Whoa, first winter storm of the winter! Though I've driven through some slippery and treacherous driving this winter thus far (see 2006 posts), this is the first morning we here in mid-VT have seen real snow.
I went out for a little walk at 5:30 AM, while the day's light was just kicking in, and it's beautiful: about 3 inches on the ground already here, and the snow is picking up from the fine, sand-like snow falling early AM (I took a peek outside around 3 AM).
Managed to rescue our morning paper from the bottom of the driveway before it was rendered invisible: "Ah, that lump in the snow looks like our paper," I thought, and so it was. No plows have been through as yet, no tire tracks on Taylor Drive. Could be be a snow day for everyone? Doubtful, but Marge got the call from the Fall Mountain School District that school's out today, so Marge'll be home (and savoring sleeping in just now). Waiting to hear if CCS is calling off classes -- fellow CCS instructor Peter Money and I were scheduled to take the students on a trip up to St. Johnsbury and the Fairbanks Museum, but we rescheduled that two days ago, after hearing the firm predictions for today's storm. Later, Fairbanks. [8:45 addendum: Michelle Ollie just called: no classes at CCS today.]
Anyhoot, I'm going to take a couple of walks today outside -- we haven't had snow like this hereabouts yet this season, and it's sweet.
Between Marge and I scooting out to catch a few theatrical movies, and the ongoing home-screenings for WRIF (White River Independent Festival, as in film festival; I'm on the board, and in the selection committee for the April 27-29th event), it's been a lively harvest thus far. Here's Part One of the catch-up on what I've been screening...
* THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD (2006) - Online animation highpoint of the form and venue is at last on DVD, hopefully bringing it to a whole new audience unaware of either Mike Mignola's charms (or work, beyond being the wellspring/creator of Hellboy) or the delicious delirium of this most ephemeral of all Mignola comics creations. Mike essentially lambasted his own approach to horror and emerging formulas herein, complete with the inevitable Lovecraftian interloper from beyond (imprisoned in a turnip), sweetened with a giddy, anachronistic approach to history (it's set in 1862, complete with President Lincoln presiding, but its embrace of impossible gadgetry and supernatural-as-commonplace leaves the wildest Wild, Wild West conceits in the dust). Bryan Fuller managed the mean feat of developing and adapting Mike's one-off Dark Horse comic oddity into one of the most true-to-its-source comics adaptations ever, preserving and transposing, without conflating, the inherent qualities of Mike's one-shot. If it's all new to you, it's best I don't tell you a damned thing: just take the plunge! The most entertaining and amusing 22 minutes I've savored in a long time, with pitch-perfect vocal casting and performances (from the like of Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce) that bring Mike's silliest lines ("Groin is watching out for your backside, Head!") to life without dropping a cue or blowing a joke. Much as one longs for an encore, I'd almost prefer this be the be-all and end-all of Screw-On Head adventures: it's hard to imagine how this could be expanded without ruining it's singular magic. Mike, prove me wrong.
* CINE MANIFEST (2006) - Director Judy Irola doesn't provide a context for her own documentary subject until 15 minutes into the film, at which point we are finally told about the Manifest's two feature films, Over-Under, Sideways-Down (1975) and Northern Lights (1975). This isn't necessarily a weakness, in that Irola fully invests screentime (and the viewer) in the collective's members as people first and foremost, a focus she and the film rigorously adheres to throughout. This ultimately makes Cine Manifest worthwhile in that it mounts a passionate and articulate case history for many creative collectives: the issues this group faced, 1972-75, and the double-edged blade of their simultaneous success and collapse (both features were critically lauded, and Northern Lights won Cannes's Camera D'or Award -- best 1st film by a new director -- and other awards), are typical of many creative cooperatives in all fields of endeavor. Thus, the film does have universal appeal and relevance.
For filmmakers and film buffs, it's absolutely irresistible in its fusion of hard fact, on-camera interviews, 'dirt' (the snapshots of Nicholas Ray's agonizing freeloading are intoxicating and depressing without becoming exploitative) and insider views on a group dynamic so volatile that some members (all of whom do speak on-camera, including director and Manifesto member Irola) still aren't on speaking terms. Though I at first found the distance maintained from the films themselves, the fruit of the Manifest, increasingly frustrating, Irola cannily does provide in the end expansive enough glimpses and sequences from Over-Under, Northern Lights and other films (including the documentary Western Coal and the bizarre Ray project 7 Balls) to satisfy. I'd love to see both Cine Manifest features, which have long been out of any circulation; Over-Under looks like a blueprint for Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1977) in some aspects, while the clips from Northern Lights are among the most evocative of any 1970s American film I've ever seen -- I'm now aching to see Northern Lights in its entirety.
* JESUS CAMP (2006) - Fascinating, compulsive viewing, whatever one's orientation to the subject (which frankly is pretty scary shit to this viewer). There's no denying the hypnotic power of the film, watching 8-to-14-year-olds going through the rigors of the titular camp experience, worked and/or working themselves into traumatizing emotional states and complete meltdown (weeping, shouting, "speaking in tongues," which sounds even more like gibberish when the adults indulge this behavior) under strict adult supervision condoning and indeed arousing such behavior with calculated intent. Make no mistake, this is bootcamp for Jesus -- or rather, the righteous, militaristic brand of fundamentalist Christianity that deliberately matches zealous indoctrination of "opposing" religious cults with its own amped brand of zealous fanaticism. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady clearly nurtured trusting and surprisingly intimate relations with those involved with the evangelical camp (based in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, though no one involved expresses any hint of irony, for all their talk of ever-present Satan and temptation). They don't betray that trust, simply providing an account of these lives, these actions, this movement, sans judgment or condescension.
