The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.
September 23, 2004
The Sixth Annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival takes place September 23 through 26. The festival will screen more than 150 films at 7 venues in downtown Birmingham's historic Theatre District. The event is a celebration and presentation of independent, new, local, and world cinema, as well as a forum/information center for filmmakers, emerging screenwriters, and students. A Kick-Off screening begins at Sloss Furnaces on Thursday, September 23 at 8:00 p.m., and the official Opening Night screening brings the Alabama premiere of John Sayles Silver City to The Alabama Theatre, Friday, September 24 ,at 8:00 p.m.
If nothing else goes right at the 6th Annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, we still must tip our hats to Marjorie and Nolen Otts, who are responsible for the Dick & Jane style illustrations for the festival's See Film Run advertising campaign. The image of two children and their little dog running underneath the marquee at the Alabama Theatre is instantly engaging. Another nice touch at this year's festival—perhaps in keeping with the Dick & Jane theme—is the return of the Children's Film Extravaganza, featuring movies appropriate for guess who. The headliner for this venue, Santa vs. The Snowman, will be screened at McWane Center's IMAX dome. The half-hour computer-animated IMAX gem is from the producers of the very clever Jimmy Neutron. This not-just-for-kids holiday romp features the voices of Jonathan Winters and Ben Stein, a battle between reindeer and igloo assault vehicles, a snowman going "undercover" at Santa's toy factory in Groucho glasses, and a heat ray. It might be the grandest Christmas war movie ever made.
The addition of a World Cinema venue is another step forward for Sidewalk. The festival has always included works by filmmakers from around the globe, but devoting a venue to a specific class of films provides a proper context for these entries. On the other hand, while it is possible to isolate themes and styles in the cinema of New Zealand or Iran, it is doubtful that there is yet a body of work that can be called Alabama Cinema. But the Sidewalk guide specifically designates films made by Alabamians, along with films that "have an Alabamian in a key crew position." Also, before the kick-off screening at Sloss Furnaces on Thursday night, September 23, they will present ACE awards (Alabama Citations of Excellence). The desire to give a nod to local boys is understandable, but such provincial notations and citations give Sidewalk a slight whiff of Mayberry.
One of the feature films this year is Silver City. The good news is that the film is directed by John Sayles, who usually provides stories with narrative twists and odd characters (portrayed by an extremely varied cast), and sterling cinematography, this time by Haskell Wexler. The bad news is that the film is directed by John Sayles, who can be didactic and facile when he's got an agenda to push. It doesn't bode well that Sayles has said about the production, "We wanted the film to be in theaters before the election. You hope that it makes some noise and gets into the conversation." Many of us liked Sayles better back in the day when his chief concern was making a good movie.
But his haste no doubt stems from the fact that Silver City is a political conspiracy/private eye film that also wants to be political satire, even if it only occasionally succeeds in any of those categories. Sayles approaches, but never gets close to, the neo-noir tone of Chinatown or Winter Kills, two brilliant political corruption yarns in which John Huston looms large. That's worth noting because Huston's son Danny is a key player in Silver City, and the comparison is not flattering. But star Chris Cooper does do a devastating George Bush impersonation, and that should appease the audience for whom this film is clearly intended.
Naturally, with so many choices available at Sidewalk (dozens of films on seven screens), festivalgoers have to make some tough, often uninformed decisions. Here's a rough, and by no means comprehensive, guide to what to see and what to avoid.
Saturday morning is easy, because two documentaries being screened at the Alabama Theatre are required viewing. William March/Company K tells the story of Mobile native and author William March (The Bad Seed) and his experiences during World War I. Kathryn: The Story of a Teller is about Kathryn Tucker Windham, who needs no introduction in these parts. The documentary is produced and directed by Norton Dill, the filmmaker behind the excellent mountain-music documentary Music in Their Bones.
That afternoon, avoid the low-budget after school special Gettin' Grown and see either Celia Carey's The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, or Buddy, a film by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum about a young man who accidentally creates his own "Jackass" show.
Saturday evening, by all means miss the dreadfully dull, science-fiction failure After the Apocalypse. Never mind the comparisons to David Lynch's Eraserhead; "self-taught" Japanese director Yasuaki Nakajima has more in common with Ed Wood.
Choose instead between Dandelion, a beautifully shot coming-of-age teen romance with the always interesting Arliss Howard in a supporting role, and Home of the Brave, an extremely intriguing, often baffling documentary about the investigation (by her children) into the murder of Civil Rights movement activist Viola Liuzzo. She was the only white woman murdered in the struggle, and her mysterious story is a tangled web involving the Teamsters Union, J. Edgar Hoover, and a cast of key figures from the era. Some of the recent interviews are maudlin at times, and somewhat awkwardly staged in places, but the footage from the 1960s is mesmerizing. There's a priceless moment when Spider Martin uses one of his famous photographs from the Selma march to describe a jury for the trial of Liuzzo's murderers.
Later that evening, by-pass Russian director Vladimir Vitkins glum X, Y. It's a dead-still feminist rant that borrows, to no good effect, ideas from Mulholland Drive and Repulsion. Instead, check out Ondi Timoner's Dig!, a cinema verite biography of Anton Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Courtney Taylor (The Dandy Warhols). Spoiled pop stars make for fascinating cinema.
Sunday, see the jawdropping A Stone's Throw Away, by Norwegian director Line Halvorsen. There is no commentary, no narrative, just a camera following three Palestinian boys through the streets outside of Jerusalem during the 2002 Israeli occupation. The film offers deeply disturbing insight into the political and religious views of these 13-year-olds, whose comments are chillingly calm, candid, and at times almost perfunctory.
Immediately afterward, run don't walk to the Carver Theatre to see The Loss of Nameless Things, which documents the very bizarre and tragic life of playwright and theatre wunderkind Oakley Hall III. Hall was a '60s wild child and boy genius turned loose on the theatre circles in New England. He was basically the region's Jim Morrison, and his friends, family, and colleagues relate the stories of his legendary productions (and hedonistic lifestyle) at the Lexington Conservatory Theatre in upstate New York. His unexplained "fall" from a bridge in 1978 left him horribly brain-damaged and deformed, but that's not the end of his amazing story. Equally amazing are the folks who revel in telling this tale. A more self-congratulatory bunch of ex-hippies and theatre types you will not find on screen; indeed, moments in this documentary seem like out-takes from Waiting for Guffman. It's essential viewing, and far more entertaining that the profoundly unfunny, cliche-rich Black-Eyed Susan.
The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival runs September 23 through 26 at Sloss Furnaces and the Birmingham theatre district. Tickets are available in advance from the Alys Stephens Center box office (205) 975-ARTS. For additional information, visit www.sidewalkfest.com or call the festival office (205) 324-0888.