Submitted without comment:
A post that'll function as much as a note to self as anything else: fun film stuff happening on neither coast.
First up, in the A-T-L [via]
And then, at the enviable Wexner Center at OSU:
|JUL 2||Mean Streets|
Saturday Night Fever
// Double Feature
|JUL 9||Purple Rain|
// Double Feature
|JUL 16||Velvet Goldmine|
The Virgin Suicides
// Double Feature
|JUL 23||Wex Drive-In|
|JUL 23||Dazed and Confused|
// Double Feature
|AUG 6||Urban Cowboy|
// Double Feature
|AUG 13||Jackie Brown |
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
// Double Feature
|AUG 20||Wex Drive-In|
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
|AUG 20||Easy Rider|
IFFB: Speaking in Code
Attending a festival in the same town your family calls home can be a bit tricky. Festivals, understandably, program films at times when the largest audiences possible might attend--weekday nights and all day long on weekends. But that means that your free time falls when everybody else is at work and you're booked solid when they're not.
So I was especially delighted that I was able to catch the premiere of Speaking in Code at IFFB with my brother, house music DJ Mike Swells. Code evangelizes for electronic dance music, specifically techno, examining its spread from its origins in African-American clubs in the midwest to the huge festival circuit in Europe and trying to figure out why it fails to thrive on that scale in its home country. [Boston's tiny scene is a case in point: My brother seemed to know nearly every person in the balcony. He also knew filmmaker Amy Grill's husband David Day, another Boston-based DJ and promoter, who I'd met as well, way back when he worked at Other Music's short-lived Cambridge branch.]
Director Amy Grill is fortunate in her documentary subjects, odd ducks united by their passion for techno music. Philip Sherburne, who decamps to Spain from San Francisco [I quickly glimpsed a copy of Benjamin's Illuminations on his bed amid the packing clutter], and Day himself are the only Americans of note. Instead, there are established figures like Gerhard Behles of Monolake, who tends his plants in a gorgeous white-on-white Berlin flat, having made his fortune by inventing Ableton Live DJ software. We get a glimpse of BPitch Control's queen Ellen Allien, and Miss Kittin, too, yielding the stage at a Spanish fest called Sonar to up-and-comers Modeselektor--at the prime time of 4 a.m.
But scenes like Modeselektor performing before thousands of ecstatic dancing bodies, which give the viewer a sense of the scope of this music's popularity in Europe, are all too rare. More common is footage like that of Grill spending time in the German countryside with the Wighnomy brothers, one of whom gets increasingly morose and withdrawn over the course of the narrative. Or else back in Boston, where she and Day try to promote their beloved music, at one time even hosting several parties per week in their live-work loftspace, all the while falling further behind in paying their bills.
In all honesty, one of the first notes I made during the screening was "Amy G. v.o." I completely understand the economies behind documentaries, particularly a globe-trotting one like Code, but I was skeptical of her choice to serve as narrator. And I was less than sold on her choice of her partner as the representative of the U.S. techno scene, nice as David is. But the film takes a turn for which its editors/advisors can't be lauded enough. Grill's "economy jet set lifestyle" in pursuit of these musicians unexpectedly but persuasively morphs into a moving portrait of a marriage. We see Grill and Day grow further and further apart over the course of the film, until Grill realizes that her husband is no longer her co-producer but one of her characters. This realization marks the beginning of the dissolution of their marriage, and the choice to show this plays as brave rather than exploitative, again thanks to the editing.
Would that I could say the same for the post-screening Q&A. Even though the hometown crowd was supportive, the awkward arraying of bodies on the stage--Grill on one side, Day on the other, with editor Jason Blanchard in between--expressed more eloquently than their words the careful balancing act struck between exes still united to promote their common love of techno music.
A confession: I went into this doc with only the vaguest notion of what Up With People was, aside from shorthand for clean-scrubbed, conservative, and insipid, and the hope it might shed some insight on a very popular organization that appeals to clean-scrubbed do-gooder youths where I teach, FCA [ask your Christian friends]. Smile 'Til It Hurts, with its mix of talking-head interviews and epically cheesy archival performance footage [the 1986 Super Bowl halftime show!], did much more than deliver the goods. What I discovered about the history of these singing and dancing "radical moderates" was equal parts fascinating and fuuuuucked up.
