Louder than ever 

Your complete guide to the 9th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

The first scene in Don't Look Back shows a young Bob Dylan holding up cue cards, each scrawled with words from his song "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "basement," "medicine," "pavement," "government," "trench coat," "laid off." It's an artful and sympathetic introduction by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and it serves the film well, since many of the documentary's subsequent scenes capture the young Dylan's grating arrogance. Yet no matter how disappointed you might be about Dylan's lack of humility, this 1967 film of Dylan's 1965 UK tour is still one of the best music documentaries ever made. It shows a rising star at once painfully transparent, pretentious, confident, too self-aware and ever-so-talented.

Don't Look Back is one of a long list of music documentaries, classic and new, that will screen at the 9th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The festival's Big Sky Mix-Tape theme this year really does feel like a lovingly compiled mix-tape, showcasing music documentaries that span decades and genres. Old-school fans can geek out at the chance to see longtime favorites on the big screen, like the 1973 concert documentary Ziggy Stardust, another Pennebaker film, which shows in gritty glory the final appearance of David Bowie as the title character. There are four films from producer Agi Orsi, but Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is one that fits well into the mix-tape theme as it spans the band's evolution over four decades. Three films from David Markey provide windows into the Southern California punk scene and the touring lives of Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Those will pair well with another music film, New Garage Explosions: In Love With These Times, a snarky documentary that features present-day bands like Pierced Arrows and Thee Oh Sees. An Andrew Bird documentary, Fever Year, highlights the Chicago musician's precarious, multi-instrumental looping technique; it's in the feature competition category.

The playlist goes onand not always in the most predictable verse/chorus/verse way, either. Some of the more unusual offerings look at the banjo (and Steve Martin), a Navajo punk band, and a pianist. The closing night film, Under African Skies, goes into the making of Paul Simon's Graceland.

The music theme stretches beyond the big screen. Following last year's strange and wonderful experience of seeing Yo La Tengo live-score a series of Jean Painlevé undersea documentaries, this year's lineup puts local talent in the spotlight. Missoula bands Stellarondo and Butter, and members of Grandfatherglen and Next Door Prison Hotel, will provide original music for three films: the 1921 film Manhatta, the 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Missoula artist Andy Smetanka's newest silhouette short To The West.

Festival organizers have also arranged for live music to be mixed throughout the week's events. Cold Hard Cash, The Skurfs and many others will play sets before and after screenings. The lineup includes Chris "Sandman" Sand, who returns for an encore presentation of his documentary Rollout Cowboy, which debuted at last year's festival. The North Dakota native, known as "The Rappin' Cowboy," will follow the screening with a solo performance.

Even with this deluge of concert documentaries and musician profiles, Big Sky's best musical moments may remain hidden in any of the dozens of other films. Take, for example, the subject of this year's retrospective, Barbara Kopple. The music in her 1976 Oscar-winning film Harlan County, U.S.A. sets the perfect tone for a heart-wrenching story of a coal mining town fighting against Duke Power Co.: There's the hopeful "They'll Never Keep Us Down" by Hazel Dickens, and Merle Travis's portrayal of the dangers of mining in "Dark As A Dungeon." Kopple's incredible storytelling stands on its own, although the film demonstrates just how important music is to that process.

Of course, there's more to this year's festival than just music. With more than 100 films, there should be plenty of other offerings to draw you in. With that in mind, we give you a taste of what you're in for at the festival PBS recently ranked as one of the 12 top small-town film fests in the nation.

Erika Fredrickson



The good, the bad and the award-winning

Our critics review 20 of the festival's most buzz-worthy films

by Dave Loos, Erika Fredrickson, Melissa Mylchreest, Skylar Browning, Jason McMackin, Dan Brooks and Alex Sakariassen



Ecstasy of Order

Early on in director Adam Cornelius' film it's posited that NES Tetris is the most popular and challenging game in the world, video or otherwise. This mantra continues with little scientific data and no specific proof; instead, the filmmakers draw us into a world where it is indisputable fact.

