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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: Noah Hutton; Runtime: 70 minutes

I admire the documentarian with the light touch. In fact, with Crude Independence, I was expecting something along the lines of King Corn, where two college kids begin with a blood test and end up creating a documentary about the dehumanization of massive agribusiness. They built the story from the ground up, never condescending to their subjects and never using the power of the filmmaker to project intentions, ill or otherwise. But Crude Independence has virtually no touch at all, which ends up leaving it in the awkward position of seeming to advocate rather simplistic solutions to the complex issues involved in global energy policy. Sometimes poorly executed objectivity can lead to clumsily unintentional propaganda.


Crude Independence roughly traces the impact of the discovery of a huge shale oil deposition in the tiny North Dakotan village of Stanley. It’s these interviews where a judicious nudge would made the movie much more bearable: The townspeople discuss the impact in terms of the influx of roughnecks, sudden wealth, and the uneasiness of having financial security that rests on an industry notorious for boom-and-bust cycles and the economic wasteland left in their wake. But the conversations ramble interminably, rarely shedding insight upon anything other than small town life is really boring; so boring that the most interesting story in the film is told by a teenager who claims to have seen an extra-terrestrial in her boyfriend’s car. It quickly becomes one of the world’s most tedious Chamber of Commerce videos ever made. The roughneck segments meant to explain the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day life of their jobs falter because they’re wasted, shouting over one another and in the state of “I love you/I hate you” drunkenness. They make no sense and sound like raging idiots. While Noah Hutton’s long rambling tours through the town’s past give some sense of something somewhere having been lost; the viewer is certainly not compelled to play Mad Libs with the director. Is this industry destroying this town? Are small towns only transiently productive and possibly obsolete as permanent communities? I’m not offering a point of view, simply suggesting that there’s ton of material to work with here.


A group of roughnecks at a local bar

A group of roughnecks at a local bar



Only the segments in the county clerk’s office offer some of the meatier segments by explaining the difference between owning land and owning the mineral rights. Apparently, if you don’t own the mineral rights, a company can buy them, put an oil rig on your land, and decide what to offer you for the destruction of your property. At some point, the Sheriff notes that the industry with its huge trucks and massive traffic increase have destroyed the city’s roads. Well, maybe we can get an elected official on the screen to talk about the possibility of the company bearing a proportionate burden of its infrastructural damage. That’s why stories built from the ground like this can be so compelling and informative, because you can build out policy implications from the circumstances of the people you observe. If this is just supposed to be a portrait of a small town, it’s a bleak one with little more than blackouts, cheap motels, and a horizon blotted with cold, churning oil drills. When there is neither structure nor purpose in a documentary, the viewer is left in a floundering guessing game: Half projection, half dice roll. 


July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota

July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota


At some point, the film simply needs someone with a historical perspective, someone who can shed light on this economic process of narrow minded development that does little to benefit the long-term communities that it upends, guts, and abandons. The closest to any kind of above ground perspective comes from Byron Dorgan (Democratic Senator) who says we should drill, drill, drill and that he hopes that the town will be prepared for the potential for a bust. He hopes? He’s a legislator, isn’t there something he can do to make sure that companies try to build healthy post-boom economies in the places that they temporarily occupy. Noah Hutton seems more in love with images of industry and blurry highway shots set to guitar solos than he does with the actual issue that he tangents through. That’s the trouble with having a story told in rambling yarns by people who might be good in nature, but have absolutely no idea about the amount of oil they’re producing or how it may or may not offset our dependence on “troubled” regions. You end up having the default position of the few articulate people in the documentary talking about the absolute need for unregulated drilling, the greatness of Bush’s energy policy, and the fact that some of the Stanley residents have been able to build towering Japanese waterfalls in their living rooms with fat oil checks. That’s entirely too shoddy a treatment for such a pressing, complicated issue and does no favor of the people of Stanley to deny them a bird’s eye view with a side of hope.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: The Deagol Brothers; Cast: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Leah High, Brett Miller, Shellie Marie Shartzer, Tia Shearer, Jordan Lehning, Josh Duensing; Runtime: 105 minutes

Make-Out is one of those movies where you peg the pitch within the first five minutes. This is Garden State with a zombie in it (complete with shambolic indie rock conspicuously framing far too many scenes). That seems to be a common denominator amongst films where the elements of the story are impressionistic or easily orphaned; they seem like premises before they were stories. Make-Out feels like it has styles and mimicked depth, but in the end it’s really for nothing, since the climax is just another scene, the last merciful domino to fall into place. Where the story lures you in (a mysterious death, the concentric aftershocks of grief), it mostly leaves them behind for a case study in circles of friends and family who have sexual interests in one another. It might gall the movie makers to hear this, but I kept thinking of Friends, a show I never watched, because it seemed to be about people I didn’t care about who mix-and-matched their fleeting emotional attachments to entertain themselves.


