KNIVES AND SKIN (Jennifer Reeder, 2019)
Nitehawk Cinema Williamsburg
136 Metropolitan Ave. between Berry St. & Wythe Ave.
Tuesday, September 17, 7:00
Festival runs September 14-17
Knives and Skin, Jennifer Reeder’s feature-length debut as a writer-director, is the closing-night selection of Eyeslicer Fest, four days of special events celebrating the second season of The Eyeslicer, the self-described “secret TV show blending the boldest new American filmmaking into mind-expanding, mixtape-style episodes.” Screening September 17 at 7:00 at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Knives and Skin is a creepy coming-of-age tale of girlhood, loss, and consent set in small-town America where the disappearance of a teenage girl tilts an already off-balance community even more on edge. Marching band member Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) has decided to lose her virginity to jock Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), but when she suddenly changes her mind, he becomes angry, pushes her to the ground, and leaves her in the woods. When she doesn’t come home, her mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), quickly goes off the deep end, obsessed with her daughter’s clothes and smell. Fellow marching band members Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach), April Martinez (Aurora Real de Asua), and Afra Siddiqui (Haley Bolithon), each of whose identities lie firmly outside old-fashioned mainstream America’s idea of girlhood, are preparing for homecoming, but Carolyn’s situation has cast a damper over everything.
Reeder focuses on two families over the course of the film, which was inspired by the work of such feminist auteurs as Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat in addition to such indie faves as Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes, with the heaviest debt to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as she uses our generic societal anxiety about female teen sexuality to reveal the hidden underbelly of a typical midwestern town, complete with surreal moments. (There’s also bits of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Girls, and The Breakfast Club embedded in its DNA.) Andy’s mother, Lynn (Audrey Francis), can’t face reality; his father, Dan (Tim Hopper), is an out-of-work clown fooling around with pregnant waitress Renee Darlington (Kate Arrington); his sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to the principal (Tony Fitzpatrick); and he is closest to his unusual grandmother (Marilyn Dodds Frank). Renee is married to Doug (James Vincent Meredith), the local sheriff in charge of the Carolyn Harper case; their son, Jesse Darlington (Robert T. Cunningham), is the school mascot and friends with Joanna; and their daughter, Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter), is exploring her sexuality with Colleen (Emma Ladji). Racism, misogyny, sexual harassment, bullying, and more lie at the center of a community unable to come to grips with what’s really going on every day.
Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the film in richly saturated blues, reds, greens, and pinks, accompanied by a lurking score by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There are several scenes that feature hauntingly beautiful a cappella versions of such 1980s hits as Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises,” and Icicle Works’ “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” lending the film a stark poignancy that overrides some of the inconsistent acting and over-the-top absurdities and singlehandedly makes it worth watching. The screening will be followed by a casual party in the Lo-Res Bar; Eyeslicer Fest begins September 14 and also includes the Radical Film Fair at Kickstarter HQ on September 15, the world premiere of season two of The Eyeslicer in Green-Wood Cemetery on September 16, and the theatrical release of Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life at IFC through September 19.
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Festival continues through October 12
After the audience has settled in at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall for Cyril Teste’s multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film Opening Night, there appears to be confusion on the stage, as a man in headphones converses in French with an unseen tech crew, their words not translated on the supertitles screen. It’s a disorienting moment, especially if you don’t understand French, and a terrific introduction to one of the themes of the play, the pull between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality inherent in theater and cinema. The man in the headphones is the play-within-a-play’s director, Manny (Morgan Lloyd Sicard), who is helming a melodrama featuring famous actress Myrtle Gordon (five-time César winner Isabelle Adjani) and her stoic costar, Maurice (Frédéric Pierrot); in the original film, itself based on a play by John Cromwell, Gena Rowlands was Myrtle, her real-life husband, Cassavetes, was Maurice, and one of their closest friends, Ben Gazzara, was Manny, their personal relationships further blurring the lines of reality.
With opening night a day away, Myrtle is having trouble with her lines and her physical presence, particularly in a scene that involves Maurice slapping her. She’s becoming emotionally unhinged, having a nervous breakdown, spurred by the earlier accidental death of a seventeen-year-old fan seeking an autograph and Myrtle’s inability — or overt unwillingness — to relate to her character, who is all too much like her, as if she is unable to face her own fate. Throughout the play’s eighty-five minutes, there is an additional figure onstage, cameraman Nicolas Doremus, who follows the characters as they move about Ramy Fischler’s elegant living-room set, which features a couch, a table, knickknacks on shelves, a visible backstage area with Agnès b.’s costumes, and, at the very center, a large screen where Doremus’s footage streams live, offering viewers a different angle on what’s happening. At one point, Doremus zooms in close on Manny and Myrtle, who might be about to kiss, the cameraman completing a kind of love triangle between life and artifice; at another, Doremus films other characters behind stage sharing their concerns as Myrtle is alone on the couch, drinking away her pain. Everyone is dressed in dark colors, mostly black, signaling potential doom.
