Sun, April 20, 2014

Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival 2010

September 16, 2010

During the weekend of September 24 through 26, the 12th annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival brings to Birmingham a celebration of new, independent cinema. The festival takes place in and around the downtown theater district, where film enthusiasts have the chance to see dozens of movies and perhaps rub elbows with a few filmmakers.

Based on what I have previewed, this year's Sidewalk festival is like most film festivals around the nation: the documentaries, short films, and animated works are often fascinating. In fact, this year Sidewalk offers several truly outstanding documentary films. The narrative films, however, range from quite good to dreadful, with many falling into the mediocre category. Film fest regulars already know that, should a feature film not hold their interest after the first 15 minutes, it's time to walk out, consult the schedule, and find another movie.

As for a specific schedule-conflict resolution (the main dilemma at film festivals everywhere), by all means avoid Human Centipede and see Make Believe (review below) instead. For all Sidewalk information, visit The following are my choices for the best of the fest.

Marwencol (click for larger version)

(2010) Directed by Jeff Malmberg
Definitely take the time to see this one. Jeff Malmberg's stunning documentary presents the genuinely bizarre circumstances of Mark Hogancamp, one of the most unique and gifted contemporary artists you've never heard of. It's a strange, barely believable story in any context, but it might be especially baffling for anyone involved in the cognitive sciences or visual art studies.

In April 2000, Mark Hogancamp was assaulted in a bar in Kingston, a quiet town in upstate New York. Five men literally pounded him into the ground, leaving him so severely injured that, after emerging from a nine-day coma, he could not walk, speak, or write. He had very little recollection of his life up to that point, and after limited funds for physical therapy ran out, Hogancamp began to piece together memories from a journal he had kept.

It turns out the 38-year-old ex-navy man had been married, worked as a carpenter, and had ruined his marriage through epic alcohol abuse and inexplicable rage. He had been working through his problems by keeping the journal and drawing sketches of combat scenes, all of which revealed the deft hand of a fairly accomplished artist. With his motor skills barely intact after limited therapy, Hogancamp decided to continue healing not by attempting to draw again, but by constructing a 1/6-scale model of a World War II–era Belgian village, which he would populate with carefully crafted military action figures, exquisitely detailed scenery, and Barbie dolls. The village was called Marwencol, and the key action figure in this village was a hero named Captain Hogancamp.

Around 2004, Hogancamp began using a slightly damaged camera to photograph his miniature Belgian village, and very soon he had created a few hundred amazingly realistic shots, so carefully composed that a first glimpse might give the impression of an authentic scene from WWII. Other photos, especially those with Barbie dolls, added an undeniable camp element, but any irony in these depictions would be difficult to locate. A collection of the photos was shown at White Columns Gallery in Greenwich Village in 2006, at which time Hogancamp began receiving attention from arts journals, NPR's "This American Life," and other media. Largely speaking, he was quite incorrectly received as a kind of outsider/folk artist. At the risk of sounding trite, it's important to note here that this is not even the strangest aspect of his story.

Thanks to director Malmberg's painstaking efforts (over a four-year span) to take viewers deeply into this realm, we gain an understanding of what is actually going on in the pretend world of Marwencol, where Hogancamp lives a separate, fully articulated existence as Captain Hogancamp. One wonderful decision was to film close up, and through extended sequences, the elaborate scenes crafted by the artist, even as they are being constructed. Hogancamp, sounding somewhat like a little boy playing with soldiers—but mostly like a man recalling unpleasant memories—eventually provides a Marwencol narrative that clearly parallels real life, as the captain is captured by the S.S. and tortured before being rescued by the women of the village.

The artist's video journal is candid and puzzling at the same time, but the chronology of this fascinating film allows us information that anyone seeing Hogancamp's work in 2006 could not access. A request by the filmmakers not to divulge certain facts in reviews means you will have to learn for yourself why, for example, Captain Hogancamp was rescued by women instead of his fellow soldiers. Or why so many of Hogancamp's neighbors and friends in modern-day Kingston, New York, agree to "exist" with him in Marwencol, Belgium, circa 1944. Regardless of what facts are revealed, you will come away with serious doubts and questions about our current understanding of what constitutes personality, identity, memory, and perception.

NY Export: Opus Jazz
(2010) co-directed by Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost
If you like the youthful, athletic dance moves in West Side Story, you will be completely engaged by this beautifully shot version of choreographer Jerome Robbins' "NY Export: Opus Jazz," also known as "a ballet in sneakers." Set to Robert Prince's jazzy orchestral score, this ballet was created in 1958 to worldwide acclaim. Here it is re-created in real locations (defunct factories, industrial sites, and numerous abandoned urban spaces) and shot in 35mm film to suggest "an abstraction of West Side Story." It winds up being a valentine to New York City, as well as a showcase for some seriously talented and exuberant young dancers. Nobody makes music like this anymore, and no one has these moves. Highly recommended.

