By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Among the so-called highlights of this year's USA Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs through April 29, is Napoleon Dynamite, which sold for some $5 million at the Sundance Film Festival in January and offers further proof that what plays in Utah sometimes ought to stay in Utah. It's as woefully condescending as it is willfully quirky, and if you can spend more than 15 minutes with its maddening cast of Midwestern freaks and geeks who think sounding funny is the same as being funny, God bless you; there's a job for you at an indie film distributor yet.
But there's no reason to bother with annoying fictions when the fest, among the best in years, offers so much fact worth celebrating (along with Charles Durning, cinematographer Owen Roizman and editor Dede Allen). Twenty of the 34 movies screening at the annual shindig proffer true-life tales, with their subject matter ranging from the rising levels of salt in a lake located in Southern California's desert to the selling of used cars to the difficult lives of Hollywood stuntwomen to the memories of those who grew up singing and dancing on the Broadway boards to the Navajo code talkers of World War II. There's something for everyone, especially if you like your docs to rock; so many of the fest's best entries deal with music, be it one man's love for old-timey country-blues or one band's attempt to use a therapist to keep it together.
And that doesn't include two movies that take their cues from familiar headlines. One is Death & Texas, which opens the festival and is a deadpan mockumentary about a football hero named Bobby "Barefoot" Briggs (The Practice's Steve Harris) on Texas' death row for committing a murder during a convenience-store holdup. Briggs is trying to get a day pass to play in his league's Mega Bowl, and director Kevin DiNovis' film is a wry and occasionally overly sincere commentary in which nobody comes off particularly well, including the well-meaning abolitionist attorney representing Bobby (played by Durning) and cynical pro-death penalty politicians (the governor might grant Briggs clemency if his team wins). Still, the poker-faced jokes sting, and the cast, including Andy Richter, Corbin Bernsen and Mary Kay Place, gets the joke; nobody tries too hard to sell it, so we'll buy it.
Also screening is Nancy Hower's Memron, a mockumentary about the dissolution of "the greatest company in the world" and its impact on employees who've lost their paychecks and purpose. "What I miss most is the monotony," says one former employee; another misses the opportunity to fire other people. Meanwhile, their former boss suffers in a prison where everybody has to use the same lone golf club. The movie is loose and nasty and populated by familiar character actors riffing off each other; everybody gets a good solo, and it's a short, sharp kick to the head.
But you don't need satire to put that sad, knowing smile on your face. Harry Thomason's The Hunting of the President does that simply by retelling the story of how Republican operatives set out to tank Bill Clinton. Yeah, yeah--it's that old "vast right-wing conspiracy" thing that Hillary used to talk about and everyone else used to snicker over, but Thomason, working from the best seller by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, makes a compelling case for conspiracy, despite his standing as one of the Clintons' best friends. Of course, it preaches to the converted; doubtful a Republican's going to be swayed by the testimony of David Brock, the former American Spectatorreporter who tried to sink Clinton till he realized he was being manipulated and played a fool, or a broken Susan McDougal, who's the heart and soul of the movie as she tearfully and fiercely recounts being threatened and finally jailed for refusing to play ball with Ken Starr.
John Landis' Slasher, which airs later this year on the Independent Film Channel, is a bona fide delight--and maybe the best thing he's done since Animal House. That's because his star, Michael Bennett, may be the most out-of-control character in a Landis film since Belushi's Bluto. Bennett is a real-life "slasher," a mercenary hired by auto dealers to move stale inventory in just a few days by any means necessary. He's part carnie barker and part hustler, a drunk in a bowtie who travels from town to town to deal wheels to people who can't afford them or shouldn't buy them, especially the $80 hunks-o'-junk used to lure in the suckers. The cars are as broken down as Bennett, who guzzles beer and sucks down cigarettes and tries to forget the fact he never sees his wife and kids. You may not like the guy, but by movie's end, you sort of love him, because his is a life you would wish on no one. Landis has made a modern-day counterpart to Al and David Maysles' legendary Salesman, and it's a remarkable achievement.
Bennett's the kind of guy about which the best docs are made, someone who'd be otherwise forgotten about if a filmmaker hadn't turned a camera on him and turned up the volume on his quiet desperation. Take Mary Trunk, who tells the tumultuous, heartbreaking story of her own family, which was destroyed by a father who left and a mother who retreated into debilitating alcoholism. Trunk's movie The Watershed, in which she interviews her remorseful father and resilient siblings, is a family album with all the nostalgic, heartwarming photos removed and destroyed. Or take the participants of Julian Petrillo's Word Wars, the Scrabble fetishists who wield their alphabet tiles the way soldiers fondle their guns.
