Wry Potato

Friday, October 10, 2008

Four disparate lives intertwine with surprising results in this absorbing documentary, an official selection of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. A German terrorist, a bank robber, an "ex-gay" evangelist and a martial arts student form the unlikely quartet. In her interweaving narrative, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu explores parallels between human life and the formal dramatic structure of the Greek tragedian Euripides.

I watched that trailer and I was all, "YEAH, That looks sah-weet!" While it's far from the beaten path of the "humorous" doc I'm shooting for, I was really interested to hear those stories! Plus, I felt that the more interviews I watched, it may work to improve my skills as an interviewer - to have people be able or willing to open up and tell their stories/opinions/reactions more easily.

First problem - the format. It was very apparent what the director was going for - the four protagonists involved told their stories simulatenously. All four stories followed the same basic arc. Their abusive childhood (different levels and kinds of abuse), their decision to take charge of their destinies (in very different ways), the moment when they face the truth of the reality they've created and finally, the decision to make a more postive change.

Because of the editing, even though each story was profound in its way, I kept getting disconnected. Just as I would get caught up in the narrative, it would cut to a different narrative. And while they shared arc points, it was mostly just annoying, in an "I GET IT," kind of way.

And then there were the puppets.

Now, let me preface that I was excited about the puppets. They reminded me of the marrionette sequences in Being John Malkovich, which I adored. Unfortunately, as a structural element - puppets acting out both classic bits of Greek tragedy and recreating scenes from the "protagonists" lives - was hit or miss...but mostly miss for me. It quickly became just another obstable to connecting to the four narratives.

I will say that there were a couple puppet moments that really worked and were extremely impactful. Writing this is going to come off weird or comical, but it wasn't. It was rather frightening. There was one scene where Joe (later known as the bank robber) was describing an incident with his drunk/abusive father, where as a boy, he stood impotent and watched his father nearly drown his younger brother. While he's recalling this memory, the puppets act it out. It was really quite moving and horrifying. That part really worked.

The other issue was the four men being interviewed. At least three - the robber, the former evangelist and the martial artist - have had a lot of experience with public speaking and telling their stories. Two (at the time of the film) had written books and gone on speaking tours. These were not merely well rehearsed subjects, these were people who are storytellers.

And when you tell the same story time and again, you can hone it and punch it and make it really interesting and exciting to the listener. You know what details to focus on and what words will best convey your experience. I think if I saw the raw footage of these unedited, I would have loved this film. Because, they do know how to tell their stories well.

Applying that to interveiwing people who are shy about sharing their personal opinions on camera...I just don't think I got anything productive out of this film that I can apply to our doc. Unless I decide to use puppets or animation to illustrate a point...?

Lesson...Do not abuse use of puppets or animation to the point you being to annoy or distract your audience.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

paper clips

Paper Clips (2004)

Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the setting for this documentary about an extraordinary experiment in Holocaust education. Struggling to grasp the concept of six-million Holocaust victims, the students decide to collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of this crime against humanity. The film details how the students met Holocaust survivors from around the world and how the experience transformed them and their community

While I didn't cry once watching The Bridge (twice), it seems from nearly the very beginning of this doc, I was balling like a baby for the entire viewing.

Perhaps, it was the perfect storm of seeing a community do something so filled with education and value and respect - in a time when our country that seems so hell bent on instilling fear, distrust and hate.

While there were many things I didn't enjoy about the construction of this film (the editing, some of the "re-creations" and the over-produced symphonic soundtrack) - the thing that struck me over and over again was the simple content of the story.

It's a lovely story. While it deals with one of the most henious atrocities in human history (and while part of the filming takes place over another - 9/11), it really underlines the fact of WHY we need to remember our history. And how the lessons from that time can still impact lives today.

In a time of war, of muckracking politics, a failing economy - when fear is the lead story every night...the lesson of tolerance and what people working together can create is worthy of watching.


Lesson: Even if your construction seems overly forced at times, a simple, solid story may trump your production failings.


Growin' A Beard (2003)

Growin' A Beard is a hilarious 30 minute documentary that follows the men of Shamrock, TX (and a hairy outsider) as they compete in the town's annual Beard Growing Contest.

Yep. That's pretty much the whole of it. With the exception of the hilarity.

The good news is this doc is 30 minutes long. The bad news is this doc is about 15 minutes too long. Oof. File this under SKIP IT.

What sounded like something right up our alley - a silly sort of competition with a bit of tangential history to place it into a (semi) greater perspective....fell a bit flat. And it took like eight years for them to get it finished. Unfortunately, it also felt like it took 10 years to watch.