Smile begins the Up With People story with an investigation of Moral Re-Armament, a zealot-y evangelical Christian [and anti-Communist] sect, and its cult leader-like founder, one Reverend Frank Buchman. He preached the Four Absolutes: absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, but what that meant for members was that Buchman was the absolute authority: he alone granted permission when and whom to marry, whether they could have children or even have sex. Oh, and there was the usual accrual of money and property, etc. Buchman died in 1961, and in 1965 MRA executive national director J. Blanton Belk founded a youth group that gave musical performances to counter the counterculture called Sing-Outs.
By 1968 the group was named Up With People and had broken from MRA with an eye to spreading its message through the mainstream media. It attracted earnest late adolescents who wanted peace just as much as their hippie peers--but without sacrificing personal hygiene. However, even after People officially severed its ties to MRA, it continued to be governed according to Buchman's cult-y manipulative methods. Yes, these kids got to travel the globe and meet world leaders and celebrities, but former cast members, including featured performers, tell of being dropped/shunned if they defied the diktats of the Up higher-ups. Some, like former Olympian rower John Sayre, continue to defend Up With People's world-changing agenda even after essentially being excommunicated. Others, like Frank Fields, an African-American member who got in trouble for criticizing Nixon, dropped out and disappeared. These people were naive college-age kids, but their present-day senior citizen selves still seem stung by these abrupt volte-faces.
The story of Up With People is a story of co-opted optimism. American presidents like Nixon embraced the performers' pro-America message of patriotism as a welcome corrective to the protests of their peers. In subsequent decades, as the troupes toured the world and stayed with host families in countries on every continent save Antarctica, the CEOs that Belk recruited to sit on the People board realized that these kids, selling "America" to hostile nations, were tailor-made emissaries for corporations with ambitions of going global [Hello, Haliburton!]. Which may explain why they kept pouring cash in to the constantly strapped organization and invited the kids to perform corporate tours before bemused factory workers.
Cynical capitalism may have supplanted ideology, but despite it all, the members really believed in the Up mission. And they were like missionaries at first, impressively integrated from the get-go with African-, Asian-, and Native-American members singing and dancing with gusto everywhere from Watts to Washington D.C. alongside bright-eyed white go-getters [like a very young Glenn Close]. Over time, Up With People moved from a missionary to a tuition-based model, and escalating costs resulted in less racial and economic diversity.
By the early 80s, reports a queeny former cast member, Up With People was a preserve for closet cases. His account drips with scorn, but it's balanced by passionate testimonies from other members, including one African-American woman who tells an amazing story of a Southern tour stop during the Freedom Riders summer. Ultimately, what's remarkable and endless engrossing about Smile is how many of the participants who appear in the doc still cite their time in the troupe as not simply life-changing but positive.
A final word of warning if you manage to see Smile [and you should]: Good luck getting those earnest, catchy, campy songs--"Which Way, America?" "What Color Is God's Skin?"-- out of your head.
Today, the cinetrix offers the first of three reviews of music-themed films I caught at three separate festivals this spring. Servicey!
SXSW: Sounds Like Teen Spirit
First up: a doc by the charming and adorable Jamie J. Johnson, a self-deprecating young Brit. I saw Sounds Like Teen Spirit deliberately and delightedly on Sunday night at SXSW. After a slew of bro-tastic indie boy 20something microdramas [about which more, er, sometime], I needed a palate cleanser. What better than a look at the driven moppets who compete for glory and country at the kid's edition of the Eurovision Song Contest? Tightly wound kids? Anxious/proud parents? Europop and glittering, questionable outfits? Nationalism? Yes, please!
The film, part of the SX Global sidebar at the Hideout, was all that I hoped for, with one exception that I'll get to in a bit. I slid into the seat next to my old grad school classmate Basil, and we were off and running. A nice mix of archival, talking head, and performance footage outlines the storied history and noble aim of the Eurovision contests, meant to bring nations back together through song after the devastation of World War II. Better still, the junior version features songs written by the contestants themselves.
Johnson begins at the qualifiers in Belgium--walloon Whitney loses to a four-piece featuring lanky drummer Laurens, which advances to the finals. From there, we meet the other subjects: Giorgios, a dark-eyed Cypriot boy hassled at school for being fey; Marina, a beautiful Bulgarian girl who hopes her absent oligarch father might return to her and her mother if she does well; and the aforementioned Belgian band.
And then there's Mariam. The first ever contestant from the former Russian satellite of Georgia, she carries the ambition of her tiny country with stolidity and grace. But unlike the other kids, she doesn't speak any English. Which wouldn't be an issue, except the print that screened at South By lacked subtitles. To Johnson's credit as a storyteller, 90% of the audience stuck it out, even though there were long stretches in Georgian. After a while, in fact, I began to think it was intentional, a critique of my own First Worldism. Why don't I know Georgian?
