In a culture subsumed by corporations and consumerism, the term "independent film" seems a little naive. In its third year, however, the Independent Film Festival of Boston still bears its name with good faith. "Independent" here is not a generic label; it means "outsider" and "alternative," not just in the way the films are made but in what they’re about.
You can’t get much more outside the system than Hal Hartley’s The Girl from Monday (April 22 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts; April 23 at 10 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre; April 24 at noon at the Brattle Theatre). In a dystopic future that looks very much like the present except that there are more SWAT cops around, the "Revolution" has put a corporation named Three M in charge of everything. Consumption is the ultimate goal, people have sex to up their market value, and nobody would be caught dead without a barcode. The only resistance to this Brave New World comes from "counter-revolutionaries with no credit rating" led by a corporate insider (Bill Sage) with a bad case of weltschmerz. Oh, and then there are the alien "immigrants." Hartley, an indie icon for decades, proves that alternative doesn’t necessarily mean original as he raids films ranging from Ron Howard’s Splash to Chris Marker’s "La jetée" for inspiration.
Hartley didn’t have to visit the future for a chilling look at the alienation and emptiness of current cultural and economic trends. In Chain (April 23 at noon and April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre), Jem Cohen simply takes a camera and shoots the malls sprawling across America and then backs these anomic vistas with jarring electronic music. After this lengthy, establishing montage, Cohen focuses on two opposed but identical drifters in the trans-national corporate matrix: Tamiko, a Japanese executive on a business trip to explore theme-park ideas for her company, and Amanda, a young homeless woman who’s gotten her hands on a video camera. Cohen conjures a hypnotic mood of soulnessness but allows his heroines, deluded or down-and-out though they may be, to prevail.
They could take some tips on resistance from the subject of Jenny Abel’s Abel Raises Cain (April 22 at 5:15 p.m. and April 23 at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre and April 24 at 3:15 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, with the filmmaker and her father, Alan Abel, present). Since the 1950s, Alan Abel has been undermining the established order, in particular the media, with brilliant and usually tasteless hoaxes. His first brainstorm came when he got caught in a traffic jam caused by fornicating cattle. He formed the "Society for Indecency in Animals" (SINA), to the outrage of the many and the amusement of the few, and he’s spent his life since appearing on TV and radio for such bogus causes as the banning of breast feeding and the promotion of the nutritional value of hair. Probably the greatest dad any kid could wish for.
Another outsider resisting the mainstream is profiled in Philip Di Fiore’s Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth (April 23 at 10:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts and April 24 at 9:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, with Bernie Worrell and the Strangers performing after the Somerville screening). The keyboardist for George Winston’s Parliament Funkadelics and David Byrne’s Talking Heads, Worrell is described by the film’s own talking heads as "Jimi Hendrix on keyboards" and a musician as great as Beethoven and Bach. If Di Fiore had let Worrell play his music rather than have people try to describe it, those claims might be more credible. As it is, Worrell’s work seems sometimes cheesily psychedelic, sometimes otherworldly, manic, and profound.
Here’s someone who beat the system, though it took a fortune to do so: Isabella Stewart Gardner. By buying up her favorite artworks and displaying them for posterity in her museum, she removed them from the sphere of commerce and preserved them for the enjoyment of all. That is, until thieves broke in and made off with 11 canvases, including Jan Vermeer’s The Concert, in 1990. Rebecca Dreyfus’s Stolen (April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre; April 23 at 11 a.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts; April 24 at 2:30 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre) calls on famed fine-arts detective Harold Smith to solve the theft. None of his leads pans out, so Dreyfus follows a few of her own, tapping some experts to explain the genius of Vermeer and chatting with others about Gardner, whose turn-of-the-century letters to Bernard Berenson and his replies are read by Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott. The result is a pile of loose, if edifying, ends.
Documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport investigates a more amorphous mystery, with greater success, in her road movie Parallel Lines (April 23 at 6:30 p.m. and April 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, with Davenport present both days). Finishing up an assignment in San Diego on September 11, 2001, Davenport decided not to return at once to her Manhattan apartment but instead to drive cross-country to interview her fellow Americans. The back stories of her subjects prove far more fascinating than their responses (or lack thereof) to a nightmare that was rapidly being recast into chauvinist bombast by the media and the politicians. As in her debut, Hello Photo, Davenport shows a knack for discerning the exotic, the surreal, and the poignant beneath the seemingly banal. This is the best documentary I have seen about September 11, and about America in general, since that terrible day.
The best narrative feature in the festival is Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (April 22 at 4 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre and April 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, with the filmmaker present both days). Here Bujalski fulfills the promise shown in his 2003 debut feature, Funny Ha Ha. He has moved from the womb of Boston to the testing grounds of New York City and has shifted format to black and white, undaunted by the inevitable comparisons that will be made with every other indie filmmaker who’s done the same, or by the irrelevant comparisons that will be made between his hero and that of every other indie film. Alan (Justin Rice) is a twentysomething musician who like Bujalski has minimalist ambitions. He wants a band, but really just a drummer, and one who doesn’t do much drumming. (The music is pretty toe-tappable and intense nonetheless, as an angst-filled club date shows.) Most of the rest of his time is spent drinking in apartments, especially that of Lawrence (Bujalski), an old school friend whose girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift) may be attracted to Alan. Bujalski’s limpid style and the seeming improvisations have the spontaneity and wit of real life (a scene in which Alan crashes an all-girl party and ends up in drag is especially outrageous) but when studied reveal the calculation and symmetry of art.
A similar scenario, though a bit more upscale and older, unfolds in Matt Zoller Seitz’s Home (April 22 at 2 p.m. and April 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, with the filmmaker present at both screenings), the feature-film debut from this New York Press film critic. A bunch of appealing near-thirtysomethings descend on the lovely Brooklyn brownstone of the title, and events follow the pattern of this mini-genre, starting off superficial and scattered and gathering dramatic focus as the drinks accumulate and the bad karma starts to bubble up. Seitz has a gift for authentic and funny dialogue and convincing character sketches. Also, he resists what you might expect to be a critic’s first impulse on making a film: going crazy with allusions. True, the lead character is dressed like Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs, but Seitz doesn’t succumb to the temptation of employing Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue.
If anything, independent films confirm the dominance of movie genres. You could name a score of films like the ones I’ve mentioned, and dozens of similar filmmakers. Performance artist Miranda July’s debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (April 24 at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts), is like a number of movies about interconnecting lives and kooky relationships made recently by women — Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing. Taking the Dermot Mulroney part is John Hawkes, affecting and humorous as a shoe salesman rebounding from a broken marriage and resisting the advances of an aspiring performance artist played with authoritative kookiness by July herself. This romance has charm, feeling, and rueful comedy. But I was more intrigued by the things off to the side, like the sexual explorations of Hawkes’s character’s two sons, or the secret trousseau of the sad, pallid neighbor girl.
This suggestion of an existence beyond the immediate, flickering image, of a world outside the frame, seems common to the films in this festival. Maybe that’s what makes a film an independent film. It suggests a life independent of its being a film.
Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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