Runaway Slave

RS posterBy now, everybody and their dog is familiar with the series The Walking Dead on AMC, so you’ve probably seen the part where Rick Grimes rides into Atlanta, only to find it full of dilapidated corpses, shambling to and fro with a glassy-eyed stare, rotted flesh hanging from their faces, seeking only their next kicking, screaming meal. There’s a part of Runaway Slave eerily similar to that scene. Rev. C.L. Bryant, seeking answers to his questions, arrives in Atlanta, former commercial center of slavery and political center of the Confederacy, also the birthplace of MLK and, arguably, the Civil Rights movement. As he begins conducting interviews, he meets many people with the same glassy-eyed, hopeless stares, their bodies bearing tattoos and other scars of a pointless, nihilistic existence of government colonization. But of course, this isn’t some theoretical apocalyptic scenario. This is real life, and these are real Atlantans.

Runaway Slave is a documentary by Bryant, the great, great grandson of slaves in Louisiana who purchased 64 acres from their former masters upon emancipation. He lives on the same 64 acres today, when he’s not speaking at rallies around the country. Earlier in life, Bryant was a loyal member of the NAACP, and was climbing the hierarchy with some success, until he refused to speak at a pro-abortion rally. For his refusal, he was forced to resign from the organization. He was later fired from the church that he pastored for speaking out against big government. He made this film in 2010 and 2011, during the initial outrage that boiled up over Obamacare being rammed

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

through Congress. At that time he was speaking, among other places, at Tea Party rallies all over the country, and receiving hate mail calling him an Uncle Tom and a house n**ger.

The film opens with footage of the Restoring Honor rally on the Washington Mall the 47th anniversary of MLK’s famous march on Washington, featuring the likes of Glenn Beck and Dr. Alveda King (MLK’s niece). It zips back and forth between this event and Al Sharpton’s Reclaim the Dream rally at the White House, both happening at the same time. (Something that was odd, but cool, to note: At one point at the Beck/King rally, the camera zooms in on an American flag someone is carrying. Just below it on the same poll is a Nebraska Cornhuskers flag. Don’t know how it got there, but I paused the movie and it is definitely a Husker flag. Rex Burkhead would be proud.) Bryant is at the Sharpton rally, and interviews several people there, including Black Panthers. Afterward, he asks why, when the two groups profess to want most of the same things, Sharpton’s flock spews so much bile and seems to have so much hatred for those at the Honor rally.

As Bryant explains early on in the film, he is plagued with questions such as why, in an age when someone’s race doesn’t hold them back from walking into any business, voting, or holding any job, black Americans still believe they are not “free at last,” or why, after the Democrats fought to keep slavery legal, fought to keep schools segregated, sicked dogs on black protesters, and shot history’s greatest black leader, black Americans now vote 95% Democrat. He says “I have to find out if there are other people out there who think the way I do.” (If he’s been speaking at rallies for years, I think he probably knows, but every documentary needs a kickoff.) He then travels the country, interviewing people of different races and different political stripes. He interviews Jesse Jackson, and the aptly named Ben Jealous (he tries to interview Sharpton, who blows him off). However, the largest group that he talks to is black conservatives, such us Star Parker, Alfonzo Rachel and David Webb.

Sowell

Runaway Slave is not just an excuse to plug the books and web sites of people Bryant agrees with. It’s a well-made documentary that takes on some tough questions, generates some good discussion, and leaves room for the audience to do its own thinking. The editing can be a little bit rough. Sometimes, Bryant will be talking to someone, and their lips won’t go with the words, as if we’re looking at an establishing shot, while we’re hearing dialogue from a more central shot. Bryant can come off as just a tad narcissistic as well, as there are some shots were he appears to be interviewing himself. But in fairness, this is because he feels the need to explain why he is making this film. This is a documentary with a view point, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. I’d say the most interesting part is about 1 hour in, when Bryant covers the decision by a school board in North Carolina, under the strain of budget limitations, to stop cross-city busing. The reaction of certain people is quite telling. And disturbing.

Runaway Slave is a gusty and in-your-face move, but also carefully done and thoughtfully presented. It’s a movie that everyone should see.

