November 12, 2012

DOC NYC 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Central Park Five

Now in its third year, DOC NYC is an omnibus fest: Its 115 shorts and features mark an effort to create a populist documentary summit that plays strongly to specific constituencies within the ever-expanding culture that non-fiction filmmaking has become. As such, there is a distinct focus on beloved musical acts (Big Star, Kate McGarrigle) and profiles of pop culture phenomena (George Plimpton, Bettie Page), as well as the usual documentary forte: social issues. Those are most powerfully represented by The Central Park Five, in which Ken Burns (in league with daughter Sarah and David McMahon, her husband and longtime Burns associate) prowls Errol Morris/Werner Herzog turf to explore how five teenaged black and Hispanic boys spent a collective 33 ½ years in jail, falsely convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case.

Anyone curious what a Ken Burns movie would be like without Keith David's baritone or main characters who were already a half-century dead can now discover for themselves. The director insists that while the film varies in style, its core is consistent with those lavish PBS projects devoted to iconic American subjects. "Race is the central fault line of American history," Burns told me over lunch at the Toronto International Film Festival (which counts DOC NYC co-founder Thom Powers as a programmer). "It's why the Civil War happened, why jazz was created. The best story in baseball is Jackie Robinson. But this is really new and different. The story demanded new cinematic growth on all of our parts."

The Central Park Five would seem to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, based on the heft of its story, the masterful use of archival materials to reconstruct events and the sadder, wiser testimony of the five adult men who finished growing up in prison. But DOC NYC, which concludes with the film's New York premiere on Thursday, has a few other winners. Here are three of them.


Speaking of Morris, the master of forensic cinema should feel mighty jealous when he sees Informant. Jamie Meltzer's portrait of a former radical activist turned FBI snitch is the stuff of great fiction, as the camera takes in the confessions of a squirrelly cipher named Brandon Darby. In 2008, in Austin, Texas, Darby belonged to an offshoot of a protest organization that planned disruptive actions at the Republican National Convention. If the movie, or the testimony of the defendants, is to be trusted, then Darby not only infiltrated their small group but encouraged and instructed them in the making of the Molotov Cocktails for which two young men were sent to prison for two years. This is the same Darby who won widespread admiration for working with militant and progressive African-American community members in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, taking a leadership role in rebuilding the neighborhood. There's a lot of back story to unravel, and the film's main flaw is that it takes so long to get to the point, and still seems to leave out key details—perhaps because in the end, someone like Darby may be unknowable, or, based solely on his first-person representation, suffering from some real mental issues. Yet, in sticking with his subject, unreliable narrator or not, Meltzer reveals a man whose craving for acceptance and attention can only be fulfilled by embracing extremes. (Disowned by his former activist friends and colleagues, Darby has become a kind of poster boy for the Andrew Breitbart set). If George Clooney doesn't option the feature remake version, he's nuts.

Shepard & Dark

Sam Shepard and his BFF, Johnny Dark, narrate their own twinned sagas in Shepard & Dark, and when memory fails to serve, there are letters. Gazillions of 'em. And Super-8 movies. And photographs. And if that doesn't work, Shepard plucks a Dylan tune on his old guitar and the moments come rushing back. A sometimes startlingly intimate exploration of love, friendship, manhood, the artistic instinct and the American road, the film plays like a long goodbye to what used to be called bohemia. There's a sense that the '60s never ended for Dark, a jack-of-all-trades who befriended Shepard, on the spot, in the Lower East Side, nearly 50 years ago. Now working in a Mexican deli in New Mexico, Dark radiates the simple joy of a man who is happy living alone with his dogs and his volumes (of books, letters, photos, musings). Shepard, arguably America's greatest living playwright, a movie star, a rock'n'roller, a latter-day cowboy, a legend every which way, arrives at his old friend's place a newly single man, having split from his companion of three decades, Jessica Lange. The year is 2010, and to pay some bills (or, perhaps, somehow expiate some guilt through revisiting old regrets), he's struck a deal to donate his correspondence with the gentle and generously spirited Dark to his archives at Texas State University. What happens is a mutual séance of sorts, as the men, acknowledging their crucial, even symbiotic relationship, also expose their vast differences in lifestyle and philosophy. It's a bit of the immovable object (Dark) vs. the irresistible force (Shepard). The remarkable thing is that director Treva Wurmfeld gets the famously hermetic Shepard to open up, revealing personal details that don't reflect well on him, but with a candor that speaks to real vulnerability. There's a lot of hurt lingering in this bromance, but the swings between tender and tragic make for a captivating, and richly emotional story.

Only the Young

Don't use up all your hankies, though. Despite its unsentimental perspective on childhood's end, Only the Young will trigger the waterworks before its done. An exceptional first film from the duo of Elixabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, this observational documentary hovers as a trio of friends—high school skateboarders Garrison and Kevin, and the girl who shares their mutual affections, Skye—navigate their way towards adulthood amid the ex-urban, post-crash nothing much of Canyon Country, California. The film succeeds in evoking what the kids actually feel, even if they fail to fully articulate those feelings, in a score of quiet moments, scattered between everything else that goes on in their lives of which we never see very much. "When you really want to be different, you go out and skate for Christ," announces their church youth group leader at one point, when the boys take part in a free taco outreach at the skate park, but the religious element that is part of all the subjects' lives is merely noted as another aspect of their existence. Much the same is the barely spoken economic issues everyone's family seems to face, especially Skye, who has been raised by her grandparents. Her father is in prison and her mother is, she explains, a heroin addict who gave her up at birth. Her basic need for family helps to explain why she clings to her friendship with Garrison even after he takes up with a new girl, whose preference for hip-hop dance moves, short hair and liberal values remain a source of annoyance. The film's nearly weightless touch, suffused with the sensual glow of the Southern California sun, mimics the gravity-defying arcs of the skaters through the air. Reality bites, of course: Kevin's always snapping the tip of his board off. Yet, to quote Garrison's treasured Black Flag, in brief shining moments, these kids rise above.

[DOC NYC screens through Thursday at both the IFC Center and School of Visual Arts Theater. Only the Young opens Dec. 7 at IFC Center. For more info, click here.]

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Posted by ahillis at November 12, 2012 10:14 AM