The ABC-TV dramatic series American Crime is just two episodes into its third season (Sundays 10-11 pm), and it’s already a crashing bore. As usual, the series is pursuing multiple storylines, which include a Mexican man searching for his lost son in the fruit-picking fields, the many Grapes of Wrath-type exploitations of workers by management there, teenagers saved from the sex trade and human trafficking who are trying to get their lives back, an African-American caseworker for those teens who wants to get pregnant by her ex using IVF, and something with Felicity Huffman as an unhappy wife that I can’t make any sense of. The show is created by John Ridley (Oscar-winner, 12 Years a Slave) and boasts some of the best writers on TV – Julie Hebert, Diana Son, Keith Huff – and some of the best actors on any series – Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Benito Martinez, Lili Taylor, Conor Jessup. The show has always been deeply entrenched in the progressive agenda and many times in the first two seasons it veered toward agitprop. But those seasons also featured great risks, great writing and 3-dimensional characters who audiences could care about. This season, however, it has ditched its multiple perspectives for a soapbox. The second episode ended with a finger-wagging sermon on the evils of corporate farming aimed right at the sweet spot of white guilt. I think I understand where it’s coming from: life under Trump is a never-ending cycle of horrors and frustration, as the government rolls back all the social progress made under Obama and encourages the worst aspects of consumerism and economic exploitation. I get it, dudes, and I share your outrage. But you’ve stopped writing a story and simply turned your show into a screed. Not good. I’m sure you have loads of tricks up your sleeve, but I’ve stopped caring. Go, make a documentary. ‘Cause right now, your drama lacks any drama, and – sad to say it, but your show really sucks.
The recently-concluded Pasadena Film Festival also featured several films, both fictional and documentary, which tried to address the many ills of the modern world. Some of these were small, humorous films about small, personal subjects like potty-training (House Broken) and pissing at public urinals (Shy Guys), others were small films about big issues like slave labor (The Raft) that for one reason or another never caught fire. But a few of these films were excellent efforts that have stayed with me. They are worth tracking down and catching up on if possible.
Victor’s Last Class by Brendan Brandt is both one of my favorite films in this festival and one of my favorite documentaries in recent memory. Its premise is simple: a noted west coast acting teacher, stricken with cancer, has publicly declared that he is going to end his own life. Brendan, a sensitive actor/filmmaker, has heard about this and approaches the teacher, Victor Altorio, in the hopes of changing his mind. Thus begins a five-month cat-and-mouse game in which it’s often difficult to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.
Victor is a very out there gay man in his 50s who has lived his life on his own terms and encourages his acting students to do the same. “Tell the truth to the people you love!” he exhorts (this is also the film’s tag line), and his acting exercises are all designed to get past our social filters, our censors and defense systems, so the truth of primal emotion and real feelings can be revealed. But Victor is a complex individual who can also be very evasive, and so is his truth. It’s clear from the outset that he enjoys the attention that Brendan is giving him, enjoys performing for the camera and saying outrageous things. But does he mean them, or does he just enjoy the shock value that he knows they will have? Or both?
Much like the Gary Cooper character in the great Frank Capra movie John Doe, Victor seems to understand from the beginning that there is no movie without his suicide. In the Capra film, Barbara Stanwyck plays a hard-hearted reporter sent to cover Gary Cooper’s final days who ends up falling in love and trying to save him. Something similar happens here, though it’s more complicated. A seduction is clearly going on. On the most obvious level, Victor is heavily flirting with Brendan, a good-looking straight guy in his 30s. Victor says as much several times, and Brendan replies very sincerely that he’s been falling in love with Victor too – and that’s why he can’t stop trying to save him. But is that the truth? Certainly a complex bond forms between them, which is one of the considerable pleasures and achievements of this film. Yet, as much as Brendan genuinely wants Victor to live, part of their bond is a tacit understanding that there is only one way this can go. We as the audience come to understand this too, on the same unconscious level as Brendan and Victor do. In the end, we all do a strange Dance of Death, and Victor emerges for me as one of the more memorable and elusive characters in recent cinema.
