Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #7

Reviews of screenings from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Les Blank Program 1: Maestros

Usually the celebration of an artist's body of work, this year's Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective was given a sombre cast with Les Blank's recent passing. However, given the recurrent themes of celebration, gentleness and the good things in life, his body of work almost insists that we keep our spirits up. This first of three sets of shorter works was grouped around artists, but also served as an overview of several other themes running through his work. The screening was also enlivened by the presence of Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling (who both worked with Blank for many years, and here with their own new film) for a Q+A session.

Dizzy Gillespie (Dir: Les Blank, 1964, 20 minutes, USA) started as a work-for-hire and felt somewhat caught between Blank's emerging approach and a more textbook 60's "direct cinema" feel. But the sense of joy radiating from its subject still stood out. Although there were some moments of biographical discussion, this was mostly a portrait of Gillespie as both serious working artist (going through charts with a large jazz orchestra he would guest soloing with) and goofy entertainer (hamming it up onstage with his own quintet). There's enough time to hear plenty of deliciously speedy bop runs while taking in the cosmopolitan vibe of the big city jazz scene, featuring integrated crowds and bands.

That'd be a marked counterpoint to the segregation seen (but not specifically commented on) in The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (Dir: Les Blank, 1968, 31 minutes, USA), nor would it be in the lists of reasons to have the blues that Hopkins would reel off. (Of course, he might have been more immediately worried about the gun-totin' in-laws lingering outside the door, as Blank alluded to in his entertaining notes on the film's making.) At any rate, this felt like a stylistic leap forward. A new generation of more portable film equipment gives us vibrant colour images and a sense of freedom as we follow Hopkins around some dusty country backroads. As "country" as the Gillespie film was "city" we see features of rural African-American culture (including a rodeo!) that are less often examined. And meanwhile, from behind his omnipresent shades and flashy gold teeth, we hear Hopkins expound upon the blues — and after a pull from his ass-pocket o' whisky — we get it distilled into music. A wonderful portrait of a canny improvising artist.

The last and longest of the three films in this program, The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (Dir: Les Blank, 1994, 54 minutes, USA) focused on someone with no less of an artistic impulse, but with far less renown. Gerry Gaxiola decided to up and quit his job and become an artist, adopting the persona of one of the singing cowboys of the b-movies he loved as a youth. "Passion brings its own talent," he declares as we see him working in seemingly all media — we see him paint and sculpt, sing songs, as well as designing his own cowboy boots and sequined shirts. Choosing his own path might not be financially lucrative (he refuses to sell his art) but it brings immense satisfaction and a seemingly bottomless reserve of energy. Whether putting together day-long pageants or gallery shows, Gaxiola's life-as-art-as-life shows how radical and all-encompassing the DIY stance can be. As it follows him around making art (and issuing challenges to the art establishment) the film manages to transmit his constantly surprising joy and spirit.

12 O'Clock Boys (Dir: Lotfy Nathan, 76 minutes, USA)

Positivity can be hard to find on the notoriously hard-luck streets of Baltimore, so one can understand the embrace of anything that gives a sense of release. One burgeoning subculture revolves around stunt-riding dirtbikers, and in Nathan's film we follow young Pug, who'd give anything to be able to join their ranks. Dubbed the "12 O'Clock Boys" for the erect pose they strike when popping a wheelie, this sport is tailor-made for youtube, where riders can record and share their audacious, death-defying tricks.

Coming from a broken home (and having recently lost his beloved elder brother) Pug is bright and curious when it comes to animals and dirtbikes, but seems otherwise bound for trouble. Immersed in the harsh machismo of the streets, as he watch him grow over a span of three years we see him harden as he works to get his own bike and practice so he can ride with the pack.

But while there's a compelling character at the core of this story, the film is hard to like. Mostly because, even though we can see why people would be drawn to this lifestyle ("They're free," Pug simply says at one point when he watches the dirtbikers) it's still hard to garner much sympathy for such these miscreants. The rides take place at great risk not only to the bikers (helmets are uncool) but to the public at large, as they zip through traffic without regard to the safety of other motorists and pedestrians, tearing up parks with their wheels and blasting their loud engines. As their energy is put to work trying to outfox the police (who are under orders not to engage them in high-speed chases) it just seems like so much displacement of skills that could be put to better use. Others' mileage may vary, but all of that made it really hard for me to enter into the movie's headspace.

Remaining screenings: Saturday, May 4, 9:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 2

I Will Be Murdered (Dir: Justin Webster, 88 minutes, Spain)

A fascinating story somewhat frustratingly told. The title gives away the first twist here: Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg caused a sensation in the aftermath of his death when a message emerged in which he announced, "if you are watching this video, it's because I've been murdered by President Álvaro Colom." It's hard to say much more without having to issue a spoiler warning.

I shan't give the game away, but these two facts might be too suggestive for those who'd like to see this without clues: 1) even when they call themselves "non-political", the privileged classes in society are always acting in their self-interest and, 2) we have an unquestioned belief that the dying have no more reason for concealment, and hence give great weight to things like deathbed testimonies.

Having those things in mind kept me sharp while viewing this, which is perhaps why I wasn't quite as pulled in to the "mystery" of Rosenberg's death as the film wanted me to be. Structured as a thriller and building up to the big "reveal" at the end, I was constantly frustrated by the sense the the film was simply holding out on revealing the facts that would allow the strands to come together. Others might find this approach more rewarding.

I also have no love for the re-enactment style footage that sometimes lent this the feel on a syndicated true crime TV show. (Sometimes to very little effect, such as when we'd cut to something as banal as the hand of an unseen man opening a door.) Again, some people are far more comfortable with this stylistic element. On the whole, I was fascinated with the story and wished I knew a bit more about the political atmosphere in which it unfolded. All things told, I think this New Yorker piece would have been a more satisfying point of entry for me, and would probably recommend it more than the film.

Remaining screenings: Saturday, May 4, 8:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 4; Sunday, May 5, 9:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 2

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