Saturday, May 18, 2019

SIFF 2019: Mark Cousins' Storm in My Heart Interrogates Hollywood's Double Standards

(Mark Cousins, USA, 2018, 117 minutes)

Belfast-born cinema historian Mark Cousins (The Story of Film: An Odyssey), who was just in town with a documentary about Orson Welles, is back with an essay film about two very different 20th Century Fox musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Storm in My Heart is the logical title for his latest effort, a diptych of 1952's Technicolor With a Song in My Heart and 1943's black and white Stormy Weather. One film features Susan Hayward and the other features Lena Horne. Though born on the same day, June 30, 1917, and in the same city, Brooklyn, New York, one woman was white and the other was black. Further, Horne was from a prominent family and Hayward wasn't.

If not for race, Cousins argues, their careers might have looked similar, and they definitely didn't. And in these films, their scenes were even shot differently. If Hayward's performance was indivisible from the film in which it appeared, Horne's was placed such that it could be removed when it played in the South. I was hoping Cousins would return to that distinction at some point, except he never does, so I don't know if this happened with other films in which Horne appeared, but I can only assume that it did.

Cousins starts by presenting the credits for Walter Lang's With a Song in My Heart in full frame before shrinking it to one-quarter size. As he turns the volume down on the Hayward picture, he adds a quarter-size version of Andrew Stone's film to the screen. Russia-born Leon Shamroy shot both films, and the same personnel provided art direction, set decoration, visual effects, wardrobe and costumes, and sound. As Storm in My Heart continues, Cousins moves the frames around the screen and continues to alternate soundtracks. He also uses the blank space for inter-titles.

The frames talk to each other, though it's easy to miss details on the left side of the screen while watching the right. Or vice versa. It's an experiment, and an imperfect one, but it's amazing how often it works, i.e. Horne sings in one frame while Hayward, portraying real-life singer Jane Froman, does the same in the other, except we hear Horne's voice. Consequently, it looks as if Hayward is miming or responding to Horne, but then the audiences, one white and the other black, clap at the same time.

If the focus is on Hayward and Horne, Cousins provides notable facts about Stormy Weather players Bill Robinson, Ada Brown, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. They aren't the kind that will brighten your day. Waller, for instance, died five months after the film's release. He was 39. And Robinson, the highest paid black entertainer during the first half of the 20th century, died penniless.

As for Horne, she broke most every racial barrier on the road to stardom, but had to suffer most every kind of indignity in the process. In that sense, Cousins' film is about her more than Hayward, and though it may not have been his intention to make Stormy Weather look like the better--or at least more enjoyable--film, that's exactly what he's done. Granted, only one of the two is a melodrama, so fun was never on director Lang's agenda, and he's downright shameless when it comes to milking the audience's tears.

The oddest part about Cousins' project is that he doesn't give equal time to both films. When the 78-minute Stormy Weather ends, it just...ends. The inter-titles continue to refer to both women, but With a Song in My Heart plays for another 34 minutes, which doesn't seem fair, except Cousins has a final trick up his sleeve. I won't spoil it, other than to say that he doesn't just take on Hollywood's racism and sexism, but militarism, too, since both films hold a sentimental view of American wartime activity.

As essay films go, A Storm in My Heart is one of the better ones I've seen, and I've seen a lot, including those of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Raoul Peck. If anything, the juxtaposition at the end, which makes use of the patriotic song above, recalls Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary he built around a James Baldwin manuscript--and ends with the late Doris Day as a symbol of white suburban complacency.

If there's one thing that sums up Horne and Hayward, as Cousins presents them in his essay, it's that they kept their own counsel. Though Horne had the deck stacked against her in many respects, she never stopped finding ways to make her mark--mostly outside of Hollywood--whereas Hayward had access to more movie-making opportunities, but didn't always make the most of them. I'm not sure that these particular films tell us as much about post-war America as Cousins intends, but they certainly tell us a lot.

