×

Film Notes: Documentary on Art Collective Has Upper Valley Ties

  • A member of the Santa Fe, N.M., art collective Meow Wolf works on an installation in a still from the film "Meow Wolf: Origin Story." The documentary, which screens at Dartmouth College on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018,, was produced by Hanover High School graduate Alexandra Renzo and co-directed by Dartmouth graduate Jilann Spitzmiller. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The creative team behind "Meow Wolf: Origin Story" at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas: editory Alessandra Khalsa, producer Alexandra Renzo, co-director Morgan Capps and co-director Jilann Spitzmiller. (Kate Russell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 03, 2018

How do you impose enough order on a collective of renegade artists to capture them on film, without stifling the mix of creativity and anarchy that makes them worth documenting in the first place?

Hanover High graduate Alexandra Renzo and Dartmouth College alumna Jilann Spitzmiller still wonder exactly how they managed to complete Meow Wolf: Origin Story. After screening the 88-minute movie at Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium on Sunday evening, they’ll talk about their effort to document how the collective evolved from a few kids brainstorming in a Santa Fe basement to a multimillion-dollar business known for massive, psychedelic exhibitions.

“It was really challenging, making it coherent,” Spitzmiller, who directed the film, said during a telephone conference call from Santa Fe, N.M., last week. “You almost need to create a parallel universe. The creative force is very unruly. The more we surrender to the chaos, the more interesting our lives can be. … At the same time, you need some structure to it. It took (the artists) a long time to figure that out themselves. We mirrored that process.”

Cue the peal of laughter from Renzo, who conducted the interviews that Spitzmiller and her editors threaded through a tiny fraction of the hundreds of hours of chaotic footage that Meow Wolf members had shot with cell phones and digital cameras.

“It’s about unlocking a part of yourself that perhaps has been muted,” Renzo,who co-produced the movie, said from Boston. “A wildness. A feeling that ‘we’ve got to do this no matter what.’ ”

Renzo, whose website identifies her as a “creative director of entertainment” at Meow Wolf, traces that feeling in herself to her preschool years in Hanover.

“I was 4 when somebody said that I wanted to tell stories for the rest of my life,” Renzo said. “Somehow, the 4-year-old Alexandra knew this.”

The acting side of storytelling drew Renzo to Northern Stage’s programs for children. While preparing to play the lead in an adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, during her sophomore year at Hanover High, she reveled in the work that goes into portraying other people’s lives.

“I really enjoyed the intensity with which everybody approached their craft,” said Renzo, who graduated from Hanover High in 2007 and attended Eugene Lang College in New York City. “Even then, I looked at the big picture as well as my part in it. It just felt natural, felt like the way I look at the world.”

Looking at the worlds that Meow Wolf creates, through multi-media productions that invite audiences to immerse themselves, Renzo wasn’t sure how to shape her nascent documentary until taking a directing class in Santa Fe from Spitzmiller.

“I really wanted to pull someone in with her eye and expertise, and her network of people with expertise in the other aspects of film-making,” Renzo said. “Having her as a mentor as well as a director has been such an education. I’ve watched her over the past two years embody all these roles with such grace and agility. At the same time, she’s got a fierce mama-bear energy.”

Renzo has missed that energy while each has been working on separate theater and film projects. Busy with an independent feature she’s been co-producing this summer in Boston, Renzo has barely crossed paths with Spitzmiller lately, except for the premiere of Meow Wolf at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas in March, and one get-together in May — even though both live in Santa Fe.

“It’ll be like a reunion when we finally get back to Hanover,” said Spitzmiller, whose directing credits also include Still Dreaming, the acclaimed 2014 documentary about a group of retired entertainers at the Lillian Booth Actors Home preparing to stage Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s great that we have not only the geographical connection, but an understanding of each other that is kind of immediate. Where we really intersect is our love for crazy artists, for think-outside-the-box people.”

