First up, THE WOODMANS, and interesting look at a family of artists. The focus is Francesca Woodman, and apparently if you're into photography you should know about her. I didn't, so this was my introduction. She took provocative photos and videos, often of herself nude, but with amazing rich and inventive compositions. Her parents are both artists (mom does pottery, dad was an abstract artist who turned to photography later), and even they (or at least dad) admitted that her work was so good that it made their work look kind of silly in comparison. The operative word in that sentence is, "was." They keep talking about her in the past sense, so it's clear something has happened to her. So for the whole film I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course, I could have saved myself the tension by either reading the program notes or spending one minute googling her. So spoiler alert: yes, she's dead. She committed suicide. That was in 1981. And the movie is as much about how her family (parents and brother) deal with that, how their art changes as part of the coping/grieving process, and how she still gets more recognition than they do (which, as her father says, would be a problem if it wasn't so deserved).
So next up, we take a bit lighter look at CIRCUS DREAMS. A very entertaining film about young circus performers and Circus Smirkus, one of the (if not the) largest youth circus organizations in the world. They teach circus to promising kids, but they're also (primarily) a performing circus. Auditions are tough and some kids are cut. Then there are four days rotating through whatever classes you want, and some kids don't get to perform what they want to perform. And then the show is put together. And less than a month later they're on tour. And we follow the troupe through one season and all the exhausting hard work it entails. The title could easily refer to both the kids' dreams of being circus performers and Smirkus' organizers' dream of making just enough money that they can do this next year. This keeps cropping up. As we go through injuries, triumphant performance, blazing weather, storms, good times, difficult times...then the money man pops up again and reminds us if we're on schedule just to break even. They really build that tension up well, and I won't give away any spoilers here. There's no way you could, say...look up Circus Smirkus and see if they are still in business.
So we stuck with the uplifting kids theme with BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY. Okay, confession: I grew up on Sesame Street when Elmo didn't exist. I was an Oscar, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Snuffalupagus kind of kid. And when--much later than I should still care--I learned there was this little red Muppet who refers to himself in the third person and loved everyone, I was annoyed. Well, this movie kind of changed my mind (I'm still annoyed there isn't enough Oscar the Grouch...not that I still watch Sesame Street). It's not even a story of Elmo so much as a story of Kevin Clash, the big black guy operating him. It's the story of young Kevin, who grew up obsessed with Captain Kangaroo and then absolutely entranced with Sesame Street (he was 9 when it premiered, and to him Bert and Ernie talking to him directly through the TV was magic). He started making his own puppets and doing shows for the kids at his mom's daycare business she ran out of their Baltimore home. He got discovered by the local Channel 2, and the guy there kept talking him up to all his friends. So much so that he was hired away by Bob Keeshan--Captain Kangaroo himself. That's childhood idol number 1 he worked for. But of course the Muppets were the big time. His first Muppet gig was as Cookie Monster on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float. THE MUPPET MOVIE had just come out, so they had a float, too, and they needed extra puppeteers and called on Kevin. He got his chance to meet Jim Henson (introduced by Kermit Love, Henson's master Muppet builder), and was offered a job on THE DARK CRYSTAL. Wow...I can't believe he turned it down. He was working too series jobs then--Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster--and those were steady jobs while a movie ends, so it was the safer job move. Of course, both series ended and he was looking for work...just in time to be a puppeteer on Labyrinth. And finally, ultimately, to Sesame Street. And the amazing break when veteran Muppeteer Richard Hunt just couldn't do anything with this little red guy and threw it to Kevin to see if he could figure something out. First thing, Kevin made the voice high and squeaky. And then he studies Elmo until he decided, "Elmo is love." And things exploded. It's kind of hilarious to see him shaking his head at a Tickle Me Elmo doll (they got it totally wrong, Elmo never uses pronouns, it should have been a "Tickle Elmo" doll). And when so many Make-A-Wish kids want to meet Elmo as their dying wish, it's just amazing. And it's really amazing that he insists on doing all of that himself (to the point where his own daughter starts to feel left out). And all through this, he insists he's really a shy person. As his parents, friends, and colleagues keep telling us, Kevin's real personality comes to life through Elmo. And I couldn't help but be swept up in the inspirational adorableness of it all.
But they still need to show Oscar the Grouch more...and what's up with this "cookies are a sometimes food" bullcrap?
Okay, on to the next program, starting with the local short PLASTICITY. It's a brief look unique uses of space in San Francisco. A beekeeper on the roof. A sidewalk pizza oven. A moving restaurant (inside other restaurants). San Francisco is a beautifully inventive place.
That was the lead in to 78 DAYS: A TREE PLANTING DOCUMENTARY. This is not your grandmother's tree planting. This is large scale reforestation contracts on tree farms. Millions of trees planted--by hand. Young Canadians running around planting several trees a minute, trying to do about 6,000-7,000 a day, all while avoiding the dreaded "J root" (If the root bends up in a J, it won't grow well). Or at least, they try to avoid getting caught with J roots, sometimes if the ground is hard your shovel doesn't go in deep enough in one strike. And when you're only paid 10 cents (Canadian) per tree, you don't want to spend a whole lot of time on it. But while the work is exhausting, the real challenges seem to be mental. Planters talk about good days when they zoned out so well they did two or three boxes (270 trees/box) without even noticing. The worst you can do is focus on why you're doing this miserable job. The answer, by the way, is because in just a couple of months (the 78 days in the title is actually a season going long by a couple of weeks) you can make enough to support your lifestyle the rest of the year--nothing lavish, but you can be a surf bum/photographer, you can be a ski bum all winter, you can...basically do what you want (on a budget of $20-30,000) and only work a couple of months. But man, while you're working it sure looks miserable. And director Jason Nardella should know, he's a veteran planter (retired) himself, that's how he got access to all the planters, they were mostly his friends from previous seasons.
And finally, the night ended with PATAGONIA RISING. Docfest alum Brian Lilla (GHETTO FABULOUS, which I missed in 2005; and A TALE OF TWO BONDAGE MODELS, which I saw in 2007) returns with his "important" film from Chile about water resources, big dams, and the locals who live by the rivers of Patagonia (Southern tip of Chile/Argentina). The ice fields of Patagonia are the worlds' third largest fresh water reservoir, and they feed the rivers of Patagonia. A power company wants to big two large dams to make hydroelectric power and transmit it to Santiago (some 2,000 km away). And this movie goes into great detail about why that would be a bad idea. Displacement of locals, of course (as a side note, I took one anthropology class back when I was at Caltech, and the professor was an expert on displaced populations, particularly by dam projects. So I was well indoctrinated in this subject Protip: they always turn out bad for those displaced). Also the environmental devastation. You're stopping the flow of nutrient rich sediment, you're basically segmenting the rivers so there is no longer a natural flow, flooding out some lands while starving others of nutrients. As another aside, I grew up in Northwest Washington, where I toured the Grand Coulee Dam and was indoctrinated into how hydroelectric power was environmental. We didn't use the term "green" back then, but it was certainly cleaner than burning fossil fuels. I really haven't kept up on my environmentalism, if I don't know that dams are bad. Ultimately, the dams haven't been built (yet), and it's encouraging to see the locals with solar panels (for their CB radios to talk to each other) and wind power taking off. Perhaps there's still hope for a green revolution in Chile.
And that's it. Saturday is over. Bring on Sunday!
Total Running Time: 395 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,463
Total Running Time: 395 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,463