Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

The second weekend begins, 4 movies on Saturday, and the best day of the festival so far.

First up was NURSERY UNIVERSITY, the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. I'm going to say that again, emphasizing the important words. It's the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. If this weren't in a documentary festival, I would believe it's an extremely well made mockumentary. Tuition can run upwards of $20,000, and getting into the right "feeder" school can get you into the best grade schools, etc., all the way up to Harvard. Or so some of these parents think. In fact, the pre-school administrators know that their school doesn't guarantee an Ivy League education in the future, but it can give the kids a small step up. Anyway, assisted by the post-9/11 baby boom, the competition is tighter than ever. On the day after Labor Day, parents call as many of the best pre-schools they can to get applications. Often all they can do is enter a lottery for the chance to fill out an application. They take lessons in how to behave in interviews, they are actually encouraged to call the schools every day just to register interest (but not 17 times a day--that's just annoying). They go to extreme lengths for the opportunity to pay $20,000 a year so their kid can play all day. And then there are scenes with the kids, who are...kids. What do they know? They can't tell the difference if they got into the 92nd St. Y or the co-op nursery around the corner. It's all a little ridiculous, and the movie is pretty darn funny.

This made me reflect a bit on my younger years. I actually remember my pre-school, out in the countryside of Everson, WA. I remember one day we were playing outside and found some recently poured (and dried) concrete that had marbles in it. Someone dropped marbles in the wet concrete where they were making the sidewalk, and we decided we wanted the marbles. So we were hitting the sidewalk with rocks, trying to break the marbles out. The teacher saw what we were doing, so she told us maybe it would work to get a big bucket of hot soapy water and dump it on there. So she did, and we scrubbed at the sidewalk trying to get the marbles. I remember thinking it wouldn't work, but not wanting to contradict the teacher. The lesson I learned (quite a bit later) is that adults are pretty silly when they're humoring children, but children are even sillier and can get duped into washing sidewalks.

Next up was APOLOGY OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN, based on the life of Richard Perkins. As a young man, Richard was very smart, and had some classic weaknesses--desire for money, power, and sex. And so he was recruited by the NSA to become an economic hit man. Basically, he inflated the cost and value of projects funded by the World Bank so that borrower countries would be saddled with untenable debt and have to do whatever the U.S. wants in order to get that debt forgiven (meanwhile, those projects happen to go to U.S. corporations). That's just the first step. As he tells it, when a new leader comes to power in a third world country, he'll get a visit from a man who will make him an offer--play ball and become incredibly wealthy. If he refuses, that's when the covert assassins come in. The movie focuses particular attention on Jaime Roldós Aguilera, the populist President of Ecuador, who refused to deal and then happened to die in a plane crash (his daughter confronts Perkins in the movie). The movie glides between recreations that portray the world of economic hit man as film noir gangsters, monologues by Perkins, and--most compelling--events where he's confronted by his victims in Latin America. Those scenes are by far the most powerful. Without them, it would be easy to look on Perkins fondly as a man who did bad things but repented and is trying to make things better--a character that makes for a compelling character. But when appearing at what is essentially a town hall meeting in a giant theatre, he's confronted by people who are still angry. I suppose they're glad to know exactly how they were made subjects of the stealth U.S. empire, but they're (rightfully) still angry. It really brings home how easy (and shallow) it is to forgive someone who didn't actually hurt you, and how hard (or unnecessary) it is if he actually hurt you.

Let's take a break to review Docfest so far. Some of the emergent themes in this year's Docfest are animals, artists, and reuse/recycle. A common theme that is not so prevalent this year is music, particularly odd or obscure music. Okay, back to the reviews

The next film, TRIMPIN: THE SOUND OF INVENTION, definitely fits in the Artist theme, and adds that missing music. Trimpin is an artist living and working in Seattle. He's a German emigre, and has taken as his art the creation of devices and musical instruments largely from found or scrapped items (reuse/recycle has been another theme). The film mixes old footage; interviews with friends, colleagues, and collaborators; and a 2-year cinema-verite "ride-along" as he collaborates and creates kinetic sculptures, musical instruments, and one remarkable concert with the Kronos Quartet. A fascinating and thrilling look at creativity freed from such limitations as a fear to fail. Interesting side note--Trimpin doesn't like recorded music, so the performances caught on tape by director Peter Esmonde (in Dolby 5.1) are some of the very few recordings of Trimpin's music, making this not just a fun and fascinating ride but an important artifact of art and music history.

And then the art theme continued with the first of two printing movies PROCEED AND BE BOLD, starring Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., a true Maverick in life. He was a successful programmer for AT&T, and was basically living the upper-middle class African-American dream. And then he quit it all to take up the letter press and became a simple negro printer. And he started wearing denim overalls and (more recently) a pink shirt every day. He's been an assistant professor of art (at the University of Indiana in Bloomington), and is occasionally a visiting art professor. But he'd call himself a printer or bookmaker before an artist. At Bloomington, he would speak out against policies or issues that bugged him by producing "nappygrams", rpurposing racist images (aunt Jemima, little black Sambo, etc.) and messages for his own purpose. And that's his sense of humor--straightforward, in your face, with a wink and a smile. Personally, my favorite poster of his is FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself (and yes, if you look at the poster right next to it in the gallery, he's a geek, too!) I might just make that my new motto.

Amos was actually there, along with the director Laura Zinger, and they did a great job entertaining the audience during the Q&A, and then they packed the lobby selling posters, a few of which I bought along with the DVD. Sadly, he had no FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself with him, but hopefully he has some I can order online. That was a fun movie about a great guy whom I'm very happy to have met.
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