Review by Tom Gregory, January 17, 2009
THE HUFFINGTON POST
American Primitive is the “why” that drove early activists like Harvey Milk and the Stonewall demonstrators to demand equality. It's a film about the struggle to redefine a peaceful, safe home against hatred, misunderstanding and family law at the time when homosexuality was classified as mental illness. Set in 1973, this indie gem personalizes the mistrust, alienation, and prejudice that same-sex families still fight against today.
The film opens as 16 year-old Madeline Goodhart along with her slightly younger sister Daisy are moving in with their father Harry on Cape Cod. Mom has died scant months earlier. During his widower's grief, dad's set up a peaceful new home at an old cottage along the dunes. From the girls' perspectives, it only adds to fun that dad's charming business partner, Mr. Gibbs lives “out back” in their American primitive furniture studio.
As the Wyeth color seascape welcomes autumn ambers, the girls begin life at their new high school. All is smooth as sunshine. Campus life is full of scholarly endeavors intertwined with just enough teen love and tennis. Yep, even if it's the off-season, the Cape's the place for these two girls.
Anne Ramsay as Mrs. Brown is the proper woman of the Cape, but she's lacking a man. Ramsay's the consummate seventies woman, trying to weigh feminism against loneliness in one of the film's standout performances. Ramsay's Mrs. Brown is the product of 1970's feminism and a Donna Reed dream of the nuclear family. I'd love to see a film just about her.
Susan Anspach (Five Easy Pieces, Montenegro) excels with precision nuance as the wounded grandmother Martha. Watching her characterization free of polish and heavy on the humanity is a master course in the craft. Martha's a villainess that dares you not to see her cruel point of view. Anspach's performance takes us back forty years to last November. The depth she brings to this character beguiles her screen time. Watching her in this role is delightful as watching Bette Davis at her scene-stealing best.
Teen heartthrob Josh Peck is the story's voice of reason. He plays the scrappy native Cape Codder Spoke White. Spoke's a Codder-cowboy with theattitudeof“liveandletlive.” Hehandlesevensomedivergentdialogue about Viet Nam with a sincerity that made me care. This is a pivotal performance for Peck and here he's tipped the scales of superstardom to his favor.
American Primitive is first time Director Gwen Wynne's own recounting of growing up on the Cape. Wynne's choices are risky and never dull. She uses a point/counterpoint form of split screen editing that reflects the many different perspectives on any one situation. Her choice that an African American actress seduces a 1973 gay man with a big kiss in a public restaurant plays to the notion that even in the Nixon era interracial was more acceptable than same-sex.
This film took me back to a TV movie that was produced at approximately the era American Primitive is set, 1972. It was Universal Television's That Certain Summer. In the film a young Scott Jacoby comes to visit his divorced father (Hal Holbrook) in, none other than -- San Francisco. He learns that his father's friend (a young Martin Sheen) is more than just a buddy. That Certain Summer was America's first real venture into a gay themed film; the network held its breath and aired it. The critics loved it. I can't help but dream about how evolved American would be if we had grownwiththeintellectthatproducedthatgroundbreakingfilm. Istilllong for a socially conscience progressive TV shows reminiscent of All in the Family.
American Primitive may not change the world but it announces to America that compassion for our fellow man beckons us to evolve further every day. The producers of this film should be rewarded for addressing this hot-button issue. They have shown us how far we have come, but, like the characters in this coming-of-age film, American equality still has a long way to go. American Primitive. Playing at a film festival near you.
-Tom Gregory is a noted social, political and entertainment industry commentator.
JAMES EGAN AND GWEN WYNNE
A conversation between James Egan (JE), producer of the film, and Gwen Wynne (GW) the writer, director, and producer.
JE: Gwen, what inspired you to make this film?
GW: I’ve never seen a film before from a teenage girl’s point of view showing what it was like growing up in a gay household, especially in the 70s when it was so taboo. That’s why I decided that this story needed to be made. I was inspired to write it after seeing other classmates work at film school telling stories from a gay parent’s point of view. Often times, I thought that the kids’ point of view was being whitewashed. The stories didn’t really show how it can be difficult for kids. It’s actually making the civil rights issue that we’re confronting right now, less urgent. How can a society understand the prejudice and difficulties that children face if it is glossed over. It’s precisely because there is prejudice and intolerance that so many people loathe the idea of gay parenting. That’s why I felt it’s important to show the difficulties or no one would ever believe the story and think it was just another leftie piece of propaganda. So by showing the full story I hope to help an audience experience a journey of intolerance to acceptance.
