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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A New Master (Chop Shop)

In Roger’s new book on Scorsese, he talks about seeing the director’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door at a Chicago film festival when they were both 25. Even from that first film, Roger says he knew he was viewing the work of one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

I love stories like that, and have always lamented that I might not get to say the same about any director of my own generation. At least until I first saw Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart back in 2006, and got that crazy shiver. Bahrani had emailed me several times while I was running a Sundance blog for Flavorpill to ask me to screen his film, and though I’d wanted to — especially when I realized he also lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — I didn’t get a chance to see it until New Directors/New Films that year, where I was totally floored.

Muscular and emotive without ever dipping into sentimentality, this was the kind of film about one of the “unseen” characters who populate contemporary cities that I wished people made but never saw. More to the point, it was clearly made by someone who not only could craft tremendous stories but fiercely loved and respected the medium in which he’d chosen to tell them. I met Ramin at that year's Ebertfest, and was struck not only by his intelligence but by his generalism, a quality I’ve found actually cements a more informed focus in the right minds. (Roger’s among them.) During one conversation, Ramin accurately quoted Rumi and Camus and statistics about immigrant populations in various New York neighborhoods and the budgets of a surprising range of films. When, in 2008, we sat down to discuss his second feature Chop Shop, which screened at Ebertfest this year, he beamed the same bright light, now burnished by a savvy granted by his two film’s positive buzz — which he was immediately funneling back into his work. His third film, Goodbye Solo, released earlier this spring, has only validated my belief that Bahrani’s the real deal: the filmmaker I will be proud to say I spotted early on, even if he had to remind politely alert me to his existence.

So it was great to see him in the more leisurely setting of Ebertfest this year but it was almost even greater to watch Chop Shop in the scope it deserves rather that in a small screening room or, worse, on an actual DVD screener (which is how I saw Solo). Here’s the short Flavorpill synopsis I wrote at the time of its release:

Director Ramin Bahrani may be as "true indie" as the directors loosely clumped into the mumblecore movement, but that's where all similarities stop. Rather than middle-class white kids who struggle to complete their sentences, the subjects of Bahrani's films are outsiders who matter-of-factly eke out existences the average American couldn't imagine. In his latest, Chop Shop, a homeless teenager and her little brother hustle in every sense of the word to keep a tin roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and rice and beans in their guts. Blunt and beautiful, this film pulls no punches as it articulates the hard-won joy that often accompanies struggle.

What struck me most this viewing was what a relief it was to watch. A funny thing to say about a film that has its core such a potentially sobering subject — two virtual orphans doing whatever it takes to stay off the streets and stay together — but Bahrani’s willingness to present them as subjects rather than objects of pity is infectious. More to the point, it was great to watch a film I embrace so unreservedly. Too often, I find myself in the awkward position of recognizing a film’s good qualities and earnest intent but just feeling like it doesn't quite cut it — doesn't demonstrate the mastery and foresight that distinguishes the truly worthy. (I’ve seen a few such ventures that shalt remain unnamed at Tribeca Film Festival this year thus far.) All of Bahrani’s films remind me of what I can still allow myself to expect.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sleeping on Winnipeg

Confession: These days I rarely blog, so you’ll either forgive my terrible pacing on these posts (aka no pacing, practically) or you won’t. But as Aretha Franklin is wont to say, “this is what it is (what it is).” I am a slow digester by nature, even eat slowly, and don’t really decide what I want to say for at least two or three days, a quality and rate that is becoming archaic as all text migrates online. A topic that we covered in our many compelling meal conversations during this week in the much-hallowed Ebertfest Green Room this week. (More on that later.)

And so long as I’m in the business of confessions, I also confess that I’ve never seen Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg without succumbing for at least a few minutes to a really lovely sleep. It’s not that this film is dull — far from it, truly — as much as it lives in the interstice of fact and fiction (the interstice being the only interesting element in that equation), between dreams and reality.

For those unfamiliar with Maddin’s films, they’re best, at least initially, described as “talking silent films”—funny, tragic bits and pieces of typography and narration and staged scenes and found archival footage. Maddin makes no bones about embracing melodrama, a genre I deem increasingly refreshing in a sea of contrived naturalism. What would exist as subtext in anyone else’s film looms in his as supertext—sometimes literally, since he is wont to flash words right before your eyes in what amounts to a not-very-subliminal cinematic traffic signal.

