In just its sixth year, the Independent Film Festival of Boston has become one of the city’s biggest cinematic events and, for most local movie geeks, the preferred alternative to the increasingly moribund Boston Film Festival that barely happens each Fall. It appeals, though, not just to obsessives but to a big chunk of the community—for some screenings, the festival manages to completely fill the 600-seat main room at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and even the 900-seat auditorium at the Somerville Theatre.
The IFF Boston is drawing more and more filmmakers, too. Last year—my first attending the festival—there were a smattering of director Q&As after the films I attended, but this year’s festival included the directors and often also writers, editors, or producers of almost all the features I caught—including indie film darlings like Tom Kalin, Harmony Korine, Chris Eigeman, and Boston’s own Brad Anderson—as well as stars, including Famke Janssen and Sir Ben Kingsley.
The 2008 festival includes a dizzying 32 narrative features, 26 documentary features, and 38 shorts packed into a week’s time, with more than half of the screenings crammed into Saturday and Sunday programs so dense it could take hours just to prioritize one’s top picks.
Pressed for time and fighting a cold that crops up on the festival’s opening day and sticks around for the duration, I manage 11 narratives, 4 documentaries, and 15 shorts—really just scratching the surface, but what a fascinating and varied surface. From painfully intimate autobiographical docs like “Meadowlark” and “Wild Blue Yonder” to maddeningly impenetrable pretentious-fests like “Mister Lonely” and “The Tracey Fragments,” the festival is by turns moving, edifying, and confounding.
Opening night at the Somerville Theatre is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, as the festival rolls a red carpet out into funky, hipster-dominated Davis Square, and bewildered locals stop to stare at the lines wrapping around the theater and the big black SUVs carrying the luminaries associated with the opening night film, “Transsiberian.” Getting all those people seated and docile takes a long time and a lot of free potato chips from Utz (a festival sponsor), but the crowd is still enthusiastic when director Brad Anderson takes the stage a half-hour behind schedule and introduces the film, noting that this very theater played a role in his wanting to become a filmmaker.
The movie itself is a solid but not quite great thriller, with a fantastic lead performance by Emily Mortimer as good woman with a bad past and a tedious supporting performance by Woody Harrelson as her dim Boy Scout of a husband. Its plot moves smoothly from Hitchcock territory into something more like Polanski, but then it edges into Kafka and yet another overwrought Anderson ending, too incredible to be satisfying.
After the film, there‘s a Q&A with Anderson, his co-writer Will Conroy, associate producer Michael Williams, and Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays a Russian detective on the trail of the heroin smugglers that Mortimer and Harrelson encounter. Anderson, tall, scruffily handsome, and just a little bit cocky, describes how the film grew out of his own travels on the trans-Siberian railroad 20 years ago, but it’s Kingsley who does most of the talking, as the audience peppers him with the standard questions one asks a Serious Actor. Kingsley, who looks like a speck on the stage next to the towering Anderson, manages to come off as charmingly self-deprecating and a little too serious at the same time.
On the festival’s second night, I return to Somerville for ”Mister Lonely,” the bizarre new film from the always bizarre Harmony Korine. I’ve never really enjoyed Korine’s films, but I dislike them in a way that I find intriguing, and anyway, too many otherwise intelligent people have bought into his pretensions for ignoring him to really be an option.
The film is a lot of nonsense about a group of celebrity impersonators living a desperate, cloistered life in a commune on a grand estate in the Scottish Highlands. This is interspersed with scenes from a narratively unrelated story about a group of nuns in Panama who, under the mad guidance of a priest played by Werner Herzog, discover that they can skydive without parachutes and land unharmed. Ostensibly, the film’s theme has something to do with faith, but it mostly seems constructed around a series of cheap ironies.
The real fun begins, though, after the film ends and Korine begins his Q&A. As one might expect, half the audience seems to be under the influence of powerful psychotropic substances—though ironically Korine himself is as sober as I’ve seen him. Early on, a member of the audience who I think identifies himself as Alex Hazeltine begins an intimate public exchange with Korine, whom he claims to know quite well. Hectoring and affectionate, he calls Korine out for the cartoonishness of the characters and claims a personal relationship as well with Canadian director Guy Maddin, whom he says has nicknamed Korine “Armful of Harmful.” If it ain’t true, it oughtta be.
Adam Roffman, the festival’s program director, tries to rein in the discussion after the standard 15 or 20 minutes so that he can clear the room for the next screening, but Korine insists that he’s flown to Boston for this and is going to make it worth his trouble. He then goes on to tell a rambling story of his childhood in Nashville, Tenn., where he and his friends would steal sidewalk curbs and use them to tap dance for an audience of chickens in the backyard of one of their homes.
