LAFF Review: Red Flag


Red Flag

Filmmaker/actor Alex Karpovsky likes to tinker with reality in ways that make for fascinating movies. The Hole Story is about a filmmaker named Alex who travels to Minnesota to film a natural winter phenomenon that does in fact occur there ... but is Alex's story fact or fiction? In Woodpecker, he interposed fictional characters into a real-life situation: a small town that believed an extinct bird species had been spotted nearby. Part of the movies' charm is determining where the documentary footage ends and where the fictional narrative begins.

In Red Flag, which recently premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival, Karpovsky returns to a character very much like "Alex" in The Hole Story, set during events that actually occurred, but wrapped in a narrative shot with actors and a story that might or might not have its roots in Karpovsky's life. If that sounds confusing ... it might be intentionally so.

The character Alex sets out on a road trip across the South to promote his latest film, Woodpecker. His girlfriend Rachel (Caroline White) had planned to accompany him, but a breakup changes their plans. He unsuccessfully tries to persuade friends to join him, and heads to Atlanta alone. Eventually his loquacious friend Henry (Onur Tukel) decides to tag along. Henry is an illustrator working on his first children's book, the very dark Henry and the Haunted Piano -- his publishers insist that he change the ending, in which the title character dies. The duo are later joined by another unexpected traveler, River (Jennifer Prediger).

Throughout Red Flag, Alex is falling apart at the seams. He strains his back when moving boxes out of his girlfriend's house. Toenails fall off, he gets smacked in the eye with Mardi Gras beads, he has deep scratches on his back, he can't sleep. All he wants is a later check-out time at his hotels so he can get some rest with his bad back, but no one wants to bend hotel rules. Every environment seems to be hostile to him, which takes a toll as the narrative progresses. Depending on the tone, the above scenario could be grim or broadly comic. Karpovsky leans more toward a quiet, dark humor -- realism distorted only slightly.

Alex the character is a practiced talker and a practiced liar, bending the truth for any occasion even when it seems unnecessary or frankly stupid. (I was reminded somehow of The Blues Brothers: "I took the liberty of bullshitting you. It wasn't lies, it was just ... bullshit.") This is an advantage in the post-screening Q&A sessions he has to participate in during his tour, but you know it's going to eventually land him in trouble in his personal life.

Karpovsky has no vanity in creating the character of Alex, who plucks his nose hairs before a Q&A, whose complaining verges on whininess, and who has no compunctions about a one-night stand with a college student who's besotted with him, treating her with no kindness when he encounters her again. In trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, he nearly talks her ear off about himself, barely hearing her, which is probably the kind of thing that damaged the relationship in the first place. And yet he's sympathetic -- at times, I found myself wanting to shake some sense into him, at other times, I just wanted to give him a hug. (Aside to Mr. Karpovsky: That refers solely to the character, so you don't have to run away should we meet anytime soon.)

Red Flag was shot during Karpovsky's actual tour with the movie Woodpecker -- those are real Q&As, for the most part. Adam Ginsberg accompanied him on the tour and served as a one-man camera crew. Between that and Karpovsky's no-holds-barred portrayal of Alex, the movie made me feel voyeuristic at times.

Again, as with his previous films, it's sometimes difficult to tell which parts of the movie really were shot on tour and which were added to the narrative. I started to wonder if those were the actual hotel rooms he stayed in, and how many aspects of the movie were inspired by real-life events. What's real and what's not? And what does "real" even mean in this context? Alex's emotions and his ex-girlfriend's reactions seem genuine. The final scene, which is certainly scripted with actors (I think), feels extremely authentic. That authenticity and the humor and pathos stemming from it are what makes Red Flag worth watching.

Austin connections: Karpovsky is a sometimes-Austinite. Keith Poulson, who plays his brother, went to UT and has appeared in several Austin films, most recently Somebody Up There Likes Me. Karpovsky told me that scenes of this movie were shot in Austin and that I would recognize a few locations, although the movie isn't set here. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't recognize anything in Austin -- although that speaks well of the movie, since I actually believed it took place where it was set, and not here.