The Wolfpack: Wild Child x 6
The Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen The Wolfpack in a sneak preview on June 11 featuring a Q&A with Crystal Moselle and the Angulo Brothers. The film then opens at FSLC on June 12, with an additional Q&A on June 13 at 3:00pm.
Like every unruly being that threatens the Apollonian order, a “wild child” filmed is usually a wild child tamed. That rule doesn’t apply, however, to the six paternally dominated, socially deprived—and, for 14 years, quiescent—Peruvian-American brothers who feature in Crystal Moselle’s intimate Sundance-launched documentary The Wolfpack. Both in the act of being filmed and in the act of remaking films without a camera—which aligns them with the Peruvian peasants in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie—these smart, personable Lower East Side kids both invert the wild-child stereotype and liberate themselves creatively.
The potential the “wild child” has to make a mockery of civilized behavior, as Mickey Rooney’s gurgling Puck does in the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, makes him both an anarchic fantasy figure and an object for societal repression in the name of rehabilitation. Gordon Griffith’s boy Tarzan (who appears before Elmo Lincoln’s manlier incarnation, in the 1918 screen debut of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ noble savage), Sabu’s Mowgli and Disney’s “man cub,” Bruno S.’s and André Eisermann’s Kaspar Hausers and Jodie Foster’s Nell (an allegorical embodiment of the former child star’s prescribed evolution) are among the feral children and young adults who have appeared in fictional films. The deafblind Helen Keller (Patty Duke) in The Miracle Worker and Tommy (Roger Daltrey) in Ken Russell’s film of the Who’s rock opera, Augustine (Soko) in the Alice Winocour film of that name, and the deaf teens in Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are afflicted variants of the archetype.
François Truffaut, who had been interested in filming the Helen Keller story, made the quintessential “wild child” film in 1970’s L’Enfant sauvage, which documents the 1800 discovery and subsequent arduous socialization of Victor of Aveyron (gypsy actor Jean-Pierre Cargol) by Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut). Continuing the director’s extended autobiographical meditation on the unloved child’s place in a repressive society, which began with The 400 Blows, L’Enfant sauvage is more conservative than anything in the Antoine Doinel cycle. Denis Lavant’s Merde in the Leos Carax episode of Tokyo! and in Carax’s Holy Motors is meanwhile the acme of the unreconstructed, superannuated wild child on screen.
Searching documentaries on the subject include Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1979), about the California twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy, who communicated through their own idioglossia, and Nova’s harrowing Secret of the Wild Child (1994), about the severely abused Los Angeles child captive known as Genie.
Moselle found her wild-child subjects while walking on First Street in Manhattan’s East Village one night in April 2010, when six handsome youths, who wore their hair down their backs and were dressed in black, ran past her. She followed them and struck up a conversation. It turned out these hardcore Reservoir Dogs aficionados—Bhagavan (then 18, the eldest), twins Govinda and Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna, and Jagadisa (then 11, the youngest), all with Sanskrit-given names—had never previously been allowed by their father to venture outdoors as a group.
Moselle found them articulate, savvy, and imaginative, if not exactly streetwise. Discovering they were movie buffs and that two of them were interested in creative industry jobs and others in performance, she gained their confidence as a friend and, eventually, permission to film them at home. Since the Angulo family’s arrival in New York in 1996, the boys had largely been sequestered—along with their mentally disabled older sister, Visna—in their family’s four-bedroom apartment in public housing, high above Delancey Street, virtually imprisoned by their father, Oscar. Moselle’s nearly five-year act of observation was also an act of intervention that slowly helped liberate the brothers. In her penetrating of the brothers’ inner sanctum (or crucible), there are mythic maternal echoes of Wendy arriving in Neverland and Snow White entering the Seven Dwarfs’ cottage and effecting emotional change in those societies of the developmentally arrested.
The Wolfpack is hazy on the exact level of confinement suffered by the boys; Visna and her three eldest brothers had seen different parts of the country as young children, and all the kids had been taken on excursions around New York City by their mother, Susanne, a onetime hippy from the Midwest who supports the family on the government checks she receives for home-schooling them. The interviews with the brothers that drive the film reveal that the Peruvian-born patriarch, a work-shy Krishna-devotee with a drinking problem, was too fearful of New York’s street crime to risk exposing his kids to it. They didn’t go outside at all in the year following 9/11.
One subtext, of course, is Oscar’s paranoid need for control, which he also visited on Susanne, as she guardedly admits on camera. Neither she nor her sons disclose precisely how Oscar enforced the boys’ isolation from the world, but one of them hints darkly at “unforgiveable” deeds. Another subtext is psychological damage. When Mukunda went AWOL from the apartment wearing a Michael Myers Friday the 13th hockey mask, the police picked him up and he became the first but not the only one of the brothers to receive counseling.
Not all of Oscar’s influence was pernicious. The AC/DC fan and failed rock musician made his sons learn instruments and fed them a steady diet of VHS cassettes and DVDs. Narayana, the Orson Welles and David Lynch fan who’s the most film-literate of the brothers, says they’ve seen five thousand movies. That’s roughly a movie a day for 14 years. In lieu of socialization, they were inculcated in the codes and behaviors of the artificial realities of cinema. It remains to be seen if this has permanently harmed their ability to relate maturely to other people; the film doesn’t suggest they’ve been warped by the movie glut, though it has led to some moments of introspective character transference, as when Christopher Nolan fan Makunda dresses as Batman for a Dark Knight re-creation.
Indeed, there has been a benefit. Living in a kind of home-as-video-store provided them with perpetual artistic stimulus; it comes as no surprise to learn that fellow movie devourer Quentin Tarantino is one of the Angulos’ favorite auteurs. They have ritualistically transcribed the dialogues from films that excite them and lovingly reenacted them as playlets with handmade costumes and props. Their Reservoir Dogs—a multi-character story ideal for brothers—is a lovely homage, the “Stuck in the Middle With You” torture scene a standout. More poignant is their Nightmare on Elm Street/horror pastiche, which they stage—around an indoor bonfire—after apparently watching other costumed kids heading freely toward the West Village Halloween Parade. None of the reenactments shown by Moselle channels the boys’ adolescent and post-adolescent sexuality, which must at times be the elephant in that cramped apartment where all but aspiring cinematographer Govinda still live.
Though the brothers’ playacting once caused the police to raid their apartment in search of guns—a debacle that infuriated them since it led to Susanne being briefly handcuffed—their sublimation of their rage and frustration concerning their entrapment in lurid and violent movie scenarios was obviously therapeutic. As well as generating group-leader Makundo’s film and video experiments and friendship with his pretty leading lady, the Angulos’ self-mediation (and self-medication through cinema) reconfigures the “wild child” experience as a postmodern phenomenon. Anticipated by Tommy’s “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” escaping abuse and actualizing his reality through the magically operational pinball machine he finds on a dump (presumably a metaphor for Pete Townshend’s discovery of the electric guitar), the overly domesticated brothers channeled the untamed parts of their psyches in a homemade Gotham City and artificial L.A. crime zone cocooned from the savage metropolis their father believed to lie outside their LES project. Possessively protected from the evilness of cities they saw in so many movies, they had no option but to invent it for themselves, as so many kids before them reinvented the Wild West.