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Review: The Unicorn Captures the Intersection Between Art and the Quotidian

The documentary illuminates how art and artists live together in a symbiotic existence, each giving as well as taking.

3.5

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The Unicorn
Photo: Aonbheannach Productions

Widely recognized as the first openly gay country album, 1974’s The Unicorn attracted a cult following in the 1990s without altering the life of the eccentric Peter Grudzien. The singer continued as an elderly man to live in his childhood home in Queens with his nearly 100-year-old father, Joseph, and his schizophrenic twin sister, Terry, using their family dramas as inspirations for music that was never assembled into another album. Near the beginning of the documentary The Unicorn, text tells us that filmmakers Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty followed the Grudziens between 2005 and 2007, interviewing and regarding them as they performed their daily rituals. Filming the Grudziens as they grew decisively unhinged, Dupuis and Geraghty display mighty empathy and a piercing kind of artistic patience, shunning conventional narrative so as to linger on moments of casual human revelation. The Unicorn is an atmospheric document of living on the fringes, rendering its subjects’ despair and anger with a lucidity that suggests transcendence.

Capturing the intersection between art and the quotidian of tortured private lives, the film recalls Grey Gardens and Crumb. Like the subjects of those documentaries, the Grudziens have retreated into seclusion, and their demons offer a commentary on several of this country’s shameful pockets of history. Peter and Terry nonchalantly talk of the number of times they received shock therapy, and Peter tells of being advised to steer clear of his propensity for music as well as the true nature of his sexuality. Yet Peter, a proud iconoclast and defender of gay rights with a Confederate flag hanging in his bedroom, also defiantly acknowledges the positive effects of his shock therapy, saying it shook him out of depression for a year. (One of the many tensions driving The Unicorn is the impression that Peter is an unreliable narrator, driven by both an addled mind and a conscious urge to tend to his own mythology.)

The decay of the Grudzien home, a vividly punishing yet comfortingly homey place of leaks and clutter, suggests a metaphor for the eroded idealism of the United States. Joseph, an ex-marine, worked in coal mines as a child and wryly states at one point that he lost his job due to social crusaders protesting working conditions for children. He was a stout, old-fashioned working man who built a nuclear family only to see it curdle, partially due to his traditionalist’s inability to weather his children’s oddness and insanity. We’re pointedly never told what happened to Joseph’s wife, who’s seen in family photos and comes to suggest a phantom from a romantic past. Yet how romantic is even this past? Terry’s face is often twisted in misery even as a child, with Peter standing alongside her poignantly smiling—a gesture that contextually suggests an attempt to put a bright spin on their affairs.

The Unicorn is rich in personal and social texture, though Dupuis and Geraghty never condescendingly utilize the Grudziens as symbols for their themes. The filmmakers truly see the people in front of them, and for this The Unicorn earns its similarity to Grey Gardens and Crumb. Its sobriety and clarity of vision serves to lace a bleak story with a shard of hope. Peter, Terry, and Joseph are oddballs, but they all offer poetic and touching ruminations on their lives, with Dupuis and Geraghty’s cameras affording them a cathartic opportunity to be heard.

Terry is the most heartbreaking of the three, describing her loneliness and tragedy with a matter-of-factness that often illuminates universal human need through the prism of her own experience. (Whether she knows it or not, Terry is also an artist.) At one point, she discusses the challenges of finding love. For one thing, Terry says, you have to be able to cross the street—a line that attains a metaphorical undertow in regard to how we must be willing to risk ourselves for connection, though, in Terry’s case, the sentiment also underscores a practical element of the constrictions of her paranoia. Clad in pasty makeup and a blond wig, with a face that’s been through several cosmetic surgeries, Terry suggests a kabuki demon, and her intimidating presence contradicts her visceral need for acceptance. She’s a woman in a prison.

Terry hates herself for her differences from other people, while Peter seems to embrace his outsider status—a gift that his obsession with country music has granted him. We hear quite a bit of Peter’s music over the course of the documentary, and it does have a rough and personal quality that suggests un-crystallized talent. Peter spends his days fiddling with his musical gadgets, smoking his pipe, and playing music, all as Dupuis and Geraghty survey him at length, searching his face for indications of his emotional climate while also simply enjoying the pleasure he takes, like many artists do, from engaging in a ritualistic daily routine. When various factors threaten the Grudziens’ existence, such as a scary hanger-on named Billy and family members who understandably try to place Peter and Joseph in an assisted-living community, one has become so tethered to Peter’s psyche as to feel defensive of him, sharing his selfish, irrational, and moving need to have his one-and-only home remain intact.

With The Unicorn, Dupuis and Geraghty have ferociously captured the realm of an artist, leeching it of uplifting simplifications. Peter’s art is understood by the filmmakers to have in some sense preserved his sense of self in the face of horrible obstacles, but his interior realm has a price, paid by Joseph, a benefactor who comes to resemble something like Peter’s captive, and by Peter himself, who pares his life down to a set of behaviors that potentially ward off damnation as well as ecstasy. (Unlike Terry, Peter seems reconciled to having no romantic life.) Dupuis and Geraghty’s documentary illuminates, then, how art and artists live together in a symbiotic existence, each giving as well as taking.

Director: Isabelle Dupuis, Tim Geraghty Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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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

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Paddleton
Photo: Netflix

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

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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

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The Iron Orchard
Photo: Santa Rita Film Co.

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

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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

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Wrestle
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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