Well, almost. It’s the end of day six of the Montclair Film Festival. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far. A violin carries the spirit of its owner even after it is passed on. Frank Zappa once turned down a request by the Pope to play at the Vatican. David Byrne is re-inventing the high school color guard.
Having attended since day one, I am amazed at what this festival has become. This year, the fifth, there are 150 movies over 10 days. On opening night 1,500 people turned up to watch a documentary old-school style, one big screen in one big theatre. The next morning, close to that number showed up to watch a 25 minute short followed by a 15 minute student violin performance. Where else does that happen?
I tend to gravitate toward the many documentaries. When else do you have the opportunity to see documentaries on the big screen. Opening night for this year’s festival was Life, Animated in the historic Wellmont Theater. Owen Suskind, son of noted journalist David Suskind, is stricken with autism and disconnects with the world around him at age 3. What eventually re-engages him with his environment and gives him a voice is Disney animated movies. Through scenes from Aladdin and Dumbo and the Lion King he establishes an ability to communicate and to understand his feelings.
What makes this story so compelling is how much of it is told by Owen himself. Watching it is the closest I’ve ever come to undersatanding what it is like to have autism. There are no charts or stats or diagnoses in this movie. It’s about Owen’s emotions, his hopes and his fears. The camera lens gets past the autistic layer and introduces us to a warm, thoughtful and insightful young man. A great movie. Best I’ve seen at the festival so far.
The next morning I’m back at the Wellmont for another human interest story. Joseph Feingold is a 91-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor. At some point he wasn’t able to continue to play the violin he had bartered a carton of American cigarettes for at a street market after the war. So he makes the decision to donate it so it can be used by someone else. Joseph walks away thinking that’s that but filmaker Kahane Cooperman catches wind of the story that will become a short documentary, Joe’s Violin.
The instrument ends up in the hands of 12-year-old Brianna Perez at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. Brianna proves to be deserving of this special gift. Joe eventually makes his way up to the Bronx and meets Brianna and that’s the point where there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. After the screening both appear on stage. Joe gives us another dose of the humility and wit that made this such a compelling story and Brianna plays a short performance with some of her classmates.
Like Joe’s Violin, Contemporary Color found its way to Montclair after a screening at last week’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is an art form that I was completely unaware of. The brainchild of David Byrne, Contemporary Color is a re-invention of the color guard. High school and community groups do routines that seem more suited for a modern dance group but with the twirling of rifles and flags nonetheless. The show at the Barclay’s Center, which the film documents, pairs these high school and community color guards with contemporary artists like Lucifer, St. Vincent and Nelly Furtado, who wrote music for this event. Hats off to the kids from Somerville High School in New Jersey who were awesome.
There was an entirely different kind of music in Eat That Question – Frank Zappa in His Own Words. There are excerpts from numerous interviews that Zappa did. He tells us upfront what he think of interviews: “two steps removed from the Inquisition.” So while he isn’t always an enthusiastic interviewee, he is blunt. In response to a question about whether he has ever used hard drugs, Zappa quips, “The closest I came to hard drugs is when I take penicillin on the road after getting the clap.”
In between the interview clips was Zappa on stage. There’s a take from the Steve Allen TV show with a young Zappa playing music on two bicycles. And some footage of his later years conducting an orchestra playing music he composed. But mostly there’s the music that Zappa’s known for: odd electronic sounds, raunchy lyrics, biting social commentary and some pretty good rock and roll guitar. While 90 minutes was a bit much contemporary color for me, it wasn’t nearly enough Zappa.
Cameraperson is the cinematic scrapbook of Kirsten Johnson, who has been the cameraperson for documentary films from Bosnia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Brooklyn and Texas. Pieces of footage from those documentaries have been pieced together to create this film. There are many beautiful and moving images. But many of these documentaries are about brutality and inhumanity. The pictures are not themselves gruesome but are of places that were the sites of mass rape in the Bosnian War and public executions by the Taliban. And we see the pick up truck used to drag a man to his death in Jaspar, Texas. It left me wondering what a career of filming the aftermath of events like these does to you. I was uncomfortable warching this one.
There were also plenty of narrative films at MFF16. Here’s what I saw in the first half of the week in order of preference.
The Montclair Film Festival doesn’t have a lot of international films, But at least once each year I’ve seen a French movie as part of the festival. This year is was La Belle Saison (oddly translated into Summertime in English). It’s a love story. It’s also a pretty good movie that some of you may want to see and if I tell you any more about the story it may ruin it so I won’t. It is set in France in the early 70’s. We see radical young women embracing feminism and carrying out some guerilla actions on the street. And we see the status of women in the French countryside where traditional values are still firmly entrenched. The story is about the conflicts created by these different sets of values.
The 2005 movie The Girl in the Cafe was shown as part of a tribute to Richard Curtis, who wrote the screenplay. It is an odd film that combines global politics with personal awkwardness. A senior Britich bureaucrat who works for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, nabs the only open seat in a crowded café across from a girl who, we learn later, just got out of jail. After a lovely 10 minutes sipping coffee he gets up the nerve to initiate what turn out to be the awkwardest couple of dates you could imagine. Then he invites her to join him for the G8 conference in Reykjavik. Once there she outdoes his awkwardness by ignoring all decorum and speaking her mind about global poverty at various stately events where you’re supposed to shut up and listen to the speeches. In the end she gets tossed but the British delegation dig in ther feet on the issue, just like she asked them to.
Actor Martinez is about Arthur Martinez, an actor. Or at least he moonlights as an actor when he isn’t doing his day job of in-home computer repair. He has scored gigs like playing the role of a distressed person for police cadet training. Two filmmakers, who are the actual makers of this film, are doing a movie about Arthur in which he stars as himself. Is it a film within a film? Or maybe a failed attempt at a film within a film? Everyone is cast as his or her self, including the actress brought in to play Arthur’s girlfriend, which she definitely is not. But there is little script and little direction so there is really no distinction between what is acted and what is life. It’s all a bit blurry.
If you’re in or near New Jersey, there’s still four full days left to go. I’m taking a halftime breather and backing off of my two a day schedule but this weekend I’m looking forward to a screen adaptation of the Philip Roth novel Indignation and a documentary about Austin City Lights.