Monday 13 May 2013
It's pretty much the very last scene of the movie - a wandering documentary about two teenage boys, skateboarding, a girl and a whole lot of unknowns about everyone's future - as the high school choir rises up on the soundtrack and two best friends hug during grad ceremonies and wrestle each other to the ground. This rousing and wonderfully joyous moment showing the unrestrained glee of these two boys at simply being in each other's company, sums up nicely what those tight bonds mean at that age.
It's now available on DVD in a single set along with the most awesome Tchoupitoulas.
Saturday 4 May 2013
Tucked into the North-West corner of the state and hugging the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a slow-paced town of about 13000 people (if you sift it out of its Quad Cities region). But aside from its intriguing name (taken from the shallow areas of the river where mussels could be found), what makes this Southern city so interesting and worthy of an entire documentary about it? Three reasons spring to mind...
The music...That swampy, bluesy, soulful music that pushes the rhythm section up front and then drags all of the vocalist's deep seated, long buried emotions out into the open. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding and The Staple Singers all cut seminal sides of music here and influenced countless others - many of whom later came to Muscle Shoals themselves (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, etc.). Duane Allman just about forced himself into the recording studio as a session guitarist and convinced Pickett to cover The Beatles "Hey Jude" - the results (a revelation to me in this film) becoming a template for The Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" (as tired as it has become from classic rock radio) has never sounded as fresh or alive than it did playing over the end credits of the film. It's said that the black artists from this area of Alabama used styles from country music while white musicians incorporated blues & gospel elements. The results lead directly to the Muscle Shoals sound - reason enough to encourage a melting pot of cultures - which permeates every corner of the film. The soundtrack is stupendous and sounded staggeringly great in the confines of the Bloor Theatre.
The place...The film gives you a great sense of where you are - the lush green along the river, rolling waves of tall grass, the open space and lack of tall buildings, the mud that looks like it'll never completely wash away - and feels like a separate character. When the musicians who grew up here talk about why they don't want to leave, you firmly and unreservedly believe them. For a film primarily about music and those who made it, it's quite beautiful and becomes a visual feast along with an aural one. I swear the theatre felt like there was a fresh country breeze wafting through it after the film ended. This helped to swirl up the dust and grime that had covered us while we visited the banks of the Tennessee.
The people...At least within the confines of the recording studios, there was a blindness to the colour of anyone's skin. Outside, it was more difficult to keep the white and black musicians and technicians together (if only because of segregation laws and the public's attitude towards the mixing of races), but inside the walls of the two main studios the film examines, there seemed to be little concern - the music was what mattered. Though oddly enough, Duane Allman actually found it more difficult to "blend in" at the time (late 60s) due to his hippie appearance. Fortunately, that led directly to him staying behind at lunch one day to work with Pickett. The majority of the story revolves around producer Rick Hall and his session musicians known as The Swampers (if that suddenly makes you think of the lyrics to "Sweet Home Alabama", well, there's a pretty good reason) - all of them white and all of them renowned for their ability to get right down into the heart of soul music. Hall has the most tortured story (losing his wife in a car accident and making several bad business decisions) and though his stubborn ways have dealt him several blows along the way, he's still got the chops behind the boards and can still push the singers to their best performances (he's famous for purposely antagonizing Etta James - dude had guts). The Swampers had left him and his studio (where they were essentially the house band) to form their own studio down the road a patch and had many successful years in the 70s and 80s helping to record mainstream, blues and soul artists. They too had a few major opportunities slip by them: The Rolling Stones recorded several tunes for Sticky Fingers there (including "Brown Sugar") and had fully intended to come back for Exile On Main Street, but Keith Richards wasn't allowed back in the country; Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded "Freebird" with them, but when The Swampers refused to edit it down to a 3 minute 45 second single, the record company pulled the band away. They did get to tour with Traffic though (an odd mix at first thought, but not after looking a bit closer) and are talked about with reverence during the film by Richards, Mick Jagger, Bono, Gregg Allman and a bevy of others.
