Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011 San Francisco DocFest

I caught 10 programs at this year's DocFest. I bought a festival pass but Berlin Alexaderplatz, Taiwan Film Days and a bad cough kept me away from Doc Fest. It would have been more cost effective to get a 10 film voucher but I don't mind too much. I try to support the scrappy Jeff Ross and his crew as they put on three film festivals or six weeks of independent cinema programming every year.

DocFest screened some films at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley but I went exclusively to the Roxie and Little Roxie. The festival ran from October 14 to 27.

The 10 feature documentary films I saw were:

Dirty Pictures; (2010) - Official Website
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story; (2011) - Official Website
The After Party; (2010) - Official Website
Back to the Garden; (2010) - Official Website
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters; (2011) - Official Website
Holy Rollers; (2010) - Official Website
Left By the Ship; (2010) - Official Website
Peep Culture; (2011) - Official Website
Scenes of a Crime; (2011) - Official Website
Scrapper; (2010) - Official Website

In addition, I saw three short film documentaries.

The Love Police: Social Controls - YouTube
Pot Country; (2011) - Official Website
The Yodel Within; (2011)

I couldn't find an Official Website for The Yodel Within but I did find the YouTube video which inspired the film. Franzl Lang's performance in the video was the best part of The Yodel Within. I particularly like the hip-shaking action Franzl gives towards the middle of the video. You have to love the Germans. Where else to could a big, beefy, orthodontically-challenged, Fred Flintstone look-alike, yodeler make a video and be crowned the king of anything?

I didn't see as many films as I hoped for. I watched approximately a fourth of the programs screened. I was not too impressed although I don't think I saw enough films to have a valid sample size. However, this isn't a random draw. The films were selected by a programming committee so they should have represented the cream of the crop. As it was, I can only recommend two of the feature films.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters drew comparisons to The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a 2007 documentary about some master Donkey Kong players. At first glance, Ecstasy of Order seems to be to Tetris what The King of Kong is to Donkey Kong...right down to the designated bad guy and the use of a colon in the title. I enjoyed The King of Kong and looked forward to Ecstasy of Order. I was surprised by the sportsmanship exhibited by the Tetris players. Apparently there is more camaraderie between elite Tetris gamers than DK.

Ecstasy of Order follows a group of skilled Tetris players in the months before the 1st Annual World Tetris Championships in 2010. Somehow all the players know about each other despite never having met. They know each other by reputation like gunfighters in the Old West. The one that invokes the most awe is Thor Aackerlund who at the age of 13 won the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. Robin Mihara, who placed third in the 1990 NWC, is organizer of the World Tetris Championships and spends much of the film visiting elite Tetris players for the documentary (which largely doubles as a promotional video for the 2010 tournament). Throughout the first half of the film, Thor is presented as this mythical figure - unbeatable, mysterious and master of the "vibrating thumb" which is a technique used on the controller to move the Tetriminos faster than they could otherwise be moved.

However, when Thor shows up, he appears to be a man humbled by life. It turns out that Thor's video game earnings from tournaments and appearance engagements were his family's only earnings in some years. I believe his mother was seriously ill during his youth and the family had no health insurance. That's a lot of for a 13 year old to handle. Later, Thor had a car accident which seriously injured him. Thor's behavior leading up the 2010 tourney appear to be less mysterious and more reclusive. Indeed, Thor's presence among his fellow Tetris players seems to buoy his spirits.

Although Thor plays a pivotal role in the film, the spirit of the film lies with the effervescence of the gamers and their serious intonations of Level 30 and Kill Screens. These gamers are serious about Tetris but yet they seem to understand it's kind of silly or at least, they are viewed as kind of silly. They all are dead serious about winning the tournament though. Ecstasy of Order has a joie de vivre that I found very appealing.

A step below Ecstasy of Order is Holy Rollers. Not to be confused with the 2010 Jesse Eisenberg film by the same name, Indiefest's Holy Rollers is closer to 21. It's about a blackjack team made up of churchgoing folk. The subtitle to Holy Rollers is The True Story of Card Counting Christians. Several of the team members are pastors.