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Obama’s Amercia 2016

Remember those pictures that were so popular back in the 1990s called Hollusions? The first time you walked up to one, all you saw was a field of dots sprayed on a piece of paper, like snow on a TV screen. You had to learn to focus (or rather not focus) your eyes in the proper way. It took patience. The first time, it could take an hour of looking, but suddenly, you would see the dots arrange themselves into a holographic image. Some of them were beautiful, some were a little bit scary, but once you learned to see them, it was hard to imagine how you ever missed them, and hard to be patient with those who still couldn’t see the picture.

That’s what it was like for me to observe Barack Obama’s candidacy, then his presidency, asking the tough questions, and finally to see this excellent film made by Dinesh D’Souza. Obama was a phenomenon in 2008. Watching one of his rallies was like watching a Michael Jackson performance. You saw male and female, young and old, black, white and all others. A huge crowd of people from many walks of life, all united in, not the support, but the worship of one man. A man who, like Jackson, was “black” but … not really; his skin not very dark, his features resembling those of his white mother, and not one drop of slave blood in him. Rather, he reflected his international background, projecting a mix of ethnic groups. His platform was equally nondescript, one of “hope” and “change,” with no concrete positions expressed until after he was in power. He was a blank canvas, upon which the naïve projected whatever they desired.

Can you see it?

However, many have been puzzled by Obama since 2008, as there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to his actions. His actions cannot be explained by the usual differences between Republicans and Democrats. You might recall that, when the congressional vote was nearing on Obama’s universal health care plan, Democratic voters were calling their Congressmen in large numbers, begging them not to pass the bill. Obama had enough close allies to push it through, however. Around the same time, Obama was in the middle east, apologizing to America’s enemies. He had no problem using force in Libya to depose a dictator who was no threat to America, yet he does nothing to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When his actions in Libya led to the murder of an ambassador and several other Americans, he again apologized to radical Islamists for the First Amendment. He blocks efforts to drill for America’s life blood on American soil, yet encourages such drilling in South America. Seeing all this, millions of us can’t help but ask “Does he want  America to fail?”

D’Souza covers the way in which Obama was lauded by millions, not as a good candidate for a job, but as a messiah. Millions stamped themselves with

A drawing from obamamessiah.blogspot.com. The post gives no indication of being satirical or facetious.

his “O” icon. Paintings were done of him resembling the traditional Jesus. Classrooms full of children were required to sing songs in his honor. Crowds of people were on TV, literally weeping for joy when he was elected. I want to be clear about something: D’Souza does not spend this film bashing Obama. He simply covers some truly embarrassing behavior of real Americans from the past several years.

I’m thankful for D’Souza. He grew up in India, and, just as it took a child to point out that the emperor was naked in the famous tale, it seems to take a newcomer to America to say the things that some of us just can’t, however true they may be. D’Souza points out the fact that Barak Obama is the first President in American history to be elected primarily because of the color of his skin, and is brave enough to say that no white (or Indian) man would ever have been ushered into the White House after just four unremarkable years in the Senate.

But what’s really impressive about Obama’s America 2016 is the depth of the journalism. D’Souza has put enormous effort into digging up Obama’s past, traveling around the world and interviewing everyone from his extended family in Kenya, to those he knew in Indonesia,  to people who worked with him on the campaign trail. Using Obama’s two autobiographies as a guide, D’Souza pries his way into Obama’s head to see what makes him tick.

Does Obama want America to fail? D’Souza unearths a straightforward answer to this question; one that, after the care and thoroughness of his search of Obama’s past, is very hard to argue with. Most of the way through, I suspected that this was actually a pro-Obama film. D’Souza remains objective in his explanation of the emotional journey of Obama, and you really do start to feel with Obama. And with all the adorable footage of Kenyan children in Obama shirts, you can see how people fell so madly in love with Obama. But the last 15 minutes of this film give you the mental equivalent of finally seeing those dots arrange themselves into a picture. It becomes clear why Obama does the things he does, and it is genuinely scary.

Obama’s America 2016 is available to rent at Redboxes across the nation, and you need to see it before you vote.

Can you see the picture yet?