All three of these reasons explain why the town of Muscle Shoals is so fascinating. And the film showing all three of these elements is easily one of my very favourite cinema going experiences so far this year.
Thursday 2 May 2013
I'll be honest, I had scratched AJ Schnack's latest film Caucus off my list of potential "to-see" films shortly after I browsed through the Hot Docs 2013 schedule the first time. The promise of being a behind the scenes look at the Republican candidates during the 2011-12 Iowa Caucus filled me with a bit of dread. I have no love for any of the eight politicians the film tracks (and a healthy dose of disgust for some of them) and didn't particularly relish the thought of re-living the head-slapping moments that played out nightly on the news and The Daily Show. To be clear, that disdain isn't reserved completely for the right-wing (I have no need to revisit any of the electioneering of the Democrats either), but since the focus of the film was strictly on the first step towards nominating Obama's rival, I had very little interest.
Of course, I'm glad I reconsidered. The verite style of the film (ie. no narration, just footage that should "speak for itself") was a big reason, but Schnack himself as director was probably the biggest. He lobbied several years ago not just for higher quality cinematography in documentary feature filmmaking (which as far as I can tell has helped bring a more careful eye and strong aesthetic to the realm of docs), but a call to an overall broader view of the form. That alone gives him my attention. And if there's one theme that is becoming evident at this year's fest (due to its presence and absence in many of the films I've seen) it's the need to understand the position of those who differ strongly in ideology from you. I didn't expect to learn a great deal more about the political positions (ones which I typically disagree with - in particular the ones based on social issues) of these candidates, but hoped to garner some insight into the voter perceptions of what's "wrong" with their country.
This is where the film excels...Though it can be entertaining to watch the candidates work through a variety of awkward moments (Bachmann pimping her tent's petting zoo, Romney warning Big Bird to beware of commercials, Ron Paul struggling to close his van door) and even charming ones (Cain belting out a tune, Perry being distracted by basketball talk), hearing things straight from the populace has far greater meaning. Granted, the clips of Iowans commenting on speeches at the state fair and participating in the voting can occasionally be cringe inducing and frustrating - there are occasional thunderous bursts of ignorance wrapped in a lack of context and lack of awareness of the reality of life in 2012 (again, I expect there are numerous people on the "other" side that are equally clueless) - but there are also moments of very truthful and heartfelt concern. Particularly one from an elderly man, who at first seems like yet another "it's them dang furrenors!" crank, but ends with tears in his eyes that show a deeply held belief (though a spectacularly flawed one). One has to wonder how he came to hold these ideas and that's at least a start towards trying to understand. It's also around this time that the film starts to show a different side of one of the candidates...Only one of them was there to listen to this man, and only one of them actively tried to engage him in discussion while attempting to explain the complexity of the situation...And that was Rick Santorum.
The most incredible feat accomplished by Caucus is that it ended up making me root for a man whose ideology I find odious. I never want Rick Santorum to hold any kind of public office, but by the end of the movie you've at least gained, if not respect for him, at least a bit of respect for his methodology. He truly believes everything he says, shows real emotion, dives right into pressing the flesh with as many people as possible and gives just as much effort at answering a question from any random citizen as he does from reporters or moderators of debates. He visited every single one of the state's 99 counties by car with a small team and slowly, but surely, built good will. Granted, I probably wouldn't be on his side if I didn't know that his ultimate goal was out of reach, but support for him from the audience grew similarly to that of Iowans - and we were just as surprised with the end results.
What pleased me a great deal is that the film doesn't purposely look to put anyone in a bad position, but instead tries to show them as honestly as possible, record the events around them and garner spontaneous reactions. The lenses of the cameramen (including for a portion of the shoot, the great Ross Brothers - directors of Tchoupitoulas and 45365) have a sharp eye for small details, people's faces and markers of Iowa's landscape and culture. One of the finer examples of the strange inner workings of American democracy.
