Thursday, June 25, 2015

Crystal Moselle | The Wolfpack

stepping off the screen

Crystal Moselle (Director) The Wolfpack / 2015

The handsome six siblings, often all dressed in black suits with Ray-Ban sunglasses (reminding me of characters not only from Reservoir Dogs but of Robert Long’s “Men in the Cities” paintings of the 1980s) are seen flashing the lower New York Eastside streets in Crystal Moselle’s fascinating documentary The Wolfpack. But far more often we are shown the same group, which the film has termed as “the wolfpack,” along with their father and mother, and their mentally-retarded sister, Visnu, are trapped in the claustrophobic-feeling apartment, where for years they had literally been held captive by their father, sometimes going out only a few days each year for specific needs, but, as the third-youngest brother, Mukunda, looking somewhat longingly out the apartment window observed “One particular year, we never got out at all.”
     Although the brothers—Bhagavan, Govida, Mukunda, Narayana, Jagadis, and Krsna—were homeschooled by their mother, Susanne, most of their days were spent watching movies brought home by their father, Oscar, a Hare Krishna believer from Peru, who in opposition to American capitalist values, refused to work. Oscar was terrified that if his boys, wife and daughter—which they suggest he perceived as a “tribe” which he led with an iron hand—were permitted outside, they would lose their lives to drugs and violence. Somewhat like Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 film, Dogtooth, Oscar was convinced that imprisoning them within the apartment and, often, within the rooms he designated, that they could truly ponder and discover, with the evils of the world, who they were themselves.
      Although the brothers reveal throughout the film, the suffering and pain they went through (and continue to feel) for their isolation, fortunately they were remarkably intelligent and innovative in their indoor games and celebratory rituals, shown in old film clips made by the family. And even more importantly, they survived, miraculously, through their shared experiences with film, using movies not only as an entry into the unknown world with which they’d had only cursory contact. With what one of their group described as thousands films they had watched, which included everything from popular works as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and The Dark Knight to film classics such as Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and The Godfather—they not only ranked them by their perceived quality, memorizing lines from their favorites, but wrote out the entire filmscripts of several of the movies, creating out of cardboard, paint, plastic, tape and other everyday materials costumes and props, and performing major scenes from them as a group. If there were ever a better testament to the saving powers of art, I can’t imagine what it might be. These young men, quite literally, held tenaciously on to reality by imitating what they had seen on their television screens.

      All began to change for them the day when, at age 15, Mukunda determined to escape, walking around the neighborhood for several hours, his face hidden behind a mask so he would not recognized, particularly if he happened to run into his father, who was out shopping. Terrified by the masked figure, neighbors called 911, and police, finding it difficult to speak with the naturally shy boy, too him to the psychological division of Bellevue Hospital. Kept under observation for several days, Mukunda bonded with some of the young patients, and began the long trip to the outer world, which, when he was returned home, would gradually come to involve his other brothers, and finally the boys’ mother.

     Before long, a shift of order took place within family life, with the boys openly deifying their father, and Susanne increasingly regretting how she had given in to her husband’s demands. Although the film makes clear that Oscar often got drunk and beat her, it does not entirely point its finger at the man who clearly psychologically tortured his children. And Moselle even attempts, at one point, to allow him to justify his behavior. He seems to explain it away by saying that all people need to be forgiven for their mistakes. And one drunken incident, caught on film—when Oscar angrily enters his sons’ room to declare: “My power is influencing everybody. Think of that. This piece of shit we are living in”—reveals how out of touch his is with reality and his potential violence.
      If we do not entirely “blame” Oscar for his quite obviously bad parenting, it is only because his sons seem so well-spoken, intensely sensitive and charming performers—with, obviously, their father’s and mother’s love of music and their own theatrical rehearsals contributing to these qualities. One might describe them as naturals for just such a documentary performances. Indeed, Moselle even three of them as auxiliary cameramen (by himself, apparently, Makunda filmed his mother’s tearful telephone conversation with her own Midwestern mother, with whom she had not been unable to communicated for decades).
      But the sadness and suffering of the children still creeps through the cracks of their joyful comradery at several moments, particularly when Govinda at 22, finally leaves the house, excited by yet obviously fearful of his new life, and his brother Naryayana says concerning his father’s behavior, trying desperately to hold back tears, “There are some things you just don’t forgive,” adding later in the film his worries about “being so ignorant of the world that I won’t be able to handle it.” Women are obviously utter mysterious to the boys whose own mothers, although at the center of their lives, was so maltreated and whose sister is, as they put it, “special.”      
      While Moselle’s movie is carefully articulated and splendidly objective despite so many opportunities to attack the father and sentimentalize the family’s plight, there are still several narrative stances that create difficulties for her film. By withholding the information about how she first came to meet these boys, and only gradually explaining through various interviews the conditions of their life, she almost purposely confuses audiences having no knowledge of the Angulo family’s life. Yes, eventually these issues become clear, but it might have given an even greater arch to the story if she had explained that she first encountered the long-haired,

 noble-faced boys on the street during one of their rare outings, and had been so taken with them that she chased after, introducing herself, and explaining that she was a filmmaker—the fact of which immediately created a bond. By presenting the story through her connection, she might have permitted us a less challenging entry to the strange family world. But then, of course, she may have also erased some of the very excitement, as in their nearly wild Halloween celebration, so heathenly ritualistic that it truly conveys the roots of that holiday. Their brilliant dance of jubilation upon returning home from one of their outings, perhaps reveals better than any number of spoken words, the feral energy they will someday be asked to curtail.
      If the penultimate scene, when the boys first truly discover nature, appears more like a advertisement for some apple-scented perfume than an ordinary day-in-the-country, we quickly recognize that for these “wolves” have previously had very little to actually howl about. Throwing themselves upon the grass, discovering the deep juices in fresh apple, and actually picking up a pumpkin in the wild, is suddenly something which they no longer have only to imagine. But we also recognize that for these kids who have lived almost entirely in their imaginations, the real thing may be, at times, nearly impossible to endure. Upon seeing their first film in an actual movie theater, the boys are completely overwhelmed, and overjoyed, it appears, to actually have paid out money in in some measure support their cinematic heroes such as Christian Bale.
     As some critics have suggested, this documentary calls out in its telling for a sequel a few years from now. We can only pray that such likeable young men get the fruitful lives they have so struggled to embrace.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2015

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