Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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Over lasagna (their favorite) the Wolfpack watch a movie

Family confinement-cum-film school -- the strange upbringing of the Angulo brothers

The Wolfpack is a unique documentary about seven children who grew up in a Lower East Side Housing Authority apartment almost never going out, understanding the world through watching a video and DVD collection of five thousand movies, and reenacting their favorites using their own sets and costumes. It turns out to be a lot more complex and surprising than that summary. The astonishment of the story tends to trump its weaknesses as a documentary, though not completely.

We quickly meet the six brothers, rail-thin, with waist-length black hair and wide grins. They look so alike you'd might think they're the same age (and two are twins, I learned later). Their one sister is rarely seen and not heard from and it's a while before we hear from the mother or father, who don't say much. They're been virtual prisoners growing up for from 16 to 23 years, their present age range, going out only a few times a year, presumably under supervision, and with their father alone holding the keys. But they are excited to encounter the world and are in good spirits. Their confinement has been terrible, but they have been creative in resourceful and inventive ways, as a team. They're smart, articulate, good-humored, and show an absorption in art and play that's positively inspiring. They've been confined indoors but they've found plenty to do there and now they're beginning to break out. Growing up as actors designing costumes, the brothers also grew up to be stylish dressers.

The boys acquired their chief grasp of the world from the movies, but must have learned a lot also from their mother, who homeschooled them. She, we learn, is a former hippie from the Midwest who met their Peruvian father, Oscar Angulo, when he was working as a guide on the route to Machu Pichu. He was a Hare Krishna (from whence came the children's names) as well as a student of religion and philosophy and a failed rock musician. He wanted to make his own tribe, and she volunteered. Why they moved to New York City, to this public housing building on Delancey Street, we do not learn. Oscar, who became abnormally controlling and paranoid, didn't believe he should have to work. The family income came to be provided by the salary the state paid to Suzanne, the children's mother, for being their teacher. That's seems a surprising arrangement. But all here, is surprising.

The siblings all have Sanscrit names, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna, Jagadisa for the boys, Visnu for the girl -- though they're not clearly identified. The movie plays fast and loose with information, mixing present and past footage, partly, it appears, to dazzle us with the weirdness of these lives and make us struggle to figure things out. Its failure to clearly distinguish the various brothers from each other, however, is a major failing. The vagueness works and is part of the fun, most of the time, but ultimately leaves one feeling shortchanged. The Wolfpack is buoyed up by a sense of novelty and excitement, with a faint undercurrent of anger and dissatisfaction that gradually emerges.

Their taste in movies is passionate and good: they're admirers of Welles, Lynch, Coppola, Scorsese, Wes Anderson and Tarantino. Restricted to quarters, they're yet allowed to watch whatever movies they like, without restriction. They are remarkable as to the ingenuity of the costumes and props improvised from the likes of cereal boxes and yoga mats. Their performances of The Dark Knight, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Pulp Fiction and lots of others are both painstaking and spirited. Some roles may involve a good measure of identification. One brother as Batman staring out a lonely window is a telling image. But they say they never confuse what's real with the movies. Reservoir Dogs, with its iconic opening of six men in identical outfits, especially suits them, and they often adopt its black suit-white shirts-and-sunglasses outfits when going out together. Now they are going out, it had begun shortly before Moselle first met them. She films their first trip to a movie theater -- David OI. Russell's The Fighter at the Village East. This is huge. Mom says farewell to each of them and wishes them a good time. The oldest says "I'm going to remember this night for a long, long long long, long, long, long time." When they see trees they think of the Forest of Fangorn in Lord of the Rings. They go to Coney Island and the sand reminds them of Lawrence of Arabia. They're fighting a lifetime of fears with humor and vivid movie memories.

Were young Miss Moselle's frequent presences over those several years a catalyst prodding the boys to rebel? Maybe, but the seeds of rebellion were already there and their mother says the time had simply come. Some of the actually brothers seem at one point to agree with Oscar that it's not safe out there, or say they wouldn't have wanted to go to a public school. But later in the film we see the older brothers starting to make film work connections outside. Now they're celebrities, this film a calling card.

Then several things happen. There are the patchy up-close looks at Susanne, the mother, and Oscar, the father. The boys mention that he sometimes beat both her and them, and that lately he gets drunk a lot. He's obviously a mass of contradictions, favoring a monk-like religious existence, but at the same time a would-be rock star and AC/DC fan who and clearly encouraged the boys to become massive cinephiles. His "interview" is a series of spacey, near-meaningless generalities. Susanne reveals more, but still not much. This is where Moselle fails to deliver. Also, though her interest is to show the Wolfpack breaking free, her presentation of that process is fitful, and the chronology never clear. Home movies by three of the brothers of earlier times are spliced in here and there, seeming random at times, chronology and authorship unspecified.

