2012 Williamstown Film Festival Part Two

Arcadia, Gayby, Richard Russo, Supporting Characters, Circus Dreams

By: - Oct 24, 2012


Attending festivals results in a blur of impressions. In a relative compact time there is so much information to absorb. It also highlights the critical process as outstanding performances linger and become etched in our memory while marginal ones fade rapidly.

It’s rather like a week of London theatre. Some plays are virtually forgotten before we even leave the theatre while others remain with us forever. If we saw a similar number of films or plays spread out over weeks or months we might have quite different experiences. But it is the compression of so many films over several days that sharpens and defines  critical faculties. In such a circumstance an individual film must hold its own in the context of the range of programming.


All-shorts Slot  II

The Debutante Hunters, Dr. Breakfast, Fling, 43,000 Feet, Good Luck Mr. Gorski, The Man at the Counter, A Morning Stroll, Performance Anxiety, Screenshot, A Short Film

Our twelve hour day in the dark began at 10 AM at Images Cinema, with a program of shorts, and ended at the Clark Art Institute with an evening built around author Richard Russo. Starting the day with ten short films contributed to the blur factor. Astrid Hiemer will be sorting out and reporting on that program as well as the individual shorts that preceded the features we viewed.

Writer/ Director, Olivia Silver

Cast: John Hawkes, Rya Simpkins, Ty Simpkins, Kandall Toole
Running Time, 90 minutes

On every level this first feature by a recent Williams College graduate, Olivia Silver, feels light and young. It is an expanded version of the short film Little Canyon which was shown at WFF in 2009.

Several times during the ongoing programming artistic director, Steve Lawson, commented about filmmakers returning to the festival as their careers advance. This was but one of a number of such examples.

That helps to create a sense of bonding and community that sustains the festival and gives it relevance over its span of 14 seasons.

From a technical viewpoint this is a well crafted film. It indicates a young filmmaker who has earned her stripes to launch a promising career.

The film chronicles a dad, Tom, played by John Hawkes, more or less kidnapping his three kids played by Ryan Simpkins (Greta), Ty Simpkins (Nat), and Kendall Toole (Caroline) driving cross country to a new job in Arcadia, California a suburb of Los Angeles. He has been out of work for months and this is a chance to be his own boss and get a fresh start.

Where’s mom? Greta makes numerous calls to the answering machine in the home they just left. Tom is reluctant to reveal why she will be joining them later in LA. Greta probes ever more insistently and become increasingly unhinged. She straddles that complex line between child/ girl, clutching a raggedy stuffed animal, and the woman who freaks out when soiled sheets reveal her first period.

It is a moment when a girl/ woman really needs her mother. She is awkwardly navigated through this trauma by a sincere but ill suited father. Being handed a box of tampons in a brown paper bag just doesn’t quite cut it.

With so much of the film shot in the packed station wagon the action is slow and claustrophobic. There is a sense of relief when they take breaks and get out of the car as they ramble through the states. Tom does his best to rally them with songs and games. But dragging three kids cross country would be a test of patience even under the best of circumstances. Especially so for an audience.

Tom, who sneaks out to a bar, is overseen by Greta who just happens to be sleep walking. It seems he is cozy with a younger woman and crawls home late with no explanation. For Greta it is an arch betrayal but we slowly learn that her mom had a breakdown and is recovering in an institution.

There are vignettes of the experiences and reactions of all three children and the mounting stress on Tom. In a particularly traumatic moment he pulls over and orders the ever more pouty, defiant and unhinged Greta to get out of the car. There is a real time sequence as she is abandoned by the side of the road clutching her stuffed animal.

We fear the worst but, after a tense interval, the car returns and they journey on.

While Hawkes anchors a cast of young actors through accomplished performances this coming of age, family oriented film may appeal to others more than it did me.

During the talk back Silver discussed how it is getting ever more difficult to fund films like this with budgets just under a million dollars. The book ends are feature films that are shot digitally, for about $50,000, and then a range of films starting with budgets of $20 million. Films like Arcadia make the rounds of festivals but are rarely picked up for theatrical release. She described the next step for her film as a VOD (video on demand). With this credit Silver is on to the next project.

Writer/ Director, Johnathan Lisecki

Cast: Jenn Harris, Matthew Wilkas, Mike Doyle, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Jack Ferver, Louis Cancelmi, Alycia Delmore
Running Time, 83 minutes

Gayby is the breakout film for the brilliantly hilarious, awesomely talented, Jenn Harris, who may not yet be a bankable star but already has attitude up the wazzoo.