Storm in My Heart plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Sunday, May 19, at 1pm, and Tuesday, May 28, at 9pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SIFF 2019: Basketball in the Yard in Michael Tolajian's Prison Documentary Q Ball

Harry "ATL" Smith: man of God and man of the Court
(Michael Tolajian, 2019, USA, 97 minutes) 

San Quentin isn't a medium-security facility, like the one my mom worked at in Eagle River, a town just outside of Anchorage (she served as an institutional counselor before transferring to the city to work as a pre-sentence reporter). Most of the men in Michael Tolajian's Kevin Durant-produced documentary are violent offenders. The director, who doubles as senior vice president for Fox Sports Films, documents a season in the life of the San Quentin Warriors.

The goal of the squad isn't just to give the men something to do with their time and energy, but to contribute to their rehabilitation through teamwork and character-building. Star player Harry Smith, 31, is the son of a policeman and a microbiologist. With only a few months left in his seven-year sentence, he hopes to play for the NBA, but if he violates his parole, he'll end up back in prison. For most of the season, the inmates play against civilian teams made up of Bay Area b-ball enthusiasts, but for the final game, they play the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League team. Win or lose, every player except for Smith will remain locked up afterward.

Allan "Black" McIntosh
Though it makes sense to focus on the player with the greatest skills, my heart went out to Allan McIntosh, a non-violent offender serving 25 years to life under California's 25-year-old three strikes law (he's served 21 so far). Though not as young or as GQ handsome as Smith, he came across as the deeper character.

Known as Black, he's the kind of guy who's trying to broaden his horizons by studying Spanish and poring over Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he found relatable in terms of the protagonist's challenges. The civilian world would be a better place with a man like McIntosh in it (Smith, a self-described womanizer, was convicted for an incident of domestic violence).

Tolajian has made a worthy film about a worthy subject, but it wasn't quite as involving as I hoped, particularly in light of other more emotionally raw documentaries about rehabilitative programs, like Brad Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's The Work (which played at SIFF '17 and aired on PBS's POV), and Signe Taylor's It’s Criminal, which focuses on a collaborative theater program between Dartmouth College and a women's facility in new Hampshire.

I wish the best for all the men in Tolajian's film, which premieres on Fox Sports on May 28, but I wonder if he didn't concentrate on the wrong one.

Q Ball plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday, May 18, at 12pm and on Tuesday, May 21, at 3:30pm. For more information, please click here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Charlie Is Not My Darling: Mary Harron Puts a Feminist Spin on the Manson Family Saga

Behind bars, but still under Manson's sway
(Mary Harron, 2019, USA, 104 minutes)

After making a film about Valerie Solanas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), it follows that Mary Harron would get around to Charlie Manson, a real-life figure like Solanas and an evil mastermind like Bateman (I don't recall any murderers in The Notorious Bettie Page, but Harron has consistently gravitated towards protagonists with an inability to fit into straight society).

Her first feature in eight years arrives three years after the end of NBC's detective drama Aquarius, with David Duchovny as the head of an LAPD unit investigating the goings-on at the Spahn Ranch, and two years after the release of Emma Cline's novel The Girls, a fictional take on a Manson-type follower. And it beats Quentin Tarantino's Summer of '69 epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to theaters by two months (QT's sprawling film includes many of the same characters, including Damon Herriman's Manson). 

More specifically, Charlie Says draws from Ed Sanders' 1972 book The Family and the late Karlene Faith's 2001 biography, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. I could also make a case for Olivia Klaus's Life After Manson, a 2014 documentary about model prisoner Patricia Krenwinkel that Harron is likely to have seen (not least because she thanks Klaus in the credits). All of this is to say that Manson and his bedfellows are as much a part of the cultural conversation as ever--two years after his death and 50 years after the events that put him on the map.

Martha Plimpton and Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol
The good news is that Harron's film isn't really about Manson (played by The Queen's Matt Smith), but about three of the women, Patricia (Sosie Bacon), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and especially Leslie (Hannah Murray), with whom he was most closely associated (Kayli Carter plays Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who would, as a solo operative, attempt to assassinate a famous man, a dubious distinction she shares with Solanas).

