Will You Be Watching? 

An all-access look at the 2011 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

In the 1976 film Kicking the Loose Gravel Home, poet Richard Hugo talks with his small class of University of Montana students about poetry. "There's no reason this can't be one hell of a good poem," he tells one of them, "but you're going to have to sound like you mean it...and you keep right on meaning it and you stop this goddamned nonsense." The film, produced and directed by local filmmaker Annick Smith, is one of the most powerful reminders of Hugo's fierce love for the written word, and why he is still so revered and referenced decades after his 1982 death. Besides the intimate portrait of his unapologetic and magnetic classroom conduct, the film—which screens at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 12, at 3:15 p.m.—includes Hugo reading several of his most famous poems like "The Milltown Union Bar" and "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," to a backdrop of dreamy illustrations and photographs.

Kicking the Loose Gravel Home is one of several literary documentaries set to play during the "Writers' Blocks" section of the eighth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Besides the Hugo film, the themed collection includes older films, like the 1975 look at Henry Miller, titled Asleep and Awake, and 2010 releases, such as In the Wake of the Flood, Ron Mann's film about Margaret Atwood, and a recent biography of Harper Lee called Hey Boo.

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"Writers' Blocks" provides just one promising point of entry into this year's festival. Among the 142 films offered over a 10-day spread, Big Sky will screen films on nature, art, music and international politics. In addition to highlighting 10 of this year's most compelling films, we take a closer look at four of the festival's biggest attractions, including Yo La Tengo's live score of Jean Painlevé's groundbreaking underwater short films and a retrospective of a man known for making retrospectives. It's exactly the kind of diverse line-up that makes this annual festival an event not to be missed.



Last rights

Coming to grips with How to Die in Oregon

The seminal moment in director Peter D. Richardson's How to Die in Oregon is perhaps one of the most emotionally charged and painful ever screened for audiences. Period.

Cody Curtis, the 54-year-old wife and mother whose story provides the backbone of the film, stares out a hospital window while her husband queries her oncologist on the chances she'll survive recurrent cancer of the liver through the Christmas holiday. But Curtis' gaze suddenly breaks away from the window, and the flash of decisiveness in her eyes is only briefly interrupted by a wince of pain.

"I think this is enough," she tells her husband, Stan. "I can't do any more."

There's never been a more fitting time for Missoula to host a screening of a documentary on physician-assisted suicide. The Montana Legislature is currently considering two separate bills on the issue, one establishing clear regulations for physicians prescribing life-ending medication and another banning the practice entirely. If the former succeeds, Montana will become the third state to officially legalize aid in dying. Oregon legalized the practice in 1994, followed by Washington in 2008.

click to enlarge How to Die in Oregon
  • How to Die in Oregon

The debate over the moral and professional implications of the practice has rocked Montana for years. Billings trucker Robert Baxter, a man suffering from terminal leukemia, was one of several plaintiffs in a 2008 lawsuit arguing that the Montana Constitution guaranteed a patient's right to death with dignity. Baxter died the same day a district court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, without learning the outcome of the litigation.

The case was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled on Dec. 31, 2009, that the state's constitution does not specifically forbid physicians from prescribing life-ending medication to terminally ill, mentally competent patients. Baxter's victory, which came a year and some days after his death, gave physicians the legal grounds on which to defend against any lawsuits resulting from their actions, but physician-assisted suicide remains an uncertain and controversial topic in Montana.

With that local backdrop comes How to Die in Oregon, a film produced by HBO that boasts considerable power well beyond Curtis' meeting with her oncologist. Richardson's opening scene alone is enough to stir mixed emotions among moviegoers as he documents the last moments of Roger Sagner, the 342nd person to act on Oregon's Death with Dignity law. The pain and indignity sometimes suffered by the terminally ill become strikingly apparent as Sue Dessayer Porter, a volunteer with the aid-in-dying advocacy organization Compassion and Choices, questions Sagner on his understanding of what will happen when he drinks the lethal dose of the barbiturate Seconal that's waiting for him.

