Henry Thoreau said of the song of the wood thrush: "Whenever a man hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut. . . . " For some reason, Provincetown is full of these birds — appropriately so, given the avowed intent of the Provincetown International Film Festival (the 13 annual edition of which was held last weekend) to present liberated "filmmaking on the edge."
Some of the films celebrate other artists on the edge, like musicians. P. David Ebersole's Hit So Hard profiles former Hole drummer Patty Schemel and includes some of the hundreds of hours of video that Schemel took of the band on tour, with previously unseen footage of Courtney Love, her husband Kurt Cobain, and their baby Frances Bean. Not your typical home movie, though Ebersole's interview with Schemel's mother brings a touching element of small-town normality. "She had a job at Microsoft," she says about her daughter's decision to dedicate her life to music. "What was she thinking?" Maybe mother knew best, because Schemel's grunge journey ended with homelessness and a crack addiction before her eventual rehabilitation.
Another artist on the edge — though in a story with fewer incidents of binge drinking, addiction, suicide, overdoses, and smashed instruments — is chef Paul Liebrandt, profiled in Sally Rowe's fascinating documentary A Matter of Taste. Shown posing for photos in a blood-spattered apron next to a dripping pig's head, Liebrandt says, "I'm not a nutcase. I'm just an artist." It's a calling that has him working in kitchens 18 hours a day creating such challenging dishes as chocolate-covered scallops and wasabi-apple sorbet.
Rowe's film is similarly obsessive. She followed Liebrandt's career for a decade, from 2001, when the post-9/11 mood demanded comfort food like burgers and fries, through subsequent years during which he struggled to find a venue for his avant-garde gustatory visions, up to the present day in which he reigns in triumph at New York's hot Corton restaurant.
Speaking of artistic triumphs, the festival annually serves up a version of its own in its awards ceremony, which includes a Q&A with the honorees and is one of the most entertaining such events around. That's due in part to ubiquitous P-Town summer resident John Waters, the winner of the first "Filmmaker on the Edge" award, who has interviewed on stage the winner of that prize every year since. Impeccable in a jacket with a skull-and-daisies print, Waters grilled this year's recipient, Black Swan's Darren Aronofsky, and as usual had most of the best lines. On a serious note he commiserated with Aronofsky about the NC-17 rating he got for Requiem for a Dream (2000), comparing it to his own censorship problems with A Dirty Shame (2004). "Whatever was it [the NC-17] for?" Waters asked incredulously. "The drugs?" Aronofsky replied, "Well, there were the dildos. Though they had condoms on them, so we were actually promoting safe sex."
Vera Farmiga, winner of the acting award, perhaps demonstrated the most guts among the winners, having earlier screened her accomplished, funny, and moving directorial debut Higher Ground — a sympathetic look at a fundamentalist Christian (played by Farmiga) — to decidedly un-Fundamentalist audiences. But maybe the edgiest remarks came from the Career Achievement Award winner, Albert Maysles, whose films such as Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975) helped shape the documentary movement. They also might bear some indirect responsibility for that cinéma vérité perversion, reality TV. Asked by an audience member what he thought of the latter, Maysles said, "I'm a big fan of reality. I think that answers your question."