By Paul Deblinger
Yes, I saw 14 films in four days. OK, two of them I saw twice. These were films in theaters, not one of those HBO or Netflix binges. There was even popcorn.
I got to rub elbows with some of the directors and even got to chat with some of the performers. That’s the true joy for a film junkie who attends the Full Frame Documentary Festival. The 17th annual version of the prestigious festival that puts Durham on the international film map, once again revealed great work from established filmmakers alongside energetic new work from rookies.
I enjoyed the first 13 films I saw which included subjects as diverse as a closed Detroit Zoo, a woman working near a reindeer herding station, John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, marriage, Whitey Bulger, underpaid restaurant workers, the Penn State Child molestation scandal, sex education, and a Hollywood manager. However, the final film I saw, the final film shown at Full Frame this year, hit a huge home run in the bottom of the ninth.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball told the story of the Portland Mavericks, a single-A independent minor league baseball team that existed for five years from 1973 to 1977. Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way tell the story of their grandfather, an iconoclastic Hollywood actor and baseball addict named Bing Russell who decided to give birth to the only independent, unaffiliated minor league team in organized baseball.
Russell’s son, the actor Kurt Russell is also a baseball junkie and former player whose baseball career ended with a shoulder injury. It seems that baseball and cinema are twin talents of this clan–the Portland Mavericks with their overweight, belching, somewhat old assemblage of players turned out be a decent baseball team and the film of their accomplishments is the cinematic version of a perfect game.
The Way brothers found old film of the Mavericks in dumpsters and archives of news stations giving the film a look more Bull Durham than Bull Durham. Every aspect of the film works, the interviews (including former Mavericks player Kurt Russell), the music (from another brother), especially the structure of the film which centers on the story of Bing Russell but also includes story arcs for players and baseball people.
The brothers have sold the movie rights to their documentary, but it is hard to imagine a Hollywood production matching the elegance and intensity of The Battered Bastards of Baseball. How can a slickly produced Hollywood film do justice to the story of a maverick independent team? The Way brothers did the hard work researching their story and it came to fruition in a perfect way where form meets content.
Unlike most sports films this film was devoid of baseball clichés. The way the audience reacted, this film will be a champion wherever it goes.
There were several other films at Full Frame that struck a nerve with me. To be honest I am a severe critic of any type of art especially my own. I generally do not like Hollywood movies to the point when I scan the movie listings I rarely find one I want to see. The ones I usually see are at the Chelsea or the Carolina Theater or on Turner Classic Movies or are shown at Duke or UNC or at a festival. The same goes for TV or painting or comedy or theater. Unless it is original and energetic, I’m not interested. OK, I’m an Alta Kocher (look it up), but I’ve been one since my undergraduate days when I read John Barth’s 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” which postulates that there are no new stories, just new ways to tell old stories. Barth and many other critics and writers have expanded on his manifesto creating an age of art and literature that has been both cutting edge and challenging.
Duke has an MFA program in Experimental and Documentary Arts which, to me, is the greatest concept for a program in its name in the history of American academic art. The title of the program is defined by the work itself and seems all encompassing. To me that’s what Full Frame is–very few of the films they showed this year were straight documentaries. Some were truly off the wall and quite a few seemed to be a continuation of last year’s program “Stories within Stories” curated by Amir Bar-Lev.
The first film I saw this year was A Park in the City about Detroit’s abandoned Belle Isle Zoo which was established in 1895 as part of a city park designed by New York’s Central Park creator Frederick Law Olmstead. Director Nicole MacDonald traces the history of the zoo and park with archived video and photographs and also uses her own footage to take an intimate look at the overgrown park’s flora and fauna.
Her story revolves around a BBC documentary about the park and she uses their clips and footage of the BBC reporter taking us on a tour of the park. There are many shots of a huge variety of birds and animals who have taken over the former zoo and live there free now–kind of nature’s squatters.
The film has a charming, ethereal attitude, but seems slightly off kilter as you watch. I have seen a lot of BBC documentaries and know they are filmed, narrated and edited with precision in the BBC style. This particularly report didn’t seem to match. I also couldn’t tell where the director’s footage started and the BBC footage stopped.
