Go to the movies often enough, and the movies start to seem dull. Have you ever found yourself stuck in a cinematic rut, whereupon every ingratiating indie drama, talking-head documentary, and mainstream studio blockbuster of the season cannot help but seem vaguely feeble and indistinguishably mundane? For some months now, I have languished in such a slump. I have trudged with dutiful tenacity to the cinema week after week, hopeful that perhaps this will be the acclaimed art-house horror picture or cerebral science fiction thriller that at last breaks the spell and reawakens my interest in the medium — and I have left each time further demoralized and out another fifteen dollars. Something out there must be capable of penetrating this malaise, I reasoned. I just didn’t know what it would be.
It might sound silly to say that BAMcinemaFest restored my faith in movies. But the fact is the tenth edition of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s superb annual showcase of independent film has had a revitalizing effect on this moviegoer: I have been duly braced and galvanized by what I’ve seen from this year’s festival, thrilled and heartened by what the programmers have in store. “What sustains and expands the art house is consistently delivering discoveries,” writes Eric Allen Hatch, former director of programming at the Maryland Film Festival, in a much-circulated and indispensable recent essay in Filmmaker magazine. “Let’s push for a future of film that’s built on a network of festivals, venues, and film communities whose primary concern is a cinema that’s unapologetically diverse, expansive, and ready to take risks.” This is the vision BAMcinemaFest promises. Here, the cinema bristles with risk — and now is the time to discover it.
Roaring over the horizon like a thunderclap comes Leigh Ledare’s audacious, incendiary nonfiction social experiment The Task, a documentary experience more intense and provocative than any in recent memory. Indeed, I cannot honestly remember the last time a movie excited me so much as The Task did the first time (of three) I watched it. Here is the rare instance of a filmmaker attempting something truly radical: Ledare, an artist and photographer, organized a three-day conference in Chicago in which thirty strangers from different social, racial, and economic backgrounds were invited to participate alongside ten professional psychologists in an exercise whose only stated objective was “to examine one’s behavior in the here and now.”
Examine the participants do, in conversations that seethe and boil with latent resentments, misunderstandings, and prejudices — some smuggled in behind shows of affected courtesy, others laid bare in maelstroms of candid rancor. The debate, with sometimes frenzied energy, encompasses everything from white privilege to the Vietnam War to the precise unspoken power differential between one chair in the room and another. Cleverly, and thrillingly, it plays like a snapshot of the state of public discourse in 2018, occasional lapses into bickering and all. At the center throughout remains the presence of the artist. Ledare stages this experiment with savvy, and anticipates that his subjects will soon begin to question his role. When eventually they do, The Task leaps from mere social study to a profound interrogation of what we expect from artists, and of what we want from art.
Onward from the analyst’s sofa to the dilapidated living-room couch. Joel Potrykus, out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of the great punks of the independent film world. His scuzzy, crude, defiantly tasteless comedies, so smart and mordant, are as concentrated as a dose of 5-hour Energy, and leave an aftertaste that is similarly acerbic. His breakthrough feature, Buzzard (2014), was a ferocious character study of a slacker on a quest for self-annihilation, as well as a subversive portrait of class in America. He returns to BAM this year with Relaxer, an even funnier, nastier, and more abrasive film, not about class but about culture. It’s an apocalypse story that pins the end of days to the turn of the millennium, whose anxieties manifest in ways both frightening and outrageously perverse — from piss to Pac-Man, from Faygo to Jerry Maguire, the cacophonous gnarly lot of it colliding into something wildly, happily unique.
Watching Clara’s Ghost, meanwhile, I felt sure I’d seen it all before: matriarch of a prosperous showbiz family lost six feet deep in a sinkhole of depression; wild former child stars cute and innocent no more; reluctant family reunion animated by hereditary alcoholism and a copious quantity of booze. But writer-director Bridey Elliott’s debut feature has more wit and ingenuity than is suggested by its familiar logline — and in fact this playful, intelligent film is a genuine original. An irregular conceit gives the premise some bite: Elliott plays a thinly veiled version of her own aspiring-actress self, and she has cast her more famous sister (Abby Elliott), once-famous father (Chris Elliott), and distinctly unfamous mother (Paula Elliott) as her carping, drinking, screeching clan. As funhouse-mirror caricature, this family portraiture is unsparing and uproarious. As honest self-reckoning, it is shocking, disturbing, and brave. (Bridey draws an especially compelling performance from her mom, who ought to be propelled by this to overdue stardom.)
Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life, a BAMcinemaFest world premiere, bears all the usual hallmarks of a New York indie of the post–Kim’s Video era: sumptuous 16mm cinematography, razor-sharp script, extravagant opening titles — even a cameo by Keith Poulson, here credited unimprovably as “An Asshole.” But don’t be deceived: The sensibility is strictly sui generis. Chained for Life begins as ripe movie-business satire in the tradition of The Player, though with “sophisticated” international art-house fare as its target rather than Hollywood backlots. A snide, much-deferred-to foreign auteur (Charlie Korsmo) mounting his American debut wants to find his (dubious) idea of beauty in his (offensive) idea of ugly, which of course entails variously insulting, patronizing, and condescending behavior toward his largely disabled cast of hospital-bound “freaks.” Chief among them is Rosenthal (Under the Skin’s Adam Pearson), whose efforts to remain professional among co-stars Mabel (Jess Weixler) and Max (The Mend’s Stephen Plunkett, hilarious) is the heart of the film.
Chained for Life is a fine film about how disability is misappropriated. The barbs really sting, as when a dwarf on set remarks, dryly, that his credits include such estimable pictures as Mistakes of God. (To which Max replies that he saw it and it was “very powerful.”) But it gets more daring and nuanced when it shifts midway from trenchant comedy to empathetic character study, imagining a new world of creative possibilities for its vibrant, motley cast. The “freaks” take over, and their impromptu, after-hours movie shoots on set furnish the film with some of its most indelible images and memorable scenes. It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream. It’s a perfect ending to a film I hope enjoys a long, successful life, exciting others as it excited me.
June 20–July 1