First Dispatch: IFF Boston
The 2015 film fest demonstrates the city's influence in the art worldMovies Features Boston
There may be no more fitting way to kick off a celebration of storytellers than with a portrait of a storyteller, so combining Independent Film Festival Boston with The End of the Tour feels simply felicitous. This is the second time a James Ponsoldt film has commenced festivities at New England’s largest film festival; he opened IFFBoston in 2013 with The Spectacular Now. But repeat appearances aside, Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s chronicle of a five-day road trip with the late, great Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace, feels particularly significant to the eight-day event for a plethora of reasons (beyond the quietly awesome presence of Jason Segel, who plays Wallace in the film).
For one thing, The End of the Tour is intrinsically linked to Boston through Wallace’s legend. If you haven’t read Infinite Jest—or if you started reading it and never finished—the novel divides its time between Tucson and Enfield, a fictional Boston suburb that’s nestled within the municipal confluence of Boston, Allston, and Brighton. He didn’t stop with locations, either. Wallace researched his text by sitting in on open AA meetings, hanging out in halfway houses, and taking notes all the while. The End of the Tour isn’t a Boston movie per se, but Wallace—an Ithaca native who moved to Massachusetts in the ’80s, lived in Somerville, and taught at Emerson—has Boston roots, and those roots remained strong throughout his career (and still do even half a decade after his passing).
As IFFBoston moved into its second, third and fourth days, Boston itself is revealed as a prevailing motif throughout the lineup, though in varying measurements. Thursday saw the area premiere of Results, the fifth film by Boston native Andrew Bujalski, a guy many credit as “the godfather of mumblecore.” Friday evening’s slate boasted The Overnight, which stars Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling. Over the weekend, Bobcat Goldthwait showed off Call Me Lucky, a documentary about comedian Barry Crimmins, a figurehead in the local comedy circuit and founder of clubs The Ding Ho and Stitches; both filmmaker and subject were in attendance. So too was David Chen, host of the Slashfilmcast and co-creator of the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and Stephen Tobolowsky, the figure at the center of Chen’s directorial debut, The Primary Instinct. And Jesse Andrews, who adapted the screenplay for closing film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from his novel of the same name, calls Boston his home as well.
This is just a small sample of the regional focus of this year’s IFFBoston, which also includes Mark Shuman’s Morphine: Journey of Dreams, a doc about Boston alt rock band Morphine, and 7 Chinese Brothers, which co-stars Olympia Dukakis. It’s not surprising that the fest should highlight so many offerings from and featuring Bostonians, of course, but there’s a sense of increased prominence on movies colored, in one way or another, by their connections to the city. Morphine: Journey of Dreams and Call Me Lucky both revolve around people who have shaped Boston’s culture and entertainment scenes, and both enjoyed the spotlight on Saturday night. Meanwhile, The Primary Instinct took the stage during Sunday evening’s schedue. Maybe most telling is that IFFBoston ’15 is bookended by films with Boston ties, loose though they may be.
“Gather ’round,” says the festival’s inviting campfire theme. And audiences always do, year in and year out. Opening night is always abuzz with excitement and chatter over what films are playing, when they’re playing, and which among them demand to be seen above all others. Wednesday’s ceremony proved no different from any other in terms of anticipatory enthusiasm, but as IFFBoston has grown over the years, so too has Boston grown as a locus for cinephiles. Perhaps in that regard it’s only proper for the festival to put its city on display, especially as Massachusetts’ governor, Charlie Baker, considers putting the kibosh on the state’s film tax credit (a sensitive issue for everyone at the festival, whether they’re members of the dedicated staff or ticket-purchasing participants).
IFFBoston has always provided a place for budding filmmakers to screen their hard work for a discerning viewership, but Boston has only recently begun to emerge as an important industry hub. That the 2015 selections should be about demonstrating Boston’s influence in the art world feels right.
On Wednesday, as the lights went up on The End of the Tour, an odd thing happened: People yanked out their smartphones and readied them for snapshots and for audio recording. If the film tells us anything, it’s that Wallace would have found the sight amusing, assuming that he wouldn’t find the idea of a movie about him to be outright terrifying. For Ponsoldt, this movie is a departure in many ways from his previous works—Off the Black, Smashed, and The Spectacular Now, each of which document the rigors of alcoholism using differing human lenses. In telling the story of Wallace, who struggled with addiction himself, The End of the Tour carries through on that element, though this is Wallace on the verge of literary notoriety and beyond his bad habits, which haunt him in every frame before coming to a head in a flooring monologue toward the film’s climax.
