As the months roll by with no indication of when it will be possible once again to gather together in darkened rooms with strangers to gaze at projected images, film fans have at least been able to take some solace in the extravagant buffet of options for home viewing. In fact, the menu of such offerings is vast enough to be overwhelming, especially for those of us who enjoy exploring what lies beyond the multiplex. With that in mind, we hope this column can serve as a road map for the scenic route through the universe of online arthouse cinema.
Obviously, it’s crucial to do everything we can to ensure that, once we have stopped living in such interesting times, the independent theaters that fertilize our collective cinephilia will still be around to welcome us back into their comfortable embrace. Many of Portland’s indie stalwarts have partnered with film distributors, such that a portion of one’s rental fee goes to support the business.
For instance, both the Hollywood Theatre and the Clinton Street Theater are hosting virtual screenings of the classic concert film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” which chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. It’s a perfect opportunity to bask in sumptuous color cinematography and timeless tunes, and yet it’s also almost a little cruel to witness all these performers and music fans, gathered together (sometimes less than six feet apart!) in an America that was near the top of its stylistic game and blissfully ignorant of the tragedies and turmoil that were to come over the next several decades. Of course, that ignorance does not excuse the inequalities and injustices that were invisible in their ubiquity, but within the closed universe of Newport, you can squint at the illusion of American exceptionalism as long as you don’t look too long or too hard.
If all you’re after is Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and many more in top form, there’s plenty of that. But director Bert Stern (best known for being the photographer who took some of the last pictures of Marilyn Monroe) spends as much time showcasing audience members, local beachgoers, and competitors in the 1958 America’s Cup yacht race. It’s a sparkling moment from a time that feels almost mythical now.
If you’re looking for something more in tune with our current predicament, the Hollywood is also offering Luis Bunuel’s 1962 surrealist masterpiece “The Exterminating Angel.” This is the one about a group of rich folks who gather for a dinner party one night and find themselves inexplicably unable to leave once the meal has concluded. Trapped in their host’s mansion for days and weeks on end, they slowly lose their minds and devolve into uncivilized savages. Sound familiar?
If there’s one genre that generally suffers the least from a small-screen treatment, it’s the documentary. (There are, of course, exceptions where visual sophistication and/or unblinking immediacy create unforgettable theatrical experiences.) And, anecdotally at least, the most common subject for 2020 documentaries is, unsurprisingly, politics. Three recent releases provide portraits of energetic personalities from the left, from the right, and from the youth of America—or, at least, Texas.
“The Fight” follows lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they pursue four of the seemingly countless legal battles the organization has waged against the Trump Administration over the last couple of years.
The cases involve: the administration’s family separation policy for undocumented immigrants at the Mexican border; its efforts to place a question regarding citizenship on the 2020 census; its denial of the right to an abortion to a teenaged undocumented immigrant; and its attempts to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. In each, we get to meet the dedicated, harried, sometimes overwhelmed lawyers trying to keep their fingers in the dike as the forces of intolerance and fascism surge on the other side. There’s plenty of education on the legal issues at hand, but the main takeaway is the human face given to these (almost literal) social justice warriors.
While the movie can feel at times like an informercial for the ACLU, it does take a worthy detour about halfway in to confront the sometimes problematic consequences of protecting the constitutional rights of people with odious beliefs, including the infamous American Nazi Party’s attempts to march through Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s. More recently and relevantly, the ACLU fought for the free speech rights of the “Unite the Right” marchers who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, an event that turned deadly, prompting some intense soul-searching at the organization.
Only one of these cases gets to the Supreme Court (the census one), and it ends up being the most satisfying resolution of the four. But each is an empowering David-and-Goliath saga in its own right, a reminder of the importance of treasuring small victories these days.
“The Fight” won a prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (yes, there was one, back in January), and so did “Boys State”, an intimate investigation into an annual event sponsored by the American Legion in which a group of high school juniors are selected to participate in a mock political convention.
The opening credits of the documentary spotlight some of the notable individuals who participated in Boys State in their youth, a list that spans the political spectrum from Michael Dukakis to Dick Cheney and from Bill Clinton to Rush Limbaugh. (A glance at the Wikipedia page for the event reveals that famous non-politicians such as Michael Jordan, Jon Bon Jovi, and Roger Ebert attended in their day.) Each state holds its own Boys State (and its own Girls State, too, though that fact is hardly mentioned here), and the makers of this documentary were granted access to the 2018 Texas edition.