Robin Mihra, a one-time Nintendo World Championship finalist, is the impetus behind the tournament that the narrative arc is built around. Via YouTube, where gamers post videos of themselves making perfect scores (999,999) or graduating to Level 29, aka "the kill screen," Mihra discovers the country's best Tetris players and culls them for a tournament in a Los Angeles movie theater. The players are wide-ranging in their geek stereotypes: over-competitive, nocturnal, basement-dwelling and ironic T-shirt wearing, all blissfully unaware that playing Tetris everyday for 20 years is an oddity. Mihra also finds the reclusive former wunderkind Thor Aackerlund, whose invincibility during the NES tournaments of the '90s still visibly frightens modern players. Aackerlund left school to become a professional video game player, a dream most kids share, but he had to support his family with his winnings.

click to enlarge Ecstasy of Order
  • Ecstasy of Order

The narrative structure is that of a sports movie. We meet the characters, we decide whom to root for, the tournament is played and a victor is crowned. Will it be the young upstart? A crafty veteran? Perhaps surprisingly, you will care. Plus, the analog synthesizer soundtrack was composed by former Missoulian Chris Pickolick. (JM)

Showing: Sun., Feb. 26, at noon at the Wilma.



Battle for Brooklyn

Big Sky audiences should already be familiar with the work of filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley. In 2004, the duo took top honors at the inaugural Big Sky Documentary Film Festival with Horns and Halos, the story behind a controversial George W. Bush biography that almost never saw the light of day. This year, they could win again for Battle for Brooklyn.

The new film doesn't hold the immediate sex appeal of a prominent presidential candidate and allegations of drug use. Brooklyn is about eminent domain. But the consequences of that wonky legal term, and the people who engage in a vicious fight to define its meaning, make for one powerful film.

click to enlarge Battle for Brooklyn
  • Battle for Brooklyn

Daniel Goldstein is a graphic designer who recently bought a condo situated smack dab at center court of a newly proposed basketball arena. Brooklyn city officials are geeking out over the prospects of luring the New Jersey Nets to their borough, and announce a major development project that's billed as a "done deal." The vision includes the arena, a handful of skyscrapers, new housing complexes and ample open space, all designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry. It looks gorgeous in the mockups and models; there's even an ice-skating rink.

No one, however, takes into account the 864 residents, including Goldstein, living within the project's sizable footprint.

The ensuing struggle is classic David vs. Goliath, and Galinsky and Hawley film through seven years of twists and turns to follow every development. With such a long timeline, the movie becomes more than just a fight over real estate. There's death, birth, breakups and weddings. People change. Or don't. And by the end, even the viewer feels a sense of home. (SB)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 18, at 10:15 a.m., at the Wilma.



Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

One woman sits in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art all day, every day, for three months. The public flocks, takes turns sitting across from her. She becomes something like an icon, a prophet. Is this art? Can this move an audience to tears? Yes, and yes.

Marina Abramovic, the grandmother of performance art, tests the boundaries of what's accepted by society, peels away the "thin veneer of civilization" and asks the audience to come to terms with its own discomfort. In this film, director Matthew Akers follows Abramovic as she prepares for a retrospective at MoMA in New York, as well as a brand-new, incredibly ambitious performance.

Yes, this film is visually lovely. Yes, it's well-directed, edited and scored. But what makes it so successful is its subtle focus on humanity. Akers offers a well-crafted portrait of a charming, vulnerable and complex artist, but he also mirrors Abramovic's own aimnamely, to prod the audience. What moves us, deeply? How do we connect viscerally with those around us? What makes us human? What is art, anyway? Are life and art, as Abramovic suggests, actually one and the same? (MM)

Showing: Free opening night screening on Fri., Feb. 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Wilma.



Holy Rollers

There's something slightly off-putting about the way a group of evangelical Christians justify their indulgence in vices on film. They sound like addicts in denial, defending their actions not to others, but to themselves and to God. What would Jesus do? Apparently he'd count cards in Las Vegas.

