Originally published at GreenCine.
When it was all over, when all was said, done (but not all seen) what we took home from the closing night of last weekend’s Port Townsend Film Festival was this: Marc Platt’s recipe for homemade vodka, the kind enjoyed, in proportions untold, by dancers in the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. In the Q&A that followed the West Coast premiere of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary Ballets Russes, a festivalgoer asked the 91-year-old Platt how so many of the dancers from his era, given the physical demands of their profession, lived not just long lives, but active lives, continuing to teach ballet classes well into their 80s.
“You take the purest alcohol from the drugstore, from the chemist,” began Platt, who also danced, I should mention, in a few Rita Hayworth musicals in the 1940s, “then add three or four drops of glycerin. Squeeze some fresh lemon, and leave the whole concoction in the icebox for five days. Then take it out, and, Wow!” It was an anecdote that Platt was asked to repeat more than once, as the courtly gentleman, leaning on a cane that he said he uses only to elicit sympathy, made his way from the stage, up the aisle, and out the doors of the Broughton Auditorium. A journalist who could not remember the word “glycerin” was the first to ask for an encore, and the recipe thus made its way around.
For the uninitiated, Port Townsend lies at the tip end of Quimper Peninsula, a crooked finger of land that itself offshoots from the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state. Water surrounds Port Townsend on three sides, and in the distance, the mountain ranges of the Olympics and the Cascades encircle that water and everything else. The little metropolis boasts steep, dramatic cliffs (the better to view you from, my dear) and an abundance of Victorian architecture, held-over from unfulfilled hopes of the 1880s that PT would one day bloom into the San Francisco of the North.
In the Indian summer of late September, the best show in town remains the sunlight glinting across the surface of the bay, the vast body of water that separates PT from Whidbey and Marrowstone Islands. Still, for a few days of nonstop intensity, there are movies to consider.
Ballets Russes was one of three exceptional films I caught, the other two being Jon Ward’s Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern and the shockingly good (shocking to me, anyway, as someone who doesn’t listen to much country music) debut from Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Life in a Box, about the now defunct duo Y’all and their travels across America in a 20-ft trailer home.
I also endured a pair of notable bombs: the John Waters-narrated Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea and Lars Büchel’s reprehensibly cute romance Peas at 5:30. More on these, and the reasons why I detested them, a bit later. Oh, and Debra Winger showed up, in body, if not exactly in spirit, as one of this year’s special guests, along with her husband, the decidedly more present Arliss Howard. They brought with them a print of their 2001 collaboration, Big Bad Love. More, too, on this in a moment.
But back to the Ballets. In retrieving home movie and other archival footage of dance performances from the 1930s and 40s, and weaving in and out of those images the lucid recollections of dancers, who look back on their former selves with clarity and humor, Geller and Goldfine have given us a film for the ages. Several of the dancers interviewed have since died: the filmmakers captured this lost world literally just in time.
Some favored moments: a fleeting clip of Leonid Massine’s Rouge et Noir, with dancers clad in body stockings designed by Henri Matisse, that evokes silent Expressionist cinema; both the verbal eloquence of the Native American Maria Tallchief, reminiscing about Balanchine, as well as the sight of her in tiger print scarves; and an excerpt from Marc Platt’s sit-up-and-take-notice jazz dance, in Tonight and Every Night, that makes you wonder why his agile hoofing never made him as famous as Gene Kelly. Just compare the red-haired Platt’s facial expressions to those of the chorus girls in the reaction shots: Platt was easily the most alert and lived-in presence on screen. Although in his early 30s, he’d already been dancing professionally more than half his life, and the difference between how he conveyed experience versus the moon-June looks of the studio ingénues, you cannot fail to notice.
Marian Seldes, who for a brief time danced with the American Ballet Theatre, narrates the film, and nowhere are her aristocratic vowels and rapturously patrician tones better employed than in reading this quote from Agnes de Mille in 1933: “Seeing a Massine ballet had become one of the great erotic pleasures of the London summer, with fans unrestrainedly screaming, jumping up and down, beating the railing, and slathering at the mouth!”
