Beyond the films themselves, festivals make statements about cinema through the way they’re structured, and any festival based on a model dividing narrative from documentary is moored to the past and not the future. One of the pleasures of forward-looking festivals ranging from New Directors/New Films to Locarno, from Buenos Aires to Jeonju, is their deliberate refusal to separate nonfiction from fiction. These and many others (and there are more every day, including such rising European events as Punto de Vista to the fledgling CineMarfa in Texas) select those “in-between” films that smudge any differences between the “true” and the “false,” to borrow the terms of the wonderful True/False festival in Columbia, Missouri. Even the grandes dames of the international circuit, such as Venice and Cannes, comfortably program narrative, documentary, and in-between together.
As mentioned in the previous post on the 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, the centerpiece competition slates are split between narrative and documentary. There’s a palpable fit between progressive festivals and their progressive cinema, and, inversely, it’s also noticeable when a festival that separates fiction and nonfiction selects a film that’s an in-betweener: at LAFF, Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews only serves to underline the retrograde nature of such a programming structure. (Bear in mind that such structures are often not the creation of the programming directors themselves, but may be imposed upon them by the parent organization.)
The Island of St. Matthews
Everson is one of the most inventive and unclassifiable American filmmakers, prolifically making films of all shapes and sizes about the African American experience, particularly about working people in just about every imaginable profession. (In Island, one such job is supervisor of the operating center for an elaborate river levee system in Westport, Mississippi.) But Everson isn’t merely a chronicler; he deploys radical formal ideas to mold his subjects, intentionally using low-grade video, the heads and tails of 16mm film stock, and “rough” edits to transform reportage into cinema. He goes even further by sandwiching invented situations and sequences between “documentary” footage, making it virtually impossible to distinguish between the two.
Everson does this in Island with possibly the most sweeping and confident strokes he’s achieved in any of his work to date. Interviews with pastors and townspeople recalling past devastating floods in the Westport area alternate with purely staged scenes involving a water skier and three young men performing a riverside baptism. There isn’t even a real St. Matthews Island, as Everson revealed to me after the screening. He’s carrying on the tradition of that other great artist and tale-teller of the old Mississippi, Mark Twain.
So where to slot such a work in a festival that insists on separating “truth”-based movies from “fiction”? To position it in the narrative fiction section would have only drawn attention to Everson’s inventions without acknowledging his considerable research into the actual lives and place of this Mississippi Delta region. To slot it under documentary conceals the film’s concerns with fictitious invention. If it takes a film to expose a festival’s shortcomings, The Island of St. Matthews—by several light years the best of the doc selection—does that for LAFF.
This is a strange circumstance, since Los Angeles has long been a friendly home to nonfiction cinema that thinks outside the box. The city has long been a center of radical nonfiction and in-betweeners, from such early indie works as the Joseph Strick/Ben Maddow/Sidney Meyers film The Savage Eye, Strick and Irving Lerner’s charming Muscle Beach, John Cassavetes’ “docu-fiction” stylings when he shot Shadows in Los Angeles, and Kent Mackenzie’s Bunker Hill masterpiece The Exiles, and on through Thom Andersen’s genre-shattering work including Los Angeles Plays Itself, James Benning’s many Southern California–set films, and the fascinating work of Lee Anne Schmitt (among many others). A major festival located here should try to reflect this condition. So far, this hasn’t happened on a consistent basis.
This is why Everson’s work feels like such an outlier in a generally conservative and safe documentary slate. The only films that came close to challenging norms (at least those of most American doc competitions) were such uneven work as Purgatorio, Rodrigo Reyes’ panoramic overview of the U.S.-Mexico border region, and Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes’ Rain, which observes months of rehearsals for a revival of Teresa De Keersmaeker’s dance piece of the same name at the Paris Opera Ballet. While both confidently turn their backs on the conventional school of documentary “journalism” currently swamping the American nonfiction landscape, neither moves past the obvious with their subjects.
Purgatorio is the latest in an avalanche of films on the border situation, and it lacks the fresh insights that can be seen in, say, Peter Bo Rappmund’s far more provocative film on the subject, Tectonics. Portraying a Mexico in abject decline, Reyes’s film could have been made a decade or more ago before the country’s recent economic boom; Tectonics, with its formal experimentation and concern with the oppressive nature of the security fence at the heart of the debate over immigration reform, is a film of today. Rochette and Claes’s Rain engages in near-Brechtian distancing of the viewer from the corps of dancers working to master De Keersmaeker’s characteristically challenging choreography. This is sometimes interesting, and very often not, and the filmmakers trip themselves up in their efforts to undermine audience expectations about dance films, through the intrusion of lengthy audio recordings of Paris Opera Ballet business phone calls, or obsessive close-ups on a single dancer in the ensemble that uncomfortably resembles fetishization.