After the screening of Meow Wolf: Origin Story on Sunday evening at 7 at Loew Auditorium, Alexandra Renzo and Jilann Spitzmiller will talk about the origins and making of the documentary. For tickets ($5 to $10) and more information, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

Blockbuster Antidotes

On the quieter side of cinema over the coming two weeks, my wife, Goodie, and I are considering the following screenings, which range from movies we very much want to see to several I’m looking forward to revisiting:

Hearts Beat Loud— Tonight at 7 at Dartmouth College’s Loew Auditorium, the Hopkins Center screens this feature starring the under-appreciated Nick Offerman as a father trying to cushion empty-nest syndrome by forming a band with his college-bound daughter. The Nugget Theatres ran this comedy for just a week earlier this summer. For tickets ($5 to $8) and more information, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

Paddington 2 — Even though we recently saw this sequel to the winsome 2014 adaptation of the children’s book about a South American bear marooned in London, we’re also tempted by tonight’s 6:30 screening at Mascoma Valley Regional High School’s new auditorium in West Canaan. Along with subtle special-effects wizardry, it offers winning performances by Sally Hawkins as the mother in Paddington’s adoptive family and Hugh Grant as the villain who frames the bear for the theft of a rare book. Admission is by donation.

2018 Sundance Film Festival Short Films — Dartmouth College’s Loew Auditorium shows seven acclaimed flicks from the festival, a mix of live-action and animated movies from around the world, on Saturday evening at 5 and again at 8. Admission is $5 to $10.

Les Miserables — I somehow missed this musical adaptation on its journey to three Oscars in 2012, which the Mascoma Film Society will show on Wednesday night at 6:30 at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan. Despite reports and reviews of campiness and bad French accents, we’re faithful enough fans of Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean, and of Anne Hathaway, who collected an Academy Award for best supporting actress as the doomed Fantine, to keep our schedule open. Admission is by donation.

Menashe — Woodstock’s Billings Farm and Museum offers this semi-fictionalized slice of life in one of Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, at 5 and again at 7 next Saturday night, Aug. 11. The 2017 feature, with dialogue in Yiddish, follows a widower struggling to keep custody of his son. To reserve tickets ($6 to $11), visit billingsfarm.org/filmfest or call 802-457-2355.

McKellen​​​​​​​: Playing the Part — Many think first of Sir Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, or as the conflicted mutant Magneto in the X-Men franchise. We revere him most for his depiction of the retired sleuth-turned-beekeeper in 2015’s Mr. Holmes, for which he deserved at least an Oscar nomination. Either way, it’s worth spending next Sunday afternoon (4 p.m. start), Aug. 12, at Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium watching this documentary, in which the septuagenarian genius looks back, drolly, on his long career on stage and screen. Admission is $5 to $10.

On the House

No matter that it was the blockbuster of 1981: Goodie and I are hoping the weather behaves next Friday night between 8:30 and 10, when the Hopkins Center shows Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Green in Hanover. However many times one sees it on cable TV, the opening salvo of the Indiana Jones series starring Harrison Ford remains the gold standard. Aside from the pyrotechnics and the plot twists that the still-young Steven Spielberg conjured, we’re looking forward to again seeing Karen Allen seize the screen as the anti-damsel-in-distress.

Festivities

Plainfield director Samantha Davidson Green’s first feature film, Thrasher Road, won the Spirit of Independent Filmmaking Award at the Stony Brook Film Festival on Long Island in late July. Green shot the feature, about a woman returning to Vermont by pickup truck with her dying dog after her California dreams fizzle, during a cross-country trip over the summer of 2016 with a cast and crew including many Upper Valley residents.

Small Screen

If you missed the theatrical screenings of Norwich native Thea Brooks’ eco-parable The Ill-Made Knight, Vermont PBS is broadcasting it on Aug. 27, as part of its “Made Here” series of films shot in Vermont.

Brooks produced and co-wrote the 30-minute tale, originally titled Green. Based on an incident from Brooks’ own childhood in Norwich, it follows the journey of an introspective girl who learns unexpected lessons while trying to prevent the leveling of a neighboring forest where she used to let her imagination run wild.

The movie is scheduled to air at 10:30 p.m. on the 27th, on the network’s Vermont PBS Plus channel.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Film and television news can be sent to highlights@vnews.com.