The movie also touches on the London Ballet Wars of 1938, a time when Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo went opposite the Original Ballet Russe, and I thought—this is a world I could live in. It’s a tonic to be confronted by an era when culture—real culture—mattered so much and was so vital that it was possible for rivals to flourish. The British ballerina Dame Alicia Markova tells how patrons would come to see Massine’s company at Covent Garden, then walk a block to take in David Lichine’s choreography at Drury Lane, and how patrons and sometimes dancers went from one to the other, near religiously, and came to know the two competing companies so well that someone, after a while, would be able to ask, “Oh, is so-and-so dancing this evening? People were learning the dancers’ names, which,” Markova adds with an endearingly wry smile, “is what should happen.” After the Port Townsend and Vancouver festivals, Ballets Russes goes into limited release, beginning October 26 at New York’s Film Forum.
Also headed from PT to Vancouver is Going Through Splat, Jon Ward’s deeply moving tribute to the screenwriter (and amazing raconteur) Stewart Stern. Like Ballets Russes, Going Through Splat immerses us in the chance to experience something of worlds gone by. There are powerful recollections by Stern of combat during World War II, fighting in and surviving the Battle of the Bulge. We also see Stern struggle with writer’s block. “There are no rewards for avoidance,” Stern said in accepting an Emmy for Sybil, yet his own terrors had grown too great for him to write another page. In the 60s, Stern wrote a couple of screenplays for Guy Green to film, but the studio (Fox) made neither of them, and Stern’s descriptions of the slow, oncoming paralysis are scarily brilliant. Or as interviewee Dennis Hopper puts it: “What the fuck is the point of writing?” Stern, now 83, is best known for Rebel Without A Cause, but as Splat testifies, there’s so much more to his story than Rebel.
My favorite film at this year’s PTFF, however, was one that took me by complete surprise. Making his feature debut with Life in a Box, director Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer already shows signs of mastering shifts in tone and perspective. The movie, shot over the first eight months of 2002, manages to be at once intimate and distant, and that, I think, is partially what accounts for the woozy feeling I got from watching it. From 1992 to 2002, the thoughtful, soft-spoken Cheslik-DeMeyer was one half of the cross-dressing alt-country duo Y’all, the other half being James Dean Jay Byrd, an extroverted babbler. The film intermingles performance footage with a story of how a couple becomes a threesome, then back to a twosome, only not quite with the same two partners that started out. Steven and Jay take in Roger, whom Jay spies in the audience at one of their concerts and finds “hot.” The three share a trailer for nearly two years, as Y’all tours America, still hoping for that big break that will land them a TV variety show of their own, to be called Hey, Y’all!
I don’t know quite what it is—something strikes me as unbearably poignant about wanting to host a television variety series and not getting to. Jay and Steven had dreams of being the queer Sonny and Cher, and when you see them in front of a live audience, and the ease that they have singing and bantering with each other, you come away with the sense that these two could very well have pulled it off, if only some industry stick-in-the-mud had given them the greenlight.
In talking about their on-the-road ménage à trois, after relations have begun to strain, one of the men says that he’s “sad if I stay, sad if I leave.” That’s what is so refreshingly grown-up about Life in a Box: the understanding that life presents us with a choice that too often is no choice at all.
Then there’s the music, which is note perfect. The harmonies are exquisite, the bluegrass rhythms utterly fetching. (And I’m neither a country music fan nor a folkie: my CD collection consists mainly of chamber music and 50s jazz.) Cheslik-DeMeyer has a beautiful tenor voice; he sounds something like a reedier, more ethereal John Denver. It’s a voice that’s imbued with tender strength and delicate tones that imply some unnamable Appalachia magic. The movie captures the feeling of singing—it gave my thoracic cavity such a buzz, it’s as if I had sung along.
