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True Lives 

Is it real or is it magic? Decide at the S.F. Documentary Film Festival.

Wednesday, May 11 2005
"Reality is always magic," said legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and the quote makes an intriguing tag line for the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. Two timely movies, for example, document the less-than-charmed life of the U.S. military. Canaan Brumley's Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. is a nonfiction remake of Full Metal Jacket that follows Marine recruits being processed through boot camp. The usual colorful abuse ("I know what a broken leg looks like," says a DI to a moaning recruit by the side of a road. "Get up! We hump till we die") is underscored with a swelling, Hollywood-ish soundtrack. Call it Enslaving Private Ryan. Meanwhile, Occupation: Dreamland, by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, tracks its soldiers through six weeks of survival in Fallujah in early 2004. Hated and shot at, they hate and shoot back, the dumber soldiers cursing the Iraqis, the more thoughtful ones condemning their own superiors.

The equally relevant Call It Democracy, by Matt Kohn, denounces Electoral College roulette, but in a voice that's too even, too PBS-y, to be really effective. High-pitched mockery is more appropriate, and to that end Pedro Carvajal's POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English more than satisfies. Its fast-motion look at this guerrilla artist, who targets corporate billboards with pasted-on caricatures, transcends mere rooting interest in the anti-authoritarian's antics. It would have been a more aggressive opening-night festival choice than Mana: Beyond Belief, a pleasantly meditative picture by Peter Friedman and Roger Manley about "power objects" -- famous rocks, trees, and monuments around which people gather to draw strength and wisdom. Mana opens with a shot of discarded, decaying Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse statues, an image out of which Ron English could have built an entire anti-corporate ad campaign.

Stephen Tobolowsky, best known as a middle-aged ugly duckling in films like Groundhog Day and Memento, comes out as a swan in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, holding forth straight to Robert Brinkmann's camera for a full 90 minutes, telling stories about auditions gone awry and other misadventures. Amazingly, it's not boring. Michael Gitlin's The Birdpeople registers as the most artistically ambitious movie being screened, telling its bird-watching tales through a series of silent tableaux, collages of voice-over narration, maps, bird paintings, and other devices. At its narrative core is the hunt for the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker; the bird's recent rediscovery is the happiest of coincidences.

My festival favorite is Brian Lilla's Ghetto Fabulous, all about Oaklanders' loving restorations of 1970s-era Ford Falcons -- weekend mechanics improvising repairs and dealing with police who tow cars for broken brake lights and thieves who'll lift your car doors and hood, get you to sell your "violated" vehicle to them in disgust, and then reattach the missing items. It's highly entertaining -- and as real as it gets.

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Gregg Rickman


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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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