Sarah Polley’s recent documentary Stories We Tell dances coyly around its central thesis of how family members construct their own narratives in a way that best suits their own individual interests. Though she doesn’t portray herself as having any real clue about what the point of her project will be, Polley’s ensemble “cast” of parents and siblings help her come to the understanding that it’s the variations of those stories, not the coherences, that actually form their collective bond. While Stories We Tell may not have been directly influenced by the cult documentary Grey Gardens, the conclusions Polley reaches go a long way toward appreciating the destructive but symbiotic dynamic shared by Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier, not to mention the fascination their cautionary tale has held among the gay community, many of whom (to borrow a chestnut from a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race) had to choose their own families.
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” the flamboyantly dotty Little Edie muses at one point during the film, while not engaged in a battle royale against or maybe in collusion with her equally theatrical mother. As filmed by verité-lite documentarians Albert and David Maysles (famous for Salesman and the Stones-at-Altamont chronicle Gimme Shelter), Little and Big Edie Beale née Bouvier are natural performers, and seemingly all too happy to allow two gentlemen callers into their crumbling Hamptons estate to capture them whiling away the seasons, singing along to Big Edie’s recordings of “Tea for Two,” selecting “the perfect costume for the day,” which often involves wearing sweaters as skirts and skirts as saharianes. Both are to some degree haunted by a past that has stripped them of their ability to live in the present. Their total neglect for maintaining their living environment characterizes them as proto-hoarders, but of memories, not possessions. In fact, they’ve whittled their living space down to just a few small rooms from what was once a palatial blue-blood estate, huddled in their side-by-side twin beds, surrounded by hundreds of felines and a family or two of raccoons Little Edie leaves Kibbles ’N’ Bits for in the attic.
“In the Hamptons, they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday,” Little Edie sneers at one point, only slightly keeping the line between eccentricity and insanity. Given the lack of guile either reveal in front of the cameras they’ve invited into their home, it’s not clear whether the Beales have fashioned their lifestyle in conscious defiance of their conservative neighbors or if they truly are blasé about sleeping atop a mottled mélange of newspaper clippings, corn husks, and cat urine. Could their Lysol-ignorant situation be an outgrowth of depression over the men they lost in their lives? (Decades prior, Big Edie’s husband obtained a divorce in Mexico, which she claims the Catholic Church won’t recognize, and more than once Little Edie obsesses over the dreamboat her mother chased away.) Or were they proto-feminists who chased the men away deliberately? One of the underlying themes of the film is that their chosen caste of allies includes mainly gay men, such as Big Edie’s accompanist of yore or their drop-in handyman Jerry, a flea-bitten soul who seems to have stepped right out of a Paul Morrissey tableau. Conversely, one of the other undercurrents of the film involves Little Edie’s needy flirtations with the younger David Maysles, her coquettish looks directly into the camera breaking down the filmmakers’ tenuous objectivity and turning the filmmakers gaze back on themselves.
Beyond her push-pull relationship with men, it’s not difficult to see how Little Edie’s constantly flowing interjections, overripe with camp bon mots (“I’m just pulverized by this latest thing,” “All I have to do is find this Libra man,” “S-T-A-U-N-C-H”), have attracted the devotion of gay audiences. Perhaps they recognize the power of monologue to deflect inquiries into the actual truth of the matter, the painful realities that spur alternate narratives. A strong point of comparison could be made between some of Little Edie’s most desperate moments and the drunken unraveling of the gay hustler in the spotlight of Shirley Clarke’s one-man Portrait of Jason. Both staunch characters interpolate performance into their lives to the point of dissociation. At least when there’s a camera around to catch their fall.