Charlie Says begins with Leslie's arrival at the Ranch where she meets Charlie and the gang, including Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) and right-hand man Tex Watson (Gossips Girl's Chace Crawford in grunged-up mode). Charlie dubs Leslie "Lulu," and that becomes her name, because what Charlie says goes. From there, Harron, who co-wrote the script with American Psycho and Bettie Page partner Guinevere Turner, moves back and forth in time from the Ranch, three years in the past, to the California Institution for Women where Patricia and Leslie remain today.

In the pen, the women are locked up next to each other in separate cells, isolated from the rest of the population. With the warden's encouragement, they meet with rehabilitation counselor Karlene (Merritt Wever) who attempts to extricate them from Manson's psychic hold. The backward glances at the Ranch show how they fell under his sway (coincidentally enough, Sway is also the title of Zachary Lazar's 2008 novel about Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil and his ties to Kenneth Anger and Brian Jones).

Sosie Bacon, Hannah Murray, and Merrit Wever
Unfortunately, Harron isn't able to make Charlie any more charismatic than previous filmmakers. When he isn’t singing and strumming in a decidedly mediocre manner, he's doing the hippy-dippy messianic bit we've seen so often before (and without the humor Linus Roache brought to a similar figure in Panos Cosmatos's lysergic noir Mandy). If Smith is more convincing than Aquarius's Gethin Anthony, it's hard to get the balance right with a character who has to prove irresistible to his flock and off-putting to the audience.

More than anything, Charlie is a misogynist creep. To women without any direction, he’s father, lover, and religious leader all rolled into one. In his presence, they no longer have to think; just do as he says. As Patricia tells Leslie, the goal is to kill their egos and become one consciousness--all the better for him to manipulate them into sex, theft, and eventually, murder.

Throughout, we see most everything through Leslie's eyes. Though Murray has appeared in high-profile programs like Skins and Game of Thrones, she comes across as the least experienced actress of the three; more naïve and uncomfortable than her credits would indicate. Intentional or otherwise, it works for the part. She's softer and slower than the other Manson women, aka "girls," but she's also more watchful and cautious. In my high school days, we would've called such a childlike, dreamy creature a space cadet.
If the goal was to make her likable, Harron and Murray have succeeded.

Matt Smith in the 2013 stage version of American Psycho
That said, there's a difference between likable and relatable. The point of the film isn't to show how any young woman could've followed the same twisted path. There have been plenty of other cults, but there has never been one exactly like the Manson Family.

Crucial incidents include Charlie's jubilation when he finds out the Beach Boys have recorded one of his songs, "Cease to Exist" (re-titled "Never Learn Not to Love")--and his rage when producer Terry Melcher, the subject of Jeffrey Melnick's recent Pop Con paper, declines to offer him a contract. It's well worn territory, but sets the scene for the bloodshed to come. 

As American Psycho proved, Harron knows from violence. The Tate-LaBianca murders take up little of the film's running time, but they make the necessary impact; they're brutal, bloody, and empathy-free. When Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), who was leasing Melcher's home with Roman Polanski, begs for the life of her unborn child, Tex is thoroughly unmoved.

Harron avoids most everything that happened afterward, and that seems wise. In prison, even after all they've been through, the women still venerate the man who destroyed their lives. Just as they can't fully grasp what they've done, nor can they fully grasp what they've become.

At 104 minutes, Charlie Says doesn't overstay its welcome, but it takes Harron until the very end to get to that moment of realization. I'm not sure it's possible to make a completely successful film about the Manson Family, and the director dances around the edge of disaster at most every turn, but that moment--and Hannah Murray's ability to sell it--is worth the wait.

