Truth Speaks Louder

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a founding member of a group that calls itself the New York Independent Film Critics Circle.  A couple of years ago we reluctantly and much debate decided to add a non-fiction film category to our annual awards, the Iras. I say "reluctantly" because up to that time we had proudly disdained the traditional segregation of non-fiction from theatrical narrative and, in fact, had given our best picture nod to several documentaries. As I scan the list of 2017 releases I've seen so far this year, I notice that much of what I have found praiseworthy turns out to be non-fiction.

Perhaps the disparity is merely reflective of my own temperament. These days I'm more likely to see a non-fiction film as anything. The part of me that is sick of CGI as a substitute for concrete images could happily skip 99% of the new fiction films and never notice the difference. This posting's selections are a case in point.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the latest film from the prolific and prolifically talented Bill Morrison. As with almost all of Morrison's previous work (including an Ira best film winner, Decasia), the new film is a brillian assemblage of found footage in varying states of disrepair. Morrison is neither the only nor even the first filmmaker to use such footage -- Gustav Deutsch and Bruce Connor have achieved wonderful results with such material. But Morrison, working with a succession of composers and sound designers, including several of the Bang On a Can mob, has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning such footage into a kind of poetry of sound and light, a poetry that increasingly has taken on a powerful political dimension, nowhere moreso than in Dawson City. The film's score is by Alex Somers, the sound design by John Somers.

The film has a densely allusive structure with several thematic braids that interlace themselves seamlessly, cunningly connecting the history of nitrate film stock, the rise and fall of the mining boom town that gives the film its name, the infernal economics of extractive mining industries, the inexorable working of big capital and, even, the Canadian love of ice hockey.


Bill Morrison: Is this guy one of the world's greatest living filmmakers?
He is on the short list for sure.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Wesener

The footage is signficantly different from much of what has appeared in Morrison's work before, in large part because of its unusual provenance, which is a major part of the story. Due to a series of complicated chain reactions, Dawson City became the unintentional repository for a treasure trove of hundreds of otherwise lost silent films. they were literally frozen in an abandoned swimming pool underneath an ice rink in the town and dug up in the late 1970s when the lot on which they rested was being prepped for a new purpose. One of the results of this discovery is a massive restoration project that will eventually make these rarities available to scholars and, one hopes, exhibitors. The odd thing, which Morrison's on-screen titles explain, is that some of the films have sufred from a very different kind of deterioration than the footage in, say, Decasia. As anyone who has seen that film or any nitrate film that has undergone the chemical changes that the stock is prone to will tell you, the resulting images have a sort of almost liquid beauty, as if the images themselves were in eruption, with strange colors and distortions. By contrast, water-damaged clips from the Dawson City cache have sections of their images washed clean, with a gleaming, undulating white all that remains. What results is every bit as stirring but quite different in a way I can't articulate on a single viewing of the film.

Granted that filmmakers love films about film (and so do almost all film critics and scholars). But Dawson City: Frozen Time roots that fascination in a here-and-now that is more than navel-gazing self-regard. As I've noted above, Morrison is sensitive to the issues that are powerfully implicated in the rise and fall of Dawson City as it went from a big boomtown on the edge of the Klondike Gold Rush to a near ghost town, left behind when the gold ran out. And he even manages, amusingly, to tie in the city's rise and fall to the very early machinations of a certain real-estate mogul from Queens, a fan of the Ku Klux Klan whose name will be familiar to all.

Hotel, restaurant and brothel. Trump one-stop shopping at its finest

Morrison's production company is named Hypnotic Pictures, and it fits perfectly. Although Dawson City is two hours long, the film rushes by blithely. One's time in the movie is anything but frozen. 
Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing in NYC at the IFC Center, and it cries out to be seen on a big screen.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Canadian-made doc, I Am the Blues, which just opened at the newly refurbished Quad Cinema. I can certainly offer an undiluted endorsement of the music on display. Director Daniel Cross chose to focus his attention on the disappearing juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the hardscrabble Northern Mississippi hill country with a side journey into the Louisiana bayous. That variegated itinerary may suggest where the film's problems lie. Simply put, Cross seems unwilling to structure his material and the rsult is baggy, almost shapeless.

