As the holiday season takes us in its icy grip, here are a pair of Indie Film picks for some (very different) nights out at the movies.
Portland’s Space is the perfect venue for director Winnie Cheung’s defiantly low-fi mashup of art documentary and horror. After all, the Portland multimedia creative gallery/performance/film screening space is just the sort of place where you could imagine imaginations running wildly, perhaps dangerously wild.
In “Residency,” the art world, documentary film and real life all blur together as an eclectic group of 10 female artists (in disciplines as disparate as music, fashion, painting, sculpture and photography) all accept the titular residency at a funky Brooklyn shared artists collective. The film was shot at New York art collective The Locker Room, with Cheung herself as one of the participants, inspiring the director to turn her documentary about the various artists around her into a mind-bending trip into obsession, artistic struggle and eventually murder.
That’s right, murder. The first half of “Residency” is largely the sort of unfocused talking heads interview format of many a no-budget documentary. The artists all sit down with several male staff members of The Locker Room to explain their work and their reasons for coming, or are captured in the space’s all-day, all-night creative bustle, complete with competing artistic philosophies, chit-chat and plenty of substances. With The Locker Room’s white walls being scrawled with sketches and graffiti, the more film-savvy viewer might catch whiffs of the strident, sloganeering student radicals of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise,” while the diffident delivery of some of the male minders (referred to as the Locker Room house team) and communal artistic (and offhandedly pansexual) vibe recalls Andy Warhol’s Factory and that artist’s deliberately unscripted early films.
Even here, there are ominous touches. The fashion designer offhandedly mentions that her scissors keep disappearing. One painter confesses an obsession with another artist’s face, while another notes that the lucrative residency offer, coming out of nowhere, initially made her suspicious that she was packing up to join a cult. Cheung, unobtrusively, wafts in and out of the action, the filmmaker’s mission to document her time at The Locker Room gradually morphing into a meta-fictional sort-of horror story, as things start to get weird.
None of this is to say that “Residency” is some sort of glossy, “Scream”-style exercise in horror movie cleverness. Indeed, the film is often so diffuse in its fly-on-the-wall vérité style that it serves as a fine calling card for the real-life artistic conclave where it’s set. As a participant in the goings-on at The Locker Room, Cheung’s gradual decision to layer a woozy horror genre switch onto the proceedings figures into the narrative (such as it is). Asking one musician to pause her construction of a ramshackle percussion array of pots and pans to pretend she’s hurt herself is met with awkward skepticism, while Cheung can be heard asking a fellow artist, “Hey Rachel, do you want to die on film? How do you want to die?” (At one point, she can be heard complaining, “Yeah, there’s not enough drama. We need something dramatic to happen,” which might be some viewers’ assessment, admittedly.)
When the film’s horror elements do kick in for real, the bleed over from grubby, chatty reality to unease flows in intriguing patterns. Art is sabotaged, work disappears, and then people, the Locker Room’s free-flowing nature making sudden absences hard to evaluate. The three-woman experimental rock band (2C-B, who are pretty awesome) find themselves unable to stop, doing take after take of their unnerving new material. Along the way, there are snatches of half-heard dialogue about possession, the Illuminati and other spooky outside things, the film’s metaphorical exploration of the perils of losing oneself in artistic ambitions summed up by one house employee advising of the space’s unique power, “You have to let it move you and consume you – you just have to surrender to it.”
“Residency” is a wild ride, a slyly insightful portrait of your female artists’ unique challenges and power, all couched in a slowly encroaching slasher flick. When the blood comes, it’s as grungy and low-fi as Cheung’s cinematography, the unconvincing gore smearing into patterns as repellent as they are alluring. As one exchange in the film puts it: “That was rough.” “It was art.”
Profiled in its still-filming form in this column back in 2021, David Camlin and Megan Grumbling’s documentary about the contentious decision about whether to change the Wells High School’s Native American mascot is finally making its Maine debut. Viewing a worldwide issue through the lens of one small Maine town, the film from Camlin and Grumbling (both proud WHS graduates) examines how the hot-button topic of Native imagery being co-opted by sports teams both professional and local inflames deeply entrenched prejudices and assumptions, and, with some hard work and actual conversation, occasionally results in mutually respectful compromise.
With the now 71-minute documentary having won the prestigious Tourmaline Prize for best Maine-made feature at this year’s Maine International Film Festival, and “We Are the Warriors” gearing up for future screenings on both Maine and Vermont public television, the time is right for Maine film fans to come out and see this thought-provoking, insightful and decidedly Maine-centric look at tradition, cultural appropriation, all-American cultural blind spots and the possibility of reconciliation in an America more divided than ever over matters of race. As Camlin noted during shooting, “In the way that Wells handled it, we saw this could be a story that would set an example – a willingness to pump the brakes, slow down, listen to other people, and not just appease others so they’ll leave you alone, but to really think about it, and have that factor into your decision-making.”
“We Are the Warriors,” plus discussion following the film with directors David Camlin and Megan Grumbling. 4 p.m. Saturday, Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, portlandmuseum.org. Tickets are $9 or $7 for PMA members and students.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.