Welcome to LA: Film Festival Holds Its Own in Fest-Packed June

June is a jam-packed month on the festival circuit. Just check out the nonfiction fare alone: Sheffield Doc/Fest, Silverdocs, The Flaherty Seminar, Sunny Side of the Doc and the young and frisky Open City Docs Fest. Then there's BAM CinemaFest and Games 4 Change in New York, Frameline in San Francisco, and six hours due south, the Los Angeles Film Festival. Throw in graduations, weddings, the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals, Father's Day and Summer Solstice, and you have one hyper-combustible calendar.

The Los Angeles Film Festival, with Stephanie Allain having taken the reins this year from previous director Rebecca Yeldham (David Ansen continues as artistic director), has strengthend  both its national profile among the June showcases and its local presence at the bustling LA Live complex in Downtown LA, with a rich pallet of documentaries, ranging from world and US premieres to festival circuit hits.

To lend a little local flavor to the programmatic mix, Allain, Ansen and their team of programmers slotted in a handful of LA stories. Neil Berkeley's debut doc, Beauty Is Embarrassing, profiles artist and longtime Angeleno Wayne White, taking viewers all the way back to his childhood in Tennessee; through his scrappy days as a cartoonist in New York City, and his headier stint as a designer, puppeteer and voiceover actor on the groundbreaking show Pee-Wee's Playhouse; through his frantic and frenetic post-Pee-Wee period in LA; to his present-day life as a family man and ever-irreverent artist and raconteur. Beauty Is Embarrassing is a solid portrait of an artist, how his creativity evolved, the journey he took, what he discovered and how he grew up. It's a challenge to render the creative process and its mysterious origins effectively, and Berkeley, himself a designer and animator, was up to the task. There was ample footage to tell the story, and plenty of people who shaped White's narrative along the way, as well as cleverly conceived animation sequences to amplify the story.

But the story did seem longer than its 87 minutes. Perhaps there was too much exposition, too much story, too many ideas of how to tell the story of an artist truthfully and creatively, and a corresponding reticence to shed some of those ideas and hone the rest of them into a more tightly
structured film. White obviously loves to talk, as much as Berkeley loves to indulge him, but the filmmaker needed to let the audience--and the film--breathe a little.

 

Wayne White, subject of Neil Berkeley's Beauty Is Embarrassing. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

 

Rodriguez, the reclusive Detroit-based songwriter whose long-dormant career has been kick-started this year thanks to Malik Bendejelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, could very well be Wayne White's polar opposite. Rodriquez was discovered in the late '60s by two Motown producers who sensed that his strong, politically charged folk stylings would galvanize the post-Dylan generation. They were wrong about that-at least in America, where his two records flopped-but somehow, the recordings made their way to South Africa, where, unbeknownst to the artist, anti-apartheid whites seized upon this music as the catalyst of the movement. Rodriguez remained a mystery, and Searching for Sugar Man is about how two South Africans-a journalist and a record collector-set out to solve this mystery and bring Rodriguez to the nation he
inspired.

When we finally meet Rodriguez, he's so taciturn and stoic, and the interview is consequently so awkward, that it's best to cut away, to underscore his tightly circumscribed identity with his art. But perhaps a little more gentle coaxing from the interviewer--about Rodriguez' Buddhist way of living or thinking, or if he's a Buddhist...his influences...the mother of his children...--might have sharpened the focus on this intriguing artist. Then again, maybe that's better left unsaid.

Other mysteries left unexplored in the film: What happened to the money that Rodriguez rightfully earned from his sales? And did the comeback tour spur a new generation of post-apartheid
fans? Also, given that this was apartheid-era South Africa, how did the black population receive him? Were liberal whites his only fans?

Still, Searching for Sugar Man is well-told story about a journey, a mystery and a resurrection, along the lines of Stone Reader and Winnebago Man. The film, which earned the Audience Award for Best International Feature at LAFF, opens in theaters July 27 through Sony Pictures Classics.