Ewing and Grady provide concise, lucid portraits of all the principles, from the organizers to the parents and attending children, focusing on three of the latter: Levi, Tory and Rachael. It's an intimacy shattered only with the intrusion of evangelist Ted Haggard during his Colorado Springs event (he speaks to the camera/filmmakers, chastising, ridiculing and belittling them). Still, this material is critical to the film in following young Levi's Marjoe-like potential as a 12-year-old stage presence, clearly being groomed for something more beyond the parameters of the film's chosen arenas. Levi and his younger brother's brief exchange with Haggard is indeed crucial to the film, but Haggard's presence carries, in hindsight, a chilling context for delusion and self-delusion, deception and self-deception: Haggard was recently 'outted' for covert homosexual relations, and it's telling in the wake of this film how even alternative media (e.g., the 'leftist' NPR news show Here & Now) allowed Haggard and Haggard-supporters/apologists to evoke possible possession by demons (!!!) without overt criticism of such a lunatic stance (Here & Now actually showcased one apologist proposing demonic possession as being typical of the risks front-runner evangelists like Haggard face as part of their work and calling -- astounding! Is personal responsibility for one's actions forever ignored by these factions?).
Ewing & Grady address this disturbing 21st Century trend via sequences shot in a Midwest radio station, in which an articulate Christian talk-show radio host criticises the evangelical imperative to blur the boundaries between church & state. This provides an essential counterpoint and broader social context for the film's focal point, the uncritical indoctrination of fundamentalist children into a self-proclaimed "Army of God," and makes the film palatable for those unsympathetic to the religious dogma without manipulating or inherently criticizing the actions of the passionate believers themselves, adult and child. It's a pretty astounding tightwire act, really, making this a truly exceptional and timely documentary. Cinematically, the documentary is very well made, and the trio of kids Ewing & Grady chose as their 'stars' are indeed engaging. This film needs to be seen!
[PS: Check out the comments for today's post -- the above review is already prompting discussion.]
* THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006) - Barbet Schroeder's Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait/Idi Amin Dada (1974) and the South African Amin: The Rise and Fall (1981, from Indian director Sharad Patel) were the definitive (and only) films of note on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin until Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Giles Folden's novel popped up, seemingly out of nowhere. It's stateside release was uncannily timed to the public execution of Saddam Hussein and his confederates -- though no one, including the most passionate critics, seemed to note the timely coincidence (Amin, of course, died peacefully in exile in Saudi Arabia after his acts of genocide, counterpointing what happens to even the most homicidal despots as long as they don't cross the good ol' U.S. of A). Using a couple of clips from Schroeder's documentary, Macdonald mounts a pretty intoxicating crash-course on Amin's dynasty via the deceptively alluring initial path of a callow young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James MacAvoy, the real surprise of the film). Fleeing the confines of a proposed family medical practice after graduation, the young Scot randomly chooses Uganda as his destination, immediately sampling the sexual vistas via a 'quickie' with a flirtatous local African woman on his initial bus ride -- a key bit of character exposition for Nick that serves Macdonald's narrative structure well, deftly setting up Nick's character later dallying with one of Amin's many brides that has lethal consequences. By maintaining its focus on the good doctor, we are introduced to Amin (a powerhouse Forest Whitaker performance) and initially exposed more to the dictator's renowned charm than his temper, until it's too late: once the blade turns, it turns hard, and the film spirals into its harrowing third act.
Impressive as the film is -- and it doesn't flinch -- it's hard to shake the screen presence of Amin himself in Schroeder's film, or even Joseph Olita performance as Amin in Sharad Patel's 1981 opus ("You see? You see what happens to bad mommies?"), but Whitaker will no doubt fix himself into the popular American imagination as the definitive Amin. Make no mistake, though: it's MacAvoy who is the lead, and he gives an excellent performance throughout, keeping us attuned to his at-times unsympathetic actions and convincingly remaining the lightning rod for all that we see and experience (SPOILER WARNING -- including A Man Called Horse-like comeuppance for the doctor). It's also great to see Gillian Anderson (Scully!) in a solid supporting role, speaking volumes with her eyes and actions (and, critically, inactions); it's been too long since she graced the screen.
Not for the squeamish, though it never approaches the exploitation extremes of Amin: The Rise and Fall -- there are no heads in the dictator's fridge, for instance: the only reference to cannibalism comes in Amin's second public speech, in which he ridicules such claims as inventions of the foreign press -- nor does it revel in genocidal imagery, which some argue is a shortcoming of the film. Clearly, that card is one the director and writers cannily chose to keep close to the chest, until their narrative (and protagonist) finally opens it eyes to the reality of Uganda, 1971-79, in a most personalized revelation of Amin's actrocities. It's not a case of downplaying or sidestepping the reality, but steeping the viewer in the experience of its protagonist, and the seductive thrall of the dictator himself, until the dam can no longer hold back the horrors. It's called storytelling, and this is a solid story, well told. Recommended; catch it on the big screen, while you can.