Three weeks ago I received an e-mail invitation from Chris Boeckmann, who I’d briefly corresponded with previously about an incredibly negative review I’d written; he seemed to dig it. What I didn’t know was that Chris is an associate programmer at True/False Film Fest, and the reason I didn’t know that is because I’d never heard of it. True/False is a documentary festival in Columbia, Missouri whose seventh installment I just attended; in his e-mail, Chris noted that some of his favorite films from previous years now essentially only exist as reviews, and he wanted people to come write about the films to try to preserve them. So I was invited to come, and when I looked at the line-up, I noticed five of the titles were the big buzz films of Sun-/Slam- dance I was interested in. Then I looked at Chris’ Facebook page (This Is How We Live Now) and saw that his listed favorite films spoke to a taste I could definitely get behind. I was pretty positive there’d be no poky, dutiful activist documentaries which expect you to congratulate them for their bad video and good intentions. Also, New York is an incredibly claustrophobic place oftentimes; the last three months, for a variety of reasons, have been incredibly brutal. I suppose I should tell you they gave me a free hotel room, which definitely helped. So I said yes about 20 minutes later.
The walk from my hotel to downtown Columbia, where the entirety of the festival takes place, is about 1.5 miles according to Google. (I did this walk probably 10 times and lost at least 3 pounds, which I definitely appreciate.) If you haven’t been to Columbia, here’s some things you need to know. First: I fell in love with it about 10 minutes after I walked into downtown. I grew up in Austin, and Columbia’s downtown compresses the three best areas of that city (downtown, the funky southern bits and the UT area) in a very tight area that you can completely walk all of in about 20 minutes.
If there’s a platonic ideal of a college town, Columbia exemplifies it. Before we were all expelled from Eden and forced to go live in cities to work alongside people who make more money than us, surely God wanted us to spend our 20s in a place like this. There are at least three coffeehouses, a pizza joint, music venues (one large, one small), a Walgreen’s, multiple cheap places to eat (of uniformly indifferent quality), a used books emporium, endless options for wi-fi and what one festival volunteer accurately described as “a hippie grocery store.” It has the two token expensive restaurants you make your parents pay for when they come to visit (one gourmand place, one steakhouse). Seemingly every employee is a college student, many of whom could impersonate Jim James in a My Morning Jacket tribute band, no questions asked; one of the hotel desk-managers had to stop doing her macroeconomics homework to help me out.
The freshly-erected Hampton I was lodged at is directly opposite the parking lot of the University of Missouri’s medical school, and walking to downtown meant walking past a ridiculous number of frat houses, faith institutions for the college Catholic/Mormon and the dormitories of Stephens College, an all-girls school (apparently those still exist). Columbia has a population hovering right around 100,000, five universities and three hospitals. Walking up College Avenue (as I did every day), you pass by weedy stoners walking nowhere in particular and constantly get lapped by jogging girls in sweats or shorts. Meathead types whose SUVs have bandannas hanging from the rearview mirror drive by, openly ogling the girls. Like any college town, there’s a real alpha/beta vibe in the air, with the pretty, Brooklyn-worthy men and women (and they are extremely pretty in many cases) opposite the Mizzou frat types, operating in entirely different social/geographical spheres. When the campus buildings stop, the dilapidated residences start. I have to give first prize to the good dudes (I assume) of 1114 Locust St., who (at least for the three days I walked past it) never bothered to clean the crushed Keystone Light cans off their lawn. William Eggleston should go photograph it.
What I’m trying to say here is that Columbia was an incredibly pleasant and welcoming place to be; I was treated with unprecedented kindness and friendliness without exception. In my dreams I abandon the New York ratrace and fall into a life of beatific college town slackerdom. If I did, Columbia would be as good a place as any. Of course I can’t leave New York for all kinds of reasons, but I can dream and visit. I won’t get all indulgent by telling you about all the parties (they were awesome) or the many smart, talkative people I met. I’ll merely say that one morning I woke up and realized everyone who was at the after-party had green marks all over their shoes from the green-screen (they out-Brooklyned Brooklyn!). I also applaud the ceaselessly displayed ingenuity at getting around the 1:30am closing; that’s totally not real. It was really nice and I’d like to come back; they make it way too much fun to be there. At least two people made a point of telling me that the livewire atmosphere of the town is obviously just the product of the festival, and that it’s pretty sleepy otherwise, but—like many of my New York sloggers—I fantasize about that kind of ’90s-hangover free-floating go-nowhere lifestyle.
