Friday, April 20, 2012

#TFF Review: "First Winter"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

If the title First Winter recalls the Pilgrims, they would certainly be horrified by the activities of the people in Benjamin Dickinson’s film. Their days are filled with chanting and yoga and organic food; their nights, drugs and free love. Y’know, the usual. The word “commune” isn’t mentioned once—the isolated farmhouse the group of friends inhabit is referred to as “Paul’s Yoga Farm,” after their de facto leader (Paul Manza). It seems fairly idyllic, as far as those things go, until the power goes out, and a few members of the group take the only car into town for supplies, never to return. Their phone batteries die. Smoke billows from the city, many miles away. A dying transistor squawks snatches of news, none of it sounding good. And the loose collective of hipsters bears down.

It goes without saying, of course, that little dynamics and power plays will begin to surface, and their share-and-share-alike philosophies with regards to food, sex, and warmth prove to be a little less egalitarian in the midst of the cold and desperation. They find themselves a little less equipped for living off the land than perhaps anticipated; they’d like to think they’re capable of roughing it, but most seem to have no idea what the hell they’re doing out there. There’s not an app for checking if the canned food is still good, and just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, it seems there are no vegans when the rice has run out.

This particular progression of events doesn’t exactly pack the wallop of the unexpected. What makes First Winter interesting is its style, which is almost brazenly disconnected from audience engagement. Exposition is minimal, much of it left to the audience to piece together independently, while dialogue is of the off-hand, naturalistic variety. When things fall apart, there are no big shouting matches and no finger-pointing; the picture traffics in passive-aggression and unspoken resentments, which feels accurate to the situation (at least with this bunch). Performances are modest—everyone is good, but no one has a big scene or makes a grab for attention. And though long scenes pass without even idle chatter, there is no score to speak of (I recall one scene of source music), the sound design instead leaning on an eerie quiet that matches the setting, periodically punctured by the whistling wind.

The handheld camerawork is disorientingly up close in early scenes, but that subsides; the participatory nature of the cinematography is particularly effective in later scenes, with shrewd little tricks like blurring focus for ill characters. Some audiences will certainly find much of the film stylistically alienating, dull even, but I dunno; for this viewer, the further it went into its cocoon, the more rapt I found myself. There’s plenty to snicker at, especially early on; the hipster has become a cultural punch line, and make no mistake about it, these are hipsters to their core (Paul, with his long, dirty ZZ Top beard, seems an unlikely ladies’ man unless you’ve logged some time in Brooklyn). But there’s something sort of remarkable about where they end up, even if the last scene bends a bit too far towards making explicit what the previous moments have hinted. First Winter is a fairly uncompromising picture, but it is a grabber, if you’re willing to meet it halfway.

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