Teste (Patio, Nobody) based his script on Cassavetes’s screenplay more than the final film itself, although he did use the director’s longtime friend and cinematographer, Al Ruban, who shot Opening Night, as a consultant. Teste encourages improvisation and changes stage directions every night, ensuring that each performance is unique in a way a film can never be yet still capturing the essence of the movie. “While Cassavetes’s other great films are models of immediacy — gut-level attempts to devise a cinematic syntax that accounts for and responds to the quantum flux of moment-to-moment experience — the doubly framed and multiply mirrored Opening Night operates at a remove,” Dennis Lim notes in his Criterion essay, which is appropriately titled “The Play’s the Thing.” He continues, “The filmmaker’s habitual insistence on the inseparability of actor and character (and of art and life) reverberates here within the haunted corridors of a backstage melodrama.” Adjani (The Story of Adele H, Queen Margot) is ravishing in her New York theatrical debut, her regal stage demeanor working hand-in-hand with her total command of the screen; we get to see both facets of her immense talent at the same time, which is both a treat and disconcerting; non-French speakers will lose a little as they avert their eyes to the supertitles while also deciding whether to look at the activity onstage, backstage, or onscreen. Sicard is superb as the director, and Pierrot is hardy as the skeptical Maurice, but Doremus stands out by not standing out even as he is right in the middle of the action. Opening Night opens FIAF’s monthlong Crossing the Line Festival and is supplemented by “Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen,” consisting of ten of her films shown on Tuesdays through October 29.
“Just the way they say you are what you eat, you are what you wear, too,” Calamity Jane Nemhauser says in Tattoo Uprising, Alan Govenar’s forty-years-in-the-making documentary celebrating the art of inking human bodies. Writer-director Govenar has been working on the film since 1980, when he was finishing his 1981 half hour Stoney Knows How, about tattoo legend Stoney St. Clair. Govenar and editor Jason Johnson-Spinos interweave four decades of interviews and archival footage into the film, in which Govenar speaks extensively with St. Clair and fashionista Ed Hardy, who redefined what tattooing could be; documentarian Les Blank and director Werner Herzog, who show off their tats while the former is making Burden of Dreams and the latter Fitzcarraldo; woman tattoo artists Cynthia Witkin, Calamity Jane, Jamie Summers, and Anne de Hey!; sideshow performer and tattoo artist Captain Don, who sings a song about his chosen profession; and prisoners who reveal their tattoos and discuss the impact they have on their feelings of freedom.
Author Govenar also delves into the history of tattooing, from biblical times through the Renaissance, from Captain James Cook’s discoveries to Gus Wagner’s influential flash tattoos, and such art exhibitions as “Flash from the Past: Classic American Tattoo Designs 1890 – 1965” at the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum in San Antonio and “Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos” at the Drawing Center in New York. “It’s a hot language. It’s a cellular semiotics of communication that we’re only now beginning to realize exists across the world and throughout history in a way that no other medium functions,” Hardy explains. And there’s plenty of tattooing, the camera getting up close and personal as needles buzz into flesh, creating complicated, daring, and exquisite designs, using the human body as a living canvas.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE (Michael Tyburski, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 13
Peter Sarsgaard gives a beautifully gentle performance as a house tuner in Michael Tyburski’s feature debut, The Sound of Silence. Sarsgaard is Peter Lucian, an idiosyncratic New Yorker who is hired by people to investigate how sounds in their homes might be affecting them in negative ways, impacting their sleeping habits, success at work, and overall mood. Walking from room to room with tuning forks and a tape recorder, Peter tracks seemingly impossible-to-hear noise and suggests alterations that will change his clients’ lives, sometimes as simple as replacing a small appliance. He is also mapping the city itself, documenting buildings and street corners by the musical notes they emit. At the urging of his mentor, Robert Feinway (Austin Pendleton), he hires Samuel Diaz (Tony Revolori) to assist him as he prepares to publish his findings, something he prefers to do alone. Meanwhile, CEO Harold Carlyle (Bruce Altman) wants Peter to join his firm and turn his unique skill into a big-time money-making venture, but Peter has no interest in corrupting his unusual profession. When he hits a snag trying to solve the problems of his latest client, Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones), he becomes obsessed, desperate to find the answer as his calm, even-keeled life suddenly becomes turbulent and disorderly.