My Winnipeg in many ways is the ultimate Maddin movie. His films always have been mildly autobiographical, but this one actually was financed as a documentary about Winnipeg, Maddin’s native tromping grounds. As every reviewer worth his or her salt before me has already observed, whether the film is comprised of all (any?) facts is hardly germane. Not knowing comprises at least half of the fun, and if even half the facts are true, the city deserves a much brighter spot on all of our psychomythological radar. Yes, I just made up that term, but I think it deserves to exist, if only in reference to Maddin himself.

For only he would make a movie about an endless train ride circling a small North American city that could pack such a punch, that would feature so many shots of female laps, that would literally picture his mom (portrayed, naturally, by Ann Savage) in the window of that train car. It’s possible that Woody Allen might try that move, upon second thought, but listening to Maddin reveals Allen to be what we should have recognized all along: a reactionary. Interestingly, in person Maddin channels a version of the same cocktail of self-loathing and bemusement that is Allen’s trademark, but he also seems more sincere and articulate. He is, after all, Canadian.

My Winnipeg is as nonlinear as that train ride, and so I have found in my three viewings that no matter where I fall asleep, I have awakened to a scene that makes the same amount of sense, which is to say: some. This time while watching it I opened my eyes to a recreation of a fight between his mom and his sister—a congenitally familiar topic to me--and so jumped right into the film’s flow. Until I fell back again into a reverie about that subject which somehow slid me from my subconscious to unconscious. To be fair, the film lingers quite a bit on Maddin’s stand-in, as he wobbles in and out of sleep while struggling to escape his hometown, and Maddin touts his hometown’s (alleged) high rate of sleepwalking in a way that reads as an inarguable endorsement of sleep, sleep, sleep. A snakecharmer of a director, that one.

The effect of this film even more than his others, then, is to entwine his subconscious with my own, with perhaps every viewer of his film. By the time I staggered back into the sunlight, I had no choice but to make a beeline to a local thrift store, where I bought a hat that normally would have suited Savage more than me, though I do boast a certain dowager chic. This may be a new medium altogether: a film that doesn’t require its audience to be conscious in order to cast a spell upon it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Begin Here

And another year begins. How wonderful.

This is my fifth year participating in Roger Ebert’s film festival. That’s long enough for me to witness its original moniker –-the “Overlooked Film Festival”—fall by the wayside; long enough to make some wonderful friends and, sadly, long enough to bid farewell to a few of them. I’ve even been participating long enough to know how to get to Steak N Shake on my own volition. To name but a handful, I’ve met Paul Cox and Werner Herzog and Alan Rickman and Farmer John and Darrell Roodt and John Malkovich and Jeff Nichols and Joey Lauren Adams and Christine Lahti and Guy Maddin and Ramin Bahrani (the latter two I’ll see again this year), and here at Ebertfest, “meeting” someone actually means something.

I consider this festival free grad school for all of us lucky enough to participate in any capacity. We eat all our meals together, camp out in the university’s student union, and, best of all, sit shoulder to shoulder in front of the Virginia Theater’s satisfyingly wide screen.We watch one movie after another, all together, and only take breaks to talk about what we’ve been watching with the people who made the films and the people who have thought about them a lot already. When I first started attending, I merely tagged along as a film enthusiast who’d barely done any film writing. But because my enthusiasm, if not my knowledge, was boundless, the powers-that-be here (especially Roger Ebert and the late Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival) always included me in their conversations, even benignly forgiving my deep-rooted hatred of Kubrick. Of course I learned more from listening than from talking, not only about what was on the screen but what went on behind it, from production to distribution. For movies are extraordinary for so many reasons, not the least of which is that they are both art and business, social commentary and in many cases social perpetrators. What better way to view the whole world than to view what we choose to view?

These days, the film industry—including film criticism—is facing the serious challenges that all seemingly extraneous fields face during times of financial crisis. Just as I and many of my colleagues are finally hitting our strides, the bottom has fallen out beneath us. The future is maddeningly uncertain: where will view our films? who will view films? how will we view films? how will we write about them? and make them? and for whom? and how?

As I’ve always said, when the tough gets going, the tough goes to school. So Ebertfest11 couldn’t come at a better time. We need to calm down and just look at some significant films to remember why we love them. We need to discuss in a comfortable place what comes next.

Also, and this may truly be my most important point yet: I personally need to drive the awesome silver jeep that the rental car agency gave me this year. For a Brooklyn girl, these are no small apples.