Monday, January 1, 2018

Five Favorite Films of 2017

As popular cinema grew ever more mainstream and dominant throughout 2017, in a year when even the political realm became more corporate and corrupt (who thought that could be possible?), the small arthouse films that appealed to me the most also got riskier and more ambitious than usual. When the artistic stakes are higher, it makes sense that this type of counter-balancing would take place, a kind of aesthetic resistance and survival instinct, which is also a refusal to give in to market demands, saying that artful movies aren’t going anywhere, and saying it more demonstratively and provocatively than in prior years.

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story lingered with me longer than any other movie that I saw in 2017. Even while I was watching it at the cinema, I knew that would be the case. Framed in a square with rounded corners in the center of the screen, to evoke the look of old printed snapshots from photo albums, the movie is a valentine to the idea of time, as well as a bold and resonant excavation of the meaning of time. On its quiet and undisturbed surface, it’s a story of grief, and one that many people who chose not to see the film thought was driven by a gimmick. A ghost under a flowing white sheet with eye-holes cut out of it haunts the home that Casey Affleck’s unnamed character shares with Rooney Mara’s unnamed character after Affleck’s character dies in a car crash early in the film.

Long, silent scenes in which the camera doesn’t move at all set up the action of the tale, as it were. The body of Affleck’s character, seen from a distance across the room, lying under a white sheet at the hospital. Mara’s grief-stricken character, sitting alone on the floor of their dark kitchen, methodically devouring an entire pie over several minutes. These scenes are not meant to try the viewer’s patience, but to put us in the characters’ mindset, and to begin to ask what it means for minutes, hours, days, and years to pass, both in the presence of others and in the absence of others. And an image that might seem sentimental elsewhere — the ghost repeatedly attempting to scratch open a painted-over crack in a wooden doorframe, in which Mara’s character has slipped a secret note — felt perfectly logical and moving to me.

When the succession of humans isn’t in the house, the ghost is never alone for too long. It can see another ghost in a similar predicament in the house across the way, and the two ghosts can even communicate with one another, at least for the audience’s purposes. Because this is a film that’s better to watch knowing less than more, I’ll leave the movie’s other rich details and innovations unexplained, except to mention that the film’s ambitions deepen and quicken when the entire movie pivots and the ghost cascades through time and space, only for time and space to loop back on themselves until the experience of the film circles into a seamless whole and vanishes all at once. Few films work on poetic association and pull it off, but this one does.

God’s Own Country, a British debut directed by Francis Lee, was the best gay-themed movie that I watched over this past year, and not just because everything turns out fine for the two central characters in the end. Set in the austere and rolling hills of Yorkshire, it’s the first gay movie since Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake that’s so fully formed by its immersive landscape and atmosphere. The story follows Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who’s become increasingly withdrawn and dissatisfied from living and feeling entrapped on his family’s remote sheep farm. A fast and discreet encounter with another young man after a livestock auction near the start of the film shows that Johnny’s not comfortable with anything more than casual sex, though a conversation with a female friend of Johnny’s outside of a pub also suggests that he has been somewhat openly gay, if also obviously self-stunted by his rural environment.

The appearance of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a young Romanian man who comes to help out on Johnny’s farm, gradually changes all of that, and the film draws its intimate power from the slow dance of attraction in which the two men become entangled. It’s impossible not to compare the film to Brokeback Mountain, of course, and God’s Own Country alludes directly to its predecessor not only thorough sheep-herding, but also via articles of the men’s clothing that are shared and left behind. In a film whose dialogue is often spare, subtle and precise symbols convey more readily what the two men are feeling: repairing a stone wall together that they nonetheless remain on opposite sides of, an abandoned sweater that Johnny pulls over himself, echoing a riveting earlier scene in which Gheorghe protects a tiny lamb in a way that nudges harshness into tenderness. While I felt the screenplay ran out of road a bit by the end (an it’s an end that also seems a bit too easy to me), the film’s performances are beautifully calibrated, and Josh O’Connor’s transformation as Johnny struggles to re-emerge from himself is remarkable.

