Review: ‘American Animal’ and ‘Tell Your Friends!’ offer two types of performance art

I’d like to get your opinion on something, even as I offer up my opinion on a few things.  A little give and take, as it were, on a holiday weekend Sunday evening.  I want to ask you how much of our festival coverage you guys actually read, and what value there is in it for you.

I can tell you that from my end of things, I feel like festivals are the cornerstone of a film critic’s year.  If you manage to make it to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Fantastic Fest, and Toronto, I feel like you’ve got your year covered, and if you add in supplemental local fests like the LA Film Festival and AFI Fest here in LA, you can eventually catch a surprising number of the year’s films and see a wide range of what’s going on in the world.  If you really want to understand where cinema is at any given moment, I think you need to put yourself out there on the festival circuit and see as much as you can.

One of the things that happens at many of the festivals is that you end up prioritizing what gets written up in the heat of the moment and what’s doesn’t, and it’s rough for some of the smaller films.  Especially if they’re movies that don’t already have distributors in place and that you’re not sure you’ll ever see again.  The thing is, there’s value in seeing those films for me, and there’s absolutely a benefit in it for the indie filmmaker, who is always hoping for press that draws attention to what they’ve done… but is there value in it for you, the readers, who haven’t seen these films and who may never see them?

I hope so.  I think so.  I don’t do this so what I write will vanish into a vacuum.  If I’m going to take the time to write one of these up, it’s because I think it’s worth sharing thoughts, either pro or con, about these films with you.  And because I hope at some point, you might get the chance to see them, and maybe this review will be what gets you to give something a try.

Take “American Animal,” for example, a film by Matt D’Elia.  I am shocked that the film is not the culmination of a long-running stage production that someone decided to adapt for film, because that’s what it feels like.  It is a relatively intimate affair, with only four actors and one main set, and it has that sort of ebb and flow rhythm that is common to stage productions.  Jimmy (D’Elia) and James (Brendan Fletcher) live together, and their primary activity seems to be avoiding any and all productive actions.  They invite over a couple of girls, Blonde Angela (Mircea Monroe) and Not Blonde Angela (Angela Sarafyan), and at first, it’s like we’re watching this weird hybrid of a drugged-up party and a performance art piece.  But there are secrets simmering just below the surface for both of the guys, and over the course of a very, very long evening, we get a glimpse at the harsh realities that they’re both hiding from.

D’Elia is an intense screen presence, and serving triple-duty as writer, director, and lead actor is one of those things that can easily overwhelm a young filmmaker.  Not a problem here.  Jimmy is always on, larger than life, slipping from one persona to another, and it’s all an act designed to hide a fear of impending mortality, and there is a point to the outrageous behavior.  There is a sadness beneath the mania, and D’Elia never crosses the line into making the character impossible to like.  He just skates on that line really carefully.  Fletcher makes a perfect fencing partner for D’Elia, as does the strikingly lovely Sarafyan, who seems unimpressed by Jimmy’s aggressive eccentricity.  What I love is how the film doesn’t excuse Jimmy’s actions, but it does explain them, and we’re allowed to have our own reactions, good or bad.  D’Elia goes through a radical physical transformation in the film, and it’s just one expression of how committed the entire thing feels.  This is what I want from indie filmmakers… personal visions that are uncompromising, films where you can feel the passion, movies that had to be made.  “American Animal” deserves to be seen, but more than that, it deserves to launch D’Elia as a filmmaker of note, and I’m curious to see where he goes from here.

I also really enjoyed Liam McEneaney’s “Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film,” which managesd to not only serve as a showcase for nine striking comedy voices, but which also makes an effort to describe and define the alternative comedy scene.  It opens with a good six or seven minutes of McEneaney onstage, talking about how whiskey is a social drink.  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him, and it’s a good riff.  It’s personal and it’s funny and it’s broad, a perfect example of what I think the best comics these days do.  Watching stand-up evolve over the last couple of decades has been watching an art form grow up and become what I feel like it has always tried to be, an art form that is one of the most revealing.  Great comedy works because of the mirror it holds up to all of our quirks and flaws, and the more personal it gets, the better it is.  I’m not sure I believe in “alternative” comedy anymore, because I think the mainstream for stand-up has found a way to include all sorts of voices now.  Between the various individual performances, we see interviews with a number of familiar faces, and the subject is something that is very particular to a comedian, the value of a good space.  You’ve got folks like Paul F. Tomkins and Marc Maron and Colin Quinn and Jim Gaffigan and Janeane Garafolo in the interview segments, and then we get to see Leo Allen, Christian Finnegan, Rob Paravonian, Kurt Braunholer and Kristen Schaal, and Reggie Watts actually perform as part of the showcase, and it’s a great line-up.  They all have totally different voices and styles as comedians.

For me, the highlight was the set by Reggie Watts, who I’m sort of obsessed with.  I don’t understand how his brain works, and it fascinates me.  If you’ve never seen Watts perform, I don’t even fully know how to explain it to you.  I’ll offer up this very NSFW clip of him in action as a way of trying to explain it.  Every sound you’re about to hear is Watts, and he can do this live, with just as many levels of sound.  It’s crazy.

I love it.  What’s amazing is how I’m not even sure I’d call a lot of what he does “funny.”  It’s just hypnotic.  These walls of sound wash over you, and while I do laugh occasionally, most of the time when I’m watching Watts, I’m just dazzled by how creatively free he is up there, how unlike anyone else he is.  I mean, Paravonian also sings in his set, but his songs are more like conventional comedy tunes, and his song “Pushing Band Candy” is another highlight from the film.  Almost everyone has at least one great moment.  Leo Allen, for example, does an actual Power Point presentation from his Macbook for part of his set, and it’s funny, but at the end of it, he goes out on a HUGE limb and make a very risky joke, and while I’m not sure he nails it, it’s great to watch someone try like that.

Comedy is one of those things that people think anyone can do, but that’s ridiculous.  It’s an incredibly difficult craft, and the best working comics are people who approach this as an art form, people who work at what they do.  In these interviews, you’ll hear about the necessity of being onstage, the difference between writing and performing… topics that cut right to the heart of being a professional comic.  That distinguishes “Tell Your Friends!” from a typical concert film, as does the direction by Victor Varando.  It’s well worth seeing, both as a performance piece and as a look at where comedy is in the year 2011.

I’m going to try to offer up more of these multi-movie catch-up reviews over the next few weeks, and by the time I leave for Cannes, I hope I’ve completely caught up.  In the meantime, I’m serious when I say I want your feedback on this.  If there’s a chance you won’t see a film soon or, in some cases, ever, do you want to read a piece about it?