The Greatest Shows on Earth

Uzbek beauties! Swedish peaceniks! Iranian mummies! A guide to the high-wire act otherwise known as the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.


The Legend of Teddy Edwards


Grace Maksimik

In this doting documentary on the life of jazz saxophonist Teddy Edwards, director Don McGlynn highlights yet another oversight in Ken Burns's oft-criticized Jazz behemoth. It's familiar territory for McGlynn, whose previous films have included portraits of other legends snubbed by Burns, such as Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Louis Prima, and Horace Parlan. (The Parlan doc is also screening at the MSPIFF, and is reviewed below.) Judging from The Legend of Teddy Edwards, it would seem that the director has the formula down pat. Even if some of the long musical segments of Edwards with his current band go flat at times, it's still refreshing to see a music doc in which the music is more than an interlude. And Williams himself (now in his 70s) is uniquely engaging: With unmistakable wisdom and an instructive tone, he talks about the dangers of heroin, the benefits of hard work and "repetition," and his younger days as a ladies' man ("I was just doin' what any red-blooded man in my position would have!"). Overall, the film has a melancholy air, as we're told of how Edwards, despite his abundant talent, never had the career that many had foreseen at its outset. McGlynn will appear in person to introduce the film. Jonathan Kaminsky


The Natural History of the Chicken


The rhetorical point of this quirky, hourlong doc is that the feathered creature that clucks has a life beyond sitting in batter and hot grease at the bottom of a red-and-white cardboard bucket. Director Mark Lewis (Cane Toads) has two different methods for establishing that fowl is fair and fair is fowl. First, he trains the camera on human lovers of Gallus domesticus: a loopy Florida senior who swaddles her tame cock in handmade diapers, and a minister who witnessed divine virtue in a hen sacrificing her life for her chicks. These segments verge on the precious, as the floating camerawork and chirping score make the speakers seem like rejects from an Errol Morris open casting call. Lewis has better luck with his second cinematic technique: handsome close-ups and field recordings of chickens following the impulses of their tiny lizard brains. These natural scenes are juxtaposed with eerie footage from the metal bowels of a hatching factory (the sight of a few hundred thousand rotating eggs suggests nothing so much as science fiction) and a laying "farm" (which more closely resembles PETA porn). The failure to get inside a slaughterhouse can only be attributed to a lack of access--or a lack of nerve. Michael Tortorello



AT 5:30 P.M. AND SUNDAY AT 1:30 P.M.

This could have been a conventional documentary about UN peacekeepers had Dutch director Heddy Honigmann not come up with a brilliant conceit. Structuring her film around home movies and present-day interviews, Honigmann asked her subjects to pick songs that either reminded them of their experiences or that meant something to them while stationed in troubled spots such as Lebanon, Cambodia, and Bosnia. Then she filmed each person in close-up as he or she listened to the chosen song safe at home in the Netherlands. The selections range from Guns N' Roses to Puccini and Korean folk music and includes both Seal's "Crazy" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy." The result is fascinating on many levels. Beginning without an explicit political agenda, Crazy slowly and carefully develops an indictment of the ineffectiveness of UN humanitarianism (particularly in the former Yugoslavia), and an exploration of the long-term psychological scars of war. Additionally, Honigmann delves into the malleability of music and its Proustian ability to invoke memory. Although the director includes only about 30 seconds of gory atrocity footage (taken from a BBC-made "music video" about Sarajevo, set to Seal's "Crazy"), her film is all the more wrenching for its restraint. In fact, I haven't seen a better documentary in a year. (Note: Honigmann's Crazy is not to be confused with another festival film called Crazy, which is from Germany and is reviewed below.) Steve Erickson


Marshall Tito's Spirit

7:15 P.M. AND SUNDAY AT 3:00 P.M.

In the broad stretch of the world formerly known as the Evil Empire, communism has mostly become either an embarrassing memory or the punch line to a bitter joke. Free markets have, as the Great Communicator predicted, created free people. And if the residents of the former Soviet satellite states choose to express that new freedom by conducting ethnic pogroms or engaging in perpetual internecine conflict...well, at least they're not red anymore. Such is the subtext of this darkly comic satire by Croatian director Vinko Bresan. The film's setting--a tiny, bleak Adriatic island off the coast of Croatia--is a crumbling outpost of communism, where aged partisans still hold Worker's Day parades and dream of socialism's second coming. The old men (imagine the charmingly eccentric yokels of Waking Ned Devine as dour Eastern Europeans) see their chance when the ghost of Tito, Yugoslavia's own Teddy Roosevelt, appears in the village graveyard. Bresan gets a lot of comic mileage from the farcical situation--there's a running debate, for instance, over whether a Marxist can have a ghost--but there's a point to the silliness. In the film, as in modern Yugoslavia, tradition, signified by Tito's spirit, is running full bore into modernity, symbolized by the tourist industry that springs up around the apparition's presence. Given the area's current dysfunction, Bresan suggests, residents of the Balkans now view communism with rosy nostalgia: The state's repressive tactics at least kept anarchy in check. Hard as it may be to believe, Tito's spirit might actually represent Croatia's good old days. Peter Ritter

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