Saturday, April 10, 2010


I am just blown away by the quality of the films I am seeing this year. Here'a few more to watch for.

I can't think of any filmmaker better equipped to convene good and deep conversations about a difficult subject than director Steve James. His film "At the Deathhouse Door," one of my favorite films at Full Frame two years ago, found a perfect vantage point for discussion of the death penalty in the Reverend Carroll Pickett, the laconic pastor who served as a death row chaplain at the Huntsville Prison for many years. This time around, in "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" (8.5), James has found a perfect vantage point for discussion of race in America: the story of the legal controversy that swirled around a pro basketball star while he was still in high school.

Around the same time that James was making another great film, "Hoop Dreams," Allen Iverson had risen from extremely rough circumstances to become a star athlete in James' hometown of Hampton, Virginia. However, a racially charged brawl in a local bowling alley turned Iverson into the locus of a controversy that still rages more than 15 years later. Felony charges were filed against only the black participants (including Iverson), on the theory that the white participants were the most seriously injured. The resulting trial and sentencing sparked anger, grief, and protest in the black community and heightened racial tensions that, it turned out, had been simmering just below the surface.

James purposely avoids retrial of what happened in the bowling alley, but instead focuses on the meaning of the event to the community. He does a superb job of presenting an array of views about the incident, from Iverson's friends, former coaches, the local press, and various community leaders. Extremes appear on all sides, but also very reasoned views. All sides are presented with respect and are allowed to speak for themselves. It becomes apparent that neither the black community nor the white community is monolithic in their responses to the incident, and James grounds the story in the history of the area (it happens to be where the first slave ships embarked, though that's not how the town literature describes it), James' own history as a local athlete and his experience of race relations growing up white in Hampton, and Iverson's personal history.

Iverson's story begins to feel very familiar--black child raised in poverty (as so many black children are) and without solid parental guidance turns out to be an extraordinary athlete and soon acquires access to untold opportunities. Everyone wants a piece of him, and the same chutzpah that made his rise possible against all odds also keeps him from being the saint one would need to be to navigate the pressure, the parasites who want a piece of him, and the money and fame that are to be showered upon him. He makes a mistake, or two, or three--and the power structure and, at least to some degree, the media (both of which are still largely white-controlled) come down on him like a ton of bricks. The black community reacts, at least in part out of a sense that a white star athlete would not suffer such harsh consequences and that the white community is giving a black man his comeuppance. Complicating the story is that Iverson is such a difficult character himself. But isn't that to be expected, given his circumstances? How can society hold a person like Iverson accountable for his behavior?

In the law, we have a concept of "unclean hands"--that one cannot approach a court for equitable relief if one's own hands are not clean. Given that power still mainly resides in the hands of the white majority, and given the racial inequities that still exist, is judging a black man still somehow inherently problematic? I can't think of a film that does a better job of sustaining the tension of these questions. Watch for it on ESPN; it premieres on April 13 as part of ESPN's 30 on 30 series.

I've seen three documentaries at the festival so far involving music and musicians. The first, "In My Mind" (8), was unlike anything I've ever seen. It comes closest to a concert film, but it is more than that. The concert in question was the commissioned project of a rising star jazz pianist, Jason Moran, who pulled together an amazingly talented group of musicians to do a 50th anniversary tribute to bebop pianist Thelonius Monk's historic 1959 Town Hall big band concert. But this is jazz, so it wouldn't really be a tribute (nor would it be possible) to just try to recreate that 1959 concert. Instead, Moran and filmmaker Gary Hawkins sift through photos and audio recordings from that time period to present a context for understanding Monk's life and times, so that the interpretation of his music offered by Moran and the other assembled band members (all excellent) makes sense. The music is incredible, Hawkin's visual choices are fascinating and rich, and listening to the musicians attempt to describe what it is that they do is involving. Each is eloquent in his own off-kilter way.

"Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould" (9) is an entirely different kind of treat. Making canny use of the abundant archival footage that exists of Gould himself (he died in 1982) and of interviews with people who knew and loved him, directors Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont present a soulful portrait of this complex man that made me feel as though I understood something of the mystery of an essentially unknowable person. They capture just the right small details, and have such an ear for small turns of phrase that convey more than it first appears. All of this is presented in the context of Gould's recordings, which were controversial in their day and yet continue to inspire fierce admiration and loyalty for the inventiveness of his interpretations. Moving, and rich. Watch for it on PBS's American Masters series.

"Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields" (5) was my least favorite of the three. The film makes the case that Steve Merritt and his indie rock band deserve more recognition than they have received and that Merritt is a great lyricist. The problem is that the film doesn't make a very compelling case for Merritt as a documentary subject; yes, he has a distinctive brand of dry humor, but the audience immediately laughed so loudly at his fairly bland comments that I felt I was watching the film with a group of fans of his cult of personality, and the directors (who spoke afterwards) and the two people who introduced the film seemed to have bought in as well. It wasn't that I didn't understand the humor (I did) or appreciate his gifts as a songwriter (I did, though I don't particularly like his voice)--I just wasn't that impressed. Judging from the audience reaction, though, fans may appreciate the experience more than I did.
More tomorrow!

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