Life is a strange, strange, thing. Sometimes it’s magical, giving us joy when we least expect it. Other times, it gives us the most painful experiences we could never imagine, leaving us to cope as best we can. That strangeness, that randomness, is on full display for day seven of the Milwaukee Film Festival. Each film is about life taking us to unexpected places, and how we must process that, whether it happens to be about a black woman coping with growing up in 1980s America, an elderly man in a small town facing his impending death, or the various wedding reception attendees musing about where they were and where they all are now.
The simplest explanation of the documentary Bronx Gothic is that it’s about conceptual artist Okwui Okpokwasili’s autobiographical one-woman theater show of the same name, which explores the lives of two young black girls growing up in 1980s New York. But it not only taps into so much more, including the complex social forces that brought Okwui’s show into being. Be warned though. Neither Okwui or director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) are interested in making the audience comfortable, whether they’re watching Bronx Gothic in a live theater or a cinema. It’s a far superior work to Manifesto, another conceptual art film, mostly because the artist doesn’t have the luxury of cool, aloof detachment.
When clips from the show are shown, it’s clear that the lives she’s depicting are painful, full of the casual violence-both in life and language-of the time, but they’re also joyous, and funny. Okwui also makes no attempt to make herself into a sexually objectified hot mess. She is uncomfortable, her body dancing spasmodically, erratically, as it tries to cope with the many ways it’s analyzed, used, and abused. She is a sweaty, emotional, raw. She’s not only laying herself bare to criticize the way black and brown bodies are viewed, how whiteness is privileged, but she’s also looking back at us, viewing us as we view her.
The documentary also gives us an intimate view of Okwui herself, as she discusses her life, the creative process that led her to create this show, how giving birth to her daughter changed her, and how audiences, mostly comprised of women, react to Bronx Gothic. But it leaves quite a few unanswered questions. Just how autobiographical is Bronx Gothic? How exactly does Okwui manage to constantly go through the emotional wringer, not just for the audience, but the many discussions she attends? How does this work build on her previous work? When exactly did she leave her neighborhood, and how? Her parents, who immigrated from Nigeria, seem to be a big influence on her, and her relationship with them deserves more attention. The few moments they have together on-screen are interesting, and their reactions to clips from her show are also pretty funny.
The fact that these questions aren’t really addressed leaves a rather large hole that not even the raw power of Okwui’s show can fill. A complete picture of her life is impossible, but leaving out such major sections of it is a puzzling decision.
Harry Dean Stanton was certainly a very fortunate man. Not only was he talented enough to have a long, respectable career full of incredible roles, the late great actor got to have a film like this for a swan song.
Lucky is the story of a man very much like Stanton who lives in a small, remote southwestern town. He is 90 years old, was never married, has no children, and is an atheist. His is a life of quiet, peaceful contentment surround by a quirky, loving, and close-knit community, but he’s forced into a kind of reckoning after he suddenly falls for no reason. The doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) tells him he’s in remarkably good shape, and there’s nothing really wrong with him, save for the fact that he is getting older, and his body is finally doing what it is destined to do, which is break down. We all know we are fated to die one way or another, but it’s a very different thing when the abyss is staring us full in the face and we have no choice but to stare back, and thus reckon with it.
But Lucky gets to do it in a small town full of colorful characters, including the likes of the magnificent David Lynch as Howard, a man in morning for his escaped tortoise President Roosevelt. The dialogue is also a razor sharp marvel in itself, and would be nothing but pretentious ridiculous schlock if less skilled writers had had anything to do with it. But it’s equal parts funny, moving, and intelligent. It’s all the more inspiring since this is not only the first writing credit for both screenwriters, but also the first time actor John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David Lynch), an actor with a very long resume, has take on directing duties.
It’s also remarkable that Lucky’s life is not seen as empty due to his lack of marriage, children, and religion. There are no miracles that will provide easy answers, nor is this a story of conversion. What exactly can a person do when he doesn’t have the usual aforementioned comforts most people reach for? In Lucky (and Stanton’s words), “Smile.” And by the end, it is impossible for us to not do the same. How this movie could exist so perfectly baffles me, but I’m very glad it does. Goodbye, Harry Dean Stanton. You will be greatly missed.
Life of the Party
Ah, weddings. Is there any other event so held up as the happiest day of a person’s life…with the caveat that it also must come off perfectly? It’s hardly surprising that a day which is supposed to be about two people coming together to celebrate their love and the new life they’re building together often turns out to be a stress-filled day that brings out the insanity in the best of us.
So you know a few things are bound to go astray in Life of the Party. Sure, it doesn’t exactly focus on the wedding, more right after the vows have been made, and the few friends, co-workers, and family members who’ve gathered for the reception in West Allis. It’s a very local movie, with talent that many even slightly familiar with Milwaukee’s film scene will be able to recognize. It makes it a bit more fun when things go south fast.
Just a bit though, because things don’t unfold in a way that’s very enjoyable, nor do really any of these people seem like they’d too interesting or entertaining to hang out with, which makes their general unlikability more hard to take. Many of the bride and groom’s friends doubt that the marriage will last. When secrets and dysfunction are revealed, it has a way of either erasing all sympathy for the character, or just not seeming worthy of leading to lasting changes. The women are especially shamed for acting out, while the men are given far more leeway. One of the women in the group of the newlyweds has a reputation for getting around, and even contracted an STD from the groom in high school. But she is continually slut-shamed in a way the groom is not, and no one defends her. The groom’s mother is a shrew with almost no redeeming qualities. The bride is revealed to have doubts about her new marriage, mostly due to abuse in her past, and we find out her cousin was responsible. In a particularly galling move, we get to know him more, and his pain and regret are prioritized, while the bride is shamed and very harshly judged by her best friend after she gets far too drunk.
There are some female characters who are likable and get much gentler treatment, but they are the “nice” women who never act inappropriately, while the men are shown far more compassion and understanding when they make mistakes. We don’t leave the movie with the sense that anything that’s occurred over the course of the night will really make any difference in anyone’s life. No one really seems to grow.
The performances and direction are excellent, and if you’re a Wisconsinite, there’s plenty of references and tributes to the state in general. But the people who reside there are not given the same loving attention.