"My mind's not changing," Sagner tells her and those gathered around him. "It will kill me and make me happy."

Some might question Richardson's call to show Sagner's death on screen. Many HBO staff members reportedly refused to watch the entire movie, and a recent showing at the Sundance Film Festival garnered both tears and empty seats. That hasn't stopped How to Die in Oregon from securing an esteemed position in the film community: It won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary film at Sundance in late January.

"People should not be misled by the title of the film," Compassion and Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee stated in response to the award. "This is not a 'how-to' film. Only a tiny handful of Oregonians access the very personal choice of aid in dying each year. The film's title could imply aid in dying is common in Oregon."

Since 1994, only about 500 people have acted on Oregon's Death with Dignity law.

Richardson's contribution to the physician-assisted suicide debate—which took him four years and $750,000 to complete—does display competing viewpoints. The director interviews several physicians opposed to the practice, and includes a brief segment on a man outraged by the state's offer to fund his life-ending medication but not his prostate cancer treatment. A skillfully interwoven side-story on one woman's fight to help legalize the practice in Washington could even prove useful for those in Montana and elsewhere pioneering the same cause.

But the majority of the film focuses on Curtis' declining state of health, her protracted battle with both extreme pain and devastating uncertainty, and the reactions of her friends and her two children to her final decision. The scenes feel at times voyeuristic, almost surreal—Curtis talking about writing goodbye letters to her family, teaching her son a family-revered holiday recipe—until one realizes the point Richardson and his subject are trying to make. How to Die in Oregon isn't simply some macabre tale of grief and death; it's a story of empowerment at life's end, and the fulfillment of a wish for control when all else is dominated by chaos.

—Alex Sakariassen

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Friday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m.



Year of the derby

Kicking ass means more in roller skates

The story of roller derby is, in many ways, the same wherever you go. It starts with a few badass girls talking over beers about how they always dreamed of being a roller girl. Then they start getting serious—holding meetings, learning the rules of the game, re-learning how to skate, raising money, wrangling gear and pinning down a practice space. They start skating several times a week, doing brutal lunge workouts and learning knee skids and how to fall. And, before you know it, you've got a league full of tough, tattooed women in hot pants ready to rumble.

That's the edited version, of course. It takes some real time and commitment to build a team from scratch—though Missoula's Hellgate Rollergirls league only needed a year before it decided to host a public bout. It also takes time—and several ass kickings—before newbie teams start to enjoy some wins. Those struggles are exactly what give all roller derby teams a natural story arc. Plus, the elements of roller derby itself make the sport inherently dramatic. It's a full-contact affair, for one thing, with all the blood, bruises and injuries that come with that. It attracts strong personalities and requires a certain amount of pageantry. It's about winning and losing, and team spirit. It's about personal transformation. And, as one might suspect, it's perfect fodder for a documentary.

Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers follows Portland, Ore.'s roller derby league a few years after its 2004 inception. The film—a year and a half project—starts out profiling a handful of the competitors, who embrace derby names like Madame Bumpsalot, Cadillac, Blood Clottia and Scratcher in the Eye. Here we get a sense of why they each joined roller derby and what it's come to mean to them via interviews peppered generously with swears and sassy jokes. By the late middle, when the film starts covering the league's fight to win in regional competitions, we're invested in those players enough to sincerely root for a Portland win.

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  • Brutal Beauty

But director Chip Mabry doesn't just rely on the girls' personalities and the inherent drama of the sport to drive his film. For instance, explaining the rules of the game could have made for a tedious sidebar. Instead, a roller derby coach who works at Voodoo Donuts in downtown Portland provides a primer on the rules by using various glazed and frosted donuts to explain the roles of pivots, blockers and jammers.

"We'll use cake donuts for the jammers," he says at one point as he moves the donuts on an imaginary track across the bakery counter.

