[10 May 2007]
The Power of One
America’s ethos of rugged individualism has been given a bad name in recent years, what with the election (and reelection!), however dubious, of George W. Bush. Never mind that the so-called “coalition of the willing” was a farce and Dubya’s cowboy mannerism and Top-Gun stunts are entirely manufactured, if not delusional, America’s go-it-alone policies in the last few years have been destructive, embarrassing, and, indeed, tragic. From Kyoto, to Iraq, to Guantanamo, to Abu Graib, to Katrina for chrissakes, and so on, the Bush regime has shown a callous disregard for the opinions of others, international and domestic. You’re either with us, or you’re against us.
One of the pleasures of a festival of this size is that you can either go with the themes as defined by the curators (“African Stories”, “The Power of Ten”) or you can tease out your own. In the assortment of films, Field of Stone, Tootie’s Last Suit, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, and Gonzo: The Life and Death of Hunter S. Thompson, both the romantic allure of American individualism and its flipside of cock-sure recklessness are held up to scrutiny.
Field of Stone
David Allan Coe is something of a deity among the Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniels and confederate flag set. With 24 years served behind bars—in and out of the corrections system from the age of nine, and on death row at 19—the legendary outlaw country singer has in abundance the redneck equivalent of street creds.
As with so many rap artists today, Coe realized that his vices could be turned to virtue. After serving his time, Coe capitalized on his misfortunes, coming out with his first album, Penitentiary Blues, in 1996. By the mid-‘70s he hit his prime, with songs like “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” recorded and popularized by more mainstream artists like Johnny Paycheck and Glenn Campbell. In the ‘80s, Coe’s songs would be covered by punk rockers, The Dead Kennedys and GG Allin. Today Coe spends 11 months of the year on the road, filling roadhouse and biker-bars, and opening for Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kid Rock.
Field of Stone
Field of Stone documents Coe in his waning years: old, slow, potbellied, battle-scarred, but still kicking ass. With his assortment of tattoos and his signature braided and bejeweled hair and beard, Coe’s songs are anthems to recklessness, irresponsibility, and alcohol (to say nothing of domestic abuse, racism, and homophobia). As a storyteller and moralist (of sorts), Coe’s credo can be summed up in three words: “fuck you, motherfucker!”
Director Shambhavi Kaul’s film is less strident than its subject, neither glorifying nor demonizing the polarizing Coe. You can’t help but admire his audacity and the notoriety he’s achieved by virtue of his genuine talent as a songwriter. A sympathy-inducing vulnerability lies just beneath his rugged exterior. But footage of his audience’s beer-drinking and bloodthirsty adulation during his most mean-spirited rants are disturbing, to say the least. Coe’s own self-comparison to such outlaw immortals as Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Charles Manson suggests that even he is aware that his appeal is but to the lesser angels of our natures.
Tootie’s Last Suit
We found a nice counterpart to the hard, mean spirit of David Allan Coe in Tootie’s Last Suit, Lisa Katzman’s portrait of Mardi Gras legend Tootie Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. The film shows Tootie as he grapples with retirement from the carnival after a 52-year reign as big chief of big chiefs and with the cultural legacy he helped to inspire and preserve.
Tootie’s appeal is undoubtedly to the better angels of our nature. Still, he is a man of unwavering rectitude and self-respect, values he seeks to instill into his community. Tootie is not entirely unselfish; as he admits, the Big Chief business is dirty, a dog-eat-dog competition that pits him, sometimes painfully, against even his own son and successor as Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe.
Tootie’s Last Suit
Tootie’s relationship with his son Darryl is delicately handled, as is the complex history of the Mardi Gras carnival itself. It has roots in African and Indian cross-culturation, and emerged against the backdrop of Slavery, Reconstruction, Indian Removal, white supremacist gentlemen’s “krewes”, and all that sordid history. And while the film’s poster prominently advertises commentary by Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John (what would a New Orleans doc be without them?), the talking heads are kept to a minimum, letting the subjects, including Tootie’s wife, rival big chiefs, spy boys, and flag boys, speak for themselves.
Amazingly, the heart attack that felled Tootie is captured on film in the documentary. Not to give it away, but suffice it to say, that Tootie gave his life to the preservation of a rich cultural tradition that worked so hard to create. He did not live to witness Katrina, thankfully, and the devastation that it wreaked upon his city, his community, and his parade. Tooties own collection of elaborately hand-sewn costumes survived the hurricane, but many of his rivals were not so fortunate. Perhaps Mardi Gras will never be the same in the new New Orleans, but if it is to survive, it will be in part because Tootie Montana’s spirit is there to give it strength.
Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story
Not every rugged individual has given so much back to his culture. On 17 May 1995, Shawn Nelson, a 35-year-old plumber and US army veteran and unemployed plumber hotwired a tank from the National Guard Armory in San Diego and proceeded to take it for a joy ride, mowing over parked cars, lampposts, fire hydrants, and anything else that stood in his way. Although the ride lasted only 23 minutes, Nelson paid with his life when the tank was subdued by the police, who pried open the hatch and summarily shot him dead. No one else was hurt.
