So let's start with the shorts Beautiful Dreamers. A diverse program of 3 medium-length movies, but all are biographical shorts about interesting and strange people.
HONKYTONK BEN: A stylish look, including home movies, at an eccentric fellow (who happens to be the director's uncle) buries himself into the odd hobby of decorating pianos in strange ways and making the "honky tonk." Since an intrinsic element of honky tonk is the tinny sound from worn out felt on the hammers, he simulates that by putting thumbtacks on the hammers. He leaves the pianos intentionally out of tune. He opens up the sound board so you can see the hammers and strings. But most importantly he turns them into gaudy monstrosities/masterpieces. Keys become blue...or red...or mirrored. The frame and stools become filled with decorations (e.g., silver dollars.) And they become showcase works of art and furniture, entirely separate from their use as musical instruments.
DYLAN: An interesting verite-style look at a young metal rock fan in Ireland. I particularly liked when he talked about how there was a movement underway to make Metal an official religion, and how if it was successful he would officially change his religion from atheist to Metal.
BORO IN THE BOX: And finally, the most beautiful and stylish movie of the program, and maybe the entire festival. The alphabetical biography of Walerian Boroczyk. He's the Polish erotic surrealist filmmaker behind THE BEAST (Indiest 2003, Holehead 2006) and several other films I now want to see. And it's shot in a surreal erotica style that is an homage to Boroczyk.
Speaking of odd biographies, the next feature fits perfectly with that theme. HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS is the story of Joe Davis, a one-legged man who could still whup all of you in an ass-kicking contest. It's really a testament to his life and personality that the fact that he has a peg leg is a minor afterthought to his story. He's a scientist, and an artist. He has a research position at MIT and Harvard Medical School, but supports himself by washing dishes in a Cambridge bar (where director Peter Sasowsky met him.) He builds crystal radios out of objects he found in the trash. He invented the audio microscope to turn light into sound and learn the characteristic sounds of various bacteria. He invented the light stethoscope where he could listen to a woman's heartbeat by holding a light up to her body (naked, and covered in honey to protect her and then gold leaf to produce a good reflection.) He placed the Arecibo message in bottles in the MIT library (presumably the home to higher-than-average terrestrial intelligence) where rather than decoding it (despite all the information to decode it being in the same library) everyone just argued whether or not it was art. Annoyed that the Pioneer Plaque showed an anatomically correct man but a Barbie doll woman--and arguing tongue-in-cheek that maybe that's why all alien abductions come with a probing--he invented a machine to transmit vaginal contractions into space. He's also one of the preeminent researchers in DNA computing, finding ways to encode information first in "junk" DNA (which isn't that great, since organisms are pretty good at discarding junk DNA over generations) and then written "under" the useful DNA in ways that it wouldn't be expressed by the organism (this is the tricky part that he's still working on.) Let's see, what else...he invented an air laser that harnesses the power of storms, but he's not sure if that would dissipate the storms or make them worse. The thing is, I know just enough physics to know he's not bullshitting you. But the movie isn't really about the work (there's another movie--or series--that could be made about that) as much as it's about the man, his life, and his thought process. I think the best summary is the one Joe makes near the beginning where he explains that everything is connected so he finds it natural and obvious to demonstrate the connections between seemingly disconnected things. HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS played again...on Sunday, but I didn't have a chance to get my review up in time. Dammit, I'm sorry.
Next up was the film that is now the rival of THE COLOR WHEEL as my "reward for seeing everything," SAHKANAGA. The festival write-up is intentionally very cagey about the subject matter, talking about a "terrible secret" and how it's "based on actual events" without telling you what that event was. I will also be cagey about it, but since I don't think the actual event is too much of a spoiler, you can find out what it was by going here (or avoid it if you don't want a spoiler.)
Director John Henry Summerour is from the town where the incident happened, and after going to film school in New York he came back to make this movie in part because he didn't want Hollywood exploiting it. He employed local talent from the community, none of whom were professional actors, some of whom were victims. And he wrapped it in a fictional story of a boy who discovers the terrible secret, and the effect it has on his whole life. He's afraid to tell anyone at first, and his delay and churning guilt make it worse. It turns out the incident is related to his family business, and so there's the horrible thought that maybe his dad knew or was involved. It will ruin his friendship, his chances with the girl he likes, everything. And it is ultimately a story not just about an event that tears a town apart but also how the town processes it (touching on everything from racism to religion to the nature of the soul, the body, and heaven) and ultimately forgiveness and the healing of wounds. It's amazingly well done, and a real surprise.
SAHKANAGA plays again Wednesday, Feb 22 at 7:15 pm, don't miss it!
Then I saw an amazing documentary about Pentagram lead singer Bobby Liebling, LAST DAYS HERE. It's not so much a music documentary as much as a terrifying portrait of addiction. Pentagram was poised to be the biggest thing in Doom Metal in the early 70's, but Liebling's perfectionism in their first big studio production (basically he expected the initial demo to sound like a record with $200,000 worth of production in it) ruined the deal. So there was a ton of unreleased recordings of Pentragram, a band that was pretty much broken up (although it existed in one form or another the whole time,) and a lead singer who by all rights should have died curled around a crack pipe years ago. The first time we see Bobby we might as well be looking at a ghost. Gaunt, white hair, sunken bulging eyes, and most shocking are the arms wrapped in bandages. He's living in his parents sub-basement, always talking of a comeback if he can just get the parasites out from under his skin. I was pretty sure at that moment I was watching the closest thing I'd ever see to a real snuff film (not that the filmmakers would kill him, but that we would watch him die on screen.)