 

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The Other F Word

The Other F WordIt’s not often that a documentary really gets to me on a personal level, mostly because it’s hard for me to separate the filmmaker from the film.  Take, for example, any of Michael Moore’s creations in his continual quest to sully the category of Documentary.  Behind the images and voices put on screen is a clear agenda and a deliberate manipulation of events so obviously designed to shape the perceptions of the viewer that one almost can’t help but roll his or her eyes and pass such blatant fictionalizations off as gussied-up Saturday morning cartoons.  Or Morgan Spurlock’s infamous Super Size Me, in which he outlines an indictment of McDonald’s based on the plain-as-day fact that eating too much of their food will cause an individual to gain weight.  Then there are films like “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price” that claim to investigate a subject, when in reality they are merely pursuing one angle of a story towards a conclusion drawn well in advance.  But even when watching more benign programming such as nature documentaries or works by the venerated Ken Burns, it’s difficult for me to just sit back and learn rather than seeing the work as a presentation of information deliberately skewed in one way or another by the lens of its creator.  And so, this rather skeptical attitude makes it somewhat difficult for me to watch a documentary and really internalize what I am seeing rather than merely viewing it as a presentation of one particular viewpoint.

But when watching The Other F Word, I really did get somewhat lost in the subject matter and found myself becoming emotionally involved with the information I was consuming. Sure, like any documentary, everything here is presented from a particular viewpoint and there are myriad other stories to be told rather than the narrative that was shaped by director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins.  But the subject matter was so interesting, and the characters so compelling, that I couldn’t help but get roped in and even fascinated, at times, with what I was watching.

the-Other-F-Word-Mark-Hoppus

Mark Hoppus, watching his son plays video games as he contemplates sticking it to The Man.

After decades of sonic bombardment and near-endless touring, punk rock staples from the late 80′s and mid 90′s like Rancid, NOFX, Blink-182, The Vandals, Bad Religion, and the rest of their contemporaries are now mostly grown up.  Time, as poet Delmore Schwartz said, “is the fire in which we burn,” and as the members of these bands have aged, they have all faced the same inevitable choice: make the transition into what society would call adulthood, or continue prolonging the anarchistic days of their youth including all the trappings such a lifestyle entailed such as tattoos, piercings, counterculture apparel, disrespect for authority, and a firm adherence to the raised-middle-finger mentality so central to the punk rock ethos.  And so Nevins sets out to see what has become of these men now that many of them are parents and (gasp!) figures of authority in their own families.

The central figure here is Jim Lindberg, singer and frontman for the band Pennywise, who sets out for yet another tour with his band and leaves his wife and three daughters at home for the better part of a year.  We see him pack his suitcase, including Barbie dolls from his kids and black hair dye to mask his greying locks, and head out to do what he’s always done: play music. The contrast is shocking at first, as we see Lindberg and his bandmates on stage inviting their audience to request songs by shouting titles out but requiring that every one be augmented by a dose of vulgar profanity.  Shocking not because such is the nature of the punk rock scene, but because we first see Lindberg goofing around with his family, driving his daughters to school in a perfectly sensible midsize SUV, and participating in what is otherwise an entirely unremarkable slice of modern-day middle-class American lifestyle.

Woven through Jim’s tale are stories of several of his punk rock counterparts who have similarly navigated the turbulent waters of post-adolescent rebellion and now found themselves with families, responsibilities, and being in the somewhat ironic position of setting rules and limits for their own children.  Myriad interviews reveal grown men who are struggling to identify themselves in a society in which the angst-fueled anti-authoritarian spirit of their youth is now a prepackaged commodity, sold to teenagers in trendy mall stores like Hot Topic.  Some of the guys have clearly found ways to make the change work, and some seem like they are still treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry while their fellow rockers-turned-fathers have all gone home to bed.  Mark Hoppus ruminates on how his new perspective on life makes him embarrassed to sing some of his band’s racier songs.  Flea talks about how his daughters have entirely changed his outlook on life.   Fat Mike, who admits in an interview that he and his wife vowed not to change as they grew up, drives his daughter to a stuffy private school in a shiny new SUV while decked out in spiked hair and chains.  The film’s most powerful moments come from the interview segments with Duane Peters, who has clearly lost more than a few marbles in his younger days but has emerged with a new perspective on life despite losing his son in a car wreck.  The only weak point is the inclusion of Tony Hawk, the pro skater who seems to have been added to the cast more as a marketing stunt than to offer any real substance.