It's an effective—and mouth-watering—way to learn.

Mabry also captures the roller derby fever that springs up among the roller girls' friends and family. In particular, he focuses on Cadillac's boyfriend—a dude who probably should get the Most Supportive Boyfriend Ever award for his endearing enthusiasm. For many of the hetero women in roller derby, it's not just about partner support, it's about a clear shift in more traditional gender roles. In this game, guys are always on the sidelines.

"I'm fine being her cheerleader and she being my quarterback," the boyfriend says at one point.

Like any dramatic story about sports, the footage of the actual games doesn't always provide adequate tension. You get to see the action and the scoreboard, but it's not always clear which moments on the track are pivotal to the game's conclusion. Still, it's a rush to watch the way the players race around the track, sometimes gracefully threading their way through other players, other times flying into the ground with a glorious violence, only to get back up again.

In interviews off the track, longtime veterans talk about their conflicting feelings about retiring from the game, and injured players who will be benched indefinitely put on brave faces with heartbreaking effect. In deftly capturing the players' love for the sport—that sense that, for some girls, roller derby is everything—Mabry makes the action on the track that much more charged.

—Erika Fredrickson

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Saturday, Feb. 12, 9:45 p.m.



Chuck-fest

A retrospective on the master of retrospectives

Unless you're in the top one or two percent of movie buffs, chances are you've never heard of Chuck Workman. But even the most casual of movie enthusiasts—particularly those who watch the Academy Awards ceremony every year—have seen his work. And if you appreciate a good movie montage, you owe a debt of gratitude to the man who will be honored with a retrospective at next week's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. "Chuck-fest" is what the man himself has wryly dubbed it.

Now how to describe that work? It's difficult to articulate the filmmaking niche that Workman has carved out since entering the business more than four decades ago. He makes documentaries: There's Superstar, which delves into the life and times of Andy Warhol, and another on avant-garde cinema called Visionaries. He also produced and directed The Source, a documentary about the Beat generation. All three of these films will screen in Missoula.

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  • Chuck Workman

Then there's his montage work for the Oscar ceremonies over the years. Though he's not working on this year's show, in the past Workman has often been tasked with producing the "In Memoriam" segment for the show, otherwise known as the montage of both famous and lesser-known influential members of the motion picture industry who died the previous year. But there are other projects as well, including the Academy Awards' opening sequence, which he has produced 10 times.

He's even earned an Oscar of his own, for the 1986 live action short Precious Images, an eight-minute film commissioned by the Directors Guild of America for their 75th anniversary. When Workman won the Oscar at the 1987 ceremony, the film—which is composed of 470 splices of movie segments covering the entire history of the motion picture—was shown in its entirety during the ceremony.

That short will show at the Big Sky festival, too, which is hardly a surprise. In the 25 years since its release, Precious Images has become the most widely shown short in history.

"I do a lot of different things," says Workman in a phone interview with the Indy. "What I don't do is commercial film or commercial television, but at the same time I work on the Oscars, which is the most commercial awards show out there."

To watch Precious Images today feels like something of a time warp, not only because a clip from Ghostbusters appears to be the newest film in the montage, but also because of the era in filmmaking that it represents. The short film itself could stand as a metaphor for the twilight of the analog age. When you consider that the frenetically paced film was produced without the assistance of digital editing equipment, the accomplishment becomes even greater.

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  • Visionaries

There is a beauty to the choreography of the clips that cannot be overstated. Using a half-dozen or so of the most famous cinematic songs and scores of the 20th century, Workman tells the story of film, with film. In the digital age we take for granted montages like this, but 25 years ago it wasn't so easy.

Workman repeats this feat in his other shorts, which also will be screened during the retrospective. In Pieces of Silver, the seven-minute short from 1989 that commemorates the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison's purchase of Eastman Kodak film, Workman integrates clips from 310 movies, television shows and commercials. And in Words, the 13-minute short from 1989 produced for the Writers Guild Foundation, Workman gives us just about every famous line of dialogue, almost faster than the audience can process what they're seeing.