Shawn Nelson’s tank
Americans remember this event much less vividly than O.J. Simpson’s infamous ride in the white Bronco, but it continues to occupy some small acreage in the national consciousness. Clips can be seen frequently on the any number of police chase reality television shows on Spike and Court TV.
While shows like America’s Wildest Police Chases provide the vicarious thrill of running from the law and reduce such events to the reckless actions of deranged individuals, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, directed by Garret Scott, belongs to that genre of documentaries that take a signature event and trace its origins in the social and economic contexts that made it so. In this case, what seems to be the isolated instance of a madman on a rampage has its origins in the birth of the San Diego suburbs as an extension of the Military Industrial Complex in the Cold War.
Nelson’s neighborhood of Clairemont was one of many suburban communities mass-produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s to accommodate working- and middle-class factory workers. But what seemed like a vision of the American Dream when jobs were aplenty and the sunshine was eternal began to darken in the ‘70s and 80’s, when shifts in industry and the end of the Cold War left the children of prosperity without employment or transferable skills. And when the Ozzies and Harriets died and left their dilapidated houses to their less fortunate progeny, many of them became meth-dens. Methamphetamines were the drug of choice and habit among the ne’er do well Wallys and Beavers.
Shawn Nelson was a child of this generation. Whereas his father had found secure employment and raised a family on a single paycheck as an engineer, Shawn was an itinerant and increasingly paranoid plumber with a penchant for alcohol and crystal-meth. He took in roommates, struggled to pay his mortgage, and dreamed of a better life. Apparently, Shawn mistook his meth-rush for a gold-rush, as he became convinced that he was literally sitting on top of a gold mine. A 17-foot hole in his back yard was testament to the depth of his delusion.
Gonzo: The Life and Death Of Hunter S. Thompson
If the Bush presidency laid our international relations in critical condition, it may have also killed one of America’s most notorious literary outlaws, Hunter S. Thompson. As much as he loathed Richard M. Nixon, he feared George W. Bush even more. “If Bush wins,” Thompson warned on the eve of Bush’s second dubious election, “the planet is doomed.” On 5 February 2005 Thompson put a loaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His son, Juan, his daughter-in-law, and his granddaughter were in the next room.
Okay, you can’t lay the blame for all the troubles in the world at W’s feet. As Gonzo: the Life and Death of Hunter S. Thomson makes clear, Thompson (like the planet) was doomed long before young George rode into town. In 1966, Thompson showed a predilection for danger in his first literary sensation, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, for which he embedded himself within the gang, partaking of it’s exploits and excesses, only to be severely beaten when he raised objections after witnessing the gang-rape of a woman (who happened to be Neal Cassidy’s ex-wife—Cassidy partook in the banging).
Hunter S. Thompson
Like all outlaw heroes, Thompson was a man of contradictions. Friends and family interviewed for the film describe him as a veritable Jekyll and Hyde: loving, generous, and ruthlessly vicious. He seems to have elicited admiration from friends and foes alike, from George McGovern, whom he championed in the ’72 elections, to Pat Buchanan, who had been Nixon’s campaign manager. Needless to say McGovern’s interviews are warmer than Buchanan’s, but the latter seems to have appreciated Thompson’s wit and sheer gumption as an adversary.
Furthermore, as much as Thompson despised Nixon as the most abject of political creatures, Nixon was his bread and butter. Evidence in case: “Richard Nixon has never been one of my favorite people anyway. For years I’ve regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.”
Tricky Dick was the perfect grist for Thompson’s gonzo mill of scathing satire and insult. Conversely, his affinity for McGovern seems to have been fueled by the inevitability of his failure. This is true of Thompson’s patriotism, as well. He believed fervently in American Democracy, but only to the extent that it was doomed, or never existed in the first place.
As hilarious as Hunter’s literary antics are, they are ultimately tragic. Tragedy lurks behind all satire that really stings, of course, but the hope is that laughter can stave off the dead bodies in the final act. Tragedy’s pathos comes from the fall of greatness, and Thompson’s suicide signaled the tragic demise not only of a great literary icon, but also of the American Dream as he dreamt it
Gonzo: the Life and Death of Hunter S. Thomson is as of yet an unfinished product; the Full Frame screening was a sneak preview. The final product promises voice-overs, readings, and interviews with Johnny Depp, who portrayed “the protagonist Raoul Duke (a clear surrogate for Thompson himself) in Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam’s surrealistic film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp also financed Thompson’s funeral, at which his ashes were blasted from a cannon sitting on top of a 150-foot tower designed by Thompson in the figure of a fist clutching a peyote button. It also promises extended sections on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s candidacy for Mayor of Aspen, as well as his death by suicide.
Tragically, Dubya will still be in office, alas, when Gonzo: the Life and Death of Hunter S. Thomson is released, and we’ll be left wishing Hunter S. Thompson were alive and in his prime to skewer him with his tragic wit, as he did in 2004: “Did you see Bush on TV, trying to debate? Jesus, he talked like a donkey with no brains at all…It was pitiful…I almost felt sorry for him, until I heard someone call him ‘Mr. President,’ and then I felt ashamed.”
