The 26th Seattle International Film Festival
feature by Carrie Gorringe, 30 June 2000

Laughter, Tears, and Sore Tushes

The title says it all:  SIFF director/co-founder Darryl's Macdonald's intro on opening night contained the unholy or holy trinity – depending upon your point of view -- of promises listed above for the filmmaking hoards who happily stand in lines and cram themselves into air-conditionally-challenged theaters screening after screening, all for the privilege of saying about a given film, "I saw it several months before at SIFF."

As usual, the documentary forum was actually one of the stronger hidden forces setting the tone for the entire festival, rather than simply acting an interesting sidebar.  There were many excellent offerings, but there's room here for only a sampling.  Please look for them on PBS, cable, or the local rep theatre, because they all have more than a great story or moral lesson to impart.

If you have access to HBO this fall and a strong stomach for explorations into the psychological damage of incest over three generations, the ironically-titled Just, Melvin should make its way onto your must-see list. Director James Ronald Whitney debuts with a merciless portrait of what is usually described as a human monster;  in this case, the cliché is fact – and, worse, he was Whitney's own grandfather.  Not only did Just have a penchant for sexually abusing his daughters, both biological and step, he also moved from family to family as the choice of "prey" became too old for his taste (Just liked little girls between the ages of two and eight).  Then there are the nasty reports that Just may have been the suspect in a rape-murder of a social worker who had threatened to report his deviant behavior to the authorities; the reports come from the eye-witness testimony of two of his daughters, one of whom was forced to help him bury the body (he escaped trial due to a conveniently-timed stroke).  The dreadful accounting of cruelty after cruelty take on a detached, other-worldly element;  so repulsive are the details recounted in this film that the audience members might find themselves becoming detached themselves emotionally in order to endure the evil placed in front of them, a chilling parallel to what must have occurred in the minds of Just's own daughters.  The narrative style, which shifts between Whitney's third-and first-hand accounts of life under Melvin's influence, as well as the first-hand accounts from the other family members, keeps the audience members' interest always on alert as the dismal tale of cause and effect unfolds.

The film's worst moments come when the audience hears of  the tragic emotional and economic damage inflicted on the girls under Just's "care":  only Whitney's mother, the oldest, most intelligent and the one who was able to serve the least amount of time under Just's roof, managed to escape to an upper-middle-class existence, but not without severe scars (her son, also sexually abused by one of his uncles as a child, and raised in the specter of his mother's constant suicide attempts, grows up to be an overachiever and refuses to have children of his own).  Her siblings all live on the economic margins of society, all powerless to stop the ongoing and malevolent influence of Just in their lives.  They continue to visit him in his nursing home, bringing him flowers and bestowing affection.  Only his grandson challenges him and demands answers, which the still-vicious old man answers with threats of violence, even as he is confined to a wheelchair.  You may think you've seen this sort of dysfunctional family story before, but Just, Melvin is more than just a movie-of-the-week tale of misery.  There's no titillation here, and no happy endings, though there are some bleakly funny moments, and however late, the joke is on Melvin, revealed by his grandson in one unforgettable close-up to be nothing more than a vile coward.  Even though the film has occasional lapses into melodrama (especially in its cueing of music to underscore particular aspects of Melvin's evil), it is worth viewing for that fleeting moment of revelation, one for which more experienced filmmakers would have killed to obtain from a given subject.

In yet another, gentler, variation on the theme of searching for one's roots lies The Ramblin' Jack Story.  Ramblin' Jack Elliott's life, until very recently, was the life of an individual unfortunate enough to be sandwiched, chronologically speaking, between two legends.  Elliott was the protégé of folk legend Woody Guthrie and the mentor of Bob Dylan.  During a stint in 1950s London, Elliott cut several albums that served to influence the nascent, folk-themed skiffle movement (from which sprang, most notably, Lennon and McCartney) and artists such as Mick Jagger, who admired the way in which Elliott could bury chords within the bass line.  More importantly, however, was Elliott's influence on the psychology of those in the London folk scene.  As one producer, then a folk singer, observed with awe, Elliott presented the possibility of transcending a future predetermined by a rigid class structure;  you could hope to be whatever you wanted, and Elliott was living proof.  The son of a Brooklyn doctor, Elliott had remade himself into the epitome of the American cowboy.  By the time he returned to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, and its emerging folk scene, Elliott was already a legend, with a young Dylan hanging onto (and copying) his every movement and chord.  However, by the mid 1970s, a combination of bad judgment, lack of focus and (although he would not admit this) bitterness over Dylan's rise led him to broken marriages (four in total), drug use and, eventually, a self-imposed exile from the music industry that lasted nearly twenty years.   

