Wherever one might identify ‘the real America,’ the final days of 2012’s Silverdocs offered glimpses into the landscape of a country united by its division and struggles. Detropia, the latest feature from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady—the directorial team behind Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka—is an impressionistic portrait of Detroit, illustrating its gradual degradation but also serves as a harbinger for the potential decay of the American city.
As the film travels from the Union hall to the Opera house and everywhere in-between, Detropia’s ambling nature is one of its most refreshing qualities, the lingering shots of industrial decline more powerful than polemics spouted by various unidentified residents. The only growth in an otherwise abandoned city is an influx of young people, many of whom can afford a lifestyle in Detroit—an upscale urban loft is the price of a compact car—that is unsustainable elsewhere. Any attempt at renewal is laudable but watching two artists put a bird on an abandoned factory doesn’t instill much confidence for the future.
Later in the week, the festival offered contrasting profiles of the Lone Star State. In Ann Richards’ Texas, directors Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton profile the late Texas governor in this amusing if not-quite evenhanded look at Ms. Richards’ brief reign of liberalism in a state famously known as a bastion of American conservatism. Scott Thurman’s The Revisionaries shows Texas politics at its most willfully unhinged, a cultural landscape that prizes gut instinct and raw emotion over facts. The film chronicles the ongoing soap opera surrounding the Texas State Board of Education’s standards, a bellwether for what is adopted in textbooks nationwide. The shameful process that follows, led by an affable yet clueless dentist named Don McLeroy, helps explain why many choose to remember Ms. Richards so glowingly.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself re-introduces the world to the plucky participatory journalism of George Plimpton, a singular personality whose adventures blended his high-minded literary pursuits with the extreme physicality of professional sports. Plimpton’s life has a Forrest Gump-like quality, his having placed himself in the milieu of the most important literary and political minds of his generation. Plimpton’s ubiquity was no accident however and his ferocious curiosity and free-flowing lifestyle led him to engage the world in a way few have since. Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling do an admirable job compiling the many phases of Plimpton’s mercurial career and leave the audience with a balanced assessment of a life truly lived.
If Plimpton’s sizable ambition was dwarfed only by his considerable charms, Cream drummer Ginger Baker is a cautionary tale of temperament overshadowing talent. Jay Bulger’s Beware of Mr. Baker recalls the tempestuous career of Ginger Baker, another man who brushed elbows with legends—including Eric Clapton and Fela Kuti—and is admired by heavy hitters such as Rush’s Neil Peart, The Police’s Stewart Copeland and The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart. In his youth, Baker was a sight to behold; a wild-eyed mad man with a Tolkien-esque beard and Cheshire Cat grin, his passion for jazz setting him apart from contemporaries satisfied to simply make a racket.
Sadly, Mr. Baker’s unbecoming traits—an acid tongue, a wandering eye, and considerable consumption of narcotics—eventually overtook him. Given his thorny demeanor, not to mention his tragic inability to manage his finances, Mr. Baker still inhabits a world constantly teetering on chaos. There is a perverse pleasure in briefly visiting this world and Beware of Mr. Baker is a pleasant digression into the rock and roll lifestyle best experienced on screen.
My time at Silverdocs concluded on Saturday night with—appropriately enough—another rock doc. Bad Brains: Band in DC, co-directed by Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan, is a disjointed history of the Washington DC hardcore band whose enduring legacy is constantly under attack by the erratic behavior of their enigmatic lead singer HR. His battle with mental illness provides an underlying queasiness to the film and HR’s comments at a post-screening Q & A left the packed house uncomfortably silent. While archival footage proves that Bad Brains was once a force of nature, its current incarnation—and the motives that drive it—is far more problematic story and one that has yet to be told.
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