Thursday, April 17, 2008

City of cinematic love

Although Philadelphia is not a premiere film city (which may have inexplicably contributed to why I've opted not to go to local events), it is becoming the center of some buzz on both the film production and studies fronts. But when it comes to events here in Philadelphia, I'll admit that I've squandered plenty of opportunities to reap their benefits and involve myself in the local film scene and University-sponsored film studies events. Only recently have I realized and subsequently taken advantage of the many film resources the city has to offer. Within the past six months I was fortunate enough to spread the word and even participate in a number events (where time allowed), from visits by Werner Herzog and Laura Mulvey at Penn, to the recent SCMS conference, and it's been very enriching to my study and appreciation of filmmaking and cinema studies.

For years I've wanted to attend a film festival. I managed to write about last year's Toronto Film Fest when that kicked off, but that was more of an outsider's take. I've wanted to become an insider; I just haven't found the time. But now I can finally add a film festival to the list. The 17th Philadelphia Film Festival just recently wrapped, and although I only made it for one day, I managed to see three very interesting films, one an American independent, another an Argentinian drama, and a particularly outlandish and psychoerotic horror film.

The first was Emily Hubley's feature debut, The Toe Tactic, starring Lily Rabe, Jane Lynch, and David Cross, among others. Hubley's background is in animated shorts and various other producer and designer animation in films such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She once again uses animation as a key narrative device in this film, which follows its central character, Mona, and her series of chance encounters with strangers, friends, and her deceased father. The film has a very independent feel in its compositions and editing patterns, but Hubley gets wonderful performances from the solid assembly of actors, which includes the wonderful Daniel London (Old Joy, Minority Report).

The animation sequences are absurdist, even child-like, and they feature a continuous dialogue among animals who are influencing the events of Mona's life. Juxtaposed with and woven through the live-action sequences, the animations lends itself nicely for surrealistic tone that Hubley creates within the free-flowing narrative design of the film. The problem is that Hubley's live-action compositions are somewhat stagnant, despite some moody lighting through the film. Also, while the film manages to be both straightforward and pleasantly disorienting, Hubley frames the majority of the story around Mona's grief over the death of her father; while this provides a nice visual flair to the picture, it doesn't stand strong enough as the central focal point of Mona's narrative and encounters.

The movie runs around 85 minutes, I would estimate, and it ultimately works because it has a unique airyness about it that was once a staple for innovative independent filmmaking in the 1990's, but which seems to have dwindled since then. Hubley captures a naive sense of wonderment and strangeness in her contrasts of random people meeting and the simple, but mesmerizing animation sequences. Were it not for the somewhat pedantic compositions and editing rhythms, however, the film would be far more memorable. As it is, The Toe Tactic is a pleasant, subtle film that probes the the idiosyncrasies of human connection and memory. Its simplicity grants it opportunity to explore those intricasies in fresh, inventive ways.

Next up was Ana Katz's A Stray Girlfriend, a film that has been on the festival circuit since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Katz stars as a woman in her thirties who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a resort on the weekend of their anniversary vacation. The remainder of this short, 90-minute film intimately follows Katz in the days that follow at the resort, where she meets several people, calls her boyfriend non-stop, and nearly has a meltdown. It's a simple story, simply told with contemporary hand-held aesthetics. The film builds a natural atmosphere in terms of the characters and locations, and finds rhythm in small, quiet moments. An early scene at a night-time party in the woods is particularly evocative, capturing all the awkward discoveries one makes when in the company of complete strangers.

In the early scenes, A Stray Girlfriend is methodical and compelling. It has a distinct neorealistic tone that goes well hand-in-hand with the narrative of a lonely, almost desperate person. The film understates the loneliness and self-loathing of the central character, in doing so unlocking the space between the viewer and the woman. Unfortunately, however, I found myself less invested as the film went on. The pauses, silences, and expressions that hooked me so strong in the first half of the film lost a bit of their luster, not because "it doesn't go anywhere," but because it constricts itself to a particular path that is not nearly as compelling as when there was no path. The film's understated drama and comedy works so well when it focuses more on encounters rather than budding and fading relationships. Nevertheless, Katz's film is still one of small beauties, proving that there's nothing more cinematic than the human face.

Finally, I had the unique opportunity to see the world-debut of Frank Henonlotter's new film, Bad Biology, a twisted horror (romantic?) comedy involving a man and a woman who are seemingly blessed with overactive or oversized sexual organs. Jennifer has seven clitorises (clitori?). (She informs us of this in her rather blunt opening voiceover, "I was born with seven clits.") Due to her unique disposition, Jennifer can experience seven times the amount of pleasure during sex, causing her to often kill her sexual partners in a fit of sexual ecstacy; if it's not during sex, the murder immediately follows, since her emotional state can be fragile as well. But that's not all. Because of her sped up reproductive processes, she then gives birth to "mutant" baby, which she either throws in a trash can or in a bath tub.

The plot becomes more unbelievable as it goes on, especially when it introduced the plot thread involving Tom, a man with an uncontrollably large penis. While most men might be envious, Tom cannot live with himself because, simply put, it has a mind of its own. Jennifer and Tom's conditions reveal themselves to be a curse for both individuals, until they finally meet in a climax --pun intended-- of epic proportions.

With this film, I was expecting something more along the lines of May, inasmuch that the material seemed to lend itself nicely to commentary on sex, gender, and violence. Although the film had a strong recurring theme of addiction, it was ultimately more content only to suggest such commentaries in passing and focus more on the absurdity of the tale. The packed house (of presumably horror afficianados) seemed to enjoy the film more as a comedy than anything. It definitely provides a fair share of laughter and gross-out gags, but rarely does it amount to much more. What irks me about that is that it's a much smarter film than one would expect in light of its content. The undercurrents of addiction are perhaps most intriguing.

I have never seen Henonlotter's previous films, but having seen his latest film, I now understand why his films have gained a cult status. Bad Biology wears the "bad horror movie" label with pride, but it provides enough shocks and comedic insights that save it from being the abomination that I'm sure many filmgoers would deem it. But perhaps the highest compliment one can give it is that there is nothing else like it. When Henonlotter introduced the film, he summed up it up best. He said, "I hope you laugh, and I hope you're appalled. Enjoy."


Overall, I'd say my day at the festival was a very good one, especially as a first-time festival experience. I saw three very different films, none of which were brilliant, but none which were loathesome. Two of the three films were followed by Q&A sessions with the directors, which is always an added plus. I wish I had attended more screenings, but I guess part of the beauty and frustration of film festivals is that you can never see everything that looks worthwhile. As I noted at the beginning of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, the fact that one can only see so many films is what makes festival-going so fun.

"What I've learned about TIFF as an outsider is that the festival is sort of a microcosm for (or physical representation of) cinema. A critic or film lover can only see so many movies, and the list of movies that one person sees will differ from the next, despite probably sharing a few. What you have are a bunch of different people seeing different films, all with the potential to inform each other with their own unique experiences with them."


Anonymous said...

Henenlotter's Brain Damage also has an addiction theme. It features an alien parasite who feeds on brains and, in turn for his host's co-operation in seeking victims, injects them with a fluid that causes pleasant hallucinations.

Ted Pigeon said...

Interesting. They're hard to find, but I'm looking forward to watching more of his films. Low-budget horror films often have surprisingly well-realized themes. But sometimes they're just pure schlocky fun. Apparently, Henonlotter can do both.