Breaking and Entering
Directed by Benjamin Fingerhut
Hardacre Film Festival
Errol Morris once said, “People are wrong if they think the profound and the ridiculous are incompatible.” This belief is pretty much the underlying premise of Breaking and Entering, Benjamin Fingerhut’s documentary about people attempting to set and/or defend world records and have these achievements documented in the Guinness Book of the same name. Over the course of the film we meet a guy who can break 700 concrete blocks in one minute’s time; a Priest in Illinois who has invented and apparently uses the world’s smallest telephone; a woman with a clear–if undiagnosed–adrenal problem who holds the records for fastest talker (just try speaking 11 words in a second–go ahead); the holder of records not only for fastest mile on a kangaroo hoppy-ball but also for fastest mile while pushing an orange with his nose; a couple who share the male, female and couples records for most phone books ripped in half in three minutes’ time (something your smart phone likely can’t do); and a somewhat sinister-looking math type, mysteriously still single, who has memorized the value of pi to 67,000 digits.
Amongst these bizarre and astonishing feats, the backbone of the movie is the competitions between three “protagonists” and their respective Guinness nemeses over records for grape-catching by mouth (number and distance), fastest marathon time while juggling objects (officially termed “joggling”–yes, it’s a word), and longest continuous time on a stationary bike (the shot of George Hood’s ass after breaking this record is sort of worth the price of admission alone).
In following their stories we learn some fairly profound, if also predictable, things. All of these central characters are obsessives to a fairly disturbing degree, often willing to sacrifice relationships, financial stability and a general sense of perspective to their cause. They do possess some degree of true athletic skill; after all to hold the joggling record, you do have to actually run a pretty fast marathon.
The various interviews suggest that many are often making up for a vague sense of inferiority, whether inflicted by parents, siblings, lack of career success, general boredom or some other source. Perhaps least surprising: The central characters are all middle class white guys. They are also, to a person, relentlessly dedicated to the idea of human striving and that every person wants to feel they are the absolute best at something, no matter how ridiculous that something may seem to other humans. They are admirably unashamed or self-conscious about this belief. Near the end of the film, one of the records holders puts this most succinctly: “Everybody has to try; if you’re not going to try, what’s the point?” Without being heavy-handed, Breaking and Entering does a good job of contextualizing this basic belief as underlying much of human endeavor.
Landlocked Film Festival
If the people of Spokane, WA dropped their entire punk-rock scene from 30 years ago into a time capsule, SpokAnarchy! would be it. The 80-minute documentary is a multi-media mashup of hundreds of long-lost tapes, old posters and recent interviews, deftly cut together in a non-stop montage of music and video.
The film dives headfirst into Spokane’s riotous punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, recounting the concerts, people, art, sex, drugs and morgue parties(!) that were the product of some very bored–but creative–kids in what could have been any Small City, USA.
But if you’ve ever thumbed through a stranger’s old photo albums, you’ll instantly recognize that quizzical feeling of “this is fascinating, but who are these people?” Perhaps because the five co-directors were all “there when it happened,” they never bother to tell us who their subjects are, where they came from or (until the very end) where they’ve gone.
All we get is a snapshot of a youth spent in rebellion. But maybe these minimalist portraits are precisely in keeping with the punk philosophy. Why waste time with formal character development when we could just have a good time? After all, SpokAnarchy! was made for punks by punks, and if you don’t like it, screw you.
The City Dark
Directed by Ian Cheney
Hardacre Film Festival
One of the great metaphors for modern life is light pollution. Humanity has lit over its head so many light bulbs, literally and metaphorically, that in most urban areas we can no longer see the stars. Now, the co-creator of the award-winning King Corn, Ian Cheney has made The City Dark, a lovely, meditative documentary on what we lose when we drown out the glittering constellations overhead with our bustling city lights. Get this: It’s going to be screened outdoors at the Hardacre Film Festival.
I hate documentaries where everything feels stamped with official approval. The City Dark is the polar opposite of a this-is-exactly-what-you-must-think kind of documentary. Cheney digs up all sorts of eccentrics in his quest for understanding: obsessed astronomers and physicists, a nurse for injured birds, a late-night TV jewelry saleswoman, wide-eyed criminologists and various other oddballs who shed light on what the night means, and what the loss of the stars portends for who we are.
It turns out that light pollution is probably linked to cancer, screws up the migrations of hatchling turtles, causes birds to smack into skyscrapers and may prevent us from seeing a killer asteroid until it’s too late. But the concern the movie keeps coming back to is a personal one. Growing up in rural Maine, Cheney was an avid stargazer. When he moved to New York City, as much as he loved the place, he felt strange about his dramatically decreased ability to see stars. The City Dark isn’t just a lament for what’s been lost: Cheney is very alive to the safety and beauty of city lights. But he worries that our humanity is diminished when we no longer have the stars “to stay our minds on,” in the words of Frost.