The other part of the story that I wanted to express was highlighting how a gay parent can be a good parent. One of the fundamental issues facing gay rights and gay parenting today is the idea that it is unhealthy to raise a child in a gay household. Like in the 60s, when it was illegal for an African American marrying a Caucasian, a theme that was often cited was: “What about the children. Think about how hard it will be for them.”
JE: So you’re saying that as a result of seeing films like Brokeback Mountain, you realised that we haven’t yet seen the children’s point of view in a film on the big screen that represents what it is like to grow up in a gay household?
GW: Absolutely right, there has never been a Hollywood movie on the big screen, that I can think of, that shows a gay family or two children being raised by two men or two women. What was so amazing for me when I saw Brokeback Mountain was the turmoil expressed by both men due to having to hide their love for one another. Watching the movie, all I could think about was my father the entire time. He was in so much pain. And, forever hid who he really was. That’s a terrible way to live your life. Brokeback is wonderful movie but I so wished I could have also seen the girls’ stories as well. That side of the story wasn’t told; it was just implied.
JE: What makes this film completely unique is that it’s a coming of age story set in a unique setting. Were there other coming of age stories that inspired you in this tradition?
GW: Well there’s an intellectual answer and then an emotional answer. The intellectual answer is that all the great male directors have all had their coming of age stories, which are cinematically exciting and have made great cinematic breakthroughs, but there are really just a few great cinematic female coming of age stories.
One of them is Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career. That was an amazing experience because I saw it when I was around seventeen, and it was wonderful to watch a character that I could relate to. I didn’t realise at the time why I was taken with the film so much and then it dawned on me that it was a female character whose journey I could relate to – really, the dawning of womanhood , authorship, and voice. To me there are very few movies that have that coming of age journey for women. Recently there have been more, thank goodness, such as Whale Rider, but when I was growing up there weren’t that many.
JE: So growing up as a girl it was important for you to see a female coming of age story, even if they were made by male directors? How critical is it for a young woman growing up to see these sorts of films?
GW: Movies are a wonderful way to look at what you are going through and watching how a character handles problems, they are life‐changing, and that’s what’s so powerful about films. I know that you, James, are making movies that are trying to pass on that we have a responsibility to others, and I think that being filmmakers we do have a responsibility in our story‐telling. For me, personally, movies about young women growing up were especially important because I was isolated in a household where I didn’t have any examples to show the way, after my mother died when I was eleven.
JE: One of the important ways in which this film succeeds, I think, given the contemporary political landscape of antigay families and antigay people raising children, is through making the subject matter entertaining and allowing a more mainstream audience the possibility to access this film. Was that a conscious choice?
GW: Absolutely, it was a conscious choice for us to create a film that teenagers would want to see. With my producers, such as you, James, we consciously cast the film so that teenagers would go to it ‐ we have actor Josh Peck, who teenagers adore, he’s a real hero to them because he’s funny, and he plays a heroic character in our film. We have people like Adam Pascal, who is a cult hit with girls, he’s loved and adored and did a very significant play called RENT, that was on Broadway and became a movie. And then there’s Tate Donovan, from The O.C., that teenagers love, and Stacey Dash, from Clueless, so we purposely tried to create and cast characters that a young audience could relate to and like, and so that they could overcome the subject matter too. We’ve definitely, purposefully been tailoring this movie for teenagers, because it is they who will be deciding the future of these issues.
JE: What’s interesting is that you’ve been able to create a look in this film that people have been commenting on, saying that it has a really epic and beautiful quality to it for a low budget film. What would you say inspired this particular look, which people are calling almost ‘European’ in terms of the lighting and setting? Were there some particular directors who inspired you in this particular vision?
GW: I don’t mean to sound highbrow, but I love Ingmar Bergman, and actually shooting in New England is very much like shooting in Sweden because of the lighting. Bergman shot on an island surrounded by water, and Cape Cod is surrounded by water, so you have this incredible light that doesn’t exist in most places. We purposely shot on film and Super 16 to evoke a time period, and we shot on a smaller camera so that we could move it very easily. The camera choice was also purposeful because Vietnam was happening at the time that the movie takes place, and the Super 16 camera was being used by reporters to capture the horrific events. I like to call some of the camera movement my ‘Vietnam footage’, such as when the men are caught kissing, because it was so shocking and sadly men and women have been killed for being homosexual, so that was the intellectual reason for that kind of cinematic look.
JE: In this film, music plays an important role. Not only does it set the tone of the seventies, but also the music almost acts as a character in the way that it reflects the turmoil of the era. At times when the characters are making important emotional choices, the music supports and echoes those choices that are being made, both politically and sexually. Do you want to talk about your choices in music?