After the film, in the Q&A, the audience found out why the film seemed teetering off the edge. The director admitted there were “fictional” elements in the film and then slowly elaborated when asked a series of questions. “The BBC report wasn’t real,” was one. Actually she didn’t elaborate except to repeat that some of the film was fictional.
I wish I had the opportunity to see it again because even though I liked the film and its playfulness I would have liked to see it knowing the director admitted part of it was fictional. It’s like the Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” where a 19th century writer writes Don Quixote word for word and the new work has a new and rewarding nature to it as a 19th century work of literature, a true example of the “Literature of Exhaustion.”
This film is a product of the school of the Films of Exhaustion. Is it a documentary? Is it an experimental film? If part of it is a work of fiction, is all of it a work of fiction? Of course, this sends you back to last year’s films, especially Amir Bar Lev’s My Kid Can Paint That which started out as a straight documentary about a child prodigy painter whose abstract paintings sold worldwide for big money to art collectors. Halfway through the film it becomes clear that something fishy is going on when a “60 Minutes” report suggests that the child prodigy was aided by her father in painting and the parents his that knowledge.
Bar-Lev becomes a character in his own film when he too has doubts about the story he is documenting and at that point the film shifts from a documentary about a young artist to a documentary about itself, the story and the director’s part in the story. It’s like one of those Russian eggs that keeps revealing new things.
For those reasons I thought A Park in the City was the most challenging film I saw this year at Full Frame and one that should ignite another debate in the documentary community about what exactly is a documentary. Whatever it is, documentary film seems to be the thing in our topsy-turvy Twitter driven world since no one knows exactly what it is.
That’s why I love Full Frame. You move from one film that makes your head spin to another that makes you examine your whole life. That film Supermensch:The Legend of Shep Gordon surprised and enlightened me to no end. I had no idea who Shep Gordon was before I saw the film and the fact that it was directed my Mike Myers, yes, that Mike Myers, made me wonder what it was all about.
The film starts with Gordon talking about his early Hollywood adventures when shortly after college he arrives in L.A. in the 60s having no skills and no idea what he wants to do. He winds up at a Hollywood motel he doesn’t realize is inhabited by rock star wannabees in the Beatles era when every musician trekked to L.A. to make the scene.
Gordon is awakened one night from screams he interprets are coming from a woman being assaulted. He meanders down to the motel pool and tries to pull a black man off a white woman. The woman punches him, knocking him down. It turns out he interrupted a romantic tryst between Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who he instantly befriends. Hendrix offers him sage advice, “You’re Jewish. You should become a manager.”
So the next stage of Gordon’s life was managing musical acts, notably Alice Cooper. Gordon was not a marketing type who believed in the science of marketing (if there is such a thing). He believed in creativity and believing in yourself. With that he and Cooper set off for Detroit where they shaped an act that had little to do with music–it was like a burlesque show transformed to 60s culture and the rest, as they say, is history.
Gordon managed diverse artists such as Anne Murray and Teddy Pendergrass. The film has laudatory interviews with Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Arnold. We see Gordon transformed from a drug-taking hedonist to a true mensch–someone who cares about people and does things for them, not for monetary reward or credits in the favor bank, but because he believes in people. He transformed restaurants chefs from employees and created the world of superstar chefs. His list of clients in the entertainment world at the end of the film is impressive, including Pink Floyd for an unexplained nine days.
One of Gordon’s friends is the Dali Lama. Gordon, born Jewish, suggests he is not religious but takes things from several religions and philosophies and shaped a life code that is as unique as he is.
He also comes to learn, ironically, that the fame his clients often desire is the thing that beats them down in the end. He has harsh things to say about celebrity and fame, saying in the old days parents would contact him to ask if their children could work for one of his clients to learn a skill and now parents call him to see if he can get their kids on “The Voice.”
Gordon was at Full Frame and did a Q&A after the film and was charming and open with the audience. I have to admit I was as charmed with his personality and life philosophy, which as an alta kocher, is unusual for me.