It may seem difficult to reconcile gambling and Christian morality...and it was. The team members seem to go to great lengths to rationalize their behavior. For example, they keep their winnings or working capital in cash - in the icebox, under the mattress, in a safe in the bedroom closet, etc. They hide the cash when they go through airport security on their way to a casino destination. They present it as part and parcel of their "business." I don't understand why they didn't deposit the money in a bank and withdraw it at their destination city instead of carrying it around in cash. One explanation could be that the "team" and/or "investors" weren't reporting the winnings on their income tax forms.

Like everyone else, the team is happy when winning but as they go through multiple losing steaks, they begin to turn on each other in unchristian ways. First, the team managers question if the team members are following the betting algorithms, so they test the team members. Later, one of the team members accuses another team member (conveniently the atheist on the team) of stealing money. The team operates on a lot of trust giving the team members significant quantities of cash and taking their word that they a) played blackjack and b) won or lost the amounts they claim. The accusation has divine providence though; the accuser claims God told him that his teammate was stealing.

Ultimately, the whole thing appears to crash around the two managers who are the de facto team captains. After a particularly disastrous trip to Southern California, you think the two have sworn off gambling for good. The next scene is the two of them essentially holding a blackjack team seminar. Frankly, Ben Crawford (one of the two team managers) seemed more like a internet salesman than a devout Christian; more of a huckster than a churchgoer. He seems like the type of guy that spends all his time trying to hit on something big instead of getting a steady job. Nothing wrong with that but it just doesn't jibe with being a devout Christian. There must be more to being a Christian than going to church and praying.

The two team managers, Crawford and Colin Jones, have Executive Producer credits on Holy Rollers which initially bothered me. I thought the film was biased because of their, presumably financial, involvement. After thinking about it, I thought the film portrayed them in a morally ambiguous light. Of course, the audience doesn't know what was left on the cutting room floor (that's figurative since the "film" was digital) which may have tipped the scales against Crawford and Jones. Leaving their characters' true nature inconclusive made for a better film. I left Holy Rollers with a confused case of spiteful glee. Them self-righteous Christians got what they deserved...except they weren't that self-righteous and they didn't quite get what they deserved.


Other films which I can't completely dismiss include:

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story - almost a complete hagiography. I particularly liked the part where Stan Lee Media declares bankruptcy. The filmmakers completely absolve Lee of any wrongdoing (indeed he wasn't prosecuted by the SEC like some executives). To show that Lee is a such a great man, the film played an audio excerpt where Lee calls a fired employee and leaves a message on his answering machine telling him how sad he is that the guy has lost his job. Oddly, With Great Power is silent about he legal troubles Lee has subsequently had related Stan Lee Media. Still, it's tough to not like or admire Lee.

Scrappers - meth addicts and paranoid schizophrenics trespass on a US government bombing range to collect scrap metal from spent and unexploded ordnance. The only other people willing to risk their lives on the bombing range are coyotes smuggling people and drug runners. Categorize this as strange people doing strange things but not strange enough to hold my undivided interest.

Left By the Ship - surprisingly unaffecting documentary about orphans in the Philippines. Specifically, these people are the children of African American servicemen and Filipinas (in one case, a bar girl/prostitute). There was some law denying the kids US citizenship. As I recollect, this is not the case elsewhere but there was a specific law withholding citizenship for the children of US servicemen at Subic Bay and Clark Air Field. I recall reading somewhere that in every culture, the lighter skinned people are held up as the standard of beauty or that lighter skin is more desirable than darker skin. I wasn't expecting Left By the Ship to address the reasons but I will say that its odd that children of African Americans are discriminated against given how dark some native Filipinos are.

Back to the Garden - a bit of a bait and switch. The filmmaker filmed some isolated hippies in Washington state in the 1980s. He returns to interview them 20+ years later. The copy on the Indiefest program implied that the hippies had sold out or had dissension amongst themselves but with few exceptions the old guard were still fighting the good fight. The most notable exception was the woman who went from hippie to Microsoft employee. The second generation or the children of the hippies were more varied and interesting. My takeaway was that even if you could create heaven on earth, you still need to some interaction with the outside world and the kids born into this utopia will be anxious to see what lies beyond.

The other feature films left me bored or underwhelmed. The three short films I watched were interesting enough but, even the great Franzl Lang's performance in The Yodel Within is not enough to give it more than mild recommendation.

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