I first saw Alex Karpovsky’s The Hole Story at the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston, where my first feature, Home, made its New England premiere. I fell in love with it and have not been able to get it out of my head. It’s been on the festival circuit since then, and I hope it gets a theatrical distributor so that audiences have a chance to discover Karpovsky, a distinctive comic voice and significant American filmmaker.
The Hole Story is a merger of faux-documentary, psychological drama, media satire and cringe comedy that reminds me of early Albert Brooks(particularly his criminally underappreciated Real Life), and not just because Karpovsky is a near-one-man-band who wrote and directed the movie as well as starring in it as “Alex Karpovsky.” The picture’s easygoing, icy-deadpan tone belies its structural complexity: it’s presented as sort of a salvage job, an “actual” documentary about a disastrous documentary film-that-never-was, cobbled together from pieces of an aborted pilot for a proposed cable series on weird but true phenomena, hosted by Karpovsky. Karpovsky brings a crew to Brainerd, Minn. to interview locals about an immense, unexplained hole that appears each winter in the middle of an iced-over lake. Unfortunately for Karpovsky, it just so happens that the winter he picks to visit Brainerd is the winter the hole finally decides to seal up.
Desperate to justify his filmmaking expedition, and stubbornly refusing to concede getting his ass kicked by fate, Karpovsky contrives to have residents talk about the ice hole on camera in the present tense, as if it’s still open. After a while, even he recognizes the pointlessness of this contrivance. Yet he still continues to wander around Brainerd, looking for a subject, any subject. Karpovsky’s increasingly pathetic attempts to justify his stillborn project (and by extension, his artistic existence) are partly fueled by a personal crisis I won’t reveal here. In lesser hands, this story could have degenerated into standard-issue film-about-filmmaking cliches. But Karpovsky’s striking mix of modes, coupled with his parched comic tone and mock-monumental wide shots (the more agitated and melodramatic our hero becomes, the more likely the director is to draw back and back, rendering him a ranting flyspeck on white snow), make this movie impossible to pigeonhole.
Karpovsky has been somewhat coy about the genesis of this movie, which the Boston Globe described as a “fictumentary.” As far as I can tell from his various accounts, in 2002 he temporarily took a break from a job editing Russian karaoke videos and went to Kokomo, Indiana to make a documentary about the “Kokomo Hum”, an unexplained sound heard by local residents. Emboldened by positive response to that project, he moved on to Brainerd, where 21 degree temperatures froze him and his crew, ruined his equipment and sent the project into a spiral from which it never recovered. The crew abandoned him and Karpovsky eventually had a breakdown and checked himself into a clinic for evaluation; the resulting film is, he has said, somewhat of a merger between his life and the botched documentary he originally set out to make. I suspect only Karpovsky can say whether the “interviews” with Brainerd locals being asked to lie about the ice hole, for instance, are “real” or invented, or what other parts of the film were captured in the moment or contrived after the fact. Whatever the ratio of reporting to drama, the entire project represents the end product of an unprecedented act of improvisation, devised on the fly by Karpovsky. It’s truly unhinged—like a Neorealist comedy directed by Ross McElwee.
There’s really no reason why the movie should have worked at all, and I wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest that it’ll click with everyone. (I’ve recommended it to many people, and about half of them find it willfully strange, and more mortifying than funny.) But it was one of my favorite unreleased films of last year, one of the saddest and funniest debuts I’ve ever seen, and therefore the ideal candidate to launch what I hope will be a regular feature calling attention to tiny movies that deserve big audiences.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.