Holy Rollers follows the exploits of Church Team, possibly the most enterprising mishmash of fuzzy-cheeked 30-something ministry leaders this side of the Last Supper. When they aren't lounging in upscale Seattle suburbs or baptizing followers in public parks, these men and women play blackjack. Professionally. Church Team started as a hobby for founders Ben Crawford and Colin Jones back in 2007. By 2009, the team included more than a dozen players who, combined, had won more than $3 million from casinos nationwide.

click to enlarge Holy Rollers
  • Holy Rollers

Director Bryan Storkel does an impressive job humanizing these holy rollers. To Church Team, card-counting isn't gamblingan activity condemned by their faith. It's a way to "free" a monthly income from crooked institutions in a mere 40 hours, then spend the rest of the month doing the Lord's work. The team does fall on hard times as success waxes and wanes. Members are tossed from casinos, team managers struggle to keep investors happy and tempers flare when one player accuses the team's token agnostic of stealing money, based on a tip from the Holy Spirit.

This last moment proves enough to challenge the trust system these Christians rely on exclusively but not enough to convince Church Team that what they're doing goes against their religious convictions. Blackjack, to them, is simply a meansone they defend more and more as their faith is tested. (AS)

Showing: Sun., Feb. 19, at 2 p.m., at the Crystal.



Piano Pat: A Montana Legend

How appropriate that we begin this six-minute film with the gravelly voice-over of Piano Pat as she leaves her humdrum apartment and drives over the windswept and snow-sodden roads to Great Falls's O'Haire Motor Inn, the home of the Sip 'n Dip, a tiki lounge with "mermaids" and the bar she has performed in for 60 years. The filmmakers wisely show us the Pat who exists outside the bar. We see the mom, the church organist, the lady who regularly gets her hair done, the woman who wishes fame would have come sooner in her life.

click to enlarge Piano Pat: A Montana Legend
  • Piano Pat: A Montana Legend

We also meet the woman whose infectious enthusiasm has kept her and her patrons returning to the Sip 'n Dip all these years, but the film leaves us wanting more, as both the audience and Piano Pat know that something this iconic won't last forever. (JM)

Showing: Wed., Feb. 22, at 4:30 p.m., at the Wilma.



Happy

According to Happy, people who spend a lot of time with family are happy. Surfers are happy. Villagers in Okinawa are happy. African bushmen are happy, in part because when one of them is sick, "rather than sending him to the nearest doctor, the whole community participates in the healing process" via ritual dancing. Students of contemporary culture will recognize a particular world-view in this assertion, one that Happy embraces without deeply considering it.

click to enlarge Happy
  • Happy

Americans are not happy, of course. Like the Japanesewhom the film presents generally as almost comically depressed automatonswe are too fixed on money and status to find contentment. We'd be better off like the people of Bhutan, whose government works to increase national happiness through careful development and "codes of dress and speech." If you aren't so sure you'd be happy with a dress code, you probably will not like Happy. Director Roko Belic's feature-length film is a long paean to Living Simply, Focusing On What Matters and other empty notions of post-consumer happiness. (DB)

Showing: Saturday, Feb. 25, at 10 a.m., at the Wilma.



Painting John

There's a sad beauty to Montana's rolling cattle hills that makes one yearn for some shred of days long past. Rusted trucks like farmyard sentinels, calves forging through snow, lonely men with hay hooks and broken backs. It's a beauty masterfully reflected in Audrey Hall's filmmaking debut, Painting John, an 11-minute short that feels altogether too short.

