Silverdocs 2012: 'Betting the Farm' and 'Drivers Wanted'

Betting the Farm (2012)

In two documentaries about working hard for a living, the cameras' closeness ensures you see how individuals maintain their perspectives.

Betting the Farm

Director: Cecily Pingree, Jason Mann
Cast: Aaron Bell, Carly DelSignore, Vaughn and Laura Chase, Richard and Janet Lary, Bill Eldridge
Rated: NR
Studio: Pull-Start Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-22 (Silverdocs Film Festival)

Drivers Wanted

Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Cast: Eric Yin, Spider Footman, Stanley Wissak
Rated: NR
Studio: Weinstein Film Production
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-20 (Silverdocs Film Festival)
I never thought being underfunded was a bad thing, 'cause I farm.

--Vaughn Chase, Betting the Farm

Stanley Wissak is headed back to Queens, home to 55 Stan, the yellow cab company he's maintained since 1938. Beside him in Stan's silver Mercedes is one of his drivers, Spider, 90 years old. Maybe, Spider suggests, he won't be around 10 years from now. "You not gonna be around?" asks Stanley, "Where you gonna be?" Spider muses, "Downstairs," and Stan laughs: "You won't be downstairs, you'll be around. Keep working. Keep moving."

As they joke, the camera in Joshua Z. Weinstein's Drivers Wanted watches from the back seat, cutting from one man to the other, or more precisely, from the back of one man's head to the back of the other. They don't look back. They work and they move -- forward.

Just this morning, Stan's been at the cabdrivers' licensing office, where he regularly makes rounds, passing out flyers. Greeting dozens of potential new employees each day, he extols 55 Stan's virtues (140 cabs) and guesses where his potential employees are from. "Nepal?" he asks one young man. No, comes the answer, Tibet. "You climb the mountain?" Stan jokes. The 84-year-old Stan knows how to make an impression and also, how to run his business. "Ever see The Wizard of Oz?" he asks. "I'm the wizard behind the curtain, yelling and screaming. Don’t open the curtain, they'll find a little old Jewish guy there."

He pushes hard, expects commitment, and his drivers turn over frequently. They've all got stories, of fares who don't pay or fares who want to have sex in the car. "You gotta be nice" to get tips, they tell each other. Spider's longevity is unusual He only drives a couple of days a week now, but, Stan says, he's reliable. "He doesn’t go out when it's dark and he doesn’t speed." Cigar in hand, Spider recounts that he got his hack license in 1945, when he got bored washing cabs. He used to live in Florida, and New York's better. "I got tired of being called 'nigger,'" he sighs. His 72-year-old wife, ailing now, is from the city. "It doesn’t affect them the way it affects a real Southern-born black person, with two signs everywhere, white and colored." Here, he nods, "The garage has everybody in there, from everywhere. They may not understand each other right off hand, but they get along."

They certainly share a set of needs, mostly for money. One new guy's just lost his own business and filed for bankruptcy. "I have to do something to feed my family, to pay my bills," he says, "It’s a crisis, an economic crisis, that's why I'm here." Stan tells all of them upfront the job is tough, and "very, very competitive." Interviewing Eric Yin, a Chinese immigrant, Stan warns him that he'll have to pay for gas and MTA fees each day, before he can start keeping the money he makes. Eric nods. He knows the job, but he worries too: he's been driving since 1986, starting in China, but Manhattan's hard to navigate. Plus, he confides to his ride-along cameraperson, "I worry they will take advantage of me, a short Asian immigrant. They are much bigger than me."

His wife worries too, that his hours are long and -- no small thing -- at night. But Eric, like everyone else in Drivers Wanted, needs the money. When Eric first appears on camera, in his apartment (and he's the only subject who brings the film crew home), he's getting his young son ready for school. His hours as a tour bus driver have been cut recently, he explains, and he's got debts to pay off. "Credit cards are easy to use because you don’t see the money you're spending," he explains, helping the little boy put on his shoes. The camera's low on the floor, helping you to imagine Eric's perspective even though you've only just met him.

Drivers Wanted (2012)

Debt and determination also shape the experiences of dairy farmers in Maine, the subjects of Betting the Farm. Screening on 22 and 24 at Silverdocs, Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann's film is alternately lovely and nerve-wracking, following the efforts of a group of farmers whose lives are altered irrevocably when the milk company H.P. Hood summarily terminates their contracts in 2009. Second-, third, even eighth-generation dairy farmers, they're forced to scramble to find another way to do their work.

At first, forming their own company sounds like a terrific idea. Bill Eldridge, the new CEO of MOO (Maine's Own Organic) Milk, floats the idea at an agricultural trades show in Augusta, Maine, where he finds enthusiastic potential customers ("I haven’t bought a Hood product since they did that," asserts one woman, passing on to the next table with her husband in tow. But it's not long before the farmers run up against some fundamental -- and likely predictable -- doing-business blips, from faulty equipment to leaky cartons. For a moment, it appears MOO Milk gets a PR boost when Rush Limbaugh takes it up in February of 2010, complaining that the company's legal status allows it to seek money from government grants and loans. Lo, he complains, MOO Milk represents what's all wrong with today's welfare state, rewarding "companies that do not make a profit, if someone approves of their social mission." While Vaughn and his wife Laura lament that they're Republicans in the face of such party-branded ignorance, you might reflect on how the $110-billion a year dairy industry finds ways to its own government "rewards."

The farmers' processes here -- as they sort out how to run a multi-part company while also making sure barns get swept, kids have Christmas, and calves are born -- are indicated in a terrific mini-montage, slipping from daily chores and widescreen farmscapes to men and women in jeans and on their phones, in the car in traffic, standing out by the pickup, in a home office, shoes worn smooth on the soles up on the desk. When Vaughn Chase leans back from his desk during one call, the camera takes a moment to reframe, an image that beautifully suggests both the logistical concerns they're facing and also, underlining how this documentary is telling its stories, by smart compositions as well as by talking heads.

And sometimes, Betting the Farm offers both. When MOO Milk's farmers begin to argue, worried about feeding their families while supporting investments they're making in each other, the camera observes the legal council, Paul, in shirtsleeves at the head of the table, trying to outline what's gone amiss and what can go right, he's got a milk carton in front of him and a couple of Oreos in his hand, in motion as he makes his points: MOO Milk is, nationwide, recognized as this renegade, we're gonna make this happen, we're doing something that's never been done before. Because it's the only way you're going to do something different," he concludes, "is if you do something different." In Betting the Farm, as in Drivers Wanted, it appears that one of the more "different" to be done begins when people used to working alone find a way to work together.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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