The Maysles and the Beales are equally culpable in giving the film its goon-show edge, which undoubtedly accounts for its pull on some audiences (critic Peter Keough astutely pinned the film’s tone somewhere between Ionesco and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). But they also captured one of the most compelling mother-daughter dyads ever seen on film. They’re co-dependent, but their humble existence conveys the full weight of generations passing unto the next; there but for the grace of God go them. And the Maysles wisely opted to not allow in any external, objective information about what truly happened to bring the Edies to their present state. Their account is what counts, and Grey Gardens remains one of the greatest and possibly only disaster movies that clearly benefits from not having seen the moments of reaping.
Cast: Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, Jerry Torre, Brooks Hyers, Jack Helmuth, Lois Wright Director: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1975 Buy: Video
Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child
The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.1.5
Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.
Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.
Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.
Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.
Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Iron Orchard Punishingly Leans into Nostalgia
Director Ty Roberts’s film is unable to realize that its subject matter is that of a horror story.1.5
Ty Roberts’s The Iron Orchard opens with—and often returns to—shots of the sun glinting behind rusty oil rigs on the dusty plains of West Texas. The film hallows the region’s mechanical “orchards,” collapsing the extraction of oil via industrialized labor into the agrarian notion of “working the land.” These montages of dormant rigs, used whenever the film otherwise lacks a coherent transition between scenes, fit into this representational schema: The rigs seem almost natural components of the landscape, as solid and eternal as trees. Though the film is set in the mid-20th century, its title-card preface proudly proclaims that the oil fields of West Texas’s Permian Basin “are still active today.”
If that phrase doesn’t fill you will utter dread, you’re either the mysterious target audience or one of the makers of The Iron Orchard, a film unable to realize its subject matter as that of a horror story. The simultaneously bland and detestable protagonist of Roberts’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison), is a poster boy for mid-century toxic masculinity, a macho oil tycoon who thrusts audiences into the Anthropocene epoch because a girl rejected him. In McNeely, the film honors the ambition of a “slave” (to which he compares himself) whose deepest desire is to become one of the brutal masters. It styles as heroic both his early brutal assault of a co-worker with a baseball bat and his later jovial projection to a business partner that “maybe someday I’ll need some good, cheap labor.”
Laying twangy plucked guitar chords beneath crane shots of McNeely cruising through Texas highways in vintage vehicles (too pristine to be anything but collectors’ items, circa 2018), The Iron Orchard leans into nostalgia, assuming we’ll mistake the world that McNeely’s building as belonging to anyone but him and his bros. He lands in West Texas in 1938 as a laborer for the Bison Oil Company, after the family of his well-to-do Fort Worth girlfriend, Mazie (Hassie Harrison), tells him to make something of himself. In the film’s first act, whenever a motivation for McNeely’s bald arrogance and arbitrary petulance is lacking, The Iron Orchard flashes back to overexposed images of this painful rejection. Later, when McNeely is happily married to Lee (Ali Cobrin) and managing his own oil fields, the flashbacks are suddenly of his being bullied in school, as the film scrambles to find new excuses for his autocratic behavior.
While still working Bison’s fields, McNeely seduces the married Lee, in a series of scenes that should—given that the film’s thin dramatic arc will concern the ups and downs in their marriage—firmly establish their chemistry and mutual attraction. Instead, their romance consists of car rides peppered with superficial small talk-isms, whose quiet moments feel less pregnant with bourgeoning affection and more like awkward silences between two actors waiting for their next line. Appropriately, the finale to this courtship is an uncomfortable scene in which McNeely makes a move on Lee in her car, only to be shoved away as Lee voices her discomfort. This discomfiting scene is the last featuring both characters before, a few minutes later, McNeely declares: “I did it. I married her.”
McNeely puts Lee through the emotional wringer in typical great-man fashion, encountering Mazie again in polite society just as he’s beginning to indulge in the excesses of oil-tycoon life. The film’s narrative trajectory from this point is obvious, but Roberts and co-screenwriter Gerry De Leon fail to establish any true stakes throughout: Lee and McNeely’s romance is unconvincing from the start so it’s hard to feel anything when she discovers his inevitable betrayal; the film treats his naked greed as a neutral trait, choosing neither to imbue it with consistent motivations or treat it with a distinctive angle; and the exclusive society to which he gains access with his wealth is so insipid as to make one ponder its attraction. Lee unknowingly articulates our feeling when, during the rift in her marriage, she confesses to her parents that McNeely is “just trying to be a part of something that…I just don’t care about.”