Unlike the two previous films, there’s very little that’s quiet in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Starring his current real-life girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, the movie has been almost universally lampooned and reviled, with just a brave handful of critics coming to its defense. It’s definitely the most demanding and artistically ambitious movie that I saw in 2017, as well as one of the funniest and most brutal films of this past year. The laughter and horror that I felt while watching mother! at the cinema were so close to each other that they sometimes almost coincided, and I haven’t experienced a film in a very long time which has accomplished that. Aronofsky also references everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Rosemary’s Baby, yet he still manages to create a film that’s rarely derivative and totally unique.

Most interpretations of mother! that I’ve read and heard since watching the film skitter along the allegorical surface of the movie; Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents Mother Nature, some viewers think, and how she’s been exploited by human beings. Others mention the biblical underpinnings of the farcical plot in the film’s first half, when Ed Harris’ character brings his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, to visit the home where the god-like figure of Javier Bardem, a reclusive poet, resides with his young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence. It unfolds as a strange comedy of manners until the two sons of the visiting couple crash the party, setting the second half of the film into motion with an act of violence that’s clearly intended to be likened to the story of Cain and Abel.

Beyond that point is where the film gets interesting and the metaphors go deeper. Although I don’t think Bardem’s character is a stand-in for Aronofsky himself as director, the film certainly does transmit messages about authoritative male power in that creative context, alongside and in contrast to how women (and particularly Hollywood actresses) get treated by audiences and the publicity machine of moviemaking: adored, sexualized, worshipped, scrutinized, shunted aside as time passes, then brutalized by the cult of celebrity as they age. (I couldn’t help thinking how this movie was made just when Hillary Clinton was being savaged in the press, the ultimate misogynistic takedown of a woman in a position of power.) The film’s most brilliant stroke is that the cult of celebrity becomes an actual uncontrollable cult, a cult that dismantles the entire house piece by piece and utterly invades the central couple’s privacy, to put it mildly. All of this unfolds as the mass violence of the past century stampedes across the screen in ways I’ve never before seen on film, and in ways I’m not sure any other director could achieve.

My favorite documentary of 2017, and the easiest film to love this past year, was Faces Places (or Visages Villages in French), directed by filmmakers and street photographers Agnès Varda and JR. A smart combination of a road movie, odd-couple comedy, and public art project, the film traces the journey of JR’s traveling “photography truck,” which produces larger-than-life printed images directly from a slot on the side of the vehicle. The pair drive from town to town through the French countryside, finding everyday people to photograph and meaningful stories to tell, always with some sort of humanistic or political slant. Then, they wheat-paste their large-scale images onto particular surfaces for particular reasons, creating outdoor art installations that may last for years and attract widespread attention, or become ephemeral within a brief period of time.

Early in the movie, the filmmakers encounter an older woman in an industrial town, who staunchly refuses to move out of her home and vacate it for developers. Because she’s resided there for nearly her entire life and now lives alone, her story immediately resonates with viewers; we feel like we know her in only a matter of minutes, just in time for her face to be emblazoned across the front of the building that she has a right not to leave. Three wives of shipyard workers in a port city also see their images blown up to gigantic sizes after they pose before towering stacks of multicolored shipping containers; their stories are as just as significant as those of the men who surround them.

Agnès Varda herself is a legend of French New Wave cinema, a contemporary and close colleague of Jean-Luc Godard (who has a certain kind of unflattering cameo late in the film), so her own personal stories are equally important in the documentary. After sharing her recollections of friends and artists from her youth, she and JR undertake one of the most memorable photography projects of the film, affixing a long-ago image of one of her deceased friends to the side of a military bunker from World War II that fell from a cliffside to the beach below, only to become upended and permanently lodged in the sand. She remarks how her friend (the late fashion photographer Guy Bourdin) now appears as if he’s in a cradle, just like he belonged there.

