Check out my latest review in Provincetown Magazine for John Krasinski’s absorbing horror film A Quiet Place. It’s playing not only in Provincetown, but everywhere, and you simply cannot wait for it to be online/DVD… it demands the cinematic environment.
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.
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a modern-day manifestation of the goals of the surrealist movement as establish some 90 years ago.While this review was written without the benefit of any special knowledge of the process by which Anomalisa was created, (and process is central to surrealism), what we experience as an audience is Kaufman’s ability to make visible the very process of thought, just does Andre Breton declared as the goal of the surrealist project in 1924.
In Anomalisa, we see the world through the eyes of a successful business group, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who is in Cincinnati as keynote speaker to a conference on customer service. The stop motion animated puppets are all strikingly similar, all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan), regardless of gender, age, or other individual qualifiers. All, I should say, except Michael and a customer service rep/groupie of his named Lisa, (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). In fact, it is her voice that first attracts Michael to her. Obsessed with meeting the woman whose voice stands out against the aural monotony of everyone else, he tracks are down and finds that she also looks different from everyone else. And while her personality, intellect, and appearance are all very generic, Michael find her fascinating and irresistible simply because she is an anomaly.
Anomalisa is a film that raises a lot of different issues within the small world of these characters. Stone is a man in search of something different. He’s mastered his profession and, like many middle-aged people, has lost the passion that brought him through his career. He’s also come to realize how very generic the world is. Even as we all know that each individual person is unique, we are more similar than we are different, and so Stone is at a point where he desperately needs to be challenged with something or someone truly different. In his pursuit of “something different,” Stone latches onto Lisa without really seeing who she is. It’s as though he’s actually imagining her and not really seeing her for who she is.
The film shows Michael’s skewed perception quite directly, both through the use of sameness in voice and appearance of the characters and by showing the plainness of Lisa and Michael. It struck me in a sex scene between the two characters that you could never see this in a live action film because lead actors don’t look like real people for the most part and if their bodies do, they are usually not shown in sexual situations. It was strangely fascinating to see two people making love who, despite the fact that they are animated, more closely resemble the average person than any actual actors do in American cinema.
Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, to name a few, and directed the highly underrated Synechdoche, always brings a touch of the surreal to his scripts, here succeeds in creating a world that is both absurd and totally recognizable, filled with characters who are irrationally rational, in a story that is very real but told with unreal visuals. It is at the core of the Surrealist ethos to occupy the spaces between the real and unreal, the logical and illogical, the rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Kaufman always succeeds in doing this in fresh ways that take Surrealism into the 21st century without reducing the power of that movement’s potential. He is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that resembles the world of Anomalisa, filled with strikingly similar films that no one seems to recognize for their dullness. I am so glad this film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I saw it last year and I hope Cape Codders will get the chance to see it now that the Oscar nomination has brought it to mainstream consciousness.
Back in 2002, I started a film screening series in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Chatham. We showed underground indie films by filmmakers from New York, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere in two 10-week seasons a year on Friday nights. That went on for a couple of years and then I began showing films at various venues on the Cape, including the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, the Woods Hole Film Festival Winter Series, WHAT in Wellfleet, and Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro.
Now the Cape Cod Film Society screenings are back, this time at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, right smack in the middle of the Cape, in South Yarmouth. Although the series is no longer a weekly program, this monthly format is going to be great, with screenings generally at 3 pm on the second Sunday of every month, September through May.
Woods Hole filmmaker Kristin Alexander is an extraordinary talent, with a background so diverse it includes dance, nursing, and of course, filmmaking. She kicks off our series this Sunday, January 10th at 3 pm with two short films she made about different aspects of life in Bermuda. One is about Mwalimu Melodye Micëre Van Putten, a fascinating educator bringing an Afrocentric curriculum to schools in order to rectify the systematic disenfranchisement of students of African descent, like many of the residents of Bermuda. The film, called Healing History, is an eye-opening account of Van Putten’s work and objectives that everyone needs to see.
The second film we’re showing, Trusting Rain, discusses water conservation efforts in Bermuda, which is something that should be of great interest on Cape Cod, even as we routinely waste water, in denial of the potential for drought.