Charlie Says opens Friday, May 10, at the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE). Images from IFC Films and The Stage (American Psycho photo by Tristram Kenton).  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Her Smell: Alex Ross Perry’s Take on the Damaged-Woman-of-Rock Archetype

Elisabeth Moss as "Becky! Becky! Becky!"
(Alex Ross Perry, 2019, USA, 134 minutes)

I remember being both attracted to and repulsed by the opening credits for Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller Queen of Earth. The key image is a shadowy close-up on Elisabeth Moss's face. As the title bisects it in elegant pink script, inky mascara pools under her eyes. It's beautiful, ugly, arresting. If you can imagine an entire film that plays like that image, then you can imagine Her Smell, Perry's third collaboration with the actress.

With the '90s alt-rock revival in full bloom, this would appear to be the ideal time for his tale of an all-female Hole-like trio (never mind that Hole was a mixed-gender quartet). Appearances, however, can be deceiving, at least to those viewers hoping for a nice, warm bath of nostalgia.

Granted, Perry, 34, was seven years old when Hole released their debut, Pretty on the Inside, and Moss, 36, who plays Becky, was nine. That isn't to say that they didn't do their research into riot grrrl-adjacent/grunge-era acts like Babes in Toyland, but they were too young to have experienced the phenomenon in real time, no matter how cool their schools or permissive their parents (Alicia Bognanno of Bully wrote the era-non-specific songs, and they're pretty good, if not especially memorable).

Moss as Catherine in Perry's 2015 two-hander
Eric Stoltz, 57, who plays Becky’s manager, Howard, probably remembers the era better than anyone else involved with Her Smell, not least because he's starred in a few music biz films, like John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, in which he fell for Mary Stuart Masterson's drummer "Watts" (of course), and Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart, in which he played a Gerry Goffin figure opposite Illeana Douglas's Carole-King-in-all-but-name Denise Waverly.

With her bleached hair and smeared makeup, Becky looks for all the world like Courtney Love, even if Perry had other artists, like Kat Bjelland, in mind. Her alternately nuzzled and neglected daughter only reinforces the impression, though Dan Stevens, as her ex-husband, "Dirtbag" Danny--who isn't really a dirtbag at all--shares few traits with Kurt Cobain.

As chapter dividers, Perry inter-cuts home-movie excerpts of the Some-
thing She--the impressively bland name of Becky's band--in happier times, including celebratory moments with gold records, Spin covers, and Becky's proud mama, Ania (Virginia Madsen, making the most of an underwritten role). There's mention of a father, but Perry never depicts him.

Similarly, Stevens and Stoltz are fine, but Perry prioritizes the women in this woman's life, from her mother to her daughter, which sets it apart from surface-level predecessors, like Mark Rydell's  The Rose, which drew from Janis Joplin's biography, and the musical iterations of A Star Is Born

Bette Midler in smeared-mascara melodrama The Rose
Perry's film starts on stage, with an appealingly shambolic cover of the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet," before moving backstage where Becky invites a shaman to curse Danny's girlfriend, Tiffany (Hannah Gross), and rejects the offer of Zelda E. Zekiel (a brunette Amber Heard in Cleopatra eyeliner) to open for her upcoming tour. With no money-making ventures on the horizon, it's obviously a terrible decision, just like every decision Becky will proceed to make. She's rude, she's paranoid, and her ego is too big and too wounded for her to do what's right for her band and her child.

Only 20 minutes into the film, and I had had just about enough. It isn't that Moss, who also appeared in Perry's superior Listen Up Philip, doesn't give a full-blooded performance--Becky is such a drama queen that she evokes over-the-top performers from Ethel Merman to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd--but it's always a risk to build a film around such a grating character.

Olivier Assayas's Clean and Brady Corbet's Vox Lux took similar risks with their traumatized, if resilient singers, except Maggie Cheung and Natalie Portman, respectively, brought vulnerability and sass to their roles. For most of Her Smell's over-long running time, Becky is just irritating.

