Second Annual Port Townsend Film Festival
On the Waterfront
This summer’s Seattle International Film Festival covered the Puget Sound area with a dragnet of banners, advertisements, billboards, and fanfare that impacted both sprawling plazas and discreet coffee shops. Like the last fall blooms on a weathered garden mum, a few other northwest movie events are surging in SIFF’s receding wake. Later this month, The Olympic Film Festival will rear its head, while that refined, Victorian seaport of the Olympic Peninsula, Port Townsend, closed the book on September with its second annual film celebration.
The Seattle International Film Festival boasted late-night Asian mayhem such as Battle Royale and Dead or Alive, the presence of the always-caffeinated Quentin Tarantino ranting maniacally from a screenside podium, and a massive, five-theater network of screens. The Port Townsend variation was an entirely different animal. Instead of Capitol Hill moviehouses like The Egyptian and their faithful punk-rock congregations worshipping at the altar of John Woo or Paul Thomas Anderson, the more mellowed-out Port Townsend offered Eva Marie Saint fielding questions on her career of pictures, including On the Waterfront and North by Northwest. Instead of sprawling over three weeks of screenings, this smaller compilation of films was tucked into one tidy weekend. Gray-haired, sixty-something ladies in fleece jackets and affectionate, young couples flocked to such lush, restored, downtown theatres as the Rose and the Rosebud. Meanwhile, participants braved a gasp-inducing flight of cement stairs to access the higher-altitude Broughton, a community recreation hall converted into a moviehouse for this seasonal event. In Seattle, you might find yourself arguing with another passholder over whether or not Tim Blake Nelson’s O had racist overtones. In Port Townsend, the person in line next to you was more likely to comment on the lovely weather, or recommend a good espresso joint.
Strangely enough, the genial, “block party” atmosphere surrounding Port Townsend was offset by the rather dark, heavy films on offer. L.I.E. concerned pedophilia, The Cart Ma followed a transient’s loss of freedom via incarceration, and The State I Am In told the story of a teenager’s repressed, miserable life as she followed her fugitive parents on the lam. Even Intimacy, a would-be celebration of the flesh, focused its voyeuristic microscope on the lives of two downtrodden U.K. lovers as they groped each other to escape depression, fractured home lives, and unfulfilled dreams. A real upper, this merry platter of celluloid depressants. Meanwhile, one could recline on a sea of hay bails tossed about on the roped-off Taylor Street block, where an outdoor screen boasted free screenings of North by Northwest and Koyaanisqatsi.
Such relatively innocent blasts from the past were a welcome antidote to L.I.E., one of the event’s more controversial entries. Directed with shockingly realistic strokes by Michael Cuesta, this film rummages around in the ruined lives surrounding the east coast’s Long Island Expressway. We follow fifteen-year old Howie (Paul Franklin Dano), a gentle-faced, sad-eyed youth with the heart of a poet. Howie’s mother recently died during a car wreck on the L.I.E., and the grieving son makes it a ritual to balance on the edge of the freeway’s overpasses, tempting death as he stares into the oncoming traffic below. “There are lanes going east, lanes going west, and lanes going straight to hell,” he observes.
Indeed, hell would seem an appropriate stomping ground for Big John (Shakespearean actor Brian Cox), a Long Island war veteran who collects vintage military pistols, dances with his elderly mother at birthday parties, croons at the piano, and fancies good poetry. He also prowls the area’s pick-up joints, helming an orange muscle car and hunting for young boys. Big John is the local sugar daddy - a chicken hawk preying on underage youth and immortalizing their images on computer files and snapshots after he’s had his fun. When Howie joins a group of delinquents and robs Big John’s basement one evening, he is discovered. The menacing homeowner gives Howie a choice: he can face the wrath of the police after being reported for burglary, or he can “work off” the incident by maintaining a relationship with the older man. The core of L.I.E. concerns the connection between this sick predator and the needy Howie, who presents himself as a vulnerable target after his self-involved father is arrested for shady business dealings and his best friend abruptly leaves town. Indeed, in the wake of his mother’s passing, the remnants of family that Howie has tried to salvage have abandoned him. The remaining reels of L.I.E. pose the question: will Big John exploit Howie for his own personal gratification, or control his unhealthy impulses and provide some humanity and paternal support for the lad?