On the same day (Thanksgiving) that I saw Faces Places for a noon matinee at The Quad cinema in New York City, I went back to see another excellent documentary later that night. I had stayed a bit longer in New York to watch a preview in Union Square of the much-anticipated gay movie Call Me by Your Name, which left me more than a little disappointed, so right afterwards I walked back over to The Quad to watch Brimstone & Glory, Viktor Jakovleski’s dazzling short documentary about the Mexican town of Tultepec’s annual National Pyrotechnics Festival fireworks extravaganza. To go from the relative lack of expected fireworks in Call Me by Your Name to the abundantly real fireworks of Brimstone & Glory provided me with exactly the boost that I needed, accompanied by an intense soundtrack of percussion that had me drumming away on my pant-legs in the otherwise empty theater.

In addition to showing how the residents of Tultepec spend many months of each year manufacturing their fireworks by hand, the documentary focuses on both parts of the fireworks festival: the Castles of Fire, and the Burning of the Bulls. The first part of the festival, attended by thousands of spectators annually, features enormous ten-story towers of fireworks with many spinning parts. We climb up these towers with workers (who are wearing tiny portable cameras on their hats) as they’re being constructed, and we even see one tower get struck by lightning in a storm and begin to go off prematurely. The second part of the festival is much more interactive, with spectators carrying and running with piñata-like bulls the size of trucks, packed with and trailing fireworks, which the onlookers all then chase and dance in the wake of. A team of medics treats the injured who’ve been burned or gotten hot cinders in their eyes, including young children, who then jump right back in to chase the bulls some more, a community ritual in which they want to partake. To be amazed by such daring footage captured so close up and wonder how the filmmakers did it lifted me out of the theater and into the sky.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Favorite Christmas Albums

It’s easy for me to choose my favorite Christmas albums of all time because they’re the same ones that I’ve pulled off of my CD shelf every December for the past twenty years now. Typically, I play them on steady rotation from the middle of the month through Christmas Day. I’m not a follower of any organized religion, but these albums always give me a sense of peace at what can otherwise be a hectic and difficult time of the year. Now that the snow is falling here in New England once again, it’s time for me to return to that little stack of wintertime albums. In addition to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy Records, 1965), which everyone already knows well enough that it needs no further comment, here are some of the other holiday albums that I return to annually, most of which are lesser known and fairly rare.

Acoustic Christmas (Columbia Records, 1990), features a diverse roster of artists spanning many genres. At the time of its release, several musicians on the compilation were already quite celebrated (Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, Laura Nyro), while some others have since gone on to acclaimed careers (Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Harry Connick, Jr.) or have somewhat faded from mainstream public view (The Hooters, Poi Dog Pondering, Shelleyan Orphan). The late Laura Nyro’s medley “Let It Be Me / The Christmas Song,” performed with a light piano and keyboard, is one of the most beautiful cuts on the record, as is Judy Collins’ classic rendition of “The Little Road to Bethlehem.” “Winter Wonderland” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” are finely delivered by Harry Connick, Jr. and Rosanne Cash, respectively, while Art Garfunkel’s airy, multi-tracked vocals on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” are both reverent and haunting. Poi Dog Pondering’s spirited version of the Hawaiian Christmas tune “Mele Kalikimaka” lends the album a fun novelty song, and Shelleyan Orphan’s memorable “Ice” is the collection’s lone original track.

Released the same year as Acoustic Christmas, Christmas in the City (WTG/CBS Records, 1990) captures quite well a specific moment in the evolution of pop music history: New York City’s Latin/freestyle explosion. While a few of the artists on this compilation scored national radio hits (The Cover Girls, George LaMond, Denise Lopez, Brenda K. Starr), the rest of the acts fared well on the era’s dance club scene. The Latin All Stars’ faithful version of the traditional “Feliz Navidad” makes an obligatory appearance, and Brenda K. Starr’s upbeat, light-hearted take on Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” feels fully invested. Original tracks like Paris by Air’s “It’s Another Holiday” and Denise Lopez’s “All I Want 4 Xmas Is Your Love” joyously recall the awesome Latin pop of the ’80s and early ’90s. But the album’s truly excellent track is the Cover Girls’ percussive, piano-infused “New York City Christmas,” a song that really everybody should know, probably the best Christmas song created for a dance floor that I’ve ever heard.

