Festival highlights November 06 2002

Film Festival Highlights

Hair care

b>American Mullet, an expose of that aesthetically challenged haircut, is an unusually tender, funny treatment of the politics of hair.

The film begins on a distinctly silly note as a pair of documentarians (the film's British narrator and, presumably, director Jennifer Arnold) take a road trip across America holding a postcard with their quarry: an image of a perfect mullet.

Asking, "Have you seen this hairstyle?" the documentarians get an affirmative from a surprising mix of people: a Vegas country bar DJ who has some interesting theories about the appeal of long hair for bi-curious women; a man who silences critics of his "hippie" hairstyle when he tells them he sells the long "party in the back" portion to a group that helps children who've lost their hair to cancer; an angelic little boy who keeps his hair long in deference to his mother's sentimental attachment to his never-shorn baby hair; and one of the more interesting mullet subgenres — gay women who have adopted the gender-neutral look as a badge of mainstream defiance.

Man- and woman-on-the-street interviews with the non-mulleted reveal a surprising hatred for the hairstyle, and the filmmakers soon reveal an undercurrent of classism lurking beneath the comments. One of the worst offenders is the creator of a mullet website who posts photographs of anonymous mullet-owners with "humorous" accompanying text describing his targets in maliciously derogatory terms.

The lesbian who describes her mullet as a "genderless," iconoclastic hairstyle for both male and female rebels hits the nail on the head when she points out that such hatred for one hairstyle may often hide a disdain for the groups that sport it — the poor and other outsiders who don't have the money or interest in keeping up with current mainstream style.

The film's interview subjects are proud, defiant, and most of them are quite eloquent about what their style means. It would have been very easy for American Mullet to have just offered a jocular translation of the mullet website's mocking irony, but Arnold's clever, humane film instead tries for something more challenging — and succeeds.

American Mullet screens Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.

Rock godesses

__Down and Out with the Dolls is a fast-paced, funny yarn about the chaotic rise and hair-pulling plummet of an all-girl Portland band, the Paper Dolls. Well-served by the ferocious energy of its alterna-rock soundtrack, Dolls plunges full force into its thrillingly ragtag story of the loves, jealousies and friendships of this foursome.

Rock goddess Fauna (Zoe Poledouris), a steely Manic Panic siren with the kill-or-be-killed ambition of a Courtney Love, teams up with a trio of girls trying to start their own fledgling band. Reggie (Kinnie Starr) is a lesbian dabbling in heterosexuality with the slouchy cool and baby doll features of an indie Isabelle Adjani. Lavender (Melody Moore) is the vintage dress-wearing record store clerk contemplating shacking up with her boyfriend. And Kali (Nicole Barrett) is a neurotic but talented innocent in love with the punk rock star Levi (real indie rocker Coyote Shivers), who sees greener fields with Fauna.

Like Singles, but with a far better grasp on the aesthetics of this fringe scene, Dolls has a shaggy and completely engaging ambiance. It sports a whiplash sense of humor to boot. In a moment of tension before the Paper Dolls' first gig that has Kali in a lather, the terminally icy Fauna warns, "If you don't stop stressing, you're going to give me a herpes breakout."

Director Kurt Voss has collaborated with Allison Anders as screenwriter on several projects including Sugar Town, and he brings the raw energy and subcultural intensity of that film to Dolls. Underground musician Shivers and Poledouris add their own charismatic momentum and power chords with original music that perfectly balances the equally raw, slap happy visuals. What keeps it all real is Voss' integrity in sticking close to the spirit of this scene, and the across-the-board polymorphous sexiness of the cast.

Down and Out with the Dolls screens Nov. 9 at 10 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.


Mr. Fancypants

nlike Smoke Signals, which Alexie scripted, Fancydancing abandons the structures and devices of traditional storytelling for a fluid, metaphorical unfolding of images and events. Time, memory and truth are slippery elements turned and tossed about until a reality more profound than simple fact is eventually revealed.

Echoing Native American forms of oral history, the film discloses through poems, fables, songs and dreams the inner struggles of a man divided. On the one hand, Seymour embraces his homosexuality, finding comfort in a prickly relationship with his white lover in downtown Seattle. He revels in his public lectures and readings of poems about life on the rez delivered to earnest white audiences who gingerly kiss his cheek and touch his hair in gratitude for assuaging their guilt.

But when Seymour makes a long-overdue return home for the funeral of a boyhood friend, he likens the reservation to a prison while imagining a life raising children with former girlfriend Agnes (Michelle St. John), who provides the film's emotional center as a "half-breed" who's reconciled her two worlds. Tensions climax in a confrontation between Seymour and childhood friend Aristotle (Gene Tagaban). The two had left the reservation to attend college together, but Aristotle — whose future held out as much promise as Seymour's — dropped out to return home where he's spent his life battling alcoholism and an uncontrollable rage.

Digitally recorded using bare-bones production values, The Business of Fancydancing challenges the viewer with an unconventional narrative fraught with complex dilemmas without resolution, but a truer portrayal of the dichotomies of contemporary life on the reservation has probably yet to be made.

The Business of Fancydancing screens Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.

Naked admiration

The five short films that make up __Secrets and Admirers: A Boy's Shorts Program all subscribe to the rules of attraction. In each, a beguiling youth serves as another man's object of affection, and while scenes frequently involve skin, showers or suntan lotion, the program never crosses the line into actual pornography, instead playing like an anthology of erotica.

