Film Review: The Provincetown Film Festival 2013 — A Distinctly Humanist Focus

As for new independent films, producer Christine Vachon noted that each generation requires fresh stories and comparisons with a “golden” age of filmmaking are irrelevant.

By Tim Jackson

Louisa Krause in Andrew Neel’s KING KELLY

The unique charm of the Provincetown International Film Festival (June 19–23) springs from its enormously friendly population, its history as an arts colony, and the picturesque convenience of screening venues lined up and down Commercial Street on the water. As in the past, this year’s festival featured films with a distinctly humanist focus. Long time Provincetown resident and cult film director John Waters sets the tone for the festival: this year he appeared on a panel discussing the state of independent film and presented the festival’s Filmmaker on the Edge award to provocateur supreme Harmony Korine. Also on hand was Ed Lachman, who received a Career Achievement Award for his amazing work in cinematography. Here are five films to look for when they go into general release as well as a quick wrap-up of the panel and awards presentations.

Lovelace (directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman). The story of Linda Lovelace, based on her own memoirs, was the opening night film. It’s cleverly constructed to first give us some insight into the character of the woman who starred in the groundbreaking pornographic film Deep Throat. But then the movie backtracks, turning into a sordid morality tale of sin and redemption, exploitation and abuse. Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly convincing in the title role, and Peter Sarsgaard is skillfully slimy as her husband and abuser, Chuck Traynor. Many in the audience didn’t recognize Sharon Stone as her mother, Dorothy Boreman: the actress physically transforms herself into a brittle and loveless middle-class housewife.

The legendary comedienne Moms Mabley, the subject of Whoopi Goldberg’s new documentary.

Moms Mabley: I Got Something To Tell You. It’s about time this great comedienne — her onstage persona was an irascible old woman in a housecoat, wearing a funny hat, her front teeth missing — got her due. There is nobody more suitable to the task of directing a documentary on her life than Whoopi Goldberg. It won her The John Schlesinger Award for a rookie filmmaker. It’s filled with hilarious comedy, revelations about Mabley’s life, and interviews with some of the most important black comedians of the last 50 years. Not only do we get laughs, but the film details Mabley’s unique contribution to the art of standup while it argues for her value as a political and social figure. Mabley’s rendition of “Abraham, Martin, and John,” performed on Hugh Hefner’s After Dark television show, is heartbreaking.

King Kelly (directed by Andrew Neel). Louisa Krause puts on a stunning show as King Kelly, a woman who aspires to fame performing webcam stripteases and more for online cash. The film descends into a nightmare vision of drugs, sex, and violence involving a sex-crazed State Trooper and some really bad behavior. Neel shot it entirely with camera-phone footage and a Canon elph. The director, who is the grandson of painter Alice Neel (he made a terrific documentary about her life), has made a disturbing, edgy, truly independent film that makes a tough statement about online obsession, virtual identities, and the need to affirm and document everything in our lives. A generation, the film suggests, is losing a sense of what is real and what is performance. As the director says, “We ourselves are becoming consumable products.”

A scene from BLUEBIRD, which stars John Slattery and Amy Morton.

Bluebird (written & directed by Lance Edmands). Native Mainer Edmands probes the cold heart of a small, dying mill town in Northern Maine. Actress Louisa Krause, so boldly exhibitionist in King Kelly, totally transforms herself into a frustrated single mom whose young son is overlooked one day on the school bus. When discovered, the child is found sleeping and suffering from hypothermia. He soon falls into a coma. The bus driver (a hypnotically real performance by Amy Morton) is a hardworking wife and mother, completely shattered by her oversight and nearly catatonic from guilt. It gets worse. But this deliberately paced film is exquisitely shot and composed, with a great ensemble of actors that also includes Emily Meade as the driver’s daughter and a convincing and muted performance by Mad Men’s John Slattery as her hard-working husband. It is based on a real incident in the director’s life, who conjures up both the beauty and loneliness of a dying town.

I Am Divine (directed by Jeffrey Schwarz). This film, which premiered at the LGBT festival in Boston, is both a hysterical and respectful look at the famous cross-dressing performer known as Divine. It was a perfect film for Provincetown. The crowd went wild! An acquaintance of John Waters in high school, Harris Glenn Milstead went on to create one of the great icons of cult cinema. The power and energy of his/her performance transcended drag. According to Waters, “I think Divine parodied drag performers who were parodying straight performers—that’s what we wanted to do.” His ambition was to be accepted as a legitimate actor. He passed away much too soon.

