BAMcinemaFest: Weekend, Letters from the Big Man, and The Color Wheel

This is the first in a series of dispatches pertaining to this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 16th through June 26th.

After bracing the buckling collision of books, bad advice, and crass commercialism known as BookExpo America, I retreated to the air conditioned confines of the BAM Rose Cinema the following week, where press screenings for this year’s BAMcinemaFest were being held. The hope was that many of these independent offerings would replenish my soul and cause me to dance variegated jigs in the street. While there were several quiet and knowledgeable peeps kind enough to answer my questions about esoteric filmmakers unfamiliar to me, there were nevertheless a few self-absorbed “critics” (in particular, one dark-haired dunce who I had observed before a 92nd Street Y crowd gushing like some junior varsity neophyte and who felt the need between screenings to blab loudly about her remarkably uninteresting life) talking nonstop about film programming gigs that they felt entitled to. (“Oh, is he going to leave?”) Something about persuading a bigshot teetotaler to drive her to some needlessly affluent affair so that she could spend the weekend completely plastered, life presumably passing by like nonbiodegradable plastic. Not my idea of fun. A year ago, I had moved from Manhattan to avoid this unpleasant type. Yet this doddering parvenu, who claimed the sui generis Tree of Life to “have slow spots,” was a sober reminder that, even in Brooklyn, obnoxious and entitled tastemakers have replaced the rough-and-tumble enthusiasts who really count. I report all this in the event that some of my BAMcinemaFest dispatches are declared needlessly sour or mean and so that the reader might understand some of the atmospheric conditions in which I caught these artsy flicks.

The first offering was Andrew Haigh’s Weekend — a film having nothing to do with Godard’s masterpiece and everything to do with the possibility of sustainable romance over a whirlwind weekend. If you’ve lived adventurously enough, you’ve probably experienced a few of these yourself. If not, you’re probably retreating to movies to tell you what it’s like so that you might “program” these feelings in the future. Independent cinema has been curiously reticent in exploring a gay naturalistic version of the Before Sunrise story. And I very much appreciated Haigh’s commitment to capturing the coke-snorting, tea-making, and jizz-splaying-across-chest moments that most purported mavericks steer clear from. What I didn’t know is that Haigh has apparently upset Joe Clark for reasons that, I must confess, aren’t entirely clear to me, but have something to do with Haigh mischaracterizing Clark’s early enthusiasm as “the kind of movie straight guys would like” and assistance that was largely unrequited (an admittedly tacky move on Haigh’s part). What I can say is that Haigh isn’t nearly as talented as everybody thinks he is; he’s more interested in how people look rather than how they behave. That’s a far cry from someone like Lisa Cholodenko, who has escaped being pegged precisely because, if we want to get all humanist about this, she’s an excellent observer and chronicler.

Haigh’s two actors are both very good (especially Tom Cullen as the slightly more squeaky-clean of the pair), but the capable Chris New (playing an artist who is somewhere between David Thewlis in Naked and an aging hunk with lunky billiard balls still cracking around upstairs) is directed to play to the camera like a peacock when he really needs to crackle off the screen like Richard E. Grant in Withnail & I.

A tape recorded confession bookending the romance (along with several shots of surveillance cameras and additional angles that look as if they’ve been captured by surveillance cameras) may very well be Haigh’s own admission that he knows how to capture an early morning postcoital murmur like “I smell of cock and bum,” but that he doesn’t quite have the emotional depth and the true candor to communicate inner torment. Haigh isn’t helped by having his characters spout callow philosophy (“Gay people never talk about it in public unless it’s just cheap innuendo”) when he’s already presented them as much smarter than this. If Haigh’s the kind of guy who would slag off a potential advocate for being straight, that’s probably part of the problem. Yet Weekend stands only vaguely for the Other, but really wants you to like it. That stance may win you points among the sneering film nerd set, but it isn’t really conducive to lasting art.

Christopher Munch’s Letters from the Big Man probably doesn’t stand a chance of nabbing distribution. That’s too bad. For me, it was one of the high points. One doesn’t expect references to Zane Grey and Farley Mowat in a Sasquatch movie, much less incongruously formal dialogue like “I really don’t want the inconvenience of being the last person to see you alive” or a character who addresses the mosquitoes who are biting her. This is also a movie that presents smart people who openly confess that they’re too smashed to follow a Shakespeare production. While it’s true that these moments are buried under a somewhat muddled philosophy, I felt very inclined to appreciate the film for what it was.