Hall's subjects juxtapose nicely: the Wall Street man turned globetrotting painter Hugh Wilson and the grizzled 80-something rancher John Holland. Wilson chats with the joviality of youth, a tattoo of a bird peeking out above the neck of a striped T-shirt. Holland's answers come in short, shaky bursts, as though he's standing in the cold. Does the portrait Wilson completes capture Holland's spirit? "Yeah, I think so," Holland replies. Time has left trenches on Holland's face, but it's the eyes Wilson focuses on.

click to enlarge PAINTING JOHN
  • Painting John

The banter would not hold up as well had Hall not recognized a third character at play: Montana. From a shot of Wilson digging his truck out of the snow to a panorama of the hills around Holland's ranch house, the landscape is as much a part of Painting John as the painter and his subject. As the two part waysthe portrait finishedwe watch in silence through a pane of glass. Their conversation doesn't matter. Only Holland's send-off, a finger pointed at some unseen object beyond the trees. He's lived on and worked the ranch since his birth, in 1927. He's a fixture, mostly silent, an immovable part of that sad beauty Hall and Wilson have now immortalized. (AS)

Showing: Tue., Feb. 21, at 9 p.m., at the Wilma.



Tanglewood

When I first read the blurb about this film and saw "new realm of non-verbal equine psychotherapy," I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Sure, cross-species relationships can be incredibly powerful, but I worried that this film would wander into new-agey nonsense. Apparently the subject of the film, a young woman battling cancer, had similar misgivings about communing with horses as treatment, and admits as much in the first minutes. She proceeds with the therapy, though, and seems to glean some peace from it.

Tanglewood, directed by Sarah Newens, isn't new-agey, but neither does it convince me that there's anything remarkable going on between woman and horse. It's a shame, because the potential is there to make an interesting statement about healing, acceptance and the very real empathic capacity of horses. On that front, this 17-minute short falls a little flat.

click to enlarge Tanglewood
  • Tanglewood

The saving grace comes in the form of striking visuals. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the footage of horses and the scenery demonstrate a keen photographic eye. I think I would have preferred this as a silent film, or perhaps overlaid with only music. (MM)

Showing: Mon., Feb. 20, at 1:45 p.m., at the Wilma.



Refugee AllStars in Montana

The most common complaint with short films is that they are, well, too short. In this case, local director Colin Ruggiero focuses on a tiny piece of an epic story, and does so with a grace and subtlety that fits perfectly in a 10-minute package.

click to enlarge Refugee All-Stars in Montana
  • Refugee All-Stars in Montana

There's already a feature-length documentary about the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, a musical group that emerged from the war-torn nation and proceeded to tour the world. In fact, that film screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2007, and hit the Wilma again in 2008. Days after the 2008 screening, the band took the Wilma stage for a sold-out live concert. Ruggiero uses footage from that Wilma show and a KUFM radio interview to provide a glimpse of the international musicians' brief stop in a wintery college town.

It's the little moments that make big impressions. There's the hushed retelling of what it was like to survive civil war and be displaced to Guinea juxtaposed with raucous crowd shots of dreadlocked Missoulians. There's the post-show giddiness outside the tour bus, when one band member uses an issue of the Indy as a drum and another sings.

You can get the full story of this band somewhere else; Ruggiero provides a few precious moments that may mean more to a local audience. (SB)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 18, at 4:45 p.m., at the Crystal.



Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword

There's such a well-established template for "brain game" documentaries and the eccentric subcultures they attract, whether it be Spellbound (about spelling bees), Wordplay (about crossword competitions) or Word Wars (Scrabble competitions), that you start to wonder how soon before the genre dissolves into depressing parody.

Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword is about the USA Memory Championship and the "mental athletes" who participate, and if there was ever a candidate for taking a documentary concept too far, this sure sounds like a winner, er, loser.

click to enlarge Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword
  • Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword

That it ends up being better than any of the aforementioned trio is a fantastic surprise. And yes, this is a documentary in which the climatic sequence revolves around two contestants reciting a memorized deck of cards. It's a genuinely moving scene.

There's a little bit of luck involved here in that the three featured competitors are all charismatic and interesting in their own right. Chief among them is Nelson Dellis, an avid mountain climber who burst onto the scene two years ago with his uncanny ability to memorize more than 200 digits in five minutes and remember the order of a deck of cards after looking at them for less than 70 seconds. (The title refers to a memorization trick for assigning people, objects and actions to each card.)