It is his daughter, director Aiyana Elliott, who tries to pick up the threads of his life after he has finally won acceptance from the music industry (in the form of a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album), and the threads of her own life that resulted from the side effects of having a part-time father who lived the life of a Romantic artist in the best and worst senses of the term.  She interviews everyone who knows and knew him (although Dylan appears only in a black-and-white clip from the mid-1960s, acknowledging Elliott's influences in an aside), from Kris Kristofferson to Arlo Guthrie, and it is Guthrie who gives her the clearest and most obvious, if perhaps the most unsatisfactory and perplexing, answer to the questions about her father:  maybe she will never know everything. Winner of a Special Jury Award for Artistic Achievement at this year's Sundance Festival, Ramblin' Jack is a bittersweet story that will inspire meditations on the nature of family and its relationship to art.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a revealing look at the woman behind the fundamentalist stereotype and the woman who single handedly keeps several cosmetic companies' bottom lines as thickly blackened as those trademark eyelashes.  Far from being merely Jim Bakker's former second half and the unconscious butt of jokes for her on-screen histrionics and clown-like makeup (she is the first one to demonstrate to the camera, with more than a touch of rueful irony, her collection of "much loved" mascara), the portrait that emerges here is of a decent, if somewhat self-delusional, woman whose aspirations to fame, beauty and inner grace were blunted by a combination of grinding poverty (she was the oldest of eight children), and the stresses of reconciling the strict dictates of her (also much loved) Assembly of God religious beliefs with her desire to be glamorous.  Her histrionic demeanor and her role as tabloid-content provider in the late 'eighties also fixed public opinions about her into a permanent one-dimensional realm, and the film is quick to exploit those expectations.  The film's tone shifts between human interest, the history of fundamentalist Christian broadcasting (a fascinating and still-unexplored section of modern media) and Tammy Faye's biography, complete with a thick layer of irony verging on camp, and its style could be described as sections marked by a series of screaming headlines ripped from 1950s B-movie trailers (the filmmakers actually use a much older cinematic device – intertitles).   So, the audience can See Tammy Faye and Jim build their PTL network after years of strain and betrayal by so-called Christians!  See them need over two million dollars a day to support the real-estate sinkhole known as Heritage USA!  Watch as the Mephistophelean specter of Jerry Falwell swoop in to seize their property, reputations, and, eventually, destroy their marriage!   Weep as Tammy Faye spends a decade ostracized by so-called good Christians who are offended by her divorce! Cheer as she finds a new husband and a New Way To Live!

Despite the film's sometimes-hypomanic stylistics, the directors, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (101 Rent Boys), never allow the caricatures about Tammy Faye to go any further than her war paint.  Here, she is allowed to smash a few myths into the dust regarding her own underlying beliefs.  Her pro-gay stance, for instance, is not one that would endear her to a Christian audience raised on a word-for-word interpretation of the book of Leviticus ("We're all made of the same dirt," she observes in her defiantly homilitic fashion when the topic is raised, "and God didn't make junk."), a fact that was not lost on those audience members who started out hooting with derision and ended by cheering her on .  Even the film's narrator, the ultra-chic RuPaul, would have to say, "You go, girl!" [Click here to read Elias Savada's review].

A rare treat for the technical film buff (yes, there are some of us around) was the restoration and re-release of This is Cinerama.  Made in 1952 and not seen in over forty years, this film was the means by which the new visual and aural treats of the wide-screen and seven-track stereophonic sound process would be introduced to the general public.  Meant only to serve as a demonstration, the film shocked its makers by becoming a sell-out in every city that it played.  The process, invented by Fred Waller (and derived from his work on gun-sight trainers developed during World War Two), involved the linking of three projectors, each of which would fill one-third of the screen (the film itself was shot with three synchronized 35mm projectors and initially shot at twenty-six frames per second, rather than the standard twenty-four, to achieve superior visual clarity).  Obviously, with the fading of the studio system, and the development of cheaper and better wide-screen systems, it was too expensive and cumbersome to use and Cinerama was discontinued after 1965.  Only two feature films were ever made using the process:  The Adventures of Tom Thumb (1961) and How the West Was Won (1962- which also played at this year's festival).  Gradually, the theatres equipped to play Cinerama films dwindled under cost pressures and there are now only three, down from over a hundred or so in the 1960s.  There might have been only two, since Seattle nearly lost its own Cinerama theater.  You may love or hate Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's taste in architecture, but anyone who loves film has to thank him for stepping in to save a cultural treasure just in time.