Because of the movie’s subject matter, L.I.E. was slapped with an NC-17 rating, even though its sexual content is implied rather than graphic. Even so, there’s no denying the queasy blanket of disturbing, unsettled tension that drapes this frank look at the inner circle of a pederast. There’s a scene where Big John confirms his habits and behavior to Howie, and it’s a sad theft of innocence, reminiscent of Laura Dern being verbally seduced by an older Treat Williams in the similarly-themed coming-of-age film, Smooth Talk. Meanwhile, as Cox plays him, this pseudo-villain does come across as having empathy, charm, and the complicated chemistry of a man reluctantly acting out the deeds of a monster before resurfacing back to some semblance of decency. As he comes to understand the extent of Howie’s pain and loneliness, Big John’s id and superego wrestle each other into overtime. There’s a scene where another character chastises the man for his depraved sexual habits, stating “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” We believe him when Cox’s scary creation retorts, “I am. Every time.”
What a shame, then, when L.I.E. ends in an abrupt, easy fashion that fails to bring the story full circle. It’s a tidy little wrap-up that concludes a movie too complicated for such a neat finale. Nevertheless, L.I.E. proves to be a strong slug of cinema. Like Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and The Silence of the Lambs, it explores characters with evil in them, who are too complex to merely be labeled as monsters, and the more sympathetic beings that surround them, testing their ruthlessness.
Another dysfunctional coming of age film clouding Port Townsend’s typically perky mood was The State In Am In, which brought to mind Sidney Lumet’s superb 1988 movie Running on Empty, with its story of a child born to fugitives of the law. Lumet’s film focused on an American husband and wife who stay high on the FBI’s most wanted list, since blowing up a napalm lab seventeen years earlier in protest of the Viet Nam War. Ever since this deed, they have stayed one step ahead of the law, towing their children along with them like so much awkward baggage. The late River Phoenix gave the best performance of his career as Danny, whose future is tainted by the notoriety of his parents’ past.
Directed by Christian Petzold, The State I Am In spins a similar yarn, following Cher (Barbara Auer), Hans (Richy Muller), and their teenaged daughter, Jeanne (Julia Hummer). The trio lives a nomadic existence, trekking from country to country in their car like vagabond entertainers straining to make their next gig. The monotony of the road is punctuated by phone calls to fellow underground friends-in-hiding, with the hope of scoring some cash, or run-ins with the police that end in screeching tires and bullet wounds. While Cher and Hans struggle not to meet a Bonnie and Clyde-style demise, they force Jeanne to wear nerdy, inconspicuous sweaters and facilitate a unique form of on-the-road home schooling. “No boy will want to look at me now,” weeps Jeanne as she dons a dopey jacket. “That’s good,” snaps back the unsympathetic Hans. “We don’t want anyone looking at us.”
Inevitably, Jeanne rebels against this prison-like existence, where long-term friends, dating, and the other rituals of adolescence are discouraged. After meeting Heinrich (Val-Kilmer lookalike Bilge Bingul), a hunky surfer riding the waves in Portugal, Jeanne must choose between the frantic, scattered routine of her parents and a more conventional life without them. The shaggy-haired Heinrich, intrigued by Jeanne’s shy, withdrawn manner, confesses to being “a McJobber who has surfer dreams and loves Brian Wilson.” It’s painful to hear his love interest lying about her more dramatic past, as she fabricates stories about being in a cult group. Her parents catch on to Jeanne’s blossoming affair with Heinrich. “Do you realize what’s at stake here?” they complain, terrified that their identities will be leaked out to the new boyfriend. “When you’re in love,” acknowledges Cher, “you tell each other everything at some point.”
The State I Am In lacks the polish of Lumet’s film. It’s a murkier, messier hybrid. We never know exactly what Hans and Cher did to gain such notoriety, and their network of acquaintances – such as a shady author named Klaus who has past romantic ties with Cher – emerge from the shadows temporarily before quickly stepping back in. In some ways, this works in the movie’s favor, revealing the fractured instability that defines life on the run. And like a top spinning violently out of control, The State I Am In ends with this rootless family careening into directions simultaneously tragic and hopeful.