The Sound of Silence was expanded from rural Vermont native Tyburski and cowriter Ben Nabors’s award-winning 2013 short, Palimpsest. The film is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 thriller, The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an audio surveillance expert who becomes overwhelmed with paranoia, as well as Henry Bean’s 2007 drama Noise, in which Tim Robbins stars as a New Yorker on a one-man mission to eliminate the endless racket made by car alarms going off in the middle of the night. Cinematographer Eric Lin’s camera can’t get enough of Peter’s tender, delicate nature and slow, deliberate speech and movement, so sensitively portrayed by Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass, Kinsey), whether he’s laying down in a client’s bed, standing in front of Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell with his tuning forks, or looking out at the vast city spread out below him, a symphony of strife, supplemented by Will Bates’s classically influenced score, that he believes he can cure. But even as he helps other people, he is unable to make personal connections in his own life, spending much of his time in his dark office, letting his answering machine pick up for him so he doesn’t have to talk to people on the phone, not knowing how to engage with the real world outside. The Sound of Silence, which boasts a strong indie cast that also includes Alex Karpovsky, Tina Benko, Bhavesh Patel, Tracee Chimo Pallero, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Alison Fraser, opens September 13 at IFC, with Tyburski, Nabors, and producer Michael Prall on hand for a Q&A following the 8:10 screening opening night. The film will also run September 20-29 at the Museum of the Moving Image, with Tyburski joined by physicist Janna Levin at the 4:00 show on September 22.
DEPRAVED (Larry Fessenden, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 13
Earlier this year, Larry Fessenden’s Depraved made its world premiere at IFC Center as the opening-night selection of What the Fest!?, five days of twisted films and discussions that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre. Depraved, which does just that, is now back at IFC for its inaugural theatrical release. “Humanity does so love destruction. Depraved. That’s what we are. Utterly depraved,” Polidori (Joshua Leonard) explains in the film, a contemporary reimagining of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein involving the military, Big Pharma, and fatherhood. The smooth-talking Polidori (named for John William Polidori, an acquaintance of Mary Wollstonecraft’s who in 1819 published the first modern vampire story) is overseeing a cutting-edge experiment by Henry (David Call), who is seeking to bring life to the dead through surgery, medication, and therapy. (Dr. Frankenstein was named “Victor” in Mary Shelley’s book but “Henry” in James Whale’s 1931 movie.) Using body parts from multiple corpses, Henry, a former army medic in Iraq, has patched together a living being he names Adam (Alex Breaux). The final, key piece is the warm brain of Alex (Owen Campbell), who is brutally murdered moments after having a fight with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine), in Brooklyn. Adam develops sooner than expected, taking a liking to Henry’s girlfriend, Liz (Ana Kayne), while Polidori uses this as an opportunity to speed up the deals he’s working on. It doesn’t go very well.
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Fessenden (The Last Winter, Wendigo) — who made the cult vampire hit Habit in 1997 and is now working on a long-conceived werewolf picture — Depraved takes on several timely issues, most powerfully war and PTSD; Henry, who suffers from PTSD himself, and Polidori are hoping to keep mortally wounded soldiers alive while also helping them deal with post-traumatic stress, but they did not anticipate Adam experiencing memory flashbacks of Alex’s life (which are accompanied by creepy animation). Fessenden also explores the nature of parenting in twenty-first-century America: Alex is murdered shortly after fighting with Lucy about having children; Henry perceives Adam as a kind of son to him, especially early on when he is teaching him elementary school basics and playing catch with him; Polidori, who is married to Georgina (Maria Dizzia), works for his father-in-law (Chris O’Connor) while also serving as Adam’s bad parent; and, as a bonus, Fessenden’s son Jack is the film’s videographer and appears as Eddie. (Larry can be seen in a cameo as the guy at the end of the bar, where Adam meets Shelley [Addison Timlin], named for the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.)
The strong cast is led by Breaux (Red Speedo, Jack Fessenden’s upcoming Foxhole), who gives a multilayered, sensitive performance as Adam, a lonely man — not a monster — lost in a world he no longer understands, and Call (The Sinner, The Breaks), who humanizes the mad-scientist-as-God role. Inspired by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, about how she recovered from a severe brain hemorrhage, and the legacy of Oliver Sacks, Fessenden is not merely trying to scare the hell out of us with Depraved, which was made in twenty-four days in Gowanus and includes a scene shot guerrilla-style in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, he has made an intense film that looks at how we are wired and how trauma impacts our relationships with others. And more than fear, the film hits us with an overwhelming sadness. “We always have tomorrow,” Alex says in the beginning. Alas, not always. Fessenden will be at IFC for Q&As following the 9:45 screenings on September 13 and 14.