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Six must-see Missoula movies

While big cities scarf up tons of screen time, picturesque Missoula barely registers a blip on the American movie landscape. Our last brush with fame came in 2000 with a passing mention in the otherwise forgettable Reindeer Games. Before that, the last time Missoula starred in any substantial way in a Hollywood picture was in a 1952 movie about smokejumpers. In a Tinseltown sense, at least, we’re not exactly overexposed.

Unto itself, however, Missoula is a hotbed of filmmaking activity. We’ve got diehard Super 8 holdouts, touchy postal employees with video cameras, a whole slew of Media Arts majors splashing fresh work across the screen of the UC Theater every spring, and a prestigious annual film festival spotlighting a burgeoning local documentary tradition. The following is a partial catalogue of movies, home-made and store-bought, that illuminate something of life in the Garden City.

A River Runs Through It (1992)

Some people consider this adaptation of the Norman Maclean novel the ultimate Missoula movie. I myself barely consider it a Missoula movie at all because—tantalizing mentions of Lolo and Missoula notwithstanding—it was filmed mostly around Livingston, just as Legends of the Fall, another Brad Pitt movie ostensibly set in Montana, was actually filmed in Alberta. A River Runs Through It did, however, inspire numerous (and probably apocryphal) Brad Pitt sightings around Missoula for years after its release, and ensured that local streams and rivers would be crowded with trout-fevered transplants in floppy hats and hip waders forevermore.

Kicking the Loose Gravel Home (1976)

A decade before co-producing River, local writer-filmmaker Annick Smith fashioned perhaps the ultimate Missoula documentary in this painterly portrait of the city’s most famous adopted son, poet Richard Hugo. Beautiful to look at, Kicking offers a few riveting glimpses of a down-at-the-heels downtown and lots of lavender-tinted black-and-white footage of Hugo’s favored haunts, including the historic Milltown bar where he got a good bit of drinking done. It also offers mildly shocking evidence that you used to be able to smoke in university classrooms. Fun fact: Annick Smith’s twin sons Alex and Andrew, who appear briefly in the film, grew up to be filmmakers themselves. Their 2002 feature The Slaughter Rule, starring a young Ryan Gosling and boasting a star-studded soundtrack, is well worth seeking out.

Missoula Riots (2000)

The summer of 2000 remains a scar on the Missoula psyche. It was smoky and miserable, and by early August nerves were stretched extra-thin by an ominous surge in police activity preceding a Hells Angels rally. Ironically, the Hells Angels behaved themselves, but after a month of circling helicopters and shadowy figures spying from downtown rooftops, many Missoulians had reached the breaking point. Things came to a head in protests and riots with lashings of tear gas and the unforgettable sight of jackbooted cops imported from Utah tramping down Higgins behind their Plexiglas shields. Missoula Riots captures the chaos, and it’s a free rental at Crystal Video.

This Is Nowhere (2002)

The title says it all. Unfortunately, it’s also everywhere: the disturbing phenomenon of tens of thousands of Americans, mostly seniors, lumbering around in their gas-guzzling, GHG-belching recreational vehicles trying to find the next Wal-Mart parking lot to “camp” in for the night. Wal-Mart encourages these American nomads, who call themselves “Wally Worlders” and conveniently load up on provisions at these carbuncles of capitalism before setting out again. Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis—half of award-winning production company High Plains Films and one of the founders of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival—paints a playful but also rather disturbing picture of this societal trend, which amounts to Americans wanting to travel and see new things and have them be all the same. For Missoulians, many of whom are profoundly depressed by our two local Wal-Marts, it’s cold comfort that these carbon blobs are just passing through.

Slaves of Missoula (1992)

With a little time to mature, even the ugliest duckling of a local video production can turn into something strangely beautiful. Such is the case with Slaves of Missoula, a competent but far from distinguished video document of a 1992 fashion show at the Crystal Theater that, for Missoulians of a certain vintage, has acquired with age a patina of yearning nostalgia. Slaves is a slice of vibrant cultural life from 15 years ago, a time capsule packed with youth and enthusiasm, as well as a revealing who’s-who of Missoula’s cultural movers and shakers past and present. See the very young Marsolek brothers—otherwise known as the distinguished Drum Brothers—pounding their skins like a couple of granola street-kids on their way to a Rainbow Gathering. Look, there’s the future manager of the official Pearl Jam fan club, wearing a funny wig and holding up scorecards. And is that the guy from Biga Pizza wearing a suit made of duct tape and bubble wrap? Missoulians sure do like to dress up in outlandish homemade costumes, which is funny, since it’s so hard to get them to dress up for anything else.

International Playboys’ First Movie: Ghouls Gone Wild (2004)

In a nutshell: Local rock band gets lost on tour, ends up in a ghost town run by a phantom sheriff and populated by hot gothy chicks who seduce them and turn them into zombies one by one. Lunatic fun from Missoula’s late, great International Playboys, captured at the peak of their rock ’n’ roll powers by an ambitious director (Ted Geoghegan) with Tinseltown dreams (the movie is sprinkled with tributes to classic horror films) and, like, a $100 budget, most of which went toward beer and fried chicken to power the first day’s shoot in Garnet ghost town. Perhaps more than any film document in this survey, Ghouls Gone Wild! captures the reckless enthusiasm the best local bands have always had for doing what they do, whether the rest of the world cares or not. And that attitude, friends, is truly Missoula in a nutshell.
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