In just 40 minutes, director Jonathan Napolitano masterfully weaves three personal vignettes with the ins and outs of a quirky and fascinating competition. That this is Napolitano's first documentary makes it all the more impressive. (DL)

Showing: Mon., Feb. 20, at 2 p.m., at the Crystal.



Sound It Out

According to this film, an independent record store closes every three days in the UK. But Sound It Out, the last surviving vinyl record store in Teesside, England, bucks this troubling trend and remains open. Director Jeanie Finlay asks the unthinkable: What would it mean to the customers and owner if the shop closed?

click to enlarge Sound it Out
  • Sound it Out

Teesside is a crumbling city with high unemployment and higher rates of drinking and drug use. For the mostly male customers, the record store is a sanctuary from all that is wrong with their hometown. Mind you, these are not "cool customers." These are single men who spend their days thinking about unopened blue vinyl first editions of pressings from particular South African neighborhoods. Owner Tom Butchart acts as encyclopedia and psychologist to his customers, and his shop becomes the family room many of them will never have. The film is at its best when Finlay follows some of these customers back to their homes. When they share their record collections and passion for music, their love of vinyl becomes less peculiar than a man's love of football or drink. (JM)

Showing: Sun., Feb. 19, at 5:15 p.m., at the Wilma.



Visionary Insight

It's true that Winter In the Blood stars Chaske Spencer and Julia Jones, who play werewolves in the Twilight movies, plus David Morse who was in The Hurt Locker, The Green Mile and a million other films. But the real hype around this film isn't the star power, but the local connections.

It's set on the Montana Hi-Line. It's directed by two Montana filmmakers, Alex and Andrew Smith, who made Slaughter Rule, starring Ryan Gosling, which was at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The crew is stocked with Montana residents and University of Montana graduates. And it's based on the book by late, great American Indian author James Welch.

For the Big Sky Film Fest, film director Tracy Rector (whose other films have screened at the BSDFF in previous years) screens Visionary Insight, a behind-the-scenes look at Winter in the Blood that follows eight American Indian interns working on the film. You can also see the Blood trailer and hear live music from the soundtrack. It's the first look at a film that will receive much more attention as its release date approaches. (EF)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 25, at 5:15 p.m., at the Wilma.



The Bus

When Jerry Garcia died, Volkswagen ran an ad in Rolling Stone magazine of a VW bus with a tear falling from the left front headlight. Rarely has a car manufacturer understood its cultish connection to customers as Volkswagen did with its iconic bus. The thing was unlike anything else on the road, and it found a devoted following among hippies, artists, vagabonds and loners.

The Bus captures this endearing bond during a delightful drive down memory lane. Local filmmaker Damon Ristau includes rare archival footage, vintage advertisements, pop-culture clips ranging from Easy Rider to Cars and interviews with modern-day enthusiasts to show how the goofy-looking and simply designed bus became a cultural icon. The material is rich, and the storytelling finds a perfect balance between straightforward history and irreverence. The Bus runs much like the bus itself. (SB)

Showing: Thur., Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m., at the Wilma.



Man on a Mission

As an avid space buff, I'm a little embarrassed I had never heard of Richard Garriott. His story is worth learning in Man on a Mission, if only for the strangely charming character study.

Richard's father was Owen Garriott, an astronaut in the '70s and '80s who spent more than two months aboard early space stations Skylab and Spacelab. Richard dreamed of becoming an astronaut but poor eyesight made it impossible. So instead, he developed video games, creating some of the first fantasy role-playing games, like Akalabeth and Ultima. The games make him rich enough to buy a $30 million ticket into space aboard a Russian rocket and 12 days on the International Space Station. Oh, and he commonly goes by his other name, Lord British, refuses to cut his braided ponytail and lives in a haunted house/museum adorned with various medieval items.

click to enlarge Man on a Mission
  • Man on a Mission

Yeah, that sounds worthy of a documentary.