This is really a film about perverse objects of obsessive love, a subject much better mined by movies like Love Object and Elvis and Annabelle. Make-Out lacks emotional excavation. While one brother is chasing after someone who is of course in love with someone who will never love her back, the other brother proms up the zombie girl and feeds her birthday cake in a scene that embarrassingly steals from both Hannibal and Happy Birthday To Me. It’s obvious he’s projected a fairly impervious fantasy about the poor zombie, who he seems to know little about, but loves freshening up her lipstick and feeding her fresh rat heads.


As far as zombie’s go, Wendy is comparatively inanimate. Even a couple of well-fed dogs barely rouse her to a hobble and she can’t even eat her own birthday cake. If there were any emotional investment to be had in this movie, this might be an unsettling, painful, and poignant place to start. How do we let go? In fact, I admire the premise that a huge number of people would simply try to normalize the resurrection of a loved one, even a flesh eating one, because the power of grief can decimate the rational. But the normalization goes too far, to a point of blasé that makes you instinctively ask why no one who finds a friend thought to be dead, tied up and convulsing uncontrollably, would call the hospital?


Of course even the most ridiculous premise can be sold with a character. An audience can forgive a generously leaking plot, if they can find someone to invest in, root for, someone even to hate. Make-Out is completely rotten with Xanax-barred emotion, where every character sounds like they accessing memorized narcissistic platitudes about their feelings, but they don’t really seem to have feelings. There’s a ridiculous sub-plot on the secrets of making a grieving girl fall in love with and have sex with you that’s just one more out-of-place element jockeying for an overall tone. That’s why it feels so much like a sales pitch. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got cute indie people talking past each other, a beautiful corpse and a soundtrack for people who use depression the way children use binkies and blankets. 


Did I mention the little boy, molded after a Stand By Me character, who voice-overs the entire movie with paltry narrative gloss on the snail trailing plot shards? The viewer doesn’t need the additional distancing of the omniscient narrator who begins as a crucial character and then, like so much of the movie, gets thrown away to follow some other half-formed mood or anemic repartee. Does anyone care how this girl died? It’s slightly suggested that she died because one of the characters may or may not have a dark, sadistic sexual interest in her, but why doesn’t the director care? Why is it more important to have a scene where the prelude to a kiss is, “Let’s get awesome.”


This could have easily been enjoyably farcical and ultimately creepy in the way that people don’t really how truly dehumanizing idolizing love can be. This film needed something other than a series of marketing takes. The writing never salvages the restless remains of the story. If Hal Hartley used to be detachment for people who had lived too much; Make-Out is just lazy ennui, a movie with the momentum of sleep and the conscience of a bored sociopath who likes Gossip Girl.


 


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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
Director: Nirit Peled; Cast: Aaries, MC Lyte, Big Manda, Miz korona, Chocolate Thai, Monie Love, Dr. Roxanne Shante, Mystic, Eryka Badu, Princess and DIamond, Estelle, Remy Ma, Georgia Girls, Rha Digga, GTA Crew, Sparky Dee, Invincible, Shanika, Jean Grae, Trinie; Runtime: 75 minutes

Say My Name works on so many levels, that it’s ultimately a minor disappointment when it loses direction, doesn’t cohere, and ends in a positivity crescendo that feels like a holiday inappropriate card bought from a convenience store. But Director Nirit Peled falters mostly for her amazing ambition. As a documentary, Say My Name attempts to do several things. It’s an anecdote-driven history of women in hip-hop, it’s the hardscrabble stories of just making it to the microphone, and it’s intermittently a commentary on the issues that arise with women in hip-hop. 


Only the last effort makes the movie a fitful experience. We hear conflicting voices about whether it’s “hard” for women in rap, but it’s not really addressed beyond a few ripples. There’s a pulling away from confrontation that simply doesn’t make sense for this kind of documentary—one that aims to get the story, the whole story. 