The other star of the film, besides Bobby, is Sean "Pellet" Pelletier, a super-fan who releases a ton of the old lost recordings and becomes Bobby's de facto (and long-suffering) manager. Most of his work is about trying to get Bobby off drugs and performing again. And you can see there's a part of Bobby that wants to. He even at one time promises Pellet his entire record collection he will never smoke crack again (note: Bobby has an amazing record collection, but Pellet doesn't want that, he just wants Bobby off crack...and heroin...and meth...and anything else.)
I didn't think there's any chance but then a ray of sunshine enters Bobby's life, his new girlfriend. And well...I just always had this foreboding that it wouldn't work out. That even sober he's too intense for her, and if you replace a drug addiction with a person addiction that is really, really tough for the person. And if she leaves him he'll get even worse than he was before and he really will die. Well, I don't want to give away spoilers but I'll tell you they end the movie on a high note. I do have a sense that his story is so up and down that if they continue following him for a few years there will be another horrible downer. But for now, that's a great place to end his story.
LAST DAYS HERE plays again Monday, Feb 20 at 9:30 pm.
Then I saw a really fascinating, funny, well made, and surprising con artist movie, SILVER TONGUES. We open with a couple of newlyweds. They have a fight, but go down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There's too much of a wait for a table, so they join an older couple, Gerry and Joan (Lee Tergesen and Enid Graham.) They talk, they have some fun, and then...things get weird. I'll try not to spoil it, but I will say that based on how the movie started I was afraid that we were going to follow the newlywed couple the whole time. And that bugged me because they failed a moral test by subscribing to the worst cliched stereotype of men. But the movie isn't about them, it's about Gerry and Joan, so in a way even the audience was conned. Gerry and Joan are lovers who travel around and mess up people's lives, usually by tempting them with a moral choice that ends up messing up their lives. But they never seem to take money from anyone, they're just getting off on screwing with people. Which makes you wonder why they do this. And based on their interactions when they're alone, it seems they do this because Gerry is a sadist and Joan is trapped. Or perhaps she's playing him, or maybe they're both out of their minds. What's really cool is that every new twist isn't just arbitrary. It's not like you can't see the twists coming because they don't make sense. They make so much sense that they add to the scenes that came before, instead of deleting the character as it was up to that point and saying 'Ha ha, just kidding!' Really ingeniously done.
SILVER TONGUES plays again Thursday, Feb 23 at 9:30 pm.
Then I went to the Big Lebowski party, which of course was awesome as always (and crowded. It seemed more crowded than past years, but maybe that's just me.) I had my obligatory White Russian, and then a few beers before taking the all-night BART home (speaking of crowded.) But I also stayed behind in the theater to watch CLOWN. That's right, I was two places at once. I'm a physicist, I can do that. Hell, let's pretend Joe Davis taught me how to do that. The important thing is it has nothing to do with me having access to the online streaming press screener of this movie.
First up was the short, AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL. Wes Bentley is a single dad taking his daughter to an indoor playground. There they meet Sarah Paulson, who at first looks like a mom but is really a schoolteacher watching after a student whose parents are late. Wes awkwardly tries to talk to her, even ask her out, but she rebuffs him. And then there's a shocking ending to remind you this was all written by Neil LaBute.
See, and that short isn't even available as a screener, so I must have been there to see it!
Anyway, CLOWN opens with a scene of goofy looking (or maybe just Danish) schlub Frank in bed with his girlfriend Mia. She asks if he wants a little "yummy yummy" and Frank readily agrees, thinking she means sex not a late night snack. See, that scene isn't even on the online screener, so I must have seen it in the theater, more proof I was two places at once! So after an opening credits with music that's almost ripped off from "The Odd Couple" we go to a party where we meet Frank's friend Caspar, who is planning their vacation "Tour of Pussy." We also learn the Mia is so hungry because she's pregnant. She just wanted to keep it a secret because she wasn't sure if she would keep it. She's just not sure if Frank is father material. And boy, is she right to not be sure. To prove his worth Frank takes his nephew Bo on the canoe trip with them. But did I mention before this was supposed to be the "Tour of Pussy." Clearly many things are bound to go wrong with gross-out body (or is that bawdy?) humor in the vein of the HANGOVER movies, but even gayer. And even when Frank does come through as a father, it's in an insane, psychotic manner that lands him in jail. It's actually pretty damn funny if you're into that sort of thing. But if you're not into humor revolving around the size of a twelve year-old boy's penis, maybe this isn't the movie for you.
CLOWN is the feature length version of a Danish sitcom of the same name (KLOVN in Danish) starring the same cast, and which is available on Danish DVD (with English subtitles, but you will need a code free player and PAL format.) Perhaps being familiar with the whole series would make the movie better.
CLOWN plays again Tuesday, Feb 21 at 9:30 pm.
Total Running Time: 424 minutes
My Total Minutes: 266,530