Sunday, February 14, 2010

PIFF Days 3 (cont.) and 4 - "Untouchable Girls" and others

Nine films into the festival, my favorite so far is "The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls" (9.5), a documentary about two of the most charming and genuine people you'd ever want to meet. What's good about this documentary is that it really captures who these women are--but I'll admit that a lot of the reason I rate this film so highly is because of the women themselves, not because of the film's quality. I seriously want absolutely all of you to meet them, and I defy you to watch this film and not be changed by it.

Jools and Lynda Topp are icons in New Zealand--but it's hard to imagine more unlikely icons. "On paper," says a comedy-writer friend, "yodeling lesbian twins don't really work," least of all in the salt-of-the-earth culture of New Zealand. Yet their fan base includes rednecks, left-wingers, and everyone in between those extremes. With characteristic modesty, Lynda Topp comments, "We're not comedians; we're singers who are funny." I'd argue that they are quite clearly skilled comedians--their array of characters ingeniously lampoon various aspects of Kiwi culture and put them in a league with Monty Python. But the modesty is also part of who they are. The truth is, these buoyant women, aptly dubbed an "anarchist variety act," are mostly just whole-heartedly who they are--and who they are disarms every tendency to label and marginalize them and instead makes everyone just want to be around them. It's brilliantly inspiring, and also buoyantly subversive.

The film tells their story of growing up as farm girls and contains wonderful footage of their start as performers in the early 80s, when they began by busking on street corners. Obviously out lesbians, they easily gathered crowds with their full-throated country-and-western songs, sung "like one voice in stereo," as one admirer puts it. They always are having so much fun that folks want to join in, even when they are singing radical lesbian love songs. They're close enough to my age and remind me of so many of my friends that it was especially easy for me to see the significance of the toehold they claimed on the Kiwi psyche--and the film shows that too, as they cheerfully joined the fight for gay rights in New Zealand and lent their voices to other causes, such as Maori land rights and the fight against South African apartheid. The film also introduces their parents, salt-of-the-earth New Zealanders who matter-of-factly explain their momentary disappointment at learning that all three of their children (including the twins' brother) were gay--until they realized, that is, that "it doesn't actually matter."

The characters the twins have invented are a particularly brilliant part of their success. Farmers Ken Smythe and Ken Moller with their beer guts and bad polyester; posh Socialites Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom; country girls Belle and Bell Gingham; and the hilarious Camp Mother and Camp Leader--all these and others poke fun at staples of Kiwi culture, but with such genuine affection that they are loved by the communities they represent. The twins are utterly fearless and without vanity, and often the characters comment on Jools and Lynda themselves, as if to locate the lesbian twins in the same array of Kiwi staples.

This film really snuck up on me. I couldn't help but like these women right off--but as the genius of their whole-hearted method sunk in, I felt increasingly moved and spent the last quarter of the film with tears in my eyes. I thought lovingly of so many friends who would feel so celebrated by these wonderful, genuine women, their courage balanced with radiating love. Don't make the mistake of missing this one, even if you can't imagine being entertained by a documentary about yodeling lesbian twins. Put it in your queue or see it at the festival Tuesday evening.

Though I found much to admire in "A Prophet" (7), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, I couldn't seem to find a way to connect with it. The film tells the story of Malik, an illiterate 19-year-old of mixed Arab and Corsican heritage, who enters jail as a petty criminal and, like so many young men, leaves a much savvier player in the criminal underground. In a way this is like a mob movie, in that it portrays the intricacies of survival in prison and indirectly makes the case that the "fittest" will survive by becoming more entrenched in lives of crime. The characters and setting were interesting and well-drawn, but the prophet theme was unsatisfying, and I never moved from a remote place of observation. I expect others will like the film more than I did, though.

"Home" (6), for all its occasional charms, struck me as a bit of a misfire. This Swiss film depicts an apparently happy family of five who live in a non-descript house set on lots of open grassland--right up against an unfinished highway. In the beginning of the film it is apparent the highway has been been functioning for them as an expansive front yard--until the government finally finishes it. Within a few short days, the family is driven more than a bit mad by the noise, exhaust fumes, and gawking passersby. The film is strongest in depicting the family bond and the happy ordinariness of their lives, but begins to unravel when the craziness begins. And its treatment of themes of industrialism encroaching on family life wasn't particularly insightful and enlightening.

The delight of day 4 was "Mid-August Lunch" (7), the directorial debut of Italian screenwriter Gianni De Gregorio, who also stars in the film as a man in his 50s who serves as caretaker to his elderly mother in their charming apartment in Rome. As a holiday weekend approaches, his landlord and then a friend each imposes on him to care for their elderly mothers and an elderly aunt. Gianni soon finds himself taxed to the limit waiting on four petulant, neglected octogenarians as they fight with each other, complain like children, and compete for attention. The ordinariness of the premise and the authenticity of the setting and actors gives this an improvised feel, made especially delightful by how much it reflects all that is amusing about Italian culture (the lilting, insistent language; the colorful decorative, if sometimes shappy, touches; the affection for heavy food, wine, and cigarettes; the ability to make a demand sound courteous; the sentimentality of and towards the elderly). It's a treat.

Finally, the first bad film I've seen so far is "The Window" (2) from India, a muddled mess about a couple whose plans for marriage are thwarted by a series of events mostly initiated by the do-gooder young man. The problems begin when he visits his decrepit old school and impetuously decides to donate an elaborate window (which he can't afford) to replace the now crumbling one he gazed out of as a boy. Though the festival guide describes the film as depicting "a picaresque netherworld of petty crime and mystical visions," I didn't see any deeper meanings and in fact thought the film needed a better director and screenplay. One to avoid.

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