Film

BAM Fam

James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace (Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel).

THE SEVENTH ANNUAL BAMcinemaFest begins with a Judd Apatow veteran impressively portraying a beloved, bandanna-ed dead author and ends with two newcomers who are naturals in front of the camera—at least that of the iPhone 5s. In between these bookends are twenty-one other feature-length works (both narratives and documentaries), plus four revival screenings, a handful of shorts, and, just announced, a sneak preview of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Its titles plucked, as in previous editions, mainly from Sundance and South by Southwest, BAMcinemaFest offers a distillation of American-independent cinema, a corpus that, even in the highly curated sampler presented here, remains wildly disparate in theme—and quality. Trend-sniffers will note only the number of times that Kickstarter thank-yous dominate closing-credit segments.

“I lived this incredibly American life,” Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace tells Jesse Eisenberg, playing a Rolling Stone reporter who’s trailing the author, in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, the festival’s opening-night film. It takes a while to grow accustomed to Segel’s inhabiting of Wallace, captured during the final lap of promoting 1996’s Infinite Jest: At first DFW’s signature long, lank locks crowned by a kerchief seems like an absurd costume for the star of such regressed-bro vehicles as I Love You, Man. But Segel delivers lines like that above—and even quotes Saint Ignatius—with wrenching earnestness, his performance honoring a writer whose boundless compassion was ultimately outmatched by his despair. Yet no matter how intelligent and surprising, Segel’s take on Wallace still cannot make Eisenberg’s trademark clipped speech and twitchiness more tolerable.

There’s no such lopsidedness in Sean Baker’s Tangerine, the trashily buoyant BAMcinemaFest closer; its stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both making their feature-film debut, are equally charismatic in their roles as transgender prosties. Set during Christmas Eve in the seedier intersections of Hollywood, Baker’s film tracks Sin-Dee (Rodriquez) as she storms down Santa Monica Boulevard in search of her cheating pimp boyfriend, her bestie Alexandra (Taylor) reluctantly aiding the motor-mouthed wronged woman in her enraged quest. As in his previous movie, Starlet (2012), a tale of an improbable intergenerational friendship between an aspiring XXX actress and an octogenarian widow, Baker again evinces genuine admiration for his unconventional heroines, his warmth never curdling into mawkishness. Enhanced with anamorphic adapters, the smartphones that Baker used to shoot Tangerine proved extremely versatile, enabling both widescreen visions of shapely, fishnet-stockinged legs furiously in motion and more intimate two-shots of extreme acrimony in doughnut shops or tender reconciliations in laundromats.

Alex Ross Perry, Queen of Earth, 2015, 16 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

The friendship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) is beset by an even more fraught, if quieter, push-pull dynamic in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, the festival’s centerpiece. A besotted yet spiky homage to New Hollywood exemplars of female unraveling, like Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and Woody Allen’s Interiors (1979), Perry’s movie opens with a tight close-up of Moss’s teary, mascara-smeared face as her character demands of her off-screen, soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, “Why are you doing this to me?” Though never articulated again, the query becomes the film’s theme: Nearly all conversations between Catherine and Virginia are poisoned by simmering hurts and resentments. That these increasingly dark, aggrieved exchanges take place amid the effulgent glory of the Hudson Valley, where Catherine retreats after her breakup—and her father’s death—to spend a few weeks in the airy country home owned by Virginia’s parents (and where the two engaged in more passive-aggressive banter the summer prior, a time smoothly rendered in flashback), only heightens the dread of this domestic horror story. Although these acts of psychic sabotage can occasionally seem strained and overwritten, the lead actresses are always fascinating to watch: Moss, in her second film with Perry after last year’s Listen Up Philip, mines the odd humor in her character’s mental disintegration, and Waterston, last seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970-set Inherent Vice, has an uncanny ability to appear at once an of-this-moment performer and a throwback to American cinema of forty years ago.

American television from eras past is the subject of two fitfully informative docs. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies recounts the ten debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that served as the linchpin of ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968. An army of talking heads weighs in on the contentious colloquies between the National Review founder and the author of Myra Breckinridge, this gabbing too often privileged over the far more revelatory source material itself. Both forty-two at the time of the debates, their orotund speech a product of their Brahmin upbringing, these class-consonant, politically discordant public intellectuals make no attempt to conceal their mutual animosity, infamously reaching its lowest point when Buckley, who had just been branded a “crypto-Nazi” by his opponent, retorts by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening, “I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” But even this potent moment in network news is diluted by the excess of commenters dissecting the fracas, which Best of Enemies then rushes to proclaim as a harbinger of today’s nonstop bloviating. Similarly, Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin’s Here Come the Videofreex, an amiable chronicle of the alt-media collective that launched the first pirate-TV station in a Catskills hamlet in 1972, uncritically embraces this assertion by one of its interlocutors: “Set up a camera and you can change the world.”

I risk making my own fatuous pronouncements about then and now in discussing Larry Clark’s Kids, the twentieth anniversary of which BAMcinemaFest is celebrating with a post-screening Q&A with the director, writer Harmony Korine, and stars Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick. (The film marked the inaugural big-screen effort of all those mentioned.) Revisiting Kids for the first time since its summer 1995 release, I felt the same profound unease mixed with queasy admiration for Clark’s graphic depictions of adolescent lust and predatory smooth talkers as I did during my initial viewing. My appreciation for Clark’s provocative project, however, only grew once I considered the ludicrously sanitized versions of teenage sexuality that have dominated big screens for the past two decades.

The seventh annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 17 through 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

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