Joe Bussard is a different kind of obsessive: a man who has spent five decades collecting 78s of prewar blues and country, a purist for whom rock and roll is "a cancer" and Blind Willie McTell is a god. Bussard, the subject of Australian filmmaker Edward Gillan's delightful Desperate Man Blues, loves the sound of a banjo more than the sound of his own heartbeat, and in his basement he has preserved the very best American music ever made in the middle of nowhere by unknown heroes and forgotten legends.
Three wonderful documentaries focus their attention and adoration on overlooked eccentrics: Paul Fehler's Jandek on Corwoodtries to reveal the mystery behind Jandek, the maker of ethereal music who has given one interview in nearly 30 years of self-releasing records from his Houston home. Phillip Anagnos wants us to keep in our hearts, and ears, Bruce Haack, the subject of Haack: The King of Techno. Haack, inventor of an instrument that allowed you to play people (no, really) and forerunner of electronic music, was a guy who made kiddie music for adults; it was weird stuff, full of bleeps and blips, but it was also inspirational to the likes of Money Mark and Mouse on Mars, who pay homage to the late ruler of bizarre noise. And George Hickenlooper tells the story of KROQ deejay Rodney Bingenheimer in his hysterical and surprisingly sad The Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bingenheimer introduced L.A., and the rest of the country, to the best punk and new wave had to offer, but his was a tangential fame; without David Bowie or Kurt Cobain or X or Gwen Stefani, he would have been a nobody and kind of is a nothing even with them around to sing his praises for playing their music.
But the biggest outsider of them all is Richard Peterson, the subject of director Todd Pottinger's decade-in-the-making Big City Dick, about the Seattle musician who at first glance looks and sounds like a street musician just this side of mentally disabled. Peterson, who looks like Tor Johnson with canyon-wide gaps in his teeth, is actually a savant and a genuine talent, a pianist and trumpet player who has recorded with the Young Fresh Fellows, been covered (more or less) by Stone Temple Pilots and who jams, at film's end, with Jeff Bridges, who considers the lovable lug something of a friend. Peterson calls Bridges "Son of Sea Hunt," because he's obsessed with the music of the TV show that starred Jeff's father, Lloyd; Sea Hunt provides the soundtrack to whatever's happening in that big, bald head of his. Peterson's a harmless, gentle giant--a "human litmus test," says one of the many Seattle radio and TV personalities who've befriended Peterson over the years, someone you might fear at first glance but come to love over the course of two hours you don't want to end.
Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's brilliant Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is like Big City Dick's polar opposite, a movie during which one of the biggest bands in the world goes into therapy, front man James Hetfield retreats into therapy and disappears for a year and Metallica somehow manages to record St. Anger. Not since D.A. Pennebaker's Dylan film Dont Look Backhas a band allowed so much unrestricted access and revealed so much about not only the process of making music but keeping it together when they look moments away from busting apart. At first they're skeptical of meeting with a therapist but come to rely on him, perhaps too much; they seem incapable of making their own decisions, of writing music, of even being friends despite decades spent on the road and in the studio. Drummer Lars Ulrich is forced to confront Dave Mustaine, the Megadeth front man long ago ousted from Metallica but still licking his wounds and nursing regret; also given ample screen time is ex-bassist Jason Newsted, who bears a grudge the size of a dozen arenas.
Some Kind of Monsterdoesn't flinch from its task of showing a band under overwhelming strain to keep making music for itself and money for its label; Ulrich and Hetfield argue incessantly, until finally Ulrich tells the singer that when he thinks of Hetfield, all he hears in his head is a constant, roaring "fuuuuuuuuuuck." Guitarist Kirk Hammett, soft-spoken to the point of being a whisper in the hurricane, tries to act as ref; he can no more believe the band's still together than we can. It's only when the band finds a common enemy--a radio conglomerate that asks it to do cheesy ads, the therapist who overstays his welcome--that finally it gets its shit straight. The movie becomes an epic, more than two hours in length, but it never feels long; it's overwhelming only because you get these guys better than they do, and you want to strangle them for being so pigheaded and hug them for finally coming to their senses. No other film in the fest has the kind of drama and humor on display in Some Kind of Monster, which is some kind of movie--and further proof, as though you needed it, that you don't need special effects to make great films, only special people to put in them.
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