cinema

What’s the Point?…Or Something Like a Manifesto

For about a year now I’ve been struggling with my “cinephilia.” What is the point in writing about movies? What is the point in going to movies? What is the point of making movies? Wouldn’t my skills, time, and effort be better used in the service of something more directly meaningful in the world?

If you guessed that I am middle-aged, you’re correct, however I don’t think this concern is confined to my age range. You can probably recall numerous times in your life when an existential crisis stared you in the face and left you temporarily paralyzed; I know I can. And if you are, like me, someone involved with the arts—a field that I feel stronger every day has much to offer this disturbing world, but which is rarely celebrated as “important”—that questioning of your life’s purpose probably pops up more often for you than it does for those in fields more readily accepted as valuable to society.

So why write about movies? Isn’t it a medium that vacillates between meaningless Hollywood product and inaccessible, irrelevant “small films”? I don’t really have the answer, but I do know that for me at least some of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had have been in a dark theater entranced by someone’s vision. And on occasion, I’ve even been transfixed by such visions on the small television screen in the comfort of my living room. I’ve seen worlds I could never witness first hand. I’ve met characters that help me understand my place in the world even as (or maybe because) they do not resemble me in the slightest. When I learn about a film coming out by a director or writer that has given me this in the past, I am delirious with excitement. So often I find that the film I am anxious to see never makes it to a movie theater near me because I do not live in a city anymore. I travel hundreds of miles to film festivals to see such films so I can share them with someone either through this blog, through my work at Provincetown Magazine, or even just in private conversations and on social media. This deeply held connection I feel tells me there is something there that is worth writing about.

Why make movies? There are lots of ways to communicate with the rest of the world creatively and otherwise, but in the 25 years that I’ve been making films professionally, I have found that there is no better way to learn about aspects of life that mystify you. Whether interviewing feminist sex workers, Cold War era veterans, or Catholic nuns, spending time with an eccentric recluse, or exploring the dimensions of my grandmother’s religious faith and mental illness, each film as forever changed me and made me into who I am today.

I can’t make any promises because this is a blog I write without compensation from anyone and with very little feedback from anyone, so it is hard to sustain my motivation. However, I am going to try to continue writing here about films and filmmakers that move me. I do not want to write about films that don’t move me or that are poorly done unless they hold some mirror up to our society and show us something about ourselves that needs discussing.

There is something beautiful about the empathy films can generate.

There is something enchanting and magical—even now, in the age of the Internet —about losing yourself in someone else’s dream on the screen.

Film is not the only art to have the capacity for building empathy or for mesmerizing us, but it is an incredibly important one because of its sheer ubiquity. Cinema came about as a working-class art form and remains that way for me, even as it’s been elevated in academic departments and media studies echelons (even ones I belong to as a Associate Teaching Professor at The New School). It will always be an art for the masses, and I think it could become an art by the masses as well. We are finally seeing films by people of color, women, and others who have been relegated to small projects in the past, and I am heartened by this.

So I will continue to write about films that stand out to me as much as I can, and I will continue to make films about people who do things I would never do. I still don’t know why I make films, why I obsessively see films, or why I write about them, but I continue to feel this powerful urge to engage with others about what I experience on the screen, and so I will continue to do that here. I hope the point will become clear to me some day, but in the mean time please forgive my self-indulgence, if that’s what it is.

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri

 

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Mssori. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I did not run out and see writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri because I knew it had something to do with an abduction of a young girl, and as a  parent, I tend to avoid plots like that. I didn’t really read about the film either, just enough to know that Frances McDormand was in it and that it was curiously labeled a dark comedy. This last factor is what got me to the theater earlier today; how could a film about the loss of a child be comic?

Three Billboards accomplishes this difficult feat because it isn’t actually about what happened to the lead character Mildred Hayes’ daughter Angela as much as it’s about what happened to the community around this awful event, and by extension, what happens to communities all over the world in the face of trauma, injustice, and tragedy.

McDormand plays Hayes as a steely-eyed, somewhat frightening, divorced mother trying to make it through each day in the wake of her daughter’s vicious rape and murder several months earlier. Frustrated with the lack of suspects brought in and her sense that the police are too busy harassing African-American kids for misdemeanors to “do their job” and investigate the murder, she takes the odd step of purchasing space on three billboards on the remote road near where her daughter was killed to chastise the police chief by asking why there have been no arrests. When it is revealed that the chief has pancreatic cancer, the town turns on Hayes, seeing her billboards as cruel considering he is on his deathbead.

And in a sense, it is cruel for her to leave those signs up in light of the chief’s devastating illness that will leave his two young daughters fatherless in a matter of weeks or moths. But it is this sort of  morally ambiguous circumstance that is piled up in layers throughout the brilliantly constructed script. The characters face tragedy after tragedy, each one responding in the way humans ordinarily do: with anger, violence, and hatred. And time and time again that response leads to further injustices, more pain for someone, and little by little an erosion of the community itself.