What is notable about this movie, though, is what it does not include.  The focus here is squarely on these aging alt-rock stars, and rarely do their wives or children get any screen time. What is it like to be the wife of an middle-aged punker? We never really find out.  Lindberg is seen talking with his family on the phone while on tour, and even setting up for a Skype video call.  But when the video feed dies Nevins focuses on Lindberg, and avoids what I assume must be rather intense frustration from his daughters who were so eager to tell their daddy about their day. It’s these moments that could have added so much to the film, and ultimately hinder it from being a truly singular look at its subject. As it stands, though, The Other F Word is still an extremely interesting and compelling film, and even made me think about the vestiges of my youth that I still carry with me and what I might need to cast off as I struggle to be a good father to my own son.

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The Captains

The CaptainsKirk. Picard. Sisko. Janeway. Archer.  Just hearing these names is enough to bring a smile of fond remembrance to Star Trek fans of all ages, and conjures images of heroism in the face of danger, face-offs with alien races, and some egregious fashion faux pas.  From the original Star Trek in the 1960′s to the 2009 movie by J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek franchise has been one of the most enduring and profitable in Hollywood history, and even though interest in the TV shows has waned in recent years (the recent series Enterprise was cancelled after four seasons), the characters and the actors who played them continue to be a force of pop culture with which to be reckoned.  But despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad documentaries, interviews, and convention appearances that the actors have taken part in over the years, it is the individuals who played the storied captains of the various vessels in the show who continue to fascinate millions of fans worldwide.  And it is with this in mind that William Shatner, who wowed audiences and wooed women as Captain Kirk in the original series, set out to create a film that offers a singular insight into the hearts and minds of the actors who have had the distinct privilege to sit in the fabled captain’s chair.  The result is a documentary consisting almost entirely of simple conversations between Shatner and these actors that is equal parts compelling and funny, while also managing to be heartbreaking and even a bit awkward.  Shatner, whose career includes high profile shows like Boston Legal, melodramas like Rescue 911, and a dose of sitcoms and commercials to boot, is clearly in his element as he interviews the actors–often providing a window into his own heart and even upstaging his subjects from time to time.  It all comes together to make The Captains a fantastic and singular work of art that boldly goes where no documentary has gone before, and offers Shatner the unique opportunity to blaze a trail that no one else could hope to trod.

What would you say if you could sit and chat with Patrick Stewart for an afternoon?  Would you ask him what it was like to play Jean-Luc Picard, one of the most recognizable figures in modern science fiction?  How about Kate Mulgrew, the woman whose Kathryn Janeway helmed the starship Voyager on its 70,000 light year journey through the Delta Quadrant? Or Chris Pine, the young actor who filled Shatner’s Starfleet-issue boots as Captain Kirk in the 2009 film?  What questions could possibly be worth their time–surely nothing these actors haven’t been asked hundreds or thousands of time before.

Shatner-Pine

Captain Kirk vs. Captain Kirk in the arm wrestling match of the century!

And so Shatner wisely stays away from all of the topics that would, on the surface, be of most interest to fans.  Instead, his conversations with the “captains” wander back and forth from pop culture to horseback riding to philosophy, religion, and even death and the afterlife.  Heavy subjects to be sure, but counterbalanced by a liberal dose of Shatner’s off-kilter sense of humor and glowing charm.  The most profound and compelling segments come from his discussions with Patrick Stewart, where things start off cordial but end up digging deep, exposing a side of both actors that has rarely been seen in public.  Stewart goes as far to divulge regrets that are as deeply felt today as they were back when he was filming The Next Generation, and Shatner likewise comes to a realization about his role as Kirk that has haunted him for decades.  I doubt the two are best friends, but it’s clear there is an incredible mutual respect and genuine appreciation for the contributions both have made to science fiction and modern culture.