It's clear that the revolt started with Mukunda, 20 (there are three older brothers but he is the leader). He recounts how one day he went on a solo walkabout down in the neighborhood wearing a Mike Meyers mask while their father was on one of his periodic three-hour food-gathering expeditions. The mask certainly didn't hide him, but symbolized the brothers' alienation and passion for make-believe. It eventually freaked some people out, and Mukunda was picked up and held for several days' examination in a mental hospital. It wasn't so bad, he says, because the others were mostly not crazy but just depressed kids. The result was Mukunda's being assigned a therapist. What he got from her, he says, was an email address and a wholly new acquaintance with computers and the Internet. This may have helped the boys explore future possibilities (the other brothers were sent to see her too, but say they tell her nothing). Who knows but what their creative development may have been aided by not growing up as Web brats, instead writing up their working film scripts on a manual typewriter -- like Woody Allen?

The movie follows all the boys on expeditions out by themselves, including one to Coney Island. "We don't want sun!" one of the pale-skinned boys jokes as they smear on some sun cream, "We're vampires!" (They're also big fans of Halloween and of horror movies.) And, presumably late in Mozelle's period of chronicling the family, we even see Oscar and Susanne along on an ordinary-seeming excursion outdoors with the kids in warm weather, visiting an apple orchard. At some point, though when and how isn't shown, Oscar stops trying to confine the boys to their apartment --- which, by the way, looks crummy, but is high up and has amazing views of the New York skyline including the Empire State Building and, back in the day, as shown in home videos, of the Twin Towers.

Crystal Moselle's extraordinary access into an extremely eccentric household makes everybody think of the Maysles' Grey Gardens. But the suspicions of secrets and mistreatment by the father of wife and children that we hear about leads to mentions of Capturing the Friedmans. Only where Jarecki dropped dire hints, Moselle underplays the dark side that was here. At some point it becomes obvious that, while Moselle landed herself a documentarian's dream subject, she was still a greenhorn, and her debut film, lively and compelling though it is, isn't quite all it might have been. True, there's a certain excitement of discovery communicated by her lack of clear differentiation of the various brothers, staccato editing, and the somewhat helter-skelter, confused chronology of her presentation. You can even call the lack of explanations an "ethonographic" approach, or see the sympathetic, semi-interactive variation of Direct Cinema the Maysles adopted for Grey Gardens, though using those terms implies a greater degree of self-consciousness and experience than is present here. The fact is Mozelle's technique isn't altogether up to the fascinating material. In underreporting Oscar's tyrannical role and never presenting views about the family from outside agencies and individuals, Moselle doesn't dig as deeply into the situation or or cover it as widely as she might have done.

Viewers of the film should all be given access to the Magnolia press kit, which gives the boys' descriptions of themselves and of what they are doing now and explains how Moselle gained her access. It's no surprise that they're all pursuing or about to pursue careers in the arts -- dancing, music, writing, yoga, and above all film, and no surprise that two of these shape-shifters have already changed their names. It's uncertain whether they suffered social retardation. They certainly are articulate, keenly observant, and funny. One of them already seems to have a girlfriend. Their restrictive life seems to have been a creative hothouse, a family film school. Even behind closed doors, one feels the spirit of the city seeping through. Somehow these are New York kids, ready to conquer the city despite having only glimpsed it growing up. They say their mom kept them sane. Let's hope they make it.

One can see them working as a unit, The Wolfpack, the Angulo brothers. They've already posed for a short film in black and white shot by Moselle based on Christopher Bollen's debut novel Lightning People, and they could conceivably model a designer collection. Unfortunately, they don't all have super-long hair anymore. Only one has moved out of the 4-bedroom Delancey Street apartment, but they've begun breaking off. A followup film is clearly a prospect.

The Wolfpack, 80 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2015, where it won the Graud Jury Documentary Prize. Over a dozen other festivals, including San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Sydney. US theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures 12 June 2015 NYC (Landmark Sunshine, Lincoln Center). Opens SF Bay Area (Landmark Cinemas, Embartcadero, Shattuck) 19 June. 2015. Magnolia made The Wolfpack available in VOD form via iTunes from July 10, 2015.

NYTimes story from Park City (Sundance); later story at time of film release. Post film, the Wolfpack with Mukunda as director get to make a movie in a studio, making-of filmed by Moselle here. It's a 6 1/2 minute dream sequence called Mirror Heart.

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