While Workman is at his best with the shorts, his full-length 1990 documentary on Warhol is still worth a viewing. Released three years after Warhol's death, Superstar is essentially a 90-minute eulogy to the pop art icon. Interviews with family members, friends and former colleagues paint a colorful picture of the often-controversial man. Superstar shines when it demonstrates just how exasperating Warhol could be as an interview subject, and how his eccentricities made him equally beloved and hated. As one friend says in describing the seemingly asexual Warhol living through the height of the sexual revolution, "Andy wouldn't have the strength to have sex."

The film is littered with similarly sly observations about the mysterious man. It's as much a film for Warhol fans as it is for those whose knowledge of the artist runs no deeper than a soup can—if only people take the time to pay attention.

"I want people to watch movies more carefully," Workman says. "Don't just let it wash over you. It's not just seeing, but looking."

—Dave Loos

Showing: Pieces of Silver and Visionaries screen at the Wilma Theatre Saturday, Feb. 19, at 1:30 p.m. The Source and Words screen at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 19, at 4 p.m. Precious Images and Superstar screen at the Wilma Saturday, Feb. 19, at 6:10 p.m.



Going beneath the surface

Twenty-one things you might learn during Yo La Tengo's The Sounds of Science

In 2001, the San Francisco International Film Festival commissioned experimental rock trio Yo La Tengo (YLT) to score eight silent films made by French scientist/educator/filmmaker Jean Painlevé. For the first time in four years, and only the 12th or 13th time ever (the band isn't sure of the exact number), YLT will perform the entire soundtrack live as the films play on the Wilma's big screen.

The pairing of two unconventional artists makes for a fascinating study in everything from the creative process to the sexual habits of octopi. This strangely captivating, deceptively educational and entirely engrossing collaboration has so many different things to offer viewers and listeners that we thought we'd break it down into a list of things you might learn during the rare performance.

1. Painlevé is not your typical science dork. While he graduated from Sorbonne with a degree in physics, chemistry and biology, he'd often escape his nerdy colleagues by indulging in Paris' 1920s avant garde film scene. According to biographers and film scholars, this made Painlevé an unusual and highly controversial scientist for his era.

2. Painlevé was also heavily influenced by Dadaism and surrealist art. It's hard not to recognize those interests in what would otherwise be straightforward nature films. "They kind of purport to being scientific movies, but they're not—at all," says YLT bassist James McNew in a recent interview with the Indy. "Painleve was not a scientist—at all. He made these great, psychedelic, dreamy nature films that are simply amazing."

3. YLT guitarist Ira Kaplan put it this way when talking about the project for a 2008 Painlevé documentary: "A lot of it looks like compelling abstract art that just happens to be done with...fish." To be more specific, the films cover crabs, sea urchins, sea horses, shrimp, jellyfish, mollusks, liquid crystallization and the aforementioned octopus sex.

4. The star of the first short film, Hyas and Stenorhynchus, is neither a hyas (a stocky little crab) nor a stenorhynchus (a slender, stick-like crab). A 6-inch-long spirograph worm steals the show with gorgeous footage of it extending out of a tube and exploding, as the film suggests, like "fireworks" into a full bloom of tentacles.

5. Painlevé had a sense of humor. Before seeing footage of two hyas getting into a tussle, the subtitle reads, "Like all crustaceans, they are arm-wrestling enthusiasts."

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  • Yo La Tengo

6. YLT didn't create a by-the-book soundtrack. "We never wanted to create a literal translation of the action," says McNew. In fact, the band hardly watched the films when making the music. Instead, each band member watched the films on their own and, as McNew says, "kept those moods in mind when we got together to play." The rest of the process was a matter of mixing and matching different pieces of music to each of the eight films.