Maggie Chueng as a Courtney-meets-Yoko widow in Clean
She's so irritating that drummer Ali (GLOW's Sheila the She-Wolf, Gayle Rankin, giving the most naturalistic performance) quits during a recording session, while bassist Mari (Sunset Song's Agyness Deyn, a former model known to date the occasional musician), dulls the pain by way of the coke she stores in her bra. Just when it seems as if there's no one left who can take more of her shit, manager/label impresario Howard's newest signing, the Akergirls, enter the scene.

A photogenic trio featuring Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson), Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula), and Crassie Cassie (model-actress Cara Delevingne, who is also known to date the occasional musician), they're so happy to meet their hero that they don't realize she's out of her head. They figure it out soon enough, especially when she menaces Ali with a broken bottle before a show while a camera crew documents the whole catastrophic ordeal.

By the time Becky hits rock bottom, I was more relieved than alarmed. Something had to give, and after that, things finally started to get interesting. I just wish that Perry had gotten there sooner. Until then, it felt as if Becky's slow-motion free-fall was never gonna end. Of more interest to me than seeing how low a recording artist can go--pretty low, apparently--is watching what they do after they've lost everything.

The Akergirls featuring model Cara Delevingne 
Her Smell is hardly the first music-oriented film to explore that territory, since Georgia, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh played a troubled Seattle singer, and Things Behind the Sun, which reunited Allison Anders with Stoltz (this time as a really bad dude), also revolved around women musicians dealing with trauma, substance abuse, and redemption.

If Becky's breakdown was a given, Perry shifts into low-key thriller mode afterward, because when you've got nothing left to lose, death seems inevitable; more so considering all the casualties of the era in which Becky plied her trade, from 7 Year Bitch's Stefanie Sargent in 1992 to Kurt Cobain and Hole's Kristen Pfaff in 1994. Perry ups the ante by having Becky predict, earlier in the film, that she'll "probably die on stage."

Though Her Smell begins with a cover, the one that appears towards the end makes the bigger impression. After the storm has passed and Becky's friends and associates have moved on to other partners and projects, she sits down at the piano to play an acoustic version of Bryan Adams' 1984 ballad "Heaven," which topped the Billboard chart the following year.

As a singer, Moss is adequate, but I heard the song in a whole new way--a good way. It's such a touching moment that it compensates for most everything that preceded it, though I'm almost tempted to credit Adams and co-writer Jim Vallance for its success more than Perry and Moss.

Kim Dickens with Elizabeth Peña in Things Behind the Sun
Not until the final chapter does the director finally show his hand. Despite the external trappings, this isn't a movie about the '90s. Not really. It could have been set at most any time. Instead, Perry seems more interested in what we give to other people and what we keep for ourselves, a universal challenge that's only heightened by celebrity. The more Becky gives, the sicker she gets, the sicker she gets, the more she self-medicates, the more she self-medicates, the sicker she gets until she has nothing left to give. As Courtney Love once put it, "Yeah, they really want you, they really want you...and I do, too."

In the end, Becky finds a way to...stop. Perry doesn't explain exactly how she got there; he just shows her acting it out, and that's enough. As a whole, Her Smell is the least successful Perry-Moss collaboration to date, but it's also the most, well, most. There's something about watching a filmmaker go for broke that's simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, even if this one leans more heavily on the negative side of that equation.

Her Smell plays SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave N) May 5 - 7 and May 10, 11, and 12. Click here for more information.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Franco Rosso's Urban Reggae Anthem Babylon Makes Its Long-Awaited US Debut

Brinsley Forde and spliff
(Franco Rosso, 1980, UK, 95 minutes) 

"If he don't wanna go, force can't hold him."
--Blue (Brinsley Forde) explaining his little brother's truancy

The sharp-dressed men in Franco Rosso's feature-film debut, resplendent in snappy headgear and wool coats with a hint of swagger, spend much of their time moving sound systems from one end of South London to the other. Primarily of Jamaican descent, they're part of a scene that revolves around gambling, ganja, and reggae, heavy on the dub. The patois is so thick that the (helpfully subtitled) dialogue plays more like music than talk.