His visits with the rest of the captains may not be at heart-wrenching, but each is compelling in its own right.  It’s hard to not smile as Shatner and Scott Bakula (Captain Jonathan Archer) shoot the breeze over drinks at a diner, talking about the acting profession and their appreciation of each other’s work.  He visits with Mulgrew on stage at a New York theater, where the two discuss the pioneering work she did as the first female captain in Star Trek and how the work put impossible demands on both of them–the effects of which were bitterly felt by their spouses and children.

While these conversations are thoughtful and compelling, Shatner’s afternoon with Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko) goes somewhat off the rails.  Brooks improvs jazz licks on a piano while Shatner provides a somewhat bewildered impromptu lyrical accompaniment, and the two go off on metaphysical tangents that make me wonder if part of Brooks is still lost in the wormhole somewhere.  The weakest link by far is Shatner’s all-too-brief conversation with Chris Pine.  Even though the two men give it a good honest try, their segments are brief and lack nearly all the chemistry from the other interviews.  To their credit, neither actually has much in common besides the Kirk character, and Shatner is old enough to be Pine’s grandfather.  But whereas the role of captain serves as the genesis of Shatner’s conversations with all the other actors, it actually seems to hamper his dialogue with Pine.

There are plenty of other Star Trek documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes out there, but none so personal and intimate as the portraits Shatner constructs in The Captains.  It is an impressive labor of love that could have been made by only one man, and as a lifelong Star Trek fan I am grateful for the work Shatner has done to assemble this collection of interviews–if nothing else than for sheer posterity.  I would imagine this film would come across as boring or obscure to non-Trek fans, but if you wouldn’t feel at home in a Star Trek convention rubbing elbows with Klingons, Cardassians, and Orion Slave Girls, this is definitely not your kind of movie.  However, for those of us who have spent years venturing into the final frontier with the Star Trek captains, this film is a jewel and not to be missed.

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Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Anvil: The Story of AnvilThis Is Spinal Tap is one of the most well-known documentaries to be released in the past 30 years.  It tells the story of a has-been heavy metal band that is about to embark on an American tour (dubbed “Tap into America”) while promoting their new album Smell The Glove.  And even though things get off to a fairly decent start, problems start to creep up: poor management, disastrous prop mishaps, and lagging ticket sales lead to a near-implosion of the band as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel walks offstage during a show at an Air Force hangar.  Along the way we get glimpses into the individuals behind the band like Tufnel, whose custom guitar amplifiers go up to 11, and his friend and rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins, whose romantic involvement with the band manager leads to all kinds of problems.  It would be tragically sad if it were true, but fortunately, it’s all a fake documentary from the brilliant minds of Christopher Guest (who plays Tufnel) and director Rob Reiner.  It’s an entertaining and sublimely hilarious look at the strange world of Rock ‘n Roll, and one of the funniest movies of all time.  Viewers with so much as a modicum of appreciation for the music scene watch and laugh because, like all good comedy, it’s funny because it’s true.

But what if it really were true? What if Spinal Tap really were a band haplessly careening toward obscurity with all the power a Marshall amp could muster? Would their plight still be funny, or would viewers watch in horror like rubberneckers observing a car wreck, drawn to the experience but shocked at what they see? Anvil: The Story of Anvil begs just such a question, along with a host of others, and in the process of exploring the careers of this motley crew of quinquagenarians struggling to polish the dust off their aging heavy metal careers with a European tour and a new album, we get not only an intensely intimate look at the lives of these musicians but an incredibly powerful story of perseverance, friendship, and dedication.  And a whole lot of heavy metal.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Sure they might be collecting social security, but the guys in Anvil can stand toe-to-toe with any heavy metal band out there.