Among Amy Grant’s several Christmas-themed albums, my favorite is definitely her second holiday collection, Home for Christmas (A&M Records, 1992). The vocals and orchestrations are stellar throughout the album’s twelve tracks, and Grant covers a full range of Christmas classics, from a pensive “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to an uplifting “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to a rollicking “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Ballads like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and David Foster’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” are equally affecting, as are the album’s original numbers, such as Carly Simon’s “The Night Before Christmas” and two magisterial songs that Grant co-wrote with Chris Eaton, “Emmanuel, God with Us” and “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” which has steadily become a favorite for other songwriters to cover.

Amy Grant also contributed vocals to perhaps one of the best little-known holiday albums ever, The Animals’ Christmas (Columbia Records, 1986). A cantata composed by the great American songwriter Jimmy Webb, with inspiration from a children’s book by Anne Thaxter Eaton, the project was helmed by Art Garfunkel, who sings the album’s lyrics alongside Amy Grant and the boys’ choir at St. Paul’s Church in London. This concept record traces the story of the first Christmas night through the perspective of the animals involved in the Christmas nativity tales. My favorite song in the cycle, “Incredible Phat,” follows the innkeeper’s cat, who watches over the scene as Mary and Joseph arrive, along with “three balmy old coots / in silver boots,” and then leads the young couple “to a tumble-down shack” behind the inn, where their child is born. The song is gorgeously introduced by “The Decree,” on which Art Garfunkel sings the biblical account of the angel Gabriel, guiding Joseph and Mary through the night. The album was also co-produced and engineered by famed Beatles’ producer Geoff Emerick, so enough said.

Shawn Colvin’s Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Sony Music/Columbia Records, 1998) opens with one of my favorite renditions of one of my very favorite winter songs, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” sung and played with just the right amount of mournful melancholy that the song requires. As the album’s title suggests, it’s a compendium of Christmas songs and tunes for small children, recorded when Colvin was pregnant with her daughter. As a child herself, Colvin had loved Maurice Sendak’s 1965 book Lullabies and Night Songs, and his artwork adorns the CD’s liner notes. The lullabies that Colvin selected to include all fit the Christmas theme: “Now the Day Is Over,” “All Through the Night,” “Evening Is a Little Boy,” “The Christ Child’s Lullaby.” Likewise, the album’s holiday standards all sound like lullabies: Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” the chiming traditional “Love Came Down at Christmas,” a sparely arranged “Silent Night.” And some of Colvin’s choices, like “Seal Lullaby” from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and the drifting “The Night Will Never Stay,” approach the sublime.

Finally, a pair of instrumental New Age albums always fit the mood perfectly at this time of the year, when the days are short and the nights are cold and long. Will Ackerman’s Windham Hill Records has released several superb compilation albums in their Winter’s Solstice series, but my favorite remains the original A Winter’s Solstice from 1985. Although a few of the tracks lean in the direction of Christmas fare, such as David Qualey’s opening guitar version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Philip Aaberg’s moving “High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line),” and Liz Story’s quiet piano rendition of “Greensleeves,” other tracks evoke winter more broadly: Will Ackerman’s somber “New England Morning,” Malcolm Dalglish’s darker-toned “Northumbrian Lullabye,” and Mark Isham’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Another Windham Hill artist, solo pianist George Winston, deserves the last slot on this list for his pristine, beloved 1982 album December. Beginning with “Thanksgiving” and ending with “Peace,” plus a virtuosic “Carol of the Bells” midway through, Winston’s December easily shows why it’s gathered such a wide international audience over time. Five of the album’s twelve songs were composed by Winston, one was written by jazz trumpeter Alfred S. Burt, and the other half are traditional and classical pieces in the public domain, from the Appalachian carol “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head” to 18th-century carol “The Holly and the Ivy” to variations on Pachelbel’s Canon. When December ends, its aura continues to echo into the new year.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

3rd Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 11th - 15th, 2017)

