© 2015 by James Clark
Crystal Moselle has titled her documentary film, from 2015, The Wolfpack. Her work is ambitious and complex; but her choosing that title provides, I think, a definite sense of direction.
The central feature consists of six brothers marooned in a Lower East Side public housing unit, describing what it is like to be imprisoned there well into late adolescence, due to a father having come from rural Peru whose religious precepts leave him aghast at the course of contemporary urban life and consequently putting into effect an almost absolute wall between his children and an apparently devilish and deadly New York, New York. Oscar, the rigidly protective head of the family, is prone to call himself God, and to declaring, “My power is influencing everybody.” His wife, Susanne, an American woman who met her husband-to-be on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu where he was a guide, argues that “a lot of socialization [in her native land] is not positive socialization.” Ranged against that draconian authority the boys emanate a sloe-eyed, very long-haired (in line with their father’s Hare Krishna beliefs) gentleness and playfulness centering upon their being in thrall to the 5000 DVD movies the selectively old-fashioned father, whose hair is not long and who felt—erroneously—that he had what it takes to take Gotham by storm with his rock and roll musicianship, has purchased, in a binge of divine illogic. We could only too easily fall for everything they do as a breath of fresh air. But the term Wolfpack seems to caution us to look very carefully at what is coming down here.
Moselle first discovered this singular crew during one of their very rare excursions. (We hear one of them précising their good behavior windfalls as a handful a year; and, during one calendar of mountainous umbrage, zero.) They were so cinematically bizarre and design savvy that she was able to woo them with her own film enthusiasms and plans—which were about to star themselves. Her camera work (being about show biz leverage including Spike Jonze, getting her a VIP pass to that kooky club with that menacing bouncer), supplemented by the boys’ home video rig, comprises an arresting glimpse of the prisoners’ concentration upon cinematic scenes of passionate, daring action which their timorous and criminally stupid parents were unlikely to appreciate but likely to tolerate as a means of keeping them effectively sedated. That arts and crafts cadre allude to fan-boy listings of the diversions (Citizen Kane and Casablanca right on top.) But the one that has really got under their skin is Reservoir Dogs. Much of the film’s running time has them decked out in black suits, white shirts and ties, and shades. Moselle has captured the brothers going into showy extremis with respect to Tarantino’s violent and surrealistic screenplay. The lip-smacking trope of the sadistic character, Mr. Blonde, in its kick-ass bravado—“Are you going to bark, Little Doggie? Or are you going to bite?”—would be a literary Gatorade for passive denizens of a concentration camp like theirs. One of them tells her in the course of airing out their mutual enthusiasm for the mysteries of cinematography, “I thought a lot, because I couldn’t see what was out there. I was always in my head.” While it is true they are very young, they themselves draw attention to what they suppose to be major reflections. Their Reservoir Dogs posturings are top heavy with vapid histrionics and less than light on the “in my head,” full-bodied problematics of slipping away from viable surreal frisson and affection. On another occasion they look down from the jail tower that is home upon revellers on Halloween Night and straightaway they’re giving her and us a little parade (with exuberant costumes skilfully made from parcelling and the like) on the order of Tim Burton’s Nightmare before Christmas, complete with Danny Elfman’s score and lyrics. This nicely prompts the recognition that all of their attempts at derring-do via her camera or theirs amount to the quickly dissipated romp that is trick-or-treating and 31st of October parading for everyone. (It is very unwise to take seriously the “clarifications” of serious auteurs. Addressing the hordes of social workers who sustain the documentary film industry, budding connoisseur Moselle would purport to have a weakness for McDonald’s. Her camera has sharpened away the pre-New York American odyssey [of Hare Krishna crash pads and pay-what-you can booze cans] of that constellation and their toddlers and it has left the nagging puzzle of a first in command, living amidst a load of expensive audio/visual hardware and apparel and feeding well a horde of strapping kids, described, by one of the boys who has nailed Mom’s flakey register, “My father, he doesn’t love the way of work. He wants us to have nothing to do with work pressures. He shows his rebellion by refusing to work. If we could get a record contract, that’s different;” and a second in command whose job of home-schooling is equally inexplicable in terms of comprehensible qualification and recompense. The camera has no interest in such matters because it is run by someone loaded for cinematic bear.)
The well-thought-through insular range of motion traces an evolution of the pint-size Reservoir Dogs. Large social change comes about; but we’re faced with noticing the far more subtle and sophisticated and difficult matter of glossy apparent sweethearts not up to serious artistic contribution (the kind of contribution you’d never get Moselle to admit to). One of the older boys heading toward his twentieth (and strictly early twentieth century) birthday, makes an unauthorized breakout one day when the master of the domain (he had thrilled to the idea of fathering a hundred children to form a formidable tribe) was out shopping for groceries he had nothing to do with paying for. He unwisely wears a papier mache Mike Meyers mask, wanders into shops and banks (the standard anti-bourgeois hostility rubbing off?) and soon becomes briefly a police prisoner and then a longer-term inmate of a mental hospital. He conveys his misadventure in the form of a talking head, with an aura of shy embarrassment and elitist contempt for the efforts of the society his parents feel too good to mingle with. Another boy brags, “He brought a lot of joy to the hospital… We all baked a nice lasagne for his return.” The prodigal son slips right back into the family business, tinsel town rebel though he might be. “They gave me a therapist after I left the hospital. There wasn’t any chance I’d tell them anything! It sucks!”
