After Whose Streets and Kinshasa Makambo and so many others, it was hard to get used to the police being the good guys again. Fortunately, the majority of them are still portrayed as racist villains destroying the lives of poor people, which is very in-character, but our heroes are the NYPD 12, whistleblowers calling out the force for continuing to require arrest quotas after the practice had been banned. At the same time we’re following an ex-cop, a loud, personable P.I. fighting to free Pedro Hernandez, who was arrested on sketchy evidence. It’s easy to undervalue an issues doc with slick visuals following a big news story in the boundary-pushing environment of True/False, but this is a great primer on the issues the NYPD 12 raise, well-paced and informative without ever resorting to narration or interview footage, which seems hard to pull off. It covers why good policing matters, how retaliation silences other cops and keeps the stinking system running (featuring damning hidden-camera footage of the retaliation), and who it benefits: $1 billion of the city budget comes from arrests. The NYPD 12 case is still unresolved at the end, but Pedro was released from Rikers (and in attendance at the festival). This and one of the secret screenings were both about fighting within the system to stand up for the oppressed, both maybe more “useful” than artistic, but important.

I thought I’d do another Shorts Month, but February turned out to be pretty busy, so I only got to a dozen (plus the Oscar Animation program). Breaking them up into two posts…


Skinningrove (2013, Michael Almereyda)

After Experimenter and now Escapes, I thought it’d be worth watching everything I can find by Almereyda. This one is simply a slideshow, narrated by photographer Chris Killip who’d spent a few years documenting the titular fishing village. We get descriptions of who we’re seeing, how his (excellent) photographs were taken, and what happened after (two of the boys died in a storm). Killip says he’s never been sure what he should do with the photos – I suppose this is what.


Me the Terrible (2012, Josephine Decker)

Girl dressed like a pirate conquers New York, from the Statue of Liberty to Wall Street to the Empire State Building, until a gang of red-suited bicyclists steal her teddy bear in Central Park and she abandons the rest of the conquest. The adults seem to be lipsyncing to voices from old movies. Not at all like Decker’s Butter on the Latch, but fully wonderful in all new ways.


Split Persona (2017, Bradley Rust Gray)

Twin sisters Karrie and Jalissa have a majorly depressed mom. Jalissa always takes care of mom, so she asks Karrie to stay home for once, but apparently whenever mom is left home with Karrie she attempts suicide. Bummer of a little film, possibly made as a PSA for mental health care – it barely exists online, despite coming from the director of Jack & Diane. This was written by a Nelson, whose mom suffers from depression, and it stars a Nelson as the mom, but no word whether it’s Mom Nelson.


Second Sighted (2015, Deborah Stratman)

Movement through space. Stock footage. Water and earth… earth under water, and flowing like water. Graphic markups on photographs. Models and data and data models. Good stuff, and I didn’t even mind the soundtrack: drones, chimes and that chirpy chatter that accompanies old computer images. My first by Stratman – I’ve been seeing her name here and there.


Woodshock (1985, Richard Linklater)

Bunch of pretty annoying dudes clown around at a Texas underground film festival. Daniel Johnston makes an appearance, then the footage starts overlapping and running in reverse in order to get groovy and psychedelic. He calls this a “film attempt” in the credits, fair enough. I spotted GBH and Exploited t-shirts! Shot by Lee Daniel, who was still working with Linklater as late as Boyhood.


Gazing at the Catastrophe (2012, Ali Cherri)

Closeup of a man’s face, his skin tone shifting every couple of frames. A photoshop cursor strokes each of his features, slowly applying scars or burns to his visage, then the picture cuts away to stuttering video horrors for a few seconds, and repeat.