Wednesday 1 May 2013
Director Marta Cunningham is glad I'm angry. The second showing of her fantastic documentary Valentine Road has just let out at Hot Docs and a few of us are milling about the lobby. She's more than willing to discuss the film, but even happier to gauge people's feelings and emotions after viewing it. Several of us mention the anger we feel at the sequence of events, the many points where warning signs were missed and the absolute failure of just about every adult in the film to do the right thing for the students in this particular school. She says that she hopes we hang on to that anger so that we can turn it into something positive - like taking action in regards to local issues or simply helping where we see fit.
Well, it's a few days later now and my anger has subsided somewhat - but not completely as it's still hanging in there. Via its nuanced look at the complicated interactions and issues that led to the 2008 murder of a 15 year-old boy in his classroom, Valentine Road ensures that the feelings will linger. You may remember the case - a Grade 8 boy in Oxnard California named Larry King asks another boy in his class (Brandon McInerney) to be his valentine. A few days later, he lies dying near his classroom computer after Brandon shoots him twice with a gun he brought from home. It's a horrible crime emanating from intolerance and lack of education, but it's far from the whole story. Cunningham begins to introduce us to the many people involved in this story - friends, family, teachers, girlfriends, half-brothers, cops, lawyers - and takes us through the tragic backgrounds of both the slain boy and the killer. The cast of characters continues to grow as the film moves beyond the incident, through its aftermath and ever so slowly towards the trial. 3 full years go by from the time of the murder to when the trial finally takes place and then stumbles to a mistrial. A plea bargain is finally reached, but no matter how you view the story there's bound to be something in it to get your back up.
So why the anger? The story is tragic enough as it stands: both boys left on their own at early ages with little support from any parents and only their own instincts regarding how to cope. Larry keeps his sexual orientation questions to himself and struggles until he finds a kind-hearted group home that lets him finally discover who he is. Brandon on the other hand is left at times hiding under a living room table while his Dad furthers his meth habit and winds up getting "mentored" by some of the worst possible people. While Larry begins to express himself at school via his girlish outfits, makeup and usage of feminine names for himself, Brandon responds in the only way he has ever been taught and exposed to: physical violence. But as the story spools out...We hear of the school's incompetence and reluctance to deal with any of the many moments which led to the shooting; we hear from Larry's horrendous Grade 7 teacher who by all accounts should be fired for what she says in the film; we hear some of the most incredulous victim-blaming I've ever come across by an "expert" for the defense; we hear from the prosecutors who are hell-bent to put 14 year-old Brandon away for life; we hear from the defense attorneys who are hell-bent to make sure he isn't; etc. Oh, and we get to hear from some of the jurors of that hung jury...Look, I'm a reasonable guy. I'm a person who sees a great deal of grey in between the black and white polar opposites of so many discussions that occur these days (at least, I like to think I am). I've only once previously exclaimed out loud my opinion during a theatrical showing about something someone on screen has just said. I can now count a second time. I admit to not adding anything of substance to the conversation when one of these horrid, smug, self-satisfied ladies of the jury offered her opinion, but the frustration had reached its limits.
I grant you that this may not sound like a fun time at the movies, but it's a vital film. It doesn't cause your anger to be directed solely at individual ideas, but at an entire way of thinking - or more accurately, at an epidemic of not thinking, inaction and apathy. Cunningham has a great feel for when to shift from one part of the story to another and from one character to another so that it helps to weave all the different strands together into one big ball of tragedy while also gaining remarkable honesty from those she puts on film. Additionally, she manages to give the viewer an extraordinary strong sense of place - her inserts of the neighbourhood, the focus on different parts of the school & people's homes and the framing of her subjects provides the needed context of the environment. It makes you feel like you know the place. It makes you feel like it could happen right in your own neighbourhood. And it makes me want to make sure it never does.