Friday, May 3, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #8

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

River (Dir: Bill Ross, 180 minutes, USA)

[Being a somewhat sprawling account of an unconventional narrative concerning a journey down the mighty Mississippi River]

This is not, really, a documentary. Which is to say that though it relates a story, it's more of a big amalgamation of footage that sprawls beyond a tightly-constructed narrative. There might be a decent standard-length feature here, one that winnows this down into something more streamlined and takes more care to, say, introduce and distinguish the characters (the brothers Bill, Turner, and Alex Ross plus lifelong friend Kyle Rouse) instead of just dropping us in amongst them.

Perhaps we should say that this is more of a "mere" travelogue than a documentary given how it doesn't develop themes of the journey standing for something greater than itself.1 But when you use a river as a central motif you might as well slap a banner across it reading "INSERT METAPHOR HERE".2 And in this case, it's pretty obvious that there's a link between form and content here, as if the only way to tell a story about America's largest river system is through a film every bit as wild, untamed, and prone to twisting around as it is.

And though this is not a documentary, it was made by skilled documentarians, which does elevate things. Known for the geographical explorations of 45365 and Tchoupitoulas, even if the brothers Ross are slumming it a bit here there is obvious craft lurking around the edges of the frame.3 Shot mostly from tripod, there's both stately, objective removed distance in the images.

Originally released as a series of online videos, this was described as perhaps a one-time-only full-length showing on the the big screen.4 It certainly made for a slightly surreal experience. The cast and their friends were all grouped together in the theatre's front row. I could make out their silhouettes and occasionally hear them pass a comment back and forth5 and I was briefly wondering if they were going to go all MST3K on their own film — how meta would that be? I was sitting on an aisle, and as one of them or another would occasionally pass by me heading out for a break from the film I had to restrain myself from raising my arm for a high five. Perhaps I was remiss in not doing so.

This film is the story of the houseboat Rosemarie, a shack on pontoons that looked barely seaworthy but was the vessel for a voyage from their native Ohio down the entire length of the Mississippi River, taking its crew out for the sort of trip that maybe everyone should take when they're old enough to be adequately responsible to pull it off but still too young to know better.

Without much leadup, we're thrown us right into the thick of things with the craft's launch, and the first hour is perhaps the least artful here as the audience is basically tossed in the river to sink or swim. It takes a little while for the characters to gain some definition and for the film's episodic rhythm to find itself.

One way it does is in the manner in which it's filled from top to bottom with songs. Amongst the memorable music moments: an impromptu "Psycho Killer" sing-off; electro-funkin' to "Oh Sheila" while tearing down the river; a truly insane version of "House of the Rising Sun" on one trip to shore; and a defiant karaoke run through "I Won't Back Down".

The film's other great strength came from the excursions ashore to meet the various locals. I think it was when the crew fled from townies who were a bit too eager to offer an intimate safe harbour, turning off the lights and battening the hatches against the feminine calls of "anyone home?" that I was finally well and truly on board with the whole thing.

"People on the river are happy to give," as the song says and we meet a variety of folks who pitch in in one way or another out of kindness, boredom, or a sense that this is simply the sort of adventure that they wish they were themselves on.

Maybe it's because of that that the journey doesn't lose momentum when the growing size and unpredictable power of the river takes its inevitable toll and tears the engine from the boat. A subsequent landlocked hitch-hiking leg gives us more encounters with helpful strangers and some of the best comedic sequences in the whole piece. Structurally, that also gives the piece a low point of worn-out exhaustion and a bit of a sense of achievement when they still manage, once again through the kindness of strangers, to paddle into New Orleans.

Although (as mentioned above) I was dubious for the first chunk of this, it rather won me over by the end. A somewhat audacious programming choice for Hot Docs, it was certainly a unique viewing experience. So much so that one thinks it might have been treated a bit less like a regular screening: a venue with a bar serving all the way through would have been a real boon here, and it should have been held in a venue that could simply have been converted into an instant after-party (preferably with karaoke).6

Given its episodic design, it's not too surprising that there were some parts that engaged more than others. Or, as we're told after one of a series near-maritime disasters: "it's not always a good time, but it's always an adventure."

1 Contra to, say, Ross McElwee's Sherman's March.

2 I was trying to come up with some sort of "Heraclitus and Mark Twain walked into a bar" joke to go here, but nothing really worked out.

3 Although Bill and Turner Ross are generally jointly credited on their proper documentaries, Bill gets a solo credit on this one.

4 Besides the ungainly bulk of the complete film, I'm guessing wider distribution of the whole thing might be curtailed by the rebroadcast, retransmission, or account of baseball games without the express written consent of Major League Baseball, as well as the veritable rivers of presumably uncleared music.

5 The first time the life-sized cardboard cutout of Charles Barkley that was taped to the side of the boat made an appearance on-screen, it was loudly greeted from the audience by one of the boat's crew.

6 This might also have helped to bring the right audience out for this: there were a lot of people who clearly didn't do their due diligence into the length and origin of this, and a lot of people bailed as it went on.

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