New Englanders Hit the Screen at the IFFBoston
Written by B. Walter Irvine | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
When Massachusetts-based documentarian Jeanne Jordan first met painter Beverly McIver in 2003, she wanted to follow McIver because of the artist’s wit and skill. Then, after Jordan had filmed the artist’s big opening show, McIver’s mother died — meaning McIver, a rising talent, would need to take responsibility for her developmentally disabled sister, Renee.
Even before that turn of events, Jordan and co-director Steven Ascher thought there was something there: “The truth of the matter was, she was just so interesting,” said Jordan. “Her painting was just so wonderful.” Jordan says they could have done a doc on only the artwork. “The paintings become another character in the film,” Ascher confirmed. Between McIver’s work and the documentary presence, there was almost a hall of mirrors. “Our cameras were reflecting on her life and her canvases were reflecting on her life,” he said. Jordan echoed the sentiment, saying that when she watched McIver paint, “It felt like a story within a story sometimes.”
Jordan and Ascher are highly recognized — they’re Academy-award nominated among many other honors — and their methodology is committed. “One thing that is true of our feature documentary work is that they are all long-term, longitudinal,” said Ascher. As with McIver, finding good material “is not so much being in the right place at the right time as knowing that you have a multi-year commitment.”
The Mulberry Tree
The Mulberry Tree, about a Rhode Island man confronting his own troubled past as he gets to know a convicted murderer dying of AIDS, is rooted very much in the state, where screenwriter and lead Louis Crugnali hails from. “A Rhode Islander is a very specific type of person,” said the actor, who has appeared on various TV shows, including The Sopranos. “People are guarded, a little more private, a little more old school, and they’re proud of where they’re from.” Even the fickle weather adds to it, toughening them up.
Line producer Mike Bowes agreed, explaining that the film, directed by Mark Heller and starring Crugnali and Joe Morton, could hardly have been produced anywhere but Providence. “You can’t recreate the feeling of the streets,” he said. “You see the way people have changed the space over time.”
Like The Fighter’s relationship to Lowell, Mass., Bowes said, The Mulberry Tree is a film that is fixed to a particular place: “Anybody who’s really familiar with Providence will say, ‘Oh, I love that place,’ or ‘Oh, that’s a place I’ve always avoided.’”
Push: Madison Versus Madison
Push: Madison Versus Madison follows the basketball team of Madison Park, a vo-tech high school in Roxbury, Mass., toward the end of their breakout 2006–2007 season. Though the film documents the team’s struggles and features a commanding coach, it isn’t an inspiring message movie, said director Rudy Hypolite.
“I was more interested in talking about the things off the court than on the court,” he said of the film, which screened at the Cinequest Film Festival in March. He wanted to focus on the lack of support for inner-city schools. “We need more than what is currently there,” he insisted. “We’re sending these kids into a school system where we know they’re going to fail.”
Coach Dennis Wilson is also a long-time friend of Hypolite’s and a producer, but the director was determined to show the whole truth: “Here’s a man who’s heroic in some ways, but flawed,” Hypolite noted. Ultimately, though, the director put the onus of the players’ difficulties on the system, where even a figure like Wilson, “as motivational as he is,” will break under the pressure.
According to Hypolite, audiences cried and laughed at Cinequest, out in California, so it will be interesting to see how it will be received only a few T stops from where it was shot.
Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis
With Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis, Massachusetts filmmaker Peter Sasowsky examines Davis, who has been associated with MIT for many years, doing art projects that resemble mad science: sending signals derived from vaginal contractions into space; making small aircraft powered by frog legs; and encoding messages in the DNA of E. coli, among other colorful projects.
Sasowsky wanted the film to introduce Davis as he had been introduced to him, when he ran into the artist and visionary years ago at the Plough & Stars, a popular bar in Cambridge. “I was interested in recreating the experience people have when they meet Joe … I started asking questions like, ‘Do these projects really work? Is it really real?’ But then I arrived at a place where I realized it’s not the right question.”
In the “constant battle between commerce and art,” Sasowsky said, Davis stands out for his disinterest in the quotidian or commercial. “He’s beholden almost exclusively to his imagination,” said Sasowsky, while he neglects the more prosaic problems of health care and housing. He is often forced out of his living or work space, and he had a difficult time getting funding over the long period the movie was shot. (Since the end of filming, Sasowsky explained, Davis has found better working space and funding.)
Perhaps this is the price one pays to realize the message that Sasowsky sees in Davis and his work: “Everything is connected in ways we may not imagine.”
Beneath Contempt is the story of a young man leaving prison after doing time for his part in a car crash that killed three of his friends. Benjamin Brewer, an Emerson grad who wrote and directed the project, wanted to tell a story from the side of the culpable. He compares the movie to In the Bedroom or Little Children, although he didn’t get around to seeing either until he had made his own film. “I feel this movie is like In the Bedroom if you took away the Oscar moments, the show-stopping stuff,” he said. “I realized I was looking at a specific point in the grieving process, years after the fact.” It’s a point at which “grief kind of changes the way you live, but not in the way that you are showing extreme emotion.”
For the look of the film, Brewer and DP Shant Ergenian, who had interned at Pixar, drew up a list of 10 rules of cinematography derived from the advice Ergenian had heard from the DP of Up. They banned unnecessary camera movements and tried to keep people moving on only a 2-D plane, partly to keep the tradition of clear cinematic geography, which Brewer worried was being lost in modern cinema.
Lack of camera movement didn’t make things easier, Brewer said. “When you pull off camera movement, you are a master, but at the same time, you’re making it easier in the editing room.” He sees an advantage, however: When the camera stays put, the audience pays closer attention.
You might think a writer-director would be dedicated to the script, but when the actors start running his lines, he said, “you realize how stupid your words are”; almost all of the film was improvised. It seems to have paid off, since Beneath Contempt was able to premiere at Slamdance two months ago and is part of the Emerging Filmmakers Series at Boston Center for the Arts.
For more information about the Independent Film Festival Boston, please visit www.iffboston.org/.