Coming attractions 

Your guide to the 11th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Page 3 of 4

"If we cook this wonderful planet we're living on, we're not going to have human existence," says famed Bozeman climber and Momenta narrator Conrad Anker in the film's opening moments. Anker acknowledges he'll be fine. He'll still have his coffee and be able to drive to the mountains long before the oven timer beeps. "But what's it going to be like 200 years down the line?"

click to enlarge Momenta
  • Momenta

The most soul-wrenching moments come early, as when LJ Turner, a Wyoming cattle rancher, talks of the Powder River Basin as a sacrifice zone singled out to benefit some corporation's bottom line. "Mr. Peabody's coal train is carrying Wyoming away," he says, pointing to a line of BNSF railcars plodding through the distance. Like those coal trains, Momenta itself rumbles quickly past Turner and onward to Spokane, Portland and Bellingham, with brief stops in Billings, Missoula and Sandpoint.

It's a bit disappointing that Momenta doesn't spend more time in our backyard. Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier provides a momentary look at the stakes here, explaining that the anticipated 50- to 100-percent bump in coal train traffic could impede local commerce and public safety by blocking downtown corridors like Madison Street. But the film is off to the next station in a flash, making Strohmaier something of a missed opportunity.

As the producers point out, each train loses an estimated 31 tons of coal and coal dust during its trek to the coast—which at 18 trains a day pencils out to roughly 204,000 tons annually. That concern has prompted Missoula officials to urge the Army Corps of Engineers in recent years to extend its environmental reviews of proposed coal port projects up the line. The Army Corps declined the first time around, but the hubbub raised here did compel the Washington Department of Ecology to step in and assess such impacts. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

If, for the uninitiated, Momenta feels lengthy and cumbersome, weighted down by a few too many characters and a few too many stops, that's a good thing. The issue at hand isn't just about folks in Gillette or Cherry Point or any of the hundreds of towns in between. As Anker lays out from the very beginning, and as anyone in the West who's even half awake will tell you, Powder River coal has long-term ramifications for us all.

Alex Sakariassen

Screens Sun., Feb. 23 at 3:30 PM at the Wilma. Nominee for the Big Sky Award.




Seriously funny

Tig Notaro on comedian Chris Fairbanks, her Missoula cat and living lifeeven when it's hardwith humor

by Erika Fredrickson

Tig Notaro is the kind of observational comic you can fall in love with, even if you're not a fan of the standup comedy format. She doesn't really do bits, so much as she starts one joke and takes it for a ride. She's dry and conspiratorial. She occupies the stage like she just accidentally wandered up there, as if she just stumbled upon the fact that she's the funniest person in the room.

In May 2012, Notaro did a performance for the live version of "This American Life," in which she talked about running into 1980s pop singer Taylor Dayne and the absurd conversations that ensued between them. But, behind the scenes, Notaro was going through some hard times. Within a four-month span, she'd contracted pneumonia and a life-threatening digestive infection called C. diff. She'd gone through a breakup. Her mother suddenly died from a fall. A couple months after all that, in August 2012, Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Then, something amazing happened.

A few weeks after the grim news, she took the stage at a Los Angeles club called Largo and delivered a now legendary set, which she started with, "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer." It is a shocking, funny, heartbreaking and candid performance that spurred comedian Louis CK to famously tweet, "In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo." Tig Notaro Live, her recently Grammy-nominated comedy album, includes a recording of the Largo set.

The album is just one artifact of Notaro's rising stardom. (By the way, the "Live" is pronounced as in the opposite of death, not like "live show," which makes it both funny and poignant.) This past year, she's been touring with her podcast, "Professor Blastoff," which she hosts with comedians Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger. She's also working on a memoir and she's the subject of a documentary in progress. We talked with her in advance of her upcoming Feb. 19 performance in Missoula, when she'll take the stage at the Wilma with her longtime friend, beloved Missoula native Chris Fairbanks.

Let's talk about the most pressing issue, which is obviously how you and Chris Fairbanks own a cat together. How did that happen?