The film documents the band’s rise to popularity at the height of heavy metal’s popularity in the mid-1980s, when lightning-fast guitar riffs were melded with overblown stage personas, and bands like Metallica, Guns and Roses, Van Halen, and Def Leppard could sell out the biggest arenas in the world.  And in the middle of it all was Anvil, an act hailing from Toronto that stood toe-to-toe with the best metal bands around and whose influence carried over to guitarists like Slash and drummers like Lars Ulrich.  But for whatever reason, Anvil never found commercial success like so many of their peers, and spent the next three decades wandering directionless in a changing musical wasteland. They recorded twelve albums, none of which made more than the faintest blip on any type of cultural radar.  And yet, through it all, the band persisted–jamming, recording, playing shows whenever and wherever they could.  This is where things really get interesting, though, as director (and childhood friend of lead guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow) Sacha Gervasi follows Anvil throughout Europe that is so horribly botched the band misses trains, fights with bar owners, and plays shows with less than a dozen people in the audience.

Through it all, and through the process of recording a new record with fabled heavy metal producer Chris Tsangarides, Lips and drummer Robb Reiner never cease to give up on their dream to be rock stars, and that’s where the real heart of this documentary lies.  These two live for one thing: to be rock stars, and they will do whatever it takes to get there. Even if it means working a day job delivering school hot lunches, asking relatives for money to finance a recording session, or taking a telemarketing gig selling knockoff sunglasses.  Like their fictional counterparts in Spinal Tap, they have more than their fair share of hard knocks, but if whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, Anvil has to be one of the toughest acts in the world.  Interviews with friends, family, and music industry insiders reveal how much the deck is stacked against these aging headbangers, but Lips’ persistent optimism and good-natured attitude, not to mention Reiner’s almost-unwavering commitment to the band, keep things grounded in stark contrast to many of the stars of the music scene we see in the news today.  Anvil: The Story of Anvil is an exceedingly heartbreaking but ultimately fulfilling and supremely rewarding story of what it means to never give up on your dreams.

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Exit through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift ShopTrying to nail down just what this film is about is a pretty tricky proposition.  Is it a documentary? A comedy? A commentary on modern attitudes about art? A critique of pop culture? The answer is yes, but with a rather large asterisk.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is, ostensibly, a documentary about an aspiring filmmaker named Thierry Guetta who bumbles his way through life peddling overpriced clothing at his shop while also filming everything around him.  Guetta takes a camera everywhere and fills bins upon bins with digital tape recordings of all the elements of his life.  So far, so good–the documentary has a unique subject and a story to tell.  Soon Guetta becomes fascinated with the world of street artists, and sets out to capture the underground world of graffiti art through the lens of his handycam.  Again, things are going pretty well, especially as Guetta begins to form a relationship with Basksy, one of the most brilliant and infamous street artists in the world.  But near the hour mark something strange happens–Banksy asks Guetta to show him the documentary he has been making (keep in mind the film we are watching is a documentary of a documentary…still with me?  Good.)  Guetta has piles of tapes and a passion for filming, but no clue how to actually edit and produce a film.  So Banksy takes over, and turns the film into a new kind of documentary:  he chronicles Guetta as he attempts to reinvent himself as Mr. Brainwash, legitimate street artist.

Mr. Brainwash Thierry Guetta

Mr. Brainwash...brilliant street artist?

And reinvent himself he most certainly does, with a blowout first show that attracts thousands of visitors over the course of its five week run in Los Angeles.  The catch?  Guetta isn’t really an artist.  He’s not really a filmmaker either.  He’s…well, he’s a frenchman with extraordinary sideburns who repackages the work of true artists with a team of Photoshop wizards and down-on-their-luck sculptors.  Just don’t tell that to the haute coutre crowd, the art world elite whose party Guetta crashed with a building full of poorly-conceived paintings and misshapen sculptures masquerading as modern art.  The crowd who now happily shells out tens of thousands of dollars for Mr. Brainwash originals.  The crowd who includes such high-profile names as Madonna, whose Celebrations album cover is a Mr. Brainwash original.