7. YLT includes bassist McNew, guitarist Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, yet keyboards are one of the score's more prominent instruments.

8. Sections of the How Some Jellyfish Are Born music resemble the intro to a long-lost Doors track. YLT offers no shortage of anxious keyboard and dark bass lines here.

9. A newborn jellyfish looks like what you see in a tissue after you blow your nose.

10. Liquid Crystals reportedly reminds YLT of a "psychedelic light show that leant itself to a psychedelic freakout." This six-minute stretch of film and music intends to melt faces.

11. The subtitles in Liquid Crystals explain that the liquids' transformations in structure, form and color occur with certain changes in temperature and pressure. All of this looks like a kaleidoscope.

12. The Sea Horse will forever change the way you look at sea horses. Along with the spirograph worm, it's the evening's biggest onscreen attraction.

13. The sea horse is the only aquatic vertebrate to "stand upright." It's also the only fish with a prehensile tail, meaning it can hold things.

14. Painlevé thinks sea horses have a "pouting lower lip" and "shifting eyes," giving them a look of "worry" and "unease." Never have you thought more about the mental well-being of sea horses than during this short film.

15. A male sea horse—not a female—nourishes embryos in his pouch, and gives birth. Delivery takes several hours. "An anguished expression accompanies the rolling of his eyes," reads the subtitles. You don't say.

16. A sea horse embryo looks, according to Painlevé, "like a King Charles spaniel."

17. Sea horses are not as fast as thoroughbreds. The closing scene of The Sea Horse, which transposes images of the sea creature with footage from an actual horse race, proves this pretty definitively.

18. Don't expect YLT to interact with the audience during the show. "We've always played for each other, and to each other," says McNew. "That's not different than most of our shows, whether a movie is playing or not. We just don't look up much."

19. Expect a certain element of improvisation to the score. "The movements have a skeletal structure with lots of room to move within every one," says McNew. "And we take advantage of that room."

20. Octopus sex looks—and, thanks to YLT, sounds—like something Charlie Sheen would be involved in, which is to say chaotic and unpleasant.

21. This has little to do with the films, but YLT plans to get into the studio to record a new album later this year. "It's time," says McNew.

—Skylar Browning

Showing: Yo La Tengo performs The Sounds of Science, a live score to Painlevé's eight films, Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.



Also playing

Our critics highlight nine other noteworthy films

by Erika Fredrickson, Dave Loos, Jed Nussbaum, Andy Smetanka, Jessica Mayrer and Skylar Browning



Granito

In 1982, Pamela Yates filmed the bloody conflict between Guatemala's military and the guerrillas living in the mountains. As it turns out, she was also filming evidence of genocide. That documentary, When the Mountains Trembled, became forensic evidence 25 years later in an investigation and indictment against de facto dictator Efrain Rios Montt for the death and disappearance of 200,000 citizens. Granito is the story of how this all came about.

Even if you know this story from beginning to end, you must see this film. Yates is a master documentary filmmaker and in Granito she deftly crafts the story with all the elements of a criminal mystery—except, of course, this is all very real, and Yates' thoughtful approach keeps the drama from ever feeling cheapened.

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  • Granito

The story covers both past and present. It's an astonishing peek into how Yates gained access to indigenous villagers, mountain guerrillas, the military and the dictator himself as a young filmmaker. The unfolding of the investigation 25 years later is fraught with danger, sorrow and, also, hope. Numerous scenes will have you holding your breath, but one scene in particular captures one of the overriding messages—why documentaries are important in the realm of international politics. In the scene, a new generation of Guatemalan villagers—mostly young children—watch When the Mountains Tremble. There they see scenes of their own villagers 25 years earlier crying on their porches where the murdered bodies of family members lay. It's intense, but there's something fantastic about this idea: telling the story over and over so that no one ever forgets, and so it never happens again. (EF)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 17, 4 p.m. (Finalist in the feature competition.)



