Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--day 2

5 movies on Saturday, no time to write, so let's just Rock these Docs!

First up was "American Scary", a loving tribute to the grand tradition of late night TV horror show hosts. Specifically focusing on the locally produced, low-to-no-budget shows that are nearly dead nowadays (killed off by network ownership/control of "local" stations. It's now much more cost-effective to run an infomercial at 1 am than produce even the lowest budget schlock). Occasionally the art form resurfaces--Joe Bob Briggs had a show on TNT a while back, and in 2004 Fox produced 13 nights of horror with Neil Gaiman (who used a coffin on his show that's exactly like mine! Which was awesome, when he asks "how often do you get a chance to climb out of a coffin?" I can answer "About a couple thousand times, so far!") Ultimately, it's a treasure of recovered footage, and filled me with a desire to see such shows resurrected.

Here's a pic of director John Hudgens:


And here are local hosts SF's John Stanley and Berkeley's Doktor Goulfinger (out of costume)


And here's a better pic of the good Doktor:


BTW, you can see John Stanley and Doktor Goulfinger at Shock it to Me! at the Castro next weekend.


Next up, we moved from schlock TV to political drama in "Orange Winter", documenting the people in Kiev who protested the fraudulent election, eventually overturned the results, and brought Victor Yushschenko to power. You may remember these events--opposition leader Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin just days before the election. Ironically, dioxin is commonly known as "Agent Orange", the color of the opposition. At the time, director Andrei Zagdansky was living in New York, but had family back in the Ukraine and was obviously very emotionally attached to the events. He put this film together from footage of the crowds as well as the Kiev opera house production of "Boris Gudenov" and classic Ukrainian silent film footage. Although his stance can superficially be seen as pro-Yushchenko, the movie is really more about the phenomenal power of the ordinary people who shut down Kiev until the Supreme Court declared a run-off election. It's fascinating to see the dedication and the impromptu city that sprung up (which reminded me of Burning Man in a way, but this city actually had a point) people met, became friends, fell in love, even got married in the crowd (don't know how well that lasted). The footage is narrated by the explicitly biased, but passionless and scholarly voice of Matthew Gurewitsch (in English, although the film takes place in the Ukraine, there are only about a dozen subtitled lines). Ultimately it's a fascinating look at people who are so hungry for true democracy that they'll camp out for months to be sure to get it. Here, we'll only camp out for video game consoles or Harry Potter books. I can't help but thinking (or remembering?) that if the same thing happened here, the protests would be a few thousand people at best and everyone else would view them as crazy or an annoyance.



Next up was a Vietnam war story with some amazing footage, "Shakey's Hill". But first, the short "When the Light's Red". Filmmaker Keith Wilson recently moved to Austin, TX where he was surprised by the number of homeless panhandlers (or, as they call themselves, "flyers") at the intersections. Of course, we have these in San Francisco, too, but he started questioning what he should do about them. Ignoring them made him feel bad, giving them money made him believe that they'd just buy booze with it (and he followed one to confirm it). Well, he explores the question and admittedly doesn't come up with an answer. But I liked the idea of keeping a fresh apple in your car to give to them. Here's a pic of Keith Wilson:


"Shakey's Hill" is a movie that at its simplest is a non-political story about war and experiences of being a soldier. In 1970 Norman Lloyd, CBS combat cameraman, joined the 5th batallion of the 7th Cavalry on their search and destroy mission into Cambodia. He was paid $50 if CBS chose to use his footage (talking to him afterwards, he dismissed it by saying he "only got that crazy every 6 months or so"). As a result, he got the most impressive up-close battle footage I've ever seen, and more importantly made life-long friends of the men in the unit. Over 30 years later, he interviewed the survivors about the mission and their experiences and edited it together with his footage (bought back from CBS for many times the cost) to make this movie. "Shakey" of the title was the nickname for the youngest member of the unit, who shook from fright and was killed finding the first munitions cache on the hill which came to be named for him. The hill turned out to house an enormous amount of munitions and capturing it effectively shut down the North Vietnamese army in that region. But I digress, because the movie is not really about their exploits or heroism (although there's plenty of that in the story), it's about the difficult job of being a professional soldier. I've come to understand something--I will never truly understand what it's like to be a soldier. As best I can wrap my head around it, it goes like this--it's a job. It's not a job they enjoy, they're not in it to get their jollies. It's just a job, but the main part of the job description is "you will make the closest friends you will ever have, and then you will watch them die." They deserve my understanding, but sadly since I've never been a soldier I don't think that's something I can give. Instead, they can have my respect, my admiration, and my thanks. And if they find me in the bar, they can have a drink on me. Here's a pic of director Norman Lloyd (some of the soldiers were also there, but they didn't come up front for the Q&A):


Next up was an example of an Indiefest staple--a documentary about relatively obscure musicians. "Golden Days" is the story of The Damnwells, a Brooklyn indie rock band with a bright looking future. Founded in 2001, in 2004 they signed a major deal with Epic records and went into the studio to make their 3rd album (and first on a major label). However the recording sessions drag on, the release date it pushed back, and in January of 2005 Epic drops them. So quickly this looks like it will be an "unmaking of the band" movie. Fortunately leader Alex Dezen and the rest of the band keep a mostly grounded outlook with a healthy dose of humor (some of my favorite moments are them just clowning around backstage or between recording sessions). After a year of being jerked around by Epic, they're basically right back where they started--a struggling mostly unknown band from Brooklyn with a small but devoted cult following. They don't bear any ill will towards Epic (or if they do, they don't say so on camera). They're a little more cynical, but they have a good enough time hanging out and playing music together that they're still giving it a shot. And, their music is pretty good.

And finally, we keep on the music theme as Indiefest teams up with SF Bluesfest for a couple of different jazz doc programs. First up was the short "The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins", a rambling but hilarious first person look at Lighning Hopkins. I didn't know anything about him before (sorry, I'm not a blues man), but this movie (made in 1969 by Bay Area filmmaker Les Blank) at least gave me a little of his flavor and especially his sense of humor.

And then the (nearly finished) work in progress "Every Beat of My Heart: the Johnny Otis Story". The name, of course, was familiar but I knew embarrassingly little about him. For example, I didn't even know he was (arguably) white. The son of Greek immigrants growing up in Berkeley, all his friends were black and he argues that culturally and by choice he is black. I knew he was a band leader and is credited with finding some of the great voice talents in R&B. But I didn't know he ran for city council in LA, or that until recently he hosted a radio show from Sebastapol (health reasons have kept him off the air. Which reminds me--I didn't even know he was still alive). So I guess I'm saying that I'm probably the wrong person to review this film. But I still found it (and him) engaging, and the music, of course, was cool as hell.

And that's last Saturday at Docfest. I saw 5 more movies on Sunday, and I'll see two more tonight.
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