Reviewed today: Daughters Of The Dust, Have You Seen My Movie?, Orange Sunshine, Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny.
With just two days of the festival left to go, here's an announcement for you: if everything goes to plan, I won't be seeing any more fictional films until late tomorrow night. As I've been saying all along, it's been a good year for documentaries, and we've seen a couple of fine examples today, with more planned for the final day. But documentaries aren't the only form of non-fiction film: there's also... well, whatever this is.
Let's try a couple of comparisons to see if they make things easier. Remember Los Angeles Plays Itself from a dozen or so LFFs ago? That was a study of the city constructed from countless clips from movies which were shot there, leading to a lawyer's nightmare for several years before it could be cleared for public sale. More recently, remember Dawson City: Frozen Time from just over a week ago? That used clips from an archive of old silent movies to tell the history of the mining town where they were found. Well, this film is sort of a combination of the two.
It's structured like a night out at the movies: buying your ticket, queueing for snacks, watching the trailers, then sitting through the main feature. Each of these is represented by a montage of clips from movies showing that particular aspect of the moviegoing experience. Big movies, too: from thirties classics through to contemporary blockbusters, with everything else in between. Every so often, we get a clip from a well-known movie in a particular genre, and it's interwoven with several clips of cinema audiences from films apparently reacting to it. Is that meta enough for you?
Paul Anton Smith was previously a collaborator on Christian Marclay's The Clock, an art installation in which a fully functioning clock is constructed out of movie clips featuring shots depicting specific times. Once you know that, it's only a short hop to this film, constructed over several years with the aid of countless visits to a Camden Town DVD rental shop. It manages to just about sustain its conceit for a running time of 135 minutes, though it does sag a little once or twice. The most astonishing thing is realising just how many films have scenes where people watch other films - Smith's pulled together clips from several hundred for this movie - and how diverse the activities are that we watch people perform in movie theatres in the movies. You'd be surprised just how many films have a blowjob scene set in a cinema, for example.
"It must have taken ten years for you to clear the rights for all those clips," says an audience member at the Q&A afterward. You can probably guess Smith's response to that: "what rights?" This is a labour of love that he's assembled with no real consideration of the legal consequences, working under the assumption that fair use law will cover what he's trying to do. (That was the argument used by Los Angeles Plays Itself, and unfortunately that didn't really work out.) Hopefully Smith's film will get a wider outing than the festival circuit: the juxtapositions of clips are done with a huge amount of wit, and they add up to an alternative history of popular cinema. See how many you can identify.
3.15pm: Orange Sunshine [official site]
Back to the more conventional documentaries, and a frankly extraordinary story from the 1960s. There was a bunch of hippies in Laguna Beach who called themselves The Brotherhood Of Eternal Love: their aim was to produce LSD in industrial quantities and distribute it across the US to free the minds of its citizens. A bold and slightly reckless mission statement, given the amount of money it would cost to make acid on that scale. So, being hippies, they decided to finance their work by travelling to Afghanistan, buying cheap hash and selling it back home for profit. Within a couple of years, they were less well known as LSD gurus, and more as the guys who were importing most of the hash that came into the US.
It turns out, if William A. Kirkley's film is to be believed, that the Brotherhood were actually pretty good drug smugglers: carrying huge quantities of dope inside tricked-out camper vans and never getting caught. Part of this was down to their justifiably paranoid approach to covering their tracks, meaning there are very few photos and literally no film footage of the main perpetrators. This, of course, makes things awkward for anyone who wants to make a documentary about them.
Kirkley's solution is actually rather inspired: half the film is made up of present-day interviews with the surviving members of the Brotherhood, while the rest consists of 8mm reconstructions of key scenes shot like they're archive home movies. It's a potent mix, and serves the story well: it's fun, for example, to hear about the time they escaped the clutches of the local lawman by pushing him into a swimming pool, but it's even more fun to see it.
It's a film full of bizarre and barely believable stories, with Kirkley using the Q&A to reveal some even more bizarre ones that didn't make it through to the final cut. He's taken a totally non-judgmental approach to this material, which is as it should be: he doesn't poke fun at the Brotherhood's wild plans to change the entire world's mental state, or moralise when the chickens inevitably come home to roost. He just recognises a damn good story when he sees one.