There will be more to say about the festival atmosphere anon. Let’s talk about some movies now.
The Mirror (David Christensen, 2009). Alternate title: The Sound of Music
Handsome-looking but overhwelmingly mundane, The Mirror is a dispatch from Viganella, an Italian Alpine town that enjoys precisely 15 days’ tourism in the summer. The rest of the time it’s a dying place, populated below by elderly locals and, up on the hills, by German Buddhists who came in the early ’80s to chant and self-consciously rough it. Together, the two factions provide the musical interludes that break up the film (my favorite was the guy playing Mingus-y stand-up bass on his small electric set-up, but if you want to hear esoteric percussion played by various fervant amateurs, this is your movie.)
Like Gideon Koppel’s sleep furiously—another sleepy paean to rural small-town culture and traditions, in that case in Wales—this is an affectionate tribute to a way of life I’m not necessarily inclined to celebrate, let alone automatically genuflect to. The old-timers’ time-old lament that the youth are leaving and abandoning the old ways mostly makes me want to applaud the youth’s sturdy common sense at rejecting “traditions” that are nothing more than being sedentary and self-congratulatory.
But mayor Pierfranco Midali has a solution: To compensate for the 83 winter days when the sun disappears over the mountains, he’ll mount a giant mirror reflecting the sun opposite, casting a light down on the town’s center, bringing people together, reviving community and so on. This leads to a brief but dementedly inspired sequence, existentially grand in Herzogian fashion: A construction team attempts to plant a gigantic mirror on top of the mountain from a helicopter, a sight both dream-like and grandly absurd.
Most of this, though, is pretty quotidian, which is to say that formally it’s miles ahead of the average documentary but not up to much. The granola-crunchy Germans at the top of the mountain are beaming and complacent (not an endearing mixture), and the Italian villagers leave zero impression; mayor Midali seems like a bright guy, but he’s not really a ringleader and the film’s ensemble cast never finds a ringleader. The outside world briefly intrudes in the form of a hilariously out-of-place Al Jazeera reporter, who proudly announces to the assembled tourists and townsfolk, on the occasion of the mirror’s big unveiling, that she’s happy to prove Al Jazeera is about more than wars and Islam. But for a town that’s such a weird microcosm of different Europeans—especially one trying to become a tourist locus—this is a documentary oddly opposed to The Big Picture, seemingly downplaying some very real tensions. (The cutesy chapter cards—“A brief segment which needs no introduction” and so forth—suggest a neutered Dogville, which doesn’t help one bit.)
There is, however, one sequence other than the mirror installation that’s an instant candidate for YouTube fame: Christensen mounts the camera to a cable and pulls it back from valley bottom to mountain top, speeding the whole thing up. It has the vertiginous texture of one of those CGI shots where the camera zooms from outer space down to a house, only in reverse and for real. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.
As Lilith (Eytan Harris, 2009)
Watching As Lilith is like reading the notes of a reporter with a knack for being on the spot but with zero follow-through. The set-up is strong: Lilith’s 14-year-old daughter hung herself opposite the front door from a tree and Lilith wants the body cremated. But death isn’t a private matter in Israel, and the ZAKA organization is adamantly opposed, so they file an injunction. So far, so simple—pretty much any viewer’s inclined to sympathize with the grieving mother rather than the self-righteous chin-strokers intervening out of ideology. But then it’s revealed that the brother—one of those acne-ridden pony-tailed long-haired guys who looks like playing prog rock is his dream—might have been beating her, which makes ZAKA’s intervention seem like it might inadvertently accomplish some posthumous justice. And then nothing ever comes of this.
Watching As Lilith is insanely frustrating because of how many things it exhumes or mentions in passing, only to let them drop. Like, pray tell: Lilith in part wants to cremate because she’s rejecting her Jewish religious roots in favor of some paganistic tribe or other she wants to honor and resurrect. Who might they be, what did they stand for, and is she a lunatic? We’ll never know, since no one ever bothers to tell us anything about the tribe she references. And surely this isn’t because no one is unwilling to talk: Harris constantly films other TV crews filming Lilith, reminding us (heavy-handedly but, I suppose, necessarily) of the feedback loop that ensues whenever anything becomes “news.” Everyone wants to talk—or at least shout their viewpoint, so why not have them expound? It might not arrive at the truth, but it would still be revealing. For the life of me I can’t tell what Harris is getting at here: He hasn’t pared down his story to any kind of essence, just given us a bunch of threads that not only are we supposed to untangle, but figure out what’s tangled where.
