Tired Moonlight has been generating a lot of buzz on the film festival circuit, and a classy salute to Hollywood actress Ann Sothern.
By Paul Dervis
The 18th Annual Maine International Film Festival (through July 19) continued Saturday with several different kinds of films. One of the most interesting was a work-in-progress, a documentary that explores the life and career of silver screen star Ann Sothern. The Waterville programmers also brought in an indie feature film that has a quasi-documentary vibe to it. The movie has also been generating quite a buzz around the festival circuit — first time director Britni West’s Tired Moonlight. The movie’s most striking element is the starkly contrasting images it sets up between the beauty of nature and the decline of a decaying town.
The film follows the denizens of a small Montana hamlet as they struggle to survive dire economic straits while protecting their dreams of a better life. Dawn, a woman of indeterminate age, works as a housekeeper in a fleabag motel…but that is merely to sustain herself and her charges while she scavenges the roadside and auction houses for a score that will lift her out of her sad existence.
Sarah, a checkout girl at a market, could be a teenager, could be in her mid-twenties. She flirts a bit with the local boys, hangs out with a couple of children, and goes to the stock car races like everyone else in town. She has one boyfriend, or maybe a husband, and the little girl she lives with is either her sister or her own kid.
And that ambiguity is the problem with Tired Moonlight. I am no champion of rote exposition, but would it hurt for the kid to say “Hey, Mom” once in the movie? It takes about hour in this 75 minute film before we learn about the exact nature of the relationship. West wrote the film as well as directed it; she gave her characters little dialogue and no interest in clarifying themselves. The relationships between the leads are remarkably vague, yet we are supposed to empathize with their plight. Given how lean the storyline is, that becomes very hard to do…and to make it even more difficult, the actors are mostly first-timers and don’t do much with the words they are given to speak.
The film contains several voice-overs from these characters, and the information grounds the storyline a bit. But the writer has these figures speak a kind of pseudo poetry, no doubt to provide a thematic connection between the images of a rusting out town and the majesty of the landscape. But, ironically, the Spartan dialogue doesn’t work all that well. Laconic lyricism sounds artificial coming from the mouths of these people.
Tired Midnight has six nominations to go along with three wins in various festivals this year and it’s easy to see why. West shows great promise and most of the awards are recognition her “possibilities” and “future” I am sure we will hear from West again, and soon…but Tired Midnight is more about potential than reality.
Which brings me to Ann Sothern: The Sharpest Girl in Town. Though this film has yet to be completed — we saw what amounted to rushes — it is clear that this project is a labor of love for Mike Kaplan. Kaplan, who produced The Whales of August, the film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Sothern, obviously has a special place in his heart for the longtime actress. He is expanding on a documentary which he produced twenty years ago that focused on the ten feature Maisie serial that Sothern starred in during the 1940s. He is adding interviews with her co-stars, family, and critics. Kaplan wants to explore what made her so popular: her look was a departure from the classically beautiful leading ladies of her era. Surely she had great talent and excellent training, and none other than Lucille Ball called her “the best comedienne in the business,” but Kaplan appears to have found much more to her. Sothern herself is on screen lamenting the fact that the powerbrokers of Hollywood were not promoting her…the viewers made her a star, not the producers. And therein lies the truth. Not Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, or even Katharine Hepburn had Sothern’s ‘girl next door’ quality. Plenty of other actresses did, but none matched her chemistry with an audience, her friendly appeal. It was as if the girl on the screen was sitting in the seat next to you.
Kaplan delves also into her subtle feminist performances. Her characters where all independent women in a time they were rarely seen on film. And she was honest on screen. Believable, even when the material was not.
The 77 minutes we were privy to suggests that this will be an absorbing documentary when Kaplan completes it.
Turner Classics just did a retrospective of Sothern’s work, 40 films, this past March. The time is ripe for Kaplan to complete his homage.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.