BEN CHACE AND SAM FLEISCHNER’S Wah Do Dem (2009), in which a young man from Brooklyn comes to knowledge during a trip to Jamaica, has a sensational climax. The movie is among the highlights of the BAMcinemaFEST, and it’s a measure of how exciting a festival this is that Wah Do Dem is not the only astonishing movie on a schedule that mixes recent American indies—Aaron Katz’s lovely shape-shifting Cold Weather (2010) is another knockout, as is Bryan Poyser’s claustrophobic spin on sibling rivalry, Lovers of Hate (2009)—with fabulous music docs and vintage genre flicks.
Wah Do Dem (Jamaican patois for “What’s wrong with them?”) opens with cool Brooklyn musician Max (Sean Bones) being jilted by his girlfriend (Norah Jones in a two-minute cameo), which forces him to go solo on a luxury cruise to Jamaica. Out of his element among the moneyed oldsters, Max spends a couple of days lurching from deck to deck and from ballroom to cabin, alternately drunk and seasick. Chace and Fleischner’s editing is fast and elliptical, and Fleischner keeps the camera close and unpredictably angled. The effect is a Fred and Ginger movie sampled on crystal.
Nothing could be further from the cruise ship’s glitzy excess than the lush natural beauty and desperate poverty of Jamaica. An innocent abroad, Max accepts a ride to the beach with a sweet-talking couple. They relieve him of his money, passport, clothes, and shoes while he’s taking a swim. Barefoot and shirtless, Max hitches a ride back to the boat, only to arrive as it’s pulling away. For the next forty-eight hours, he tries to make his way across the island to the American embassy in Kingston, cadging a few bucks from a pair of suspicious tourists and some beat-up sneakers from a group of soccer-playing locals. The Jamaicans he meets warn him that he’s lucky no one has murdered him yet, but it’s the eve of Obama’s election, when few would begrudge even the most callow and pasty-skinned American his life. And then something happens that could have come out of one of those Carlos Castaneda guidebooks to 1960s-style enlightenment. Max encounters an aged Rasta (Carl Bradshaw) who seems to exist on a plane so crazily high that just to look at him made me feel as if I were levitating. He escorts Max to a full moon celebration where the great reggae group the Congos play on and on, and time, which had been galloping along, stands still.
A similarly intense sense of place and mastery of tonal shifts distinguishes Aaron Katz’s third feature, Cold Weather. Doug (Cris Lankenau) drops out of college just short of getting his degree in forensic science. He moves into a Portland apartment with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). For a while nothing much happens. Doug gets a job at an ice factory and makes friends with another worker (Raúl Castillo). Just when the movie begins to feel as if it’s going limp, Doug’s ex-girlfriend shows up acting nervous, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a rescue-the-damsel-in-distress mystery that’s not quite as nightmarish as Blue Velvet but that has the same Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew antecedents. Cinematographer Andrew Reed worked with Katz on his first two features, Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007), but here, shooting with the Red One (a very cool digital camera), he provides more expressive and subtle imagery, just as Keegan DeWitt, the composer for all three movies, delivers a score with just enough genre elements to get the adrenaline running.
Like Matt Porterfield’s debut narrative Hamilton (2006), which John Waters included in his Artforum Top Ten, his Putty Hill (2010) is set in an impoverished, largely white Baltimore neighborhood. A young man has died of a drug overdose, and family and friends have assembled for his funeral. The movie is filled with vividly detailed behavior and many small, moving, emotional moments. In the large cast of nonprofessional actors, the young women make the strongest impressions, but there are just too many characters to allow any of them to develop fully. Forced by his limited budget to work quickly and improvisationally, Porterfield uses the device of having an offscreen reporter interview some of the characters, who turn away from whatever they are doing and talk directly to the camera. It may be an economical way of delivering exposition, but it also makes the movie seem like an acting-class exercise. One can’t believe that these characters would be quite so eager to confide in a stranger.
In Tiny Furniture (2010), director/writer/star Lena Dunham also toys with screen “truth,” but in a creepier way. Dunham plays Aura, Tiny Furniture’s protagonist, who, after graduating from college and being dumped by her boyfriend, returns to the TriBeCa loft where she grew up. And in fact, the filmmaker actually did grow up in the loft that she uses as the movie’s set, and she cast her actual mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, and her actual younger sister, Grace Dunham, as Aura’s artist mother and precocious younger sister. In the movie, Mom is a nasty piece of work—cold, narcissistic, willfully indifferent to her needy daughter’s pain. She and younger sis form a united front of rejection, but the extremity of Aura’s masochism guarantees that she won’t move out. She also courts the contempt and rejection of two male losers who barely notice her presence sufficiently to abuse her. And stickier still, she courts our rejection by walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs for anyone who’s looking—and we can’t help but look—as if daring us to pass judgment on her body. It’s a game I dislike being roped into, just as I dislike being roped into speculating about whether Simmons knew she was playing an art-world Mommie Dearest, and whether she worried that her daughter really thought she was a monster, or whether the audience would think that, and was this movie meant to be a satire or a psychodrama. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the people involved, I suspect you’ll just be bored.
Along with the Congos’ appearance in Wah Do Dem, the musical treat of the festival is Goran Hugo Olsson’s Am I Black Enough for You, a documentary about the Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul, famed for his gorgeous, sexy 1972 hit single “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The film is chock-full of thrilling singing and frank, amusing conversation, threaded with a complicated debate about music, militancy, and black identity. Paul, who still has great pipes, is slated for a post-screening Q&A with Olsson. Among the other special events: Olivier Assayas presents two of his favorite films, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). There’s brutish, bloody horror aplenty in Nicolas Winding Refn’s heavy-metal Viking saga Valhalla Rising (2009), and Refn is on hand also to introduce William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). See it and be disabused of any romance you may have cultivated about NYC in the ’70s. The horror is psychosexual in Ted Kotcheff’s Australian cult classic Wake in Fright (1971) and in G. W. Pabst’s more austere Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which screens at the closing night special event with live music by 3epkano.
BAMcinemaFEST runs June 9–20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more details, click here. Wah Do Dem opens theatrically June 18 at Cinema Village in New York.