Tuesday, January 22, 2008
At the halfway point at this year's Slamdance Film Festival, few films have emerged as consensus favorites among festivalgoers. So far, the documentary competition seems to boast a much stronger roster of titles than the narrative side. Although it hardly qualifies as a market, in this year of cautious buyers in Park City, no films have picked up significant sales buzz, the way The King of Kong did at last year's festival, where it sold to Picturehouse before its first screening.
Among the strongest titles on the doc side are Adjust Your Color: The Truth About Petey Greene and a harrowing account of a man who simply would not leave his severely flooded New Orleans neighborhood in Katrina's wake, Holdout. Especially thought provoking is Cynthia Lester's My Mother's Garden, which takes an unflinching look at the director's mother, a Polish immigrant afflicted with a form of OCD known as Hoarding Disorder. The film chronicles Cynthia and her disparate siblings attempt to help their wayward parent, whose house is filled to the brim with trash and barely valuable collectibles. Her compulsion is unforgiving and we sense the loneliness and emotional insecurities that have fed her disorder in a conventionally structured doc that tracks the effects of the intervention staged by her children.
At a Q&A following the film, Eugenia joined her daughter, stressing that the roots of her problems, which she claims to have been fully aware of before she was forced to seek treatment, rest in her coming of age amongst scarred Holocaust survivors. Not quite as wrenching or aesthetically provocative as Capturing The Friedmans, the film nonetheless is a sneakily powerful portrait of a family torn asunder by secrets, mental illness and denial, with several of Cynthia's siblings having been unaware of just how out of hand Engenia's disorder had gotten until Los Angeles officials threatened to take her house. It's an honest and mature look at a troubled woman, engaging it's subject's neuroses with humor and concern, suggesting, without malice, how her instability led her children down precarious paths that they have seeming recovered from gracefully.
Although the narratives have been a shallower pool, with disappointments ranging from Frost, a brisk Cameron Crowe rip-off that can't hit all of its telegraphed genre beats with anything resembling nuance or style, to The Project, the Brooklyn indie film within a Brooklyn indie film that follows a trio of white filmmakers attempting to document the lives of dope dealing inner city black kids with increasingly exploitative and personally dangerous results, Tom Quinn's magnificent The New Year Parade has easily assumed the mantle of film to beat in the narrative competition.
Rough around the edges, with a temp score that uses Elliot Smith's soulful downer ballads to better effect than Good Will Hunting, the film delves into a year in the lives a a disintegrating family in South Philadelphia's Irish enclaves. Something of a naturalistic, blue collar The Squid and The Whale, the pic revolves around the effect of an infidelity and the power struggle that ensues between parents, as they fight a proxy war through their children. Quinn, who wrote, directed, shot, and edited himself with a bare bones crew, has made a consistently touching movie in which all of his characters, even the most flawed (which, like Baumbach's marital strife narrative, is the mother) are seen with empathy. Quinn creates a recognizable and multi-textured world for his characters to inhabit; South Philadelphia is clearly a place he has thought much about, one tinged with decay and regret, but also love, humor and beauty.
The New Year Parade brims with wonderful glimpses of spaces the cinema rarely visits. Quinn, whose deftness with performers equals his eye for authentic detail, uses real South Philly marching bands, has his characters visit Geno's Steaks and he depicts the unraveling of the family against the backdrop of the implosion of Veteran's Stadium, incorporating into the film a series of places and cultural events that resonate in this working class milieu. Unlike so many bourgeois filmmakers condescending to poor or working class characters (see The Project, or the much hyped Ballast over at Sundance, but more on that somewhere else), seeing their lives as mere vacuums of pain and aesthetic playgrounds in which the filmmakers can work out their own complexes of guilt and lack of understanding in narratives weighed down by arty pretensions, THe New Year Parade, with its flat narrative, subtle sensitivity to class, gently crafted performances by non or marginal actors and its rough hewn yet entirely appropriate hand held camerawork, does many of the things American Independent films have traditionally done well.
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