There’s nothing hopeful in the dire, depressing Intimacy, one of those Last Tango In Paris knockoffs that gives sexually explicit foreign films a bad name. The story follows a miserable pair of losers, Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox), and their once-a-week Olympic bouts of sex in the former’s filthy, disheveled flat. Jay has left his wife and children, while Claire flirts with amateur theater and a loveless relationship with her husband. In between some startlingly graphic sexual encounters (complete with bona-fide erections, fellatio, and condom application), Intimacy’s lead characters wax philosophical about life, the world, and the meaning of it all. Sample line: “Marriage is a war, a battle, a terrible journey – but it’s worth living for.” The same can’t be said for this movie, a pretentious endurance test that isn’t worth two hours of wasted time, even with all of the gyrating buns and heaving chests.
A much wiser take on life was the brilliant documentary Before Leaving (“Avant de Partir”), which plunges viewers into the relatively unexplored territory of long term care. Putting into focus the goings-on at a French nursing facility, director Paul De Laubier find a bustling, emotional whirlwind that contrasts our notion of nursing homes as depressing dumping grounds for the ill and elderly. Laubier’s camera follows the incredibly demanding routine of Ms. Abbes, an energetic, forty-something brunette who manages the care for dozens of residents, each with their own particular and demanding set of needs. As Before Leaving begins, a nurse informs us that two classifications of patient reside there: those with Alzheimer’s, who can recall older memories, but not current events, and psychotic patients who have been institutionalized most of their lives for schizophrenia-like conditions.
Cinema has mostly cast a blind eye onto this population in the past. We fear that which we know is inevitable, and Before Leaving thrusts us into the challenges of growing old like no film that’s come before. When Ms. Abbes approaches a bedfast woman lying limp and frail in her quiet room, assisting her with a drink of water after the resident confirms, “My left hand doesn’t work,” it’s an unblinking dose of reality. Moments later, we’re introduced to perpetually sad Mr. Martins, crying and rattled by a loud neighbor’s ranting. “It seems like I’ve lost everything,” she sobs. “And I forget all these days that have passed.”
Perhaps the most fascinating story is that of Mrs. Colizza, a stubborn matriarch admitted by her daughter after her failing memory and legs made her a liability at home. “Thank you for a dreadful day,” she scowls at her guilt-ridden daughter. “You tricked me. How could your dare bring me here? You tried to get rid of me!” Later, when Ms. Abbes attempts to orient the bitter woman, Mrs. Colizza reveals the root cause of her frustration. “I used to be a human resource director,” she boasts proudly. “I was responsible for 400 people. I love being the boss!” Clearly, a submissive life is not her cup of tea.
Other patients take comfort in valued routines and rituals, which are met as efficiently as possible by Ms. Abbes and her capable staff. Mirielle, fresh from a psychiatric ward, wants nothing better than to have lunch – twenty four hours a day. Meanwhile, Lulu perseverates on shopping. “It has to be K-Mart,” she insists. “The others are too expensive!” The film makes us aware that even as the sun sets on life, we grasp onto customs and traditions to maintain a sense of meaning and order.
There are moments of great joy in Before Leaving, such as a birthday party where patients belt out traditional French songs in the manner of a spirited choir. The movie reveals the healing power of humor when a kindly male co-worker teases the cynical 89-year old birthday girl Coco. “Are you the Coco of my heart,” he teases, before serenading her like a suave suitor. “Oh, hush,” she grins. “You’re not my boyfriend!” There’s also a beautiful moment during an evening outing, where the patients enjoy a moonlight night of boating, while the Eiffel Tower hovers protectively in the background.
Before Leaving reveals that life in these institutionalized settings is, perhaps, not so different from that practiced in the outside world. There are the same politics, mind games, values, and pleasures found throughout life in any locale. Most importantly, there is the struggle to understand that we are responsible for our own happiness. One can leave this existence like Mrs. Colizza, wielding her cane like a ringmaster as she spits vile insults at her son-in-law, or like Ms. Mathiely, a one-time Paris opera singer who “won all the prizes” in her youth. A century later, she can still enjoy the magic of a classical tune sung by a dining room full of clapping, chanting patients singing in not-so-perfect harmony.
The Second Annual Port Townsend Film Festival, poised on an airy waterfront of sailboats, kayakers, and art shops, would seem a kinder, gentler antidote to its forceful Seattle counterpart. However, its challenging, provocative menu of biting films proves that the kind little block party out on the peninsula is no lightweight. This weaving of light and dark is sure to produce a similar web of contrasts in years to come.