She has made headlines in a dust up with Lindsay Lohan which she incorporated into her standup act which packed Joe’s Pub in New York. Off Broadway she has gotten rave reviews for Silence The Musical.

At this point Harris is almost famous and already a legend in her own mind.

Unless you’re a Republican with a hang-up on fundamentalism and family values this juggernaut of an indie film is a huffing and puffing laugh machine from the getgo.

You’ll be choking on your popcorn following the adventures of a thirty something “fag hag” whose biological clock is ticking away big time.

Both on an off screen Harris works within a community of young and primarily gay actors that comprise the company QWAN (Quality Without a Name). This summer on a thinly attended Monday (their night off from New York theatre commitments) they performed two workshopped spoofs Swan and Notes at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

Harris, who earned a degree at Boston University spent summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. She  appeared in The Pageant with Matthew Wilkas, her co star in Gayby, at the  Berkshire Theatre Festival in 2008.

Jenn and Matt (they use their real names as characters in the film) made a pact to do the nasty and make a baby when and if they reached a certain age without issue.

Trouble is that Matt, along with most of Jenn’s guy friends, is gay. Well, ok, he could donate sperm or go the turkey baster route. But Jenn, I know, I know, I know, yuk and stuff, wants the close your eyes and hold your nose real thing. Insertion and all that.

Even though she tries to stick to an ovulation timer to keep the dreaded copulation to a minimum it takes more than a few tries for the fuck buddies to conceive.

To set the tone for this ordeal she informed him during the first attempt that she had shaved her legs but then realized that it wasn’t necessary.

Never has awkward shagging been more amusing.

Matt, a hunk, has tons of other romantic options. Including a seeming straight, cute guy, a dad who brings his kid to Matt’s comic book shop. On the side Matt is an illustrator who, inspired by his new conundrum, wants to create a super baby hero. Kind of a human Mighty Mouse with diapers. Think Andy Kaufman.

By day Jenn is as an instructor and group leader at a Yoga studio. Her Yoga routines will have you rolling on the floor and gasping for air.

The writer/ director Johnathan Lisecki appears in a terrific minor roll as a bitchy queen. He has some of the best scenes and loudest laughs of this wonderful gem of a film. Which is more than we can say for cult star and QWAN member, Randy Harrison, who gets, like, one line and ten seconds on screen. Given his schedule one take may have been all he could spare.

Fans of WTF may also recognize the five o’clock shadow of Louis Cancelmi as a mystical house painter. He bangs Jenn for a quicky which means that his paint job is gratis. If you want to cut the cost of home decorating try screwing the contractor. It’s for sure they are out to screw you, so, why not get a little fun out of it.

Cancelmi appeared at WTF this summer in The Importance of Being Earnest and A Month in the Country.

This first feature length film by Lisecki is a work up from a short film which was a smash during its rounds of festivals. Now the full length film is knocking them dead. There has been a limited run theatrical release in New York. A director’s cut DVD is scheduled for December. I just added it to my Save list in Netflix which gives it four plus stars. This is a film you might want to see a few times after the kids are tucked into bed.

Richard Russo: Novel into Film

The annual death by chocolate party at the Clark Art Institute preceded an evening discussing the books and films of Maine resident, and Pulitizer Prize winner, Richard Russo. Last year the Clark event played to a tiny audience due to a freakish October blizzard.

Artistic director Steve Lawson was in a familiar role as moderator accompanied by Williams College professor, Jim Shepard, as well as filmmaker and Russo collaborator Brad Silberling.

During the Q&A, when the evening was opened to the audience, it was evident that many in the near to capacity auditorium were familiar with most of the books and films being discussed.

There were several intervals of clips from Nobody’s Fool, the two parts, four hour HBO mini series of Empire Falls, and Twilight. The clips included performances by great actors including Paul Newman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Maggie Smith, Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Kate Burton, Jessica Tandy and Susan Sarandon.

During the discussion Russo indicated that he was inspired to create characters based on his own life and family experiences. Based on the clips we viewed it must have been a heck of a family.

The scenes with a then late in life Paul Newman were particularly poignant. As Lawson remarked he had participated in WFF. It was just another reminder of how the distinguished festival has crisscrossed creating its own remarkable history and back story.