Anyway, the big show begins, our subjects compete, nerves fray, and the votes are tallied. Flying in the face of the global understanding Eurovision seeks to encourage, the countries tend to vote in blocs, rating their regional allies higher in the tally: Greece boosts Cyprus, and so on. There's no way I'll give away which country prevails, but the "where are they know" montage that closes the doc--to the strains of "The Winner Takes It All," what else?--left few dry eyes when the lights came up. The tears quickly turned to laughter, however, at the very English mortification expressed by Johnson about the missing titles in the post-screening Q&A. Seek it out, won't you?
Attention New Yorkers reading this right now. There's still time to make it to Light Industry by 7:30 p.m. for this amazing-sounding program--if you hustle.
Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall was one of my favorite shorts at Full Frame this April. When I saw it I hd no idea the film was part of a larger project. Located in southern China--but not near an airport--the mall is easily twice the size of the Mall of America, but no matter how many colorful banners boast in broken English slogans like "Interpretation of Quality of Life," the one-stop consumption center is yawningly empty. The developer built, but they didn't come. So Green shoots an offmarket Teletubby-costumed worker wandering the empty halls. He speaks with men who clean sewage from the complex's canals daily because their boss won't divert a pipe. And he captures an earnest ceremony conducted by the plucky employees of this empty experiment in Chinese capitalism. It's incisive, cutting, and funny as hell, and it looks beautiful.
Utopia, Part 3 would be great on a bill with Fish Kill Flea and The World, or perhaps as prep for the recently opened 24 City [of which I saw only the Little Flower sequence at Full Frame]. If you miss tonight's program, Part 3 also plays as part of the Shorts 2 program on Sunday, June 28 at 3:15 p.m. at BAMcinemaFest.
In fairness, I should admit up front that this review of Stingray Sam, Cory McAbee's musical space serial will be slight, slighter even than the premise upon which he hangs swinging tunes and improbable set pieces. But! It is playing at Rooftop Films Saturday night, and I encourage all of you New York types to go. It will make you happy.
How do I know? Well, Stingray Sam was that last film I saw at IFFB and the second that day from the Brattle balcony, this time with friends I bumped into outside. So I ditched the critical apparatus and settled in to be entertained. Lemme tell ya, it was a perfect lagniappe. [Watch the trailer and see for yourself.]
Basically, Stingray Sam, shot in black and white and allegedly sponsored by "Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco," is set in a dystopian future [its history recounted in episode 2, "The Forbidden Chromosome," using really splendid clip art] in which entire planets have been turned into prisons. Our titular hero [McAbee, director of The American Astronaut] teams with fellow former felon the Quasar Kid [weakness: olives] and together they have adventures, don disguises, try to thwart the evil Fredward, and save the girl. Did I mention their tendency to break into musical numbers in unlikely locations, like the Institute of Science and Trivia? Silly, yes, but so satisfying.
Oh, and David Hyde Pierce narrates, using his best Edward Everett Horton delivery.
McAbee explained during the Q&A that the series was designed with mobile phones in mind, but I encourage you to big-screen binge on it all at once. It'll be like a lazy Sunday squandered on the sofa watching some insipid tv show marathon, only with other people around to laugh with you at the hackneyed gags and sing along to the incessantly catchy theme song.
Allow me to join the "oh no he di'nt" chorus of praise for A.O. Scott's deft, deadly takedown of the Dave Eggars/Vendela Vida-penned Away We Go. A sample:
And even though they express themselves with a measure of diffidence, it’s clear that they are acutely, at times painfully, aware of their special status as uniquely sensitive, caring, smart and cool beings on a planet full of cretins and failures.
Now, Scott's nothing if not a consummate professional [why, in all the years I've levied criticisms of his work he's never once returned the favor--in any forum I have access to, at least]. But there's still part of me that wants to trace his venom back to some real/perceived slight visited upon him by his fellow Brooklynites while the chief critic of the New York Times was working his shift* at the [self-consciously virtuous confines of the] Park Slope Co-op.
To that end I did a search for Scott and "co-op" and came upon the following ancient entry left on a message board by his spouse:
Thing is, said update was left on the site for the [Harvard] Dudley House Co-op, a.k.a. the Center for High-Energy Meta-Physics [note those initials], known locally as a gorgeous house on Mass. Ave near Sacramento simply teeming with a bunch of overprivileged, undergrad, patchouli-scented pot-heads playing at being dirty hippies. So now I don't know what to think.
*Fun fact recently learned from one of the 'Fesser's contacts. /stalkery aside