Despite his many eccentricities, the surprise here is that Richard seems like a genuinely decent and interesting guy, and the proof is that we never sense a hint of resentment from his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts during a year of training and two weeks in space. What's more, his father appears to be legitimately excited for and proud of his son. (DL)

Showing: Mon., Feb. 20, at 4 p.m., at the Wilma.



No Room For Rockstars

No Room For Rockstars is a low-budget documentary that's disjointed and 40 minutes too long, but just scrappy and irreverent enough to make you smile at the fun of it all.

Director Parris Patton travels along with the 2010 Warped Tour as the punk and alternative rock festival hits 43 cities in 51 days over the course of a summer. Most of the bands aren't particularly interesting, but Patton manages to effectively convey the day-to-day grind of building and dismantling a small city every day, often with little sleep and in harsh weather conditions.

click to enlarge No Room for Rockstars
  • No Room for Rockstars

What saves the film is chart-topper Mike Posnernot for his musical ability or charisma, but for the hilarious incongruity of a rising pop star sharing a tour bus with struggling, low-level rock bands like Fake Problems and Anarbor. There is a mix of mild resentment and bewildered amusement as the bands discuss their hard years on the road as the newcomer Posner picks out a wardrobe for his Rolling Stone photo shoot.

No Room For Rockstars could have used a better editor to eliminate repetitive crowd and caravan shotsit's essentially an hour of interesting footage in a 100-minute film. But audiences, especially music lovers, will appreciate the hidden gems here. (DL)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 25, at 5:15 p.m., at the Wilma.



Code of the West

Code of the West seems like the perfect tongue-in-cheek title for a film about the shenanigans of last year's Montana state legislature. Filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary-in-progress takes a look at how Montana went from being a pioneer in legalizing medical marijuana to being the first state to attempt to repeal the law. It's a film about the legislative process and also about how communities really do struggle to find a code of conduct that everyone can agree on.

This year's festival offers a handful of docs-in-progress like this one that audiences can view and provide feedback for the filmmakers. The issues in Code of the West are still being hotly debated, and our guess is this will be a high-attendance event. The after-film discussion could prove to be just as compelling as the film because of the opinions represented: both medical marijuana advocate Tom Daubert and Cherrie Brady from Safe Communities Safe Kids will be in attendance, as well as Cohen. (EF)

Showing: Mon., Feb. 20, at 5:45 p.m., at the Wilma.



If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Daniel McGowan doesn't look like Hollywood's version of a terrorist. He looks like some no-name office jockey. He's white with a dark head of hair and a thin beard. He slouches and mopes. His only distinguishing feature at the beginning of If A Tree Falls is a T-shirt with a photo of George W. Bush and the words "International Terrorist."

Funny thing about that shirt: McGowan is actually the one facing two life sentences for terrorist activity.

click to enlarge If A Tree Falls
  • If A Tree Falls

Director Marshall Curry uses McGowan to tell the inside story of the Earth Liberation Front, a group of radical environmentalists once billed by the FBI as the country's "number one domestic terrorism threat." ELF didn't bother with petitions or ralliesit set fire to timber companies, slaughterhouses and a $12 million ski lodge in Vail. McGowan took part in efforts like these and articulately explains his actions. The system doesn't work. He had to do something. This was the only way to enact change.

If A Tree Falls includes incredible access to and previously unseen footage of ELF, but it also provides balance. The federal agents who tracked the group for years detail the case and articulate the reason for the "terrorist" label. The companies that fell victim to ELF arsons vigorously defend their business practices. More importantly, by the end of the film McGowan himself begins to question the extent of the group's actions. (SB)

Showing: Tue., Feb. 21, at 5 p.m., at the Wilma.




