By Jared Chausow
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High school football players roam the landscape like wild dogs through decaying ruins. Gold-chained guidos and their hairsprayed honeys lurk about in perpetual crassness. Anesthetized mothers think pleasant thoughts as car alarms ring deafeningly around them. An awkward pet-store employee daydreams to Cheap Trick's "Surrender," while a sullen goth girl stews in the back seat of her parents' car.
It's a chillingly accurate scene of the Island remarkable since its creator, filmmaker Amy Talkington, hails from Texas.
Talkington, who now lives in Manhattan, will screen her award-winning short Second Skin Aug. 21 as part of the Huntington International Film Festival at the Cinema Arts Centre. The 15-minute film is a quasi-comic glimpse into teenage life in a mundane, depressing place better known as Levittown. That's where Billy (the pet-shop boy) spends his days gazing lovingly at a six-foot python until Gwen (the sister of mercy) enters his life by buying the snake. Together, they survive a Long Island bus ride and predatory jocks before finding a bit of sweetness and freedom in the breezy Nassau twilight.
Unlike many other New York artists (especially those not originally from the Northeast) whose knowledge of Long Island begins and ends at Nick & Toni's in East Hampton, Talkington knew Levittown was the place for her film from the very start.
"Levittown is one of the most prototypical suburbs in all of America," she says. "My mother is an architectural historian, so I guess I know a little bit more about towns in America than some."
Talkington made Second Skin as part of her MFA study of film at Columbia, but she's already an accomplished photographer and journalist, writing about music and film for Spin, CMJ and Ray Gun, where she is a contributing editor. But before becoming the media-savvy girl about town, she was just another alienated adolescent in Texas.
"I spent most of my childhood in a relatively interesting part of downtown Dallas," she explains, "but then my family moved to north Dallas near Plano. I hated it all strip malls, house after matching house, sprawling out on flat Dallas. When I hit my teen angst time was when we moved out there, and that just furthered my anger."
Now, at 29, Talkington still finds this period of conflict to be fertile ground for sowing stories even long after the scars of prom anxiety have healed: "That time of my life was just loaded with emotion and change. And that is what is interesting in film. I'm just embarking on a feature that visits the same time, and I feel that I finally perhaps got it out of my system."
It's interesting to see how a filmmaker from NYC via Texas uses Long Island as an archetypal community of conformity, setting up a sort of Mad Max journey toward freedom for the heroes. For those of us who experience the ups and downs of suburban living every day, this kind of exaggerated fable is at once resonant and insufficient.
Still, there is something uplifting for lifelong LI outcasts about seeing a film where two misfit teens stand up to a gang of pumped-up goons while speeding across a dreary stretch of Hempstead Turnpike in a county bus. Especially when the film is sprinkled with beautiful images like when ominous power lines reflect over Billy's face through the pet-store window he's cleaning. Shots like this reveal Talkington's background as a fine-arts photographer and add texture to her broadly drawn tale.
Maybe it's her connection to the music world, but Second Skin is reminiscent of a Ramones song. It has that same quick buzz of delight. The cartoonish rebels and dysfunctional love that punk served up in spades is also present in force. The film is like a favorite chorus you shout along to in the car it doesn't want, or try, to be Sgt. Pepper's. It's a hopeful bit of celluloid in a forest of tangled tape.
Also not to be missed at the festival is Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's second full-length feature, Radiation. This New York husband-and-wife team received significant attention for their debut film, the black-and-white Half Cocked, which documented the trials of a fictional Southern indie rock band. Radiation takes the raw materials of Half Cocked and brings them vividly to a new landscape.
Part documentary on the Spanish music scene, part existential allegory, Radiation follows the disintegration of a Spanish music promoter who makes mistake after mistake with a near religious fervor. Shot in gorgeous bleeding colors, Hawley and Galinsky use the same sensitivity to capture both the surreal beauty of Spain and the disquieting sound of a man falling apart.
HUNTINGTON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Aug 20-23 at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave, Huntington.SECOND SKIN shows with Long Island shorts at 1pm Aug 21.RADIATION shows at 9:15pm Aug 21. See Movie listings in 8 Days for complete schedule. Levittown or leave it: Aleksa Palladino and Glenn Fitzgerald in Skin.