The loose-limbed plot centers on Blue (Aswad front man Brinsley Forde, wiry and intense) and Beefy (Trevor Laird, Quadrophenia). When they find a record they like, they bring it to their garage hangout, and skank with abandon. One night, they're having a bit too much fun when a white neighbor, a wan figure in a housecoat, bangs on their door, and hurls epithets in their direction: "coons," "jungle bunnies," "mango munchers"--you name it. London was lovely, she tells them, until they arrived. She might as well have been wearing a MAGA hat. "This is my fucking country," Beefy seethes, "and it's never been fucking lovely." He's right, of course.

Trevor Laird as the track suit-sporting Beefy
If the acting can be stiff at times, Laird's anger is so palpable that it's hard to imagine the actor didn't experience similar moments in his own life, particularly when Beefy pulls out a knife and attempts to charge after an especially hateful trio of bullies. His friends have to use all of their strength to hold him back, cautioning that the price he'll pay for getting his revenge won't be worth it. They're right, too.

The pattern repeats itself whenever the black men enter majority-white spaces, exemplified by a kinetic chase through dark, rain-soaked streets (the Italian-born director has a knack for positioning bodies in space).

If the film is devoid of sexual imagery, there's profanity, mild (ganja-specific) drug use, and non-explicit--but potentially deadly--violence. Nonetheless, the British Film Board slapped the dreaded X rating on Babylon, diminishing its exposure in the United Kingdom and ensuring that it wouldn't open in the United States until almost four decades later.

This 2019 release feels uncomfortably apt. Between Donald Trump in the US and Theresa May in the UK, black people are still easy targets for bitter, resentful whites who vote against their own best interests, fail to learn from their mistakes, and go out of their way to inflict their misery on everyone they can, but especially those more vulnerable than themselves.

Then, just when it seems as if the dis-
tinction be-
tween the two camps couldn't be more stark, Blue watches in horror as his friends partic-
ipate in an act of homophobic violence. They want money, a white man has it, and they'll do whatever it takes to get it, even using his sexual orientation against him. "Money's money, innit, mate," his friend reasons. Moments later, Blue shows that he's just as capable of the same twisted logic when he threatens his lonely, neglected girlfriend.

By the end, the crew even doubts the loyalty of Ronnie (Karl Howman, Brush Strokes, Eastenders), their sole white member. Maybe he's different than the rest, maybe he isn't, but how can they be sure? If the film is refreshingly free of firearms, the knife in the first act becomes the Chekhov's Gun of the third when the anger that's been steadily accumulating culminates in the sort of vengeance the group had previously prevented.

Throughout, composer Denis Bovell's dense waves of sound saturate the scenario as surely as Tangerine Dream's pervasive score for Michael Mann's Thief (other artists on the soundtrack include I-Roy and Yabby U).

Combined with the rich, velvety imagery of Oscar-winning cinematog-
rapher Chris Menges (Kes, Local Hero, The Good Thief), who oversaw the new restoration, South London comes across as beautiful and foreboding, suspended somewhere between romantic dream and treacherous night-
mare. You may want to visit, but you certainly wouldn't want live there.

Unfortunately, many do live in such places, and escape routes for the poor and powerless are no more readily available now than they were then. Babylon is hardly a feel-good proposition, but it captures the highs--the music, the camaraderie--and lows--the homophobia, the misogyny--of an underrepresented scene with lacerating, you-are-fucking-there precision.

Babylon plays SIFF Film Center Friday, Apr 19, through Sunday, Apr 21.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mary Kay Place Shines as Diane in Kent Jones's Haunting Elegy to an Ordinary Life

(Kent Jones, 2018, USA, 95 minutes) 

Kent Jones, former film critic and director of the New York Film Festival, introduces himself as a filmmaker who isn’t obsessed with style, at least not in the ostentatious way of other first-time fiction filmmakers eager to show off their skills (his two previous features were documentaries about Elia Kazan and Hitchcock / Truffaut). This Martin Scorsese-produced film, instead, has a plainspoken, slightly hypnotic feel, which fits his seemingly quotidian subject matter.