Honestly, the beard growing stuff was fine, the folks were open and kinda interesting, but all a wee bit two homogeneous. I couldn't tell you their names or even how to tell them apart. The contestants/townsfolk were all kind of the same guy. Nice enough, but you never get to really know them well enough to write home about.

The filmmakers also had the ripe potential back story of a dying town trying to hang onto with its dying tradition. They even lucked into some amazing home footage from 40-50 years back.

It just wasn't there. No hook, nothing even shiny to keep me interested until the end. The whole time it's felt like an inside joke that really never paid off. It's like they reached a bit too far out of the story's own grasp. I doubt I'll remember this doc in a few years when my brain fills up with more interesting (and better told) stories.

The humor felt...stuck. Like the want to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the competition, but tripped it up.

I do have to give props to the soundtrack by an Austin band, The Gourds. Great, upbeat covers of Route 66 and some rollicking Irish-inflected instrumentals. Ignore the rock-a-billy bullshit of the title track...the rest is worth a listen.

Lesson: Don't take a 15 minute idea and kill it by turning it into 30.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Mere weeks ago, our good friend, Dave Lykins wrote an amazing original song for the documentary. He'll also be fleshing out the rest of the incidental music once we have a rough cut...some months from now.

Patience. It's not just for breakfast anymore.

First off, I have to tell you, Dave is one of the original good guys. He's a badass. Ex-Navy, former self-defense instructor and all around sweetheart. Not to mention the talent. An actor and singer/songwriter who pairs gut-grabbing lyrics with sweet melodies.

When I asked Dave to write a song for this project, even though he was already knee-deep working on a new album, he immediately said yes. I would like to note that our first brief discussion about the RV trip fostered ideas for possible tunes such as "What's That Smell."

Fortunately, that one didn't quite pan out. Instead, he penned a lovely little rockin' ditty called "Come Along" that amazingly captured the fun vibe of the RV trip and the Quizzo Finals...even though he wasn't there in person. More astonshingly, he wrote it in a very short window to meet his schedule for an album he was gearing up to record in Nashville.

That album was just released and is delightful.

It's called Blurry White Guy and you can check it out at CD Baby or on Itunes! It's one of those CDs you want to put on, crash out on a hammock/sofa/lazy-boy and crack open a beer....or a nice refreshing lemonade!

I prefer the beer.

Although, I've been craving a lemonade. Hmmph. Curious.

Not only do I recommend the album as a whole, I'm thrilled to say that "Come Along" made the cut! It's the 8th track on the CD. My only disappointment (self-inflicted) is that when Dave asked for the name of the documentary so he could include it in the liner notes, I didn't really feel like we had one yet. It's a small thing, but yeah, I wish the awesome-title gods had seen fit to grace me with some inspiration, but they ignored my frantic pleas. Ah...missed opportunity...we meet again!

Anyway, I just wanted to plug Dave's album. And for the record, "Come Along" (as much as I adore it...and I really freaking adore it) isn't even my favorite song on the album! If you are a fan of the likes of Steve Earle or John Hiatt - or any songwriters that leave a little meat on your ribs - do yourself a proper and check it out.

Friday, September 26, 2008

checked by reality

Watched The Bridge last weekend.
I'm still dealing with the debris it left in my brain.

The Bridge
People suffer largely unnoticed while the rest of the world goes about its business. This is a documentary exploration of the mythic beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular suicide destination in the world, and those drawn by its call. Director Eric Steel and his crew filmed the bridge during daylight hours from two separate locations for the entire year of 2004, recording most of the two dozen deaths in that year (and preventing several others.) They also taped interviews with friends, families and witnesses, who recount stories of struggles with depression, substance abuse and mental illness.

I knew going in that the film starkly showed people climbing over the rail and falling to their deaths. I knew that I was going to witness persons choosing to end their lives in a very final and somewhat public way. As much as we are conditioned by the violence and brutality we see on the evening news, this is akin in many ways to watching 9-11 footage. It's watching a beautiful day turn into something tragic. It's equal parts horrifying and at the same time, oddly familiar. And just seeing it once, certain images will sear themselves into your brain.

This film is not for everybody. It's a gut punch.
But it is also a very revealing statement about living with mental illness.

While I'm still unable to watch footage from 9-11, I watched this film twice over the weekend. Watching as people pace...lean against the rail...look out over the water...then make the decision to climb over in broad daylight with tourists just steps away from them and...let go. There is a certain epicness to it.

It was a somber puzzle that my brain kept trying to figure out.

As a filmmaker, I felt they handled the subject with a lot of respect. The music and editing did not attempt to enhance the emotion - there was no need to. The interviews with the witnesses and family filled out only some of what the image of the fall could not. Conversations with and memories of the victims - some mere moments before, most of them hours, days and years prior to the day on the bridge. It gives you a very small and fractal glimpse into the minds of the jumpers.