I could talk about the strength of McDormand’s performance, the equally solid work of Woody Harrelson as the Chief and Sam Rockwell as a racist police officer, but the weight of the film is carried by its script, which never feels predictable, but ends up seeming very real and very familiar. Police brutality, anti-cop violence, misogyny, racism, the victimization of young women, even the crimes of the Catholic Church are all subjects broached here, but ultimately, I was moved by everything in the story leading to the conclusion that anger in the face of tragedy must be tempered by thought, compassion, and an abiding vigilance guarding our common humanity.

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.

Nantucket Film Festival Gets Underway

The Nantucket Film Festival (NFF) kicked off yesterday with their opening day film Finding Dory, an unusual choice for a film festival since it is a Disney sequel film and is already in theaters. But don’t let that fool you. The schedule this year is chock full of excellent fiction and nonfiction features as well as virtual reality experiences (new this year!) and panels and special events that celebrate the art of storytelling in cinema.

HERO_cameraperson On  the documentary front, there are a number of interesting choices. Under the category of documentaries by masters of the form, NFF is screening Miss Sharon Jones!, the latest from the legendary Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Wildman Blues; etc.), which screens Thursday, June 23 at 12 p.m. And, my personal favorite, Werner Herzog brings his unique approach to nonfiction film with his latest documentary Lo and Behold:Reveries of a Connected World, about the impact of the Internet and the multiplicity of screens that exist in our daily lives now, screening also on Thursday at 5 p.m. and again Friday at 9 a.m.

Although I have not seen many of the documentaries on offer, I did see Tickled, and I have to say that is one of the most bizarre stories ever to be captured on film—fiction or nonfiction. What begins as a fluffy human interest story about “competitive tickling” soon turns into a disturbing trip into the mind of a most peculiar character. To say more, unfortunately, would ruin the film for you. Trust me, you need to see this to believe it. It screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:15 p.m.

In addition, I did see Cameraperson, a fascinating, non-narrative documentary by Kirsten Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on many notable documentaries, such as The Two Towns of Jasper, Fahrenheit 911, and Citizenfour. With this film, she sits in the director’s chair and works with the outtakes from her career of shooting documentaries and puts together a piece that she asks us to see as her “memoir.” Although there are interviews that tell us powerful stories of loss, regret, and fear, it is not so much the verbal content as it is the imagery that demonstrates the overwhelming power of the visual. As someone who makes films, it taught me a lot about what images can have impact on an audience, aside from the usual focus on people’s faces. This film, which screens Thursday at 1 p.m. and Friday at 3 p.m., is meditative, but very relevant to the human condition through the films she includes.

HERO_WILDERPEOPLE- Still 2- Julian Dennison (Ricky) Sam Neill (Hec) Credit On the narrative fiction side, there are several films I recommend. Little Boxes is a wonderful small film about a biracial family that moves to the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest. The father is a black novelist and the mother a white college professor. Their son is “just what we need around here” according to the local white girls who see his blackness as a way to up their hipness quotient. The story is moving, very funny, and very well written and well acted. It stars Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), Armani Jackson, and Janeane Garafalo. It screens Saturday at 3:45 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Captain Fantastic, screening Thursday at 1:45 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.,  stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a father of six with very unconventional views on child rearing. Having decided with his wife to raise their children in the wilderness, things take a turn when tragedy forces them to come out into the “real world” of other people. This clash of realities is at times hilarious, but also quite provocative.What is appropriate to tell a child? How much harm do we cause in protecting them from experiences? And what are the skills that we need to pass on to our children. Director Matt Ross has crafted an intelligent, funny, and resonant film here that examines parenting in a way we have not seen in the cinema before.

I also saw the Closing Night film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film by Maori writer/director Taika Waititi about a troubled kid who is adopted by a couple who live close to the bush in New Zealand. This film, too, starts out as one about culture clash, with the young boy having to reimagine himself outside of the urban, hip-hop environment he’s used to. Like in Captain Fantastic a tragedy beyond his control forces him to deal with the outside world when he and his adoptive father take off into the woods on the run from a maniacal child-welfare officer. It’s a very funny film and also quite touching. This is one everyone can enjoy, from kids to adults. It screens Sunday at 5:15 and 8 p.m.

Filmmaker Todd Solondz is known for pushing the boundaries of people’s comfort zones for over a decade now, since his debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse and later, the very disturbing  Happiness. He’s on the festival circuit now with his new film Weiner-Dog, basically a collection of short stories about “weiner dogs” and the impact they have on the families who adopt them. This one is not for the squeamish, and despite its topic, it is not a great film for animal lovers. Solondz’ trademark cultivation of unease is on display here, sometimes making for hilarious entertainment, but more often veering into a contemplation of loneliness and the void that dogs often fill for people. If you’re someone who enjoys things that make you uncomfortable, this one’s for you, albeit not as brilliant as his previous films. This one screens at 9:45 p.m. Thursday and Saturday.

The festival also features a tribute to Oliver Stone, breakfast panels with various filmmakers (all of which are sadly sold out at this point), a suite of virtual reality experiences, and an In Their Shoes conversation with comedienne Molly Shannon. Hop a ferry and check out one of our region’s great cinematic celebrations. For all the details visit nantucketfilmfestival.org.