Better than Hugo from the same author, which was also a Christmas-release historical city-roaming kids’ adventure by a sometimes-favorite filmmaker. Ben, a 1970’s boy suffering recent hearing loss, runs away to New York, meeting a friend named Jamie and hiding out in museums. This is cut with scenes of 1920’s Rose (the magnificent Millicent Simmonds) in a similar situation, visiting some of the same spots. As soon as Ben meets up with grown Rose (Julianne Moore) the fun back-and-forth editing games end, and we’re caught up on the fifty intervening years through long exposition scenes, a shame. I also thought Personal Shopper did a better job dramatizing onscreen text (Ben and Grown Rose have to speak via notepad), but overall this was charming.

Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) is a hopeless single dude working a boring job with Bronson Pinchot. After work he meets diner patron Marcy (Rosanna Arquette of Desperately Seeking Susan the same year), bonding over their shared love for Henry Miller, and she refers him to her artist roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino of Jade). After an undercranked cab ride to their loft, his night spins out of control in tragicomic fashion. Not to get all auteurist on a 1980’s wild-crazy-night picture, but it’s better-looking and more intricately designed than this genre generally gets.

O’Hara and Bloom:

Buncha people with tendencies to panic and lose their cool about small things, not excepting our main man – in Marcy’s bed smoking a bad joint he suddenly sneaks out ranting about needing paperweights. He gets into a barter situation with bartender Tom (the late John Heard), gets shamed by Kiki’s dom boyfriend, wanders over to waitress Teri Garr’s place, then to Catherine O’Hara’s place, then a beardy guy’s place, then Verna Bloom’s place – what is it about Griffin Dunne that makes everyone want to take him home? Verna paper-maches Griffin to hide him from an angry mob who believe he’s responsible for a string of break-ins, then the actual thieves Cheech & Chong steal him, believing he’s art. It’s a very good ending, pulling Griffin abruptly out of the situation and back to his office, which could make the whole thing seem like a harmless dream if not for Marcy’s suicide.

Teri Garr is skeptical:

John Heard is skeptical:

Made by Scorsese between King of Comedy and The Color of Money, after a first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart. Reportedly the flashy camera moves were designed as a Hitchcock parody. Joseph Minion wrote (with some help from Kafka), also wrote Vampire’s Kiss and Scorsese’s episode of Amazing Stories. Tied with Blood Simple at the first Independent Spirit Awards, but it was better-loved in France, where it got a César nomination and won best director at Cannes.

Mouseover to make Dick Miller wink at you:
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I watched a couple of Henry Hills shorts in 2011 and loved them to death, have seen them a few more times since. Checked out his DVD last year, which was less exciting, but I’ve gone back to it now and found some great stuff.


Bali Mécanique (1992)

Bali music and dance intercut with other festival scenes, daily life and architecture. The central performance is great – I love that eye movements are part of the dance – and editing is on point. Think this is my favorite of his non-New York films.


Electricity (2007)

Rhythmic rattle and clank, as streetcar rails slide past ancient building, interrupted by a dystopian white tower broadcasting numbers stations. Shot in Prague.


Kino Da! (1980)

Poet/activist Jack Hirschman sits reading in the grass, Hills creating new poetry by editing the hell out of his words.


Little Lieutenant (1994)

Dance and movement, mostly before greenscreen or projected sets, edited to a wackadoo music montage (Zorn, of course). Clips of war footage towards the end. This is one of the good ones, codirected with dancer/choreographer Sally Silvers.


Porter Springs 4 (1999)

Whew, more playful and less rigidly structuralist than the previous Porter Springs. More scenes from the country house on the lake, this time injecting sound clips, songs (I recognized “Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women”), photographs, home movies, single-frame montages, exposure tricks, silent scenes of shadow and water (callback to the first film?), a whole segment focused on the filmmaker’s feet


Failed States (2008)

1. Amusement park lights and motion, silently contrasting an upsetting-looking spinning and twirling ride at daytime vs. night.

2. Adding a ticking clock, and someone reciting letters and syllables, the rides edited against twiring camera on city streets and people spinning on their own feet.
Finally the sound drops away and the camera keeps endlessly spinning.