The documentary section at LAFF has been (at least under Film Independent’s stewardship of LAFF) a tossed salad of politically correct topics, ethnic and cultural interests, and Los Angeles–focused subjects, generally made with a deliberate storytelling formula that’s the stock and trade of such nonfiction funding sources as PBS, ITVS, and Sundance. The formula goes something like this: 1) pick a subject that’s either an overlooked American subculture or a strong personality with a socially progressive cause or story; 2) use snazzy graphics; 3) hire a composer who can write a movie-ready score; 4) tell the story either in the filmmaker’s first-person voice or from a classically journalistic perspective using a grabber “lede,” inserting informational graphics, and following no more than four characters; and an optional 5) try to end with a URL address in order to get the viewer involved with the cause.
All of Me
Most selections this year obeyed all or most of the formula. Alexandra Lescaze’s All of Me follows four friends in an Austin, Texas social circle of obese women who are now tested by their differing desires to get their health and fitness back. It’s a film that only barely dives into one of the country’s most dire problems—the current epidemic of obesity that’s made the U.S. the world’s fattest rich country—and downplays what were surely some extremely intense emotional conflicts off screen. Similarly, such disparate films as Grace Lee’s American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs and Ryan McGarry’s Code Black soften their subjects’ rough edges for the most television-friendly experience possible—TV being the ultimate home (and, generally, funding source) of almost all of this work.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
What’s ironic about Lee’s film, tracing the life and career of a unique figure in the radical American left, is how conventional it turns out to be. One can only imagine how the Maysles Brothers or Emile de Antonio may have interacted—and challenged—Boggs and her sometimes rigid ideologies. In Code Black, McGarry benefits from special access to the ER as an intern at Los Angeles County/USC hospital (the first of its kind in the U.S. to treat any and all who need medical care). His subjects become medical heroes in front of his lens. Whether or not this results in something like a promotional ad depends on the viewer.
The New Black
The television effect is felt in films from both abroad (Nahid Persson’s first-person, Swedish TV–funded My Stolen Revolution) and the U.S. (Yoruba Richen’s ITVS-supported The New Black). Persson’s film deals with her survivor guilt stemming from escaping Iran’s Islamic regime and its oppressive torture and imprisonment of political opponents, and how she united with women who weren’t as lucky and have the scars to show it. The New Black traces the campaign to support a ballot initiative backing marriage equality, which proves a common cause for the LGBT community in Maryland but exposes deep rifts within the state’s considerable and politically potent African American voter base. Cinema they’re not, and both are better seen on the tube in running times under an hour.
Eddie Alcazar’s dramatic Tapia definitely is cinema, cutting among intimate interview segments with the late, great bantamweight champ Johnny Tapia, the many fight highlights from his nearly undefeated run, and TV news clips depicting episodes from his harrowing life, which included drug addiction, prison time, the brutal murder of his mother, other tragic family deaths, and the sudden discovery of his long-lost father. Were it not true, Tapia’s story would have sounded impossible, but Alcazar—by generally refusing to go along with the standard doc formulas (except for excessive music)—gives it conviction.
One Man Band
Neither Tapia nor Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty’s Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, a loving portrait of the great American painter, are as inventive as Everson’s film, but they do take on some of their subjects’ quirks and odd characteristics. Halpern and Quilty are obsessive about what they’re looking at: namely, a painter who never stops looking at what he’s painting because he can never seem to finish a painting. Foulkes is the oft-forgotten member of the legendary group of Ferus Gallery artists of the early Sixties, including Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and Ed Kienholz. Taking a different path from his fellow Angeleno artists, he veered from strange landscape works to violent studies teetering between cartoons and Francis Bacon, and on into some of the most extraordinarily complex work, materially and thematically, of his fecund generation.
The film’s great value is its patient observation of Foulkes at work, which is quite a spectacle, as well as his jolly performances on his one-man-band instrument. Unlike most of the LAFF competition, this is a case of the right film landing in the right place.