Mary Kay Place plays Diane, a tireless widow who spends most of the movie looking after other people in her Western Massachusetts hometown. The hypnotic feel comes from the fact that she has to drive everywhere, and Jones uses the driving sequences as a sort of rhythmic, repetitive device.

Though it’s often said that women of a certain age don’t get many opportunities to play leading roles, that isn’t necessarily true. It’s more that casting directors don’t often look beyond the usual suspects and the films with unknowns, like Sean Baker's Starlet, don't attract as much attention.

Place and Graham Jarvis in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Place may not have the name recognition of Meryl Streep or Kathy Bates, but she’s hardly an unknown, so it still seems surprising that she hasn’t top-lined more films, particularly since she’s often garnered as much acclaim as--if not more than--the actors with whom she’s worked since the early-1970s.

In Jones’s film, which takes place in the dead of winter, she never stops moving. Diane volunteers at a soup kitchen, visits her terminally ill cousin Donna (a terrific Dierdre O’Connell), and checks in on her troubled son Brian (Jake Lacy, playing against his sweet, supportive Obvious Child type). Brian swears that he has bronchitis, but Diane’s quite certain he’s using again.

Though she lives by herself, she’s hardly alone. Some of the people with whom she can share her troubles include Bobbie (Andrea Martin in fine form) and Donna’s mother, Mary (Estelle Parsons, as impish as ever).

One night, the power goes off at the soup kitchen, the staff lights candles, and everyone eats their dinner bathed in the golden glow. Jones may not be obsessed with style, but that doesn't mean he eschews it as this sequence plays like something from out of a Renaissance painting. And when Diane visits Brian while he’s clearly on the nod, disorienting music and wobbly visuals converge to slow down time. There are also several lovely dissolves, like a fade out from a headlight-lit road to the inviting interior of a diner.

Once Brian disappears, Diane starts to disintegrate. She lashes out at a volunteer, argues with Donna, drinks too much, and breaks down in tears. Then, when Brian comes back, he's turned into a Bible thumper. It's like he's a pod person. Meanwhile, friends and relatives are dying around her.

Donna and Diane play bridge in the hospital
Diane goes on, but there's less to do, fewer people to see. She starts writing in a journal. Or maybe she always has, but it assumes greater importance as the perimeters of her life shrink. Eventually, it becomes so small that reality and fantasy bleed into each other. I wasn't always sure what was real and what was not, but I guess that's what it's like when you do more living inside of your head than out in the world. The past comes to the fore as the present recedes.

I found my connection to Diane slipping away as the scenario segued from realism to impressionism. If was as if the ghost in the machine was Bergman, specifically the Bergman of Wild Stawberries and Cries and Whispers; the death, the isolation, the visions. I'm usually on board with that sort of thing, but two modes don't fit together as well as they could.

Fortunately, Place weathers the changes like a champ. She never asks the audience to like her; Diane isn't perfect, and she knows it. She isn't explicitly trying to make up for misdeeds, but she is trying to be a good person. If she has a failing, it's that she doesn’t know how to be happy.

There are momentary glimpses of joy in a card game with her cousin and a sloshed singalong to a jukebox, but it never seems to last. Only her son is left behind to remember her kindness, and Jones is enough of a realist to suggest that Brian may never understand how lucky he was. But we know.

Diane opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on April 19. For more info, click here.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Hanging on by a Thread at Patrick Wang's Art-vs-Commerce Opus A Bread Factory

Dorothea and Greta ain't it / In the Family LLC
Part One: For the Sake of Gold and Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile
(Patrick Wang, USA, 2018, 242 minutes) 

"We're hanging on by a thread."
--Dorothea (Tyne Daly)

Filmed at real-life venue Time & Space Limited in Hudson, New York, the Bread Factory is the multi-disciplinary arts venue around which Patrick Wang's two-part, four-hour Rivette-meets-Wiseman film revolves.