One of the great strengths of WFF is that is not only shows great films, past and present, but also delves deeply into the process and techniques of the medium. In this case there were wonderful insights from a straight, humorous, and forthcoming author who articulated the daunting difference between being in total control of the long form when writing a book, and the many expediencies and compromises of reducing all of that nuanced text down to a script, typically, of just a hundred tight pages of dialogue.

An author has the option of selling and relinquishing control of a book or getting involved in the very different demands of reducing and transforming it into a script. Russo has had it both ways and was frank about the difficulties and frustrations that entails. He had one book optioned with no resultant film. The writer has also taken on the assignment of adapting another author’s book for film. Currently he is working on Bill Bryson's classic Appalachian Trail-hike story, "A Walk in the Woods," with director Brad Silberling.

It is a project being developed for Robert Redford. With some irony Silberling described how Redford, now quite on in years, continues to pursue roles suited for a man of action in his mid forties.

After the struggles of filmmaking Russo commented on the delight of getting back to writing impossibly long and self indulgent epics. It was his version of reversing the conventional wisdom that a thousand words are worth at least as much as 24 frames per second.  Following the event he signed copies of his latest novel Interventions.


Prior to the 11 am screening there were complimentary muffins, bagels, juice and coffee in the lobby of Images Cinema. For the first time there were no ballots to vote for the short films which routinely preceded features.

From the front of the theatre Lawson announced to a light turnout  the winners of the annual 2012 Christopher and Dana Reeve Award. It went to Shawn Christensen for Curfew. The five runners-up, in order were: Migraine, Performance Anxiety, Good Luck, Mr. Gorski, Love at First Sight and Pearl.

Supporting Characters
Writers; Daniel Schechter and Tarik Lowe
Director, Daniel Schechter
Cast: Alex Karpovsky, Tarik Lowe, Lena Dunham, Kevin Corrigan, Arielle Kabbel, Sophia Takal, Melonie Diaz
Running Time, 87 minutes

Seeing a movie on a Sunday morning is kindah like having sex before breakfast. Having blown off some steam what’s the motivation for the rest of the day?

Further obfuscating the conundrum  was a movie about making movies.

We munched on a muffin while gulping enough caffeine to kick start the anchor leg of several long days of non stop cinema.

Suffering a bit of an aesthetic hangover and gradual emotional meltdown of festivalitis, take three aspirins and call me tomorrow, how to get it up one more time? Particularly, as previously and perhaps grossly stated, after metaphorical morning sex, or shall we just call it art?

Despite the layers upon layers of aesthetic irony, like pulling off leaves of an artichoke, it didn’t take long to sink into the delicious heart and soul of this truly deliicious and wonderfully twisty, turny, ironic and complex film.

It proved to be a truly terrific way to finish a deep immersion in films. Well. Almost. There was one more film which proved to be anything but an anti climax.

 The cleverly scripted film by Daniel Schechter and Tarik Lowe focuses on partners the film editors Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and Darryl (Tarik Lowe). There is a hierarchy in their working relationship. Darryl, a black filmmaker, does the dirty work and fixes problems so that Nick, the artist of the two, can focus on the aesthetics of editing a film. When frequently encounter bantering and sparring over their professional and private lives, the “race card” surfaces but always with an underplayed lightness. It is absorbing to follow the intricacy of their multivalent relationship.

In addition to squabbles about the films they are working on both men have variations on girl trouble. Nick has a serious live in relationship with Amy (Sophia Takal) a plain but substantial woman who is not in show business. They are arguing about the terms of a pre nup which her father has been instrumental in insisting upon. We never quite know but suspect that she comes from money. While admitting to ambivalence she does indeed want the agreement. Which Nick, struggling to make it in a tough profession, sees as a lack of faith and commitment.

Darryl has his hands full with a smokin’ woman of color, probably Hispanic. She may have other romantic interests which drives him up a tree. When he pops the ring on one knee, interrupting her dance/ exercise class, she initially says yes. But then, outside, accuses him of forcing an issue she is unclear about and embarrassing her in front of her friends. She reveals that she would never marry a man like Darryl. It’s one thing to fool around but quite another to make a family commitment.

Darryl is utterly crushed and leans on Nick for support.

There are other layers and subplots. Start with the Hamlet like director Adrian (Kevin Corrigan) who approaches the film in progress as “To Be or Not to Be?”

