Back and Forth

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, L for Leisure, 2014, 16 mm, color, sound, 74 minutes.

BASED SOLELY on its intro and outro, the sixth edition of BAMcinemaFest, New York City’s signature summertime film event, could easily be declared the best yet. Though vastly different, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which opens the festival, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which closes it, are the perfect bookends, each movie, whether deliberately or not, a profound reflection on the meaning of time. Linklater’s remarkable fiction project (eloquently assessed by Amy Taubin in the current issue of Artforum) was made over the course of twelve years, following the development of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old when shooting began in 2002, from first grader to incoming college first-year at UT Austin. Witnessing Coltrane and his character transform from tyke to budding man in less than three hours is a singularly moving experience; I can only hope that Linklater and his lead actor return to this compressed longitudinal-study format for a second installment, in which we trace Mason’s growth from voting age to thirty.

Twenty-five years have passed since Lee’s film, shot almost entirely on location on one block in Bed-Stuy and spanning roughly twenty-four hours, opened in the US. Celebrating the silver jubilee of this effulgent, electrifying movie, one of the most essential ever made about New York, inevitably invites reflecting on how much the city, especially Brooklyn, has changed from the final year of Ed Koch’s mayoralty to the first of Bill de Blasio’s. (Not to mention the arc of the writer/director/star/producer’s career: The commemorative screening of Do the Right Thing on June 29 both concludes the festival and kicks off BAMcinématek’s Lee retrospective, which runs until July 10.)

In between these superlative films are twenty-some feature-length works, two featurettes—including another excellent rep offering, Manfred Kirchheimer’s little-seen Stations of the Elevated (1981), a hypnotic chronicle of graffiti-festooned subway exteriors and other signs and symbols specific to late-1970s Gotham—and a handful of shorts, most made by emerging directors in American independent cinema. It would be scandalously unfair to expect the efforts of neophyte filmmakers to even begin to approach the monumentality of Linklater’s or Lee’s (or even Kirchheimer’s) projects, though I don’t think it’s too outlandish to ask that a movie endure in the memory longer than the fifteen minutes it takes to walk from BAM to my apartment.

Many titles in BAMcinemaFest did not withstand this low-bar test of time, but several others did. Of the comedies on view, none offered as much consistently inspired silliness as Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins. Olnek’s second feature, much like its predecessor, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011), is a lo-fi divertissement that proves to be more than just a jokey title. Both also feature Lisa Haas, whose bulk and sartorial choices suggest Andrea Dworkin—making it all the more pleasingly incongruous that her Merkins character, Margaret, should be a dyke hooker, advised to solicit clients outside Talbots by her friend in the sapphic skin trade, Jo (Jackie Monahan, another Space Alien vet who shares Merkins co-writing credit with Olnek and Haas). Merkins sends up both male-hustler movies (Midnight Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in particular) and the upscale, conservative daughters of Gomorrah with unerring goofiness.

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, For the Plasma, 2014, Super 16, color, sound, 94 minutes.

Shot on Super 16, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s For the Plasma has the distinction of being the festival’s lone world premiere and its most beguiling, unclassifiable entry. Quarter-lifer Helen (Rosalie Lowe) summons her friend—if that’s the right word—Charlie (Annabelle Lemieux) to assist her with some mysterious research involving data provided by CCTV cameras in the woods of an arcadian small fishing village in Maine. “How long have you been doing this?” the newcomer asks the pro, who responds, “A week or a year—makes no difference.” The reply typifies the seductive strangeness and arbitrariness of the plot: Most of Helen and Charlie’s conversations are delivered with zero affect until a raging blowup between the two occurs late one night, never to be acknowledged afterward. For the Plasma is a modest project of big ideas: about solitude, collaboration, conspiracy, magical thinking.

Another filmmaking duo, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, also tracks big-brained twenty-somethings in idyllic spots—this time, around the globe—in their delightful L for Leisure. Set during 1992 and ’93 and beautifully shot on 16 mm, this achronological account of a group of graduate students during school-year downtime was clearly made under the sign of Whit Stillman and Éric Rohmer, but the film wears its influences lightly. Similarly, the period details—the Capri Sun pouches, the absurd height of all waistbands for both male and female attire, the flyers for the campus “AIDS dance”—are exact without ever becoming fussy, all the more impressive when considering that this ludic time capsule was made by directors who were only ten and eleven during the years depicted. Like Boyhood and Do the Right Thing, L for Leisure invites us to look back while pointing the way ahead.

The sixth annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 18 through 29 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.