Divine, from the film “I Am Divine.”

Filmmaking On The Edge: Pushing The Boundaries Panel [with John Waters, producer Christine Vachon (Kids, King Kelly, Bluebird), and director Mary Harron (The Notorious Bettie Page, American Psycho)].

The conversation centered around how content defines an independent project and the search for new avenues of distribution. Harron observed there more female driven films around than ever before and that they are often produced for the small screen (formally known as television). Examples would be Harron’s Anna Nicole (coming to the Lifetime Network on June 29th) and Todd Haynes’s stunning Mildred Pierce on HBO. Vachon pointed out that outlets for seeing new work have grown: TV, film, VOD, even webisodes. The commitment to morally ambiguous stories is essential. Still, they noted that a theatrical opening weekend still matters and is often an accurate measure for future success. “Go see the film you love the first weekend at the Saturday matinee,” Waters advised.

As for new independent films, Vachon noted that each generation requires fresh stories and comparisons with a “golden” age of filmmaking are irrelevant. Waters noted that when you try to make a film everybody likes, you remove the extremes and nobody ends up liking it. “I never intended Hairspray to be such a hit,” he recalled. “I thought Divine defined Edna Turnblad, but then Harvey Fierstein re-invented her as Ethel Merman and then, in the next movie, John Travolta did her as an overweight Playboy bunny. And, as we know, that happens. I even saw a high school version in New Jersey where Edna was played by a skinny black girl. Very post-modern. I’d love to make it politically correct for the whole world!”

Projects on the horizon: Christine Vachon is producing The Last Of Robin Hood, about Errol Flynn’s affair with a young girl, featuring Kevin Klein and Dakota Fanning for her Killer Films. Harron is going to work from a little known Patricia Highsmith novel, and Waters’s next endeavor will be called Fruitcake.

Career Achievement Award
Cinematographer and cameramen Ed Lachman may not be familiar to the general public, but his body of work is stunning. Lachman worked early on with the masters of New German Cinema—Rainer Warner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders—and went on to shoot for the best of the new independent American directors. A small sample of the latter crowd includes Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Larry Clark (Kids), Todd Solendz, and some stunning work for Todd Haynes. “Todd is the most visual director alive. I’ve learned so much working with him,” Lachman said. He added that “every film has clues to the way the story should be shot. Finding shooting locations can be easy. The real challenge is to shoot in ways that find the interior life of the character, the emotional core of the person. The cameraman is the first audience.”

Filmmaker on the Edge Award.

Director Harmony — the winner of the PFF’s Filmmaker on the Edge Award

This year the award went to Harmony Korine, the young, unpredictable director of films both beautiful and appalling, including Gummo, Julian Donkey-Boy, Mr. Lonely, Trash Humpers, and his newest candy-coated provocation, Spring Breakers (reviewed in The Arts Fuse). He seemed a little uncomfortable with the public recognition, but was gracious, funny, and sincere. In his onstage interview with Waters, the difference in motivation for each director became clear. Waters, who always claims his first influences were somewhere between Ingmar Bergman and Russ Meyer, asked Korine, “I find this surprising, but I heard that you said you really hate Fellini. Is this true?” Korine responded, “Well I don’t actually remember saying that. But it was probably true the day I said it.”

Korine tried to describe the aesthetic reasoning behind his various films but offered the caveat, “I want to live life and I don’t want my movies to be about making or referencing other movies or even books.” He added that he doesn’t really want to interpret what he does: it is the job of the audience to do that. “I honestly want people to enjoy my films, understanding them in their own ways,” he suggested, going on to say that he wanted his art “to be a singular thing. It takes so much of your life to make a film, so I want to fulfill a need, and for it to have heart.”

Waters asked Korine about the rumor that he had made a short film of himself getting beaten up while on Quaaludes. “The thing I really wonder,” Waters added, “is where do you get Quaaludes these days?” Korine smiled self-consciously and said he had always been a big fan of W. C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and wanted to see what the real results of a violent slapstick might be. He claims he wanted to fight a member of every demographic and to face fear: “But the fights didn’t last that long so I didn’t really have the stamina to make a feature out of it.” Waters added, “Well, we do have short film screenings.”

The contrast between these cult directors from very different generations was delightful. Whether Korine was being provocative in his responses is anybody’s guess. Personally I find him and his films fascinating for their completely independent spirit.

Finally, Korine was asked “What do you think the most irresponsible movie ever made is?” Without hesitation, he answered “Forrest Gump.”

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