But, ah, the music!
Much of the film's running time is spent in Bentonia, a legendary spot in the delta country that spawned a unique and haunting guitar and vocal style, based on unusual guitar tunings and haunting, high-pitched -- almost falsetto -- vocals. If you have heard Skip James then you know it. The primary representative of the Bentonia sound in the film is the deft and witty Jimmy "Duck" Holmes who demonstrates his continued mastery at 70. He is joined at several delightful moments by the likes of L.C. Ulmer, another superlative guitarist and earthy singer. Elsewhere in the film we get a taste of one of my favorite blues harpists, Lazy Lester, Little Freddy King (who looks like Danny Trejo's meaner brother but is really a sweetie) and, most of all, Bobby Rush.
Bobby Rush, looking a lot less than his 83 years, rocking the Club Ebony
Photo credit: Gene Tomko
Indeed, Rush's presence, running throughout the film, gives I Am the Blues what structure it can offer. At one point, he turns to the camera and says, "The road is my company," and like the film itself, he meanders throughout the geography of the deep southern blues routes. Rush, who won his first Grammy earlier this year, is a superb representative of both southern soul and a surprisingly pure strain of Delta blues. He is a charming guide and host and the film benefits immensely from both his presence and his music. In fact, I wish Cross had made the film about Rush, not to shortchange the superb collection of musicians on display, but there are moments when the filmmaker is trying to shoehorn in too much material. 
And it's a shame, because his footage of the the shacks and farmland is evocative and poignant and if he had just let those images and the music do most of the talking, the film could have been so much more than it is.

Incidentally, the newly revamped Quad is another interesting example of the sort of Industrial Deco style that seems to be the new go-to visual environment for NYC theaters. A lot of brushed steel on the walls, pastel-colored neon and a certain odd chilliness, although the staff are charming. The interior of the one screening room I was in was, by contrast, a sea of vermillion with plush new seats. Regrettably, the still use a center aisle, so you can't sit in the middle of the image, but these are smallish rooms so the loss isn't that bad. 

Intriguingly, the Metrograph, which I finally got to a couple of weeks ago, is not dissimilar, although it has a downtown-hipster vibe that is not unpleasant and a bookstore/cafe which discretion kept me from visiting. the room in which In Transit was playing, has no center aisle and it comfortable and dark. (No red seats here.) 

Right now, that screen is occupied by The Rehearsal, a new film from New Zealand directed by transplanted Canadian Alison Maclean. Like her previous features,  Jesus' Son (1999) and Crush (1992), The Rehearsal centers on uneasy post-adolescents who are juggling sexual exploration, burgeoning artistic impulses and a search for absolution for their life-shattering mistakes. At the heart of the film is the growing attraction fist-year acting student Stanley (James Rolleston) and a much younger Isolde (Ella Edward), whose sister is a budding tennis star who was scandalously involved in a sexual relationship with her married coach. the pair meet by chance and Stanley learns of the brouhaha, which becomes the basis for a performance project he is doing with four classmates. One of those classmates is his putative landlord, the witty but dissipated Theo (Marlon Williams in a flashy, scene-stealing performance), and his disastrous fate will send the entire school into a chaotic downward spiral.
Kerry Fox works her will on Michelle Ny in The Rehearsal
Adapted from Eleanor Catton's novel the screenplay is a sputtering, stuttering mess, with plot lines and themes left dangling and a final resolution that is deeply unsatisfying and profoundly unconvincing. What makes the film worth watching at all is a mesmerizing turn by Kerry Fox as the head of the theater school, a Lee Strasberg-type guru who is not adverse to torturing performances out of her young charges. Her energies ultimately turn out to be devoted to a major capital project involving a new building on waterfront property, and she seems all too willing to turn everyone's attentions to that goal. It's one of the few elements in the film that rings harshly true.
 Finally, there is one excellent documentary that has graced local screens all spring about which I( have been rather circumspect, for reasons that will become apparent momentarily. the film, Obit, is a handsomely crafted and witty examination obituary department of the New York Times, directed by Vanessa Gould. As regular readers will know, my better half, Margalit Fox, is one of the key members of that staff and, as a result, is one of the key figures in the film. I hasten to say that this is an exemplary piece of non-fiction filmmaking, a warm portrait of a bunch of people many of whom I know well, and Vanessa has become a family friend, but even were that not the case, I would still recommend Obit because it's that good.*
Times archivist Jeff Roth plumbing the depths in Obit

At any rate, I want to draw your attention to an opportunity for you to see the film on a big screen. It will be playing at the Thalia at Symphony Space as part of -- surprise -- a documentary series, with showdates on July 16, 23 and 29. More information here.  And for those of you who are concerned that I never step outside the New York city limits, the film is also playing at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley (August 11-20) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 1-4).
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*Hey, we don't have a fiduciary relationship with the filmmakers, although I did score a terrific free razor and a very handsome baseball cap advertising a lunch-meat manufacturer for attending the film's Philadelphia Film Festival screening a few months ago. But I'm warning any filmmakers who may be reading this, you'll have to top that haul if you want to get into this blog. I'm thinking maybe a case of sausages to go with the hat?

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