That breaching of the mini-Vatican does, however, spell the beginning of the end for the vicious, presumptuous confinement. We have to wonder what role the movie pro on the premises played in the suddenly porous Chateau d’If. (We’d heard that Mr. Rock and Roll would place a child in a room and expect to find it at the same place when he deigned to return. “Dad and Mom [and others unmentioned]…There’s always a slap. He would slap her…” Early on the syntax and understated word choice was almost Jesuitical: “My parents didn’t always encourage us to communicate with society. They would say, ‘Don’t ever look at people…’ No friends. Home school. Fear of New York. I felt he overdid it…”) The somewhat relaxed tone, fascinatingly enough, coincides with far more candor about the frustration and hatred always roiling as an undertone for the ethereal drifting and glazed-over grinning that marked their closeness. Susanne suddenly stresses environmental priorities—“What I really wanted for my children was for them to grow up amongst green fields. But it didn’t happen.” (Something else that didn’t happen because no one on board knew how to steer or work was Oscar’s pipe dream of emigrating to “Scandinavia” [sort of jibes with Brigadoon] where people know how to live in such a way as not to annoy him.) Amidst more frequent forays to the likes of Central Park, Coney Island and an evening movie on the big screen (always a vision of those hoodlums in chic black whom Tarantino, for all his goofy boosterism, knew to be massively deranged and inadequately prepared to so much as begin to cultivate the tang of their daring), an additive to their Valley Boys rhetoric rains down apropos of how sweet their movie-cued vengeance is. “I don’t think our father knew we had it in us. Now we’re doing it!” A more melancholy theme is pursued by another of those coming out from under heavy besiegement. “He drinks way too much. I think he’s losing it. I don’t know how I could ever get over it… I can’t stand to look at him.” About this time, Dad gets some camera time and reports, “We are victims of the circumstances of life, so we don’t blame others. I always think of Jesus Christ, not blaming since they don’t know what they’re doing…” Mom, though actively, ideologically a party to their imprisonment, never gets heat from those energies beginning to embark upon the film industry. (Two of the older boys move into their own place and start applying their film smarts to nascent underground film and music projects. One has a girlfriend who is an actress.) No doubt she maintained a warmer presence. But her being a devious bullshitter doesn’t register with the self-styled band of discerning investigation. Taking advantage of the new generosity, Mom phones her 88-year-old mother and, kicking off, with her mouth disconcertingly agape, tells her, “I have 7 children.” Then she floats the utter nonsense of a cliché-meister, “You’ve always been in my thoughts…”
One of the newly-outspoken underlings (Oscar would tell them that he is the master of the domain and they are his servants) muses, “Some people are absolutely unlovable.” In this they all—having seen many glamorous film celebrities going through their paces; and compared themselves in the mirror—would conclude that they are lovable in their facial aboriginal symmetry, high cheekbones and right-stuff mouths. In fact their whole interaction with the young filmmaker is a smug, self-impressed flirtation, like a boffo screen test. Grandma comes to town and during an idyll to parkland and orchards a bus ride away, one of them bites into an apple. Instead of giving evidence of savoring that phenomenon for itself and its capacity to nourish perception, he gives us a slice of how dazzlingly cute he is. “That’s one of the best damn apples I’ve tasted in my life!” All talk and cutesy posturing. Their survival in that holy stir would be significantly due to, more than their mother’s flakey cheerleading, their own avoidance of solitude and its mature emotion. In this they are very much their parents’ children.
Another of the instances of the new outspokenness is, “What did he expect? He’s a ticking bomb!” The Wolfpack could also have been called a ticking bomb, defused by tolerance for a ravenous appetite for flippancy, leaving them skilled technicians but not candidates for the real deal. Somewhat like the boy in Boyhood, they know the machinery but not the art. (The silent-film-inspired dumb show credits for each of the principals at the end are impressive as to costuming, lighting and props, and they show a penchant for clever sentimentality going nowhere.) There is mention of a police raid on that exotic kingdom (hardly a surprise in view of their fastidious gangster optics and attitude); and one of them fumes that saintly mama was also handcuffed while the arsenal of weapons-props was spread out on a table. This was a story we couldn’t miss noticing to be in play all over the landscape of modern problematical experience. And that is why Crystal Moselle is a filmmaker to watch.