I asked Kristin to answer a few questions to introduce you to her work. She will be attending the January 10th screening so you can ask your own questions of her at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod that afternoon at 3 pm.
Rebecca Alvin: When did you begin making films, and what drew you to fillmmaking?
Kristin Alexander: I find filmmaking a creative outlet that also allows me to bring a voice to people and ideas that I feel are important. Sort of visual advocacy. I had some experience with film as a teenager, coming to Cape Cod in summer: MAW productions, started by two brothers who made 8mm short films, which involved all the neighborhood kids in some way. It was great fun and the films were quite good. I studied communication and film for a time in college, in the days of linear editing. When the digital revolution hit, I picked it up again. At that time I was integrating film into dance performances on stage. My first documentary Nothing without Joy followed 5 women on Cape Cod surviving cancer. That was in about 2001. I really enjoyed all aspects of making that film, from the cinematography to editing. Since then I have completed 12 short documentaries, several of which have won awards on the festival circuit. I have also assisted in several films as cinematographer, and participated in fundraising using my skills as a filmmaker.
RA: How did you come up with the idea for Healing History? What was your connection to it?
KA: Healing History evolved out of meeting Melodye, who is a teacher, poet and performance artist. She is teaching African history from a new perspective, not one that most of us learned in history books. I found her to be passionate and interesting. We met through her husband, who had been in my film Trusting Rain [also screening on January 10th]. I asked if I could do a video portrait of her, and she declined. I later asked again, and she looked at some of my previous work, and decided to give it a try. She was skeptical, as her previous experiences with white folk had not been overwhelmingly positive. She was teaching primarily black children and adults, to give them a sense of themselves and their history, teaching that they are descendants of genius, and are desperately needed in the world today. The filming took several years, and spanned between her work in Philadelphia and Bermuda. During this time it became apparent (via current events), that her work was even more necessary.
RA: What has been the reaction to the film?
KA: Healing History has been on the festival circuit, from Bermuda, to several cities in the U.S., Africa World in St. Louis and in Cameroon, Jamaica and the Pan African Cannes. Interestingly, it has been invited to almost all of the Black festivals in which we applied, and only two of the mainstream festivals (as well as the Cape Cod Film Society). It has been positively received, overwhelmingly in the Black festivals. The Pan African Cannes and Bermuda Film Festival had a mixed audience, and the discussion was controversial at times, and quite extensive.
RA: Tell me about the film Trusting Rain? How did that originate?
KA: Trusting Rain is a film about rainwater collection in Bermuda, and the island residents’ relationship to water. The island has no rivers or streams, and has historically been dependent on rain collected on roofs and stored in tanks below the house. Times have changed, and as the island becomes more populated, this precious resource is dwindling. Many tourists who come to Bermuda have no idea that the water used for drinking and showers is collected from rain. I was fascinated by the stories of the ‘old timers’ and how careful they were with water, to the new generation and the overall waste, requiring desalinization plants to maintain the self sufficiency.
RA: That film seems to connect very directly to issues we have around water on Cape Cod. Do you agree?
KA: Potable water is a worldwide problem. Certainly on Cape Cod, where there is seemingly not much concern about water shortage. I had done a film about a scientist who is using a natural process to clean wastewater for re-use (Green Eco-Machine). This kind of technology is so needed, but seems so foreign to people. I feel clean water has become one of the great worries of our time. We need to change our relationship to water, as a precious resource.
RA: You’ve made a lot of different films about different topics and in different styles. Is there some sort of through-line in your work?
KA: My documentary films tend toward portraits of people, delving into their lives in various countries and at home. I am very interested in people who are doing things to make a change in the world. I enjoy filming nature, and finding positive work that is being done to help the environment.
RA: Are you working on any new films now?
KA: Currently I am finishing the edit on an older portrait, and have two ideas that I am working on, we shall see how that plays out!
Kristin Alexander’s films will be shown on Sunday, January 10, 3 pm at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, located at 307 Old Main St., South Yarmouth, Mass. Tickers ($10) can be purchased in advance by calling the Cultural Center: 508- 394-7100, or at the door that afternoon.