Set in the fictional town of Checkford, the 40-year-old venue, converted from a bakery, presents plays, films, operas, and poetry readings. They bring guests to town, they encourage kids to attend performances--they serve the entire community. Director and co-founder Dorothea (the invaluable Tyne Daly, resplendent in pigtails) is the linchpin of the operation.

As Wang (In the Family) introduces his characters, he treats each scene like a play, fading to black after every conclusion. In Part Two, the musicians behind the string-based score appear on stage, much as Alan Price's combo appears on screen in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! I was also reminded of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, because the Bread Factory touches every segment of society; not just performers and audience members, but journalists, interns, waitresses, bartenders, translators (Nana Visitor of Star Trek: The Next Generation plays one), and singing tourists with selfie sticks.

Cranky director and preteen projectionist / In the Family LLC
As the film opens, a troupe rehearses a play, a poet reads his work, and a cantankerous experimental filmmaker (Janeane Garofolo having the time of her life) harangues her sparse audience. They’re all just fitting the space to their own ends when a fancy new venue opens up next door. It presents the kind of vacuous conceptual art, led by photogenic Chinese duo May Ray (married couple Janet Hsieh and George Young), that gives conceptual art a bad name ("The hierarchy of furniture is cruel, down with the hierarchy of furniture!"). Dorothea will spend most of Part One, "For the Sake of Gold," trying to convince city council members to allocate funding to the less trendy Bread Factory.

Fortunately, she isn't alone. She has Finnish-born partner Greta (Elisabeth Henry), an actress, by her side. It isn't often that a film features white-haired women, including newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O'Connor), in leading roles, particularly one that doesn't revolve around aging. Wang is more concerned about gentrification, globalization, and the value we place on art. Dorothea's opposite number, Karl (In the Family's Trevor St. John), isn't simply a younger man, he ropes in preening Hollywood actor Troop ("I go where the art is") to help his cause, but Wang is hardly against the young, since kids plays a prominent role, too, from pipsqueak journalists and filmmakers to preteen projectionist Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke).

If the struggle to secure the venue's future forms the film's spine, Wang does more than merely gesture at the art they produce, but rather stages entire scenes from Euripides and Chekhov. Sometimes, they take place on stage, sometimes offstage as if the people of today were grappling with the same issues as those long-ago Greeks and Russians, which seems to be Wang's point: they are. We bring life to theater, we bring theater to life.

Demy-inspired tourists with selfie sticks / In the Family LLC
In his conception, realtors break into four-part harmonies while hawking their wares and tech workers at a diner break into tap routines while checking their phones. There's just enough singing and dancing, particularly in Part Two, for the film to qualify as a musical, though it resembles a documentary in other respects, like the council meeting, in Part One, that has a Wiseman or Maysles feel, even if the humor is more pronounced in Wang's take on small-town politics (James Marsters, Buffy's Spike, plays the translator's husband, a school union representative).

If I had to choose between the two, I'd opt for the Altman-esque Part One, which moves more swiftly between stories, although you have to watch the more leisurely Part Two to find out what happens--or might happen--to the Bread Factory, and Wang found a touching, if somewhat ambiguous way to resolve that dilemma. Granted, he doesn't solve every mystery, like why Jan just up and disappears one day. Or whether the actor and the librarian ride off into the sunset--or whether she's just another quickly-forgotten fling.

More so than most movies, there's a sense that this community existed before Wang captured it and will continue after he fades to black for the final time, and Daly gives the kind of lived-in performance that rarely generates awards consideration, though it really should. As an unsympathetic council member tells her, "I have a feeling you'll keep going, no matter what."

A Bread Factory plays the Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, March 30 (Part One: For the Sake of Gold), at 4:15pm and Sunday, March 31 (Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile), at 7pm. Patrick Wang will be in attendance after both screenings for a Q&A. Images from The AV Club and Film Inquiry.