It is revealing when Nick says that Adrian is never around when they are laboring over the editing of the film. The implication is that editors have more to do with shaping the film than the director.  In a fascinating confrontation Adrian, however, asserts that he will have the final say over the cut of the film. In a hilarious scene the duo of editors discover that he has simply confiscated and refuses to relinquish the footage. Darryl has the “fix it” task of cajoling the footage back from the petulant director.

Then there’s a hot chick, the star of the film, the cute and tempting Jaime (Arielle Kebbel). She shows up in the sound studio to redo a scene. On the other side of the glass Nick directs her so assertively that it devolves into a verbal S&M scene. While Nick is not much to look at he has tons of self confidence and personality. Amy, who is used to getting any guy she wants, is coming off a long failed relationship. She responds seductively to his yanking on her chain.

It’s the old cute chick/ nerdy guy syndrome. Amy is clearly the better match for him, long term, but they have their issues. Particularly, when she sniffs Jaime flirting with her guy.

In the midst of all this spinning about the movie gets done. Nick, however, is being recruited to go solo on the next job with a tight budget. He is offered an intern but there is not enough money for Darryl.

Business is business argues Nick particularly now that he is engaged. Darryl, who tries to take it in stride, is deeply hurt and offended.

There is an oddly compromised happy ending. Both men are dumped by their women but reconnect as partners. Work prevails where romance fails. The truism underscores that every serious artist is married to his or her work.

By Skype, Schechter answered questions in a dialogue with Jeff Kleiser and the audience. We were not surprised that this movie about making movies is well received on the film festival circuit. How it plays with a wider audience is unclear. Asked about the budget he revealed that it cost just about $60,000 and was written in just a month. Amazing. Part of that Schechter commented was having really good luck during shooting. It rained when they were indoors and was sunny when outside.

This is another better than average, three star film to save in your Netflix queue.

Circus Dreams
Director Producer, Singe Taylor

Cast: Joy Powers, Maddy Hall, Jacob Tischler, Thula Martin, Thea Ulrich, Greylin Nielsen, Katie Sickels, Jacob Stein-Sharpe, Nate Stein-Sharpe, Eric Brown
Circus Smirkus Executive Director, Ed Le Clair
Circus Smirkus Show Director, Troy Wunderlie
Circus Smirkus Show Asst. Director, Jesse Dryden
Running Time, 80 minutes

Back in the day kids dreamed of leaving home and running away to join a circus.

The charming film Circus Dreams by Singe Taylor chronicles kids who do just that.

Actually, hundreds apply and audition for the precious 24 slots for jugglers, clowns, acrobats and performers who enjoy an incredible summer with the touring Circus Smirkus. Once recruited, they have two weeks with professional trainers to learn routines comprising a show that they take on the road through New England for a total of 70 performances.

While there are donations to the nation’s only kids’ circus we share the anxiety of executive director Troy Wunderlie who, in hard economic times, faces the odds of making the nut for the season or shutting down.

There are lightly attended monsoon nights or performances in the heat of summer when the tent is a sauna with temperatures soaring in the cupola. That’s where the trapeze artists perform with rings, sweating profusely, without safety nets.

During the post screening talk back I asked Greylin Nielsen, one of those high flying artists, about the “fear factor.” She assured me that accidents during performances are rare. Accidents occur mostly through tripping over stuff. Routines are rehearsed at lower levels before being taken aloft.

We are absorbed by three female clowns who are attempting to break into an all boys club. It’s the old battle of the sexes with a pie in your face variation.

It is easy to find yourself rooting for individual kids. Like the graceful Hawaiian girl Thula, the youngest and least secure in the company at just 12. Her troubled smile is riveting and angelic. There is an against all odds, Jacob Tischler, who barely makes the cut but hangs in and thrives. Or the brothers Jacob and Nate Stein-Sharpe who are going for a world title in their juggling event. In the finishing credits we learn that they are now at MIT.

For many of the kids this is one of those great memories of a lifetime. But we learn that a surprising number move on to Ringling Brothers, Cirque du Soleil, or study in a world class circus school in Montreal.

Caveat emptor. Do not let your kids see this film. If they run away from home check in with Circus Smirkus.

The good news is that they will be coming to Williamstown during the summer of 2014. And are looking for homes to host the kids. Mark that on your calendar.

Part One