The real twist, though, comes when the film is over and the credits roll, as you start to wonder what it is that you just witnessed.  Would a guy like Guetta, who doesn’t strike me as someone who could properly cook a box of macaroni and cheese, really be able to pull off a full-scale art show with no artistic talent and no history as an artist? Would people around the world really be gullible enough to buy into the wares he was peddling?  What is it that defines art?  Or was the whole shebang just a ruse?  A massive practical joke played on the critics, collectors, and purveyors of the art scene by Banksy himself?  Certainly there are more questions than answers here, and the film does an outstanding job of challenging our conceptions of what constitutes art.  Banksy himself remains a steadfast enigma, shrouded in guttural voiceovers and pixellated blurs throughout the film.  His talent as an artist is undeniable, his methods legally questionable, and his vision unmatchable.  His film, too, is eminently watchable and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Lord, Save Us from Your Followers

It's hard to take a documentary seriously when it's billed as "Michael Moore-meets-Monty Python."In this age of digital movie making, instant YouTube publishing, and homebrew editing software that anyone can use, I’m starting to wonder just what qualifies a work of film as a documentary.  In the classic sense, a documentary should investigate a subject in the hope of arriving at some type of conclusion.  And if no conclusion can be found, then at least the documentary should unearth facts, viewpoints, or ways of thinking that are generally missing from the public consciousness.  But when anyone can pick up a camera and start filming, the brute force research and legwork required to produce a quality piece of work is often missing at the expense of graphical flair and story narrative.  Even though Lord, Save Us from Your Followers is an interesting look at faith in America today, it doesn’t function well as an actual documentary on the subject.  In the end it is more of a video-blog of one man’s journey to some sort of spiritual enlightenment or resolution.  An entertaining and at times touching video blog, but nonetheless, it would be hard to draw any meaningful conclusions about religion, or specifically Christianity, after watching this film.

The idea, as director/narrator/star Dan Merchant tells us, is to find out why Jesus’ gospel of peace has resulted in such extreme viewpoints in our country.  Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, David Koresh, James Dobson…all have espoused a particular brand of Christianity, but all are fairly divisive when expressing their viewpoints or political opinions.  How can this be, asks Merchant, and how can we rectify the Culture War that supposedly exists in our society today?  His solution is to dress up in a white jumpsuit with all manner of religious extremist bumper stickers and paraphenalia, cobble together a camera crew, and interview people on the street about what they think of Jesus, Christians, and Christianity.

Lord Save Us from Your Followers - Dan Merchant

Dan Merchant, stirring the melting pot.

His results are about what one would expect–some people think Christians are mean-spirited, others think they are kind and loving.  Some think Jesus was the son of God who died for our sins, and others think he was more along the lines of a troubadour with an impressive array of parlor tricks at his disposal.  Also chiming in are Al Franken, Michael Reagan, Rick Santorum, and other prominent figures in American politics and media, each with a position on the issue or at least a personal story to tell.  Excerpts from speeches by Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as prominent media figures like Jon Stewart and Bono, also add some good perspective into the mix as well.

The most interesting, and ultimately effective, segments are when Merchant talks to  secular radio host Shelia Hamilton in Portland, Oregon, about her station’s involvement with the Christian relief organization World Vision, his exploration of the Christian response during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and his time spent with Night Strike, a ministry that serves homeless people in Portland.  In each of these instances he discovers that, despite the politicking of some outspoken leaders in the Christian community, the ground-level view held by many in the secular world is that Christians are nice, decent folks who are willing to lend a helping hand or two when the going gets tough.  It’s these bits that are comforting and reassuring, and help dissipate the pharisaical air of so many national Christian figures.

Lord Save Us from Your Followers - Sister Mary Timothy

Sister Mary Timothy, who has a less-than-positive opinion of most Christians...

Unfortunately, for every morsel of genuine insight in this movie there are a dozen flashy gimmicks and Michael Moore-style empty-headed stunts that do nothing except to draw attention and generate a few laughs or crocodile tears.  A few statistics are thrown out here and there, like the fact that 9 out of 10 individuals in America profess a belief in God, but a cheesy Family Feud-style game show pitting Christians against Atheists sheds light on nothing and only serves as a distraction from the main argument of the film.  Anecdotal evidence, gleaned from dudes on the street or interviews with mid-level politicians, should never be confused with actual research.  But actual research is rarely flashy and, darn it, just takes so much time.