Now in the mood for warped tales from Middle America, I decide to check out ”Meadowlark,” a feature making its debut at the IFF Boston. The film is an autobiographical documentary from first-time director Taylor Greeson that focuses on the summer he was 12. It was then that, while living with his divorced mother in Billings, Mont., he began his first sexual relationship, with a 20-year-old man renting a room in her home. He was also ordained into the Mormon priesthood, as “all good Mormon boys” are at age 12. That was also the summer that Greeson’s 15-year-old half-brother was stabbed to death in circumstances that are unclear to this day.
The film is wrenching, searching, and somehow ultimately restorative. Greeson, who narrates but appears on-camera only briefly, is candid and self-critical as he examines both his personal history and his motives and methods for doing so. In the film and in the Q&A that followed, Greeson comes across as admirably wise and self-aware, and talented as well. Only 27 years old, he’ll be one to watch.
On Friday, I meet my friend Rob at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline for “Savage Grace” and “The Tracey Fragments,” two of the films I’ve most been looking forward to, and, ultimately, two of the festival’s bigger disappointments. ”Savage Grace” is only the second feature from Tom Kalin, whose arty Leopold and Loeb docudrama “Swoon” was one of the big hits of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. All that time hasn’t done much to change Kalin, who’s still aestheticizing tabloid fodder into art. This time it’s the sordid saga of the Baekeland family, the dysfunctional heirs to the Bakelite plastic fortune.
Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly Baekeland, whose marriage to Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) brought her out of working-class Boston and into luxury and social prominence in New York and internationally but only exacerbated her narcissism, licentiousness, and self-destructive tendencies. All her relationships were ultimately toxic, but none so much as that with her son Tony, played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne (Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie’s son in “The Good Shepherd”).
Moore gives a great performance—petulant, haughty, but also desperately brittle—and Redmayne is more than credible as her son (though his odd, coltish physiognomy continues to confound me). And the film looks amazing—the camerawork is elegant, the period costumes and interiors are lovely, and the color schemes are so deliberate that it’s clear Kalin planned every nuance, refined every visual detail within an inch of its life. And that’s just what’s wrong with the film as well, for as beautiful as it is, it’s like those period rooms in museums: something we admire from afar but are never permitted to enter.
Kalin himself, conversely, couldn’t be more approachable and gregarious. In a wide-ranging Q&A, he discusses his method and intent in making the film as well as the real-life backstory of the Baekeland family. The project, he says, had gestated since 1993, when his producer Christine Vachon gave him the book. He was immediately taken in by the story and its oedipal overtones, but at the time the rights to the book were held by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, of all things. When their option expired, he and Vachon were able to get the rights, but it still took a decade to finally get the project off the ground. I admire his tenacity and his strong visual aesthetic, but knowing more of the film’s long journey to the screen only makes it more frustrating that it’s ultimately so lacking in psychological acuity.
If “Savage Grace” is a period room in a museum, ”The Tracey Fragments” is more like a multimedia installation at a contemporary gallery—all noise and activity and bombardment of the senses to obscure the lack of any real point. And if “Savage Grace” is a disappointment relative to my hopes for it, “The Tracey Fragments” is a real kick in the teeth. After Ellen Page—so talented and versatile in “Hard Candy,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” (yes, really), and “Juno”—followed that breakout role with a lackluster performance in an underwritten role in “Smart People,” I was really hoping for more from this one. (It was actually shot before “Juno,” though, so one hopes that Page’s upcoming projects will be better suited to her talents, though neither “The Stone Angel” nor “Whip It!” looks all that promising.)
“The Tracey Fragments” presents Page as a distraught-but-snarky 15-year-old named Tracey Berkowitz who finds herself alone in the back of a city bus wearing only a shower curtain and fretting over the disappearance of her nine-year-old brother while in her care. The film is a visual assault, with the screen constantly subdivided into multiple shots showing the action of each scene from multiple points of view, using multiple takes, with dialogue and activity overlapping and never quite meshing. Is the audience’s alienation from the film meant to mirror Tracey’s alienation from everyone around her? Maybe. But who cares?
It’s also told out of chronology, roughly backward, so that its plot becomes clear only gradually and painfully, with the eventually transparent goal of obscuring the facts that the writer, Maureen Medved, simply doesn’t have an ending.
After the screening, Rob says to me, “You know when I knew it was going to be unwatchable? About 10 minutes in, when she’s running across the screen while that awful cover version of Patti Smith’s “Horses” is playing, and they start superimposing an image of a horse over her body every time you hear the word in the song.” Rob, you couldn’t be more right.
The story continues in Part Two of Film Threat’s Independent Film Festival of Boston Wrap-Up>>>