For Segel, The End of the Tour is a career highpoint. Alongside Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky, Segel towers; he’s a big man, and through Ponsoldt’s camera he feels colossal. But Wallace was never a larger-than-life type, and Segal never tries to give him that appearance (though the movie’s casual mentions of folk heroes like Paul Bunyan might unconsciously draw that distinction for some). Instead, he plays subdued. Divorced of its specifics, the movie is about the often prickly relationship between writers and two men bonding through the shock of social anxiety. As Lipsky, Eisenberg is at first on the edge of breaking down at meeting Wallace, whom he idolizes, but Wallace breaks that tension by admitting that he’s just as nervous as Lipsky. What follows could be called a buddy movie, but that grossly misrepresents the interactions these men had with one another. In one moment, they’re vibing. In another, Wallace is in Lipsky’s face after Lipsky crosses boundaries both spoken and unspoken. There’s danger here, coupled with intimate, emotional aching. But Ponsoldt has a soft touch, so even when we’re in the actors’ faces, we’re always just out of reach. Like Lipsky, we’re just along for the ride.
Turning that ride into a film came with its share of challenges. Anyone might find the business of embodying David Foster Wallace’s genius and his spiritual exertions daunting, after all, but for Segel, who joined Ponsoldt for a post-screening Q&A, the key was comprehension. “It was very important to understand everything I was saying,” he explained to the crowd. “I know that sounds very simple, but the dialogue on the page—some of these things are a page long, two pages long, and when you listen to the tapes, that is the way he speaks. They’re well-constructed thoughts, with like a thesis, and then points to back it up, but it sounds very conversational when you listen to the tapes. So I felt like, in order to not make it sound like somebody delivering monologues, it was just really important that I really understood emotionally everything I was saying. So that was the biggest challenge, because he’s just so, so smart, and the things that I was saying, there was a lot of layered kind of depth to them. I just didn’t want to sound like I was just saying words.”
Segel went even further into the details of his performance later on in the session, which in a lot of ways comes down to his collaboration with Ponsoldt. Turning any living person into a character for a movie feels like a big responsibility. When that person is someone like Wallace, that may be even more true. Said Segel, “James is very, very hyper-vigilant about honesty, and I think that’s exactly what the movie called for. In our talks leading up, we really went through scene by scene, we’d get on the phone and go through literally every scene and ask, ‘What do you think this scene is really about? What do you think David Foster Wallace is really saying here? What do you think he’s hiding here? What do you think he’s intentionally revealing versus holding back?’ And then you do throw all that stuff away by the time you get there, because it’s just too much to keep in your head, but you’re sort of planting this idea of really focusing on what is actually going on and being really present.”
Most of all, though, the portrayal had to feel genuine. Segel’s initial casting in The End of the Tour was met with skepticism and derision, especially after the first image of him in costume as Wallace made the rounds online. If web reactions were of concern to him, he didn’t say, but nailing Wallace’s persona right down to his pattern of speech was paramount to Segel regardless. “It was also really important to James and I that it not feel like an impression,” he told us. “That was the other big thing James and I talked about. David Foster Wallace had, in my opinion, a very rhythmic way of talking, and it’s identifiable. So it’s important to get that, and to get some of the physicality, but then also never feel like you’re watching somebody give an impression. That’s not what the movie’s about, you know? So I just think James pushed me at every moment to be as honest as I possibly could. That was my takeaway from the experience; that’s how I would like to do every movie from now on. It’s this question of ‘What is this about?’ When someone asks you, ‘What is the movie about?’ you should be able to say something other than the plot.”
That’s the other binding quality of this year’s IFFBoston lineup: authenticity. That’s an easy goal when documentaries outnumber the narrative features, but even among those there’s a clear emphasis on reality. Some of them (Diego Ongaro’s Bob and the Trees, notably) feel downright neorealist, while genre offerings borrow from history and from contemporary human struggles to form their backgrounds. The festival is now halfway finished, and the sheer volume and variety of films that have graced the screens of the beloved Somerville and Brattle Theatres are close to staggering. The downside to every festival, from SXSW to TIFF, is that invariably there will be movies you must miss in order to see the ones that already have you on tenterhooks thanks to previews and reputation. Here are the films we’ve seen that have impressed us thus far:
Director: John MacLean
When a tree falls in the woods, nobody hears it—except when the tree falls in John MacLean’s Slow West. Here, the person who cut the tree down hears it just as its trunk crushes them to death upon the forest grounds, where their bones lie until come upon by Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), two men heading westward ho. Silas is an outlaw who more or less strong-arms Jay into hiring him as a bodyguard. Jay is an effete but well-intentioned boy who has followed his lady love (Caren Pistorious) from Scotland after she goes on the lam. Slow West runs on a well-worn genre engine, but MacLean is too much of an imp to play his film as a straightforward Western. Visual gags and punchlines litter his landscape of colorful backdrops and even more colorful characters. One, a German traveler bent on cataloging the unsettled American frontier, laments that the era will inevitably be romanticized through art, but he couldn’t have meant Slow West. MacLean might have his tongue stapled to his cheek, but his wonderfully eccentric portrait of violence and suffering, dreams and toil is anything but romantic.
