Ogden’s Art House Cinema 502 opens a pair of documentaries with the environment on their mind, and a drama with prostitution and psychotherapy on its mind.
The 2011 Sundance documentary If a Tree Falls finds director Marshall Curry exploring the story of Daniel McGowan, an activist arrested in 2005 along with several other colleagues for a series of arsons and other destruction of businesses they believed were contributing to environmental degradation. The narrative moves back in time to explore the events in the 1990s that radicalized many environmentalists from protest to direct action, plus the process by which law enforcement eventually rounded up McGowan and others. There’s compelling material in every one of the film’s individual tangents, but it isn’t always clear that Curry knows how to pull them all together. Is this a portrait of one man wrestling with whether he thinks his actions were worth the potential cost? A tale of how and whether justice was done? A history of well-intentioned “inside the system” political action turned more extreme by government and corporate action? If a Tree Falls never fails to engage; it simply feels more like three fascinating documentary shorts glued together into a feature.
Robert Persons’ take on the consequences of “progress” in General Orders No. 9 is profoundly impressionistic—a mix of visual and verbal poetry, longing and nostalgia that’s frequently mesmerizing and occasionally aggravating. Essentially, it’s a meditation on the evolution of the American Southeast—Georgia in particular—shifting his imagery between bucolic scenes of trees and old buildings, and the tangled chaos of the city, punctuated occasionally by William Davidson’s free-verse narration. At times, Persons gets too on-the-nose; you have to think there’s a less obvious visual metaphor he could have employed for paving paradise than actual parking lots, and lines like “In the city, my heart was made desolate” can get the eyes rolling. But when the filmmaker is more inclined to free association—exploring vintage crafts, turning certain lines into refrains, animating scenes with pencil-sketch minimalism—he can evoke a response that’s surprisingly mystical and transcendent.
Lack of subtlety is more common—and more problematic—in Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment. Isabelle Huppert plays Alice, an aging call girl who indulges the schoolgirl, bondage slave and submissive housewife fetishes of her clients; Xavier (Bouli Lanners) is a psychoanalyst recently separated from his wife and grown deeply cynical about his work. Their paths cross as Xavier contemplates becoming one of Alice’s clients, but the premise is almost entirely about the parallels between what they do. And here, Labrune can’t seem to help underlining each and every similarity—we see both of them laying out a cloth in anticipation of a client, both discussing their clients as means to financial ends, Alice laying out options to a potential client in terms of “sessions,” and so on. Even individually, the characters are broad clichés: Alice the hooker who really only wants to get out of the game, and Xavier the physician-heal-thyself headshrinker who compulsively washes his hands and seems to fear sex so much his visit to an underground fetish club ends with him running madly into the woods. “Aren’t you tired of this bullshit,” Xavier asks Alice, who responds, “Isn’t what you do bullshit, too?” Yes, yes, everyone’s just full of crap—Labrune included.