Yizkor

One of the problems historians face in narrating huge events of the relatively past—the Holocaust, for example—is that the narratives are by now so familiar that they seem almost preordained. In Ruth Fertig's hybrid Super 8/animated short Yikzor, we see the director's elderly grandparents in '70s home movies and immediately learn they were Holocaust survivors. And that her grandmother wrote a memoir that was discovered only after she died in 2001. The overall story is a familiar one.

"One death is a tragedy," said Josef Stalin. "A million deaths is a statistic." It's an interesting corollary that individual stories of the Holocaust continue to fascinate us even as reiterations of the larger picture have lost some of their force to time and familiarity. Liselotte Fertigova's story must speak for tens of thousands of women who found themselves in a similar predicament: Jewish and pregnant when the Nazis came in and took over.

Fertig pieces the story together with stock footage, home movies and pen-and-ink animation that starts off a little on the whimsical side, but gathers a good deal of foreboding and poignancy as the film progresses. Grandmother Fertigova's memoir is not without humor; "It's Hitler's fault I got married," she gripes.

With our historical hindsight, her trials are grimly predictable and predictably grim, but Yizkor is a potent essay on a tragedy so enormous it can only be grasped by the details. (AS)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. (Finalist in short film competition.)



Corner Store

The extent of many Americans' knowledge of the ongoing clash between Israel and Palestine is probably limited to brief glimpses on the evening news. Corner Store, however, digs deep beyond 30-second clips to tell a compelling and distinctly human story.

This 70-minute documentary chronicles the life of Yousef Elhaj, a father of three who, unable to make a living in an increasingly conflict-ravaged Palestine, leaves his wife and three children at home in Bethlehem to open a corner store in San Francisco's Castro District.

Filmmaker Katherine Bruens and her colleagues provide a wide-angle look at how the conflict has torn apart Elhaj's family. For 10 years, Elhaj saves money to bring his wife and children to the United States He sells tall boys, cigarettes and frozen food to hipsters. He eats alone and walks solo through San Francisco's streets. Sending money home, he waits for immigration officials to grant his wife and children permission to emigrate to America.

The documentary follows Elhaj as he makes a 60-hour voyage from California to his home in Bethlehem, his first trip to Palestine in a decade. He hugs his children, now teenagers. Elhaj sees that while he's been gone, Israeli settlements have moved even further into what was once Palestinian territory. More shops have shuttered and Arabs have continued to, like Elhaj, flee, leaving to make lives elsewhere.

The film clearly portrays the Middle Eastern conflict through Palestinian eyes; Israel is portrayed as the aggressor. But the film steers clear of getting tangled in the long and complicated history behind the Arab-Israeli conflict, instead providing a compelling look into another fight, one that aims to keep families and cultural identity intact despite seemingly insurmountable odds. (JM)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Saturday, Feb. 12, 1:45 p.m. (Finalist in the feature competition.)



The Secret To a Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive-By Truckers

Dirty, filthy, mean, miserable, wonderful. These are the words used by guitarist Jason Isbell to describe The Drive-By Truckers, a Georgia-based band that has been delivering songs about the grittier side of Americana culture with distorted guitars and a southern drawl since their formation in 1996.

This description comes to life in The Secret to a Happy Ending, filmmaker Barr Weissman's intimate and unapologetic look at the history and inner workings of the Truckers' universe. It's a classic hard-working rock band's success story—heavy on the hard work and uncertain about the success—brought to life through archival footage and interviews with various bandmates, influences, supporters and family members. The film follows the Truckers over the course of three years, tracing their rise in popularity and their dealings with personal issues and lineup changes, all set to an autobiographical soundtrack comprised of live performances by the band.

The film is not without its faults, and the emphasis is clearly not on production quality and flashy cinematography. The Secret to a Happy Ending is often rough around the edges, but this complements the subject matter well in delivering an unflinching and unpretentious story of friendship, class struggles, hard times, family, and, ultimately, rock and roll. (JN)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Friday, Feb. 18, 9:45 p.m.