I also admit that knowing the film’s title had the word legend in it and that it was directed my Mike Myers and that Shep Gordon doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, I had to wonder, hmmm, is he real? He was standing flesh and blood next to me, but I still wondered.
There were other films I saw including Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bolger, 112 Weddings, Ivory Tower, The Hand That Feeds, The Silly Bastard Next to the Bed, Olga, Last Days in Vietnam, Happy Valley, Sex (Ed).
The Hand That Feeds effectively showed the plight of low-wage restaurant workers and their effort to organize and reverse the labor practices which doom them. Since many of these workers are undocumented immigrants their lives are especially precarious. If they complain they can get booted out of the country. If they don’t complain they essentially work as indentured servants.
Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick had been documenting Occupy Wall Street when they heard about low-wage employees organizing at a chain restaurant in Manhattan. The film provides a close-up on the lives of undocumented workers and the efforts of the few souls who try to help them organize and form a union.
This was more of a straight-forward documentary than the ones already discussed, but it did make use of cell phone footage by some of the workers and re-creations of some of the scenes involving labor organizing meetings.
Like The Battered Bastards of Baseball and Supermensch it had multiple story arcs that built to a climax at the end of the movie. The film won the Audience Award at Full Frame and deserved it. It was not a big budget film by any means, but a labor of love that should draw the attention of the low-wage labor movement in its uphill struggle. It was not an advocacy film per se–it was the story of people’s lives which made it more compelling. It was expertly edited and a real testament that low budget documentaries can compete with more slickly produced big-budget films.
Happy Valley, Amir Bar-Lev’s film about the Penn State child molestation scandal, expertly told the sordid story of former Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno’s sudden fall after his longtime Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and convicted of multiple counts of child molestation. The film included emotional interviews with Paterno’s widow and sons, and Sandusky’s adopted son who was one of the victims, and others more familiar to the story.
It too had multiple story arcs woven together in an effective and emotional fashion. It didn’t have the surprise of Bar-Lev’s other films like Fighter, The Tillman Story, or My Kid Could Paint That because the Penn State story is so well known and we are not as surprised that there could be different versions of a story that is basically “he said-he said.” Bar-Lev admitted he didn’t make the film to add news to the story, but wanted to present it in his own way about how multiple stories coalesce into a gigantic media myth.
The one thing I really enjoy in Bar-Lev’s films is his ability to show how the media affects a story. It’s as if he is doing a story about a story–by the time he gets to it, it has been run through the media grinder and shaped into, and I hate use this word, a giant meme.
That is certainly the case of the Penn State story which turned a small town in Pennsylvania into Sodom and Gomorrah. Bar-Lev’s rendition of the story reminds us that what we have witnessed in the media is a story shaped by the media for its own good. CNN shaped it one way, while ESPN shaped it another. And the local media in State College, PA is stuck in the middle, covering the downfall of a living god betrayed by a horrible monster living in its midst.
Bar-Lev’s films are complicated and I would love to see it again. What he does in his films is very subtle–he makes you re-examine his subject, but also re-examine your own thinking about the story. On the surface he is retelling a story we already know, but with his craft, he is taking an old story and reshaping it in a fresh new way.
I commend Full Frame for bringing in a huge variety of films and presenting them in an extremely accessible fashion. Shep Gordon has been a constant attendee at the Cannes Film Festival which is known for its big parties and fake smiles and says Full Frame reminds him of his home in Maui where he feels at peace and engaged.
Seeing 14 films in 4 days is like seeing one long, crazy film. Thinking about them later you have to pry images apart–was that in this film or that film? Full Frame sold about 36,000 tickets for this year’s festival, a record and a remarkable story for Durham. Full Frame has built a legacy of showing surprising films that engage a wide and diverse audience. Here’s hoping they never lose that edge.
Paul Deblinger has spent a lifetime in the media business, beginning as a kid interning at The Washington Post, then years writing a horse racing column, covering the Minneapolis sports beat as a local AP stringer, then publishing a travel guide, and finally a more recent run in Durham culminating in a certificate from the Center for Documentary Studies. He has covered the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and interviewed Tom Rankin in these pages previously.