Neither Life in a Box nor Going Through Splat yet has a theatrical distributor—a huge oversight that needs correcting.
Country music, or a version of it, courses through Michael Mabbott’s The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, the one new narrative film at the festival that I could come close to embracing. In the same vein as, yet much funnier than, Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, Terrifico features a great, physical performance by Matt Murphy in the title role. Murphy, seen through the haze of washed-out colors (it’s supposed to be the early 1970s), makes pratfalls seem incomprehensibly fresh. Present-day witnesses, such as Kris Kristofferson, recall the rise and mysterious demise of a singer-songwriter whose talents were pretty much for drugs and alcohol. Mabbott and company skewer every cliché in sight, be it of documentary form or the music industry. The editing of the witnesses’ recounts, especially in the beginning, creates such astutely funny contrasts as “He was an angel” segueing into “He was a fuckin’ a-hole!” Some of the song lyrics are priceless (“The blood within his eyes was like a curse . . . he had a face like Bobby Dylan’s, only worse”) and Merle Haggard, playing himself, is a deadpan delight. After a hilarious first half, the movie runs out of ideas in the second. The same gags are repeated, and by the end, I felt kind of imprisoned by them.
There was much I liked in the Italian film My Brother’s Summer, which played earlier this year at Tribeca. Luca Coassin’s cinematography presents the beauty of the countryside near Verona without a trace of vista envy. The lighting and compositions are simple, forthright. In the leading role, as the 9-year-old Sergio, Davide Veronese makes a superb debut. Both he and the filmmaker, Pietro Reggiani, succeed in opening the interior world of a child’s imagination onto the screen in a naturalistic way. The classical music on the soundtrack—Mozart, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn—was ideal for an oppressively sunny Sunday afternoon. The final third of the movie, when Sergio must atone for “killing” his imaginary kid brother, doesn’t work. Reggiani presents images of child murders with a sort of flat whimsicality to the staging. In particular, the outdoor shot of Sergio in a bathtub, seated calmly as the blood from his slashed wrists infiltrates the bath water, while the “dead” kid brother looks on in impassive approval, struck me as a disingenuous means to render the sick as palatable for a sherry-sipping art-house audience. I was less offended by the child murder imagery in Sean Penn’s The Pledge. Penn gave horror its due. For Reggiani, it’s just another summer idyll, as in the fantasy shots of the kids walking on the moon in their astronaut suits.
The Port Townsend Film Festival lasts only three days, a schedule that necessitates tough choices. I just couldn’t be in three or four places at once and so I didn’t see Continuous Journey, the documentary about South Asian immigrants in Canada, circa 1914. Nor did The Devil’s Miner, which won the festival prize for best documentary feature, show up on my itinerary. Because I sat through a couple of bad films, that meant no eavesdropping on the panel discussions either. Watching My Brother’s Summer, I thought it an apt cinematic analogy for the PTFF. Instead of imagining the brother you never had, you do a lot of wondering about the movies you missed, much more so than at a big festival where movie-burnout comes easy.
One event I was glad to catch was the broadcast of West Coast Live, the independently produced public radio series that, for the second year, brought their show to the festival. Once again in the Upstage, a cozy, split-level space that has exposed brick on all sides and a single strand of multicolored Christmas bulbs strung year-round along the back wall, Sedge Thomson, possibly the savviest of radio interviewers, held court both with PT personalities and with Debra Winger. Winger sported a tiara that a local had made for and given to her at the Upstage that morning. (There was more than a bit of hometown pride at stake: Winger had last visited PT in 1981, when shooting an obscure little picture called An Officer and a Gentleman.) She and Arliss Howard spoke at length about Big Bad Love, their adaptation of Larry Brown short stories, which was to screen that evening. Sedge asked if the couple were planning to produce any new screenplays. Howard: “You have to go back to the ancient Greeks to find authors who write about women as forces of nature.” Winger: “That’s his way of telling you why it’s been so long since we’ve worked.”
