Saturday morning begins with Better This World, in the documentary competition; it concerns two Austin activists, born 1985 and 1986, busted on domestic-terrorism charges for making Molotov cocktails while in Minneapolis for the 2008 RNC (represented, as seen in news and amateur footage of black-clad, tear-gas-gunning riot cops and subdued, pepper-sprayed protesters, as America at its most paranoid and militarized). Through the discovery process of a federal trial, filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane have access to the defendants’ conversations with their lawyers and just straight up gut-wrenching collect calls to parents and girlfriends; as well as to the FBI files that enable them to lay out their thesis: that the activist-turned FBI informant who was the prosecution’s star witness goaded two tofu-scarfing Austin liberals to violence. (The filmmakers hope to work with Frontline on a more wide-ranging study of coercive informants in post-9/11 America, especially within the Islamic community.)
Psychological and sociological tea leaves are there to be read, but personal political orientations remain vague—at least until a title-card coda reveals the comic, moral-confirming trajectory of an arrogant libertarian. The film wrings suspense out of events covered extensively in the alternative press—it’ll be broadcast on PBS later in the year. It’s an exemplary piece of advocacy journalism.
The first movie I see at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz this year is Surrogate Valentine, which rises and falls on how much you like the music of San Francisco singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura, playing more or less himself—he makes studio-doctored, feedbacky Elliott Smith-esque literate pop, so yeah, sure. The sad-broad buddy comedy between Goh and an actor he’s supposed to teach guitar to is inspired—relatively keyed-up self-parody, especially when the corny primetime soap star attempts to go tough-guy with a music exec’s guns—and the mood feels distinct and sustained; the digital black and white photography is shadowy, crisp. (Director Dave Boyle admitted that the film was shot in color on a “crappy” HDCam, and converted to black and white in post-production, because everything looks better in black and white.
Old clips in rotation in the pre-show reel at the Ritz so far this year include a silent Melies short; the music video for Mr. T’s “Treat Your Mother Right”; Stephen King introducing the trailer of his directorial debut Maximum Overdrive; and this.
Self-Made, by the British artist Gillian Wearing—best-known for her deeply uncanny, already iconic “Self-Portrait at Three Years Old”—documents the Method-acting workshop held for seven cross-sectional respondents to a newspaper advert, and the autobiographical scenes (from Lear or life, presented as short films in black and white or Alan Clarke-esque grainy color, among other styles) in which they act, some more capably than others, at film’s end. The meditation, role-play and improv exercises hit notes of merely therapeutic catharsis about as often as “getting into character” reveals weirder truths; the mood is intense throughout, a glimpse at the messy memories behind the curtain. Wearing has a fascinatingly uneven eye for people, from the self-deprecating, bullet-headed middle-aged warehouse worker who says, of Mussolini, “I loved his manner,” to the two of the seven participants whose exercises we barely see.
Brooklynite Ian Cheney—of Truck Farm fame!—directs The City Dark, an essay-film about light pollution and our vanishing night sky, with cute animations and time-lapse photography of NYC haze and the gorgeous Milky Way above his childhood home in Maine. Cheney’s shown onscreen looking up at the sky perhaps too often, for a guy whose film suggests that not being able to see the cosmos above us makes us more solipsistic, but his inquiries are wide-ranging, beyond astronomy to history, public health and nature. (Traveling in Florida, he turns on the night-vision cam to film newly hatched baby turtles flippering away from the ocean and towards the glow of a nearby skyline, risking suffocation; when one makes it to the ocean, the audience applauded. And the people he finds are reasonably eccentric (like the woman who answers her cellphone with a brisk “Chicago Bird Collision Monitors”). In form, if not in lightly likeable tone, it reads like a young Brooklynite’s tribute to Werner Herzog—and a Maine boy’s expression of ambivalence about his grown-up city life.
Coming tomorrow: Saturday night and Sunday morning (and maybe some of today).