Thoughts on the 14th annual Cucalorus Film Festival
I've never attended a film festival before this weekend. The reasons are ordinary and boring – financial limitations mostly, as well as geographical limitations (the closest possible festival I could have attended would have been Chicago's, four hours away from my boyhood hometown). I also seem to have an allergy to schmoozing, and that's about all that went on at the open bars and finger-food trays. But this year, my two limitations were erased by my wife's employer, which gave us all-access passes to the Cucalorus Film Festival, now in its fourteenth year in Wilmington, N.C. Cucalorus began Wednesday, but the status of our tickets were up in the air until Thursday and, because of our work schedules, she and I weren't able to start attending features until Friday evening (thus missing the much-praised Shotgun Stories). Here are two capsule reviews of films we were able to see.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
(d. Kelly Reichardt. United States. 80 mins.)
There has already been some Oscar buzz about Michelle Williams' performance in Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy. I'm here to say the buzz isn't unwarranted, but I also wouldn't double-down on the odds. Williams is quite good as Wendy Carroll, a melancholic and struggling young woman who, with her utterly adorable dog Lucy, is on her way to Alaska from Indiana when her car breaks down in a rural Oregon town. When she is picked up for shoplifting and sent off to the county jail to pay a fine, she loses Lucy and spends the rest of the film trying to get her car fixed and trying to find the most loyal companion she seems to have had in a long time. Two items of particular note: Todd Haynes was the film's executive producer, and the story is adapted from Jon Raymond's short story "Train Choir" (the screenplay co-written by Raymond and Reichardt). I was unaware of the source material, but the film has an unmistakable feel of a short story, from its sparse and unembellished plot to the strict adherence to a traditional narrative arc. The result isn't an entire negative for the screenplay, but its ending became predictable to me (then again, I am currently up to my ears in short stories and an M.F.A. program). Occasionally I worried the film was a little too manipulative of my emotions (whether you find such a thing grounds for guilt is up to you), but by the end I couldn't deny how impressed I was with Reichardt's film. It is careful and methodical, but never slow, and although it is frequently sad and upsetting in the continual roadblocks Wendy experiences, the character's life is not without moments of redemption. It is a fascinating character study, and each frame pulses with Reichardt's craftsmanship.
American Swing (2008)
(d. Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart. United States. 81 mins.)
American Swing has an intriguing topic, and it seems to know it, to the degree that it attempts to coast through from start to finish on its subject matter while casting aside important narrative elements and a requisite sense of balance. The documentary is profile of sex-club auteur Larry Levenson, whose New York-based swingers club Plato's Retreat became a flashpoint for the fast and wild sex revolution in the late 1970s. More to the point, however, the documentary is concerned with the regulars of Plato's, now presumably AARP members, and it lets them spin their fabulous and glamorized (even in hindsight) tales of promiscuous and anonymous intercourse with little interruption. The film isn't shy at all, loaded with lots of stock footage of writhing bodies, swimming bodies, dancing bodies, strutting bodies, etc., all without clothing. While the effect is desensitizing (a suspected goal of the filmmakers and the subjects), unfortunately it is also dehumanizing, and the interviewees become caricatures of themselves when the film chooses not to peer more closely into their lives. The film feels a little like a first draft, and I grew frustrated with the fact that the film keeps circling back to the concept of how wild and zany Plato's was. The repetition could have (and should have) been scrapped in favor of a greater exploration into the psychological and social effects Plato's had on the participants. Levenson himself becomes a victim of his own greed and another man's jealousy; his girlfriend Mary became institutionalized; and two of his coworkers had to run off in fear of possibly mob-related retribution, but the film glosses over these narrative roads, which would have been a welcome respite from the overused stock footage. When the film touches on the outbreak of AIDS in the early 1980s (Plato's Retreat would be eventually shutdown by public health officials in New York City), it is treated too peripherally. The documentary ends rather happily, with many participants showing little to no regret for their time as swingers. While I have no doubt there are people who feel that way, American Swing didn't convince their story is the only story, giving an otherwise engaging and intriguing film a rather lopsided point-of-view.
16 November 2008
Thoughts on the 14th annual Cucalorus Film Festival