Issues emerge in an ebbing way, but the movie could have used some people with intellectual distance or a director that forced the issues into more than passing panel clips that looked like bad episodes of Crossfire. Do rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, who trade more in costume sexuality than mic skills, hurt the cause of women in hip-hop? Do women in hip-hop even owe anything to each other as a community? Controversial statements were usually just dropped. With no follow up, Remy Ma and Jean Grae’s statements about being happy for women who get to shake their asses in videos for cash sounds thoughtlessly contrarian? I understand why historically oppressed communities hide their divisions so that a common enemy might not use them as ammunition. But can any of the conflicts compellingly portrayed by these gifted and struggling artists really be addressed without breaking a few toes? Perhaps this documentary suffers from the categorical disintegration that comes when words localize, mutate, and go global. Every history is partial, changing, and redefining itself.


To call this movie a failure would be to deny its enormous pleasures. Remy Ma and Roxanne Shante have spontaneous and quick-witted ways of giving an insider story of outsiders. The freestyle segments are sweet treats that set an overall rhythm for the film that’s fleet and kinetic. There’s no lack of joy in seeing Say My Name, just a hunger for more and a desire for a deeper range of questions. It’s the perfect tease hopefully leading Nirit Peled to expand her scope bigger, bolder, and salted with the same swagger that her subjects here display gloriously.


 


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
Director: Katie Turinski; Cast: Mark (Zebra) Thomas, Lee Kyle, Devan McGrath, Benjamin Porter, Jeffery Kriescher; Runtime: 68 minutes

It’s tragic to say that, for the most part, I’ve seen so many “slices of reality” and artistic biographies that I wince at the prospect of either. With so many people living life within the incessant Twitterati spectacle, it’s difficult for me to believe that people can actually be captured in the wild. It’s hard to sneak a camera in front of someone and not see themselves begin to live as autobiographers. That’s just one of the reasons that Sissyboy was such a genuinely enjoyable film. Katie Turinski had delicate, intimate technique as a director. She obviously built a fairly stunning rapport, a confessional safety zone, and even an eye for capturing settings that were as entertainingly revealing as the characters themselves. 


Sissyboy follows the ideas and relationships contained within a cross country tour of a group of drag queens, albeit drag queen self-consciously acting as satires about the ideas of women rather than attempting to embody some idealized, materialistic, glamorized interpretation of femininity. They’re gender outliers, critiquing some of the reactionary gender rules that gays import into gay culture. Geeky, muscley, tatted, or sporting wheat grass facial fur, these gay men simply don’t fit a type. The sissyboys are a softer version of what Leigh Bowery was to RuPaul. They’re a courageous troupe of funny and flawed artists that have managed to laugh at some really painful life experiences. They share these stories in mini-monologues of free association, group history and their struggles with being who they are. The documented understand that they’re something of jesters, hiding hard realities with flamboyant misdirection. But for all their meth benders and petty thievery, they’re a deeply compassionate group of people that you fall in love with within seconds. 


Sissyboy, however, is so much more than a Pacific Northwest version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s rarely talked about how gay people try to import the morality of oppression into their own communities in fetishizing gender roles. The sissyboys seem completely aware that as flippant as their performances seem, they are at odds with unspoken codes of bigotry in their own communities, and they want to address these injustices as much as heal their own private, complex and sometimes troubled personal worlds. The sets might look like elementary versions of the Passion Play, but the shows are brave and garishly hilarious. They rewrite a L’Trimm song to make it from the point of view of teenage Muslim women serenading hot Jihadis. They turn a Fergie song into a primal pro-choice howl. Other jokes are so profane that I can’t even explain them without sounding evil. 


This is the kind of narrative documentary that runs well above its form. I thought this was the best intellectual documentary with ballsac close-ups I’ve ever witnessed. The sissyboys presented here seem like admirably self-aware artists creating without endgame. I’m ruining nothing by telling you that at some point, they decide that their experiment has run its course. They created something and understood when it was finished. How many lovely things would be better off as hit-and-runs? How many artists move on so gracefully, leaving such a comfortable place? It’s difficult not to gush about a documentary like this as much as I am embarrassed for doing so. But the sissyboys were such an outstanding collective of comics, commentarians, artists, and humans, that I forgive myself an hour and some change of being hopeful in the land of the damned.


 


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Monday, Jul 7, 2008
by Robin Cook

Louisville-by-way-of-NYC indie rockers Antietam flew to Austin to play four—yes, four—sets. Guitarist/singer Tara Key has branched out into solo albums, but as she explains, Antietam never broke up, even during a 10-year gap between albums. Their new album, Opus Mixtum, is now out on Carrot Top. Here, Tara provides a history of the band and her own musical influences.—Robin Cook



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