Curators of this summer’s 26-picture BAMcinemaFest (June 16 through 26) have not scooped up audience-tested faves from the South by/Slam/Sundance circuit so much as they’ve amassed them to advance one of those arguments that is known in the mediascape as “a strong take.”
It goes like so. Dear New York resident who might attend a film festival: You are likely a frustrated artist/dreamer, and your favored mode of relating to the city revolves around fantasizing about how you’d like to take a goddamn break from it for a weekend (if not just move to Portland, full-stop), even as you also mourn New York’s change over time, starting with whenever it was you first got here and everything commenced going downhill. We have some movies for you.
A bit on the nose, sure—though I am not going to call out BAM’s demographic-pegging department for what amounts to a surplus of attentiveness. Outside of “show some good movies,” knowing your audience is a noble enough goal for any non-industry-facing film festival to espouse. The trick is not to tickle your public’s sweet spot so ceaselessly that they just wind up with the giggles.
To get the bad out of the way first, it needs to be said that the worst summer flight-ideation movies among those at BAM over the next two weeks lean heavily on snickering about hipsters, as executed by hipsters. Sharply observed satires regarding a perceived lack of moral or intellectual engagement with the world would be welcome, but when the self-critiques come off as shallow as their targets, we have a problem. Observe, in The Woods, how a gaggle of undergrads with one too many ’60s head movies stored in the shared Netflix queue strikes out to establish a commune—or social network—in the forest.
Most of the movie plays underneath the voiceover of a man-boy who informs us that an aptitude for high school sports was simply part and parcel of his having been “pretty cool at everything.” The movie’s point is that his internal monologue is dull and studded with humble bragging even during a would-be revolution—but that’s about it. How is it that the first Kickstarter-funded feature to premiere at Sundance came to take such a narrowly derisive view of social media? Absent any of the complexity that it makes fun of its own characters for lacking, The Woods becomes as tiresome as its targets.
We see something similar in Green, when a twee couple given to timorously voiced (but oh-so-grave) sparring over who has read more Philip Roth escapes to a cottage for more quality time together. The score transmits a horror-show, “What lurks in the dark?” vibe from the opening-credit sequence that follows the pair into the country—and sure enough, upon their arrival, these horribly behaving aesthetes turn their story into a mumblecore Antichrist, with debates over installation art rather convincingly standing in for auto-genital cutting on the sadism scale. In both The Woods and Green, characters leave the city but take the clichés of bohemia along with them—which, for any movie audience sitting in Brooklyn, makes for no kind of escape at all.
Luckily, it’s the festival movies with greater character diversity—and, as a result, a lot of just plain interesting stuff to look at—that offer the more fascinating slants on city-slicker identity crises. And by “diversity,” I mean the following: Sasquatches, veterans from the Afghanistan and New York crack wars, gay sex partners who spend as much time looking at each other’s faces as they do each other’s scrotums, and women jiggling their pastie-spangled breasts on foreign shores.
French entry Tournee takes real-life stars from America’s nu-burlesque scene (Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, and others) and plops them inside a fictionalized rural tour schedule that pointedly circumnavigates Gay Paree. But when their disgraced tour booker can’t get them to the City of Lights, Mimi Le Meaux—the best actress from the troupe—at least makes sure he gives them a substitute narrative climax out in the country.
As the Forest Service–working protagonist in Letters From the Big Man says from her prime perch within Oregon’s Cascade mountain range, the woods are a place where “disconnected city people come to get connected again.” Her character levels this as a criticism, but oddly enough she’s in one of the few films at the festival that has some compassion for the conflicted urban outsider.
Big Man mashes a few genre moves (the title refers to a soulful Sasquatch) against complex political concerns (forest conservation and logging) to cross-pollinate a field in which some new form of emo-indie intimacy can take root. Even when unsure of whether a climax absolutely requires rising action, director Christopher Munch’s hybrid winds up feeling like an authentic discovery of indie territory left unexplored since John Sayles’s 1984 Brother From Another Planet.
The only other narrative film I saw, in previews, that featured head-on political engagement as emotionally involving as Big Man’s was the festival-opening Weekend—a gay-themed Before Sunrise in which a gallery underling from London’s art scene stumbles into a 48-hour romance with a sorta out-of-closet lifeguard that makes him think twice about abandoning the urban hang for graduate studies in . . . gah, Oregon. (So it’s the same with you Brits, too?)
Describing his own art, Glen laments how straights won’t be interested “cuz it’s nothing to do with them,” while gays won’t much fuck with it since there aren’t any cock shots to take in. His new lover laughs with a bit of aspirational knowingness—there’s a sense that he’s not as clued in to whatever intra-gay-scene problems Glen is diagnosing, but wants to learn all about them anyway. The moment feels painfully real and sweet, as does the film’s ending. Without spoiling what happens and how, it’s fair to say the pivot away from Linklater-style sentimentality leaves little room for a sequel hook-up a decade down the road.
Also too good to spoil are a pair of knockout docs about war zones and how they change American landscapes, rural and urban. Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer is Charlie Ahearn’s own deuce up in the sky just for hip-hop’s proto-shutterbugg. It starts out, to a worrying degree, with simple style-nostalgia: an itemized discussion of the hats and shoes in Shabazz’s recently rediscovered oeuvre. Though when Ahearn follows the observant Shabazz into Brooklyn barber shops to show his “back in the day” photos to descendants and survivors of the crack wars, the movie gets deep quick. Shabazz’s images morph from art-show fetish objects to oral history prompts that reveal a New York since scrubbed over by the new kind of old money that can’t wait to beat it out of town during the summer months.
Not everyone has the option of escaping battlefield heat, however. As captured by director Heather Courtney in Where Soldiers Come From, we see how a group of kids from Michigan turned National Guardsmen spend their last pre-Afghanistan weekend working on a massive spray-painted mural. It’s a purposeful, if temporally doomed, way of imposing their reality on the face of the country’s skyline.
Soon enough, the boys find themselves defusing IEDs (or not, occasionally). It’s as if Courtney was able to take the high-caliber cowboy horseshit out of The Hurt Locker—with its subtext that our warriors in harm’s way can’t feel anything anyway, so we might as well thrill to the adrenaline—without sacrificing the real white-knuckle risk. There’s a hard-won and heart-stopping bit of homecoming at a rural high school that’s worthy of Friday Night Lights. Courtney might have used that scene to end the movie, had she intended to be gentle with us. But she won’t stop there, in the best tradition of going hard. Brooklyn needs it.