 

Rodriguez, subject of Malik Bendejelloul's Searching for Sugar Man. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

 

Around the same time Rodriquez was performing in bars in Detroit, the Hackney brothers-David, Bobby and Dannis, also from Detroit-were exploring new directions in rock 'n' roll, directions that sounded suspiciously like the blueprint for punk. Unable to land a record deal because of their
refusal to change their band name, Death made their own master tapes and did their own touring. Then they were forgotten, spinning off into other bands and genres. But decades later, thanks to the Internet and some savvy punk aficionados, Death came back to life, finding a new legion a fans--including the sons of the Hackney brothers, who had never known about their fathers'  past search for fame. A poignant tale about family legacy and love and artistic commitment, A Band Called Death, from Jeff Howlett and Mark Colvino, might do for Death what Anvil! did for Anvil.

 

From Jeff Howlett and Mark Colvino's A Band Called Death. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

 

Among the handful of films that played simultaneously at Silverdocs and LAFF were Eugene
Jarecki's The House I Live In and Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles.
Both addressed recession-era America--the latter, from the rarefied perspective of the 1 percent; and the former, from the ground-level view of the 99 percent. Greenfield's film profiles David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire Florida-based couple presiding, at the beginning of the film, over construction of a 90,000 square-foot meta-mansion-"the biggest house in America," according to David. This Versailles would replace the Siegels' 26,000 square-foot home, which seems
ample enough even  for eight kids and a support staff of 20. But the Great Recession generates a reversal of fortune for the Siegels: construction halts on Versailles, and the structure is put on
the market; most of the house staff is laid off, as are thousands of his time-share corporation employees; and by the end of the film, he loses a valiant battle with his creditors, who take over his crown jewel property in Las Vegas, the PH Towers Westgate. At the beginning of the film, he perches on a throne, proudly unreeling his superlative accomplishments, rationalizing his quest to build his lurid dreamhouse-"Because I can." But by the end of the film, he sits alone in this cluttered office, skipping dinner with his family as he tries to salvage his crumbling empire.

David Siegel has filed a defamation lawsuit against Greenfield--as documented in The New York Times--taking issue with how the film concludes, with his business on the brink. What's surprising to this viewer is that Siegel seems to have had no problem with some of the more stunning quotes and scenes throughout the
film, which serve to apotheosize conspicuous consumption at its most grotesque. He laments that he "not a billionaire anymore; now I'm just a millionaire." Jackie seems perplexed at not only having to fly commercial, but coming to terms with the fact that rental cars don't come with drivers. And there's Versailles itself, with its 17 bathrooms, 30 bedrooms and 10 kitchens. And the fact that Siegel's parents lost a good deal of money in Las Vegas, and now his Vegas properties are built, as his son puts it, "with losers' money." And this just in: In flouting his GOP credentials, he proudly proclaims that he helped get George W. Bush elected. When asked how, he sheepishly declines to elaborate, "because it might not have been legal." Ooops.

With The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield has crafted a compelling parable, whose protagonists, despite their delusions about wealth and its perks and its consequences, defy the negative traits usually appended to plutocrats. David doesn't seem ruthless, rapacious or buffoonish.  As appalling as the Siegels' indulgences were, I didn't revel in their comeuppance. Wealth can be very addictive and David struck gold in Las Vegas because the city depends on addiction for its survival. And, like Vegas, wealth can be an illusion that fades away just as surely as it dazzles the sky.

The Queen of Versailles opens in theaters July 20 through Magnolia Pictures.

Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live in investigates another industry fueled by addiction: the multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade and the war on drugs it has engendered and its tragic monetary, psychic and sociopolitical costs. The House I Live In is an eloquent,
deeply considered essay documentary about a wrenchingly complex issue. Jarecki departs from his previous work by including himself more in the process--narrating the film, appearing on camera occasionally, taking us on his journey across the country introducing to the far-reaching nexus of players in this ongoing tragedy: drug dealers, addicts, cops, legislators, attorneys, judges, journalists, inmates, prison wardens, physicians, educators. The story begins with Nannie Jeter, Jarecki's nanny when he was growing up, and today she's the point of entry into his inquiry about the impact of the war of drugs on race and class in America.

Following the screening at LAFF, Jarecki invited LA District Attorney Stephen Cooley to the stage for an impassioned discussion with the audience about sentencing, reform and addiction. This is the kind of conversation that warrants a day-long seminar, really, and Jarecki will do his part this fall, when he travels with the film when it rolls out to theaters starting in October.

 

From Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

 

 

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.

 

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