If I'm So Crazy, Why Do I Have My Own Movie?

Unconventional wisdom from unstable characters in the City Pages Documentary Film Festival

Happiness, it has been said by Socrates and other slovenly beatniks, can be found in the mere asking of Big Questions, the trick being to free oneself from the trivia of the day and attend as much as possible to philosophical enquiry. At times I've found this view attractive, especially while stoned, the same condition in which I've held that The Yes Album had some really important things to say about the human experience. Lately, though, I've felt that those big questions, however elegantly posed and examined, invariably lead to blasé repetitions of common knowledge. Maybe I'm reading the wrong philosophy, maybe I need to get stoned, or maybe I should look into all this "higher power" hocus-pocus. "One can hardly be wrong in concluding," it was said by a well-dressed Viennese psychoanalyst, "that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system."

So I find myself drawn to the small questions, like the matter of flossing: Should one devote 10 minutes or so a day (a yearly commitment of two full days) to the flossing of one's teeth, or might one use that time for more enjoyable pursuits and hope for advances in corrective dental surgery?

Robb Moss's The Same River Twice, one of 16 films being shown during the third annual City Pages Documentary Film Festival (November 6 through November 12 at the Oak Street Cinema), makes a rigorous case for flossing. The movie (which screens at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 9, and will be introduced by the director) looks at a group of middle-class baby boomers during two stages of their lives. In the summer of 1978, Moss and a group of his friends took a month off to row down the Colorado River--naked. ("Because we could," explains one of the former nudists.) Now, most of Moss's friends are vested in professional, familial, and financial commitments that they probably couldn't imagine neglecting for even a week. Early in the film one of the ex-river rats, Barry, is shown flossing his teeth, a habit he's finally learned to develop and which he explains with the gravity of a battle-weary periodontal surgeon. "I don't feel invincible," he says. "Not even my teeth are invincible." Later in the movie, he will lose a testicle to cancer.

Walking the line between heroic dissent and loony querulousness: Charles Bukowski
Magnolia Pictures
Walking the line between heroic dissent and loony querulousness: Charles Bukowski

Maybe, then, what I'm really drawn to are the small questions that aspire to bigness. That most people progress from a callow sense of invincibility to a mature sense blasé common knowledge. You may recall how tiresomely it was used as a national metaphor directly after those guys flew airplanes into the World Trade Center. Still, it seemed a little fresher (more minty, maybe) when Barry tossed off the sentiment in front of the bathroom mirror, and in the couple of days since seeing The Same River Twice, I've been pretty good about flossing.


Mark Wojahn's What America Needs: From Sea to Shining Sea (1:00 p.m. Saturday, November 8) is interested in big questions, or one big question, to be precise. Traveling with a handheld camera, the filmmaker took trains, cars, and recreational vehicles from New York to Los Angeles, approaching people along the way with a simple query: "What do you think America needs?" (You can pose your own questions to the director after the screening.)

During the New York segment, I recognized one of the unidentified interviewees as Matt Bakkom, an old friend of mine from high school, which seemed like an astonishing coincidence until my extraordinary research skills uncovered that Bakkom was also a friend and previous collaborator of the Twin Cities-based Wojahn. (The pair shot the first What America Needs while traveling down the Mississippi between '92 and '94.) Upon learning this, I briefly wondered if the film's passengers and passersby were really just the filmmaker's diverse and widely distributed friends and relatives, which left me either suspect or jealous.

At times, the contrapuntal voices of What America Needs create a moving chorus, especially in the interviews done in Washington, D.C., during the rampage of sniper John Muhammad. Everyone seems stricken, pissed, depressed, helpless, and the result is a snapshot of a moment that, for whatever this is worth, feels more hopeless and insane than the present climate. The film, however, doesn't sustain that level of casual profundity. The inherent problem seems to be that such an open question inspires an exhausting number of vague universal truths, lame jokes, and folk wisdom, rarely anything more thought-provoking than a fortune cookie. What America Needs, we learn, is love or God or truth or accountability or plain old common sense. We need to better understand the rest of the world or we need to solve problems in our own backyard first.

After a while, the man who says America needs more cute naked boys seems no more frivolous than the woman who wants peace. At one point, an old lady misunderstands the question: "What does a man eat?" she repeats, flummoxed. One wonders if such a question might lead to a more interesting documentary.

No one asked me, but here's what I'd say: What America needs is more people like Ray Johnson. Johnson, who is profiled in How to Draw a Bunny (7:45 p.m. Sunday, November 9), was once called "the most famous unknown artist in America." He was a painter and collagist whose whole life, and even his death, appears to have been a work of performance art. He had lots of famous New York friends, most of whom say they never really knew much about him. Lacking explanations, they tell stories--and they're great ones. Once a friend offered Johnson $1,500 for a collage that the artist had priced at $2,000. Johnson went along with the markdown, but before mailing the work to its new owner, he physically cut out a quarter of it--precisely $500 worth.

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