Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Weekend Two

The second weekend of the festival was a busy time: four movies each day. Rather than posting it as two chronologically-ordered four-film posts, I've grouped the films into three categories. First, I'll address documentary.

Inequality For All, Let the Fire Burn, Deceptive Practice
Two "social-issue" documentaries could hardly be further apart than Inequality For All, a sort of Inconvenient Truth for income inequality in the U.S. featuring Robert Reich in the Al Gore role, and Let the Fire Burn about the MOVE organization in Philadelphia centered on the 1985 bombing (by the police) of MOVE's home, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people and the destruction of more than 60 homes.

Reich properly locates himself as a centrist on the political spectrum, as Inequality's message is a realpolitik view of our consumer economy. He's not interested in getting rid of inequality, just the vast inequality that's come into play since the Reagan years. The middle class, Reich argues (aided by lots of animated graphics) simply needs to be given enough money/jobs to buy enough stuff to keep the economy growing. And, he argues, the rich would be even better if the middle class were given more. It's a win-win! While I have no problem with trying to lift up the middle class, the film's failure to address any political views or issues outside the center-left of American politics (besides the usual images of "anarchists" breaking windows in protests, and of Tea Partiers dressed up in silly hats) seems short-sighted. Not even the environment, which seems like a nice center-left thing to bring up, especially when discussing a growing consumer economy and showing shots of car manufacturing. This film will play well to its entrenched audience, but I don't think it's transformative.

Let the Fire Burn, by contrast, gets at the heart of more deeply structural issues in U.S. society. Assembled entirely from archival footage, and centered on a commission set up in the wake of the tragic fire, this film asks tough questions about race, power, freedom, and innocence. The MOVE organization is treated by the film just as some crazy folks, but is taken seriously. This doesn't mean they're treated as right: testimony from the only child to survive the fire reveals much that was questionable in their child-rearing, and (mostly black) neighbors' complaints about MOVE's antagonistic behavior seems valid. Yet the humanistic stance taken by the film towards these "anarcho-primitivists" stands far apart from the rote shots of protestors in Inequality. In the end, Let the Fire Burn has no answers for us. Maybe that's what really makes it more serious than Reich's lecture.

But I did not spend all my documentary-watching time on political matters. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay takes the magician as a starting point for a discussion of, on the surface, the history of 20th-century slight-of-hand as seen first by a kid hanging out with his grandfather, then later as a working performer spending his off-hours with the greats. But at its heart the film could be about any life pursuit: how does one get to be good at something? Jay tells us that it's through contact with folks who already are good, and through practice. So it's touching to see him give faces, names, and stories to each of his mentors, most of whom are little-known outside the world of magic (unlike Jay himself, who besides his magic has become a recurring character actor in films).

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