Memories are notoriously unreliable, because they are sensuous, living things; unlike facts, which suffer a death when committed to the page, memories transform because we transform. They age as we age, they fade as we fade. But this, the source of their unreliability, is also the source of their power – they are twinned with experience in a way that we cannot control, and if they must share our lives to exist, they also have an existence of their own. This power is attested to by their unexpected emergence; they come forth suddenly, heeding the call of some external stimuli, innocuously living its own life, unaware of the double that we have always borne along inside ourselves. In this way, memories are like a spirit, and we like a vessel – as memories age, they evaporate, leaving behind a substance which is less in quantity, but, as in any distillation, more powerful and potent because of the process. An era, a relationship, a passage, becomes an emblem: a look or a voice that, by being a fragment, cuts all the deeper. Films, like memories, are fragments, and, like memories, are notorious in their unreliability. Pieces of film, like memories, are stitched together into a larger work – the work of telling a story. The best films not only tell a story, they reflect on this ability, which is at the very heart of human nature and sentiment: the desire to use that which is fleeting as the bedrock on which to build an edifice of meaning. For memories are the evidence we sift through (if we are honest, always futilely), to make meaning, and to understand how we are and who we are. Unlike the world of fact, the more we search in memory, the less sure we become, and the less sure we become, the more we sense we are close to truth. It is a testament to the power and art of The Wolfpack, then, that the longer we watch it, the less sure we are that we understand the nature of the story we are seeing, and the more meaningful and multiple that story becomes. It is a story about loving movies. It is also a story about survival. It is a story of pain, dysfunction, and abuse, which is also a story of love, protection, and idealism.
The film, shot in a style not often seen anymore, mimics memory by allowing the story of a family to emerge from observation, and from the mouths of the family members. It is not exactly Direct Cinema, but it is close. Whereas Direct Cinema had a political teleology, The Wolfpack is interested in identity, in manifold forms. Some of these forms are indeed political, or, at least, the film is concerned with liberations of several sorts, but it is an anthropological inquiry only by the way of being an (it must be said, Surrealistic) disquisition on self and other, inside and outside, and the power relations that flow, always, from those two people we all know as Mom and Dad. As is usually the case with those who occupy seats of power, Mom and Dad emerge gradually here, in the negative spaces cast by their authority, in the differences we manage to map between the childhoods before us and memories of our own. The film concerns a band of brothers (and, sadly, discursively, one sister) who spent almost their entire childhood locked away from the world; not far away, as in a fairy tale, but close, in a run-down Manhattan apartment. They can see, smell, and taste the metropolis right outside their window, but they are home-schooled, and only father has the key to the front door. Father also has an interest in movies, and so instead of interacting with other humans, the boys interact with films, and eventually interact with each other through films. They recreate in detail (as far as they can), and re-enact, scenes from the movies they love, as a way to ward off boredom, yes, but moreso as a way to understand what it means to be a human among other humans. Reservoir Dogs (a favorite, we are left unsure, because it deeply connects or because it offers substantial roles for all of them), the Batman trilogy, Halloween, and others become quasi-religious rights, enacted in the living room and hallways with the aid of costumes painstakingly hewn from painted pieces of cereal box and sliced-up yoga mat. The undertaking has the atmosphere of a cult, more of the cargo than of the supreme leader variety – celebrations take on an intensity amplified by the close proximity to the “real thing,” the mysterious society that produced the images that entrance and educate them. (Their Halloween celebration is a thing of beauty, power, poignancy, and some dread). We are introduced to Mom early on, but she seems a bystander, almost one of the gang. Like the titular animals, we begin to think that these teens have raised themselves, and we await the revelation that Dad has absconded to another life, or to the next. But no, gradually father is revealed (although that word might be too strong) to be a hermit, ruling over his own small kingdom rather ineffectually. He could easily have been cast as a tyrant, and without sympathy, but Ms. Moselle is too canny for that. Yes, he is a monster in a way, but he is also a magician. Like Oz, he is a small, disappointed man, out of his element, and with a desire for grander things. He is an idealist – or, better, he identifies as an idealist. Originally from South America, he met mid-western Mom as a guide on the Incan trail. Somehow both of these seemingly hippy dreamers escaped paradise into the urban jungle, and never could find their way out. Unable to go native, Dad dreams of bettering himself in the city, to take the family to the true Western utopia, Scandinavia. Unable to make that happen, he slips into stasis, so close to the ideal, but always too far; he lives in the heart of modernity, and cannot escape to a better one. Or so he says – perhaps these are simply the rationalizations of a lazy, drunken failure. Like everything in this impressionistic film, it is hard to tell what is “true” from what is “real.” Failing to reach his destination, and to deliver his family to their true identities, he recreates his trapped position for his children. As he lives just out of reach of his desire, so shall they.
What separates the monster from the magician might be a matter of perspective. For while this father locks his children away, he does not throw away the key; indeed, he creates a situation (or was it always the case?) that allows them, slowly, to discover that they can escape. And, one by one, they do. They begin to rebel against him, in the necessary process of creating their own identities, and by doing so, reveal their uniqueness to the world, and bring the world into the household (in ways that in other films would have been obvious and ham-handed in their “drama,” but which here flow by suggestively, as memories tend to do). So while father replicated his own prison, he also created a way in which his children could escape theirs in a way he never could. Yes, we can say he has hobbled them, ill-prepared them for the “real” world. At the same time, as we see in a late movie trip to an upstate pumpkin farm, the years cloistered from “reality” have also enchanted reality in a way most of us cannot comprehend. The boys run, whoop, and play, experiencing the colors, tastes, and smells of nature at a time of life which ensures they will be remembered. The father’s sin allows his offspring to experience the world with the fresh senses of children. And, in a turn that is both poignant and potentially self-serving, the children liberate their father as much as is possible – he is along for the ride, although, heartbreakingly, always keeping himself at a remove. As the film winds down, questions only multiply, while answers do not, and the narrative becomes even more fragmented. One of the brothers seems to hitchhike away. Another gets a job as a PA on a film set, and even moves into his own apartment. Mother is reunited with her own mother, who she has not seen in decades. (We hear of a reunion, but do not see it). The daughter, too young to be independent, and who naturally seems to stick close to Dad, remains obscure. (One devastating shot, taken from a distance at the pumpkin farm, shows Mom, Dad, and daughter moving across a field in happiness, only to part as Mom wants to investigate what the boys are up to, Dad splitting off, recoiling into solitude, and the daughter, tottering between them, staggering on, unsure who to follow. We do not see her choice). I am quite positive that the unresolved nature of much of what we see will be dissatisfying for many viewers. If so, that would be a shame, because there is much skill, and strength, in Ms. Moselle’s technique. It takes considerable command, and resolve, to let material speak for itself. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, and gripping, revealing depths that reflect on the nature of the self and of family, and on how we live together at the larger level of a society. In some ways the film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films from the ’70s that focus on outcasts in relation to society, but in many aspects The Wolfpack is more powerful, as it is more humble and less mythic. With the logic of a dream, the film ends with the family producing a “real” film; no longer enacting the dreams of others, each player comes before the camera transformed, representing both him or herself as well as enacting their newly recognized “role.” It is both the logical culmination of the life of a cinephile (playing out in micro form the New Waves of the 1960s) as well as a poetic testament to the forever present possibility of self-fashioning and transfiguration. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as a family portrait; it is the family portrait of us all.