The 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston
he Independent Film Festival of Boston, now in its fifth year, is but one among many stops for Amerindie directors premiering their latest product, a slew of documentaries ranging from hot-button issues to lukewarm rock bands, and assorted foreign hits from last year’s festival circuit. Despite the diversity, it’s starting to feel like a cult of sorts, though that’s no slight on the selection committee. It’s startling enough that Hannah Takes the Stairs, the latest from Joe Swanberg, he of IFFB 2006 favorite LOL, should star Andrew Bujalski, he of Mutual Appreciation (IFFB 2005), but peer down the roster and you’ll also find Mark Duplass, writer of The Puffy Chair (IFFB 2006) and Todd Rohal of IFFB 2006’s infamous Guatemalan Handshake. Look at the cast list of Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and gawk some more: Swanberg and Michael Tully of Cocaine Angel (IFFB 2006) are among the co-stars. Are our young filmmakers merely promoting solidarity lest one be left behind? Or does collaboration yield its weight in quality?
Depends on the filmmaker. Quiet City was the festival highlight, for me. I’m unfamiliar with Katz’s previous work, but his stabs at naturalism—the movie is a “meet-cute” in the slow, awkward manner that meet-cutes actually happen, says its author—are distinctive, somber, and truthful. I knew I would like this movie before any humans appeared: Katz has an eye for imagery that favors mystery over prettiness, exemplified by a long take from inside a subway car in which the perspective only gradually becomes apparent. But thankfully, Katz is just as attentive to his characters, Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), a couple of twenty-somethings who balance each other out: she’s slightly more expressive than him, he’s slightly more available than her, as she’s in the process of emancipating herself from an unavailable boyfriend. Neither obvious about their affections nor distanced from each other, their mostly improvised chats are compulsively watchable due to the contrast between Charlie’s casualness and Jamie’s nervous insistence on introducing slightly difficult topics into the conversation: we watch her worrying, but know it’s unnecessary.
Again, Katz’s images are economical and expressive; throughout an entire conversation between the two, he keeps the camera trained on Jamie, briefly planting us in her nervous shoes, oblivious to Charlie’s reactions. Katz seems aware that flirtation alone can barely keep his movie afloat, but also that it must remain the focus, and thus subplots float by unobtrusively. Distractions like a visit to a snobby friend’s house (the ubiquitous Swanberg) begin with a point, and end with the mocking announcement of its absence. Katz has the daring to lull his audience through unnecessary scenes only to point out their inanity—but his daring is justified, as Quiet City subtly courses through a crescendo beneath its slight surface. Katz proves less than satisfied with a slice of life for its own sake: his film is a wisp with a kick.
I wish I could say the same of Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, which is no less wispy but lacks such weight. Tellingly, the credits for Hannah tell us that it’s “a film by” Swanberg as well as his entire cast, who all contributed to the script. The result is a mesh of creative sensibilities that never quite congeals. Hannah (Greta Gerwig) has the most dominant personality, partially because she’s the lead but also because, in a series of despondent tirades, she embodies the movie’s spirit: pin-balling between three guys, Mike (Duplass), Paul (Bujalski), and Matt (Kent Osborne), she “doesn’t like things that are like what they are,” and though I don’t doubt her sincerity, her monologues often come to close to representing the philosophy of the movie rather than one character within it. Indeed, there is a sense that Swanberg is getting shut off from the inner workings of his own film. What most strongly distinguishes Swanberg from his peers, frankness about showing his actors’ naked bodies, lacks a presence because the way his actors talk in the nude doesn’t significantly vary from their clothed banter.
One hopes the director will follow through on his cynicism: few other directors would have a man smile as he muses that “nothing makes anybody happy,” but Swanberg also shies away from depressing his audience, perhaps wary that they’re as desperate for a kick as his characters. (Indeed, a drunken heckler who felt inclined to “improvise” along with the movie nearly ruined the first 20 minutes for me before she decided to leave, unperturbed by a polite audience.) Not that Hannah’s collaborative format, in which the actors are allotted equal creative leverage with Swanberg, always fails: I enjoyed Bujalski’s performance, the way he yields comedy from passing hardcore nerdiness off as confidence intact from his own films. But I also like Bujalski as a director—the same can’t be said of Duplass, whose aloof journeyman I found smug here—and it’s beginning to look like Swanberg’s films are only as good as the auteurs he casts.
As Steve Collins’ Gretchen proves, not all Amerindies on the festival circuit are made by guys you’d expect to run into in a John Cassavetes festival. I have a feeling that Collins fancies himself sympathetic to his protagonist, a painfully awkward teenage loner ably played by filmmaker Courtney Davis, but were he to sit down and have a chat with Gretchen, he’d tell her “I’ve been there, but you’re being ridiculous.” Too bad the second clause doesn’t translate well to art. Gretchen has a thing for pudgy, greasy-haired jerks and sweaters adorned with cute puppies. (Though it lacks a time-stamp, I’d place the film around 1992.)
