FilmWatch Weekly: Vanessa Renwick, “Tower,” and “Valley of the Dolls”

Vanessa Renwick's new work, a documentary about a 50-year-old mass shooting, and a pair of camp classics on discs.

The screening of  Vanessa Renwick’s new program of short films has been scheduled for either the perfect night or the worst possible one.

On Monday, November 7, aka Election Eve, Renwick will present “Do You See What I See? No.,” which includes her deadpan, despairing take on modern life, “Next Level Fucked Up.” The 15-minute piece debuted as part of a multimedia installation at the Portland Art Museum earlier this year. It was inspired by Renwick’s increasing dismay at the relentless onslaught of negative media stories and images, on scales ranging from the local to the global.

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick's "Next Level Fucked Up."

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick’s “Next Level Fucked Up.”

The targets of the filmmaker’s wrath include people who bag up their dog’s poop but discard the bag on the sidewalk, Portland’s rampant gentrification, the force-feeding of baby seals, and the agribusiness giant Monsanto. It’s a scattershot but effective litany that collectively gets at the sense of apocalyptic anxiety many of us have been feeling during the last several months. Depending on how things go on Tuesday, “Next Level Fucked Up” may be a snapshot of existential anguish circa 2016, or (shudder) a reminder of the good old days.

Also showing are two new shorts by Renwick. “Strabismus,” which takes its title from the medical term for crossed eyes, recounts the filmmaker’s experience with ocular surgery, while “Eclipse” returns to one of her favorite subjects, wolves. Between the films, musicians who contributed to “Next Level Fucked Up”–Sam Coomes, Michael Hurley, and Marisa Anderson–will perform.

(“Do You See What I See? No.” screens at 7pm on Monday, November 7th, at the Hollywood Theatre.)

On August 1, 1966, gunshots rang out from the 27th-floor observation deck of the clock tower in the middle of the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. It was one of the first spree shootings in U.S. history, and certainly the first to make an immediate impact through mass media. The documentary “Tower” is, amazingly enough, the first feature-length fact-based film about the shootings, in which 14 people were killed and another 32 injured.

The perpetrator, Charles Whitman, isn’t the focus of director Keith Maitland’s movie. In fact, his name isn’t mentioned until nearly the end. Instead, Maitland uses animated recreations of the experiences of victims, using their own words, to take us through that traumatic day. Alternating between the animation and actual archival footage creates a fascinating dichotomy between documentary realism and the sort of dissociation that comes from looking back on a nightmarish experience.

These days, sadly, we know exactly how to respond emotionally when we hear about another mass murder involving firearms. Part of what’s fascinating about “Tower” is the way it takes us back to a time when random gun violence on this scale was simply unimaginable. The movie also serves as a potent reminder of the heroism that can emerge from utterly ordinary individuals at time like these. Altogether, it’s a remarkable and overdue piece of work.

(“Tower” opens Friday, November 4, at the Living Room Theaters)

As streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Itunes, and the brand-new FilmStruck (more on that next week) continue to proliferate, cinephiles would be well served to remember the permanence of physical media, namely DVDs and Blu-rays. And companies like The Criterion Collection (one of FilmStruck’s backers) continue to release some pretty impressive products.

Criterion’s recent releases include one of the best potential double features of all time: 1967’s camp classic “The Valley of the Dolls,” and its utterly warped pseudo-sequel from 1970, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The former, of course, is based on Jacqueline Susann’s mega-selling novel about three young women who aspire to show-business stardom but find unhappiness and addiction instead. Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke star, with Tate astonishingly wooden and Duke an over-the-top dynamo.

The film was one of many awkward attempts by studios, specifically 20th Century Fox, to cater to a youth audience, and it pushed boundaries by referring to things like drugs and abortion, and using profanities like “bitch.” Despite terrible reviews, it was enough of a hit for Fox to pursue a sequel, and they made the astonishing decision to hire softcore savant Russ Meyer (“Vixen”) to direct it. Meyer brought in then-fledgling film critic Roger Ebert to write the screenplay, and the rest is history.

It’s indicative of the rapid evolution (or erosion, depending on your perspective) of Hollywood screen standards that, in order to match the boundary-pushing of the original, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” had to go much further–nudity, transvestism, constant drug use, and a storyline that goes all over the place.

Both of these Criterion release feature a bevy of special features. Parkins and entertainment journalist Ted Casablanca (who took his nom de plume from a character in the film) make their gossipy way through an audio commentary on “Valley,” while Ebert speaks from beyond the grace in a commentary (originally recorded in 2003) for “Beyond.” In addition, each features so many cast and crew interviews, retrospective documentaries, premiere footage, and other tributes to satisfy any fan. While these aren’t exactly the sort of films you expect to find in the Criterion Collection, but they’re among the most fun.

(“Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are available on Blu-ray for $39.95 each and DVD for $29.95 each)

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