With the airwaves awash in “good news” about Iraq (never mind those pesky body counts) and the return of irrational exuberance about the economy (ignore all those depleted pension funds and outsourced jobs), a reminder of what's actually happening in our culture and the world — what to celebrate, what to revile — is in order. The Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema, a four-day roundup of mostly documentaries by Bay Area filmmakers, is an ideal reality check.
Opening night begins on a celebratory note with Bob Sarles' Soulsville, a tribute to legendary Memphis R&B label Stax, home to Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, and many another soul luminary. The film makes up in rare studio and concert footage (Redding's ripping performance in Germany is a highlight) what it lacks in length. And closing the fest is Amanda Micheli's Double Dare, an irresistible look at the world of Hollywood stuntwomen through parallel bios of 60-ish Jeannie Epper, aka TV's Wonder Woman, and newbie Zoe Bell, whose bone-crunching work doubling Lucy Lawless in Xena and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill is richly sampled.
Contrasting with Double Dare is Adam Ballachey's American Dancer, a black-comic study of a group of straight male strippers in Tampa, Fla. Fans of Diane Arbus will recognize the grim cast on view here — delusional thonged muscle-boys philosophizing while their butts are waxed, screaming secretaries getting dry-humped on the club floor, and, most creepy-poignant, the forlorn “Tarzan” Tarantino, an aging, flabby meat salesman convinced he's on the verge of worldwide fame. (See last week's Reel World for an in-depth treatment of this film.)
The fest moves into broader territory with Kim Shelton's A Great Wonder. Strong character studies of three young Sudanese refugees — from the famous “Lost Boys and Girls” who trekked 1,000 miles to escape a civil war that's killed 2 million people — enable the doc to avoid easy answers to the complex questions posed by these kids' culture shock when they come to the Pacific Northwest. One of them, Santino, is surprised at how sad the American urbanscape seems: “It's very quiet. You just stay in your house and that's it.”
Less categorizable but equally compelling is Neil Young's much-anticipated “musical novel” Greendale. This must-see features some of Young's best music in years backgrounding a David Lynch-ish tale of murder and mayhem in which the characters lip-sync the lyrics. If that's not outré enough, there's always the amusing (if overlong) Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell's 1975 horror-movie parody that features lots of hard-core sex and a cast of crazies who scream and screw and cook. Typical line: “God help me, I had the hots for that gorilla!”