Silverdocs: Day 1

Greetings from the Silverdocs Cinema Lounge, with free food and free wi-fi and free tepid air conditioning. Opening Night festivities were pretty Big Time, with a red carpet and flashing lights and heavy police presence and everything. Half of the experience here for me is the experience of a “revitalized” Silver Spring–the town had for a long time been very neglected and run down was a bit of a cultural wasteland and social ghost town, but once AFI moved here from downtown D.C., along with The Discovery Channel, the city has a whole new face. I’m not convinced of the revitalization, though that may just be because I knew the old Silver Spring for so long. But to me the “new” Silver Spring seems to be a facade. There are many artificially constructed social spaces, and the city looks like one big mall now–Borders and every big restaurant chain in the world are all here in a 2-block radius, all with clean new brick and glass storefronts and cobbled-brick pathways. Maybe it’s just too new to feel city-ish, I don’t know. Maybe age is what makes a city. It needs dirt. Especially when I know of the dirt that is lying just beneath (or just 2 blocks away from) the polished new facade. To quote some Cassavetes film I can’t quite recall: “It’s like a good smell trying to cover up a bad smell.” And I think the main problem is that corporations aren’t what makes a city cool. It’s always the migration of artists that gives birth to a new “cool” area. If you start off with corporations you get the soulless sanitized city that Silver Spring now is. I think I will write to Doug Duncan and tell him to give rent breaks to artists if he wants to make his “revitalization” authentic. A bunch of yuppies sitting around a fountain outside Macaroni Grille does not a city make.

Meanwhile, as for the Opening Night film, it was an entertaining one, but it is exemplary of what is wrong with the current craze about documentary film. The film was Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, which takes a social/historical look at the rise of Midnight Movies, from El Topo to Rocky Horror. It’s a subject that I’m certainly sympathetic to, but as a film it is more like journalism or an educational film than art. It’s an entertaining but straightforward film, like so many documentaries today. The subject matter is what makes the film, not the filmmaking itself. I enjoyed the film, but I’m hoping to find at least a few exceptions to this trend in the festival this week. I’m hoping there are some emerging Fred Wisemans or Ricky Leacocks out there who are making documentaries with some vision. I’ll let you know if I find any.

Speaking of vision, I just heard Penelope Spheeris deliver the keynote address, and her story is like a careful-what-you-wish-for tale of the downside of commercial success. She is now a millionaire after directing Wayne’s World and a few other corny comedies, but her long pre-Wayne’s World history was all about independent vision and punk rock. She made The Decline of Western Civilization and many of the first music videos, but through her unfortunate friendship with Lorne Michaels was asked to make Wayne’s World. And after that, she was unable to ever do anything again but silly comedies. She got millions of dollars for each one, but it was the only work she could get. She told the story of her recent redemption, though–she went to Burning Man and someone slipped her some sort of drug and after a night of paranoid fits, she woke up and decided to change her life. She decided to go back to documentary film, and turned down corny film after corny film–George of the Jungle, Legally Blonde, Dr.Doolittle. Of course now she’s a millionaire and better able to make exactly the film she wants, so I guess success ain’t all that bad. She was very cool though–a scatterbrained old hippy with lots of funny stories to tell.

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