“They call me Silver Platter.” That's the opening salvo of Wu Tsang’s Wildness, which hands its narrating duties off to the so-named bar in the East end of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a safe space for undocumented Latina trans women that turns into a largely cissexual queer hipster party called Wildness on Tuesday nights. It’s a bumpy ride from there. Tsang, the performance artist who started Wildness, smartly establishes MacArthur Park as a palimpsest, constantly transformed by waves of gentrification, economic collapse, and immigration. (That none of these terms are spelled out is also nice.) He brings the same consideration to the complex history of the Silver Platter, attending even-handedly at first to the owners and to the bar’s shifting clientele.
So far so good, but what about that voiceover – in Spanish, no less? Tsang’s depiction of the Silver Platter as a gathering place that opens its arms to sad wanderers recalls nothing so much as Beowulf’s Heorot, that “foremost of halls under heaven.” A decent conceit, but things go south early on, when the bar wonders aloud about what will become of it, and calls out to its lost children, chief among them Tsang himself. A little of this self-aggrandizement goes a long way, but unfortunately there’s a lot of it. Tsang’s acknowledgement of his egocentrism as the director of Wildness the film is welcome, I suppose, but he’s less graceful about his status as the founder of Wildness the party. When the bar’s owner passes away and the family disobeys his wish that the property be inherited by his male partner, Tsang and company pulled Wildness in protest. Tsang has the Silver Platter alternately scold him for his impetuousness and soberly give him props for taking a stand, which officially turns this complex portrait of a space into a faux self-critical, fawning self-portrait. Too bad. **/****
Early in Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed’s Ballroom Dancer, we see 33-year-old Russian ballroom dancing champion Slavik tell his students that a dance between two people is an everyday story, not a big drama. The goal, he tells them, is to get on the other person’s wavelength. Slavik’s lesson is taken by Bonke and Koefoed’s film, which strives to get on the physical and emotional wavelengths of an aging artist who can’t get back to his salad days with former partner and reigning champion Joanna. His training sequences with new (younger) partner and lover Anna are rendered in dynamic camera movements that position the spectator as a surrogate partner in their tense mating dance, which yields disappointing results in competition. The filmmakers find a way to capture less obviously visually charged moments as well, framing Slavik and Anna in two-shots that emphasize their distance from one another even as they share the same space: Anna seems always to be hovering in the background on her Blackberry, eager for a window out. Slavik’s journey is a tricky one, then – a quest for self-mastery negotiated with another person who has her own set of goals.
There’s plenty of everyday drama here, but Ballroom Dancer is hampered by Anna’s growing disinterest in training and presumably the documentary. For those of us who can’t appreciate the technical nature of ballroom dancing, she’s the only real access point to her brooding partner. Her blankness, coupled with Bonke and Koefoed’s brave but misguided aversion to showing archival footage of the Slavik-Joanna partnership, makes it hard to tell whether Slavik has lost something physically or just can’t get it together with his new partner. It’s not that he’s a poor subject: his insistence on better articulating himself in conversation with one of his many trainers (a rotating cast of counsellors) proves him to be as pensive as he is graceful. But without a clear sense of his strategy or personality, the film’s dourness takes its toll. **1/2/****
Stacy Peralta returns to skateboarding culture with mixed results in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. A sort of sequel to Dogtown and Z-Boys, which focused on his mates in early 1970s crew Zephyr, Peralta’s new film turns to the titular group of talented young misfits that he and business partner George Powell recruited in 1978, who went on to dominate the sport for the next decade. Like Dogtown, this is a likeable memory box of a movie, which briskly mixes up talking head interviews with scratchy archival footage and snapshots visibly manipulated by the director’s own hand. Peralta has a knack for converting alternative social history into this strangely effective hybrid of MTV and family album aesthetics. His firsthand experience and easy conversance with his subjects – who sometimes boyishly narrate his past actions to him with the kind of reverence guys usually reserve for dads and deities – makes for a good hook, and certainly there are worse tour guides through skater culture than a scrappy Jeff Daniels doppelgänger. Still, for an autobiography, this enthusiastic campfire reunion can feel cursory, especially at a bloated two-hour running time.
The main problem, which might be a moot point for viewers already well-versed in the personal sagas of skaters like Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerrero, is the film’s insularity. Peralta and his protégées have immaculately preserved memories (thanks to their avowed disinterest in any serious drug use), but while the Bones Brigade’s early successes are methodically catalogued, eventually the timeline gets washed out in a deluge of insider anecdotes punctuated by weak assertions that “That changed everything.” It doesn’t help that the complicated tricks they invented are virtually indistinguishable on film. Soft-spoken tricks man Rodney Mullen is compelling all the same, and it’s his lyrical testimony that most suggests what the film might have been. While Hawk got the video game franchise for his technical mastery, it’s hinted that Mullen was the aesthete the others envied. Towards the end he gives a monologue about authorship that’s easily the best thing in the movie; you’ll wish Bones Brigade was his autobiography.**1/2/****