Like any conversation about suicide, it makes you think about people in your life that may have been touched by mental illness, depression and suicide.

That's where my brain is stuck. Between an image I saw on the screen and the stories of folks I know who have tried and/or succeeded in ending themselves.

Fortunately, Growing A Beard has arrived to scrub my brain.

In related news, Team Double Secret Probation came out of its summer hiatus and hit Quizzo this week. We came in second to our friendly nemesis "The Baracktobers." By two lousy questions! Arg.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


The next docs coming are The Bridge and Growin' A Beard.

While The Bridge is probably the farthest from the type of doc I'm working towards, I'm thinking that it may give me ideas on how to work with a limited material source. GAB just sounds like a ton of silly fun...and it's probably the shortest doc on my must-see list.

Friday, September 12, 2008

holy crap

Can't believe it's been over a month since I posted. August was full of peforming and then closing the play that our theater company was running. Then, to be honest, I was a bit crispy overall and had some family-type obligations that took up my free weekends.

I have been doing my homework though!
Last week I watched two docs - Air Guitar Nation and a pretty offbeat indie called Darkon.

Air Guitar Nation
Every August, the Air Guitar World Championships bring thousands of fans all the way to Oulu, Finland to see the world's best air guitarists battle it out for 60 seconds of mock stardom. For years, the USA was missing in action. Enter the first official US Air Guitar Championships. What starts as a friendly contest above a New York strip club becomes a battle of naked ambition played out on the national and, ultimately, the world stage. captures the explosion of competitive air guitar through the eyes of former world champions, fans and media, and through the personal rivalries of those trying to attain the title of "The best Air Guitarist in the world."

I have to say, I really enjoyed AGN - the way the filmmakers framed the story, I couldn't stop laughing. Although, I keep prefacing my recommendation to folks with, "it's the most stoopid subject matter for a film, but it was so fun to watch." I mean, the idea of filming people playing fake geetars...it's just insanity. And yet, the filmmakers pulled it off. They framed the competition well and focused on a hero and anti-hero (not quite a true villian) - and the most important thing is that they caught the joy and enthusiam of the action.

Unfortunately, Darkon didn't quite affect me the same way.

Ordinary folks trade in their street clothes for medieval costumes, faux weaponry and full-contact battles. Darkon, a group that acts out fantasy war games based on complex rules and customs. Padded swords clash, armies advance and a ruler crosses the line, while off the battlefield, participants open up about what keeps them coming back for more.

This is a great story about a really specific sub-culture. Beyond a live-action role playing (LARP) game, it's very specific to these folks creating this particular fantasy. There are a lot of influences: Tolkien, myth, historical figures and battles. Unlike Civil War re-enactments, they are not re-creating, but fantasizing in their creation.

There are parts to this film that I think are marvelous, but as a whole, it left me a bit wanting. Mainly, I think the folks being filmed were waaaaay too aware that they were being filmed and were very concerned about coming off as silly or cultish. There was a bit of stiffness that ebbs and flows throughout. And there are some scenes that were obviously staged to give the audience a more cinematic feel and to raise the stakes. Still, the Darkon folks really did let the doc crew into the middle of the fray. One of my favorite shots was during a huge war battle, a knight/warrior yells directly into the lens, "MOVE THAT CAMERA OUT OF MY WAY." Kudos to the filmmakers for leaving that in. Sweet.

While the crew had full access to the fantasy side of the story, all but one of the LARPers kept the camera crew at a pretty sizeable distance when it came to their real-world lives. You get flashes of home and work, but you don't get to see too much of the reality and other parts of their "normal" lives. It's mainly focused on Darkon and for 86 minutes...it gets a bit "Cliff Clavin" at times.

When they do show folks in the real world, it's mostly with them doing things that they are, well, bored by. Work, laundry, etc. And to the point, while this may be the only outlet that interests these folks, it made the people seem somewhat one dimensional at times.

In an effort to show how committed and/or serious they were to the "game," there seemed to be a lack of a sense of humor throughout. When I say humor, I don't mean to ridicule or mock these folks, but to get a sense of the LARPers sense of humor. There are tiny bits of it scattered, but you really don't get a feel for it.

The two main LARPers they worked with did an alternative commentary track which I found much more lively, relaxed and full of the sense of humor that was missing from the doc. Then again, at a certain point in the conversation, the Darkon-speak got really self-referential, to the point that I felt left out.

It made me wonder if us theater-types ever do that to our "civilian" friends.
How annoying. Oof.

Although, I did learn a lesson.
Never trust elf mercenaries.

These are both worth renting, by the way!