Deep tracks

A treasure trove of rare concert footage makes its way to the big screen

Nothing like Pat Ivers's and Emily Armstrong's collection of filmed performances will ever happen again. Sure, there could be another explosion of talented, heretofore unknown musicians creating interesting life- and scene-altering tuneage, but if that does happen again (it won't) the musicians will have been photographed, filmed and recorded since before they were born. There will be no secret warehouse performances or lost tapes. No zines with pictures made from grainy, photocopied Polaroids passed around middle school cafeterias (Or Educational Feeding Centers, as they will become known.) Modern technology won't allow it. In fact, neither will we. We've come to expect everything to arrive yesterday. Too bad. Secrets are fun. Sharing secrets is even more fun. And Ivers and Armstrong are sharing their secrets with the world. That must be a riot.

So what are these secrets? Only seminal performances by seminal punk and new wave bands and artists in seminal clubs like NYC's CBGB's and Danceteria, all between 1975 and 1980. In other words, these were filmed at a time when doing so was as easy as baking a soufflé in a covered wagon trundling over the Rocky Mountains.

If you're uninterested in these great artists of the past, who created a different musical soundscape and worldview, then don't read the following abridged list of performers captured by the duo: Bad Brains, Blondie, Bush Tetras, Corpse Grinders, Cramps, Dead Boys (with John Belushi), Dead Kennedys, Devo, Go-Go's, Idols, Iggy Pop, John Cale, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Legs McNeil, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, Suicide, Sun Ra, Talking Heads, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Tito Puente (yes, that Tito Puente).

The sound quality and look of these videos tends toward good and often leans to great (way better than those gall-darned cell-phone videos on the tubes), especially considering that some of this music is loud, abrasive and played by highed-up rock and roll newbies or just plain weird dudes and chicks (Alan Vega of Suicide comes to mind). The mistakes are there but so is the energy.

The films themselves are made up of performances strung together, one after the other with no narrative arc or storytelling. They aren't chronological either, but have a semblance of theme. For the festival, Ivers and Armstrong are screening Nightclubbing: Greatest Hits, which is just what it sounds like: all the best crammed into one-hour of "Did you just see David Byrne do that?" They are also screening Nightclubbing: Roots of Hard Core, which features the likes of Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys and Cheetah Chrome and the Casualties.

This is bliss. It's guilt-free nostalgia, without commentary or questions. This is the music as it was and as it shall be, no "cultural lenses" or "post-zeitgeist-identity politics" mucking it up. And that is awesome.

Showing: Nightclubbing: Greatest Hits screens Sat., Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilma. Nightclubbing: Roots of Hard Core screens Mon., Feb. 20, at 7:45 p.m. at the Crystal.

Jason McMackin




Moving pictures

You've never heard of Bill Plympton, but you know this illustrator's work

Unless you're a hardcore animated short film aficionado, it's unlikely that you've ever heard of Bill Plympton. But you have seen his work. Go ahead, Google him up right now. We'll wait.

See, told you so.

It's possible you still can't pinpoint exactly where you've seen his work, but there's no mistaking the signature style of the man they call the King of Indie Animation. You may have seen one of his shorts on "Liquid Television," the short-lived but memorable MTV show from the early '90s. Maybe you recall his work from memorable Geico and United Airlines commercials over the past decade. Maybe it's the two "Weird Al" Yankovic videos he's animated. Or maybe you just make it your mission to watch every Oscar-nominated animated short film.

If that's the case, you've seen two of Plympton's films: 1987's Your Face and 2004's Guard Dog. Neither won the gold statue, but the shorts secured Plympton's niche in the film world. Your Face depicts a man singing about the face of his lover, and as he does his own face contorts in an assortment of ways. With a similarly simple but distinctive colored-pencil animation style, Guard Dog tells the short story of how a dog envisions the world while walking with his owner.

And don't forget the sequels. Plympton has followed up the original short with Guide Dog (2006), Hot Dog (2008) and Horn Dog (2009).

Not only will Plympton's work be showcased in two different screenings at this year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, but the animator himself will also be in attendance. And you're probably going to have questions for the filmmaker after watching 75 minutes of his shorts in the aptly titled Plymptoons, or, The-Slightly-Non-Fiction-ish-Somewhat Doc-Like-How-To-Films of Bill Plymptoon. (Yes, that's the whole title.)