Personally, I thought that the locals were the more interesting interviewees. There was Andrew Shields, guest piano man and a doctor of nuclear medicine based in PT. “I make people radioactive,” he said, by way of explaining his practice, “and then I take pictures of the glow coming out.” In a community where raw foods deli cases are the norm, the doctor’s pronouncement didn’t sound all that odd to me. The painter Linda Okazaki, who designed the poster for this year’s festival, first came to town “to help some friends building a pirate boat to sail to Tahiti,” and naturally, she stayed in PT for 25 years. She created this image: a picture within a picture within a picture, featuring the plush red velvet seating of the historic Rose Theatre in the fore and middle grounds, with a distant screen of Garbo in black and white. Okazaki told Sedge that her design represents, “That feeling you get when you’ve just been to The Devil’s Miner, and you come out stunned. The movie functions as an extension of our consciousness—you become a different person while watching. Walking into a movie, taking it in, and taking something away with you.”
Winger came off as somewhat more thoughtful later that night, at the post-Big Bad Love Q&A. Asked what makes a film a success, she shot off, “So much falls to the inhale and exhale of the zeitgeist, and you can’t really know.” The only directors of hers she praised were Attenborough and Bertolucci. Who influenced her? “They’re all men, I can tell you that.” She didn’t think of women when she was acting. Winger wanted to immerse herself, à la early De Niro, and the actresses she had a fondness for—Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball—didn’t do that.
Of working with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket, Arliss Howard related this: that Kubrick said to him at the end of the shoot, “You’re gonna miss me. You’ll have directors who’ll say, ‘We got it,’ and you know they didn’t.” The maverick filmmaker also shared this with the then-young actor: “The time to ask questions isn’t between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!'”
No film festival would be complete without a few bombs. I think I’ll just skip over The Liberace of Baghdad, because it had two or three illuminating moments. The honor of being the worst film that I saw goes to the documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, which strikes me as the easiest kind of bad movie to make. First, find a bunch of kooks. In this case, the chain-smoking alcoholic losers, who stayed behind at an ecological disaster that turned their community into a dump, will function nicely. Second, turn the camera on them as they confess to all manner of insanity. “It’s rather bleak,” offers the town’s lone real estate agent, “We don’t have anything here.” Third, hire someone smug and smarmy to provide condescending voice-over narration. John Waters? Check! And fourth, hire Friends of Dean Martinez to perform an insulting score that further mocks all the poor benighted schmoes on screen.
Peas at 5:30, at least, has Judith Kaufmann’s cinematography going for it. Chrome silver circles undulate across the opening credits and, in an especially vivid image, an out-held hand receives spattering water. The director, Lars Büchel, makes the most of water imagery in the first few moments: a splash from a shallow pool, heavy rain, a woman high-diving into an Olympic-sized swimming pool while, crosscut, a man, losing control of his car as he gropes for a cigarette lighter, plunges off an embankment and into the sea. It’s a dazzling beginning, with shots of women in satiny black costumes adorned by angel wings, rippling shadows of pool waves on walls, and minimalist orchestral strings that drop in the delicate pearls of high register piano keys every so often for watery effect.
Unfortunately, after about 20 minutes, the film itself takes a nosedive into the abyss of studied quirkiness. It settles into a comedy of unfunny slapstick in which a newly blind man tries to escape a blind-from-birth woman, and her uncannily persistent efforts at stalking him. Büchel can’t discern between an amusing sight gag (pun, I suppose, intended) and a hateful one. Much of Peas‘ so-called humor makes the heroine’s initially sensible, good-guy fiancé into the butt of dumb jokes, a convenient villain for the movie’s latent hostility. A failed suicide attempt that begins with a shuddering fall from a skyscraper and ends in a plate of strawberry shortcake, nonetheless, shows wit and promise, one that’s never lived up to. — NPT