I show documentaries in my classes as often as I assign readings, and I’ve long told my students that they can learn as much from a good documentary as they can from a good book. This year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival, sponsored by the Boston Globe in conjunction with HUBweek, offered abundant evidence of just how educationally rewarding well-crafted documentaries can be. Over the past weekend, I watched seven excellent films, all at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, with topics ranging from the worldwide refugee crisis to restorative justice to male ballet dancers to airboating in the Everglades.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s latest film, Human Flow, provides a widescreen and consummately global perspective on the current struggles of international migrants to overcome forced displacement and settle in new lands. Covering refugees from 23 countries over one year, the movie’s scale is unmatched in addressing this subject. Ai Weiwei’s camera steadily and intrepidly follows masses of migrants as they trek together down muddy roads, up steep trails through mountainous terrains, across rivers that they wade while carrying luggage and children in their arms, and over oceans in solitary boats overflowing with passengers.

The first half of Human Flow focuses more on these vast streams of bodies and faces than individual stories, though the film’s latter half does shift to consider particular narrative strands as well. Several of the people whose stories make their way into the film still linger powerfully in my memory: a man who fled Myanmar with other refugees and laments being referred to as “boat people” when they’re all human beings whose futures were destroyed by the brutality of the military junta in their homeland; a group of young women in Gaza who express to the camera their dream of traveling the world and then returning home; and a traumatized man from Syria who weeps over the makeshift graves of his five family members who drowned at sea while trying to sail to a new life in a better place.

The final segments of the film include highly composed aerial drone footage of sprawling temporary refugee camps and neatly organized migrant neighborhoods. The drone cameras pan across these migrant spaces calmly and gradually, and one even descends straight down from far overhead to land gently in a circle of people who have gathered around it. These images suggest at once the enormity of the refugee crisis and the seeming smallness of the 65 million individual lives currently affected, the largest number of refugees since World War II. A former astronaut from Aleppo, Mohammad Fares, through his own perspective on our planet from high above, summarizes the film’s humanist global message: “We all have to share.”

Circle Up, directed by Julie Mallozzi, is among the most profound and moving films I’ve ever seen on the theme of forgiveness. Set in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, the film tells the story of Janet Connors, whose son Joel was stabbed to death in his apartment at age 19. Connors has since become a vocal advocate and practitioner of restorative justice, seeking to help find meaningful forms of redemption for those who have committed violent crimes, including the men who killed her own son, rather than just calling for retribution and incarcerating them through the court system. She facilitates community “circles” to promote victim-offender dialogues as a form of individual and communal healing; these circles of talking and listening about each other’s tragedies are inherited from Native American peoples, whose practices are also closely explored in the film.

The documentary gathers much of its power from Connors’ relationship with one of the men responsible for her son’s homicide. The man is identified in the documentary only as “AJ,” and his face is never fully revealed on camera. Filmed from behind in partial profile and partial shadow, he recounts the experience of meeting Connors when she arranged to visit him in prison, mainly so that she could share with him her own side of the tragic loss of her son. At the time of the visit, he recalls, he was still too young to feel much in response to what she shared. As required by law, their entire exchange was transcribed on paper, a document to which AJ returned several years later when he was placed in solitary confinement. Her words finally break through to him, and he writes her a detailed letter, initiating a genuine plea for forgiveness that changes the course of his life. After his release from prison, the two visit Joel’s gravesite together as part of their reconciliation, an image that I doubt will ever fully leave my mind.

I also feel fortunate to have seen documentary portraits of two extraordinary artists whose work I was totally unfamiliar with before watching the films: the Brazilian ballet dancer Marcelo Gomes, and the late, celebrated Getty Images photojournalist Chris Hondros. Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, finely directed by David Barba and James Pellerito, presents Gomes as an effortlessly likable and professionally enduring personality. Despite the intense physical demands of his 20-year international career in ballet, beginning with his studies at Florida’s famed Harid Conservatory to his present status as a principal performer with the American Ballet Theatre, Gomes has persistently maintained a great sense of humor while keeping his eye firmly fixed on the level horizon of his dreams.