A large segment near the end of the film is dedicated specifically to the mainstream Christian treatment of the gay community–or at least the perception of mainstream Christians by a handful of gays and lesbians.  In a bit that seems oddly self-serving, Merchant sets up a fake reverse confessional at a gay and lesbian festival in Portland, and invites people to hear his confessions and apologies on behalf of all Christians and their treatment of the GLBT community.  Discounting all serious theological arguments that many decent, level-headed Christians have to the GLBT lifestyle, Merchant sanctimoniously offers his apologies to the gay community and promises to offer love and support rather than condemnation and ridicule.  It’s the kind of stunt that might generate a few DVD sales, much like Michael Moore driving around Washington D.C. with a megaphone, but ignores the deeply-held convictions of many individuals on both sides of the fence.  Editorializing should have no place in a documentary, but sadly, it is far too often on bold display here.

The film does serve as a somewhat compelling wake-up call for Christians who might need to swallow a taste of their own medicine from time to time.  It is certainly worth watching, and should be required viewing for Sunday School classes (if for no reason other than to generate a discussion), so long as it is accompanied by a healthy-sized grain of salt.

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Lost in La Mancha

Lost in La ManchaTerry Gilliam is one strange dude.  His films run the gamut from entertaining to head-scratching to cerebral to just plain nut-job.  He’s not exactly a household name, though chances are most people have seen at least one of his movies or remember at least one of his sketches from the heyday of Monty Python.  A visionary he certainly is, though, and after a few decades of filmmaking he tried to get a production of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote off the ground.  Lost in La Mancha is a story of how the entire production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote went down, from the early stages of preproduction to the final nail in the coffin, and even though Gilliam’s movie never did get finished, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were able to craft an astonishing documentary that chronicles the entire production.  In doing so we are treated to an intimate look at the process of getting a big-budget Hollywod motion picture brought to life, and how sometimes even the sharpest vision and strongest determination just can’t make a project work.

Perhaps the most apt comparison I could make with Lost in La Mancha is to Spinal Tap, but whereas the latter was a chronicle of the fictional exploits of a heavy metal rock band with the purpose of poking fun at the whole music scene, La Mancha is, sadly, an all-too-true tale of how crazy things can get during a movie production.  Like Quixote himself, Gilliam is consumed by a desire to make his film no matter how irrational it might be.  The project, the most expensive movie ever to be filmed in Spain, had to be cut drastically from its initial projections in order to come in under budget.  But such woes are the beginning of Gilliam’s troubles.  Preproduction is beset by scheduling conflicts, prop disasters, and location issues, but the crew forge ahead nonetheless with a hopeful optimism and desire to see it through to completion.

Lost in La Mancha: Terry Gilliam

Gilliam directing Rochefort, and fighting his own windmills the whole time.

From the very first day of filming, though, the hassles just continue to pile up.  Fighter jets flying overhead disrupt the initial shots, and a rainstorm that night literally washes thousands of dollars of film equipment down the drain.  And when Jean Rochefort, who plays Quixote, develops health problems that prevent him from riding a horse, it’s clear the writing is on the wall.  And yet Gilliam and his crew forge ahead, shooting scenes with Johnny Depp, posing for group photos with the project’s financial backers, and scrambling to adjust schedules to accommodate Rochefort’s continuing health issues.  Christopher Guest himself couldn’t make this stuff up if he tried, folks.  It’s as heartbreaking as it is entertaining, and through it all is Terry Gilliam–the indomitable visionary who will do everything in his power to make the film come together.

The strength of La Mancha is how Fulton and Pepe treat their subject with such a deft hand.  Neither overly melodramatic nor overly lighthearted, they simply show the events as they unfold.  Bits of footage that did get filmed, screen tests of the giants, magnificent costumes, and the exuberance of Johnny Depp as he gives 100% to a part that even he knows is never going to end up in theatres, hints at the fantastic Movie That Could Have Been.  The determination of Gilliam and his crew to accomplish the impossible against all odds, even when it’s pretty obvious that the film is really not going to get finished, is admirable but drenched with an undertone of foreboding and even sadness.  Gilliam’s undaunted spirit is well-nigh inspirational, though, and even though his Quixote film eventually gets canned, the experience, as anyone who watches Lost in La Mancha, was certainly not without merit.  And besides, word has it Gilliam is even planning to give it another shot…if things don’t fall apart again.

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