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 http://almovingimage.org/sidewalk-fest.html. The following are my choices for the best of the fest.
Marwencol (click for larger version)
Marwencol (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.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010) Directed by Adrian Grenier Sidewalk's opening night premiere at the Alabama Theatre should be a real crowd pleaser. Don't be turned away by the fact that Hollywood celebrities and the paparazzi have prominent roles in this documentary. The film spans two years, and a behind-the-scenes, wheels-within-wheels framework provides much of its appeal. The director, who plays a Hollywood celebrity in HBO's series "Entourage," has naturally become a celebrity in the real world as well. Having been "sprayed" (by multiple electronic camera flashes) outside an award ceremony by 13-year-old paparazzo Austin Visschedyk, Grenier was intrigued by the young photographer. After a brief introduction, Grenier arranged to meet with Austin to learn more, or rather, to initiate a film project by which he can document the comings and goings of Hollywood's youngest paparazzo.
Teenage Paparazzo (click for larger version)
Grenier also decided to purchase a camera and do his own celebrity stalking, taking tips from Austin and becoming more intrigued about how things go on the other side of the camera. The entire arrangement is a hall of mirrors, but what emerges is not the shallow, sensational profile such a project seemed destined to become. Very quickly Grenier detects that for all of Austin's older-than-his-years demeanor, intellect, and street smarts, this teenager's career choice is poisoning him, ethically and emotionally. Austin moves with confidence among the veteran paparazzi, having earned their respect with his considerable skill at getting marketable shots of Lohans, Hiltons, and basic Hollywood upper-echelon jet trash. Many Hollywood stars give him a pass because of his youth and charm. Yet all of this is clearly providing Austin a warped view of life.
There are some real surprises in this documentary, not the least being how Grenier ultimately makes the on-camera decision to positively influence a young person who mere months ago was stalking him. It's also puzzling that mega-celebrity status has paradoxically made Paris Hilton (she has a key role in this project) an extremely subdued, at times almost dull personality. The most captivating moment arrives when Austin and his supportive-but-exhausted mom sit down to see the final version of this documentary. We have already witnessed what they are now watching, so Grenier aims his camera at their faces during this private screening to capture their reactions. The mother and son's wide-eyed dismay at what transpires is worth whatever Grenier spent to make this film. And there's another surprise to come.
Dogtooth (click for larger version)
Dogtooth (2009) Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos Because this film has been on the U.S. festival circuit for only a short while, and it has not been released on DVD, there isn't much discussion of it outside of critics' circles. For that reason, I urge everyone to avoid reading even a synopsis of the story, because a sense of disorientation and the absence of context are essential to the opening sequence's impact. In fact, puzzling out the plot and meaning of this entire bizarre picture will give viewers at least one thing in common with three of the story's characters.
Lanthimos' highly stylized, extremely odd movie won Un Certain Regard accolades at Cannes in 2009. It was the correct acknowledgment, if by doing so the panel is saying to the filmmaker, "We don't know what you have done or why you ever chose to do so, but you certainly have our attention."
Ten minutes into this picture I was reminded that I understood that Eraserhead was a comedy only after a second viewing. Beyond that, I also thought of how so many film enthusiasts responded to Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Wem Wenders decades ago, as those directors gave audiences new ways to think about how cinema can affect us. Recently, Michel Gondry has done a similar thing by celebrating the human experience, just as Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier apparently loathe life itself, but get past it by indulging in dour, cruel, but often amazing cinematic experiments.
In most cases, von Trier and Haneke's efforts do not result in anything I would call a night at the movies, nor anything I want to experience twice. But I'm always amazed when I discover that a motion picture can still enthrall, bewilder, or disorient the viewer. Lanthimos is doing that right now, but I can't say whether I'm glad that he is. If he ever finds something to be joyous about, we may have a new masterpiece forthcoming. In the meantime, prepare to be amazed and feel cheated at the same time.
Evil Things (click for larger version)
Evil Things (2009) Directed by Dominic Perez Director Dominic Perez adopts the "found footage" trope from The Blair WitchProject and Cloverfield, then adds a clever twist that rescues this mostly effective horror picture from mere copycat status. The film consists of handheld video footage made after the fact—the key fact being that five teenagers on a weekend trip to the Catskills disappeared without a trace. Now that investigators have discovered the video record (made by one member of the group), what we watch at least suggests what happened to the doomed college kids.