Gabi on the Roof in July
(2009) Directed by Lawrence Levine
The film's title, acting style, and subject matter reveal that the director and star of this narrative feature has an undeniable case of John Cassavetes envy. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on one's interest in uncomfortably intimate studies of troubled characters or acting for acting's sake.

When a college grad moves in with her older brother to share costs for an NYC apartment, her emotional immaturity slowly emerges as an indicator of deeper problems. She is among an assortment of 20- and 30-somethings who can't really afford a happy existence in that city, and naturally her reluctance to find a job creates a "real-life" rift between the siblings. As with any film in the Cassavetes style, not much goes on, and the conclusion is open-ended. But that's never the point. The idea is to carefully capture enough human drama to separate the surface activity from the true nature of each character. There's no getting around the fact that Gabi is a dangerous, volatile person, and thus it's easy to imagine all that has transpired as a mere prelude to a larger, more troubling story—especially considering the title.

Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird
(2010) Directed by Mary Murphy
Recollections by Harper Lee's family and friends, numerous comments by the mostly Southern writers interviewed for this film, along with footage from the motion picture version of To Kill a Mockingbird, detail Lee's creation of an enduring literary classic. Additional newsreel footage and radio interviews with Lee during the 1960s add a thorough view of the author's life, but it's all presented in a straightforward, unimaginative way. Many comments by all those writers tend to reveal a firm grasp of the obvious, so there's very little insight regarding the book in question. However, as an introduction to the story, or as a means of further study for students, this documentary might prove invaluable.

The Parking Lot Movie
(2010) Directed by Meghan Eckman
Director Meghan Eckman documents the unbound egos and unpleasant attitudes of the Corner Parking Lot's attendants. It's a tiny lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia. Most of the attendants are current or former grad students from the liberal arts school, and each might be a poster boy for Slacker Nation. Halfway through this film—during which time I was sincerely hoping that each attendant might finally, mercifully stop talking—I recalled a line from the Dead Kennedys' song "Holiday in Cambodia:" "You've been to school for a year or two and you know you've seen it all."

That's a perfect summation of these postcollegiate dead-enders, all of whom openly despise their customer base, which consists of frat boys, sorority girls, SUV drivers, or any members of what the attendants perceive to be the privileged class. Maybe it was wise for Eckman to allow these guys so much on-camera leeway to speak their minds, in the interest of giving them enough rope. It begins with mild-mannered navel-gazing during which several attendants wax romantic about what sitting in a parking lot station "really means."

Speaking in professorial tones and using embarrassingly ostentatious academic jargon, they suggest that the parking lot is "a place to house people that will sort of slowly become who they are." One attendant offers a half-baked philosophical take: "We were the priests of the Mayan temple. If 600 times a day you take a ticket from somebody, then you have 600 opportunities to take a ticket with your full awareness and be really present in that action."

Another attendant—one of the more egregiously jargon-laden types—claims, "Despite the perception of parking lot attendant as the ultimate slack job, there's this lifestyle/philosophical component to the job. If you want to cultivate things like detachment or understand the Buddhist concept of impermanence, it's a perfect opportunity. You develop a strong sense of self in the absence of any other external trappings or anything that, socially, people recognize that frame our identities."

Yes, they are all reprehensible losers, each dressed like Kevin Smith and behaving like a character from one of his awful films about the joy and wonder of attaining slack. Being steeped in the humanities, these young men (save for the wife of one attendant, there's not a female in sight, and understandably so) take the usual watered-down Marxist approach to why they must suffer the privileged law students and Jaguar drivers. There's a lot of name-dropping and blather about "decontextualizing," "situationists," and
"existentialism," but it all comes down to resentment, as an old philosopher once predicted it would. Well, that and an unmeasurable capacity for shameless denial. After the most hostile member of this group sputters, "Fuck SUV drivers," another offers this assessment: "Their lives are going nowhere." The marvelous thing is that he wasn't referring to the parking lot attendants. He was talking about the customers.

It's worth mentioning that one of these guys is currently the bass player for Yo La Tengo, so there's at least one success story within the larger framework of "what's wrong with higher education today." Some of the other characters find real jobs, too, but it's certainly no surprise that they find soft places to land in the public sector or among the halls of academia.

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