Culture clash 

Checking out the CINE Film Festival

When it rains it pours: We have an embarrassment of film-festival riches screening around Missoula lately. Here’s a sampling of some of the award-winners from the fourth annual CINE Film Festival, a collection of cultural and environmental documentaries organized by the same folks who bring you the International Wildlife Film Festival.

Cultural Issues Award

Fancy yourself an “outsider” art enthusiast? The sort who just can’t get enough of that unschooled, unselfconscious genius and thinks an illiterate black Alabaman mashing stuff together for 50 years with putty and Sherwin-Williams exterior latex might be every bit as vital as the smug patrician piglet fresh out of RISD and schmoozing his way through New York?

Well, me too—though it came as a surprise that “outsider art” is considered by some a derogative term for what the elderly Alabaman is doing. Ditto “folk art,” and did you know that many critics consider art-darling Robert Rauschenberg the visual arts equivalent of the Rolling Stones or any of those other early British blues hounds strip-mining Delta tradition and hauling it to the bank? Well, me neither. There’s a heck of a lot to learn in Mr. Dial Has Something to Say. Paint-splattered mattress in a black man’s yard? Worthless. Same mattress splattered and trashed by Rauschenberg? Tens of thousands of dollars.

Similar in theme to Purvis of Overtown, which screened earlier this year as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Mr. Dial examines the difficult relations between the lily-white art establishment and its quota of occasional ethnic “discoveries,” in this instance the vibrant visual art of the Southern “black belt”: the Gee’s Bend quilters, the anonymous yard-show creators and, front and center, establishment discovery extraordinaire Thornton Dial. Like Purvis of Overtown’s titular outsider, Dial makes stupefyingly beautiful assemblage with car parts, wire, putty and cloth—and without pricy trips to the art supply shop. Also like Purvis Young, Dial worked in obscurity for years before suddenly finding himself at the center of a collector and dealer frenzy, thanks to a well-meaning dealer who inadvertently opened a huge can of worms.

Mr. Dial is engaging, occasionally infuriating, and enjoyable, but ultimately nothing extraordinary: boilerplate art-doc with nice hi-def cinematography and workmanlike editing. At least the art itself is better than that of, oh, say, The Cats of Mirikitani, which received the Best Feature Documentary award at Big Sky.

Mr. Dial Has Something to Say screens Friday, Oct. 5, at 7 PM, and Sunday, Oct. 7, at 5 PM. 

Honorable Mention in Storytelling

Muse of Fire, on the other hand, is all talking heads, on purpose: husbands, wives, parents of soldiers in Iraq and the soldiers themselves—plus Kevin Costner, eyes flickering beadily across the teleprompter—reading poetry and discussing the power of the written word in the most wired of wars to date. It’s literally all talking, all dramatically lit interview sittings. Some of the poetry is bad, some is quite moving, but it all serves to make you ask yourself “Is it fair of me to judge this on its own merits after what these people have been through?” I asked myself that twice during the acoustic guitar scene alone. You’ll see what I mean if you like music, and you’ll feel just as conflicted as I did.

Aesthetic dilemmas aside, Muse of Fire makes its two-tined point: that writing is therapeutic, and that the most poignant words to come out of war aren’t always those of the people who undertook the task as self-styled poets like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. It’s often the commonplace beauty of hurried letters and mute longings put into stumbling words that prove the most affecting.

So it’s either a besetting flaw or a stroke of brilliance that Muse of Fire offers no action counterpoint to its interviews in the form of jarring war footage to galvanize the viewer. The muse in action—war, that is—is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination, or rather to his memory of something he might have seen recently on the Internet or in another recent Iraq doc. For as hard as the censors and spinners have tried, a lot more of this war’s ugliness has leaked stateside in more or less real-time than in wars past, and it doesn’t take any great effort of trust to take these talking heads at their word.

Muse of Fire screens Friday, Oct. 5, at 7 PM, and Sunday, Oct. 7, at 3 PM.

Hands Around the World Award

Such a gentle-sounding award for such a fatally blunt documentary: Crude Impact is a sobering assessment of the price we pay for fossil fuels—ecologically, economically, health-wise and every other wise. Probably nothing you don’t already know, but a timely reminder just the same. And a beautifully done reminder, as well, with clever motion graphics and animated sequences and a whole lot of time-lapse photography of energy-sucking cities and endless streams of automobiles clogging their concrete arteries. Talking heads include the authors of Powerdown and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, as well as a few former advisors to Bushes I and II. In keeping with recent doomsday doc protocol, Crude Impact has a little buck-up coda telling the viewer about little things he can do to help, but as usual it’s slim comfort in the teeth of such staggering numbers.

Crude Impact screens Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 PM, and Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7 PM. 

The CINE Film Festival runs Monday, Oct. 1, through Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Roxy Theater. Each screening is $5/$4 students/$3 youth. For a full schedule visit or call 728-9380. 
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