While the documentary focuses mostly on Gomes’ artistic and professional development over time, his personal life and family life are also considered in the film. He was among the first major male ballet dancers to come out as gay publicly when he was featured on the cover of The Advocate magazine; having been raised by a pair of gay uncles, he mentions at one point in the movie that coming out as a teenager was no problem for him at all, due to their example and caring influence. His relationship with his father is also explored because at the time the film was made, his father had still never traveled to see Gomes perform in an American Ballet Theatre production in New York. His father was supportive of Marcelo’s decision to pursue ballet from a young age, so having the opportunity for his father to watch him dance on a New York stage is a wish that Gomes still hopes to fulfill before he retires from his ballet career.

Photographer Chris Hondros, one of the most prominent photojournalists of the past two decades, covered wars in Liberia, Iraq, and Libya, and his images became some of the foundational touchstones of those conflicts for the general public through news media outlets. One of his colleagues mentions that Hondros “was there for every major world event” in recent years. He was killed at age 41 in 2011, during coverage of a violent combat situation in Libya. One of his closest friends since childhood, the non-fiction author and filmmaker Greg Campbell, has directed Hondros as a deeply engrossing film that’s also a much-deserved memorial to Chris.

Several interviewees in the documentary mention that Hondros’ pursuit of high-risk scenarios abroad seemed to be authentically rooted in human empathy. He found ways to re-connect with his subjects long after he had photographed them. For instance, he sought out the young Liberian fighter at the center of what would go on to be perhaps Hondros’ best-known image, urged the man to return to school, and gave him the funding to help him do so, which the man later says completely turned his life around in a positive direction. The dangers of Hondros’ career were manifold, but he continued to capture those images and cultivate those relationships. When his mother Inge Hondros is interviewed in the film, she recounts how Christopher’s father tried to dissuade him in his youth from pursuing a career in photography, and she flat-out told Chris’ dad, “Zip it.” That gave Hondros the chance to follow his true calling.

Finally, I was quite surprised to enjoy Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys as much as I did. I wasn’t sure before watching the film if the topic of airboating in the Florida Everglades would hold my interest, but director David Abel and his producing partner Andy Laub have created a beautifully made and timely film that’s filled with entertaining characters and important environmental issues. The backdrop of isolated south Florida marshland, with its wide blue skies and spectacular sunsets, is itself reason enough to see the film. But the people who inhabit it are equally intriguing from start to finish because they’re fighting to maintain their distinctive way of life. Congress recently passed legislation that will begin to phase out private airboating in the Everglades; anyone who wasn’t at least 16-years-old in 1989 will no longer be permitted to operate an airboat privately. The National Park Service sought to pass these laws for environmental purposes. They claim that airboat trails through sawgrass are re-routing the natural water flow in ways that harm the environment, and they also want to eradicate hunting in the Everglades. Some gladesmen earn their income from hunting for frogs, alligators, and other animals in the marshlands.

Lifelong residents of the area, like the film’s key figure, Donnie Onstad, argue that the gladesmen’s children and grandchildren should have a right to the same idyllic upbringing and family rituals that he grew up with himself. Most of the airboaters interviewed in the film mention how remote the territory is, and they say that airboating is really the only way to access many locations. Others remark, rightfully, that airboating is therefore a long-standing form of communing peacefully with their natural environment, and a way of being at one with it. But the most sobering comments in the film come from Professor Harold Wanless, chair of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, who says without question that, due to climate change and sea-level rise, coastal areas of southern Florida will be overtaken by the ocean within the next century, perhaps even sooner. For that reason, and many others witnessed in these documentaries, I felt that the films in the GlobeDocs festival speak urgently both to our present moment and to our future.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Everything but the Girl, Idlewild (Sire Records, 1988)

I remember about twelve years ago having lunch with a former friend and colleague, when Everything but the Girl’s “Oxford Street,” from their 1988 album Idlewild, suddenly came on the restaurant’s sound system. I was so surprised that anybody would even think of playing the song that I perked up and admitted — seemingly outdated ’80s tune though it was — that it had always been one of my favorite songs. My lunch companion replied incredulously, “Really?” and I think he even rolled his eyes at me a bit. To the uninitiated, it’s a song that sounds like a long-lost soft rock ballad that an adult contemporary radio station back then would have played. Not so cool or hip, he thought, despite my insistence that he just wasn’t listening to the song closely enough.