3. Spinning and twirling at an India street festival and the carnival rides, each with its own music.

This one has made Sicinski’s top ten of the year, along with films by Ben Rivers and Jennifer Reeves, and was on my Decade List long ago.

“If you love someone, you love them forever.”

A movie about different kinds of love across the country. I picked this for Katy’s sake, figuring some love stories would be a nice break from films about rats, family murder, refugees and more family murder. It turned out to be a really beautifully constructed film. On the surface, we’ve got three stories: Alaskan Blake falls for spindly nerdy guy, Hawaiian surfer Will’s relationship has broken up but he loves his young son, and New York girl Victory lives and works with her musical family. But then the filmmaker casts actors and coworkers to play the younger (and future) selves of the first two and the missing mom of Victory, filming poetic flashbacks and reenactments, and the actors start interacting with the real-life subjects and changing their present-day stories. Pretty much custom made for a festival called True/False.

Alaska (in a Swiss Army Man-reminiscent school bus):

Hawaii:

New York:

Things don’t really work out. Blake’s boyfriend Joel leaves her (and the film) right after she has decided to quit her stripping job, throwing her already precarious life out of balance. Victory’s real mom opens up to her stand-in, and ugly history is revealed. Her dad has at least one girlfriend, is a charismatic family man and band leader who may also be an abuser. Will has violent disagreements with his ex and her new man, but would still do anything for the little boy, even after discovering he’s not the father. I don’t know if the filmmaker set out to find love stories that would become so twisted and complicated (because we ditched the Q&A to find food before our next screening) but she sure found ’em.

Eric Kohn:

Ha’rel’s playful formalism never settles down. Recurring segments follow various subjects reflecting on their lives, as onscreen text highlights their words; often, the text continues while the voiceover fades away. It’s a striking device that effectively poeticizes their rambling declarations. The filmmaker is just as capable of landing on intriguing images, from the sight of a high-heeled woman crossing a creek to a spellbinding shot of Will holding flowers to an unseen target just outside the frame. These elegant moments are paired with frank discussions about sex, abandonment, and heartbreak, which don’t always arrive at poignant conclusions but certainly speak to the movie’s larger themes … Ha’rel’s unique vision holds tremendous value for the craft of non-fiction filmmaking, which so often suffers from formulaic approaches.

“You do not know your killer will make you out to be a monster. You do not realize that there will be no trial. You don’t know that 23 white people will decide no crime has even been committed.”

A mirror image to Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? This time it’s the family member of the murdered man telling the story, again speaking directly to the audience filled with regret and shame and rage, again with a black victim whose white killer doesn’t even go to trial. The tone of this one is pure anguish, told by the brother* of someone who was killed for no reason and will receive no justice, the family left behind in ruins.

*I’ve found Yance called both “he” and “she” online, and Katy and I found evidence of both within the film, but Yance’s self-written 2017 IMDB bio uses “he”.

Ford worked at PBS’s documentary showcase POV for a decade, viewing documentaries day in and out, while deciding how to tell his own family’s story. He ultimately came up with a visually distinct approach of direct address into the camera (sometimes speaking to the brother, sometimes to the audience), filmed photographs and lingering shots of the locations where events took place, in addition to the necessary usual elements (interviews and investigations).

Complications… mom is in a coma at the movie’s end. Yance feels guilty about the death, because he kept a secret about older brother William’s prior outburst at the garage where he would later be killed. There’s a section that was confusingly stuck at the end of the movie about William’s activity before his death, losing weight to apply for work and testifying about a crime he’d helped bring to justice. Yance doesn’t know what the killer looks like, saying he looks like all white people, that he sees the killer everywhere, a statement that bounced hauntingly around the church full of white faces where we sat. It had been chilly for the first couple days of the True/False fest, and during the closing credits we walked out into the warm late morning sun and it felt like another world.

