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Talking Movies: Film Fests 2011


Is this heaven? No, it’s the Hardacre Film Festival, every bit as magical as a diamond in a cornfield where the ghosts of old baseball players congregate. Every August, in the town of Tipton, Iowa (population 3,155), great movies, filmmakers from all over the country and interesting Iowans magically appear in a gorgeous old movie theater and recreate all the lost charm of cinema. This year, the festival takes place August 5-6.

Closer to home, Iowa City’s Landlocked Film Festival will take over downtown screening rooms August 25-28, offering surprising documentaries, fresh features, delightful shorts and a renewed sense of Iowa’s heavenliness.

Here’s our guide to some of the many treasures to be found this year at our two great August film festivals. Check out www.hardacrefilmfestival.com and www.llff.org for details.

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.

-Warren Sprouse

SpokAnarchy!

Directed by David W. Halsell, Theresa Halsell, Erica K. Schisler, Heather Swanstrom, John Swanstrom and Cory Wees

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.

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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.

-Andrew Sherburne

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.

-Scott Samuelson

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.

-Warren Sprouse

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?”

-Andrew Sherburne

Shorts Weather

Something has gone desperately wrong. I recently went to a movie and the ads and previews took up forty minutes–and that’s not even counting the loop of ads preceding the previews! Like everybody else, I love a few previews. But, forty minutes?!

This is particularly galling because there are so many beautiful, interesting, shocking, intelligent, gripping short movies which we never get a chance to see. Couldn’t we take, say, twenty of those forty commodified minutes to show two short movies? This would make moviegoing even more of a draw, for shorts pack such a concentrated punch. Shouldn’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out a couple major awards for shorts at the Oscars, support my proposal?

In the meantime, we have film festivals, where the shorts are always my favorites. Until the blessedly-brief credits roll, you never know quite how long they’ll be, what’s going to happen, or even what genre they’re supposed to embody. By the time you’ve figured it all out, they’ve already stolen your heart. And when they occasionally come up short, who cares? You’re only out ten minutes. Would you rather have been watching ads?

Hardacre Shorts
The Inventor by Jason Carpenter
The Magic Man by DC Kasundra
Fatakra by Soham Mehta

Jason Carpenter’s The Renter, just one of the award-winning films coming to town this month

In the space of nine minutes, Jason Carpenter’s animated short The Renter tells of a child’s visit to a sympathetic grandma who kills chickens and boards an inscrutable renter. When you’re little, the world seems more weirdly full of reality, and The Renter uses a mysteriously-colored blend of handmade and computer-generated animation to capture that childhood perception. You’re not quite sure what it all adds up to in the end, but you’re somehow glad to have had the experience, which is exactly how you feel as a kid encountering something for the first time.

Speaking of encountering something unexpected, I’ve never seen anything quite like The Magic Man, a silent short in the manner of the 1920s–shot in 3D. The movie narrates a Pygmalion-like fable about a magician who uses an old, forbidden family spell to bring to life a painting of a ballerina (2D to 3D!), with predictably bad results. The movie weaves its own magic by means of an alluring blend of old-time melodrama, surrealism and lovely black-and-white imagery. It’s like some perfectly-preserved old, weird reel from a long-lost age . . . with magic butterflies that float right off the screen.

Another magical short at Hardacre is Soham Mehta’s Fatakra, about an Indian immigrant in Texas. After a few unsuccessful years, his wife and son have finally come to join him. Their reunion is fraught with all the usual tensions of a family. Though there’s a bit of magical realism in the movie, its real magic is how the father summons the spirit of the Bhagavad-Gita’s hero Arjuna in order to rescue his relationship with his son.

Fatakra, with its superb acting and heartwarming ending, might be my favorite short at Hardacre. Then again, it might be The Secret Friend, which is about a darling old widow, played deftly by Viola Harris, who lives by herself and stoically endures a lonely existence. One day she gets a call at 3:30 in the afternoon: The caller says nothing. It happens again the next day and she gets mad. The calls come like clockwork at 3:30 every day; they begin to fill her life with renewed meaning. The movie teaches a profound lesson about friendship–I’m just not quite sure what it is. After you see it, let’s talk.

-Scott Samuelson

Landlocked Shorts
Bright by Benjamin Busch
Of Frogs And Gods by Brad Pattullo
It’s Natural to Be Afraid by Justin Doherty
When My Eyes Are Closed by Jon Perez

Bright, one of Landlocked’s illuminating shorts

Stripped down to the bare essentials, shorts are to be loved for celebrating what is often the most gripping element of story–all that you cannot see. The Landlocked shorts consistently answer the call for complexity and economy. This year they also seem to be on the hunt for a moral, paying homage to another classic tiny medium, the fable.

In the hand-drawn Of Frogs And Gods, Brad Pattullo takes on religious intolerance with an eight-minute adaptation of Aesop’s “Frogs Desiring a King,” in which a frog colony is consumed by its search for the one true king. “We want a real king, one that will really rule over us,” the frogs demand in Aesop’s original. Pattullo opts to limit the dialog to the sound of frogs croaking, ever louder and louder, as the happy colony descends into civil war. The untranslatable dialect deepens the sense of universality, the hallmark of any worthwhile fable.

Pattullo and Aesop ought to be credited for setting a tone that makes the confrontational, moralistic leanings of some of the other shorts a bit more palatable. Benjamin Busch’s Bright, relatively long at 40 minutes, is somewhat afflicted with a Touched By An Angel writing style and visual aesthetic: “You have to go where it’s dark,” one character remarks, if you want to see the light from the stars. The film is a bit overstuffed with such talk, but the characters urge each other forward with such sincerity and loyalty that the result is a warming reminder of how different we all are, how difficult it can be to take the smallest step and how much it can mean to have one true friend.

It’s Natural To Be Afraid deals with loss–that other aspect of love and friendship–and recovery. Like the shaken-up lives of the main characters, the narrative feels choppy and out of sequence. As the momentum builds, though, the story congeals and swells movingly to a beautiful score by Bill Ryder-Jones, formerly of British pop group The Coral, whose solo work heads in a minimal direction, in the vein of Brian Eno. The film is stylishly shot, and Ryder-Jones’ accompaniment brings it up to Sophia-Coppola levels of cool.

If Natural is about regaining balance and control over your life’s direction, When My Eyes Are Closed is more like a suspended swoon. Though digitally shot, the camera work is analog-flavored, with a handheld feel and a hazy, dreamlike sheen on everything. The audio track is full of swooshing and clicking, like the sound of film in an old camera, and the noises compound into another intensely beautiful score–a washed out soundscape that buoys the haunting whisper of a young female narrator. It’s like Radiohead and Joan Didion had remixed footage from Easy Rider to make a sunbleached, visually and emotionally disorienting doom-love poem. I think that the director Jon Perez, a BFA candidate at The University of Southern California, would take that as a compliment.

With 20 narrative shorts, 11 animated shorts, and 12 documentary shorts, all of which leave out as much as they put in, this year’s Landlocked shorts are guaranteed to leave you with lots to talk about.

-Matt Steele


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