As Lilith inevitably has its morbid fascinations and moments of black comedy: a bag of ashes reverentially being tied down to a stretcher, a radio call-in show where the host castigates Lilith for talking to her instead of reading her daughter’s diary (even as she drills her on what’s in the diary). The best decision is to only show the dead girl from a distance, when her photos are looked at by others: the film wastes zero time trying to make us cry for her. She’s the launching pad for discussion, used as a vehicle for everyone’s private/public vendettas. But the movie’s a shapeless mess, and ugly to boot: At one point, we’re shown “amateur camera footage shot by a neighbor,” and it looks exactly the same. Someone should make a novel out of this and try to impose some order.
(NB: I feel sort of bad about slagging on this film, which was easily my least favorite of the festival but is still, as of this writing, undistributed. It’s certainly better than your average issue-oriented documentary, and quite possibly there’s a shape to it I’m not picking up on. But mostly I feel bad because I shared a shuttle bus with Mr. Harris to the airport and talked briefly to him, and he seems to be an extremely sharp guy. This is precisely why I’m uncomfortable with how a lot of filmmakers and critics who travel the same festivals together become very friendly and softball reviews/friendships ensue. More on this further on.)
Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009)
If you’ve ever watched the first seasons of Saturday Night Live, you’ll remember “Mr. Mike’s Least Loved Bedtime Stories,” in which the late Michael O’Donaghue tells incredibly morbid stories in which the child, animal or train in question is destined for a very sticky end indeed. The joke’s two-fold: the incredible inappropriateness of what it would mean to actually tell a small child any of this, and the fact that the audience knows O’Donaghue’s about to bring the hammer down at any second in the most gruesome way possible. Since I’m morbid myself, I think this is funny, though it’s mostly conceptual.
Similarly, Disorder is a grainy black-and-white nightmare from the streets of Guangzhou that delivers exactly what the title promises—laughs from schadenfreude. The central irony is that Weikai has shaped coherent motifs and structure out of entropy, almost entirely (if I understand correctly) from footage shot by other people. It’s a minor film, but pleasing if you’re temperamentally inclined to enjoy this kind of thing—a presentational triumph, since nothing shown here is anything to laugh about. The first shot is of a fire hydrant spraying wildly in all directions, the second of a man lying splayed out in front of a car. “Is he dead?” someone asks. No, he’s not—though whether he was actually hit or is just scamming for money is, sadly, a real question.
Traffic is one of the linking motifs in this proudly non-narrative film. There’s the probably insane guy crossing the streets slowly, in motions resembling a cross between lobotomized tai chi and a parody of a traffic cop; cars with no time or sympathy just drive around him. There’s also a man who’s tied himself to a lamp-post on top of a bridge and threatens to jump unless he can get his traffic accident settlement money from three years ago; the cops debate whether or not they could fish him out if he made the leap or whether he’d die right away. And, of course, there’s pigs all over the street who’ve somehow escaped from their truck: As we all know, trying to corral deeply pissed-off porcines on a highway is none-too-easy.
Disorder’s definitely a minor film: Even at 66 minutes, it can’t quite sustain itself. But Weikai’s a talent. The film shirks off all context (though I know from the festival blurb that it was shot in Guangzhou and there’s definitely some stringent depictions of the law run amok, a subtext which needs no overt explication anyway). Perhaps Weikai did the right thing by making it a free-floating nightmare that’s meant to be absorbed for tone as much as anything.
Speaking of which, Weikai sat right in front of me with his translator and spent the entire movie talking to her, presumably annotating the very same film his introduction claimed needed nothing more than your imagination to work. This led to the novel experience of wondering how to tell the director of the very film you’re watching to shut the hell up, a challenge neither I nor anyone else stepped up to. Nor was the experience leavened by Captain and Mrs. Obvious, whose brilliant commentary behind me (upon seeing an anteater on screen: “Oh look, there’s an anteater”) was ceaselessly irritating but strangely apt. For all the death and destruction on display here, this is blackly funny fare. I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of the underground Chinese documentaries that are only beginning to percolate down the American festival circuit; this isn’t Ghost Town, but Weikai could get there yet.