The restoration of This is Cinerama was completed painstakingly through the thankless process of cannibalizing any and all remaining partial reels in order to formulate one master copy.  Before the screening began, the audience was urged – indeed, almost bseeched -- to be patient with the result, the film's imperfections and (especially) the slow, pretentious black-and-white introduction by newsreel narrator (and TIC producer) Lowell Thomas.  He didn't have to bother.  After Thomas was safely dispatched back to his relevant irrelevance, This is Cinerama showed that even cinch marks, sections of lost emulsion and the omnipresent dividing lines couldn't diminish its power.  The trademark opening roller-coater sequence had modern audiences, jaded by lush color and eardrum-crunching digital sound, rolling in their seats with vertigo and cheering by its end.  The stereophonic effects were crisp and rich without being just this side of vicious (a goal which many contemporary cinematic sound designers would be well-advised to pursue).  Of course, since the film was a product of the Cold War, some might find the thick layers of pro-democracy propaganda encrusting the film residing in a realm just beyond tolerable (God Bless America soars on the soundtrack accompanying the final segment as the camera soars over Crater Lake and other natural wonders). Regardless, people arrived in Seattle from as far away as Scotland to see this rare gem.  Once you've seen the film, you don't have to wonder why. 

The deserving winner of an absolute slew of awards at this year's Sundance festival (the Best Documentary and Freedom of Expression Award among them), Dark Days is the emotionally rending end product of director Marc Singer's two-year residency in the tunnels under NYC's Penn Station.  Here, he documents the lives of the homeless and the various miseries (crack, dysfunctional families, et al.) that brought them to this existence – sort of a subterranean Hooverville -- and it is as indicting a testament to the occasionally irrational thought processes of the society residing above, especially when it finds itself under pressure, as Dorothea Lange's photographs were to the socio-economic devastation wrought during the1930s.  But Singer's film is more than a documentation of misery; it demonstrates the strength of their interpersonal bonds, their desperate attempts to better their life on a daily basis (these people are not passive victims, bemoaning their fate), and Singer's bravery and integrity as he fought to get these people out of the tunnel and into the (literal and figurative) light.  Grainy black-and-white footage and lots of tight close-ups gives Dark Days an even greater claustrophobic feeling, but, paradoxically, restores the humanity of the film's subjects.

What this film didn't document, as Singer explained in a post-screening Q&A, was his own awakening of sorts about homeless advocacy groups in NYC:  apparently, both the current and former heads of HUD had toured the tunnels and, shocked by what they saw within, promptly issued a fairly generous number of extremely precious Section Eight vouchers to be used by the tunnel-bound homeless to obtain subsidized housing, but those in the homeless advocacy groups were too frightened to go down into the tunnels to issue them… [Click here to read the full review].

Ron Mann, the Canadian filmmaker who is always ready to skewer the foibles of the self-appointed moral guardians always ready to save us from popular culture and ourselves (as he did so with such mordant glee in Comic Book Confidential), takes up the issue of Grass, and, no, the film isn't an exposé of how to care for the suburban back forty. Grass is the tale of how the American government, spooked by the racist fear of Mexican nationals smoking marijuana (as they had done for thousands of years) on God-fearing American soil at the beginning of the twentieth century, began throwing thousands, then millions, then billions, then hundreds of billions at the problem.  While flushing exponentially-increasing amounts of money down the toilet (from 1937 to 1947, the cost of the "war" on marijuana amounted to $227 million; for the period from 1980 to 1998, the government spent $214.7 billion, with no impending victory to justify the expenditure), the film tells the tale of how American government dreams up all sorts of mad schemes to combat this new "problem", including the Bureau of Narcotics in 1929, (founded by a teetotalling fanatic named Harry Anslinger, who was to illicit drugs what J. Edgar Hoover was to so-called subversives), which then promotes an ever-changing anti-weed message campaign designed to fit whatever cultural paranoia seemed to prevail at any given moment:   from insanity in the 1930s to the harbinger of heroin use in the 1950s to being a loser in the 1970s.  All of these claims, the film's narrator, Woody Harrelson, points out, were made without a scintilla of scientific evidence, but Anslinger's will always prevailed regardless of any relationship to logic (in his opinion, marijuana was as evil as opium and heroin).  Under a 1938 act, the Bureau of Narcotics had to issue a stamp before marijuana could be issued; needless to say, the Bureau, under Anslinger's tenure, had no such intention of doing so. 

