The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, an annual event seeking to promote “awareness, appreciation and pride in the diversity of the Jewish people,” kicked off this past week with a variety of showings across the Bay, including the July 27 screening of Alex Karpovsky’s “Red Flag” at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival would also like you to know that Karpovsky, who appears regularly in Lena Dunham’s HBO hit “Girls,” has been called “the next generation’s Woody Allen.” In fact, I read the phrase “Woody Allen of your generation” (or some variation on that) no less than a dozen times in the literature promoting the screening, in a New Yorker piece from March and in a number of articles from across the Web.
I also heard it when the announcer introduced the screening and the lights dimmed — and yet again immediately after that when Karpovsky was probed on “Red Flag” (which by the way, is not directed by Woody Allen), his work with HBO and other sorts of questions on what it’s like to be young, Jewish and making movies. Then, the movie began.
“Red Flag” is a mumblecore film true to its genre: It was made for almost no money, it’s interspersed with uncomfortable snatches of dialogue and it’s moved along at a glacial pace by an anonymous cast of actors (most of whom you’ll never see in another movie). Playing himself, Karpovsky is a down-on-his-luck filmmaker who’s kicked out by his live-in girlfriend, forced to hit the road alone promoting his new film about birds.
After a one-night stand and some awkward camera angles, Karpovsky sojourns on through the South and eventually recruits an old friend to join him. This friend, Henry (Onur Tukel), writes kid lit about death (it’s quirky — don’t worry about it) and ends up bringing River — the woman with whom Karpovsky had slept just a couple nights before, played by Jennifer Prediger — along on the road trip. As the trip goes on, shenanigans ensue, and the movie’s dark humor foreshadows the ending relatively early on.
“Red Flag” is not a bad movie, but it isn’t exceptional, either. It’s just embarrassingly decent. Karpovsky’s film deals with self-obsession and how the characters who are overly connected with themselves (which is all of them, save for Karpovsky’s ex) are ironically unable to see past their own egos, character flaws and so on. The Woody Allen comparison here is particularly apt.
But where Karpovsky departs from Allen is where the film struggles. In “Annie Hall,” Allen focuses inwardly and travels throughout his life to understand the troubles underscoring his relationship with the titular character. Deconstructing his entire biography, Allen leaves no stone unturned, and the audience is clued into how the male Jewish mind works — not dissimilar to Philip Roth’s 1969 novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
In “Red Flag,” there is no deconstruction. We instead are witnessing the answer less the question: All of these self-involved powderkegs crowded into a sedan left with nothing but each other to talk to and about. Perhaps limited by the genre (mumblecore kind of mandates minimalist dialogue and production), there is no curious introspection, and there are no forced moments of realization.
Maybe that’s the point: Karpovsky (the character) is self-absorbed to the point that he lacks the capacity to see what about himself repels other people. And that’s not a bad point, especially because for someone with (in the words of a Very Serious Magazine like The New Yorker) the “promise of becoming his generation’s Woody Allen,” his generation is frequently knocked for its self-absorption and inability to pay attention to what’s going on.
Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter, because people who lack the capacity to look within themselves — at least in this case — make for boring cinema. Regardless of whether those people are any generation’s Woody Allen.