Eric Hynes:

It’s actually on the level of style that Ford tinkers most provocatively with the first-person template. While there’s a rawness of feeling to much of what’s expressed in the film, it’s complicated by the overtly cinematic visual approach taken by Ford and DP Alan Jacobsen. Even that opening phone call—exceedingly common and banal as documentary actions go—is aggressively lit and framed. The strategy doesn’t convey fictionalization so much as intense reflection. Footage here isn’t happened upon, it isn’t automatic or diaristic, but rather deeply, perhaps obsessively deliberated—sincerely captured after decades of traumatized anticipation. Ford’s verbal address also toggles between seemingly rehearsed and spontaneous, complexly underscoring his sincerity. Do you really think someone who’s had a quarter-century to think and feel through such a life-altering trauma could ever be either fully in the emotional moment or, conversely, fully in control of these emotions? Somewhere between first-person and third-person, showing and telling, recording and expressing, is where these personal truths reside.

Catching up on recent true-falsey docs in prep for True/False. To be fair, nothing here can be proven false, but with all the identity-hiding, illegal activity, perspective-switching and popular suspicion that the whole thing might be a put-on, it totally counts.

First half follows obsessive videographer Thierry who becomes fascinated with street artists (including Shepard Fairey, who I just saw in The Color of Noise) and starts following them around, recording their work, claiming to be assembling a documentary about the scene. Thierry finally meets his legendary hero Banksy, gains his confidence and documents some of his projects. Then after Thierry’s idea of a street art documentary is revealed to be very different from everyone else’s, Banksy takes over the footage and turns the camera back on Thierry, who rebrands himself Mr. Brainwash, launching his own art career with an overly ambitious solo exhibit.

Too bad Inside Job won the oscar, because I would’ve liked to see Banksy’s acceptance speech.

Low-key, heartfelt story of Brooklyn gentrification ruining family and friendships. This appeared in theaters the same week Neil’s The Brooklyn Wars shipped. Ira Sachs and/or Magnolia Pictures are clearly trying to capitalize on Neil’s movement.

Jake moves into the neighborhood, Tony shows him around, and they become close friends. Jake’s parents are professionals: actor Greg Kinnear and doctor Jennifer Ehle, and have inherited the building where Tony’s mom (Paulina García, Chilean star of Gloria) runs a dress shop. Kinnear’s sister’s part of the inheritance depends on him raising the rent to market levels and forcing the shop out, and the kids are caught in the family crossfire.

B. Ebiri in Vulture:

Jake’s family isn’t exactly rolling in money; dad’s experimental, off-Broadway productions of The Seagull and whatnot don’t pay the bills. This isn’t an entitled family. They are, in their own way, victims of the same forces transforming Leonor’s neighborhood, just a little further up the chain. And for her part, Leonor isn’t above playing a little dirty. “I was more his family than you were,” she tells Jake’s dad, a little too bluntly suggesting that grandpa cared for her more than he did for his own family. Is it the truth, or is that her desperation speaking? Does it matter?

Ehle was my favorite part of Contagion but she’s not given enough room to be delightful here. Fortunately, García is just terrific. Found out from a Brooklyn magazine article: that’s the young actor who played Tony’s real accent – may he never lose it.

Sachs:

I always thought one of them as my Robert Bresson actor, and the other as my Martin Scorsese actor, and I really worked with those ideas in mind. With Theo the job was to let what emerges from the inside appear, to keep him very still. And with Michael it was to let him go free, the improvisational elements are much more within his character in a kind of Joe Pesci kind of way.

J. Romney:

A single cut towards the end shows us that something critical has happened, and that a moment has passed. In an obvious way, the film is about friendship and those certain intense spells in childhood that never quite last; the final scenes, unglossed by any unnecessary narrative commentary, make a poignantly eloquent coda … There’s a certain no-big-deal quality to Little Men and to Sachs’s intentions which is immensely appealing.