She’s likeably idiotic, and I enjoyed some of the ways in which she maintains her delusions: a counselor asks her if she’s making healthy, balanced decisions obsessing over sleazy dudes, and, feigning pensiveness, she pauses before answering yes. But herein also lies part of the problem: Collins considers Gretchen’s feelings half-baked every step of the way, when in fact this is our default way of viewing her, given her string of failures. How about letting her appear reasonable now and then, albeit slightly deranged on the whole? Collins is perceptive to Gretchen’s status as a loser; the problem is that he offers nothing to counterbalance it, resulting in a perspective inadvertently as cruel as her tormentors.
Phillippe Falardeau’s Canadian entry, Congorama, operates at a pitch most of the above Amerindies would see as a contradiction in terms: absurdist, yet low-key. Olivier Gourmet stars as Michel, a corporate slob whose professionalism is marred by his crabbiness. Much like the Bros. Dardenne did in The Son, Falardeau shows a fascination with Gourmet’s enormous shoulders, which are somehow hulky while neither oafish nor commanding, and shoots them at least as often as his lead’s profile. An inventor too witless for his occupation, Michel only gains our sympathy by being so pathetic. As such, the way the film milks embarrassment for laughs threatens to turn broad at times, but Falardeau, though drawn to humiliation, is also sensitive to its effects. He laughs not so much at Michel’s vulnerability but at his attempts to conceal it, and often cuts from a potentially devastating situation to its inexorable afterward in which Michel lies dejected, his shame rising like bread.
The film’s catalogue of absurdity is so colorful that it needn’t be mined for impact, and Falardeau takes the matter-of-fact route, merely gawking at the wreckage. When Michel attempts to salvage his career with the help of up-and-comer Louis Legros (Paul Ahmarani), Congorama, like this year’s IFFB opener, Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, turns from a character study into a convoluted espionage plot, but where Hartley milked the genre for the sheer pleasure of poring through dense exposition, Falardeau goes for the opposite approach, proudly presenting these men as inarticulate and befuddled.
Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare, another Canadian entry, lacks Falardeau’s control of tone, but makes up for it in wit. A self-professed student of Godard, Harkema more closely resembles another Godard acolyte, Tarantino, right down to the latter’s love of weed, foxy chicks, and subtle deceptiveness. In place of cinephilia, Harkema has radical chic, going out of his way to educate his audience in the ways of “indoctrinating art” and the not-so-clear-cut distinctions between politics as style and as a way of life. But far from earnest, there’s a casually courageous sensibility at work here, one that sees cutting from an exploitative montage of scantily clad street girls to a picture of a tumor-ridden baby as a natural exercise in counterpoint.
Indeed, Harkema slyly undermines the values of his protagonists, Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright), two old-guard freedom fighters who bring impressionable young Susan (Nadia Litz) into their bohemian enclave. Dan ostensibly stands in for Harkema, preaching wearied rage to Susan as onscreen montages parade his ideals. But the director also recognizes Dan’s fatuity in offering her an album because “it’s from the ‘60s”: despite his experience with sticking it to the man, Dan is not immune to phoniness. The film treads a thin line between advocating and condemning poverty, while its style strikes a compromise. Harkema neither exposes nor tries to hide the movie’s low budget: his style is functional, free of virtuosity but never grungy. Monkey Warfare is about distinguishing genuine passion from showing off, but it’s too smart not to notice that the two often go together.
Another IFFB highlight was Zoo, Robinson Devor’s attempt to bring the ethereal, poetic tone of his Police Beat to a documentary about the accidental death that brought a community of bestiality enthusiasts to light. Zoo is the formal antithesis of To Catch a Predator-like exposés in its presentation of outcasts: instead of photographing the men’s faces head-on (as if it need be proven that they’re as human as us), Devor assimilates them with the rest of nature, reducing them to silhouettes amidst plains and cityscapes. His camera drifts past sensational images as if in a trance, equating the acts in question with the horrified gazes of onlookers in terms of sheer force. Devor boldly suggests the former may be about as oppressive as the latter: that while the mistreatment of these horses understandably excites the protective instincts of activists, it is this same human rage that fuels the fetishists’ need to depart from human culture. Indeed, the film accounts for this subculture as a means of escape from an intellectual life, empathizing with this desire by default.
The narratives to counter this empathy are well-chosen: one man sounds more than a bit out of tune with reality when claiming that he “only loves horses more than most people,” while accusations of abuse by activists are hard to argue with. Devor only falters when attempting to directly evoke the experiences of the fetishists: his decision to cross-cut between horse-bonking and mathematical pondering was ill-advised, as it is the power of the fetish not to evoke the intellect but to make it disappear. But then again, is bestiality so far off from auteurism? I often feel my passion for film is as hard to explain away as, say, the conviction that horses are dead sexy. Both exist for reasons no doubt explicable by psychoanalysis; both serve to fill voids otherwise barren. We should only be so thankful our passions don’t leave us bleeding to death.