Before I say anything more about the album itself, I want to say something important about taste. The colleague I had lunch with is a former friend in part because I don’t think taste should be informed too much by fear of what others will think about our taste. Actually, I don’t think that sort of taste is really taste at all; rather, it’s fallout from some kind of juvenile peer pressure that creeps into the lives of many people I’ve known over time, and far past their middle school days. Genuine taste is not a form of social currency. It’s sensibility, a map of who we most authentically are as individuals, and that’s something I’ll continue to defend, and probably forfeit more friendships over, until my time here on earth is done.

Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn recorded Idlewild three decades ago now, in the autumn of 1987, about five years into their career as a duo. When the album was released several months later, they were both 25-years-old. The sophisti-pop movement in the United Kingdom was still going strong, and I heard and loved it all from as far away as my childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In a hilarious moment from a 1988 promotional interview, Tracey explained that Idlewild was titled after the original name of New York’s airport (now JFK) and said, “The Americans have this wonderful knack for naming their places with a kind of poetic imagination that seems to reveal itself nowhere else in their entire culture.” That's somewhat harsh, but also largely true.

Nevertheless, the homespun, measured tone of Idlewild, leaning away from jazz and more towards pop, was clearly aiming for an American audience, although Everything but the Girl wouldn’t begin to find an audience in America until their 1990 album The Language of Life. Lyrically, the songs on Idlewild are very much rooted in England, in a way that the Anglophile in me finds irresistible. “Oxford Street” poignantly thinks ahead to London life by reaching back to Tracey’s upbringing in Hatfield and her university years in Hull: “When I was ten I thought my brother was god, / he’d lie in bed and turn out the light with a fishing rod... / Then when I was nineteen, I thought the Humber would be / the gateway from my little world into the real world.” I think it’s the smart balance of lyricism and prosaic poise that makes me love this song so much, along with its vocals delivered through a calm evenness that only Tracey Thorn can pull off in exactly the way she does.

I had never paid much attention to the subject of “These Early Days” until I was listening to the album again tonight to write this review, even if this is an album whose music itself I know totally by heart, having listened to it literally hundreds of times. The song’s written for a child in Tracey’s life, a child who’s only two at the time. Its gentle refrain (“though you may weary of this vale of tears, / these days remember, always remember”) reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem “Spring and Fall” and the child Margaret in that poem (“yet you will weep and know why”), as she ponders the falling leaves and her own mortality.

Another of the album’s four singles, “I Always Was Your Girl,” counterpoints its airy synthesizers and tenor saxophone with some down-to-earth humor, as Tracey sings of a couple who feel ill-at-ease in the world: “You put your friends through hell, / and that’s why we get along so well... / Self-assured and abusing guests, / that’s the way I like you best.” Ben’s wistful lyrics and vocals on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” extend the album into deeper territory (“if I only do one thing, / I’ll sing songs to my father, / I’ll sing songs to my child; / it’s time to hold your loved ones / while the chains are loosed and the world runs wild”). And on a sunny summer holiday in Italy, “Lonesome for a Place I Know” returns to dim rains of the UK: “The hedgerows and the townhalls... / something pulls, something I can’t define tells me England calls.”

Some of the other songs on Idlewild got considerably more attention, including an ace cover of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” the song that was popularized by Rod Stewart a decade earlier, and “Apron Strings,” which the film director John Hughes selected, in a less subdued version, for the soundtrack of his 1988 movie She’s Having a Baby. The excellent B-sides from the album’s singles, such as “Hang out the Flags,” “Home from Home,” and “Dyed in the Grain,” also saw a second life when Idlewild was re-issued as a deluxe edition (with many home demos and outtakes) by Edsel Records in 2012. These extras are wonderful to have, of course, but so is the original album, which remains in my top five favorite albums of all time.

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.