7 Chinese Brothers
Director: Bob Byington
Think of Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers as a decidedly gentler alternative to Listen Up, Philip, last year’s wanton celebration of male literary narcissism. Both films star Jason Schwartzman in his mode of narcissistic self-destruction; both of them feature the talents of Alex Ross Perry, though here he’s merely content to show up and punch Schwartzman in the face. As drunken sad-slacker Larry, Schwartzman is obnoxious but not acerbic enough to earn our enmity. He might be a pain in the ass—to his new crush/boss (Eleanor Pienta), to his best friend (Tunde Adebimpe), to his own grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)—but he’s less a virulent misanthrope and more a misbehaving puppy. You want to smack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and then maybe pat him on the head. Byington’s movie is mopey but frothy, and it weighs about as much as a bag of Popchips. It’s satisfying for as long as its minute running time allows, and as soon as it ends, you’ll feel like moving on to something more substantial.
Director: Geoffrey Cowper
A byproduct of lean, muscular genre stories of hard-nosed male ennui, Day Release does a lot with quite a little. It’s a manly movie about manly men doing manly things, but director Geoffrey Cowper and co-writer/star Jesús Lloveras suffuse their badass pursuits with sociopolitical background elements (like the Spanish housing crisis) that quietly fuel the plot. Lloveras plays Mark, a man out on weekend parole for the first time in the five years he’s spent in jail. His misdeeds remain unspecified until later in the film, but for a hardened criminal, he has a surprisingly strong sense of justice. Mark witnesses an armed robbery in broad daylight that leaves two security guards dead. Emboldened, he follows the perpetrators’ getaway car. Most of us would be happy to leave the heavy lifting of law enforcement to the police, but Mark is a man in desperate need of redemption. Day Release (aka Tercer Grado) is a fine display of scrappy D.I.Y. filmmaking, introducing microbursts of violence with economy as the plot unfolds and Mark’s quest draws him closer to the catharsis he seeks.
Director: Crystal Moselle
IFFBoston’s documentary section is loaded with movies that focus on subjects with inexplicable, magnetic charisma and varying degrees of goodness. In The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle chronicles the Angulo family, ostensibly led by patriarch Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna devotee whose wife Susanne bore him seven children, whom he locked up in their Lower East Side apartment for the better part of their young lives. They’re only able to connect with the world beyond their door through cinema: The Angulos possess a massive home library of movies ranging from Reservoir Dogs to The Dark Knight, each of which the kids (six boys and one girl) study in depth before staging reproductions of them in-house. Their efforts are impressive, to say the least, but Moselle is mostly interested in these recreations in context with the Angulos’ sheltered existence. Most of us go to the movies to escape, but we take that escape for granted. If anything, The Wolfpack might just make jaded cinephiles check their privilege alongside their priorities. The movie could have used more Oscar—he’s a fascinating figure who is as much a captive of his fears and anxieties as his family—but this is a compelling tale about the transporting power of film in the face of human insularity.
Director: Marah Strauch
What could possibly motivate a person to leap from any sky-piercing object with naught but a parachute to ensure their safety? Sunshine Superman gamely tries to answer that question, though try as she might Marah Strauch can’t quite arrive at any hard conclusion. That’s not her fault, really, as much as it’s indicative of the late Carl Boenish’s ineffability. Boenish is remembered as the father of BASE (Building Antenna Span & Earth) jumping, but Strauch’s film commemorates his humanity more than his accomplishments as a pioneer in the field of inadvisably hurling oneself off of tall stuff. If heights weren’t your bag, the loquacious, endlessly likable Boenish could probably have convinced you to suit up and take a swan dive out of an airplane, or off of a mountain, without much more than his infectious enthusiasm for adrenaline-fueled risk. There are points where the film feels repetitive—we see an awful lot of footage of people hurtling through the air and landing on the ground—but these are moments of grand awe that suck us into the reverie of free fall.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.