Opening sequences are quite spooky, setting the appropriately realistic tone of dread on which this kind of small-scale spectacle thrives. En route to a mountain vacation home where, on arrival, the power is out, the group drives through heavy snows and accidentally enrages an unseen driver in a mysterious van. Much of what transpires works as an authentic story because there are no science fiction or supernatural elements here. Someone is stalking and menacing these kids, and whoever is in that van is disconcertingly good at it.
As each of these characters discovers that he or she is in real danger and then meets some grisly end (one assumes), a single aspect of this production—a suspense-inducing soundtrack—becomes problematic (mainly because found footage is not supposed to be a production). Yet once the plot twist arrives, it is conceivable that the score has a rational explanation, but exploring that here would simply ruin a surprise. This little horror film will certainly frighten young audiences, but with some proper and extensive editing it might engage more sophisticated viewers. The brilliant plot twist—and it's amazing that no filmmaker has ever exploited this angle—will have audiences buzzing.
Make Believe (click for larger version)
Make Believe (2010) Directed by J. Clay Tweel I think this might become a Sidewalk festival favorite, especially if patrons wisely avoid the tedious torture-porn feature Human Centipede (which also screens Saturday night) and see this documentary instead. It follows six teenagers working toward the title of Teen World Champion Magician, a potentially career-making award given at the competition in the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. The very idea of teenage magicians aiming for Vegas glory suggests an unpleasant blend of glitzy bad taste and nerdy geekdom; surely teens this deeply interested in magic showbiz are merely a subcategory of role-playing nerds.
Actually, the six remarkable kids in this story fall into the category of advanced overachievers, and the level of poise, skill, and dedication each displays is more amazing than any of the stunning illusions they perform. That's saying something, because these teenagers aren't simply good at what they do, and they aren't just the best magicians from a larger pool of talented teenage magicians. These youngsters are insanely skilled at creating illusions, so much so that at least three of them could conceivably take their respective shows on the road—or on television—without participating in the competition. But that title is a key to a lot of doors in the magic industry, and thus Tweel documents how each teenager handles the pressure the competition entails.
It seems counterintuitive, but having a camera on these kids 24/7 reveals less about the magic tricks than about each magician's personal story. Krystyn Lambert, the only girl in the group, is a gorgeous blonde doll from Malibu, California, who hasn't the vaguest idea of her own sex appeal. She's far more obsessed with perfecting any task at hand, whether that's chairing a student government meeting at her high school or keeping the books properly shelved in the theology-philosophy section of the school library. Likewise, Krystyn devotes so much time to the perfection of her craft that she remains unaware just how old-fashioned her entire magic show really is. There's an especially uncomfortable moment when an old Vegas showbiz broad counsels Krystyn about sexing up the presentation.
There's also the notion—made fully evident only after the competition—that Krystyn is a magician in much the same way that actors, in the interest of authenticity, take up a musical instrument and actually come across as gifted musicians. This makes for a highly unusual profile.
If that young woman's story is intriguing, then Hiroki Hara, from rural Kitayama, Japan, offers a fully captivating scenario. Living miles from the city, Hiroki perfects his skills in almost total isolation, pulling identical smooth stones from a gurgling stream or finding leaves in a forest—and of course effortlessly making those things disappear or multiply before the camera.
Observing Hiroki in his placid homeland setting, long before he comes to the States for the competition, is mesmerizing in every sense of the word. He practices on a stage for roughly 40 hours per week, makes his own props from simple items he finds at the dollar store, and seems a bit embarrassed that the items in his hands tend to vanish. During a bus ride to town, he sheepishly giggles as he easily passes an entire deck of cards through a closed window. Hiroki is clearly far beyond the teen competition stage, and so adeptly does he fold into his illusions Japan's beautiful natural surroundings and cultural elements that it's obvious that he has a preternatural gift for showmanship and manual dexterity. The only problem seems to be that, thanks to years of isolation, he doesn't know it. &