Film Review: ‘The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek’

Film Review: 'The Battle of Pussy

Though far less ambitious than “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” Civil War mockumentary “The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek” satisfyingly sends up pious History Channel-style treatments of the conflict, gathering steam and inspiration as it progresses. Producer-writer-director Wendy Jo Cohen’s improbable cast of misfit heroes, caricatures of what history left out, include a gay, opium-addicted lieutenant; a geriatric Chinese laundryman/general; a black engineer/inventor; and a one-armed teenage whore in military drag. With its convincingly antique-looking artifacts and hilarious “re-creations,” the March 1 release should please auds searching for an intelligent, satiric spin on historical hindsight.

The film is propelled by subject-heading title cards, and punctuated by drawings, maps and ersatz memorabilia; a smugly omniscient if not entirely trustworthy narrator; a motley assortment of dubious talking-head experts; and supposedly contemporaneous saccharine songs of the period. Slowly it introduces the unsung heroes of the unsung Battle of Pussy Willow Creek, where, according to legend, the 13th Rhode Island Infantry, though outnumbered 53 to 1, defeated a vastly superior force of combined Confederate and British troops bent on seizing Washington, D.C., even as the “diversionary” Battle of Gettysburg raged on.

Among the multiple stories threaded by Cohen are the gay lieutenant’s West Point affair with a fellow-cadet-turned Confederate enemy; the transplanted Chinese general’s contradictory I Ching-mandated paths; the black inventor’s charmed life as the purported son of a plantation-owning couple and subsequent fall into slavery; and the teenage prostitute with an all-consuming quest for vengeance. The well-structured interlocking plotlines all lead inexorably to the astounding battle.

Aside from a faked 1932 interview with an old lady (Emily Mitchell), a faraway eyewitness to the battle, the only actors visible in “Pussy Willow” are those portraying the film’s large roster of talking heads. Though several of the assorted agenda-driven scholars, descendants and buffs acquit themselves with necessary subtlety, many others are written and thesped as over-the-top stereotypes, upsetting the film’s fragile comic balance between the exaggerated outrageousness of events and the ostensible earnestness of their recounting.

The visual re-enactments of the battle, however, suffer no such unevenness, and represent the comic highpoints of Cohen’s mockumentary. One strives to literalize a soldier’s-eye view of war, with a handheld camera rushing madly across an empty field, bobbing, weaving and finally falling, accompanied by exaggerated post-synched sound effects. Another seeks to populate the battlefield with mighty opposing forces by inserting wholly inert shots of heroic statues, frozen in motion, as the camera forges across a completely deserted battle site. A third is pulled up short by the cameraman running into a mailbox and slamming into a Piggly Wiggly, the commemorated ground having been paved over and turned into a shopping mall.

A Wide Sphere Films production. Produced, directed, written by Wendy Jo Cohen.

Camera (color/B&W, HD), Matthew Howe; music, Patrick Derivaz; art director, Andrea Steiner; costume designer, Ms. Marni; sound designer, Eve Cuyen. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Feb. 23, 2013. Running time: 96 MIN.

With: Emily Mitchell, Christopher Lukas, Matthew Ludwinski, Tim Cusak, Zeb Hollis III, John Redmond, Andy Sandberg, Maureen Brooks.

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