Everyday Sunshine

It's the Anvil gambit: Take a band 25 years or so past its heyday but still bent on living the dream and stick them in a documentary that starkly illustrates the gulf between their onetime potential (Anvil, of course, being heavy metal's ultimate also-rans) and the vastly diminished circumstances of the present. In other words, make a nonfiction This is Spinal Tap.

Everyday Sunshine gives the treatment to Fishbone, ska/punk/soul/metal mavericks with roots in the L.A. hardcore scene and a silo's worth of documentary fodder amassed over the band's three-decade history. It's not an especially great documentary, but its directors could hardly go too wrong by choosing such a flamboyant subject. Singer/sax player/theraminist Angelo Moore is an engaging lunatic who dresses to the nines just to check the mailbox.

Critics adored Fishbone but mainstream success eluded them, and with each successive album released they seemed less certain of who their audience was. It's significant that guitarist Vernon Reid is among those interviewed here (along with, um, Tim Robbins and the ubiquitous Flea). Like Fishbone, Reid's group Living Colour was an all-black rock band somewhat vexed over its inability to reach a black audience.

What documentaries like this always add to a band saga is the meta-ish promise of redemption, restored success and bigger audiences in the future. If The Story of Anvil and This Is Spinal Tap are anything to go by, moving to Japan might not be a bad move. (AS)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Friday Feb. 11, at 10:15 p.m.



Lines

I once read about a boarding school in Austria that doubles as a national ski academy of sorts, where alpine prodigies as young as 7 or 8 go to hone their craft in hopes of one day representing their country in its most popular sport. In Los Angeles, a new school has a similar goal, except the sport is skateboarding.

Students at the Venice Boarding School are required to skateboard, and Lines, the 27-minute documentary by Joselito Seldera about the school, introduces us to some of the students who hope to one day become professional boarders.

Unfortunately, the film fails to capture the character of the school or its students. It's a clunky documentary that desperately needs a narrator to move the story along. Instead, we are left clueless about the history and background of the school's formation and unattached to any of the students when it comes time for the climatic competition.

There's a lot of footage of the students doing what skateboarders do at the school's on-site skate park, but almost nothing about the academics. We get quick glimpses into the lives of a few of the teenagers, but overall Lines feels like a clumsy and hastily edited infomercial for the school. (DL)

Showing: Former Pipestone Mountaineering location, Friday, Feb. 18, 7 p.m.



And Everything Is Going Fine

Steven Soderbergh's delicately crafted documentary sets out to provide Spalding Gray's final monologue—a daunting task considering Gray's body was pulled from New York's East River in 2004 after an apparent suicide, and that Gray made a career of being an exceptional and singular storyteller. A native New Englander with a noticeable accent, Gray was known for riffing on intimate details of his own life that were both laugh-out-loud funny and darkly tragic. He often performed while sitting at a wooden desk with only a glass of water, a microphone and a notebook. His shows exposed both the writer and the man, with very little distraction.

click to enlarge And Everything is Going Fine
  • And Everything is Going Fine

Soderbergh doesn't mess with the formula. By editing together staged monologues, one-on-one interviews and home movies, the director manages to seamlessly present Gray on Gray as if Gray had written it all out himself; almost no one else speaks in the film. It's a remarkable accomplishment by Soderbergh.

More remarkable: The viewer is given a glimpse of not only Gray's gifts as a storyteller, but also the ever-present issues that would ultimately lead to his death. By talking constantly about his life, and making some sort of sense of it for the benefit of the audience, viewers learn that Gray's mother went crazy and committed suicide. Gray himself battled clinical depression. He talked a lot about mortality.

"Everyone knows they're going to die, but no one really believes it," he says at one point.

You get the sense Gray did, and it's part of what made him—and makes this film—so powerful. (SB)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Thursday, Feb. 17, at 9:45 p.m.



Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared

Sayed Kashua is an Arab writer and journalist who lives in Israel and writes in Hebrew, and his day-to-day life reflects the paradox and controversy that he has in some ways encouraged. To say he's a conduit for criticism from both sides is putting it lightly. "The Arabs think I suck up to the Jews, and the Jews think I'm anti-Zionist," he says early on in this 54-minute documentary by Dorit Zimbalist.

Zimbalist filmed Kashua over a period of seven years last decade, capturing Kashua as he deals with discrimination, works on his new book and speaks to both Jewish and Arab audiences. There are a few too many mundane scenes that slow down the film's pace, but overall Kashua is an interesting subject. He's entertaining when cracking jokes about his predicament, but even better when defending Israel's Arab population to groups of students. To see him get fired up and to engage with teenagers about the genesis of the conflict and the root of what causes suicide bombers is both educational and compelling. That Kashua can turn around and satirize the subject, as he does in his books and weekly newspaper column, makes it all the better. (DL)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2:15 p.m.



Doc

There is something compelling about H.L. "Doc" Humes, with his introductory line—"Ladies and gentlemen and fellow bums"—and his strange fascination with clouds. There's also something completely off-putting about him, a guy who even Norman Mailer describes as "vain and intellectually arrogant." A guy who comes to dinner at people's houses and ends up crashing there for three days, a guy who seems more interested in lecturing his adoring student disciples than paying much attention to his own three daughters. But the writer, beatnik and co-founder of the Paris Review gets fair treatment in this documentary by his daughter, Immy Humes. Despite a tumultuous childhood, the filmmaker tenderly creates a portrait that unveils her father's quirks, pitfalls and genius.

Besides Mailer, the film includes interviews with Paul Auster, Timothy Leary and George Plimpton, all attesting to Humes' great strengths and weaknesses. Stories about how the Paris Review evolved (and, sometimes, devolved) and the search for Doc's long lost film (called Don Peyote) add drama to the portraiture. It's also a fascinating peek into the beat and Yippie era—the passionate politics, the riots, the long drug-induced nights—through the story of one man who lived it.

By the end it's clear that despite his madness and self-centeredness, Doc was a very interesting, intelligent person with an overwhelming desire to change the world. (EF)

Showing: Pipestone Mountaineering, Monday, Feb. 14, 7:00 p.m.



Summer Snapshot

A word of advice to future filmmakers: If anyone ever offers you a Super 8 camera, think twice before accepting. Definitely twice if they're trying to sell it to you—you'll be throwing good money after bad soon enough. There is no richer, more evocative medium for recording memories, but nowadays you'd be hard put to find a more recklessly expensive one, either.

For a three-minute cartridge of color film, $15 is a damn good deal. For mail-in processing (no sound, and by the way you're going to need to find a projector to watch the footage), add another $25 or so, including shipping both ways to the only facility in North America that still processes it. Want the footage digitized so you can edit on a computer? Add another $10. The bulb in your pawn-shop projector is certain to burn out the first time you use it (add $60–$75 to replace), and chances are you'll have spent this much this far only to discover you had no idea what you were doing with that free camera, which naturally didn't come with a manual. Hmm. Some of those other buttons must do something.

click to enlarge Summer Snapshot
  • Summer Snapshot

But if you luck out with a good camera and know what you're after, as Summer Snapshot director Ian McCluskey did when he loaded up a vintage Wagoneer with friends and some vintage cameras with (now discontinued) Kodachrome for a trip to the river, the look simply cannot be improved upon. Only Super 8 could have captured this sunny, uninhibited day in all its glistening fleshtones and glittering sun-dapples the way McCluskey and his friends remember it. Tellingly, their reminiscences describe the quality of the film as much as the events of the day. This is why simulated Super 8 sequences still pop up all the time in Hollywood movies: Anyone knows this is what memories really look like. (AS)

Showing: Wilma Theatre, Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 9:45 p.m.

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