Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cindy Kleine's PHYLLIS AND HAROLD shocks, stuns, moves and amuses; filmmaker Q&A

Joining the ranks of top-notch docs about family -- Must Read After My Death, Life Support Music and Capturing the Friedmans -- is this week's opener PHYLLIS AND HAROLD, in which filmmaker Cindy Kleine tells the story of her family, especially that of the title characters -- her mom and dad. Neither as dark/
dysfunctional as "Must Read" nor as functional/
positive as Life Support Music, Phyllis and Harold nonetheless occupies a place all its own in the overcrowded documentary field. As it quietly unfolds, it shocks, moves, educates and entertains in about equal measure.

Beginning with some cute but appropriate stop-motion photography/animation, Ms Kleine (shown at left) sets us up for her role as our grown-up-child guide who's trying to figure out the relationship between her parents. Haven't we all done that at some point in our own lives -- though without, I suspect, either the interest, resources or the skill for unearthing and connecting that this woman possesses?

The less you know going in to this documentary, the more surprises will be in store.  No less a famed documentarian than Ken Burns is on record noting that, while he was viewing the film, various people who happened into the screening room were so caught up with this film that they simply stayed there and watched the entire thing. Yes, it's that addictive.  Part of its attraction stems from its very homemade quality. Not that it isn't professionally mounted in most ways, but it is also so "chatty," warm and real-seeming that, as you might do with a film a friend had made, you first watch out of ease or maybe duty.  Within a few minutes, you're hooked.

A combination of straightforward talking-head interviews, animation, old photos (what a treasure trove here!), home movies, and old songs, the movie's 84 minutes fly.  Seeing her parents both young (above) and old (below) is a revelation -- as much to them as much as to us: "This is like a stranger to me!" marvels her father upon reading one of his old love letters to this young wife.  Just when we're thinking how very salutary this is -- and would be for most oldsters -- Kleine drops the bomb.  From here on, surprise topples surprise, as we discover secrets, war, the family's black nanny and more.  My goodness: how complicated people are, and mysterious, problematic, impossible and sad.

If Phyllis and Harold has at least one ending too many, I think you'll easily forgive Kleine her need for "closure" and sentiment.  She and her family deserve it. And maybe we do, too.  The movie opens Friday, February 19, at NYC's Cinema Village.  For further screening dates, click here.


Once you see the film, you'll have you own set of questions for Ms. Kleine.  Below are ours, with TrustMovies in boldface, Cindy in standard type.  There are spoilers ahead, so perhaps see the film first  and then come back to this.

When and why did you decide to tell your parents’ story?

In a specific way, I decided to tell their story about ten years before I shot the first interviews with them, and I spent years writing a script for what I thought would be a fiction film. In a more abstract way, though, even my earliest work was preparing me to tell their story. My earliest videos and films were all about love relationships, both familial and romantic (Dinosaur, 1979, Secrets of Cindy, 1983, Doug and Mike, Mike and Doug, 1984, Nana, 1987, Passage, 1991, etc...)

Did you always plan to hold it back until both of them were gone? (I would guess so.)

Once I decided the film would be a documentary, I knew I could not tell the whole story until my father was gone. (My mother, on the other hand, would have LOVED it, but that's another story!) So I conceived it as a film that would be made in sections, and got excited about the idea of making a feature length film of three or four sections that could also be shown as shorts, without the other parts. "Til Death Do Us Part" (1998, 20 minutes) was the first section. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and showed in a handful of other choice festivals (Seattle, Vancouver, Rocky Mountain International Women's Film Festival, etc), though I had to hold it back from distribution because my father was alive at the time. The section of my parents reading their love letters was "Part 2", and "Part 3" was supposed to be my parents getting old together. But my father died suddenly while I was shooting that section, and then, inevitably, the direction of the film changed.

Did you and your mom ever talk about her “neglect” of you and your sister when you were kids? If so, how did she respond?

Late in her life, she admitted to some degree her emotional neglect of my sister with great shame and sadness. She couldn't really hear my own feelings, but then, she was a much better mother to me than she was to my sister, I would say.

Your use of old photos was sublime and fascinating. Did you always have access to these or did you spend months trying to find them? 

Thanks. I inherited the trove of 40,000 slides my Dad shot from 1939 until 1990 when he died. The home movies my grandfather shot were given to me in a box by my grandmother after he died.

What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process for you?

Besides spending so much time with my parents? Well, the most difficult part was after my father died, trying to pick up the pieces of myself, my family, and my film; to find the energy again to resume shooting, and to shoot with my mother through those long months of her shock, her falls and illnesses and her mental decline. It was poignant and painful.

When did the idea to use animation hit you?  The animation, by the way, is delightful and very well thought-out and applied. 

 Thanks. I knew I wanted to use animation pretty early on in the editing process of the full length film, which began to approach it's final form sometime around 2005 or 2006. I asked Lisa Crafts to do an animation of the "Mom meeting the lover for the first time" story very early on, so that was in the cut from way back. The rest of the animation didn't find it's place until very late in the game, in the last nine months of editing with Jonathan Oppenheim.

Do you think your mom realized that you were finally going to make her “famous’? If so, how did she feel about this?

She could never have known or guessed that the film would be as widely seen as it has been and is about to be, but she LOVED being a movie star, and I hope is somewhere up there looking down on opening night at Cinema Village in her designer gown and borrowed Harry Winston jewels, with a gorgeous young man on her lap! It is truly heartbreaking to me that she did not live to see the film, and to be at that opening. My husband, Andre, says she deserves, and he hopes she will win the Posthumous Oscar for Best Performance in a Documentary.

Your dad reminded me of my dad (and myself -- and so many men who tend to hold back). Did it occur to you that he might have had affairs of his own? Did you ever question him about this? (Probably not, because he was not to know about your mom’s)

Sure I did!! Are you kidding? How could I have resisted? Though he never admitted to anything outright, I know he did have affairs, but I don't think he ever was in love with anyone else the way my Mom was. His were purely sexual flings, I'm sure. He was a hot guy, and he wasn't getting steak at home.

How did Andre Gregory come into the picture? 

Very short version: I was introduced to Andre* by an old friend who had been working with him. Four days later we kissed and the rest is history.

I realize that you did one shorter film earlier (Inside Out) that was about half the length of Phyllis and Harold. How was, other than dealing so closely with your own family, this film different for you as a filmmaker: twice the work because of its being twice the length? Or maybe ten times the work? (Is it like the difference, as I have been told, between having one child and two: not twice the work but four times the work.)

I did many short films earlier than P and H. (see my website).   Having two cats and no kids, I can't relate to the child analogy, but suffice to say, this film was 12 plus years in the making, all my others were 2 to 5 years in the making, approximately. I would guess it is like the difference between writing a short story and writng a novel.

Anything else you want to talk about that I did not cover?

No...thank you, but please encourage everyone to come out to see the film during its run at Cinema Village, beginning February 19th.
(All photos. courtesy of Ms Kleine)
* Cindy Kleine is married to playwright/producer/actor Andre Gregory (pictured above a couple of times).

1 comment:

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