Todd Rohal’s “The Guatemalan Handshake” is one of the most inventive, most poetic, most disarmingly authentic indies of the last few years so, of course, you’ve never had a chance to see it. It’s a movie that seems to have dropped out of the sky, inexplicably, like a satellite fragment landing on Main Street. Naturally, it’s not a project constructed around a traditional idea of storytelling propulsion Rohal has whipped his world from the weedy ground up into a fiery, relentless storm of quirk, but he’s original enough in his cataract of details to keep us in a constant state of enchanted disorientation. Why was “Napoleon Dynamite,” with its relatively stereotypical uber-misfit, a hit, while this 2006 daydream foundered out of sight?
Set in some Forgottentown, Pennsylvania, “The Guatemalan Handshake” encounters characters undramatically, and its narrative gradually coalesces around them: Donald the triangular-electric-car-driving nebbish (Will Oldham); his pregnant girlfriend and one of “dozens of sisters, each with a different mother” (Sheila Sculin); Turkeylegs, the willowy, surreal-minded 11-year-old free spirit (Katy Haywood) who narrates the film; Donald’s elderly and obsessive father Mr. Turnupseed (Ken Byrnes); a manic Guatemalan bus driver; a lactose-intolerant skating rink worker who may be the most socially inappropriate man ever devised for an American film; a woman in search of her lost poodle (who we find out got electrocuted by a power station mishap early on, but who reconstitutes magically anyway), and so on. Early on, Donald disappears (literally, he just walks off-frame), and Turkeylegs endeavors to understand why and how, as her already dipsy community reaches several sorts of ridiculous yet dead serious crisis points at once.
Shot in deep, humid colors, the film is fairly unpredictable, and the wealth of mysterious touches (endless phone cords, unexplained band-aids, glimpses of a man running from bees, mundane miracles) suggest a fully realized magical realism just out of view, hidden by American poverty. Rohal is a subtle fiend as well with his largely amateur cast several geysers of drooling, stilted overacting begins to make sense when you realize it’s the damaged, inarticulate characters that are overacting, not the actors. Obviously, this flyaway quilt needed glue, and it has it with Turkeylegs, whose point of view Rohal lovingly attends to, lending “The Guatemalan Handshake” the periodic glow of a secretive, innocent child’s natural happiness.
Another revelation, Lois Weber’s “Hypocrites” is a deeply eccentric, troublingly lyrical vision, for its day 1915! and ours. Whatever its daring and innovation, it’s a film that needs to be seen through the scrim of pioneering feminist filmmaking, which is the political hook upon which the four-feature Kino set it’s part of hangs (work by Alice Guy-BlachÃ©, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison and “Mrs. Wallace Reid” is included). Talk about a secret history within a history; bizarrely, women directors were common in the day of reactionary-bigot bigwig D.W. Griffith, and within what quickly became just a few years later an almost completely male industry. The scholarship exploring these newly recognized careers is far from done, and you’d stump your average film school prof by asking them to name a single title from these filmographies. But in the teens audiences were well aware the title sequence of “Hypocrites” begins with a statement and signed portrait of the filmmaker.
Weber herself was an acute visualizer, with a moral sense that easily outgrades Griffith’s neo-Victorian ethos, and “Hypocrites” is infused with a quite feminine sympathy even as it excoriates entire chunks of society for their amoral selfishness and fake piety. For a 50-minute movie, it has a dazzling complex structure, layering (but not paralleling, exactly) the story of an old-time monk persecuted for a nude statue, and a modern minister troubled by his congregation of middle class four-flushers and gossipers. The same actors serve both tales, but then Weber falls into a third mode, mixing the first two in guided tour (our hostess is Naked Truth, played by an anonymous nude woman) of the modern American’s iniquity hidden within his and her public lives. Weber could shoot, too; the exposure of the ascetic’s statue to a medieval community of fair-goers is performed in a breathtaking series of long dollies, encompassing vast amounts of human activity and emotion at a point in the history of cinema when Griffith’s cramped-room-tableaux were supposed to be the height of eloquence.
[Photos: Will Oldham in “The Guatemalan Handshake,” Benten, 2006; Lois Weber’s “Hypocrites,” Kino]
“The Guatamalan Handshake” (Benten Films) and “Hypocrites” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.