The vast majority of attendees, who are divided into two parties, Nationalists and Federalists for the weeklong duration of the camp, are conservative and white. (Oddly, neither the American Legion nor the filmmakers explicitly note the awkwardness of “Nationalists” as a party name.) But the film follows three teens who don’t quite fit the mold. One, Ben Feinstein, is a double amputee whose political perspective rejects identity politics for a Reaganite libertarianism. Another, Rene Otero, is Black, verbally dexterous, and a relative newcomer to the Lone Star State. The third, and for my money the star of the show, is Steven Garza, an unprepossessing Hispanic kid who radiates unabashed big-hearted liberalism. He seems like a bit of a softie at first, at least until you notice that he had the temerity to wear a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt on the first day of camp. Alternating between rowdy scenes of platform debates and introspective interviews with its leads, “Boys State” has some moments that will make you fear for the country’s future, and others that might provoke a strange, almost alien sensation that starts in your chest and makes its way to the back of your throat. I think we used to call it hope.
A third nonfiction meal for political junkies recently debuted on HBO. “The Swamp” follows three Republican members of Congress who claim to share a frustration with the relentless infiltration of lobbyists and fundraising into the political system. The most fascinating of the trio is also the one you are most likely to recognize. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz is a 38-year-old, fierce supporter of Donald Trump, his Ken-doll looks and venomously chipper demeanor combining to create the paragon of a made-for-TV, soulless sycophant. He’s a walking example of everything wrong with image-obsessed, attack-dog politics. And yet, when he talks about how demoralizing it is to spend so much of his time on the phone with potential campaign contributors, it really seems like he has a genuine disdain for D.C.’s culture of corruption. And he also makes a decent poster boy for bipartisanship, teaming up with Silicon Valley Democrat Ro Khanna in an attempt to place limits on a President’s frequently unfettered war-making powers. I always find it interesting to see the human side of characters like Gaetz, but with someone who’s always aware of the camera’s presence, it’s hard to know if what we get in “The Swamp” is just another performance.
(“The Fight” is available on demand through various outlets; “Boys State” is on Apple TV; “The Swamp” is on HBO.)
“Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story”: I happened to fall right in the demographic wheelhouse for the mercurial 1990s cartoon sensation “Ren & Stimpy,” which is to say extended post-collegiate adolescence and an appreciation for the depraved animated adventures of an antisocial chihuahua and his moronic feline best friend. “Happy Happy Joy Joy” became the bizarre duo’s catch phrase of sorts, and it’s also the title of a new documentary that explores the cult phenomenon, including the tyrannical, dysfunctional, and eventually extremely creepy behavior of the mad genius behind the show, John Kricfalusi. It’s frustratingly familiar, this tale of an artist whose monomania made his unique creation possible, but whose egomania ends up sabotaging the whole enterprise. Kudos to Kricfalusi for being willing to be interviewed on camera, even if he still doesn’t seem to get how badly he screwed up. Don’t meet your idols, kids. (Available on demand through various outlets.)
“Lucía”: Considered by some to be the pinnacle of Cuban cinema, this 1968 epic depicts three tumultuous eras in the island’s history through the experiences of three woman, each from a different social class, who share the same name. The first section, set in 1895 during the Cuban War of Independence, focuses on an aristocratic Lucía carrying on a secret affair with a Spanish soldier. The second Lucía is a middle-class woman who falls for a radical intellectual during a 1930s revolt against the repressive regime of Gerardo Machado. The third is a peasant who rebels against her chauvinistic, violently jealous husband in the post-revolutionary 1960s. While it’s a tad retrograde to define each of these protagonists by her relationship to a man, director Humberto Solás expertly combines melodrama and political consciousness. The film won the grand prize at the 1969 Moscow Film Festival, but a trade embargo against Cuba kept it from opening in the U.S. until 1974. It is scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection as part of the third volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project at the end of September, but it’s currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
“An American Pickle”: Well, here’s an odd little number. Seth Rogen pulls a double act as an early 20th-century Jewish immigrant in New York City who ends up trapped in a barrel of pickle brine AND his present-day descendant. When Herschel Greenbaum (Rogan with beard) is freed, perfectly preserved, he goes to live with his great-grandson Ben (clean-shaven Rogen), an app designer who is alienated from his heritage and his labor. A predictable amount of culture-clash confusion ensues, and eventually Herschel parlays his artisanal pickling talents into a certain level of celebrity. Meanwhile, Ben is prompted to get back in touch with his cultural and familial identity. Kudos for being less than 90 minutes long, but the movie never really finds a fertile path between its goofy social satire and its more lachrymose “remember where you came from” moral. And the title is a shameful waste: “A Pickle in Time”? “Rip van Pickle”? There were so many better options. (HBO)