Home Video Hovel- Ptown Diaries, by Patrick Felton
As the summer season approaches, many Americans find themselves pondering a unique vacation spot.
One option Joseph Mantegna would really like you to consider Provincetown. With his 2009 film Ptown Diaries documentarian Joseph Mantegna (Norman Mailer: The American) makes a convincing case for why you should visit Provincetown. CinaLibre Studios, who released the special interest documentary The Highest Pass have now made the film available for DVD purchase or digital download.
The film features interviews with such luminaries from the community such as novelists Norman Mahler and Michael Cunningham juxtaposed with B-roll extolling the communities many virtues.
In this single goal, the film is relatively successful. Provincetown seems like a wonderful liberating place worthy of a visit of any travelers to Cape Cod.
Those who are already acolytes of Mantegna’s pro-Provincetown evangelism will likely be neither turned of nor surprised by Ptown Diaries‘ content, but those seeking a meaty sociological exploration of this unique town are likely to be disappointed. As it progresses the film plays less like a documentary and more like an infomercial for Provincetown. It documents the many historic buildings, museums, monuments, and events with relative ease. The narration (read by the effervescent Alan Cumming) explains the history of the community as well as many of the famous people who had called it home. Tonally its closer to an episode of “Conde Nest Traveler” than a theatrical documentary.
What saves Ptown Diaries from being relegated only to Cape Cod visitor centers is the fascinating history of the Provincetown community itself. Even without a strong journalistic curiosity, the film documents the evolution of the community from a refuge for Portuguese sailors to America’s seminal modern artist community to its current role as the LBGT capitol of the East Coast. The stories told provide much mirth including the exploits of painter Jackson Pollock, playwrights Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, and lawyer Roy Cohn.
The most entertaining moments of this travelogue focus on the modern and historical gay lifestyle of Provincetown. There is no shortage of drag queens, scantily clad men, and T-shirts with various drawings of genitalia on them. One memorable sequence chronicles “Bear Week” a week-long celebration of the Grizzly Bear gay subculture of large hairy men. While the film never reaches the level of voyeuristic ambition of gay documentaries such as After Stonewall or Gay Sex in the 70s these sequences act as a nice analogue to the clips of exotic women in bikinis common to travel documentaries.
Also holding the documentary together is extensive interview footage with legendary novelist and Provincetown stalwart Norman Mailer. Mantegna had previously documented the late author and utilizes sound bites from the cantankerous author often and well.
Even with its brief running time, the film has many surprising blind spots. No mention was given to the legendary Beggar’s Bar, where the likes of Tennessee Williams, Peggy Gugenheim, Jackson Pollack, Valeska Gert, Judith Molina and Julian Beck would pass time and sharpen their teeth before going their separate ways. The film briefly gives lip service to the animosity between the straight and gay community then never follows up. (As only the original version was available for review, it remains unclear whether these omissions were rectified in the 89 minute director’s cut also available in DVD form).
On the few occasions that the film veers from the upbeat tone, the film becomes relatively unsettling. Like many documentaries dealing with gay culture, the film has difficulty reconciling the upbeat attitude it wants to project with the reality of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The aforementioned 2-minute sequence which hints at a rare phenomena of heterophobia and heterosexual ostricization from the gay community is so short as to be ponderous. Most troubling, a story is included which implies that Roy Cohn attempted to rape Norman Mailer’s son causing Mahler to put up a wall to prevent AIDS from spreading is heinously inappropriate in the context of the piece.
To ask Ptown Diaries to succeed as a individual piece of documentary art may be asking too much. The film neither pretends to or wants to be more than a loving tribute to a town which clearly means a lot to Mr. Mantagna. Ultimately this film will likely function as a must see for those already enamored with or visiting Provincetown. However for those whom leisure travel may not be an option, Ptown Diaries serves as a passable substitute for visiting this very unique town.