Swamp Thing gave us Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts. Letters presents us with Sarah Smith, a hydrologist played by Lily Rabe self-sufficient in the wild and not easily charmed by men. When one smarmy suitor insinuates that he has the mind as well as the meat, I was delighted to see him rebuffed and flailing. I also liked the way Munch didn’t bother to have his Sasquatch (the titular Big Man) occluded in shadows or cockeyed angles. When we see the Big Man for the first time, we see him in full form. Which is just as it should be.

Sarah is also an artist, sketching images both real and subconscious. The Big Man possibly inhabits our world and possibly does not, but he does make his way to Sarah’s sketchpad. At one point, Sarah says, “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here.” Some East Coasters may be put off by this New Age vibe, but as a native Californian, I didn’t mind this so much. If cinema can’t present us with off-kilter introspection every so often, then what’s the point of making movies?

To take the edge off some of the forthcoming vitriol, I have included an image of two happy dolphins. The next film I saw was so terrible that I can state with fair certainty that one would be better served locating two dolphins, such as the very nice ones pictured above, and spending 83 minutes with them instead.

Before watching The Color Wheel (shot in black-and-white: how eye-roooooooooooonic!), I had no idea who Alex Ross Perry was. Now I wish I had never learned his name. Perry is a filmmaker so incompetent with comedy that he presents us with a stock situation in which a young man named JR (naturally, played by Perry and far removed from the great Gaddis novel) accidentally breaks a vase. He is told by the shopowner that he must pay for it and that it’s worth $500. JR doesn’t have the money. Instead of Perry finding a solution for this, he abruptly cuts to the next scene. In other words, Perry can’t be bothered to resolve the scene. Is this laziness or someone “hip” and detached? Either way, this is a technique one expects in 1991, not 2011. And it makes me wonder if The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody (and, hey, I’ll even give Brody Ishtar) was off his fucking rocker in commending this film’s alleged “exquisite comic timing and incisive comic framing.”

In this way (and many others), The Color Wheel plays like the mentally handicapped love child of Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody. The film, shot in 16mm. is so grainy that I truly believed all of the actors were experiencing bad cases of dandruff. And that’s hardly the least of Perry’s witless amateurism. There is also a very long take of perhaps twelve minutes (was Perry running out of film stock?) in which Perry consummates the incest that we knew would go down from the beginning and in which moments that are intended to be spontaneous are revealed to be amateurish rehearsal.

As an actor, Perry has a high-pitched voice that is so monotone that it makes Michael Cera appears as if he has the range of a Mel Blanc or a Frank Welker. Despite such clear limitations, Perry has the effrontery to offer something vaguely approximating a Buster Keaton look. But where Keaton’s face invited mystery, Perry’s face only encourages anger.

A dolphin’s face, by contrast, does not encourage anger. And I will be spending a good chunk of the time between this BAMcinemaFest installment and the next watching this pleasant dolphin video to remind myself that there are at least 25 million better things that one can do than consider or acknowledge Alex Ross Perry.


  1. Dear Ed,

    Trawling the web for coverage of BAMCinema Fest, I was delighted to discover a report that managed to mercilessly insult three (three!) of my friends and acquaintances. I always enjoy a good ax-grinding and the personal touches only whet my bloodlust even more. Way to let em have it!

    I’m am a rather compulsive copyeditor, so I hope you’ll appreciate a few quick notes:

    “Variegated” actually means multicolored, especially in a mottled way; “Doddering” means trembling, especially in reference to the tremors of old people; “lunky” means, well, lunky doesn’t mean anything, it’s a word you’ve just made up. There are a lot of sentences here that aren’t actually sentences, and you have a bad habit of mixing metaphors. But there’s no point in belaboring those details. You’ve got a solid frame of reference, an active and curious intelligence, and more than enough confidence in your own opinions. Which is to say, you have a lot of promise of becoming an interesting writer.

    The real challenge you’ll have to grapple with is your blinkered fixation on a bunch of incredibly petty, in-group bullshit that no one outside of a vanishingly small clique of cinephiles could possibly care about.

