By John O’Hara
Just because movie-going is usually thought of as a solitary indoor pursuit does not mean the 2021 Provincetown International Film Festival organizers felt any obligation to stick with this norm when plotting out this summer’s event.
A select outdoor gathering here and there instead of the quiet dark-room routine most people are used to may not seem like such a radical departure—indeed, a few prior installations of this particular festival hosted screenings beyond these usual confines as well—but it’s the thought that counts as they say, and choosing to play every film the usual way would have been antithetical to the spirit of Provincetown, one could argue.
Beyond mere open air and raw exposure to the whims of mother nature, some might even claim the shared atmosphere an outdoor venue fosters as opposed to an indoor one is more simply more conducive to a festive atmosphere.
PIFF 2021 flexed not only its outdoors muscle but also its out muscle right off the bat this year with its preliminary screening of the LGBT themed “Give or Take” at the Wellfleet Drive-In. Absurd as describing a gathering in which attendees watch from the comfort of their cars as pro-social may seem, Artistic Director Lisa Viola and other festival organizers remain adamant that the decision to host such events in increasingly unusual locations remains a key feature of the festival’s unique identity.
The festival programmers’ plans to both begin and end PIFF 2021 with an LGBTQ+ themed movies during Pride month was also deliberate and in keeping with the event’s core values according to Viola, despite her insistence that it’s not a “genre festival.”
Next up, PIFF stayed outdoors and minority representative with another Wellfleet Drive-In screening, this time of Jon M. Chu’s Latino “In the Heights.” Loaded questions regarding the authenticity—or lack thereof—with which this movie accurately portrays the Latino experience remain, but such ambiguity can hardly be blamed on the PIFF 2021 programming crew.
Following In the Heights, the festival expanded its versatility of selection even further, paradoxically with a shift closer to the mainstream with its special 25th anniversary of the Coen Brothers classic Fargo at the Wellfleet Drive-In. Second only to maybe this summer’s pop-up Herring Cove screening of Back to the Future in its overall notoriety to your average joe, this particular selection underscores PIFF’s capacity to showcase a tantalizing, tiny sliver of bona fide classics in conjunction with its majority niche offerings which might only appeal to an audience of film buffs.
The next movie to play outside the confines of an ordinary cinema at 2021 Provincetown Film Festival this summer (and only to play outside of cars as well) was the “Dick Johnson is Dead,” documentary, containing a brief panel discussion with director Kirsten Johnson and co-producer Maureen Ryan before the sunset screening.
Although this movie may be available for viewing to anyone with a basic Netflix subscription, those who made it to the Provincetown Mary Heaton Vorse House screening this June will have caught a glimpse into the filmmaker’s mind not afforded to those merely streaming from home.
“I knew this movie was doomed from the beginning, which is a good way to go into a movie.” Director Ryan claimed to the amusement of her live audience, before going on to unpack this claim.
“I’d never had an idea for a movie before. This was the first time I actually had an idea—and the idea was ‘I have to kill my dad.’ And you have to understand this is my father who I love like more than anybody in the world.”
Not afraid to unsettle her audience in the least with the use of language this jarring, the director further cushioned such spiky remarks by describing the documentary as an experiment, rather than an unfiltered look at the horrors of her father’s mental decline.
In response to the moderator’s questioning how her father initially reacted when she came to him with the idea for a movie about him dying, Johnson said, “He was a funny guy. He was like, let’s do it, how many times are you gonna kill me? How are you gonna do it? He was in, from the beginning.”
Despite her father’s unsolicited enthusiasm for the film, director Johnson further acknowledged what a difficult-to-tackle subject dementia truly is.
“Unfortunately, a lot of us are familiar with dementia. You think as someone who loves a person who has dementia, you have a handle on it, and then all of a sudden they do something you don’t expect them to do.”
Despite the slippery slope which addressing such a psychologically complex issue could cause a storyteller to slide down, Johnson felt enough of her father was still there to proceed with the subject matter.
Not only was she confident that she had only the best of intentions with the making of her documentary, co-producer Maureen Ryan was also at the pop-up venue to specify the mood they sought to establish while shooting it.
“One thing we talked about was tone and how that factored into the production itself. The 1971 classic Harold & Maude was a real touchstone for us; for those of you seeing the film for the first time tonight, you’ll get a little bit of that dark, absurd, comedic tone that was really key.”
Beyond the gallows humor which director Johnson and her crew relied on to broach this otherwise insurmountably morbid subject, Co-Producer Ryan further emphasized how the medium of cinema specifically allowed them to tell their story comprehensively.
“The role of cinema, with stunt-people, actors, dancers, singers and a whole host, that was what we really strove for, and that really came from Kirsten and her dedication to wanting to make this be an entertaining film as well as the poignant kind of love story between her and her father.”
Anyone interested in finding out just how effectively the makers of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” successfully achieved their aim of tackling a heavy subject with levity can judge for themselves online, but the opportunity to hear its director and co. discuss their aspirations behind the film remains an experience exclusive to those who were willing to attend the gathering.