Tig Notaro: Oh, well, Chris and I lived together for seven or eight years and we acquired a cat. When we finally parted ways, he kept the cat and then he finally started getting so busy he couldn't keep the cat and so I guess the cat moved to Montana. Well, I know the cat moved to Montana because I crashed on the cat's couch a few months ago. He's living with Chris' dad in Missoula and so I was going through there on tour and got to crash at my cat's house. Pretty fun!

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What were you doing in Missoula? Had you been here before?

TN: I was coming through with my podcast, "Professor Blastoff." We were on a national tour and went through Montana and just went and crashed with my cat. I did do a one-night gig in Missoula at a bar maybe 14 years ago, but that was just one night—in and out. For the show I did with "Professor Blastoff" I was only there the night that we crashed at the cat's house, but I haven't really spent much time in Missoula. With this [Big Sky Documentary] festival, I'm hoping that I can stay at least a couple extra days to hang out in town with Chris and all his old friends and go see some good movies. So I'm looking forward to it.

What was it like being roommates with Chris?

TN: Everybody always thought it was going to be totally insane, but we kind of just were very mellow people and so there was nothing too crazy to report, you know? It was kind of a disappointment, I think. I feel like it would definitely disappoint people if they would have peeked in on our lives.

You're one of the main attractions for the documentary festival this year, as part of its focus on comedy. Do you have a favorite mockumentary?

TN: Well, I am a fan of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I haven't really followed much TV but that is one show that I thought was great. Waiting for Guffman was great. That was probably a favorite of mine. I don't really follow too much comedy or mockumentaries, but actual documentaries I go nuts on. I watched the Mitt Romney documentary recently and the one called Billy the Kid. I watched Last Days Here—that's about the lead singer of this metal band called Pentagram. I watch documentaries all the time. I love them.

There's actually a documentary being made about my life right now. They started making it in January of 2013 following the horrible year that I had previously. So that film is being made right now.

Your album Tig Notaro Live comes with a pretty big backstory, including the show at the Largo in 2012. You've talked about this night so many times. Is it something that you get tired of talking about?

TN: It comes up daily, several times a day, and I think I'm just used to it at this point. I feel very thankful for that night and so I try to remember that whenever I'm not really in the mood to talk about it. I'm glad I'm alive to talk about it.

Have you heard from people whom the album affected?

TN: Oh yeah, I get emails daily from people who have cancer or people who are dying or people who have just had a rough week and their health is perfectly fine but the album put their life in check. I read every email that comes in. I feel so thankful that people are touched, that they feel like somebody out there understands, because it's rough. People have so many different rough spots in life they go through and so however it helps them I'm thankful to be a part of it.

Someone I know who survived breast cancer used to joke about the pressures of "courageously battling" cancer, because what if you don't feel brave? It's a real fear, I think, but also she joked about it because she needed to laugh. Did it help you that you already approach life with a comedic eye?

TN: Oh yeah, 100 percent. It took me a while to have a sense of humor about life. In the four months that my life fell apart [before the diagnosis] I kind of lost my sense of humor. But when I was diagnosed with cancer it came back full force. I experienced that, too, as far as people saying how brave I was or how brave I am. I'd tell them if they could just see me in a fetal position crying on my couch—I don't feel very brave. But I was talking to Louis CK about that idea and he was saying how you're still brave if you're whining or crying. You're facing the horror and the troubled moments. You're getting through it. That's enough. But it was hard for me to accept people saying they consider me brave. But I get it.

Chris went on "Conan" recently wearing what he calls his "grandpa" sweater, which I also spotted him wearing two other times in Missoula. Then I realized you have a similar sweater that you wear all the time. What's up with the grandpa sweaters?

TN: I wear mine and have worn it for the past 14 years, like even in the summer time. And I saw Chris—he did a show of mine the other night—and he wore his sweater. He was acknowledging how he's starting to wear grandpa sweaters now. I don't know, I mean, I certainly didn't invent grandpa sweaters.

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