and I’m still blown away by her dedication to the cause of justice in the film. Even when the director of the Anti-Violence Project urges her to focus time and energy on the trans people who face discrimination in the present and will continue to encounter violence in the future, Victoria remains devoted to finding some closure to the memory of Marsha P. Johnson, both for the community and for Marsha’s immediate family.

On the themes of community and endurance, I also loved Jeff Malmberg’s and Chris Shellen’s offbeat slice-of-life documentary Spettacolo (meaning a spectacle or play, and pronounced similarly to “spectacular”), which takes place in the remote medieval Tuscan village of Monticchiello, where the town’s residents have collectively written and performed a play as themselves every summer for over fifty years. Some of the original performers still appear in the play today, though as the younger generation moves away to cities and more urbane pursuits, the older residents of Monticchiello wonder how much longer their unique tradition can survive. Those anxieties, coupled with ongoing rumblings from the international news, especially news about the ravages of global capitalism, led the group to select a darker theme during the year that the documentary was being made: the end of the world.

The semi-absurdist theatrical production that’s mounted by the troupe each year harkens back to the style of Italian playwrights like Luigi Pirandello. But regardless of the shape that each play takes, under the guidance of a serious and hilarious director who spends his downtime painting visionary watercolors, the main point is that the community creates it together from the material of their own everyday lives. “Our lives became one long play,” says the director early in the film, and some of the actors also comment memorably on what working together throughout the annual production reveals about their communal bond. “We’re 300 people who love each other,” remarks one actor in vintage footage from about 30 years ago, a stark contrast to the kind of public solitude experienced by many who live in cities today. It’s also a startling contrast to the village’s current population of only 136, as noted at the start of the movie. It made me wonder, when is our way of life not under threat of extinction? Nonetheless, the town’s determination to keep its theatrical tradition alive is inspiring at every moment of the film.

I was moved in a very different way by 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, Hope Litoff’s brave and unsparing meditation on the reasons behind the suicide of her older sister Ruth, who died of an overdose in 2008 at age 42, after a long, heartbreaking history of depression and hospitalizations. A gifted artist and photographer, Ruth left behind an abundance of large-scale photographs of individual flowers and other colorful objects, which saturate the frames of the documentary itself whenever they appear on screen. The images are so vivid and present in those scenes that it’s as if Ruth is speaking directly to us through the photographs, even in her absence.

Hope’s insistent search for meaning in her sister’s struggle takes such an emotional toll on her during the making of the film that she breaks her own sobriety of sixteen years right on camera, in one of the most harrowing moments of confessional cinema that I’ve ever seen. The film is redemptive in the end, too, as Hope mounts “Ruth’s Dream,” an installation of illuminated boxes wrapped in transparencies of Ruth’s photographs on exhibit in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project that Ruth had begun working on herself just prior to her death but was never able to complete. The exhibit and the film are both a testament to the director’s unwavering courage in preserving her sister’s spirit, and I think that the movie will also be a helpful document for those who are navigating grief from the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Finally, I also enjoyed one beautifully made biopic in this year’s festival, Dome Karukosken’s Tom of Finland. I’m sure that this is the only narrative feature film ever to begin and end at Chicago’s popular IML (International Mr. Leather) conference and competition for gay/bi leathermen and the BDSM community. It’s amazing that what occurs between those two bookends in the movie unfolds within the classic period biopic formula. The film follows the rise of famed Finnish visual artist Touko Laaksonen (soulfully portrayed by Pekka Strang), who was later given the pseudonym Tom of Finland by Bob Mizer, the publisher of American beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial. Tom of Finland’s drawings depict hyper-sexualized fantasy versions of various uniformed (and un-uniformed) masculine types, from sailors to policemen to motorcyclists, all so outrageously proportioned and perfect that they burst off the page. While the art itself features less in the film than does Laaksonen’s life, including his 28-year relationship with his boyfriend Nipa (played by Lauri Tilkanen), who died in 1981, the film features several actors in military and prison inquisition scenes who look like they’d fit right in with the kind of figures Tom of Finland drew throughout his storied and liberating artistic career.

I’ll close with one key moment from the conversation with this year’s Excellence in Acting award recipient, Chloë Sevigny, who was interviewed on stage by deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Eugene Hernandez. When he asked Sevigny to name one thing that she loves about acting and one thing that she hates about it, she responded that though she loves getting outside of herself while escaping into a film character, she hates aging as an actress. To help counter the effect that Hollywood can often have on women’s careers, a new record of half the films featured in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival were directed by women. That’s roughly ten times the percentage of mainstream Hollywood films that are directed by women each year. This crucial kind of social progress reassures me that, despite the challenges faced by filmmakers and creative artists in upcoming years, great cinema will continue to get funded, and lasting art will continue to be made.

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