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.

It's kind of a thrill to watch someone for whom eccentricity is so natural, or at least so thoroughly cultivated as to seem natural. A similar feeling is conveyed by the festival's separate offerings about Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. They live like jesters, and partly because they say and do things that most of us can't, they're heroes and anti-role models--even though most of us don't say and do crazy, oppositional things because we don't really want to. For one thing, it's a lot of work. Watching Thompson and Bukowski in their cups and raving, one is struck by the energy needed to consistently stand against every profound or trivial offense: drug laws, offhand remarks, trumped-up DUI charges, poetic cliché, Nixon, Hollywood screenwriters, normal standards of personal hygiene. The line between heroic dissent and loony querulousness becomes hazy. Bukowski, who spent 15 years working for the United States Postal Service, was probably better than Thompson at suppressing his anti-authoritarian impulses, but clearly, for both men, opposition is both crusade and pastime.

Both Wayne Ewing's Breakfast with Hunter (11:30 p.m. Friday, November 7) and John Dullaghan's Bukowski: Born into This (9:45 p.m. Sunday, November 9) peak with boozy ejaculations of bile. Thompson is shown in early 1997 blowing up at screenwriter Tod Davies and director Alex Cox, who were then preparing to adapt Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Cox and Davies wanted to use animation to illustrate some of the psychedelic components of Thompson's book. Thompson hates the idea.

"Write your own fuckin' movie, you're a smart girl," he fumes at Davies. "Just don't fuck with mine by making it into a cartoon"--this despite the fact that the original text quite famously showcased the cartoon accompaniment of Ralph Steadman. Thompson hasn't bothered to read the script, though he sees no reason why this should preclude him from impugning its quality. Later, at Thompson's urging, Terry Gilliam replaces Cox.

In the key tirade from Bukowski: Born into This, the writer rather suddenly explodes at his future wife, hurling every misogynist epithet in the book at her, while limply kicking at her as she leaves the scene. An ugly, pathetic display, yet later we see Bukowski weeping profusely on his wedding day, and in another scene he can barely recite a poem through a flood of tears. The hero of Breakfast with Hunter, despite his apparent absence of self-censorship, remains an aloof showman, but Born into This shows you all the mythic contradictions you could ask for: the workaholic fuck-up; the vulgar romantic; the misanthropic humanist.

The contradictions in Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 8) are more disturbing. The film is the follow-up to an earlier Broomfield documentary about Aileen Wuornos, the Florida hitchhiker-prostitute who murdered seven johns between 1989 and 1990. Interspersed with clips from the earlier film and featuring a visit to the sites of Wuornos's nightmarish childhood, Aileen features a series of gripping interviews with the prisoner, filmed in the months leading up to her execution in October of 2002.

During one interview, Wuornos refutes her earlier claim that the killings were committed in self-defense. Later, she refutes the refutation. And in her final interview with Broomfield--her last interview with anyone--she is so psychologically wracked that it's hard to watch. "A raped woman got executed, and was used for books and movies and shit," she tells Broomfield, a supporter who, of course, is using her for a movie.

 

Wuornos's outburst brings us to the last of the big questions that I originally said I wasn't interested in pursuing: those of artistic entitlement, artistic motivation, the very function of art. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams, whose work is examined in The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia (3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 9), has spent almost three decades taking black-and-white shots of people in the Appalachian hollers. Adams grew up in the region, middle-class but not entirely removed from the poor of eastern Kentucky, and he has become friends with his regular sitters.

The pictures have the surface aspect of documentary photography, but on closer inspection look like carefully staged compositions, which they are. One shot, of a proud family having just slaughtered and butchered a pig in the traditional Appalachian way, takes on a different meaning when you learn that Adams bought the pig and orchestrated the whole event. The movie juxtaposes the photographer's compelling defense of his methods with harsh criticism of his work. Among the naysayers are local residents and historians of the area, who say the visual cues in Adams's often disturbing portraits--of scarred serpent handlers, unkempt guitar pickers, mentally retarded siblings--exploit and promote Deliverance-style hillbilly stereotypes.

William Styron takes a similar shelling in Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (1:30 p.m. Sunday, November 9), a mix of dramatizations and interviews about the mysterious leader of the 1831 Southampton slave rebellion. Styron's 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was met with anger by many African Americans. Some found the very idea of a white novelist writing a first-person account of Turner to be presumptuous and distasteful. Others accused Styron of perpetrating images of lustful black monsters in his invention of a love-hate relationship between Turner and the plantation owner's teenage daughter.

We critic types generally don't require art to be instructive, socially meliorating, or "true," but I know that in my case, aestheticism is partly a luxury of being a white American man. Perhaps it takes a lot to offend me because I rarely feel personally affronted or threatened by a work of art. In some ways, it would be nice if more art could inspire such passionate criticism and defense, even if the criticism seems to point to an unsavory terminus. Should Styron's book not have been published? Would un-staged, "positive" images of noble Appalachians have more to teach us?

"I hate limitations," says Adams in The True Meaning of Pictures, sounding a bit like Bukowski or Thompson. "I hate for people to tell me I can only do this, I should only do that, and do it in a certain way." I like Adams's line of artistic inquiry--his reckoning with the small questions, the big ones, the ones he didn't even consider--and I realize that once again I had it all wrong. A question, like a cut-rate collage, can't be judged on size alone.

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