Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Treasure of the Indies

Times are tough.  In the week since Barack Obama's inauguration nearly 75,000 people have lost their jobs. The clothes Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wore during her most recent campaign (all $180,000 worth of them) are reported to have been stuffed into trash bags that remain hidden in a closet at the Republican National Committee's headquarters in Washington, D.C., awaiting donation to charity. In Saginaw, Michigan, a 93-year-old man froze to death because he hadn't paid his $1,000 energy bill (one inspector described the case as the first time he had ever encountered a situation in which someone died of hypothermia inside their own home). 

Thankfully, contrition is making a comeback. Former Merrill Lynch CEO and McCain supporter, John Thain, has promised to refund the $1.2 million he spent to renovate his office suite last year. The disgraced former CEO of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld (who, on Sunday, October 5, was punched in the face and knocked out in the company gym) sold his wife their $13.75 million dollar mansion for a mere $100. After receiving a terse message from the Obama administration that said "Fix it," Citigroup abandoned its plan to buy a new corporate jet for $50 million.

If you really want to see how to get the most artistic bang for your buck, check out some of the screenings at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival where, year after year, audiences are amazed by how much creativity is given free rein on a minimal budget.  In recent years the quality of films shown at this festival has risen so sharply that many of its independent filmmakers could proudly screen their work at any major international film festival. 

Who knows? Maybe the submission fees are much more affordable at SFIndie Fest. Maybe the larger festivals are overwhelmed with submissions from Hollywood studios and foreign producers. When it comes to pulling quality cinematic art out of thin air, two of the films scheduled for screening in February at SFIndie Fest could not be more radically different in their tone, style, talent, or format. Yet each one speaks to the heart of independent filmmaking with a clarity, precision, and wealth of ideas that is truly startling and admirable.

* * * * * * *

Animation is a genre that poses no limits to the imagination. Fans of SFIndie Fest (and various animation festivals) are accustomed to seeing Bill Plympton's delightful cartoon shorts. A full-length feature of Plymptom's art, however, offers a much more sobering display of his talent. There are moments in Idiots and Angels when one seriously wonders what goes through Plymptom's mind when he is asleep. Or what drugs he is taking while he is awake.

Although there are many things about Plympton's latest animation feature that will startle audiences, perhaps the most astounding is the fact that only four graphic artists worked to bring it to fruition. Compared to blockbuster full-length animation features like Disney-Pixar's Wall-E  -- or the Madagascar franchise developed by the folks at Dreamworks (which list hundreds of animators in their credits), Plymptom's new film is so much leaner, infinitely meaner, and remains truer to the perversity of its basic concept.  Idiots and Angels doesn't get lost in extraneous plot devices, repetitive mappings, or the business of nurturing potential product spinoffs. Instead, it concentrates on Plymptom's fearsome artistic vision which, at its very least, is a phenomenal achievement.

The plot is simple and bizarre. A thoroughly disagreeable man who is rude, crude, and cursed with an eternally bad attitude, grows a pair of angel's wings. His attempts to remove them fail horribly. When other people see what he's got, their lust to make money off his situation knows no bounds. As his wings transform others by exposing their greed, this  idiot-turned-angel finds himself forced into situations in which, against all his natural instincts, he ends up performing good deeds.

While Idiots and Angels addresses many of the least admirable character traits found in human beings, it doesn't spend a lot of time searching for overt symbolism or ways to analyze its dark and smarmy plotline. Instead of spoken dialogue, Plymptom has created a fascinating soundscape to support the otherworldliness of his animation. His audio art ranges from dissatisfied grunts to cheerful bird calls, from buzz saws to funky jazz. 

Plymptom's grotesquely sarcastic art explodes across the screen like a finely-sketched nightmare, a noir-like combination of slapstick and Grand Guignol that takes rapid twists, makes sudden transitions, and pulls the floor of logical expectations right out from beneath the viewer's intellect time and time again. This is not an easy experience to describe with words. Seeing is believing.

* * * * * * *

How many dysfunctional families have made it to the silver screen? Whether crafted as comedies or tragedies, films ranging from The Subject Was Roses to My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Meet the Fockers, from Mommie Dearest to Monster-in-Law to Dolores Claiborne,  from Liar, Liar to Little Children to Flirting With Disaster usually contain enough bitter resentment, festering familial frustration and untapped bile to make it through 80 minutes with plenty of anger and tension to spare. A new entry, filmed in San Francisco, makes an impressive addition to the category of premarital trauma-drama that stems from "the family secret that will never die."

Daron Jennings is Mark Foster, a straight man who has been living with Erika (Lizzie Ross) for two years in a San Francisco flat near Twin Peaks.  He wants to marry Erika (who is prone to panic attacks), but suffers from a fear of commitment and is paralyzed by a brutal family secret that he just can't bring himself to discuss. Mark's business executive brother, Hal (Josh Hutchinson) is an egotistical asshole married to Beth (Heather Mathieson), a manipulative and materialistic blonde bitch who may, in fact, be screwing one of their neighbors. 

Want to guess who's coming to dinner?  

None other than Gretchen (the superb Bettina Devin), a former stewardess with an enormous reservoir of frigid fake charm, an annoying habit of taking pictures with her digital flash camera, and the ability to reduce her two sons to bitterly feuding and hopelessly resentful children merely by crossing the California state border. Once married to a philandering pilot with a drinking problem, Gretchen's divorce caused a major scandal 15 years ago from which her sons have never really recovered. Mark has always sided with Gretchen and been protective of his mother. Hal has always sided with his deceased father while maintaining a bitter working truce with his control freak of a mother.

Written and directed by John Bowden (and based on his three-act play, The Big Mouth)The Full Picture is an astonishingly well-written family drama with more than enough seething resentment to fill everyone's plate. The cast of mostly unknown actors does a stunning job of etching Mark's indecisiveness, Erika's insecurities, Hal's immaturity and Beth's duplicity with the delicate sting of paper cuts. 

But it is Gretchen, the mother from hell, who is a real piece of work. Unlike the blowsy Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Gretchen doesn't take wild, drunken swings at people. Oh, no, not this gal. Although capable of feigning total innocence, Gretchen's years of offering service with a forced sincerity at 30,000 feet have taught her how to slice someone to shreds with surgical precision and then daintily dab her victim's open wounds with lemon juice.

It's easy to see how, having orginally written and staged this story as a play, Bowden has had plenty of time to get inside each character and exploit their strengths and weaknesses.  If you're the kind of person who likes to keep score during family showdowns, you can start with three emasculating women, two sets of rapidly shriveling testicles, one wedding ring that was a family heirloom, God knows how many painful secrets, and a burnt roast. Who needs a partridge in a pear tree?

The Full Picture benefits immensely from Mark De Gli Antoni's wryly mischievious original musical score and Cliff Traiman's astonishingly rich cinematography. This is a film that is written with great insight, directed with a knowing eye, and acted by a gifted ensemble. Here's the trailer:

No comments: