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.

Back Online

Just back from Opening Night of Silverdocs, and finally have restored web access after an unfortunate incident with Logan’s free wi-fi network. Will blog more later about the night’s festivities. But a note about the weather: having a film festival in June in Maryland is not a good idea. It’s so hot here today that they closed D.C. public schools for the day. It’s over 100, with humidity so thick it’s more like you’re wading than walking. This is what I grew up with–completely air-conditioned summers and homeless people dying of heat stroke on the streets of D.C. This is why I have always hated summer. What’s to like? Only when I moved to Boston did I learn that summers didn’t have to be that way. Until this past week in Boston, that is.

Silver Spring

Tonight I’m off to Maryland for the AFI Silverdocs festival. The word “excited” is not usually one I use when thinking of Silver Spring, but this trip is actually generating excitement. It’s like I get to re-imagine my home town for a new purpose, and it’s like a whole new place.

It Always Comes Back To Herzog

Amen, Caryn, have you been reading my blog?

Every week seems to bring another mediocre documentary, coasting on the strength of its content and its similarity to a better, more artistic film. Even as the genre leaps out of its niche, it is suffering from a tyranny of substance over style.


“Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Rom´┐Żo Dallaire,” follows the former United Nations general back to Rwanda a decade after the genocide he and his peacekeeping force were helpless to prevent. This harrowing film is more effective than last year’s overrated Oscar winner, “Born Into Brothels,” which begins as a heart-wrenching vision of children in Calcutta’s red-light district but turns into a self-aggrandizing account of efforts by the film’s co-director, Zana Briski, to help them. The sight of impoverished children is always touching, but it doesn’t always make a good movie.
Digital technology has made filmmaking so cheap and easy that now almost anyone can point a camera at a difficult father or a wicked stepmother and call it a movie. And more of them are making it into theaters. Nielsen EDI, which tracks box-office data, found that 50 documentaries were released in 2002 and 53 in 2003 – a number that jumped to 80 last year (a rapidly growing chunk of the 500 or so films typically released each year).


There are still documentaries transformed by an artist’s vision, though.
Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (opening in August) is built around video shot by Timothy Treadwell during 13 summers spent living among grizzlies, before he was eaten by one. Mr. Treadwell’s own hyperactive commentary would have made for something like a nature film on acid. Mr. Herzog’s editing and narration turn it into a study of Mr. Treadwell’s outsize, self-invented character, and of the motives behind such heroic posturing. In the flood of cheap-and-easy nonfiction films, “Grizzly Man” is something increasingly hard to find: a documentary with imagination.

I’ll let you know about the substance-to-style ratio at Silverdocs next month…


I’m heading to the AFI’s Silverdocs festival in my lovely hometown of Silver Spring in a few weeks. I’m most excited that Werner Herzog will be in attendance with his new documentary, Grizzly Man. Gee, have I mentioned that I wrote my thesis on Herzog’s docs?

The festival seems to have embraced bloggers–they even have ‘blogger’ listed on their application for press credentials, along with other designations such as “editor”, “photographer”, “freelance journalist”, etc.

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