GW: The independent music world in 1973 ‐‐ the time when the film is set ‐‐ was at an incredible moment historically. We used some songs that go on for ten minutes, and of course we didn’t use the song for the entire ten minutes, but these artists were allowed to create music that nowadays probably wouldn’t be allowed on the commercial airwaves. So we used music that was inspiring a generation of youth to take action and to examine what was happening the world around them.
The song ‘I Wish I Could Change The World’, for example, is in a sense so basic but so evocative of what was happening in the early 70s. Disillusion was setting into the culture. But the culture fought back through its voice through music and through political action. It was an inspiring time. I was growing up in that time period and so
many people I know in my generation were so shaped by how we could make our lives about changing the world. We were convinced that it was our duty. So the music in the film is another character, it is a force that inspires and give strength to the vision that we’re trying to share: Peace.
January 10, 2009
"THE DESERT SUN"
American Primitive' reflects family dynamics by Bruce Fessier
Gwen Wynne learned her father was gay in 1973 when she saw him kissing the man who had moved in with them after her mother's death.
Wynne was 12. Her sister was 10. She doesn't know if her father had a gay partner while her mother was alive.
Her friends gave her the first clues about her father.
Danielle Savre as “Madeline” in American Primitive.
“The reaction was really from their parents,” the filmmaker said recently in Palm Springs. “We began to notice we were being treated differently and my sister and I didn't understand. We didn't even talk about it. One day I went over to my best friend's house and saw a note on the kitchen counter: ‘Dear Mom, I promise this will be the last time I'll be playing with Gwen.'”
Wynne, who grew up in New Jersey and Cape Cod, Mass., has made a film about her story titled “American Primitive.” It will world premiere at 7 tonight at the Annenberg Theater.
Wynne, a graduate of Brown University, was a theater director before entering the USC film graduate program. The late '60s, early '70s cinematic style of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Breathless,” “2001,” “The Wild Bunch” and John Schlesinger's “Midnight Cowboy” influenced her when she began making her directorial debut with “American Primitive.” And that style is most apparent in the disco scene.
“If you think about the fast-shot editing in the disco, that's where that influence is,” she says. “Also, (the) very long takes and jump cuts. It's also very realistic — the shaky camera or not being seamless. That's where the '70s and late '60s broke through.”
The disco scene also defines the film's production values.
“I didn't want it to be a typical disco scene,” she said. “I wanted to hire great dancers, so we hired Broadway dancers, and I kept that a secret. I thought they would all think I was crazy. But these dancers could move like nobody else and that's what I wanted: lascivious, incredible dancers.
“We had a low budget film and big budget dancers,” said Egan. “I started out with John Waters. John would never ship in Broadway dancers from New York! Gwen brings in the very best of the best dancers and they were amazing and they did make that scene.”
Wynne learned last year that Phipps died of AIDS in 1984. That was another secret her British father keptfromher. Her father died in 2000 after Wynne had begun the film.“He was very mixed about it,” she said. “I've been thinking about how he would respond now. I think he would be both excited and nervous and worried and British.”
American Primitive: My Two Dads, January 10, 2009
Park City’s loss is Palm Springs’ gain. Passed over by Sundance, American Primitive will have its world premiere Saturday at the 20th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival. Simple and artfully done, this is one of the must-see films of the fest.
Set in 1973 Cape Cod, Harry Goodhart (Tate Donovan, Damages, Good Night, and Good Luck), a British widower, relocates with his two teen daughters to start a new business building American Primitive furniture.
As daughters Madeline and Daisy adjust to life in a new high school, Harry struggles to withhold a secret: His new business partner, Theodore Gibbs (Adam Pascal, Rent), is more than just that.
When the girls try to fit in with the cool kids in school, they sneak into Provincetown’s Atlantic House gay dance club. There, Madeline is hit with the realization that her widower dad may be over his mourning period. The secrets that each keep slowly threaten to tear the family apart—especially when word gets out in the small town.
Set during a time when American society was redefining its national identity as well as its personal views, the film captures the look and the language of the period, using “homosexual” (which has since been replaced by “gay”), and “queer,” used then as an insult before being reclaimed by us during the last decade.
As someone who experienced my own father’s coming out during the ’70s, the gossip in school and around a small town, I found myself identifying with the journey of Madeline. But even if American Primitive isn’t your story, the issues of what makes a family and who can raise children are amazingly as relevant today to all of us as they were 36 years ago.
UPDATE: At tonight’s sold-out opening, out Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, himself a father of toddler twins, will present the American Primitive filmmakers a proclamation for their efforts on behalf of family equality rights.
The film screens again Tuesday.
Screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
Saturday, January 10, 7:00 PM Annenberg Auditorium
Tuesday, January 13, 1:30 PM Camelot Theatres