6.15pm: Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny [official site]
Using the evidence of this one festival, we can compare three different approaches to making documentaries about movie people. On Monday, we had David Lynch: The Art Life: very obviously made by his friends, and presenting a slightly distant portrait of a filmmaker with a carefully manicured image. A couple of days later, we had Mifune: The Last Samurai: a more traditional third person retelling of the actor's life, stymied by nobody having anything new to say about it. And now here's Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, which takes the best bits of the two approaches: it's a chronological filmography made by close friends, but friends who are at least willing to probe a little. It never pretends to be anything other than an authorised biography, but Linklater's an interesting enough character to make that worth watching.
We start with Linklater's childhood, when his parents noted how driven he already was at an early age. He had plans to be an athlete, but illness put paid to that: soon afterwards, he discovered movies as an alternative thing he could turn his talents to. He sets up a film society in his hometown of Austin, with the backing of the editor of the local community paper (Louis Black, co-director of this film with Karen Bernstein). But within a couple of years, the film society has moved from exhibition to production: Linklater is literally making short films by himself, with a camera standing on a tripod, him acting in front of it, and a Walkman in his pocket recording the sound. "You can't stop someone like that," observes one of his colleagues: and when his first feature Slacker comes out in 1991, pretty soon the whole world is realising that.
Black and Bernstein's film-by-film walk through Linklater's oeuvre isn't afraid to give equal prominence to its high points (Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) and low points (most of his late noughties work, if we're honest). When you get down to it, there isn't much to say about his working process - as Jack Black shrewdly observes, it's just hard work - but we get to see plenty of revealing footage of Linklater doing his job, including during the marathon twelve-year shoot for Boyhood. He insists that the films have always turned out the way he wanted them: any hassles he's had with studios over the years have been down to how those films have been released. And even a wholly mismanaged distribution like the one for Dazed And Confused (which misleadingly sold it as a stoner comedy) hasn't stopped the film from having a healthy life long after its theatrical run.
Dream Is Destiny is a slightly sanitised but otherwise enjoyable overview of one of the most interesting filmmakers we currently have. Here's an odd thing, though - a documentary like this, with copious clips from a director's career, would normally have you running off afterwards to revisit some of the films. This documentary doesn't make you do that: possibly because Linklater's films are notoriously light on trailer-friendly moments, so there aren't any individual clips in here that sell an entire film to you. Having said that, in the spirit of Linklater's 'hard work' approach, it strikes me that it's now possible to bingewatch the entire Before trilogy in a single day. That's got to be worth doing, hasn't it?
Notes From Spank's Pals
Daughters Of The Dust [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - The Gullah people are descendants of African slaves living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, and who have preserved distinctive features of culture, belief and folklore from Africa. Daughters of the Dust tells the story of a Gullah family at the turn of the 20th Century preparing to leave the Islands to travel North to mainland USA. The film focuses on the women of the Peazant family, particularly the matriarch, Nana, who is not joining her family on the migration North; Eula Peazant, the wife of Nana’s grandson Eli; and the Unborn Child, the daughter Eula is carrying, who narrates the film. As well as the family members living on the island, the film also features Viola Peazant, a family member who has already left the islands and been converted from the traditional Gullah beliefs to Christianity, and who is returning with a photographer, Mr. Snead, to document the migration. Viola and Snead are used as devices to allow us to see more of the Gullah beliefs and hear more of their stories.
The film has a dream-like quality, with some striking visuals. Some of the dialogue and narration is in the Gullah Creole, a language incorporating many African elements, and there is much talk of the ancestors and many tales from oral history, including a telling of the powerful story of the Ibo people who refused to submit to slavery and drowned themselves rather than live as slaves. With its strong focus on the women, as well as on the particular features of the Gullah people, Daughters of the Dust gives a viewpoint rarely seen in cinema. In terms of bare narrative, there would seem to be not much to the central story of the migration of a family from their island home to the mainland, but the richness of the film lies in its characters and in the stories told, as well as in the depiction of an unfamiliar culture, and the beauty of the cinematography and the images on the screen.
At a mere 25 years old, Daughters of the Dust seems very young to be in the archive section of the festival, but it is a film deserving of its digital restoration, and certainly looks lovely. As the first feature by an African-American woman to gain US theatrical distribution, it is also a film of significance in the history of cinema, as well as in black and feminist history, and this restoration gives a fabulous opportunity to revisit it.