May 31, 2005

Sex, Faith, Politics and Rock 'n' Roll: The Stuff of Which Sundance '05 was Made

'Inside Deep Throat' examines the lasting cultural impact generated by 1972's 'Deep Throat,' the sexually explicit film that quickly became the flashpoint for an unprecedented social and political firestorm. Photo: AP Wide World Photos/Universal Studios.

The 2005 Sundance Film Festival opened on Inauguration Day and, as an encore to the politically charged year that had just passed, featured an impressive slate of issues-driven docs, as well as a handful of nonfiction films bound to shiver the timbers of many a red-blooded Utahan.

Inside Deep Throat, the latest from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, examines the early 1970s zeitgeist surrounding the release of Deep Throat, the wildly successful porn film that triggered a national debate about the First Amendment, obscenity, sexual liberation and exploitation. Barbato and Bailey populate the film with an oddball cast of characters--the endearingly sleazy artistic personnel behind Deep Throat complement a bevy of pundits such as Erica Jong, Helen Gurley Brown, Norman Mailer and the unholy trinity of Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein. With such self-anointed moral crusaders as President Richard Nixon, who would later be done in by another "Deep Throat," and Charles Keating, who would later be convicted for fraud, leading the charge to save America from its own prurient inclinations, it makes one wonder why 35 years later, Janet Jackson's breast would ignite the same furor from the right as did Linda Lovelace's larynx. We've come a long way...so to speak.

The Aristocrats contains no sex or nudity, yet its content will surely provoke an NC-17 rating when THINKFilm releases it this summer. Penn Jilette and Paul Provenza query a lineup of the most prominent comics, working and retired, about perhaps the dirtiest joke imaginable, one so dirty that it's never been performed in public--save a raucous performance by Gilbert Gottfried at a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner that's shown in the film--but it's been part of the stand-up folklore for many generations. The art of stand-up comedy is in the telling, and as the comics both perform their rendition of "The Aristocrats" joke and explain what makes the performance of it successful, one comes away with a greater understanding of this art form--and what makes even the most unthinkable of subjects funny.

But sex is serious, even dangerous, stuff in America so dangerous that in some regions it's not even taught in the schools. The Education of Shelby Knox, from directors/producers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, profiles an intrepid young activist who takes on her Lubbock, Texas school board about changing its abstinence-only sex education policy. With high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in Lubbock, one would expect the community to welcome reform, but the prevailing conservative Christian ideology has thwarted such progress. Shelby Knox, herself a Christian who has taken a "no sex until marriage" vow, nevertheless takes up the cause. Over the course of three years, the filmmakers follow Knox as she challenges her parents, teachers and peers, and struggles to maintain her faith while evolving into a more progressive, liberal person. Engrossing, engaging, even funny at the right moments, the film earned an Excellence in Cinematography Award for Gary Griffin.

When Tony Comes, the subject of Kirby Dick's Twist of Faith (Eddie Schmidt, prod.), was Shelby Knox's age, growing up in heavily Catholic Toledo, Ohio, life was not nearly so sanguine. A victim of sexual abuse by a priest, Comes, 20 years later, files a suit against the local Diocese. The film follows Tony as he struggles to reconcile his faith with the ethical and moral improprieties that the Diocese tried to cover up--and the pain that resonates to this day. More than just a case study, this film, thanks to the courage of its subject, tells a candid and intimate story about a troubling issue.

Faith figures largely in two films about characters whose lives were saved by both Jesus and rock 'n' roll. The Devil and Daniel Johnston follows the troubled and shaky life of the eponymous singer/songwriter/graphic artist/filmmaker whose raw, off-center music has earned the admiration of everyone from Kurt Cobain to Beck to Sonic Youth to Tom Waits. Director Jeff Feuerzeig, who won the Documentary Directing Award, utilizes Johnston 's home movies, audio cassettes and artwork to tell his story from birth to present. In other hands, this film might come off as the madcap misadventures of a manic-depressive artist, but Feuerzeig manages to create a riveting and unsettling tale of creativity, faith and the consequences of living too close to the flames of both.

Arthur "Killer" Kane was the bassist of the New York Dolls, the groundbreaking punk-glam group from the early '70s that sparked an underground revolution in fashion, style and music. The Dolls broke up after just two albums; Kane tried to get things going with other bands, then spiraled into a decade-long maelstrom of alcoholism that culminated with his jumping out a window. He survived the fall and while recuperating had an epiphany that introduced him to the world of Mormonism. New York Doll (Greg Whiteley, dir.; Ed Cunningham, Seth Gordon, prods.) opens with Kane in his present-day life as a Latter-Day Saint, working as a file clerk at the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles. Filmmaker Whiteley, himself a Mormon, skillfully negotiates the seemingly disparate, yet somehow parallel, worlds of faith and rock 'n' roll, as Kane gets the call to reunite with his surviving bandmates for a concert in London.

But you can't have sex, faith or rock 'n' roll without politics, and Sundance '05 offered an impressive slate of politically oriented documentaries. Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Jason Kliot and Susan Motamed, prods.) traces the rise and tumultuous fall of the infamous corporation. With its roguish cast of characters playing a massive shell game with the books and the numbers, Enron became the darling of Wall Street. The sheer magnitude of deception, greed and hubris that precipitated the company's collapse is fodder for what Gibney described in the Q&A after the screening as a "black comedy."

Why We Fight was the title of a documentary series, financed by the US government and produced by Frank Capra, that presented a rationale for entering World War II. That series is a reference point for Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (Susannah Shipman, prod.), an intelligent, well-reasoned analysis of America's foreign and military policies from World War II to present. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower's end-of-administration admonition of a growing "military-industrial complex" as the touchstone for Jarecki's exploration, the film demonstrates that the Bush Administration's fixation on building an American empire through military power is rooted in the 1950s. With commentary from policy makers, military personnel, veterans, journalists and ordinary US citizens, Why We Fight offers a troubling examination of a power structure that seemingly excludes the very people it purportedly serves. Perhaps fittingly, Jarecki was unable to secure US funding for his film, which was financed by broadcasters from England, France, Germany and Canada. Why We Fight earned the American Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

While one may have come away from Why We Fight with a diminished sense of hope for democracy, the screening of a new print of Barbara Kopple's classic Harlan County, USA (1976) and the panel that followed was a suitable antidote. Moderated by film critic Roger Ebert, the panel included Kopple, cinematographer Hart Perry, editor Nancy Baker and songwriter Hazel Dickens, as well as two Utah-based miners. The artistic personnel reflected on the dangerous conditions they faced in making the film in coal-mining country in Kentucky during a strike, while the miners on the panel discussed how much the film showed the reality of the coal-mining industry today. Dickens led the panel and the audience with a rendition of "Whose Side Are You On?" and Ebert concluded by affirming, "Movies are a cause and a force for good in our time."

 

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.

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