Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Thriving

It’s mid-May, Roger’s already wowing the crowds at Cannes, and I’m sitting here in a New York library thinking about how this year's Ebertfest program was not just about survivors. In films like Frozen River, Trouble the Water, Begging Naked, Chop Shop, even The Fall, people who are expected to merely survive find a way to instead live fully--with humor or beauty or, most purely, love. This year was about people who thrive despite the most trying conditions.

It was a spirit that infused the festival itself this year. No doubt we were a smaller group then in past years, but a very tight one. Whatever few airs or hierarchies that may have ever survived the festival’s no-nonsense friendliness before already had fallen by the wayside with Roger’s absence and co-conspirator Dusty Cohl’s death last year. This year we were ready. So many Chicago critics came to help with responsibilities that Roger, in retrospect rather miraculously, had previously shouldered himself. The filmmakers and critics and actors present banded together with a fraternity I’d never witnessed before—debating, cajoling and encouraging each other at meals, at parties, and in the Theaters.

Some of the better moments I witnessed: Chop Shop’s Ramin Bahrani goading Trouble the Water co-director Tia Lessin to get on her next project immediately. Movie City News’ Kim Voynar and My Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin (whose bitten nails rival my own) jawing at the coffee shop. The near knockdown that some of the Chi-boy critics nearly got into at a morning panel. The meta-meta footage shot of a festival bigwig who shalt remain nameless lest I seem like a mean(er) girl. The heated discussions about the future of criticism and distribution; of who answers or even moderates comments on their blogs; of the relative charms of the various lunches served in the Green Room this year. (I stuck to the tuna nicoise). Festival director Nate Kohn’s persistent, rampant mandal abuse.

And then there was Roger, who was everywhere this year. No longer able to speak, he nonetheless shared his voice graciously—with his handy notepad, with the voice provided by his computer (Laurence Olivier rather than Hal, mind you), with his beaming, bright blue eyes. And, yes, with his thumbs. Thumbs that would give cowgirls not the blues but a nice, envy-spiked green.

It all inspires me, even three weeks later. It’s not been a good year for me, and I fear I’ve been caving to those misfortunes mostly—laughing less, writing less. But knowing that all these characters and their characters have been showing up at the plate and having fun doing it, have been finding ways to tell their stories and share their opinions despite the worsening economy, despite their own personal and public hardships—-well, I’m tired of saying things put me to shame. But it does make me glad.

So 'til next year.

Let’s see what we’ve all done. In and out of the balcony.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Begging Naked

The way I met Karen Gehres says it all about how personally connected I am to her documentary's subject. I was enthused to discuss onstage the Ebertfest screening of her Begging Naked but could not for the life of me find a copy of it. Like so many of the best independent movies these days, especially those made by women, it didn’t have a DVD distribution deal. So knowing she was another New Yorker, I called her up and asked if I could come find her downtown to snag a screener.

“Sure,” she said in her husky, around-the-way girl voice. We met up at the corner of East Village’s Tompkins Square Park, where she stood cheerfully waiting for me with a screener and a Dim Sum recommendation. An hour later, as my friends and I sat oohing and aahing at the restaurant she'd hipped us to, I thought: I just might like this film a lot. I already knew I liked her.

I’ve seen it three times now—-once plastered across the big screen of the Virginia—-and I can say definitively that I was right. I also resonated with this account of New York City artist Elise Hill in a way that both scares me and enthralls me: Stories like this are rarely told, and told this way. Stories about women who escape from broken homes not to greater safety so much as to endless creative freedom, at whatever price--security, even sanity—-and stories told with the exact feel of talking and walking with a friend on a long, timeless Saturday afternoon. Stories about the threat that always looms for female artists, for women who choose to identify themselves not by how much they earn or by to whom they are related but by their existence as an artist.