Fool You Once Shame on Me
We are ashamed to admit that we considered fabricating a whole story about Saturday night’s festivity as if we had attended, because again we did not have it in us to party after taking in 10 films about global corruption, evil, and suffering. Then out of nowhere a lovely young woman handed us tickets to a sneak preview of her movie which she said was a little thing, not political, just a story about a kid. Something about her candor (and the photo of the kid on the poster for her film) made us go.
We cannot tell you about the film because it was not allowed to screen here officially – festivals are very competitive with the premiere status of the films they show; another festival had dibs on this one so it could only show under the radar. And it did, and we went. And it was amazing, a deep breath of fresh air. Just a movie about a kid named Billy. You’ll be hearing about it and when you do, go see it.
After that, we were completely energized and ready to storm the capital. And we must’ve smelled like it, because one of the few paparazzi at the party (a young Durham native) came right up to us and asked if he could take our photo. Maybe it was our unintentional matching outfits, our height (all tall), or the fact that we seemed to be having such a good time that made us look important. Normally, we would’ve played it out, but something in us had grown soft, and we all immediately told him who we were. That didn’t change the fact that we were as close to celebrity as anyone else in the room at that time, so he snapped it anyway.
Speaking of important, Hustler D was on the scene, this time with the guy on whose couch he was staying. Apparently, the door policy at this party was pretty laid back. The couch owner was a short banking accountant who sported a t-shirt and sweatpants and seemed as happy as we did to be at the party. But you have to wonder about someone who openly invites strangers to sleep on their couch, don’t you? Or don’t you.
Photo from CookBookWiki.com
Pork and Cookies
Although there were more films to be seen on this last day, the only thing on our agenda was to grab a quickie (interview, that is, though all of us agreed she is a real looker) with filmmaker and friend Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) and, of course, to attend the Awards Barbeque. Finally, we got our taste of the South: mounds of pulled pork, corn on the cob, sweet tea and cookies galore, all served on the Sunday Times laid out as tablecloth and a bluegrass band playing in the background. If you’re ever in Durham on the last day of this festival, buy a ticket to the awards barbeque even if you haven’t seen the movies being awarded – as it turns out, neither had we, mostly – but three out of eight ain’t bad.
Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s The Monastery won both the Grand Jury Award and The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award, though Pernille couldn’t be there to accept. For the first award her producer had her on the cell straight out of Denmark and she held up the phone as the audience applauded on cue. She called her back only moments later for the second award, but apparently Pernille had already gone out to spend the prize money. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s War/Dance won the Audience Award, which didn’t surprise us as we had already labeled this one a crowd pleaser; and to our delight, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came on Horseback won The Working Films Award and the Seeds of War Award.
When Annie came up to accept the first one, festival director, Nancy Buirski, (who happens to be one of the most down to earth and approachable festival directors we’ve ever met) said cutely, “you’re making this a habit, Annie.” Some of the crowd’s first timers were confused. But when Annie came up for her second award, Nancy said it again, so even if you didn’t know Sundberg and Stern won last year, the sentence now made sense.
Frankly, the other winners weren’t even on our list of films we wanted to see, but didn’t have a chance to. Just goes to show, you can’t judge a film by a little paragraph in a catalogue that was probably written by a publicist. (For the rest of the winners, go to www.fullframe.org)
Ask not what you can do for your filmmakers, but what they can do for our teachers
Incidentally, we had the good fortune of sharing our table with Hustler D. who gave us his card, which boasted a contact number in four countries. Dining with him then, we realized we had learned as much from our friend as we did about him. For one, hustling is best wasted on the young (we’re talking under 30), and can be excused as a manifestation of ambition. As one gets older, the same hustle looks, well, rather desperate. Much to voyeur Miller’s disappointment, Greer and Gunther decided to reserve their hustle for more light-hearted activities, like stealing steak from Whole Foods, and to leave the serious stuff like getting ahead in life for those in their salad days.
We also discovered that although D. claimed only to ask questions of others, he actually managed to tell us exactly what he wanted us to know about him without asking a single thing about us. Just as Greer was about to call him on this, D. turned and asked, “What else do you do besides review festivals?” Greer proudly shared that he had just opened a public high school where he taught English. Apparently impressed, D. asked for his card and was almost vindicated. Sadly, we found the card on the table when D. scuttled off to make his last rounds with the award winners. After all, what can a schoolteacher do for a filmmaker? (er, make an excellent subject for a documentary, perhaps?)
Overall, it would be fair to say, our historian left feeling a bit more present, our pedant a little more receptive, and Ms. Sanctimone more humbled. Collectively, we feel we’re smarter from the experience, albeit exhausted, and inspired to go back into the real world where everyone talks about the weather but nobody does a thing about it.
If you must attend one film festival next year, make it Full Frame. See you there.