It Happened Again Last Night is a fairly straightforward short about spousal abuse with some interesting spins. Written and directed by Gabriella Stone and her male partner Roze, and starring Ms. Stone, the film depicts the spousal battery of Paige by her husband Stephen, and her attempts to leave her husband for her female lover Kris. The film feels very real without being pedestrian or like a public service announcement. Even the more predictable elements – as when we see the young Paige being beaten by her dad, and then repeating that pattern with her spouse – have an understanding of how shocking human violence is on a personal level, and how it comes out of nowhere and then feels inevitable after it’s happened. Similarly, the outbursts of love and hate feel casual, almost sloppy, in the way real events unfold. The actors may be a little prettier than most of us, but they’re not Hollywood models, just attractive people caught in a very unattractive situation. Gabriella Stone won the Best Actress award for the Pasadena Film Festival, and she is very good. But so is her husband, played by Randy Wayne. He looks like a cowboy – almost a combination of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain” – but his behavior is brutal and brutish. He seems to hate himself for it, and yet that doesn’t stop him. That really works, and it gives the film added urgency. Plus there’s the cinematography by Roze, which is gorgeous throughout. You wouldn’t think that a film this disturbing should look this good, but it ends up re-enforcing the tragic toll these events take on all those involved.
Neighbor is an example of a film which is kind of brilliant without being very well made or even particularly good. It was written and directed by Tony Gapastione, and at the festival talkback he freely admitted that he was learning how to make films on the fly. Here is Tony G.’s logline for his 11 minute film: “A homeless man witnesses a kidnapping, and when he goes after the perpetrator he uncovers a dirty little secret in suburbia.” Except no – that’s not in fact what happens. The homeless man is beaten up when he interrupts a white guy moving two young girls in tight clothing from a car to a van. Then the dark-skinned homeless man cries out for help, wandering into a leafy, suburban neighborhood and into the backyard of an upscale family just as dad gets home and is revealed to be … yes, the guy who just beat up the homeless man while trafficking teenagers. Ouch, that makes my brain hurt and would get an “F” from Mr. McKee the film guru. But there’s something so earnest about the way that Tony G. chronicles the homeless man’s anguish that it somewhat mitigates the heavy-handedness of his message. And then the credits roll – a full two minutes of credits, and it may be the best two minutes in the entire festival, as three actual victims of human trafficking tell their real stories silently with a succession of handmade signs. The three stories are completely different and yet equally wrenching. I understood more about the pain of being exploited from those two minutes than from anything else I have ever seen on the subject. Now if Tony Gapastione can just find a way to make his films as memorable and compelling as his credits, he may turn out to be a filmmaker who can change the world.
I Am Still Here is a feature from writer/director Mischa Marcus on that same subject of human trafficking. The subject is inherently disturbing, and the early parts of Marcus’s film succeeds in making it painfully real in a way that I found difficult to look away from. The sight of these girls as young as 10 being manhandled by adult men of many ethnic backgrounds prompts a visceral disgust, at least from this Twisted Hipster. But halfway through the movie, the timeline skips ahead seven years, when the girls have become seventeen year olds, and the movie starts falling apart. First, it’s just hard to believe that they are still in this hell, that Ricky (their pimp) has been able to keep it together while moving them from location to location. Second, the little girls are now young women, with womanly figures and curves, and the grotesque spectacles of before are replaced by more familiar (if no less nauseating) male behavior. Then there’s a turning point when the central girl, Layla, is able to get away, saved in very unconvincing fashion by one of the deviants who has “fallen in love” with her. Scenes in this section verge on the ridiculous, as Layla is treated respectfully by her well-to-do admirer, who we have already learned has made his money by trafficking in pornographic images of young girls. In the end, the film is elevated by the brilliant performances, especially from Aliyah Conley (who plays young Layla) and the other young girls, and from Johnny Rey Diaz, who makes Ricky the trafficker/pimp into a monster of stomach-turning proportions. I look forward to seeing what Mr Diaz will do in his next role, even as I remain haunted by his depiction of unredeemable evil in this one.