Really, there's no better way to explain it. Plympton's How-To collection includes topics ranging from 25 Ways To Quit Smoking to How To Kiss to How To Make Love To a Woman. And just how do you quit smoking, according to the 65-year-old animator? Tip number 10 suggests locking your cigarettes in the car on a hot day, during which we observe two panicked cigarettes searching for a way out. And let's just say the kissing lessons depict a rather aggressive form of frenching that involves the fusing together of two bodies. All animated, of course.

It's a style epitomized by quirky and often subversive humor, as best demonstrated by Santa: The Fascist Years, which will also screen during the collection of shorts, and which is summed up pretty well by the title: Here you will meet Santa, circa World War II, and learn of a time when the jolly bearded man wasn't so jolly.

Part II of the Plympton retrospective is a new documentary about the animator's 40-year career. Adventures in Plymptoons includes interviews with family, friends, colleagues, critics and fans. No word on whether the 85-minute feature will delve into Plympton's most recent work, but here's hoping there's a good back story for his 2010 animated short, The Cow Who Wanted To Be a Hamburger.

Showing: Plymptoons, or, The-Slightly-Non-Fiction-ish-Somewhat Doc-Like-How-To-Films of Bill Plymptoon screens Sun., Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilma. Adventures in Plymptoons! screens Mon., Feb. 20, at 3:30 p.m. at the Crystal.

Dave Loos




The agitator

Making sense of Caveh Zahedi's mixed up, messed up life on screen

Caveh Zahedi can't help but provoke. The self-obsessed filmmaker has made a name by firmly inserting himself into each one of his projects, and pushing whatever boundaries surround him.

In I Am a Sex Addict, his most noteworthy film, he admits an unquenchable thirst for sex with hookers and tries to work through that little issue with multiple committed, non-hooker partners. They're not exactly thrilled. In I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, a crudely shot, high-concept exploration into the existence of God, he tries to get his father to take Ecstasy with him to spruce up an idea that, with cameras rolling, is falling flat. Dad refuses.

Zahedi's latest film takes aim at a bigger target. According to The New York Times, the director was commissioned to make a short film for a prominent contemporary art festival in the Middle East. He's given a few restrictions, like no frontal nudity and no making fun of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah and a major benefactor of the festival. Naturally, Zahedi couldn't resist the bait and made an entire film mocking the sheikh. According to the Times, the sheikh's lawyers asked that all copies be destroyed and it never be shown, anywhere.

click to enlarge I Am a Sex Addict
  • I Am a Sex Addict

In each case, Zahedi finds someone to agitate. The audience's reaction is an entirely separate situation. At his best, Zahedi is hailed as a shameless and insecure wreck who's willing to recklessly bare it all for the camera, damn the consequences. The Times called him "a peevish and hypertalkative but ultimately likable Everyman." At his worst, he's all those things, but far from likable. Rooting for someone intent on ruining his marriages for back-alley blowjobs ain't easy.

Among those who may be put-off by Zahedi's work are documentary purists. In fact, one could argue that his most accessible film, I Am a Sex Addict, isn't a documentary at all. The majority of the film consists of staged scenes filled with actors. Zahedi plays himself, but almost nothingsave for a powerful final sceneis raw footage of a real-life event. It's as much a "true documentary" as an episode of "Louie." Zahedi's willingness to bare all doesn't hide the fact that the audience is still stuck with his manipulated and often mocking version of a story.

Zahedi doesn't shy away from being polarizing. He defends his work and tactics and, in the case of the sheikh dispute, invites his critics to respond on camera "as long as it's not boring or anything." Boring is certainly the one complaint Big Sky audiences will not have with Zahedi.

Showing: I Am a Sex Addict screens Fri., Feb. 24, at 7:15 p.m. at the Crystal. I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore screens Sat., Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. at the Crystal, followed by In the Bathtub of the World and an untitled Zahedi film.

Skylar Browning

This story was updated to reflect new screen times and locations.
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