This point of view, of course, is the unspoken one that Grass is advocating:  marijuana is different from so-called "hard" drugs like heroin and cocaine and shouldn't be subjected to the same laws because it is non-addictive and generally non-harmful (the choice of narrator is a deliberate one:  Harrelson has been a passionate hemp advocate for many years).  It's true that marijuana has some limited medical utility (it has been found to alleviate the symptoms of glaucoma, as well as mitigate the nausea suffered by AIDS patients and those undergoing chemotherapy). The claim of harmlessness, however, is not completely true:  one of the chemicals found in marijuana, THC, has been proven to be very carcinogenic, but that, until very recently in our history, was not seen as a reason to prohibit cigarette smoking (we don't even need to readdress the fiasco known as Prohibition). However, and ironically, one of the reasons why the marijuana grown under contemporary circumstances is stronger has to do with the war itself; as the cultivation is pushed further underground, the opportunities for controlling quality decrease and the risks of dangerous product adulteration increase. Underneath its scathing wit, Grass is really a incisive historical analysis of our cultural choices – the ones we make deliberately, the ones made by the society in which we live, and, especially, the folly and harm that more often than not ensues when opportunists and crusaders attempt to legislate private morality (regardless of whether the issue of choice is drugs, pornography or gun control).

And speaking of pornography:  as the lights were about to dim in the Cinerama for the premiere of Cass Paley's Wadd:  The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, a man seated in front of me turned around to no one in particular and cracked, "We're all here for the cultural history, right?"   The first thought that crossed my mind concerned the necessity of a large screen to encompass the obvious, er, "talent" of Mr. Holmes and whether or not the choice of venue was a deliberately malicious one on the programmers' part (the Freudians among us may extend their malice even further in whatever direction they prefer).  As a mnemonic refresher, Mr. Holmes was the king of '70s porn, notable less for his acting style than for his "appendage", which, due to his constant verifications for the perpetually amazed, could be reliably said to measure over thirteen inches in length when fully expanded (just in case you were wondering, it wasn't quite as "stiff" as one might expect:  in a classic we-don't-really-need-to-know-this moment, one of his former co-stars bubbles on and on quite happily about how having sex with Holmes was like having sex with a large loofah).  In an industry where size did and does matter and when porn first emerged from the realm of smokers to become a first-amendment issue, he became the industry's first superstar, and, though the footage provided has been edited down for an R rating, it does give us a good indication of how and why Holmes would have appealed to a certain audience at a certain time (and why, for filmmakers like Boogie Nights director P.T. Anderson, he still does).

As fame engulfed him, he also became the industry's biggest headache.  Raised in an abusive household and incapable of trusting anyone, he was quick to betray anyone to save himself.  He started by informing on the locations of porno shoots in the early days of the industry and, with increasing drug use, he pimped his mistress for drugs, while simultaneously abusing the proprieties of his first wife.  Things got even nastier as Holmes became entangled in a case of robbery and murder.  When he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, and became unemployable in the American porn industry, he went over to Europe, where he practiced his trade without prophylactics and without anyone's knowledge of his medical condition.  Yet, even after all of this became common  knowledge, there were still co-stars and employers willing to see Holmes' humanity and his early kindnesses before the mental pathology took over.  Wadd is a complex and striking portrait of a complicated individual and the ways in which talent and timing create popular culture as much as our own desires.  Yes, prurient issues aside, it seems as if we were all there for cultural reasons, and hopefully there will be even more reasons like this at next year's SIFF.

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