Cast: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Lew Temple, Hassie Harrison Director: Ty Roberts Screenwriter: Gerry De Leon, Ty Roberts Distributor: Santa Rita Film Co. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Wrestle’s Triumph Is Its Unmistakable Humanity
The documentary shines a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget.2.5
In the wake of Hoop Dreams, documentaries following the travails of under-privileged teenage athletes have become a genre unto themselves. In these films, institutions are ambiguously critiqued as well as often implicitly endorsed, as we come to share in blossoming adults’ efforts to win by playing by rules that generally don’t serve them. In each such documentary, we hope that we’re watching one of the exceptions to the pattern of casualties beget by the racial, classist strictures of this country—a hope that embodies the insidiously self-negating pull of capitalism. And this form of suspense quietly drives director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s Wrestle.
For Wrestle, Herbert and Belfer filmed hundreds of hours of footage of four teen wrestlers on the J.O. Johnson High School team in Huntsville, Alabama. We learn that Johnson is a failing high school with low test scores and graduation rates, and so the new wrestling team, headed by young social studies teacher Chris Scribner, is an attempt to offer students direction and to allow the school to achieve a measure of self-respect. This information is introduced too casually, as one craves more context as to how Scribner sold his hopeless superiors on this team, particularly in a school that’s in threat of being defunded.
Herbert and Belfer home in on four of Scribner’s athletes: Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan. Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are African-American, and wrestle with issues of neglectful parents, teen pregnancy, drug use, and indifference to the rules that various white people insist they follow for their own good. It’s in dramatizing this last point that Wrestle proves to be most evocative, especially in terms of defining the athletes’ relationship with Scribner, who’s Caucasian. Scribner’s aware of his white privilege, though it often gets the better of him anyway, such as when he repeatedly calls Jamario “bro” as if he’s the young man’s peer.
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Jamario and Scribner almost get into a fight on the school’s grounds. To his credit, Scribner maintains his cool and talks Jamario down, but this encounter illustrates the distinct gulf of experience between coach and pupil. And this gulf is reaffirmed when a cop harasses and threatens to jail Jailen for public urination. Aware of the camera, the cop seems most concerned with Jailen’s “disrespect,” which is admirably contained given the circumstances, because Jailen knows that manners are a matter of life and death between black men and the police. Meanwhile, Jamario and Jaquan’s mothers—heavy, tough, impervious to bullshit—try to help Scribner keep their children on the straight and narrow. This is another thread that Wrestle should’ve elaborated upon: What do black women think of allowing a white man to assume a pseudo-parental role in their sons’ lives?
Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are commanding and photogenic, stealing the filmmakers’ attention away from Teague, a white teenager who reflects the path that Scribner was in danger of treading. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Scribner empathizes all too well with Teague, who’s constantly lectured for getting high before school functions. Teague embodies the recessive-ness of substance abuse, which isn’t acknowledged much by pop culture. Even when on screen, he rarely seems present, as he appears to be lost in his anger and hungers—though these emotions drive him to achieve a few startling victories on the mat.
Wrestle has a lovely, scruffy, wandering quality, and individual anecdotes are vivid, such as when Jamario learns of his daughter being born during his high school graduation, for which he fought hard to achieve. But Wrestle doesn’t have the spellbinding flow of Minding the Gap or especially of Hoop Dreams, and it may make you wish that the strictures and challenges of J.O. Johnson itself had been more specifically established, especially in light of a potent bit of information that’s revealed in the text before the end credits. Herbert and Belfer, though, do shine a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget, justifying indifference with various infrastructural metrics designed to cloud the human cost involved. In Wrestle, that humanity comes roaring to the surface.
Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer Screenwriter: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer, Pablo Proenza