Elise is a friend of Karen’s, and they never pretend otherwise in this documentary. Friendship serves up its own particular cocktail of subjectivity and objectivity, of a sort that suits this story. For Elise lives on what used to be called “the edge”—- the edge between bohemia and homelessness, which has grown largely theoretical in the wake of New York’s “new economy.” She also wobbles on the edge between being a singular, self-made person who flouts conventions and being a person who no longer even recognizes social conventions, who has surrendered to mental illness. Her apartment, for example, shifts in and out of different focuses. One minute it is a shabby, claustrophobic galley teeming with the various compulsive collections of a madwoman. In the next, Karen’s camera zooms into those collections to reveal their tremendous, deliberate beauty: This isn’t a galley but an artist’s garret shimmering with life and visions. Visions that we walk into accompanied, so appropriately, by the likes of Kate Bush and Marianne Faithfull. Profoundly distinctive female musicians known to dwell permanently on the cusp of madness and to create unforgettable work from that place.

Or take how Elise presents herself. Though she mostly supports herself as a sex worker, there is something incandescently asexual about her. It is as if she is living proof that, rather than everything being about sex, sex actually is about everything else. Though and perhaps because she matter-of-factly uses sex as a commodity, she scarcely mentions or even exudes it except as an artistic subject. She paints; she crafts extraordinary, richly layered jewelry; and, by virtue of her own device, she adorns herself onstage and for the camera: Self as art, all the way. Huge, unlikely necklaces she crafts herself; flowing gauze strapped in by stern leather belts. She radiates a knowing, bizarrely Celestine energy and states in a too-loud, clear tones what most will not. In voice and in the originality of her uniform she recalls Grey Garden’s Little Edie Beals, yet another unique soul who lived on that same precipice her whole life.

And don’t we rely upon these madwomen to create something new for us to look at and to look like?

As Karen’s camera follows Elise throughout her days (and she covers about seven years of them), we experience for ourselves the constant self-bolstering she requires in order to subsist and persist. As the film begins, she has just returned to the sex industry after working full-time as an artist. She tells us flatly that she ran away to New York from New Jersey at age 15, and immediately found herself a pimp and became every parents’ worst nightmare: a heroin-addicted sex worker. She finally hit rehab when her teeth began waggling loose in her mouth. From there she found her way to the maid’s closet in Carnegie Hill, a tony Manhattan address, which is where she lives as the film begins. We watch her make art; we watch her joke and play-act and spin yarns. Even then she knows she and her life are as precarious as a hothouse flower, if infinitely tougher: No one knows what to do with women who don't have kids. They think we are just here to bear children. We watch how former NYC Mayor Guiliani’s stringent anti-sex industry laws impact her livelihood. And we are there on the actual day that she is put on the street.

This is the only moment in the film that Elise actually loses it. For the rest of this film, she wears a bemused expression no matter what is tossed her way. You can argue it’s a dissociation device—-and, surely, as she rejiggers her increasingly frightening reality, her logic grows increasingly disordered—-but it’s also how she survives. It is not real. This does not matter. What matters is my art. Which is why this moment affects us so deeply in addition to the fear losing our homes strikes in all of hearts. And it is at this moment that I realize how much I need Elise to believe in Elise's version of her story. To be the author and star. To be the artist.

And that’s where Elise both scares and inspires me—-as does Karen’s film about her: Even at the end of this film, there exists two versions of Elise’s reality. She is homeless and living in Central Park, with no foreseeable solution in sight. Even she seems worn down by it in some shots. But she also continues to make the best of it, to tell herself a story that renders the situation manageable for her. She’s found a boyfriend and together they are rapscallions who have fun defending themselves. When she can no longer keep her kitty, she declares pet rats to make excellent allies. Or, (and this part hurts a bit): The government is going to come take her soon as they have been receiving valuable information directly transmitted from her brain. It sounds crazy—-and it is crazy, whatever that term really means—-but the motivating impulse makes sense to me. She is finding a way to get through the day. The optimistic improvisation that propelled her out of her trainwreck of a childhood and adolescence and often grim adult life, that enabled her to make extraordinary art out of all that detritus, now may be making her crazy. But make no mistake: it is also keeping her alive. This is how she resists succumbing to the visions others have of her. This is how she continues to embody the vision that she wishes herself to be. And it is to the enormous credit of Karen Gehres that the director never for one minute gets in the way of that vision. Instead, she creates one of her own.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Filmmakers as Characters: When Is the Water Untroubled?