If you check out this poetic, fascinating documentary at Hardacre, not only will you get to add to the light pollution, as soon as it’s over you can in perfect silence look up at the stars.
Norman Mailer: The American
Directed by Joseph Mantegna
Hardacre Film Festival
Here’s an idea: Establish a literary reputation early in your career which puts you in touch with many of the important artists and writers of your generation; party incessantly with these artists and writers often to the point of debauchery, depravity and violence; make films of these activities and release them as part of a desire to promote a new American cinema; after releasing said films, decide to run for mayor of New York City on a platform of NYC seceding from the United States, but fail to tell your running mate that this is not a joke. During this time you have also won a Pulitzer Prize, founded The Village Voice, gotten married three times, stabbed your second wife and spent time in a mental institution. This is roughly the first half of Norman Kingsley Mailer’s life and these events are just some of the focal points of Joseph Mantegna’s Norman Mailer: The American.
An additional bonus if you are Norman Mailer is that you get to narrate much of Mantegna’s documentary of your own life, perhaps not unreasonable given Mailer’s conspicuously outspoken nature throughout his 84 years.
The film tells Mailer’s story in a traditional, linear way, beginning with his Jewish childhood in Brooklyn–including the obligatory paean to his mother and portrayal of his dad as a drunken, gambling scoundrel–and then following all the major developments right up to Mailer’s final interviews.
The questions posed here about Mailer’s life are familiar: Did he hate women? Was he homosexual? Was he a caring or totally abusive husband? How much did his drug and alcohol-fueled lifestyle contribute to his personal problems and limit his literary achievement? Much of the perspective, however, is somewhat new. Mantegna chooses to focus less on critical appraisals of Mailer’s work or on the opinions of his biographers (though some of them do make appearances) and more on the accounts of the family–especially his daughter Danielle and his second wife Adele Morales. Despite the unpredictability and chaos that must surely be part of being related to Norman Mailer, these family perspectives form an undeniably–perhaps unbelievably–positive portrayal of an incredibly controversial figure in America and American letters. The fact that the various wives and kids seem to get along at all is sort of astonishing and is part of Mantegna’s argument that the tumultuous, controversial, contrary and contradictory nature of Norman Mailer’s life is also part of American life. As the title would suggest, Mailer is presented more as an inevitable, if outsized, embodiment of his times than an active shaper of them.
We are left ultimately with the same balance-sheet approach that much of the Mailer discussion heretofore has given us. On the plus side: credit for pretty revolutionary new forms of journalism and political commentary, as well as several novels which would surely make a short list of the most important American fiction of the twentieth century. On the minus side: a drunken, philandering drug addict who perhaps cared more for his own well-being and public image than for a focused dedication to his art or to his relationships. Also the wife-stabbing thing–pretty uncool.
Out for the Long Run
Directed by Scott Bloom
Landlocked Film Festival
To be gay. To be an athlete. In the public arena, those identities have long seemed polar opposites. There has never been an openly gay male in any of the United States’ four major sports leagues–the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB–nor in the PGA, NASCAR or Division I college football.
In the hyper-masculine, profit and image-driven world of pro sports, it will take great courage to be the first. But the truth is coming out in lower-profile sports at collegiate and high school levels. Director Scott Bloom celebrates these athletes in his feature-length documentary Out for the Long Run.
The film’s central character is Austin Snyder, a Berkley, CA high school senior who is both openly gay and the captain of the cross country team. The film opens by setting up Snyder as a talented young runner, capable of filling up his medal wall with lots of trophies as he enters his final year of high school.
Eschewing the natural narrative arc that makes sports films easily compelling, Brown’s Out for the Long Run muddies the waters, introducing us to three more young athletes, all with stories similar to Snyder. Sports movies, at their best, use competition as a proxy for more compelling issues; and this topic should’ve given Brown the perfect setup. Instead, our four characters never develop much depth and must share screen time with a who’s-who of advocates for gays in sports, like Greg Louganis and former major leaguer Billy Bean. Even the main characters are primarily captured in sit-down interviews, which violates the documentary axiom of “show, don’t tell.”
Still, Out for the Long Run gives us just enough to chew on to get us to the 60th minute where suddenly, finally, the filmmaker shifts gears, letting the sports action have its moment and giving Snyder a chance to deliver some much-needed emotional relevancy.
It’s a shame that the whole movie doesn’t feel like the last 15 minutes. But, in a year where pro athletes dropping the f-word (the one that rhymes with maggot, that is) has earned lots of airtime and heavy league fines, the topic is ripe for exploration. Out for the Long Run makes good on giving voice to a new era of openly gay athletes. As Snyder, full of youthful sincerity, rhetorically asks, “If you’re kicking ass at what you do, why should anyone have a problem with who you sleep with?”