How we took it for granted: going to New York movie theaters and having a communal New York movie experience. The sensual community of it is key — belonging, with perfect strangers and maybe a few loved ones, to a slice of cultural context, be it a new film everyone needs to see if it’s all it’s been cracked up to be, or a classic film with a new restoration haircut, or whatever.
Because sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you don’t go to a movie, you go to The Movies.
This dynamic applies in a special way to the adorable reality of small film festivals, like the new edition of the annual Brooklyn fest, which, initiated during the Clinton Administration, is now chugging along in its unpretentious way toward its 24th year. In a landscape that used to be dominated by a dozen large global fests and is now populated with many thousands, such small fests are, for patrons, a particular movie-geek circumstance. Our approach is different: we don’t go looking for masterpieces. Those films will show up elsewhere; at the small fests, we get the self-financed indies and tough-to-sell imports that few tastemakers will fall on their swords for. We are in fact vacationing in Indiestan, the canton within Filmmakingland where you go to see the struggle, the hope, the measured ambitions, the hearts on the sleeves, the family crew members and maxed credit cards, the unwise and unchecked movie love running recklessly in every direction.
We’re sharing the filmmakers’ fear and desire, essentially, in an agora carved out just for that purpose. World-shaking excellence is not on the menu; instead, quaint personal-story first films, earnest but unsubtle perfs, visual ideas borrowed from other films often because the filmmakers were thunderstruck and never got over it. It’s the eagerness, if not the skill, to matter, if only to a small audience, who came to huddle with that feeling. You attend a small fest like you go to a minor league baseball game — to marinate in the dream and the effort and the love of the game. We’re all on the cheering squad, manning the home front, jacked into the mad ordeal to which the filmmaker has surrendered.
So, it’s churlish, looking at the new Brooklyn lineup, to attempt a critical dispassion with the films themselves. Taylor Olson’s Bone Cage is typical, a simple, squalid working-class-Canadian downward spiral (Olson wrote and starred, too, with beery pugnaciousness) that occasionally grabs your throat with an industrial reality, as Olson’s disgruntled nowhere man drives a timber harvester, a fierce contraption that severs, strips and cuts up full-grown trees in seconds. Jo Shaffer’s Hell Is Empty takes on more, diving into the newly-energized indie yen for anti-patriarchal movies about cults but exploring the grungy, dysfunctional side of the paradigm. Undermined by doubt, rebellion, and petty bickering, this tiny Christian-sect-in-the-woods, run by a rather uncharismatic and impatient messiah (Travis Mitchell), is perpetually on the verge of dissolving into a cabin full of grumpy campers. Nothing terribly creepy, just a miniature autocracy that can’t quite retain control of its minions.
Gabriel Bologna’s Tango Shalom is more like it: A movie perhaps only a mother and father, plus some aunts, could love — that mother and father being vets Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, both doing bits in a barn-broad Crown Heights comedy about an oy vey iz mir Hasid rabbi (Jos Laniado) who, out of work, tests his moral code by entering a tango contest with a smokin’ dance instructor (Karina Smirnoff). It is, at the very least, 100% Brooklyn. Michelle Bossy’s Under the Lantern Lit Sky goes whole-low-budget-hog on its time and place, too, WWII-era Louisiana, thick with soft-focus and fake golden dusk light and rushing streams of drawled dialogue (written by very busy star Jacklyn Bethany), in a soapy Southern-belle melodrama that ends up with an opium-enabled sexual assault.
Isabel del Rosal’s Walk with Me enters another over-booked genre clubhouse: the never-knew-I-was-gay sad lesbian romance. All pistons are firing, as a disgruntled new mom (Devin Dunne Cannon) leaves her neglectful husband and becomes spontaneously smitten with her new apartment’s realtor (Bridget Barkan), a cool redhead folksinger who doesn’t quite see the squared-straight conflicts around the corner — especially with the shockable old-school grandparents. Featuring one of the sweeter love scenes in the recent girl-on-girl wave, the film is also pure Brooklyn — and like Bologna’s farce, strangely safe and hokey for that. Are we that gentrified now?
A dose of real problem-making may be in order, such as Marcelo Brennand’s Corral, a sharp-eyed Brazilian scorcher set in the rural scrubs around Gravata, where water deliveries are a key factor in political power. We follow an itinerant water scammer (Thomas Aquino), a Black man, as he is seduced into a white school buddy’s election campaign as a token of authenticity. The locals don’t believe a word of it, votes are bought for cold cash, souls are sold for less, and the inherent racial caste system in the country bubbles to the surface. Familiarly neo-realist but always shot and cut on point, Brennand’s movie is an aching arm-shot of truthful cynicism.
Matthew Lucas’ Kringle Time also stands out for not seeming to need our empathy at all — it’s a thoroughly seasoned low-comedy hoot, crammed with full-tilt comic pros crafting confident schtick with few fucks given, in a The Office kind of way. A public-access TV station’s Barney-like kiddie show star suddenly dies on camera, sending the production staff (and the unassuming but obsessed manager, played by Benny Elledge) into scramble mode, eventually discovering that the old alkie was a serial intern molester. All missteps and padded dream sequences are worth the perfs, particularly Alyssa Keegan as the hard-charging producer, Vernon Wells (Wez in The Road Warrior!) as the grizzled old perv, co-producer Gigi Edgley as the man’s boozy daughter, and ex-martial arts star Jeff Wincott as the teary memorial-haunted mayor. You shouldn’t let the slick timing and showbiz savviness ruin your good neighborhood-fest vibrations. ❖
24th Brooklyn Film Festival