When documentarians address a plight that hasn’t directly affected them, the questions looming boil down to ones of authenticity: How to work with subjects without condescending to them? How to climb inside the topic without invading ethical and personal boundaries? How to adequately capture its specificities when you've not been directly impacted by them?

Hurricane Katrina and its resulting diaspora prove especially touchy subjects, because it reveals the third-world country of poverty living in our own allegedly first-world country, because it reveals once again the fissures existing between white and nonwhite America, and because most of the people who are in a position to make films have experienced some measure of privilege, at least in the form of education and cultural access.

In Axe in the Attic, directors Lucia Small and Ed Pincus dealt with this issue through full-frontal honesty. They put themselves in front of the camera in a sometimes-harrowing anti-hero capacity, owning up to their Northern, liberal, atheist biases while they interviewed various denizens of the Diaspora.

As veterans of Michael Moore crews, filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were also all too familiar with the school of filmmaker-as-character. They found a new and, to my mind, infinitely preferable approach to Moore’s, though: When they went down to the New Orleans region looking for the best way into the story, that character-filmmaker found them. Then-24-year-old Kimberly Roberts was living in the 9th Ward when Katrina struck, and shot a bevy of footage of her neighborhood before and during the hurricane. When Deal and Lessin met her and her husband Scott, they were living in an evacuation center and were at such loose ends that they had trouble collecting their retribution check because they didn’t have a bank account. As Roger said, “Her film changed all their plans for theirs.” The resulting doc, Trouble the Water, is a medley of all their ingenuity.

Make no mistake. To a large degree, Trouble the Water takes its cues from Kimberly herself, who is filmed by Deal and Lessin once they join forces and she travels to Mississippi to camp out with relatives. Kimberly is big-hearted, rough around the edges, and bewildered before she is enraged. More than anything, she and Scott are dead-set on survival for not only themselves but for all those they meet. So the film never pulls any punches—-diatribes are clear and myriad; governmental and military slights are many and matter-of-factly recorded—-which has the curious result that its genuine subtlety, such as its seamless integration of footage, has for the most part gone unremarked upon. With a film like this, a “message film,”the craftsmanship of the endeavor is largely eclipsed by the tremendous response it stirs.

The truth is that Deal and Lessin don’t seem the types to be cross about this fact, so long as their documentary rouses viewers to support those still living in the diaspora—which it has. The question and answer period after the film’s screening here at Ebertfest seemed a good indication of this fact. Deal, Lessin and Scott and Kimberly Roberts were all in effect but questions were mostly directed toward Kimberly, who answered them all with aplomb, telling the (largely white) Virginia Theater audience that she used to be scared of white people, telling them how angry she felt about the terrible education that poor people receive in this country. She was also brilliantly frank about her initial reasons for shooting the footage—-among them, that “she needed the money.” People need to be more honest about that fact, less shamed. Perhaps less corruption will work itself into the “good fight” if we are more upfront about our needs from the get-go.

Yes, Kimberly was moving, no more so than when she performed two of her rap songs for the audience with a mix tape accompaniment. I held my breath nervously when she first launched into it. As far as live music goes, rap concerts tend to be pretty bad. And I was worried that the audience would watch unmoved and unmoving while awesome Kimberly put herself out there. But I was foolish to worry, especially after witnessing all that Kimberly had survived already. She got out there and seemingly pulled people out of their seats. Standing, clapping, laughing. For a second the Diaspora had climbed all the way to the Virginia and had closed up any gap between us and them, between the observers and the victims. The power of collaboration, that.