    A difficult truth: you will find self-absorbed, obnoxious posers wherever you go. You can skip TheBookExpo, move to yet another borough, abandon movies for installation art or classical music; you will find unbearably pretentious phonies there as well. (And dreaded hipsters too!) Part of being a well-balanced adult is learning to take all that in stride. If you think its “remarkably uninteresting” to hear someone talk about their semi-pro career in repertory programming, I can assure you its even less interesting to hear someone else describing that scene in endlessly protracted, weirdly fixated detail. You can’t complain about the “sneering” set when you have written the incredibly sneering festival report I’ve read in a long time.

    This piece is indeed “needlessly sour” and “mean,” which you’ve basically confessed to. Yeah, but there was a really annoying critic in the audience who reminded me of everything I hate about New York. Surely you’re smart enough to see why that is an incredibly lame reason to shit on movies that have nothing to do with said “‘critic.'”

    And if you think WEEKEND doesn’t have anything to say about relationships, about loneliness, about “inner torment,” then you weren’t watching closely enough. That’s what happens when you spend a significant amount of your mental effort tearing down people who don’t even have a perch to be torn down from.

  2. Paul Brunick:

    From my Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary:
    “variegated” — 2. varied, diversified, diverse

    If you can’t comprehend why a parvenu, that is someone who has just recently acquired a position, is trembling or shaking, then you clearly don’t have imagination.

    “lunky” clearly derives from “lunker” (a big game fish) or “lunk” or “lunkhead” (a blockhead).

    It is “poseur,” not “poser,” Mr. Rather Compulsive Copyeditor. Try grasping French etymology. Also, it’s not “The BookExpo,” but “BookExpo.”

    In other words, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Please return when you actually have a grasp of the English language. Also, you may wish to develop a sense of irony.

    I don’t give a fuck if these people are your friends. I’m a journalist. You merely suck people’s cocks.

  3. I guessed you were a journalist. You write very professionally, very…thesaurus-y. The edits weren’t wrong, by the way . But you know what they were? Sort of petty. I can admit that. Guess I wanted to take the wind out of you. The rest, though, seems fair.

    I, in fact, do suck people’s cocks, and quite enjoy it.

    Thanks for reading my work.

  4. Slow down, kiddo. And reread the two pieces I wrote, since the timeline is pretty clear. In short: Haigh and producer ignore mail regarding postproduction funding they could apply for; I see the movie; I update the first post the next day to admit (alone until now) to being disappointed; within moments Haigh responds to previous mail, I guess from the airport, telling me I should have lower expectations in life. Oh, snap, as I believe no one says anymore, especially not in Brooklyn.

    It was the host onstage post-screening here who quoted someone else as saying this was a gay movie straight guys would like. Sure, straight guys who like to watch only-barely-concealed anal sex.

    Incidentally, a couple of weeks after I wrote what was then the only known disparagement of Weekend, Tony Scott in the Times calls it “perfectly realized.” Haigh will be onstage at the Oscars before the Rio Olympics, I think. With no one to thank in his acceptance speech.

  5. this is the furthest thing from journalism i’ve read in a long time. you should be ashamed.

  6. So not only do you substitute big words for actual thought in your review, but you use your comment section to call your readers cock suckers rather than defend your points? CLASSY. I enjoyed The Color Wheel very much, and feel sad that you wasted your time feigning interest in indie cinema when you could’ve been watching Green Lantern.

  7. To Hopeless Sophists Charlie and Sarahspy: Here is the way argument works. Person A presents Point A, with Explanation A. Person B disagrees with Point A, providing Explanation B and possibly Point B. And so forth. To merely say that the above is not journalism (without explanation facilitating discussion) or that The Color Wheel was great (without providing explanation facilitating discussion), to say nothing of failing to disclose your friendship with the equally mentally handicapped Paul Brunick, indicates that you are not interested in argument, discussion, or anything resembling thought. Please swallow a bottle of lethal pills at your earliest opportunity, or (and I think we’d all prefer this option) come back when you have learned how to argue.

    Joe Clark: Thanks for the explanation.

    Ricky D’Ambrose Why is everyone so angry? I don’t know. Could be the heat. Could be the fact that nobody knows how to fixate on perfectly happy dolphins.

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