In the brief "Baby Blue," we cut between shots of a young man driving and showering, and hear his reminiscence of his childhood sexual experiences. Essentially a sketch, "Baby Blue" is effective enough to make us wish it had a more definitive payoff. It's smartly paired with "Like a Brother," which introduces two high schoolers on a Labor Day vacation and explores the pressures drawing them close and pushing them away.

A fellow plays the field when his lover goes on vacation in "The Boyfriend," which features a funny sequence involving an attempted hook-up under a bookstore clerk's watchful eye. However, "The Boyfriend's" implied theme — that infidelity can improve a committed relationship — feels like a weak justification for sleeping around. "Rock Bottom" has more solid footing, showing a heavyset loner picking up a drug hustler. Here, the exploiter and the exploited aren't the ones we first assume.

Dan Castle's 30-minute "The Visitor" provides the program's highlight, especially with the sharp, melancholy performance from Barry Otto (an Australian character actor from such cult hits as Strictly Ballroom and Bliss). Otto plays an aging writer who has left a friend's deathbed to attempt to write near the beaches of Sydney. A hunky surfer reminds the writer of both his dying companion and his own lost youth, as the film shows in subtle but confidently rendered details. "The Visitor" benefits from lush location footage and builds to an admirably ambiguous ending that hints at a complexity of mixed feelings that the other shorts strive, with less success, to make explicit.

__Secrets and Admirers: A Boy's Shorts Program screens Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.

Pet project

If every feline gets nine lives, __P.S. Your Cat is Dead has expended half of its already. Written by James Kirkwood (A Chorus Line), the script originated as a play, later morphed into a darker novel and eventually returned to the stage to attract a minor cult following. (Sal Mineo was leaving a rehearsal of the play when he was stabbed in 1976.)

In its latest incarnation, Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy, Three Men and a Baby) — who co-produced, directed and stars — melds together the darker aspects of the novel with the play for a quirky, if slightly uneven, film treatment. In a casting stretch, Guttenberg plays washed-up actor Jimmy Zoole, who on New Year's Eve returns home to find his girlfriend packing her bags and his beloved cat kaput. Jimmy, who's just been canned from his one-man Hamlet and whose apartment has been burglarized twice, teeters toward emotional breakdown until he discovers that said burglar has returned — and is hiding under his bed.

Here the sleepy script finally wakes up, taking a turn toward black comedy as Jimmy wrestles with the intruder and eventually hog-ties him face down on the kitchen counter. Eddie (Lombardo Boyar), the burglar, at first taunts his captor, but the men drift into a sort of extended therapy session, with Jimmy emoting over the death of his best friend (as well as the cat) and Eddie's somewhat abrupt revelation that he is gay. "Gay is just a word," he says, "like tall. Everyone is a little tall."

Jimmy's turbulent past with emasculating women comes into question. When Eddie complains that he has to urinate, Jimmy violently cuts his hostage's jeans off him, resulting in a bizarre visual metaphor for repressed sexuality and a scene the bondage set will titter over.

P.S. Your Cat is Dead asks questions of masculinity and repression, but ultimately fails to provide any clear or original answers. Not to let the cat out of the bag, but a surprisingly tidy ending ties up both Jimmy's abandoned artistic dreams and puts Eddie back on the straight and narrow — so to speak.

-- Tray Butler __
P.S. Your Cat is Dead screens Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.

Female Fantasia

Polly Vandersma, who sports a baby bird fluff of carroty hair and an embarrassed, clumsy manner, is a character so endearing and adorably gawky you want to scoop her up in your arms and shelter her from the world.

But Canadian director Patricia Rozema soon makes it clear that her first feature, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, is not really a film concerned with anything as unimaginative as the real world. There is a carbonated sweetness to this 1987 charmer that almost immediately makes it more a vision of how life could be than what it actually is.

A failed secretary once told she is "organizationally impaired," waifish Polly (Sheila McCarthy) finds shelter from her aimless unemployment with sophisticated gallery curator Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), who takes a shine to the girl. Mermaids is narrated by Polly as she directly addresses a video camera in her recorded "confessional, and it tracks her growing infatuation with the chic curator whose many charms, both physical and intellectual, send Polly into a foggy, besotted stupor.

In humorous vignettes, the scatterbrained Polly soaks in ornate fantasies of scaling tall buildings, impressing Gabrielle with her sparkling acumen and other dreamy heights before snapping back to reality. What might be laughable or pathetic in another film is treated with heartrending sympathy by Rozema. There are few things more poignant and expressive of the human condition than Polly in her tiny bachelorette apartment, accompanied by her cats, preparing what looks like a dinner of canned peas, pickles and crackers while waving her tiny hand as she "conducts" a recorded opera.

The curator may come with a posh pedigree and a high-status job, but Polly is a true visionary whose unique vantage is expressed on daily jaunts when she mounts her Barbie-pink bicycle and roams Toronto in search of subjects to photograph.

Though the '80s outfits are cringe-inducing and the "art world" conversations often ludicrously absurd, Mermaids is a charming film about the depths of female affection and the emotionally complex life of a seemingly dim and inconsequential person whose "naive" vision of the world proves far more meaningful, adventurous and interesting than any art world sophisticate's.

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing screens Nov. 9 at 5:30 p.m. Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24.??