Monday, October 24, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

Or as I'm calling it now, Doctoberfest! 5 more movies on Sunday.

First up, a bit of comedy with TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM. The operative word here is "concert." Although there are interviews and musings on comedy, small clubs, and the "alternative" comedy scene, this is primarily a recording of a show. Director Producer Liam McEneaney [correction, Liam is an executive producer. The director is actually Victor Varnado. My mistake] is a comedian himself, and the creator of Tell Your Friends! The title could have a double meaning, both as how they get people to show up, and what they do there. The comics generally talk about how they find it easier and more comfortable to work up new bits in these smaller indie clubs, and as a result while the show is frequently hilarious some bits drag (Kurt Braunholer and Kristen Schaal's bit about Pocohantas and John Smith having phone sex could be tightened by about half). While it was fun, I couldn't help concluding that it's probably more fun to actually be there, and a lot of that energy just wasn't captured on film. Oh yeah, and Reggie Watts, who I think of more as an Andy Kauffman-esque performance artist than a comedian, was a brilliant end to the show.

Then Docfest took a very serious turn, with WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM. The three soldiers they follow all come from Michigan's upper peninsula. Childhood friends who joined the National Guard for a little extra money, and then they're called up to Afghanistan. Their unit sweeps the roads for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and the filmmakers get some incredible access to both their work and their personal moments. One of the most brilliant moments in the movie comes while the soldiers are joking about the hippies who go to film festivals and how they prefer, "good movies." All funny, and kind of at the audience's expense, and then and IED goes off. This is not the first or last, and in fact their unit all got awarded for the number of IED attacks they sustained. Another poignant moment comes as they're getting ready to leave and one kid confesses that he hates everything about Afghanistan--the people, the language, the customs, the terrain, the government. He says flat-out, "I have become a racist American" and it's all because of his time there.

And then they come home, to a heroes' welcome, and it feels like that's the end, finally their war is over and so is the movie. But really, that's where it gets interesting, as they've all changed from that, and they spend months trying to adapt back to the civilian world. Now they get irritable, maybe suffering from either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It's tough on their parents, friends, girlfriends. A lot of this is left unresolved, while they watch expressionless while Obama announce a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the film had to end, but I would love to see how these guys are doing five years down the line.

The last three movies of the day were all in one way or another hero-worship films. And we start with the least well know hero, Gene Sharp in HOW TO START A REVOLUTION. He's an academic and probably the Albert Einstein of non-violent overthrow of regimes. So it's appropriate that he does his work from the Albert Einstein Institute (which seems to be just him and his assistant Jamila Raqib, who was in town for the screening and will be talking at the TED X conference in San Francisco this week). Sharp published From Dictatorship to Democracy, and detailed 198 non-violent methods for fighting oppression. Things like protests, mockery and comic skits, boycotts, hunger strikes...you know, ineffective hippie bullcrap. Except, of course, they work. This isn't pie-in-the sky wishful thinking, this is serious research. And of course not all 198 will be appropriate in every situation (and Gene is very humble, insisting when asked for advice he doesn't know the details of any individual situation. The origin is his 'Aha!' moment, when he realized that every dictator is propped up by various pillars (police, popular will, the media, etc.) and those pillars depend on people playing along. Weaken (or better, convert) those pillars and the regime will crumble without a shot. In fact, shooting is usually the worst thing you can do. Almost universally, the one advantage dictators have over their subject is they are better armed. Why fight an enemy in the one way he has the greatest advantage? And his theories have worked in Burma, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine...and more recently Tunisia and Egypt. He's regarded as a danger to many dictatorships. Owning his writings have gotten people thrown in jail. The Iranian government even made a movie asserting he's a CIA operative (trust me, if you saw his tiny East Boston office/home, you would know he's not that well funded). Truly an inspirational man, sitting at his desk, researching how to help people free themselves, and changing the world with his writings.

The next hero to worship is the awesome indie animator Bill Plympton. But first, a short film INGRID PITT: BEYOND THE FOREST, made by ten year old animator Perry Chen. Ingrid Pitt went on to be a famous actress (she was in the only version of THE WICKER MAN that I acknowledge to exist), but when she was ten she was a Holocaust survivor. She and her family were marched into the woods to be shot, but an Allied air strike scattered the Germans and saved her. This retelling, in her own voice, is the last film she made before she passed away.

And then, a twisted comic trip ADVENTURES IN PLYMPTOONS. Indiefest is a huge Bill Plympton fan, he even appeared with HAIR HIGH several years back. When director Alexia Anastasio first met Bill, he showed her his novelty tie that had a normal pattern on the front but a picture of a naked lady hidden in the back. That's the kind of sly, wicked humor in both Bill and this documentary. Full of clips of his work and interviewees who seem to take delight in poking fun (Terry Gilliam insists he sees the bill--how much he'll be paid--before he talks about Bill). It shows this talented kid from Oregon who blazes his own trail, works hard, stays independent (he turned down an offer of $1 million to animate the genie in Alladin), and makes it big...or at least biggish. Cult big, let's say. It's a feel good story with gratuitous sex and violence. And that's pretty awesome. I don't know if this movie would appeal much to people who aren't already Plymptoon fans. But if you aren't what's wrong with you? Go see his work, become a fan, and then enjoy this film.

Oh yeah, and Alexia funded this project (at least in part), with the indie filmmakers new best friend, Kickstarter. If you liked this and particularly the sense of humor as much as I did, consider backing her new project, GINGER GIRLS.

And finally, we end with the hero-worshippiest film of them all, about a man who gave us a metric s**t-ton of heroes to worship, WITH GREAT POWER: THE STAN LEE STORY. It's a pretty straightforward story of an ambitious kid who sort of fell into managing a comics department, but while he was there he put all his energy into making it as good as possible and some 70 years later he's got an empire, tons of fans, and still somehow more energy than me. His great idea, of course, was focusing on the men (and women) behind the costumes, showing their normal life problems and grounding them in the real world (e.g., New York instead of Gotham or Metropolis). Not all times were great, of course. The comics code nearly broke his spirit. He was ready to quit when his wife told him to try making just one the way he wanted to, so he could get it out of his system and move on. So the Fantastic Four was created (specifically showing the tensions and fights within the team), and the rest is history. Oh yeah, and his wife Joan Lee is a big part of the movie and the scenes with her are some of the most poignant, funniest, and most human in the movie. I'm sure Stan gets told everywhere he goes how awesome he is, and it's great to see her (lovingly, of course) taking him down a peg or two. The rest of the film is breezy entertainment about a guy who pretty much lucked into the greatest job in the world. Probably only appropriate for his fans, but he's got a ton of them so that's no problem at all.

Total Running Time: 432 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,895
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